Isn’t Oyster card supposed to be dead?

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: “I can’t imagine a situation where everyone either will have a bank account and card suitable to pay and wants to…it’s about letting people naturally migrate towards it.” A new Oyster system is said to be 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.

Contactless Payment Turf Wars: EMV closed loop transit dumb cards

  1. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Transit Platforms
  2. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: PiTaPa Pitfalls
  3. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Why Oyster is missing from mobile
  4. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Tapping the potential of TAP
  5. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Apple Card and the Prepaid Innovation of Apple Pay Suica
  6. >Contactless Payment Turf Wars: EMV closed loop transit dumb cards

Prepaid transit smart cards are micro bank accounts on a card. What started as plastic in the mid 1990’s first transitioned to the cloud based mobile digital card era with Mobile Suica in 2006. Transit cards on mobile digital wallets are much more powerful and malleable than their plastic forebears, and occupy a coveted position in the mobile payments market. Credit card companies and banks spend enormous resources and effort to capture this transit fare business.

Background
Many smart cards use FeliCa and MIFARE. The technology has been on the market since 1994 and one of the reasons for platform popularity and longevity are the rich application development environments they offer (Calypso is also popular but limited to transit applications).

Developers can design a card architecture as ‘smart’ (like Suica) or as ‘dumb’ (like iD) but they are all smart cards because they contain an IC chip. In Japan FeliCa powers not only company ID cards, but also transit cards (Suica, PASMO, etc.), bank payment cards (iD, QUICPay) and rechargeable prepaid eMoney cards that anybody can buy and recharge at convenience stores (WAON, nanaco, Edy). Mobile FeliCa has been in place since 2004.

Smart/Dumb card architecture depends on use case, system processing cost efficiency and need. In a transit fare system, a dumb card use case is slower centralized processing, like waiting at the store checkout for card verification to clear. A transit smart card use case is instant locally processed stored value to keep people moving through the gates because centralized processing isn’t up to the task. This is why transit cards have used the stored value local processing model…until now.

Open Loop 1.0
EMV contactless credit cards arrived on the payments scene starting in 2007 but uptake was slow. Since EMV contactless uses the same NFC A as MIFARE based transit cards, the big EMVCo members (VISA, Mastercard, American Express) came up with a great marketing idea: use EMV contactless credit cards as a transit card. Thus EMV open loop transit was born.

EMV Open Loop 1.0 transit that debuted on Transport for London (TfL) Oyster system in 2014 filled mutual needs for TfL and bank card companies. Despite the success of Oyster, TfL wanted to reduce plastic card issue and management costs:

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.

The Future of Ticketing London Assembly (2011)

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)

Using bank cards in place of MIFARE Oyster cards accomplished that and because MIFARE was late to the mobile party TfL management decided decided their mobile strategy would be Apple Pay and Android Pay EMV card support. Meanwhile the bank card companies captured transaction fees from mundane transit fares at the gate, got the benefit of using the float instead of TfL, and got people into the habit of using credit cards for tiny purchase amounts. Our parents thought buying coffee with a credit card instead of small change was ridiculous because credit cards were reserved for ‘serious purchases’. Not anymore.

TfL Open Loop was judged a big success and got rave reviews from tech journalists around the world who hailed it as the future of transit ticketing: time to dump those proprietary transit smart cards and go all in with ‘open standard’ EMV open loop if you want the latest and greatest transit fare system. This gave transit agencies and the governments that run them the wrong idea that EMV is a cure all transit fare system solution.

1.0 shortcomings
The problem is that EMV is not an open standard, it is owned and managed by the proprietary EMVCo that is wholly owned by the major credit card companies. EMV is a ‘one size fits all’ payments technology created for the needs of credit card companies and banks. It was never designed as a transit fare solution and will never evolve to incorporate transit needs. Experts agree:

A universal truth is that each transport market is highly unique. While EMV may be the best solution for some, the reality is that a standardized deployment of this model is not best suited to everyone.

Transit systems shouldn’t confuse open loop pay with EMV

The U.S. has been a tough market for transit agencies to deliver successful open-loop systems into, as banks have not been in step with these ambitions.

Is now the time for open-loop transit in the United States?

There is no escaping the basic reality that EMV is a slow dumb smart card. It works well for what it was designed for: store purchases where card transaction latency is not a problem while the checkout terminal communicates with the bank system that has your account information.

