How smart cards have impacted public transit ticketing

In many cities across the world, public transit is the lifeblood of the economy. Trains and buses connect people to different parts of the metropolis, providing easy access to stores, workplaces, schools and other facilities.

Although paper tickets aren’t completely out of the game, smart cards with embedded chips are slowly eroding their share of the market. For most passengers, it makes more sense to purchase a card once and add credit to it every month.

Increasing convenience while reducing costs 

For the most part, metropolitan transit systems are operated by public authorities, who have an incentive to reduce costs for various reasons. The average citizen may view smart cards as more convenient to use, but he or she might not understand just how much of an impact these items can have on city expenses.

The UK’s University of Newcastle upon Tyne’s Transport Operations Research Group recognised the costs associated with transferring money from ticketing stations to safes. Collecting revenue is incredibly labour-intensive, and for defensive purposes, public authorities are compelled to hire private security firms to transport money from A to B.

Logistical expenses, not to mention the danger of transporting cash between multiple locations, has prompted transit officials to purchase smart card ID printers. These machines eliminate supply chain expenditures (or at least, reduce them), because funds between passengers and public transit authorities are transferred automatically. Thus, the need for armoured trucks decreases.

Ultimately, reducing these costs creates an incentive for those in charge of public transit systems to reduce fares, thus encouraging use among commuters who would otherwise drive (in most circumstances).

This is especially the case when a city contracts a private company to supply, run and maintain the assets that make up a metropolitan transportation network. These businesses have a desire to retain public contracts, or they risk losing such lucrative deals to more capable competitors when agreements expire.

Opening data analysis opportunities 

It doesn’t matter which corridor of the world a public transit system is running in. Public service officials want to gather as much information about their infrastructure as possible. Knowledge is power, and every time a person uses a smart card to board a train or bus, the radio-frequency identification (RFID) reader records the transaction, noting the time, date and other data.

Researchers deduced how authorities in Rennes, France were analysing smart card information to make educated decisions. Ultimately, the technology’s usefulness lies in enlightening public officials to not only passenger behaviour, but also:

  • Transit network performance
  • Defective equipment, fraudulent activity as well as other irregularities
  • Hourly demand
  • Where service adjustments need to be made
  • Communities or regions that express a need for service, but have not received it

These insights stem from the ability to recognise specific movements. High bus travel rates and congestion concentrated in one portion of Brisbane, for example, may prompt TransLink and Queensland Rail to extend rail service to that particular region. Then, analysts from the two transit authorities can calculate how long it would take for a return on investment to be realised based on the amount of fare those new passengers will pay.

What does the future look like?

Smart cards open new avenues of creativity and ingenuity. There are plenty of brilliant technical minds throughout Australia, and the rest of the world, who will find new uses for these assets.

In the eyes of the European Commission, smart cards could deliver multiple functions, not just a way for people to board buses, ferries or trains. To enable these applications, the organisation maintained that significant improvements to back-end smart card software are necessary. For instance, ensuring data security requires systems to seal messages by Indexed Sequential Access Method, which supports fast information access within databases. Integrated key management is also a requirement.

Whatever the capabilities, it’s evident that investing in contactless transit badges is worth the reward.