Dear Jane, we fucked up, sincerely MTA

The piecemeal MTA OMNY rollout is a lesson how not to do a transition from old system to new system. A case where poor design, poor management choices and unanticipated user interaction, each insignificant in isolation, snowball into a nagging long term problem.

The problem goes like this:

(1) Apple Pay Express Transit is opted in by default and iPhone users don’t always know it’s on. They don’t care about using Apple Pay credit cards on OMNY anyway because fare options are limited and OMNY isn’t installed everywhere and won’t be until at least the end of next year. They use good old MetroCard and put iPhone away in the right pocket or purse carried on the right shoulder.

(2) When the user gets to a OMNY fare gate they swipe MetroCard with its peculiar forward swipe motion on the reader which is located above and behind the OMNY NFC reader, which is positioned low and angled at pocket level. As “MetroCard sucks, it may take several (forward) swipes to enter”, the user leans into the gate while doing this and boom: OMNY reader activates iPhone Express Transit and charges fare without the user knowing it.

Default opt in Express Transit has been with us ever since Apple Pay Suica arrived in 2016. But transit cards are not credit cards and everything was fine. Things got sticky when iOS 12.3 introduced EMV Express Transit that uses bank issued credit/debit/prepaid cards for transit on Apple certified open loop systems. Currently these are Portland HOP, NYC OMNY and London TfL.

HOP and TfL don’t have problems with Express Transit. Both systems use contactless exclusively. HOP has stand alone validators, not gates. TfL gates have the NFC reader located on the top. OMNY on the other hand will have MetroCard swipe cards around for years to come: the OMNY transit card replacement is still in development with no release date. With the slow transition pace and current gate design expect the OMNY Express Transit problem to be around until MetroCard is dead, and OMNY is complete with the new tap only card.

In retrospect MTA should have done it this way: (1) rollout out the OMNY card MetroCard replacement first and add open loop support as the very last thing, (2) design better OMNY gates in two kinds, dual mode NFC + swipe, and single mode NFC only. This way MTA stations could do what JR East stations do: start with single mode tap only express gates on the edges and dual mode gates in the middle. As the transition progresses the dual mode gates get fewer and pushed to the sides with single mode gates taking over.

Apple could help by keeping automatic Express Transit opt in only for native transit cards (Suica, SmarTrip etc.). EMV Express Transit should always be a manual opt in. I understand Apple’s perspective: they want to present Apple Pay Express Transit as a seamless one flavor service, not good/better/best Express Transit flavors. The reality however is that the current technology powering EMV open loop fare systems isn’t up to native transit card standards. Apple can’t fix that.

Unfortunately MTA has taken the dumb path of blaming Apple instead of fixing their own problems. New York deserves a world class modern transit system, OMNY is an important step in building one. MTA management performance so far doesn’t inspire much confidence. Let’s hope they focus on the rollout and deliver it without more delays or problems.


Blame the Apple Pay Ventra delay on open loop

Washington DC SmarTrip and Greater Los Angeles TAP transit cards both launched on Apple Pay the first week of September within days of each other. They upstaged Apple Pay Ventra which was announced as ‘coming soon’ way back in March 2019 but has yet to launch. Chicago Ventra users are understandably frustrated with the ‘coming soon’ Apple Pay Ventra, especially when CTA celebrates the Apple Pay SmarTrip rollout with another Ventra ‘coming soon’ ad.

All three fare systems are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems who also run the London Oyster and Sydney Opal systems. Cubic systems all use the same MIFARE smartcard technology but the interesting thing about SmarTrip and TAP is: (1) they are the first Cubic managed digital wallet transit cards, (2) neither system has implemented open loop fare payments for tap and go credit cards.

Ventra, Oyster and Opal all have open loop, and as of this writing Cubic has yet to deliver those transit cards on digital wallets. Why?