Transit fare systems don’t have your bank account information on file, and there are limits with what the backend transit fare system can do when an anonymous bank card number appears on gate reader where long transaction latency is unacceptable. There are tradeoffs: the card gets verified but the transit bill gets settled long after the transit. This is why EMV open loop 1.0 only works for simple or flat fare structures. The result was a 2 layer fare system on London Oyster, Sydney Opal and Chicago Ventra:

  • Plastic and digital EMV open loop dumb card with basic fare transit for users with approved bank cards
  • Plastic transit MIFARE smart cards covering all fares including special fare discounts, commuter passes, etc., for everybody else

Oyster, Opal and Ventra wanted to add mobile support across the board but this meant supporting EMV and MIFARE. All of these are managed by Cubic Transportation Systems who worked with the bank card companies and came up with a new product to solve the dilemma: EMV closed loop transit dumb cards.

Open Loop 2.0
Apple Pay Ventra is this new EMV closed loop mobile transit card product, the launch gave us a first glimpse of the 3 layer fare system:

  • Plastic and digital EMV open loop dumb cards with basic fare transit for users with approved bank cards
  • Digital EMV closed loop dumb cards that cover regular fares and commute passes with special fares to be added later
  • Legacy plastic MIFARE transit cards for everybody else

It’s still a mixed EMV and MIFARE environment but MIFARE is limited to legacy plastic transit cards that can be bought with cash at station kiosks. But we can be sure that MIFARE will be phased out at some point.

The Apple Pay Ventra model is being used for digital Opal trials on Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, and is on tap for digital Oyster and digital OMNY. A basic outline:

  • The transit card is actually a EMV Mastercard prepaid debit card issued by 3rd party bank
  • The Mastercard as transit card is ‘closed loop’ and can only be used for transit and nothing else
  • The user must create an account to use the digital card. The transit account and prepaid/debit information is centralized and managed by the card issuer, nothing is stored value
  • All digital transit card management and housekeeping (adding or transferring cards, recharge, checking the balance, etc.) must be done in a separate app (Ventra App, Opal App, etc.), nothing can be done directly in Wallet
  • Express Transit is not part of the native EMV card architecture and has to be added as part of broader open loop support on the backend fare system by the operator and Apple, this is why Express Transit is missing in the initial test phase of digital Opal: the current Opal fare system does not support it

As this is an EMV bank card dressed up as a transit card, it is still limited by EMV card architecture and bank card network protocol. In place of local stored value it uses the bank card account model. On mobile this means all card housekeeping is in the app, users can’t create, transfer or recharge transit cards directly in Wallet like Suica, PASMO, SmarTrip or TAP. Direct reload/recharge in Wallet is not supported because the EMV format itself does not support local stored value. Apple Watch users can’t recharge EMV transit cards without the iPhone app. And like all cloud dependent services everything stops when networks goes down.

Mobile Suica does an excellent job of balancing and combining the strengths of local processed stored value performance, usability and reliability with the power of cloud attached services. It’s the gold standard of what a transit payment platform on mobile can achieve: leveraging transit card micro accounts to attach services and build business instead of giving it away to banks. Digital Opal testers familiar with Suica notice the difference and missing features:

Open Loop 3.0?
For centralized cloud proponents, including Junya Suzuki, the ultimate dream is having one cloud based account using facial recognition for all payment and transit needs. Cubic and centralized account proponents are already looking to speed up London transit gates beyond slow EMV card technology with barrier free face recognition transit gates:

according to CUBIC…their ‘fastrack gateless gateline’ concept, which is currently conducting small user testing, eliminates physical barriers to form an extended corridor-like gateway that between 65 and 75 users can walk through in a minute, whilst their faces are being scanned and synced for payment with their smartphones

Facial recognition to be your future ticket on the London Underground

The joke here is that, (1) JR East achieved those over 60 people per minute walk through levels with FeliCa based Suica cards and open barrier transit gates long ago, (2) the COVID face mask era is a huge challenge for face recognition systems, (3) Touchless transit, Express Transit on steroids, is already in the works.

Personally I think the Ultra Wideband Touchless approach that leverages personal biometric authentication from the user’s smartphone secure enclave instead of having it hosted on somebody else’s cloud system is the safer and more practical way to go. Privacy advocates will agree.

