The Transit Platform Argument

A reader asked some very good questions regarding the Suica Transit Platform model and Open Loop:

1) Thinking about this recently – is there a non-techie argument for introducing Suica-type cards in the current day in places with preexisting open-loop infrastructure, wide debit card adoption (even kids), and little overcrowding at ticket gates due to lower volumes?

2) As a tech & transit nerd, I obviously love them, but what could be a convincing, economically sound pitch to a transit operator for creating/adopting an integrated transit&e-money system, given the significant expense and questionable added value?

3) Answers to possible q’s about EMV contactless: 1. 定期券 (commuter passes) & discounts can be tied to card no.; 2. solution for visitors: in-app/paper/multi-trip tickets (like in SG). Obv., Suica has superior privacy & speed, but where speed is not an issue, what’s the killer argument?

I tweeted a response but Twitter is a terrible vehicle for long form discussion. I have many posts on the subject scattered over 2 years, it might be convenient to summarize a few things here.

Any argument for building a Transit Platform or going all in with Open Loop transit comes down to transit company priorities for safe operation, better customer service and long term business goals. A few crucial points to consider.

Whose customer?
A vital point that many people miss in the Open Loop debate is that transit users end up as the bank card customer, not the transit company customer. That might seem like an insignificant difference but ‘owning the customer’ is the whole game and key to growing any kind of business, in our era or any era. Which brings us to the next point because the best way to own the transit customer is…

Cards
Cards are the delivery vehicle for all kinds of service goodies from transit, to points, rewards and all kinds of services. The beauty of a non-bank transit pre-paid card is its flexibility, it can be a simple ticket that customers buy with cash from a station kiosk, it can be linked to an online account with credit cards, extended transit services and beyond. Cards are convenient but not transformative however, until they land on a smartphone…

Digital Wallets
The most powerful card incarnation is the digital wallet transit card with a flexible recharge backend, where any bank card can used, or even cash, and a flexible front-end that can be any flavor of NFC, UWB Touchless or even QR. I say it’s better for the transit operator to decide what payment technology works best for their needs and how to deliver better customer service with new payment technologies, not banks.

Value Capture
Value Capture applies to rail and transit operators with the rights to develop the land around their stations, I include station retail development and operations. Owning a transit + payment card like Suica or Octopus combined with retail opens up a whole new levels of value creation and capture.

It’s also important to remember a few other dynamics, (1) Transit is the golden uptake path for contactless payments, (2) Contactless payments are most successful when a transit payment platform, like Suica, is matched with a mobile wallet platform, like Apple Pay. The key is building better services tied to transit cards that benefit customers and businesses of the entire transit region.

Other Details
Regarding detail questions such as attaching commuter passes to EMV cards and special ticketing, I am no systems design expert but a few things come to mind. First of all we have not seen Open Loop commuter passes because the EMV spec doesn’t store anything locally and there are always security and performance issues to consider when everything is done in the cloud with soft-linked registration to system outside numbers.

The classic catch 22 here is that when the soft-linked number changes on one system, everything attached to it on the other system stops working. This is a constant weakness of the SmartEx and new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service. And what happens if the bank pulls a card mid-transit? These things happen. They are endless headaches when linking to any outside system, for this reason Open Loop sticks with the simple stuff while transit operators keep the more complex stuff in-house. In general the more complicated the fare configuration, the less likely it can be synced with an outside system or be hosted on Open Loop.

For low volume specialty ticketing QR Codes are the easiest step up from paper but they can be printed on ordinary paper for transit users without smartphones and needs to be there. This is why JR East is deploying QR code readers in some gates as they prepare to end mag strip ticketing.

NFC Contactless Passes might sound like a good idea but Apple Pay VAS and Google Pay Smart Tap were designed more for retail in mind, and the transit gate reader system would have to juggle a different protocol that isn’t EMV, FeliCa or MIFARE. It could be done, but judging from my experience of using Apple Pay VAS PONTA and dPOINT cards, QR Codes are faster and likely easier to implement.

In the long run there are no easy solutions. The risk of Open Loop is that it is sold as a general easy ‘fix all’ and mobile solution, which it’s not. This lulls transit operators into complacency instead of improving Closed Loop ticketing systems and extending them to the mobile digital wallets. The bigger and more complex the transit system, the less Open Loop can accomplish.

Relevant Core Posts
The Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Transit Platforms (an intro)
Transit Gate Evolution: Do QR Codes Really Suck for Transit? (a deeper dive into transit cards, gates and technology)
Value Capture and the Ecosystem of Transit Platforms (the bigger picture)
The Japanese Transit Platform Business Model (an outside perspective)