The Smart Card Revolution



It’s a sound familiar to millions of public transit users around the world – the sound of a smart card being scanned. Next year, if all goes well, Montrealers will hear it, or at least something like it, whenever we use a bus, the metro or a commuter train: we’re getting smart cards.

Think of them as rechargeable gift cards that can be used for public transit. Information is stored in a microchip embedded within the card, rather than in a magnetic strip, so the cards never need to be swiped – in fact you don’t even need to take them out of your purse or wallet. In cities like Hong Kong, London, Paris and Washington, smart cards allow for speedy boarding – scanners take just one-third of a second to process a transaction – and flexible forms of payment. You can put a monthly pass on the card or simply add cash value that is deducted when you use the bus or metro.

The Montreal Transit Corp. has been quietly working with other transit agencies to implement a far-reaching smart-card payment system. By the end of 2008, the MTC says, you will be able to catch a bus in Longueuil, ride the metro in Montreal, take a commuter train to Blainville and even use public transit in Quebec City – all with a single card. At the same time, the MTC fare system will be revamped, either with zones or a pay-by-distance scheme, which would mean higher fares for some commuters and lower fares for others.

Matt McLaughlin, a longtime observer of Montreal’s public transit and the creator of the website, says he hasn’t heard much about the smart-card project. But he is slightly skeptical: Montreal has a history of promising transit improvements and not delivering, he says, pointing to forgotten extensions on the metro’s blue line and failed tramway proposals as examples.

Normand Parisien, general director of Transport 2000, a public transit lobby group, also has not heard much about the new system. He says he is wary of the smart-card plans, worrying users might end up paying for an expensive new system that will not serve them any better than the current one. “The Tremblay administration wants to increase revenues,” he said. “They want us to take public transit but then charge so much for doing so.”

According to the MTC’s smart-card project manager Daniel Cote, it’s well on its way to becoming reality. “All of the contracts have been paid for,” he said. “The total cost is $169 million.”

Much of the work has already been done: Over the past two years, the MTC has replaced most of the fare boxes in its buses with new ones that have a platform for smart-card readers. New metro turnstiles with smart-card readers will be installed gradually starting in March 2008, Cote said.

In fact, he said, everybody involved will be ready to go in 2008, including the transit companies in Laval, Longueuil and Quebec City, as well as the Metropolitan Transit Agency’s commuter trains. The only exceptions are the various CIT companies, which run buses in Montreal’s outer suburbs like Repentigny and St. Jean sur Richelieu, they will join the smart-card network in 2009.

Smart cards were first used for public transit in 1997, when Hong Kong introduced its Octopus card. It tentacles soon spread to every corner of the territory, uniting a large but fragmented public-transit network.

For Hong Kongers, fumbling for change and dealing with tickets has become a thing of the past – there are now more than 9 million Octopus cards in circulation, 2 million more than the number of Hong Kong residents.

In 1992, when Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway Corp. decided to make the switch to smart cards, its transit system was based on cash and magnetic fare cards, much like Montreal’s bus and metro system today. The fact public transport in Hong Kong was split between five bus operators, two subway companies and dozens of privately run minibus and ferry services further complicated matters. “You had to carry a lot of change!” recalls Brent Chambers, a technical director who helped implement the Octopus system. A cross-harbour trip alone required at least six coins.

That has all changed with the Octopus card. Its main benefit, explains Chambers, is its ease of use: “The card gives the perception of a true integrated system, because you have this ability to move very easily from one system to another.”

Although each public-transport operator in Hong Kong maintains a different fare system, the Octopus card automatically calculates what you need to pay and deducts it from the value stored on your card. This allows transit companies to charge different amounts for different bus, subway and ferry lines without inconveniencing passengers.

For example, the half-hour trip by tram across Hong Kong Island costs just 30 cents, while the same 13-minute trip by subway costs 83 cents. Both fares can be paid with an Octopus card.

Using the card even entitles commuters to a discount off the regular transit fare – up to 10 per cent on the MTR subway system. Frequent transit users are rewarded, too.

“A lot of operators use Octopus for loyalty schemes and bonus points,” said Chambers, who now lives near London, England, and works for Octopus’s consulting division. “At the moment, the MTR has a ‘ride five (times) and get a free lai see’ package for Chinese New Year.” During the rest of the year, the MTR offers its riders bonus points they can redeem for gifts or discounts at local businesses.

In Hong Kong, transit users can add value to their Octopus cards inside subway stations, at convenience stores, by phone or by Internet. The cards can be linked to a credit card or bank account so that its balance never dips below a certain amount. Special deals such as monthly passes can also be loaded onto the card, giving users the benefit of unlimited travel for a single lump sum. (Incidentally, regular MTR cards are anonymous, so no personal information is needed to procure one – just a refundable $7.50 deposit.)