The SmarTrip/TAP Apple Pay launch gave us the answer that nobody wants to discuss: open loop support adds a layer of complexity and cost that stymies the support of native digital transit cards. Complexity and higher cost means fewer choices and delays, it’s as simple as that.

Open Loop is sold as the cost effective future of transit ticketing but it’s had a surprisingly rocky time in the American market. The failure is pinned on transit companies but I think credit companies are to blame. The arguments for open loop are plastic era constructs that ignore how mobile digital wallet platforms and mobile apps have changed everything. For example the oft cited open loop benefit of plastic smartcard issue cost savings completely overlooks the cost savings of digital transit cards on smartphones.

It’s high time for the credit card industry to rewrite the open loop marketing script for the mobile era, but they don’t want to do that. Expect more of the same. In the meantime, let’s hope the SmarTrip and TAP Apple Pay rollout is a sign that Chicago will be getting Apple Pay Ventra real soon.

Apple Pay Express Transit Tips

Apple Pay Support doc for Express Transit

As of June 2020, Express Transit can be used with 8 transit networks: Japan (Suica and compatible nationwide), China (Beijing, Shanghai and China T-Union), Hong Kong (Octopus), United Kingdom (Transport for London), New York City (MTA OMNY compatible stations and buses) and Portland (HOP). Here are some Express Transit card tips and other observations for Apple Pay Wallet users that I have learned from years of daily Express Transit Suica use.


1) Face ID Express Transit use with face masks and tight pants

Face ID disables Express Transit after 5 face misreads. Face ID Express Transit users need to be aware of the 5 strikes rule.

The most important thing to remember is that Express Transit only works while Face ID/Touch ID is ‘On’, when Face ID/Touch ID is disabled Express Transit is ‘off’.

Express Transit doesn’t care if you are wearing a face mask. However it is easy to disable Face ID iPhone without realizing it, resulting in a rude passcode request at the transit gate. Face ID face mask users need to be extra careful as five misreads disable Face ID and Express Transit. The passcode is required to re-enable Express Transit.

Users can mitigate some of this by turning off Raise to Wake in option in Settings > Display & Brightness. If you still have problems the last resort is turning off Face ID for unlocking iPhone, be sure leave it on for Apple Pay.

All iPhone users, both Face ID and Touch ID, need to be aware when putting iPhone in tight pants pocket: pressure on the side buttons initiates shutdown/SOS mode which disables Face/Touch ID and Express Transit. This is worse with a case because iPhone in a case is thicker and tighter in pant pockets, with more pressure on the side buttons.


2) Apple Watch Express Transit works for 10 minutes off the wrist

Suica and Octopus on Apple Watch are the ‘killer’ watch app that quickly becomes second nature. Its nice in colder months because Apple Watch works at the gate under layers of clothes, it beats digging iPhone out of a pocket. The biggest complaint I hear is from left wrist Apple Watch users. Most transit gate readers are on the right side so the user has to reach over to the reader. This will be a bigger pain with new JR East transit gates that place a slated reader on the right side. Some commuters migrate Apple Watch to the right wrist to deal with it.

One interesting aspect of Apple Watch Express Transit is that it works for 10 minutes off the wrist. This is by design in case the transit card needs servicing by a station attendant. After 10 minutes, Express Transit turns off and requires the passcode to work again.


3) Multiple Express Transit Cards

Apple Pay Express Transit support doc

The addition of EMV Express Transit in iOS 12.3 introduced the concept of having multiple Express Transit cards, one payment credit/debit card for transit use and one native transit card for each transit network (Suica, Octopus, Beijing, Shanghai, HOP, etc). The fine print tells a different story: if you have a China mainland transit card set for Express Transit, all other NFC-A protocol cards (EMV, MIFARE) are turned off.

There’s more to the story not covered in the Apple support doc: China T-Union Express Transit cards are incompatible with all other Express Transit cards. A set of reader images shows the issue. Turning on Express Transit for China T-Union turns off all other cards, both native and EMV payment cards. China T-Union cards are a bit messy in that older card formats like Beijing City Union are migrating to the new spec that does not support plastic card loading for mobile. Shanghai remains with the old spec with plastic card transfer for now but will also likely migrate in the future.

