Japan Transit Ides of March 2021

March is the traditional month for transit companies to rollout new schedules and services. March 2021 is an exceptionally busy one with many updates, here are the important ones.

March 1
JR East Suica Repeat Transit Point Service (Suica/Mobile Suica): make the same trip 10 times a month earn a free trip in JRE POINT

March 4
Mobile Suica for Fitbit Charge 4 launches

March 6
JR Central EX-Press Reserve and SmartEX Shinkansen eTickets reservation system updates: new service options EX-Press Reserve gains Transit IC (Suica, PASMO, TOICA, ICOCA, etc.) support and both systems gain group ticket purchases for Transit IC.

March 13
New Commuter Pass Cross Region Rules (plastic Suica/TOICA/ICOCA only): JR Group companies extend transit region commute pass region boundaries inside their respective regions for easier cross region Shinkansen commuting.

JR East platform tickets for Suica, Mobile Suica•PASMO and Transit IC cards

ICOCA widens transit area: JR West expands ICOCA coverage with Fukuchiyama, Kisei and Kansai line additions going online March 13, 2021. The Kisei and Kansai line additions incorporate on-board readers for tap-in and tap out.

March 15
JR East Commuter Suica Off Peak Point Service (Suica/Mobile Suica)

March 20~21
Special Mobile Suica service maintenance and update: Mobile Suica gets an upgrade on the backend to support new versions of Android Mobile Suica/iOS Suica. Most of the new features are for Android but iOS Suica App will get improvements too. Mobile Suica users will be required to enter account ID and password with the app update. Make sure you have that information ready or update/reset passwords before Mobile Suica goes offline March 20 11 pm.

Suica Off Peak Commute Point Service Quick Guide

As companies transition away from daily work commutes during the COVID crisis to teleworking at home with occasional trips to the office, transit companies are forced to come up with incentives that encourage people to use public transit while keeping it safe. To that end JR East announced a Suica off peak and repeat commute point service campaign. Transit users earn JRE POINT on their weekday work commute when they ride at designated off peak station times. JR East is promoting safe transit with less congestion.

It’s a good idea, unfortunately there are big limitations: (1) only end to end transit on JR East lines qualities for off peak point service, and (2) everything is tied into the user unfriendly JRE POINT system. The Suica commute point service campaign comes in 2 flavors:

  • Commuter Suica Off Peak Point Service: start the work commute at your station during designated ‘Early’ or ‘Late’ time slots. The Off Peak Point Service runs from March 15, 2021 ~ March 31, 2022
  • Regular Suica Repeat Point Service: making the same trip 10 times a month or more. The Repeat Point Service starts March 1, 2021 and is open ended. Repeat Point Service is the Suica equivalent of paper ticket booklets, the reliable ‘buy ten trips and get one free’ transit institution that has been around forever but is quickly disappearing.

1. Commuter Suica Off Peak Point Service
This is the main point the JR East campaign aimed at Commuter Suica users. There are a number of limitations:

  • Only end to end transit on JR East lines qualifies for service points. If any part of your commute route uses non-JR East transit gates you won’t get service points. JR East lists all invalid patterns in their PDF and there are lots of them.
  • Suica off peak does not cover all JR East stations. The Off Peak Point Service area is limited to a core JR East Tokyo metropolitan area that includes Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama. See the off peak map below or download the PDF file.
  • Weekday transit only. Transit on weekends and national holidays does not quality for Off Peak and Repeat Point Service.
  • Off Peak Point Service is limited to valid Apple Pay Suica cards with valid commute plans, Mobile Suica (Osaifu Keitai) commuter and plastic Commuter Suica cards. Off Peak is not valid for FLEX, Student, Green, Monorail and Rinkai Suica commuter passes.

There is only one work around for commute routes that start at a JR East gate, transfer to another line and end at a non-JR East gate: exit the JR East section of the transfer station via a JR East gate, then enter via a non-JR East transit gate. The diagram below gives you an idea. At some transfer stations this is easy to do, like JR East Gotanda > Tokyu Gotanda. I am working on a video guide and will post it here.

Off Peak Service Registration
To earn off peak points valid Commuter Suica cards must be: (1) registered in JRE POINT and (2) registered for Off Peak Service Point via the JRE POINT web site. If you do not have a JRE POINT account use this guide to create one.

Off Peak Service Commute Times
You must start your commute and enter the gate during designated off peak ‘Early’ or ‘Late’ time slots that are unique for each station. An ‘Early’ time block commute earns 15 JRE POINT, a ‘Late’ time block commute earns 20 JRE POINT.

An example: Chou line Hachioji station off peak time blocks are ‘early’ 5:35~6:35 and ‘late’ 8:05~9:05. Chuo line Asagaya stataion off peak time blocks are ‘early’ 6:20~7:20 and ‘late’ 8:50~9:50. Off Peak times are posted at each station, JR East also a PDF that lists all off peak station times.

