Transit Cards on Mobile

Transit cards on mobile devices have been around since 2006 with the release of Mobile Suica, the world’s very first comprehensive transit on mobile service. Only with the arrival of digital wallet platforms from Apple, Google and Samsung in 2015 have mobile transit cards become widely available outside of Japan.

The chart below lists native transit cards hosted on mobile digital wallets by service launch year, limited to reloadable virtual transit cards already in service or formally announced by wallet platform vendors (Apple/Google/Samsung/etc.) and/or transit agencies. Best viewed in landscape mode.

YearCardAreaOperatorDigital WalletNFCProtocol
2006
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai SymbianFMobile FeliCa
2011
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastOsaifu Keitai AndroidFMobile FeliCa
2015
TmoneyKoreaTmoney Co. LtdSamsung PayAMIFARE
cashbeeKoreaEB Card Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
2016
Mobile SuicaJapanJR EastApple PayFMobile FeliCa
China T-UnionChinaVariousHuawei Pay Samsung PayAPBOC 2.0
2017
Beijing
Shanghai Transit
ChinaBMAC
SPTCC
Apple PayAPBOC 2.0*
2018
iPassTaiwaniPass Co.FitBit Pay Garmin PayAMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Garmin PayAMIFARE
HOPPortlandTriMetGoogle PayAMIFARE
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLSamsung PayFMobile FeliCa
2019
HOPPortlandTriMetApple PayAMIFARE
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicApple Pay (announced)AMIFARE
Mobile mykiVictoriaPublic Transport VictoriaGoogle PayAMIFARE4Mobile
2020
ShenzhenGreater Bay RegionShenzhen Tong LimitedApple PayAPBOC 3.0
GuangzhouGreater Bay RegionGuangzhou Yang Cheng Tong LimitedApple Pay APBOC 3.0
FoshanGreater Bay RegionApple Pay APBOC 3.0
SmarTripWashington DCWMATA/CubicApple Pay (announced)AMIFARE
EasyCardTaiwanEasyCard Co.Samsung PayAMIFARE
VentraChicagoCTA/CubicGoogle Pay (announced)AMIFARE
Mobile PASMOTokyoPASMOOsaifu KeitaiFMobile FeliCa
Mobile SuicaTokyoJR EastGarmin PayFMobile FeliCa
Smart OctopusHong KongOCLApple PayFMobile FeliCa
TAPLAMETRO/CubicApple Pay
(announced)
AMIFARE
Mobile PASMOTokyoPASMOApple Pay
(announced)
FMobile FeliCa
*iOS 11 Apple Pay Beijing/Shanghai transit cards were not full spec PBOC 2.0 and listed as ‘beta’

Mobile transit card protocol overview
Transit card payment mobile protocols are FeliCa, MIFARE and PBOC 2.0/3.0, the later is the Chinese variant of EMV which uses Type A NFC, the slowest of the three protocols designed for supermarket checkout not transit gates.

While transit gates and NFC processors are found worldwide, what makes the Japanese gates different from the rest of the world is they don’t use global standard ISO 14443 (never mind Type A which uses Miller bit coding, the least efficient bit coding method) protocol which is common in many transit and bank cards issued worldwide.

The tap time with ISO 14443 Type A (née Philips) and B (née Motorola) varies greatly: from 200 to 500 milliseconds (ms) with 200 ms only achievable with Type B/Calypso. But it never reaches the short as 100 ms which is only achieved with Felica developed by Sony, also designated NFC-F and NFC Tag Type 3 by the NFC Forum and compatible with ISO 18092 which is commonly found in smartphones and NFC wearables since 2013. In this video passengers maintain their walking pace but never overshoot and trigger a gate closure nor slow down not even a bit.

It may be a minor difference but due to the high volume of passengers per gate (comparison example of large crowds at gates in Malaysia and Japan) and to reduce gate maintenance requirements, taps times really matter. Companies such as JR East have specified tap time of 200 ms but Suica is actually faster and this allows real life speed tolerances: some passengers tap faster than others due to walking pace, the higher speed tolerances are only possible with the 100 ms tap time of FeliCa.

