It’s about time. Somebody from outside Japan finally took in the big picture of the Japanese Transit Platform model and wrote a business outline of it in English. Egon Terplan of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) came to Tokyo and liked what he saw: Falling in Love With the Trains of Japan.
By 2017, Japanese trains carried nearly 30 percent of all rail passengers in the world, more than all of Europe. But unlike many European countries, Japanese rail companies are privatized, with for-profit publicly traded companies running separate rail lines all around the country.
JR East, the largest of the JR companies, carries 17 million passengers per day on 12,300 trains. (By comparison, Amtrak carried just 31.3 million passengers during all of 2016, a record year in ridership; the New York City subway averages 5.5 million daily rides and BART, 430,000.) And JR East’s $26 billion in annual revenue includes no government subsidies.
Terplan then lists what he thinks are the major components:
Allow rail operators to become real estate developers to capture the value they bring to the stations.
Turn stations into major destinations.
Build over tracks to create new land opportunities.
Dramatic reductions in travel time between cities can lead to major increases in rail’s market share.
Interoperable rail cards (Suica, etc.) are key to making rail easy to use nationwide.
Essential points all, but Terplan doesn’t explain the importance of how all the different infrastructure pieces not only integrate (Shinkansen, regular lines, subway, buses, station retail, services, Suica, etc.) but also create a whole that is much larger than the sum of parts, and why. Perhaps he is only outlining the model and will return with a deeper analysis later. I certainly hope so because it’s a great transit model for other countries to adapt and adopt. Hong Kong already has a similar system on a smaller scale as does South Korea and Taiwan.
The last component, nationwide interoperable Japan Transit IC prepaid cards for transit and store purchases aka Apple Pay Suica, is the secret sauce binding everything together into a tight slick business model. That is the missing why and it’s just starting: interoperable features like Shinkansen e-ticketing, commuter passes, local loyalty point systems and hosting everything on digital wallets are still weak points. JR East and Sony are busy creating the next generation ‘Super Suica’ format that aims to integrate everything while reducing costs and taking it to the next level.
Year over year contactless payments use in the first slide basically covers the same period of the MMD Labo report but with different questions. The Rakuten data shows Rakuten Pay in the lead, naturally, at 15.2% and Apple Pay in 2nd place at 12.9%. The MMD numbers showed Rakuten Pay at 13% and Apple Pay at 20%. Google Pay only added Japanese payment support in May 2018 so the full impact will take time to play out, the 30% Osaifu Keitai use figure from the MMD report suggests a possible outcome.
As I explained in the earlier post, Apple Pay use is highly regional and tied to Suica compatible transit routes. In major metropolitan areas Apple Pay use is higher than Rakuten but Rakuten has done a good job building an ecosystem of e-commerce, travel reservations and other services that offer members large discounts and points. That’s the reason behind the robust growth from 3.4% and the larger nationwide average use figure.
Apple Pay Suica is the entry point for Apple Pay use, the more incentives that customers have to use Suica the faster Apple Pay use in Japan will grow. Sachiko Watatani pointed out that only 27% of Apple Pay Japan capable device users actually use Apple Pay, that represents a lot of potential users sitting on the fence. The Rakuten Pay growth rate shows that points and discounts are great incentives but Apple Pay Suica, convenient as it is, doesn’t offer that. At least not without going to the trouble of getting the right Apple Pay credit cards for the right points. And even then, as setting up and using the JRE POINT app makes clear, it’s not user friendly.
The next big opportunity for Apple Pay Suica growth is ‘Super Suica’ that will unite transit cards, commuter passes and various transit point systems in a single format for plastic and mobile. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen until April 2021. Until then Apple Pay Japan needs to add the other e-money prepaid cards (WAON, nanaco, Rakuten Edy) and as many point system reward cards to Wallet as possible to keep growing. Not only that but also make them work better together than they do on their own. Think PONTA card with the kinks ironed out.
And then there is PiTaPa. PiTaPa is the main transit smartcard for non-JR ‘private’ rail companies in the Kansai: Hankyu, Keihan, Nankai and Hanshin. The excellent Japanese Transit IC map graphic on Wikipedia perfectly captures the problem of PiTaPa incompatibility and isolation: the background blue is transit only compatibility, the red is transit and e-money compatibility.