Off Peak Service Point Reward Schedule
Off Peak Service Points are calculated every 2 months and rewarded to your JRE POINT account the following month. JRE POINT numbers ending in a even digit are rewarded on even months, JRE POINT numbers ending in an odd digit are rewarded on odd months. See the chart below



2. Regular Suica Repeat Point Service
This campaign is geared for working folks who use Suica to go to the office but don’t commute enough to invest in a pass. Ride the same route 10 times a month and earn a free ride in JRE POINT. If you ride the same route more than 10 times in the same month, each additional transit earns 10% of the transit fare in JRE POINT.

  • The repeat transit region is much larger than the off peak campaign one and covers all Suica fare JR East lines, all stations with Suica gates in greater Kanto, Niigata and Sendai.
  • There is nothing transit users need to do other than have their Suica registered for JRE POINT. If you have already done that it’s all automatic.
  • The same end to end transit on JR East lines limitation of the off peak service point also applies to the repeat point service.
  • The Repeat Point Service is valid for non-commuter Apple Pay Suica, Mobile Suica and regular JR East issue plastic Suica.

Summary
The JR East campaign Suica off peak commute campaign misses the mark. It is full of promise but the limitations make it useless for many commuters who would enjoy the service point benefits. It is better than nothing, but not much and only for a smallish group of JR East commuters.

JR East and other transit companies need to cooperate for reward campaigns and discounts that work across entire regions and point systems. There are many innovative things JR East should also be doing: leverage Suica smarts for a accumulated mileage calculated reward point campaign tailored for each user, offer a yearly commuter pass at a half year price that corporate customers would eagerly snap up, repurpose empty JR East hotels at Shinkansen friendly regional stations for telework satellite offices that help build regional business.

Instead of innovation however, we get stingy complex and unfriendly ‘Tonosama’ style campaigns from big stodgy transit companies used to having their way with customers. The big COVID era transit crisis demands big bold ideas. Japanese transit companies must truly innovate to make transit essential and safe again. Anything less is a waste of time and infrastructure, use it or lose it.

It’s official: Face ID sucks with face masks

I was disappointed when Daring Fireball finally checked in on the Face ID face mask problem in the iPad Air w/Touch ID power button review. It summed up western tech journalist ignorance and indifference to a big problem that Face ID users in Asia have been dealing with since iPhone X day one. DF’s latest take on the issue in ‘Unlock With Apple Watch’ While Wearing a Face Mask Works in iOS 14.5 is even more disappointing, finally admitting that, “Prior to iOS 14.5, using a Face ID iPhone while wearing a face mask sucked.” This is pure ‘let’s not admit a problem until there’s a fix’ Apple apologia that is all too common on tech sites. DF hasn’t played straight or gotten it right when it comes to the big picture of Face ID. Then again the site is more into politics than tech these days.

Twitter followers pointed out that Apple went with Face ID knowing the trade-offs they were making in Asian markets but it was the right choice. I don’t know how much the Face ID face mask problem was on Apple’s radar during iPhone X development. But there was some arrogant, ‘we can blow off a few Asian customers’ attitude in that choice that Apple is paying for now. Face ID iPhone was quietly removed from how to videos on the Suica•PASMO promotion page in October. Face ID iPhone 12 sales might be driving 5G growth in the USA, but Tsutsumu Ishikawa reports that Touch ID iPhone SE sales in Japan are stalling the 5G transition.

I say this because there was certainly plenty of Apple arrogance when they blew off iPhone X Japanese users suffering from the notorious iPhone X NFC Suica problem. It didn’t matter because it was a iPhone problem…in Japan. It took me 3 exchanges to finally get a NFC problem free iPhone X revision B unit and I was one of the lucky ones. There were, and still are, plenty of iPhone X users fumbling in the dark. To this day iPhone X NFC problem search hits are the #1 hit on this site. Years later I am still outraged by Apple’s secrecy and denial of the issue. There was no excuse hiding the problem so that people would keep buying a defective top of the line product.

So no, I don’t think iOS 14.5 Unlock with Apple Watch is a solution for the Face ID face mask problem. It’s a stop gap until we get an ‘Apple finally figured it out’ iPhone that reviewers will gush over. And it performs like a stop gap: even in iOS 14.5 beta 2, one out of three Face ID with face mask attempts fails for me and performance is often sluggish, particularly glitchy when listening to Apple Music and using Apple Pay Suica transit.

iOS 14.5 Face ID sucks less for Apple Watch users, that’s all. People who make excuses for Apple’s hardware mistakes and missteps aren’t helping people make the right choice before plunking down hard earned money on expensive devices. Nothing is worse than having to live with somebody else’s mistake, except for having to live with somebody else’s deception.

Apple Pay Clipper (updated)

Apple announced Clipper Card for Apple Pay today on a special page, Apple Pay Express Transit is finally coming to Apple’s San Francisco Bay Area home turf. Clipper is due to launch on Google Pay the same time. There are few details other than it works on all Bay Area transit and since open loop isn’t a thing there, it will be the same MIFARE card on Apple Pay that we saw with SmarTrip, TAP and HOP.