Shenzhen cards are also migrating from the legacy FeliCa (blue and orange) cards to the new China T-Union (red and green) cards. This is probably one immediate reason behind the ‘one at a time’ Express Card issue that Apple will hopefully fix it in a future iOS version. It’s not a problem as most users only use one Express Transit card at a time and can turn them on and off as needed. It’s interesting to developers because it reveals some current architectural limits of iOS 13 Apple Pay.

Apple Pay Octopus Launch Meltdown

Anybody could have seen this one coming. When Apple Pay Suica launched in 2016 we had 2 things: the iOS 10.1 update and the Apple Pay Japan service launch all coming at the start of a Tokyo commute weekday. Lots of iPhone users decided to upgrade and add their Suica to Apple Pay. By 7am local Tokyo time Mobile Suica and Apple Pay iCloud servers were overloaded and not responding.

This time we had 3 things: Apple Pay Octopus, the iOS 13.5.1 update and Apple Maps Hong Kong Transit all launching at the same time. By 11 am Octopus servers were overloaded and not responding, the usual ‘small number of users’ were complaining on Twitter far earlier than that. Duh, so much for anticipating iPhone user demand. Octopus Cards Limited has posted an apology and instructions to fetch Octopus cards lost in the cloud. It a simple matter of adding the Octopus card to Wallet again. In some cases Octopus customers are getting refunds.

At least we know the launch was a success in that lots of iPhone and Apple Watch Hong Kong users apparently want to use Apple Pay Octopus. I guarantee this will drive mobile payments use far more than regular bank cards. Riding the transit and buying stuff with Express Transit is a no brainer.

Garmin Pay Suica aka Google Pay on iOS

Garmin Pay Suica went live May 21, effectively breaking the 4 year Apple Watch/Apple Pay Suica monopoly. As any Apple Watch user in Tokyo will tell you, Apple Pay Suica is the killer Apple Watch app. The real secret of course is Express Transit payments. Even now I get the occasional oh and ah from store staff when I hold Apple Watch up to the reader. They really appreciate the speed and social distance. So do I.

Since Garmin only does smartwatches, there are inherent limitations and big differences from Apple Pay Suica: (1) there is no way to transfer a plastic Suica to Gamin Pay, users have to create an account and a new virtual Garmin Pay Suica card, (2) Garmin Pay Suica does not support Suica Commuter Passes, (3) Garmin Pay Suica can only be recharged with Google Pay, (4) Garmin Pay Suica is limited to Japanese Garmin models, it is not global NFC like iPhone and Apple Watch.

Outside of that Garmin Pay Suica is a regular Suica with ‘Rapid Pass’ instead of Express Transit, different name, same thing. It can be registered for SmartEX and Ekinet Shinkansen eTicket travel. iOS users setup and recharge via the Garmin Connect Mobile app.

Garmin Pay Suica limitations limit its appeal for iPhone users who already have the full range of Mobile Suica service on Apple Watch. It’s a boon for Android users who have lusted after a Suica smartwatch. It very weird that it has taken 4 years for Android based device makers to even attempt matching the killer combo of Apple Watch and Apple Pay Suica. I hope Garmin works to improve the service and remove the limitations. Android users would really appreciate having the full Mobile Suica experience on a smartwatch.

UPDATE: there’s some gray area whether all Asian models support Suica or just the devices sold in Japan. I’ll update any discoveries here. Other limitations like Suica Commuter passes are also interesting and suspect they shed some light on the Google Pay~Osaifu Keitai relationship. In many ways Google Pay Suica is a UI skin on top of the Osaifu Keitai stack. In the case of Garmin Pay, no Osaifu Keitai stack means no Commuter Pass support even though it depends on Google Pay for recharge.

UPDATE: All APAC models support Suica