Open Loop NFC ticketing (in its current form, EMVCo Contactless specifications are adopted in contactless bank cards issued worldwide including China UnionPay QuickPass which is PBOC derived from the EMVCo Contactless spec and uses the ISO 14443 Type A at 106 kbps only for 500 ms tap time, which is adopted in cities worldwide such as London, New York, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro is never supposed but as seen here, transit cards in Japan such as Suica, PASMO and ICOCA are supported for ultra hight speed and precise account verification and fare processing. Transit cards use offline Stored Fare (SF) which includes the amount of funds stored in the card’s IC smart chip data storage, NOT backend on a server like a bank card, and stored commuter passes.

YouTube comment explaining the speed differences between NFC types (blocked outside of Canada), lightly edited for clarity

The PBOC Protocol

Each card organization has formed its own specifications based on the EMV specification based on its own business refinement and expansion, such as China UnionPay’s PBOC 2.0 specification…PBOC based on the EMV standard, combined with the needs of domestic banks, the People’s Bank of China promulgated the PBOC series of standards:
1 PBOC1.0: e-wallet / electronic passbook / magnetic stripe card function
2 PBOC 2.0: E-wallet extension application, debit/credit application, personalization guide, contactless IC card standard
3 PBOC 3.0: Cancel e-wallet and electronic passbook application, cancel downgrade transaction, multi-algorithm extension, multi-application extension, mobile payment standard

Super Lu

The interesting thing here is that many Greater Bay Area transit cards were FeliCa based cards but are migrating to the PBOC 2.0 powered China T-Union cards that are much slower. Users notice the difference:

Compared to other contactless smartcards in use, the data transmission of <PBOC 2.0 China T-Union> Yang Cheng Tong is criticized by commuters that it takes 1~2 seconds between the card and reader to complete the transaction, though the operator claims that the data communication only takes 0.5 seconds in its official site.

Wikipedia Yang Cheng Tong

Despite the slower gate speeds the PBOC 2.0 China T-union card spec is the Chinese mainland standard for interoperable transit cards on plastic and mobile that work across the country, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc.

This Wikipedia chart needs to be updated but illustrates how many China T-Union cards there are

Mobile transit cards vs Open Loop
Mobile FeliCa developed by Sony and NTT Docomo has been around the longest and works across multiple mobile hardware platforms from Symbian handsets, to Android, to iOS/watchOS. MIFARE has a shorter history on mobile, PBOC 2.0/3.0 is basically new. The key period is 2015~2016 which saw transit card debuts on Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Huawei Pay.

One of the biggest advantages of transit cards in digital wallets is the freedom of anywhere anytime recharge with credit/debit cards; transit users are no longer chained to station kiosks to recharge plastic smartcards or renew a pass. The more payment options supported on the recharge backend, the more convenient. These are great customer features, so why is it taking so long to get transit cards on mobile in America and Europe when there are some 257 China T-Union transit card compatible transit authorities already on mobile?

Many transit card fare systems outside of Asia are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems, including Oyster, Opal, Clipper, OMNY, Ventra and SmarTrip to name a few. Cubic and operators like Transport for London and Transport for NSW have focused primarily on Open Loop EMV card support as a mobile solution instead of native virtual transit cards.

Publicly run transit system resources are limited so using bank cards for open loop transit is seen as a way to reduce costs for both fare collection and plastic card issue. The downside is that open loop eats up precious system resources so that banks can get a cut from transit gate transactions. The end result is that native transit card mobile support is a secondary priority, if at all.

Cubic’s very first virtual transit card effort, the long delayed Apple Pay Ventra, is all the evidence you need when open loop is a priority and transit cards are not. Despite the recently announced Google Pay and Cubic alliance, I think transit cards on mobile will continue to arrive in a slow trickle. Let’s face it, HOP is the only American transit card that has gone mobile so far, and it’s not managed by Cubic. It’s the same story in Australia with Melbourne myki Google Pay.