Unfortunately the Apple Pay Clipper image does not show an ‘Add Money’ button, it’s on a reader after all. Apple carefully crafts images to show card features. To me Apple not including an image showing the ‘Add Money’ button could mean that users reload/recharge the Clipper stored fare card balance with an app, like Apple Pay Ventra and Apple Pay HOP, instead of directly in Wallet like Apple Pay SmarTrip.

This could be a problem for Apple Watch users as they would have to use an iPhone Clipper Card app to reload and basically chains Apple Watch to iPhone. A Clipper app doesn’t exist yet but has to be in place on iOS and Android for a mobile Clipper service.

Some transit agencies stupidly keep the recharge backend locked in their app instead of leveraging the convenience of Apple Pay Wallet reload which makes the digital transit card less flexible and useful than it could be.

Let’s hope for the best launch day outcome. Meanwhile Apple Pay Suica remains the first and best implementation of a native mobile transit card on the Apple Pay platform, the best role model for a transit company to follow.

UPDATE 2-23
Good news. Apple Pay Clipper testers report on Reddit that direct Wallet reload/recharge is supported. Apple Watch transit users can rejoice. Both plastic Clipper card transfer and direct Clipper card creation in Wallet are supported and just like Suica transfer, the plastic card cannot be used afterwards. Could be a iOS Clipper app won’t be necessary for basic housekeeping after all.

UPDATE 2-18
There were a number of interesting and thoughtful Twitter threads in connection with the Apple Pay Clipper announcement.

> lordy if only we had suica in north america

>> Imo, successes like Suica is a testament to solving back-end issues (fare integration, product partnerships beyond transit, UX) and using the front-end tech to unleash full potential…Apple/Google Pay for local transit cards in the US is just not that level of breakthrough

> Yeah, exactly; the frontend technology can only be as useful as the backend system allows.

Thread

It’s heartening to discover comments that ‘get it’, that is a great mobile transit platform leverages a great front-end to unleash the potential of back-end while adding new services and product partnerships beyond transit. If only North America had Suica indeed, folks would really enjoy Apple Pay Express Transit for purchases too.

I know you’re on the closed loop side of this but imo it depends on relative power of transit vs. credit cards. In Japan CCs are not as popular so Suica was ready to take over contactless (and back integrating into CC top-up. In London both are popular so they got both…but most in US don’t use transit enough to justify a top-up card, so I’d prefer NY’s open loop over SF asking frequent travelers to switch from Clipper to Apple Pay Clipper, despite all the limitations in riding experience.

Reply

Popularity doesn’t matter, solutions matter. For years London TfL used EMV open loop in an attempt to get rid of Oyster cards but open-loop cannot replace closed-loop cards, only complement them. So now we have open-loop 2.0: EMV closed-loop cards that hide the slow and dumb limitations of a EMV front-end with a beefed up back-end. This is the Cubic + Mastercard transit solution coming to Cubic managed transit fare systems near you. Enjoy.

Multiple Secure Element domains for Mobile FeliCa 4.1

FeliCa Dude posted a series of deeply interesting tweets relating to Mobile FeliCa 4.1 changes. He had earlier complained of Mobile PASMO lack of Pixel 5 support and it now appears that multiple Secure Element domain support in Mobile FeliCa 4.1 was a reason for that delay. This is an fascinating development but what is it there for?

On a Mobile FeliCa 4.1 Google Pixel device Google has it’s own secure element domain

I assume his tweeted profile is for a Pixel device, hence the FeliCa Networks secure element (SE) + Google SE references. In this context it appears that Google ‘owns’ the Mobile FeliCa SE and which applets load, in other works FeliCa Networks needs permission from Google to load applets on a Google device SE. Devices come pre-loaded as always so customers simply use it out of the box, but the implication is that FeliCa Networks and the SE domain ‘owner’ can load/delete Java Card applets and even update Mobile FeliCa over the air. Whether they actually use this functionality or not is another story.

FeliCa Dude thinks multiple secure element domains are also there to support Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) plans for a digital version of My Number Card (Individual Number Card) for smartphones using the Mobile FeliCa eSE, even though the current plastic card uses NFC-B. It’s strange but exciting to ponder the possibilities of a Mobile FeliCa 4.1 secure element that supports non-FeliCa protocols.

One of the big changes of Mobile FeliCa 4.0 was that it introduced loading a FeliCa applet on any approved secure element. This change frees Android device manufacturers from having to purchase FeliCa chips from the FeliCa Networks supply chain. It basically gives Android devices the same custom secure element arrangement Apple has had since the iPhone 7 Apple Japan Pay launch in 2016.

I asked FeliCa Dude if the Mobile FeliCa 4.1 development is also related to next generation FeliCa feature support used for Suica 2 in1 cards coming this month, in particular the new Extended Overlap Service. He says this is unlikely but I hope we discover other pleasant surprises as intrepid explorers dig into Mobile FeliCa 4.1 details.

MIC digital My Number Card proposal for smartphones