The PiTaPa Story
PiTaPa has an interesting history but not a particularly happy or successful one. It’s the perfect case study of what happens when banks and credit card companies call the shots on transit ticketing system infrastructure instead of letting transit company management make those decisions. It’s also a story of how most Japanese transit companies, except for JR East, failed to see the coming revolution of mobile digital wallet platforms.
The PiTiPa founding members originally planned to build a transit IC smartcard system just like Suica: pre-paid stored value (SV). Then Sumitomo Mitsu stepped in with a seemingly good idea: a Sumitomo Mitsui credit card + transit card post-pay combo card to save transit users from having to recharge the transit card smartcard at all. A credit card transit card for transit and shopping. What could go wrong? The Kansai area is home town for Sumitomo Mitsu, the Kansai banking indsutry Godzilla for over a hundred years, how could transit companies, Sumitomo Mitsu borrowers all, resist?
And so PiTaPa was born in 2004 as a Frankenstein credit card grafted with a transit card appendage that was supposed to do it all, but never delivered the benefits of either one. Sumitomo Mitsui imposed all the hoary old credit card conventions on the shiny new creation: credit checks and spending caps. It immediately shrunk the PiTaPa user base from everybody to people with good credit ratings who passed Sumitomo Mitsui credit checks. Compare this to Suica where everybody from kids to retirees with a ¥1,000 bill can buy Suica card at a station kiosk. That’s the beauty of stored value cards, simple immediate purchase and use.
The original PiTaPa did not sit well with a lot of transit users so a ‘PiTaPa lite’ card with deposits instead of credit checks, without the e-money function, was added in 2007. Unfortunately since PiTaPa was post-pay, PiTaPa didn’t work with the Japanese Transit IC e-money standard and was shunned by payment networks and merchants. Good luck trying to use PiTaPa credit outside of its core transit ghetto at 7 Eleven, other convenience stores or anywhere else.
If you want to know how well PiTaPa is doing in 2018 all you need to do is check the commuter pass pages of the PiTaPa member railroads: Keihan and Osaka Metro offer ICOCA commuter passes. Not only that but Osaka Metro and Keihan have moved away from PiTaPa commuter passes for general issue and use ICOCA instead.
The decision to let Sumitomo Mitsui call the shots instead of transit management killed any viable future for the PiTaPa system. PiTaPa uses the same FeliCa technology behind the highly successful Mobile Suica and Apple Pay Suica, but the unique one-off system architecture, limited user base and transaction volume mean PiTaPa will never be hosted on any mobile digital wallet platform. PiTaPa transit partners don’t want to spend resources to build a cloud and host mobile service because there is too much cost for such little return. And Sumitomo Mitsu will certainly never foot the bill to clean up the mess they created.
Now that JR East and Sony have announced ‘Super Suica’ for April 2018 that will incorporate all Japan Transit cards into one card system for transit, e-money and mobile, the PiTaPa participants face a choice: junk the old PiTaPa and get onboard the Super Suica express or be left behind in isolation with no future.
Transit payment platforms
The basic unsolvable problem is that banks and credit card companies want different things than transit companies. Banks and credit card companies want credit checks and caps, transit companies need as many people going through the transit gate as efficiently and safely as possible. These fundamental business differences will never be resolved, there will always be tension. That is why banks and credit card companies should never be in charge of running transit gates. They simply want to take their credit card cut and run, leaving the scene of crime, and the cleanup bill, to others.
You can see the similar things playing out on other transit systems such as Hong Kong’s Octopus system with AliPay and other QR Code ‘virtual banks’ putting pressure on operators to change transit ticketing system infrastructure to suit their needs, all paid by the transit operator of course.
It’s wasteful nonsense and who needs it? It’s last century credit card vs. smartcard, open loop vs. closed loop thinking. Digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay and Google Pay conveniently collapse the differences of open loop vs. closed loop rendering the whole argument pointless while offering a whole new game. Build a transit payment platform instead, in the long run it’s a win-win for transit companies and the banking industry.
It’s very simple: transit companies and a finance industry that stick with the old ways of thinking will miss the major unique new business opportunities offered by transit payment platforms hosted on digital wallet platforms, opportunities that build on transit but also extend it to exciting new places, a transit platform that grows and benefits everyone.
Mizuho Suica for Apple Pay raises questions and fascinating possibilities way beyond yesterday’s announcement. Why now and why only Apple Pay? Is this the first of many Suica branded cards coming to Apple Pay?