China T-Union: streamlined for mobile
The large deployment of PBOC 2.0/3.0 China T-Union cards on mobile has been cited as proof that the protocol ‘better’ than FeliCa and MIFARE, but in reality has nothing to do with protocols or smartphone hardware. It is all about streamlining on the cloud side:

  1. All China T-Union cards share a common recharge backend cloud provided by UnionPay. It’s the reason why China T-Union only support UnionPay recharge and sport a similar logo. It’s all one package.
  2. China T-Union cards on mobile have to be created on the device, plastic card transfers are not supported. Local transit agency transit card apps are intentionally crippled and do not support any NFC features. Note that Apple Support pages do not mention plastic card transfer:

You can create a new transit card in Wallet to use with Apple Pay. The first transit card that you add to Wallet automatically becomes your Express Transit card.

Add a transit card to Apple Pay in mainland China

Eliminating plastic card transfers reduces management hotlist headaches and the UnionPay recharge backend shared by all transit cards with the same card architecture makes hosting virtual cards simple because there is nothing to negotiate and it’s the same centralized IT software stack running everything. The various transit operators only need to plug into the network. They don’t have to host everything directly or build a cloud backend from scratch, and there’s nothing to negotiate because UnionPay is the only payment network.

China T-Union illustrates the power a national transit card standard backed with a shared cloud resource but it’s a streamlined straightjacket.

China T-Union, QR Codes and Hong Kong Octopus
The real interesting development here is that QR Codes (AliPay/WeChat Pay) for transit, and everything else, are mainstream in China. There are many reasons for this outcome but on the transit gate QR Codes and PBOC-EMV transit cards are pretty much the same speed. There isn’t enough difference to care, and AliPay/WeChat Pay represent a choice outside the UnionPay straitjacket with all kinds of incentives to use QR.

Another interesting development is the pressure from QR Code players like Alipay for a piece of MTR transit gate action, and the Greater Bay Area transit card negoiations with Yangchengtong on the Hong Kong MTR/Octopus Card Limited mobile strategy roadmap. QR is mobile only of course, but a dual mode FeliCa/PBOC card approach for the Greater Bay Area is much cheaper and easier to implement on mobile than plastic.

Hong Kong Octopus Card Limited and MTR have been slow adding mobile transit service. The Apple Pay Octopus launch in June 2020 was a big success. In the end however, growing mobile services is the best way forward for Octopus to remain a viable Hong Kong MTR business in these uncertain times. Because if it does not, Octopus risks becoming just another China T-Union card.

Put another way, Octopus is living on borrowed time. If OCL doesn’t innovate and invest it its future as a world’s leading transit platform, it does not have one.

Coming later this year attractions that didn’t make it, and one that did

Now that Apple is in full holiday season vacation mode, here is one last look at some promised ‘coming later this year’ services that didn’t make it (and a last minute one that did).

Apple Maps 2.0 USA
The highly detailed Apple Maps 2.0 remake was first announced in mid 2018 with a rollout to be in place for the United States by the end of 2019. The West Coast and Upper East Coast made the cut but half of Mississippi, the rest of the Southeast and most of the Central US are still missing (look for the green). This is not a good sign that Apple can deliver on their promise of providing better map services in Japan before the Tokyo Olympics.

UPDATE: A few hours after posting, MacRumours reports Apple Maps 2.0 data rolling out to all Southeast and Central areas following reports from Justin O’Beirne of beta testing earlier this month. I do not see updated map details from Japan yet but it will take time to show up on devices worldwide. Apple cut it close but kudos for keeping their 2019 delivery promise with 4 days to spare.

