Time to face reality on smart ticketing

From the perspective of many experienced transport professionals, perhaps the most interesting thing about the 21th October article “Scottish Government Dragging its Feet on Smart Ticketing”  (republished in the Times in Scotland on 26th October), is that all those quoted in the article appear to be founding their views in ideology rather than the realities of the smart ticketing systems opportunities in 2021.

There has been a political objective for an “Oyster style scheme” for Scotland for more than 15 years without it seems any real understanding of the rise and fall of Oystercard in London. By 2010 is was clear that Oyster in London was in decline, as contactless technologies took over, yet when this was discussed at a January 2010 meeting of Scotland’s transport think tank STSG, the response of the Transport Scotland representative was to resign from the STSG Committee rather than seek to resolve the apparent conflict between the evidence and the Transport Scotland agenda.

Nobody likes being the bearer of bad news, not least STSG. We like nothing more than to celebrate Scotland’s achievements, but if Transport Scotland have a plan for smart ticketing that does not appear to match the realities, then our function as an independent think tank is to set out the evidence. Set in context in 2010, Transport Scotland was a relatively new organisation working for a powerful new SNP government, so there was always a danger than they would fall into a few swamps and the ill-fated smart ticketing agenda has been one of them.

What has happened since 2010 was entirely predictable and predicted. In our report in Scottish Transport Review in 2010 we noted:

  • “Debates about types of tickets need to be kept separate from discussions about technology.” – Since 2019 Transport Scotland have been proudly saying they have solved the technology problems. However, by failing to understand in 2010 what the actual problem was, the new technologies have been a distraction. There were already many technology solutions available in 2010 that could have been used at little or no cost to the public. Transport Scotland and others have spent a fortune trying to invent a costly new transport payment system (ITSO), including the new hardware to support it which has included things like costly new publicly funded ticket machines on every bus. Most service providers (including airlines, taxis and parking providers) have been able to use established technologies including barcodes and contactless cards which use the technologies already in customers’ pockets. Indeed all of the largest smart ticketing systems in use in transport, including what was already the largest bus smart ticketing scheme in Scotland in 2010 run by Lothian Buses, use either barcode or contactless technologies, so the need for new technologies looked in 2010 like a costly mistake and still looks that way in 2021.
  • ‘Smart’ and ‘integrated’ ticketing is predominantly about the business agreements between transport operators (the integration bit) and the strengthening of relationships with customers (the smart bit). As we said in our 2010 review “Technology is already available that allows users to pay for travel in cars/parking, buses, cycle hire, taxis and trains on the same card or mobile phone” and “car is the main access mode for rail, and it would make no sense for station car parking and rail ticketing not to be available using the same technology……… car park operators, taxi companies, bus operators and others……are equally likely to opt for other payment mechanisms such as an EMV scheme (contactless cards) or other payment technologies”.
  • Oystercard in London was always a very expensive scheme costing initially over 10% of ticketing revenue to administer which is why it could never compete with more widely available contactless cards. In London they were initially able to finance the good value integrated tickets from road pricing revenue (often called congestion charging) but without a similar revenue stream in Scotland it was never clear how the price of integrated tickets could compete with separate tickets from each operator.

If the goal is to give passengers cheaper ticketing, which is what the research shows that Scots want when making journeys using multiple operators, then adding expensive technology does not help since it uses up scarce public funding.

It is time to stop flogging a vague smart and integrated ticketing agenda, based only on some poorly defined aspiration for a Scottish Oystercard, and instead start investing in smart and integrated ticketing systems for Scotland that helps public transport to be more competitive.

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