Since its inception, the Octopus card has become more than just a transit pass: it is now an icon of Hong Kong and an essential part of everyday life. Over 7 million Octopus card transactions, totalling $7.4 million, are made each day. The card can be used to pay for taxis, parking, pay phones, groceries, clothes – even a coffee at Starbucks.

Even though Octopus is now the gold standard for worldwide smart-card systems, implementing it was not without its challenges. “You’ve got to make the system appear consistent between operators,” Chambers said. Everything from the sound emitted by the smart-card scanner to customer service standards must be co-ordinated between transit agencies.

Here in Montreal, it has taken several years for the MTC to get all of Montreal’s transit agencies to work together. “There weren’t just disagreements, it was a battle!” said Cote, the man responsible for developing Montreal’s smart-card system. Not only were there behind-the-scenes turf wars, there were also technical hurdles, like the problem of harmonizing U.S. fare boxes with French smart-card technology.

But Cote insists all of the hard work is done and that smart cards are on track to be introduced next spring. Transit users will be able to use the same card for all modes of public transport throughout metropolitan Montreal and Quebec City. They will be able to load different passes onto the card – a multipass valid throughout Greater Montreal, for instance, or a more limited pass to be used only on the island – or put cash value on it to pay for occasional trips. Cards will be reloaded at metro stations or depanneurs.

If convenience is the main attraction for riders, the MTC and other transit agencies hope to use smart cards to save money and increase efficiency. The new technology will reduce fraud, saving the MTC anywhere from $10 million to $20 million per year and, at that rate, the whole smart-card system will pay for itself in less than a decade, Cote said.

The smart card will also allow the MTC to adopt a more flexible, nuanced fare system. Customers could receive discounts for travelling at off-peak periods, Cote said, although the MTC has not yet made any concrete decisions as to how fares will be restructured.

The transit corporation has announced fares might be charged according to new transit zones or distance: In both cases, longer trips, like those from the West Island to downtown, would cost more than short trips, say, from St. Henri to downtown.

Potentially, smart cards could revolutionize the way transit is used in Montreal. “I think it would be a step towards a more integrated transit network,” McLaughlin said. “Right now, say I want to go out to the West Island and I don’t want to sit in a bus in traffic for an hour – I want to take the commuter train. If I have a bus pass, that won’t be do me any good, so I’ll have to buy another ticket with exact change at the train station. Of course, now they’ve changed all the zones and you have to watch out for that, too. It’s confusing.”

By contrast, with a smart card in hand, commuters will be able to travel throughout the metropolitan area without going through the cumbersome process of buying multiple tickets or calculating the cost of different fares. Considering the growing dispersal of employment away from downtown, being able to travel hassle-free throughout the Montreal region is important.

And, with smart cards, occasional transit users might be more inclined to use a bus or take the metro. Octopus consultant Chambers knows first-hand how easy it is to use public transport with a smart card. “In London, where I’m a customer now, I’m much more inclined to jump on a bus rather than look for a taxi or whatever, because it’s just so easy to do.”

Ultimately, smart cards will not be successful unless they are simple and easy to use. Luckily, Montreal has an advantage coming late to the game. Smart cards are already de rigueur in many U.S., Asian and European cities, so the MTC has been able to observe what works and what doesn’t. Above all, Cote said, the lesson learned is “you have to take care of your customer.” Chambers echoed this point: “Make things as simple as possible. Simplify fares and simplify the interaction with the (smart-card) equipment.” In Hong Kong, for instance, if there is ever a problem with an Octopus card, the fare is waived.

All of this might sound great, but McLaughlin said he will only believe it when he sees it. Still, he said, “I hope that we’ll be able to do it.”

Transport 2000’s Parisien, for his part, admits smart-card technology has the potential to be useful. “The advantages are that it facilitates (customer) transactions,” he said. ‘The current system is very archaic.” The challenge for Montreal, he said, is to look to other cities with successful smart-card systems and learn from what they have done.

In the meantime, all we can do is wait for our smart card – and consider such trivial questions as: what will it be named?

The name of Hong Kong’s Octopus card is both catchy and symbolic, bringing to mind the sea creature’s eight tentacles, eight being both a lucky number in Cantonese culture and one that is used to mean “going in all directions.” London calls its smart card Oyster, as in “the city is your oyster,” Washington has the SmarTrip, Melbourne offers Myki to the city and Paris prefers the punchiness of Navigo.

“We have a name in mind,” Cote said. “But it’s a secret.”

This article was published in the Montreal Gazette on Saturday, March 3, 2007. Top image courtesy Transport for London.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday March 03 2007at 02:03 pm , filed under Transportation and tagged . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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