Apple Pay Ventra
The native Chicago Ventra transit card on Apple Pay is a big deal that was announced back in March. It represents the first major native transit card for the USA on Apple Pay. The much smaller Portland transit system HOP card landed safely in Wallet in May, but Ventra is still listed as ‘coming soon.’ The fault is not with Apple but with Cubic Transportation Systems who operate transit fare systems for Ventra, New York OMNY, Transport for London (TfL) Oyster, Sydney Opal, Washington DC Metro, and many more. For all of their supposed system expertise, Cubic was extremely slow rolling out Apple Pay Express Transit on TfL and has yet to deliver a single native transit card on Apple Pay or Google Pay. I hope Cubic does a better job in 2020.

Apple Pay Octopus
The Apple Pay Octopus ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ saga of 2019 was strange and ultimately sad. The Apple support side was all ready to roll with iOS 13. Octopus Cards Limited announced Apple Pay support back in July with ‘coming soon’ website artwork that was pulled when the launch was officially delayed on December 19. My take is that OCL parent Hong Kong MTR made, or was forced into, a political decision to limit services, starting with the unexplained service outage of Smart Octopus during the Hong Kong Polytechnic University siege. This is not a popular opinion.

Readers have reported riot damage to MTR infrastructure and suggest this might be a reason for the Apple Pay Octopus delay. I don’t buy it. Hong Kong MTR, or someone higher up, wants to limit services and control movement, not open them up. But this introduces great risk: moving people are moving money. Limit services and the flow of people, and you limit the flow of money. In this scenario Hong Kong doesn’t have a future. More than anything, I hope Hong Kong gets it’s future back in 2020.

One down, two to go on Apple Pay Express Transit 2019 ‘coming later this year’ list

Apple Pay Express Transit arrived on the Transport for London system over the weekend, some 6 months after it was announced. The other 2 remaining Apple Pay Transit cards announced for later this year are Chicago Ventra and Hong Kong Octopus. I already wrote about Octopus not launching this year. The Ventra odds seem a little better. On the bright side Ventra is run by Cubic, the same folks who operate the TfL and New York OMNY systems and already have EMV Apple Pay Express Transit support up and running. Also the Ventra Chicago Twitter account did mention Apple Pay Ventra as ‘coming later this year’ in a Nov 30 tweet.

On the not so bright side, Apple Pay Ventra is the native MIFARE transit card, the first native transit card that Cubic has ported to a digital wallet and a big complicated transit system at that. Nevertheless, Ventra is telling users that Apple Pay is coming this year. Let’s hope for a successful 2019 launch in the next few weeks.

Pour one for the iPhone X Suica NFC Problem

On the eve of new iPhones and new Apple Pay features with a growing transit card footprint, it is good to take a moment to remember the less than stellar NFC performance of the original iPhone X. The 2 year iPhone X Apple Care clock hits dead hour on November 3. I heart any iPhone X transit users with Apple Pay Octopus in Hong Kong or Apple Pay Ventra in Chicago who…

  1. discover their iPhone X NFC is wonky on transit gates
  2. discover their iPhone X Apple Care is expired

As much as my iPhone X Suica performance was a headache, my iPhone XS Suica performance is a joy. To be honest, I have not kept up with the iPhone X Suica NFC issue as most of the users who complained about having the problem have long since gotten Rev. B iPhone X replacements and moved on, or moved on to Pixel 3 JP FeliCa devices.

There are a few holdouts. Some report that iOS 12.4 has mostly eliminated transit gate errors for them, but that iPhone X NFC performance is still sluggish and wonky. Other holdouts report that iPhone X NFC is still a problem.

Most iPhone X NFC problem devices are sleeper cells, the user doesn’t live in a demanding enough NFC use environment to actively notice the issue. The iOS 13 release is due September 19, Apple Pay Octopus and Apple Pay Ventra should be online soon after, barely a month before iPhone X Apple Care dead hour.

Getting a replacement iPhone X for unacceptable NFC performance was never easy, but it’s about to become extremely difficult, if not impossible. Good luck to all iPhone X users out there, may the NFC be with you.