Transit Gate Evolution: Do QR Codes Really Suck for Transit?

The short answer of course is: yes, QR Codes really suck for transit, which Abacus first reported on when the QR code transit meltdown hit Chengdu last April. Abacus is taking a closer look at the problem again in a new piece, QR code payments make long commutes even longer in China:

while QR codes have proven remarkably effective at meeting most people’s mobile payment needs, it seems ill-suited for public transit compared with NFC. Since NFC relies on radio waves, payment requires only a tap of the phone. There’s no need to wake it up or turn the screen on, making it as convenient as traditional transit cards.

The limitations of the <QR> technology are apparent even as cities race to install QR code scanners in turnstiles across the country. Over time, though, the inconvenience might be enough to nudge China away from its reliance on QR codes.

The long answer requires a quick look at transit gate technology evolution. The success of Suica can be found in its development process, a fascinating story by itself. The Suica card and transit gate were developed as one thing to replicate the ease of flashing a commuter pass to the gate attendant without stopping.

A video of old style paper ticket manned gates illustrates the start point. There is no physical barrier. People slow down to get their ticket punched but rarely stop. For a commuter pass the user flashed a wallet with a clear plastic window at the attendant and kept on going, shown at the 0:16 mark:

Shigeo Miki came up with an idea of using IC cards for tickets. The magnetic-type ticket automatic gates, which were in use since the 1980’s, had some inconvenient aspects. Old-style passes could be shown to attendants without being taken out of their cases. But to use automatic ticket gates, passengers had to take them out, pass them through the automatic gate, and then put them away again. He thought that was a decline in service quality…

JR East “Following the track leading to Suica

This was the late 1980’s when IC cards were just coming into wider use, but not for transit. The Suica project had a large impact on Sony FeliCa development as did the Hong Kong Octopus project starting in 1992…

Furthermore, systems that read ID data from read-only cards and interact with the main computer each time someone goes through the ticket gate could not keep up with the enormous volume of data processing transactions in rush hour. So Miki and his fellow researchers perceived that the cards must be read/write types.

There we have it, the Suica project goals were: open gates, waving commuter passes, local processing. Magnetic strip paper ticket gates got faster, Omron states the speed is within 600 Milliseconds (MS), and better with the ability to handle and sort multiple tickets at a time. Suica is cool but nothing is cooler than watching the physical action of a well designed machine:

Despite development problems and a low research priority within JR East at the time, Suica success was achieved by moving the battery supply from the card to the gate and creating fast reliable performance with an illuminated target NFC ‘hit area’ tilted forward at 15 degrees, the same design you see today on the JREM EG-20 transit gate. The EG-20 already looks surprisingly similar to the open public transport gate concept. (Here’s a Japanese website that catalogs every JR East ticket device if you are interested)

Smartcard Transit Gates Compared
Smart transit cards were an important development that revolutionized transit and launched successful systems such as Suica, Hong Kong MTR Octopus and TfL Oyster. However all smart transit gates are not equal. Compare the Malaysia Touch n’ Go gate speed with Suica on EG-20:

One of the commentators notes the crucial differences: FeliCa (used for Suica and Octopus) is the most efficient NFC protocol, 212 kbps minimum/847 kbps maximum, while Touch ‘n Go is mainly MIFARE Classic at 106 kbps an “early form of ISO 14443A, …the least efficient NFC protocol.”

There is another crucial difference: Japan transit gates are open by default and close only when needed, just like the old manned JR gates, while Malaysia and Hong Kong gates are closed on default or use old fashioned turnstiles. The combination of the Ferrari fast FeliCa combined with the well designed JREM EG-20 gate (and variants) that is default open, keeps people moving, best highlighted in a Pokemon Go event ‘Pikachu’ transit gate video:

Suica speed is part of what makes it fun but there is a serious reason behind it: major Japanese transit operators like JR East have to move a tremendous volume of people through a fixed station infrastructure space that cannot be enlarged. Bigger stations with more transit gates are not an option. So the system focus is using the fixed space infrastructure as efficiently as possible. That is why the Suica transaction speed is less than 200 MS, that is why a Suica transit gate must clear 60 people a minute.

Open Loop Multiple Protocol Transit Gates Compared
Using EMV contactless with cards and smartphones, or QR Codes on smartphones for transit instead of native transit smartcards, is a step backwards from the fast read/write local processing model of Suica, and back towards read only centralized processing, one of the original system bottlenecks that Suica was designed to avoid. The QR Codes used for transit in China appear to be particularly slow and a poor match for high traffic stations. Poor gate design is certainly a factor here.

EMV has it’s own transit gate problems as well, as Singapore transit users found out in the recent rollout of EMV SimplyGo service there, things slow down:

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.

