Opening up the Oyster card beats charging ahead with TfL’s expensive alternative

 
Adam Smith
LAST week the London Assembly Transport Committee (LATC) released its report on the future of ticketing in the capital. No big deal, you might think – if you assume the Oyster card seems to function rather well.

The heart of the problem is that Oyster is not only far too expensive, but has become so complicated that perhaps the best thing would be to scrap it and start again.

Instead, Transport for London (TfL) is determined to push through a new, lower-cost smartcard service. The vision is that everyday users of London’s transport system will wave their bank cards over the readers and turnstiles on buses and at stations.

But the London Assembly is unconvinced. It has taken a good look at how TfL came up with this idea and the numbers don’t seem to add up.

According to the LATC report, TfL’s business case for wanting a further £75m investment seems predicated on the belief that the banks will have thrust their version of a contactless card into our hands within just a year or two. It assumes that before we know it we will all be gaily exposing our credit instruments for all to see.

While contactless versions of banks’ credit and debit cards seem reasonable to enable faster payments, progress by banks in issuing these new smartcards has in fact been slow. They are far from ubiquitous now and so the London Assembly has rumbled the fatal flaw in TfL’s plan – they won’t be everywhere for quite some time.

In fact, it seems pretty unlikely that they will ever be in everyone’s hands, since banks are not known for giving debit and credit cards to anyone who asks for them. And it’s by no means certain that people will want to use them for transport.

So TfL’s brave new smartcard idea might be in danger of derailing before it has even got on to the tracks. And does it really make sense to shift London’s transport access device for millions of people to bank cards?

Yes, this will probably save TfL some of the bother of managing card issue and replacement, but does anyone really want such a pivotal role in London life to be monopolised by a single sector?

The London Assembly isn’t yet convinced. The information behind TfL’s business case has been found wanting and the suggestion of simply believing what your sponsors (banks) say is a big ask.

Why, asks the committee, isn’t there more focus on the ITSO (Integrated Transport Smartcard Organisation) smart ticketing technology that the government has sponsored across the rest of the UK? Does it really make sense for TfL to pioneer bank card usage when there is a sensible alternative?

Londoners may not know it, but ITSO is happily managing millions of journey transactions every day outside London. And as a so-called open technology, ITSO can’t be controlled by any particular firm.

TfL appears reluctant to embrace ITSO, despite the evidence. TfL is making its gates able to read an ITSO card, but it seems to have no interest in making ITSO a replacement for Oyster.

So if TfL’s plan goes ahead, the government will end up sponsoring two separate technologies that are supposed to achieve the same thing. Actually, three technologies, since it has paid for Oyster too. Or rather, the taxpayer has.

What do Londoners think? Are we ready to share all our travelling information with our banks? How will we be protected? What about the one in five travelling Londoners without a bank credit or debit card? What about the younger traveller with no such card?

Waving bank cards around as we go in and out of the transport system seems likely to guarantee more thefts and more stress over replacing lost bank cards.

If the London Assembly isn’t reassured, Londoners shouldn’t be either. Does anyone remember the One Pulse card from Barclaycard? That was a joint effort with TfL and millions were spent by TfL on advisers to make that a reality. Yet that scheme looks like small beer compared with this latest investment.

Maybe TfL should take a closer look at the non-bank technologies around if it really wants to cut the cost of running Oyster. The clue is in the name – Transport for London. Surely a simple open-to-all service is what we really need. Not a fantastical solution that might not really meet the needs of the capital’s travelling public.

Adam Smith is the chief executive of e-payments group sQuidcard.

Related articles