In amongst the myriad emails in my inbox telling me either how public transport is the most wonderful thing since sliced bread, or a more god-awful experience than Piers Morgan over your breakfast cereal, came one about a new innovation regarding ticketing on my local West Midlands Metro trams and my “Google Wallet”.
A confession. Now in my late forties, I have turned not into my Dad, but possible my Grandad, when it comes to whipper-snapper-y. I’m no technophobe, and I can order burger and chips on my pub-grub app like the next 18 year-old (that’s how the middle-age spread doesn’t get any better), but there’s something more than a little disconcerting about how this tech – attractive as it may be for the young ‘uns – is potentially leaving others not exactly “behind”, but continuously “running for the bus”. OnThisBus has often lauded ticketing technology in blog passim but there’s always another side to all of this…
Bus Users UK’s CEO Claire Walters has been talking about London recently in CBW magazine. She makes an interesting point about the Capital’s cashless bus system. Being the “non-technophobe” I supposedly am, I was an early Oyster adaptor for my trips to London – indeed my Oyster is still “first generation”, which means I supposedly can’t use it to check certain things online – not that I’m bothered. Whenever I’m in London, I still use it, it works, and occasionally it tops itself back up. Now, even I’m old-hat, as the kids (and savvy Londoners) are now using their bank cards to do the same. But Claire’s point is this – what about very occasional visitors to London? Even most Brits have a contactless bank card, surely? Well, actually, a third of British people have never made a contactless transaction. Over 1.5 million of us don’t have a bank account. Then there’s the foreign tourists, who maybe don’t have contactless on their cards, or it isn’t set up to work on UK systems. I have two experiences of this; German friends who were coming to London trying to obtain Oysters reported a total fail – and resorted to taxis, and myself trying to buy a souvenir mug in Helsinki last summer using contactless brought blank looks from the Nordic shop assistant as my contactless repeatedly failed to work (I used good old cash to purchase my drinking apparatus).
So is London missing out? Well, numbers are down on the buses, so who knows. But despite acknowledging that convenient ways to use the bus must be looked at critically, we must leave open the more traditional options too.
Who is looking at potential fraud in all of this too? In my day job on the front line on the railways, I increasingly come across “problems” with mobile ticketing. People have bought a ticket and now “can’t find it” on their phone. People’s batteries have run out but they’ve definitely bought one. People show me screenshots of their ticket, although they can’t show me the original. I’m sure some of these reasons are genuine, but I’m also sure that some of them aren’t. It is placing me immediately into a conflict situation, in which I have to continuously take decisions and/or use my discretion.
On the flip side, tech doesn’t always work. I well recall an early version of my local “Swift smartcard”. It failed to work on one specific operator, which also happened to operate my local evening and Sunday service. Every time I boarded (on evenings or Sundays) it made that noise familiar to all who used to watch Family Fortunes in the eighties. Depending on who was driving, I was either waved through or eyed up like a fraudster, despite my protestation that there was plenty of credit on it. I was once told – on the platform of said bus – to “ring the helpline” – which of course was only operational Mon-Fri 9-5. So I used to resort to taking coinage out with me for such journeys, defeating of course the object.
Back to the tram ticket. It’s a “UK first”, screams the press release. You can store your ticket on your phone using Google Pay. It’s not available for Apple iphones. It’s only for the tram (although the intention is for other modes to be included later). It includes a pic of Councillor Roger Lawrence (the Combined Authority’s Portfolio Holder for Transport) duly posing with his Android smartphone making a Google Pay transaction. I’ve tried the set up. Maybe I really have turned into my Grandad, but I found it a tedious faff. I’m sure once it’s set up, it becomes a walk in the park – until the Family Fortunes sound appears. Or O2’s network goes down again. Or my battery runs out. Or some Russian hacker deletes the app off my phone. Or myriad other excuses I may or may not have picked up from my how-to-avoid-paying-on-public-transport WhatsApp group.
Look, I might sound like some old out-of-touch curmudgeon who doesn’t move with the times, but I really do understand that we have to offer systems that suit the individual and how they like to pay for things. But at the same time, have we really thought out the responses when they tech inevitably fails? Or how to effectively deal with the inevitable individuals who will want to defraud the system? Tech developments make for great positive headlines, but, as ever, there’s so much more to it down on the ground…