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Apple Pay Express Transit Coming to America with HOP and Ventra

The October 2016 launch of Apple Pay Suica in Japan was an important one with several ‘firsts’: FeliCa was the first non-EMV contactless payment NFC technology on the Apple Pay platform, the first appearance of Express Transit cards that worked without Touch ID/Face ID and supported the full feature set (commuter passes, etc.) of regular plastic smartcards. The success of Suica on Apple Pay remains the fullest expression and gold standard of what a transit smartcard on mobile can be, with transit, e-money, lightning fast performance and Apple Map integration rolled into one.

Express Transit arrived in Beijing and Shanghai in 2017 with the iOS 11.3 addition of PBOC payment technology to Apple Pay, but the cards remain in perpetual beta (more China transit cards were on tap for iOS 11.4 but pulled), are not yet interoperable in other transit areas, require a China UnionPay debit card for recharge instead of any Apple Pay card, and cannot be used for e-money purchases.

iOS 12 added MIFARE support which is the technology used for contactless Student ID cards that launched last September. Student ID cards are basically Express Transit cards called ‘Express Mode’, without transit that open door locks and come with e-money services. The arrival of MIFARE in iOS 12 was an indication that other card services would come to Apple Pay.

The addition of Portland HOP (Coming Soon says Apple, TriMet says summer) and Chicago Ventra (coming later this year) marks the first time iPhone users in America have the opportunity to use Apple Pay Express Transit en masse. Even snotty TfL users don’t have that and it looks like they never will. iPhone users can already use EMV contactless Apple Pay credit/debit cards for transit in Portland and Chicago so why did Tim Cook go out of his way to mention them at the Apple Special Event on March 25? It’s the Express Transit card thing, best captured by Suica on Apple Watch in this tweet:

Express Transit vs EMV Contactless

Using Apple Pay Suica in Japan for instant transit and store purchases nationwide without using Face ID/Touch ID spoils a person for using anything else in Wallet. I use Apple Pay credit cards to add money to Suica and little else. In Japan there are entire ad campaigns built around Express Transit:

With Apple Pay Express Cards on Apple Watch you can do this too, this is how you sell Apple Watch in Japan

I spent last summer in Salt Lake City learning just how slow and bumpy the average Apple Pay EMV contactless credit card American experience is. Checkout terminal infrastructure is creaky with poorly marked tiny NFC hit areas with little or no user feedback. Invariably I heard, “try it again” or the ultimate punchline, “You’re holding it wrong.” No wonder in-app payments are bigger than Apple Pay USA. Things are rough on the system backend too: UTA unceremoniously dropped Apple Pay EMV contactless support while I was there.

Express Transit fully reproduces the user experience of plastic transit cards adding much more functionality and convenience, while doing away with small but important Apple Pay EMV stress points such as using Face ID/Touch ID and dealing with multiple Wallet cards. Chicago Ventra support offers some insight on the current state of EMV transit:

  • Get your device ready, first, for fastest entry
  • “Card clash”: touch only your desired payment method
  • Multiple credit cards: always use the same card on the same device on Ventra readers

Another downside of EMV contactless is that it’s a very dumb smartcard. EMV was created by the credit card consortium for leisurely check out at the local supermarket, not for daily commuters zipping through transit gates at rush hour. EMV transactions are always slower than a transit card with none of the functionality or benefits. The differences between transit smartcards and EMV are nicely captured on the HOP page.

Furthermore bank cards are owned by the bank, not the transit company or the customer. That means conditions for both transit company and customer to use it. Transit cards however are owned by the transit company, the prepaid balance you put in them is yours.

I’ve always questioned the purported wisdom and convenience of letting banks directly on transit fare gates. It’s a devil’s bargain as Chicago Ventra found out with their own Mastercard branded debit card experience. Predatory banks and fees will never go away. My position is that it’s a better long term business opportunity for transit companies to limit bank cards to the backend for adding money to transit cards on digital wallets, where they really shine, and focus instead on building better services tied to transit cards that benefit customers and businesses of the entire transit region, aka a transit platform business model.

Building a Future: interoperable transit cards and e-money

There is some interesting discussion regarding Express Transit vs EMV on the MacRumors site. Most people see the convenience of Express Transit without Face ID/Touch ID, some don’t. Heavy travelers in particular prefer one EMV card thing to ride transit anywhere rather than juggling different transit cards. It’s a trivial issue on digital wallets but they have a point. It is exactly a key issue explained by Egon Terplan in his article Falling in Love With the Trains of Japan: nationwide interoperable transit cards.

It took Japanese transit companies a decade to make their transit cards interoperable with each other through incremental upgrades on backend systems and IC smartcard issuance. This is much easier to achieve with digital wallets attached to cloud backends, and since most transit fare card systems in America are designed and/or operated by the same company, Cubic Transportation Systems, interoperable transit cards shouldn’t be that hard to do. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the usefulness of a HOP card that works on Chicago Ventra, NYC MTA, LA TAP, and vice versa.

This usefulness can be vastly expanded with the addition of an e-money service that frees the prepaid card balance for other uses outside of transit, a transit card version of John Hopkins J-Card or DukeCard e-money that works nationwide is a powerful thing. It is hard to explain just how powerful and transformative simple things like Apple Pay Suica Express Cards can be unless you experience them first hand. The simple ‘it just works’ success of Suica is built on layers of infrastructure where each new layer adds functions that strengthen the whole.

Now that transit cards are finally arriving on digital wallets in a big way this year, with Apple Pay delivering some of those advantages to iPhone users, here’s hoping that America can experience it and be inspired to build the same thing over time.

Looking ahead we can expect more details of the New York MTA EMV transit fare service rollout, LA Metro has said they expect Apple Pay support for the TAP fare system (EMV only?) later this year as well. Hong Kong iPhone users are fervently hoping for Smart Octopus on Apple Pay now that the Smart Octopus on Samsung Pay exclusive is apparently over. iOS 13 might be a Apple Pay Transit coming out party for many. That would be great fun.

Last but not least here are some Express Transit card tips and other things I have learned from 2 years of daily Suica use.

  • HOP and Ventra use the same MIFARE technology as Student ID cards, Express Transit device specs are the same: iPhone 6S and later, Apple Watch Series 1 and later.
  • Express Cards only work while Face ID/Touch ID is active. Express Cards stop working when Face ID/Touch ID is disabled. Be careful if you wear face masks on your commute, it’s easy to disable Face ID without realizing it with a rude surprise at the transit gate. Face mask users can mitigate this by turning off Face ID for unlocking iPhone but leave it on for Apple Pay.
  • Apple Watch with Express Cards is a great combination but in winter when wearing layers of clothes, iPhone is faster at the gate.
  • iPhone X users need to be aware of the iPhone X NFC problem which can cause endless gate errors with Express Transit. You may need Apple to replace it, never an easy thing.
  • iPhone XS/XR users can finally put the Express Cards with power reserve feature to good use, it is cool and assuring knowing that you have 5 hours of reserve power to clear the final destination gate.
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