The announcement was short, small and caught Japanese IT journalists off guard. Nobody anticipated Apple Pay Suica branding just appearing and working with a wallet app update. It’s slick and in true Apple fashion ‘just works’, but journalists missed important points with huge ramifications:
Mizuho Suica only exists as a virtual card hosted on the Mobile Suica Cloud, there is no plastic equivalent
DNP provides the Mizuho Wallet app backend
Put together this means the Apple Pay Suica branding vehicle is complete and ready to roll. Almost exactly the model outlined earlier.
The only remaining question is how many other transit companies and banks are going to get on? It’s tempting to think that with another Apple Event approaching, Suica’s eight sisters will join the Apple Pay branding parade: PASMO, ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, Kitaka, SUGOCA, HAYAKAKEN, nimoca. That’s probably a long shot but the vehicle is ready and waiting if they decide to join and time is running out if other transit areas want to benefit from the flood of inbound visitors anticipated for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
None of the other Japanese transit cards are on mobile but everybody building their own cloud infrastructure is out of the question. If JR East, DNP and Apple can coax the other Japanese transit cards to join the Suica branding scheme that finally offers commuter plans and more for everywhere and not just Tokyo, Apple Pay will easily become the de facto mobile wallet for Japan.
UPDATE 1: the Apple Pay Suica branding program is underway, sources say ‘stay tuned’ for more Apple Pay Japan payments and apps in the near future, September and October are the usual suspects.
UPDATE 2: I think one reason why Japanese journalists missed the virtual only Mizuho Suica point is because the Android Mizuho Wallet App release earlier this year also had virtual cards with one very important difference. Android Mizuho Wallet creates virtual Mizuho QUICPay JCB Debit cards not Suica. Mizuho Debit cards are hosted on the Mizuho system just like their credit cards. Virtual Suica branded cards are hosted on the JR East Mobile Suica Cloud, a completely different system with completely different implications.
UPDATE 3: I hate the blog title and am utterly clueless trying to find a better one that exactly captures why this is an important development.
It’s fascinating that Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) dumped the fast FeliCa (rated 200 millisecond transaction but Octopus clocks in at around 100ms) behind EZ-Link cards to roll their own faster CEPAS technology (rated 180ms transaction) but are now letting super slow EMV contactless (500ms plus and counting) on their transit reader infrastructure. It’s like ripping out all the cutting edge transit gate technology and replacing it with clunky old supermarket cash register technology.
Publicly run transit authorities are subject to politics and special interests just like any government agency. This sometimes leads to poor decisions and short term thinking. Transit magnetic cards, followed by contactless ‘smartcards’ were revolutionary and eliminated paper transit ticketing, a no-brainer ‘this is the future’ choice of that time.
The next wave smart device/digital wallet revolution for transit payments happening right now is exciting, messy and confusing. There are established stored value smartcard systems, EMV contactless, Chinese QR Codes, Apple Pay, Google Pay and more vying for attention. Visa, Mastercard, American Express have mountains of sponsorship money in one hand and the ‘big stick’ EMVCo standard in the other.
Transit agencies face bewildering choices: do they stay closed and in control of the ticket validation and chose technology that is best for them, or do they go open and let credit cards be used as tickets and give away control in the name of user convenience? What’s the price of those choices?
The essential question to ask is: what do you want your transit ticketing infrastructure to look like in 10 years and what do you want to build on top of that? Keeping it closed allows a transit authority, or group of authorities to build a transit platform. This ‘best of both’ approach keeps ticketing closed but incorporates all the new digital payment technology (EMV contactless, QR Codes, etc.) in a backup role for easy, anywhere, anytime recharge. This approach leverages the core strengths of each technology and player instead of wasting time and money in contactless turf wars.
Going open makes the credit card industry happy but doesn’t serve transit users or transit authorities in the long run. Credit card companies don’t care about ticketing infrastructure, transaction speed or operational consequences when it is slow or stops all together. If you want proof just look at the state of EMV terminal infrastructure in America. On average it is backwards, slow and full of broken promises that the customer experience will get better soon. If the credit card industry really cared about payments infrastructure, things would be much better and further along than they are now.
UPDATE It’s worse than first reported, Singapore transit users are complaining of fried plastic contactless credit cards and of card issuers deactivating cards mid-transit for being over limit. This is the price for letting credit card companies manage transit ticketing.