Speed is safety
Tap speed matters more than even in the COVID era

The next installment of the Contactless Payment Turf Wars
If nothing else closed loop EMV transit dumb cards reveal how bankrupt the ‘open loop is open’ argument really is. All Cubic and the card companies did was swap MIFARE for EMV, neither of which are open. And tap speeds are slower than ever with EMV the supermarket checkout protocol, so now we need Face ID transit gates to speed things up.

It’s fake debate. The real debate is online centralization for fare processing where everybody is forced to have a mobile account whether they need it or want it or not. And once everybody is forced to have an account to use transit the next step is forcing facial recognition.

The short term lesson here is that when transit agencies let banks and card companies run the transit fare concession they will never be free of them: there’s too much private money to be made off of running the backend services attached to public infrastructure. The long term lesson is that the mobile digital wallet solutions for Ventra, Opal, Oyster and OMNY are not about transit user convenience and all about convenience for misguided transit operators and their subcontractors.


Reader Questions
Instead of answering questions or comments via Twitter etc., I’ll answer here for the benefit of all readers.

Q: Not being able to recharge within Apple Pay has nothing to do with EMV vs. stored value though, right? If anything, that should be easier (just move money between accounts).

A: It’s true that MIFARE stored value transit cards such as HOP Fastpass force users to recharge via the app. The point of the piece is that EMV transit card features are defined by the EMV format, bank card protocols and how it’s all implemented on digital wallet platforms. In short, bank issuers control the feature set on the backend. I have yet to see a recharge button on any EMV prepaid card in Apple Pay Wallet, I suspect we’ll always see most operations limited to bank issuer apps, even for transit.

C: The open loathing of banks and credit card companies is honestly quite nauseating (but understandable, considering what Japanese banks are like, apart from the credit card companies).

A: Banks and card companies have an important place in transit, but card company ‘one size solves all’ open loop marketing is misleading and profitable mischief. A good transit fare system is all about balance, flexibility and incorporating innovation such as mobile wallets, for the benefit of transit users and safe operations. Bank cards for example are a wonderfully convenient recharge backend, this is where they shine and add real value to the transit user experience.

But swapping out a native transit fare system with an outsourced bank card account system and tech package that the transit company doesn’t ‘own’ is asking for trouble. How much is the long term cost when it doesn’t solve everything as promised? Who really benefits: the transit user, the transit company, or the system partners and consultants?

These are the questions I think people should be asking and discussing. Hopefully my posts outline the issues clearly so people can discuss them to find the best fit long term solution based on local transit region conditions.

C: Looks like Apple/Google Pay presents the card as a debit card to eligible terminals, which would explain why physical cards can’t be used in their current form.

A: Yes the NSW Transport Minister calls it ‘cross-pollinating platforms”: NSW government set to announce the trial on Tuesday, which will begin mid-year and run until December. Commuters will be able to pay for Uber, Lime Bike, Ingogo Taxi or Manly Fast Ferry with their digital Opal card.

Opal digital transit card trial for Apple Pay and Samsung Pay

NSW announced a public beta test for Opal digital card in October and rolled it out today for Apple Pay and Samsung Pay. Trial users can register, and if one of the lucky chosen ones, install and use Opal digital on their device. iPhone trial users will need to download the Opal digital app via Apple’s TestFlight developer app.

As this is a trial there are limitations and the one for Apple Pay transit users is huge: no Express Transit. Hopefully this will be fixed before the official launch as Opal digital is a very awkward service without it: users have to authenticate Apple Pay at each transit gate, a real drag for Face ID users with face masks, users also have to be careful of EMV card clash.

Other limitations will not be fixed because of system design. This means there is no ‘add money’ button in Wallet and all card house keeping tasks from recharge to checking the balance can only be done in Opal digital app. This is a pain for iPhone users but a huge pain for Apple Watch users. For some it will mean digital Opal is unusable: Apple Pay Suica • PASMO work without an iPhone app and can be recharged on the go, not so for digital Opal.

The overall service seems to be what I predicted at the Apple Pay Ventra launch: a closed open loop prepaid/debit Mastercard disguised as a digital transit card with the backend account managed by the Mastercard issuer, in this case EML Payments.

Transport for NSW says they expect to officially launch digital Opal in 2021. I will update this post as field report details trickle in from trial users.