The BBC asks the question, yet again: “London’s Oyster card: Are its days numbered?” It’s no secret that Transport for London has been trying to get rid of Oyster ever since 2011 when TfL, eyes firmly locked on the London Olympics, decided to put their resources into the emerging EMV contactless standard:
The current Oyster system, though very popular, is expensive and complex to administer. Contactless bank cards use existing technology, responsibility for issuing cards would lie with the banks rather than TfL, and the operating costs should be lower.
In 2017 there was a push to nudge people away from their Oyster cards and towards contactless. One announcement rang out all over London’s tube stations: Why not use your contactless bank card today? Never top up again, and it’s the same fare as Oyster.How Long Does The Oyster Card Have Left? Londonist (2018)
Contactless cards use, plastic and digital, surpassed Oyster card use in mid 2018, but this doesn’t mean TfL is killing Oyster. Not everybody has a smartphone or bank payment card, or wants to use them for transit and public transit, by it’s very definition, has to offer everybody the means to buy a ticket with cash at a station kiosk.
Another problem is that the EMV digital transit closed loop model isn’t a cure all solution, just one more piece of a complicated service puzzle. And so TfL’s Mike Tuckett states the obvious that there are no plans to stop offering an Oyster option:
I can’t imagine a situation where everyone either will have a bank account and card suitable to pay and wants to. You try to steer away from forcing or strong-arming people into an option; it’s about letting people naturally migrate towards it.
There’s a section of the market that can’t or won’t use contactless so Oyster is the best and most natural solution we’ll continue to offer. We’ve always seen them as sister options that co-exist. It’s very helpful for us and for customers.
A new Oyster system is coming on line later with year with weekly caps that match EMV contactless card caps.
The second, less obvious reason for keeping Oyster cards around is ‘the float‘, there’s more than half billion pounds sitting on unused Oyster cards (I’ll bet you there is more than that) which TfL earns interest on, then use to “improve the transport network“. In this sense it’s a shame that TfL didn’t go with the MIFARE stored fare model for digital wallets instead of going all in with EMV. They could be earning more interest on their float to build a transit platform business instead of giving it away to banks, but that opportunity passed in 2011.
If TfL really launches a digital EMV closed loop Oyster card similar to the digital Opal one being tested in Sydney, no guarantee that will happen, the debate might subside a little. At any rate the ‘kill Oyster it’s dead already’ debate will continue, along with stories reaching the same conclusion of the BBC piece. It’s less debate than it is entertainment, the real debate being: will public transit use ever recover to pre-COVID levels.