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Can I tap? Contactless and smartphone payments planned for public transport in next three years

A new fare system is planned for public transport, including a scrapping of Dublin Bus’ ‘stages’.

NEW METHODS TO buy tickets and pay fares on public transport could be rolled out within the next three years, the National Transport Authority has said. 

Digital payment options that would allow passengers to pay with contactless bank cards, smartphones and QR codes could be available by 2023 or 2024, several years earlier than expected but still behind other countries which have already introduced such options. 

The National Transport Authority (NTA) is in the process of appointing a supplier to develop its “next generation ticketing” system.

The NTA’s head of ticketing technology Barry Dorgan said that 2023 or 2024 is a “likely timeline” but that it depends on a range of factors, including funding and the supplier’s work.

A firmer timeline will be set after a supplier has been chosen, but provisional expectations are that the new system could be operational in the next two to three years.

It was previously understood that cashless payments could replace Leap cards by 2027, but current plans indicate that new ticketing options will be available in the nearer future. A date has not been set for the elimination of cash being used to pay for public transport.

The new system, when implemented, would mark a large change in how tickets and fares work in Ireland, starting on Dublin buses under BusConnects and expanding to other parts of the country.

Speaking to The Journal, Dorgan said that “Leap is going to remain for a while but we’re going to bring in paying with Apple Pay, Google Pay, tapping your bank card, or potentially even on some services we might support scanning a QR code from a ticket on your phone, like getting on an airplane”.

It may also include a virtual Leap card that a passenger could store digitally in their smartphone wallet.

“In the longer term, what we’d like it to be is where the customer doesn’t have to do anything,” Dorgan said.

That’s still a bit away, those technologies are still in the early stages, but if you can imagine, once you have your Leap card or bank card on your phone – for a while you’ll have to take out your card or phone and tap it against the reader, but at some point in time we’d like it to be so that you don’t even have to take your phone out of your pocket. Your phone just beeps as you get on public transport and when you get off the bus it beeps again. It says you got on and were on the bus for X minutes and therefore your charge is Y.”

In 2019, the NTA awarded a contract worth €3.6 million for the development of a new mobile ticketing app, which was given to UK-based company Cubic Transportation Systems.

The authority piloted a small trial of the app last year on Bus Éireann’s 133 route between Wicklow and Dublin.

“We want to have an app that will update very quickly so that if you’ve tapped on the bus, within seconds ideally you’ll be able to see in your app that you’ve tapped on – maybe we’ll be able to show you a counter of the number of journeys, maybe an initial price before we apply any discounts,” Dorgan said.

The changes will also involve a shift in how fares are structured.

Currently, bus fares on Dublin Bus and Go-Ahead Ireland’s Dublin routes, for instance, are calculated in “stages” depending on how far the passenger is travelling and varies depending on whether they use a Leap card or cash.

When a Leap card is used for an additional journey within 90 minutes of an initial one, a discount is applied to subsequent fares. 

Bus Dublin Fare Stages Bus fares on Dublin Bus and Go-Ahead Ireland's Dublin routes Source: Transport for Ireland

Bus Eireann Fares Regional city commuter fares on Bus Éireann Source: Transport for Ireland

“It’s not always clear to customers in some cases what they’re going to pay when they get on the bus,” Dorgan said.

“If you know your bus service and you know where you’re going and you know the journey you’re doing then you probably know how much you’re going to pay. But if it’s not a bus journey that you’re used to taking, how do you know what you want to pay?”

The revised fare structure will include two rates: a short fare and a 90-minute fare.

“The 90-minute fare will allow you to do as many journeys as you want as long as the last journey starts within 90 minutes of the first journey,” Dorgan said.

“You might do that loads of times during the day and then at the end of the day we’ll look at all your taps and say the best deal for all of the combinations of journeys that you did is this price, so we’re just going to charge you one price for the day rather than charging for individual journeys.”

The NTA expects to introduce the 90-minute fare later this year through Leap cards, meaning that there would be no further charge for additional journeys within the time window, instead of a discounted fare.

“We’re introducing some fare changes in advance because we don’t want to wait until the very end and then big bang, bring everything in,” Dorgan said.

Other early changes are still being tested, but some priorities include a simpler application process for student and child Leap cards and new flexible taxsaver ticket options.

“Typically they would have been monthly or annual tickets. In light of the new world we’re in post-Covid and potentially more people working remotely, we’re introducing flexible versions of those,” Dorgan said.

For example, if you take the equivalent of an annual pass but then figure that that person might be working from home two or three days a week, then we’re doing something like 100 days of travel – a 100 coupon ticket that works on any of the forms of transit, a coupon lasts an entire day, and therefore the 100 days of travel could last you for the entire year – and if you travel more frequently, then you can buy another ticket.”

In London, public transport has largely shifted away from cash.

Transport for London (TfL) buses do not accept cash, and instead, passengers can pay with a contactless card, an Oyster card (similar to a Leap card), or other specific travel cards.

On the London Underground, users can scan their card or a paper ticket at a turnstile and make purchases or top-ups at ticket machines.

Last year, cash payments were suspended from ticket machines in an attempt to reduce the spread of Covid-19, but were reintroduced last month.

In the Netherlands, Amsterdam’s public transport is also largely cashless.

Card machines were introduced on buses and trams from 2016 in a bid to make public transport safer after a series of robberies on board buses, with payment switched to cashless across transport modes over the following years.

Similarly, in Sweden – where card and smartphone payments dominate – most public transport is cash-free.

Dorgan said that the NTA is not in a rush to eliminate cash, but that the planned digital or card payment options could speed up loading times on buses and make the process simpler.

“One of the things that’s a characteristic of the current bus transport system, particularly in Dublin, is that the payment process as you get on the bus can be slow and can be messy,” he said.

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shutterstock_1751995274 A Leap card validator at a Luas stop Source: Shutterstock/EternalMoments

“If you’re paying by cash when you get on the bus, that can be slow, or when you tap your card it can be slow, or if you go to the driver and say you want the exact fare, it’s not the quickest process.

“If you’ve ever been waiting to pay the driver and there’s people behind you practically breathing down your neck, it’s not the nicest experience.”

However, no firm date has been set for moving entirely away from cash, with plans to develop infrastructure in the meantime that would avoid problems for people who prefer to pay with coins.

Dorgan said the NTA “will be looking at options to make sure there are alternative payment methods, that we’re not disadvantaging people, that we’re not excluding people because of cash”.

“It could be hugely disadvantageous for people if you happen to live somewhere that’s not near a shop or you don’t have a Leap Card or bank card, which is something we’re conscious of and we don’t want to disadvantage anybody,” he said.

One alternative option, if transport services are accepting QR codes as tickets, would be to sell a QR code on paper from a vending machine or from retailers that people could pay for with cash before boarding.

A common complaint about public transport planning in Ireland is the suggestion that it is slower to adapt and develop systems than other countries – in London, for instance, contactless bank card payment has been available on public transport since 2014.

“There are probably things we can do and it’s probably a valid criticism to say we could move faster,” Dorgan said.

“We are particularly conscious that we’re spending taxpayers’ money here in terms of the supplier and we have to do our due diligence, we have to make sure that we’re going about the process appropriately,” he said.

“There’s various checkpoints where we have to get approval, these are structured processes, and there should be – for big projects and programmes like BusConnects, it does require that there’s a rigorous approach taken.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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