The last comment in the first Twitter timeline is an important observation: most EMV transit is simply grafted onto the current transit gate infrastructure which was designed for something else, a factor contributing to unreliable performance, forcing users to adapt. Most of the multi-protocol transit gates in service are poor design.

This leads to another EMV issue users have to adapt to: ‘card clash’. When EMV is bolted onto an existing system slapping a wallet on the transit reader doesn’t work anymore, the card has to come out of the wallet. This is still one of the nice things about plastic Suica cards. Young Japanese women in particular seem to enjoy slapping those cute little Hello Kitty wallets on the gate reader with a surprisingly hard thwack, stress relief perhaps? Chicago Ventra support offers 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 transit readers

These are issues that Apple Pay EMV Express Transit is designed to fix by designating a single EMV bank card for transit but it cannot change the inherently slow EMV transaction speed or solve the limitations of EMV bank card architecture which is basically centrally processed read only. There are limits on how much the central processing read only model can achieve when fast, precise, local transactions are required. All EMV Express Transit does it designate a bank card that tells the transit gate reader: I am a real bank card, not a forged one, we’ll settle the bill later.

That’s why complex transit fares are only supported on read/write native transit cards like Oyster on TfL, not EMV bank cards. It’s also the reason why manual swipe MTA Metrocards will be around for a few more years, the new OMNY Apple Pay Transit was not particularly fast or reliable at startup. Things will get better, a real OMNY transit card for plastic and digital wallets is due to arrive in late 2020. Last but not least, using EMV contactless for transit does carry some potential fraud risk that native transit cards do not.

Japanese IT journalist Junya Suzuki tests OMNY transit gate speed…
and reliability

The China Situation

The Abacus article highlights multiple protocol Chinese transit gates: paper tickets, NFC, QR Codes and Face recognition. Oh, and closed by default gates. This is not a fast transit gate environment.

The Abacus article points out the slow uptake of NFC, blaming it on UnionPay, but it boils down to the PBOC flavored EMV spec itself:

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, VISA’s VSDC specification and MasterCard’s M/Chip specification. Each specification follows the EMV specification for basic transaction processes and security mechanisms, but differs in terms of data element definition and extended application…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

Beijing and Shanghai Transit cards were originally MIFARE but instead of examining what technologies would be best for next generation transit needs, China simply migrated them to the much slower PBOC 2.0/EMV specification implemented on the China T-union transit card architecture. The China T-union card is country wide transit prepaid card spec for interoperable transit cards that can work everywhere, similar to what Japan has with Suica, ICOCA, PASMO, etc.

Unfortunately, the rollout of new format card issuance has been slow and piecemeal, with no apparent promotion push to educate transit users. Chinese users familiar with Suica performance find China T-union cards slower and less reliable at the gate. Because PBOC is slow EMV NFC spec 500 MS transaction speed and tightly chained to UnionPay, the transit gate performance edge is not great enough to ween users away from QR Codes and the point benefits of sticking with AliPay and WeChat Pay.

If the performance gain was similar to the huge Suica over QR difference, coupled with an open flexible backend for using different payment methods to add money, China T-union would stand a better chance of nudging QR users to NFC for transit. As it stands now, there’s no real difference between a UnionPay card and a China T-union card at the transit gate. One is post pay, the other is prepaid, 2 versions of the same thing, marginally faster than QR, but not much.

Whatever the causes for the current situation, it’s a perfect gift to Chinese QR code players, I suspect that the arrangement is also a profitable one for the Chinese government on some level because if it was not, they wouldn’t be adding QR Code readers to transit gates.


QR Codes for Japan Transit
Some Japanese tech journalists have fretted about JR East not embracing QR Codes on transit gates because JR Central plans to completely eliminate paper tickets for the next generation Chuo Shinkansen. It’s less about QR and more about eliminating magnetic strip paper tickets. JR East does have limited QR code use for ticket purchases at station kiosks, we’ll likely see wide support of many cashless payment options, QR included, with the new JR East eTicketing system due in April 2020.

QR Codes have seen some limited use on local monorail systems such as Okinawa’s Yui Rail but Suica compatilbilty is coming to the system in April 2020. The next generation Super Suica that does a lot more for much less, will arrive in April 2021. QR Codes for transit use in Japan will reamain a small side show far away from the main attraction.


In summary, the use of EMV bank cards and QR Codes for transit all comes down to transit company priorities for safe operation, better customer service and long term business goals. My position has been and continues to be is that it’s a better long term business opportunity for transit companies to:

  • Offer robust support of bank cards, QR and digital wallets on the backend for adding money to native transit cards on digital wallets and plastic, where they are really useful and add value without giving control away to outside companies.
  • Use closed loop transit gate value capture to focus on building better services tied to transit cards that benefit customers and businesses of the entire transit region, aka the transit platform business model.

It’s a simple choice really, moving people quickly and safely by transit, managed wisely, is a license to make money. A company can either use that license to build something of greater long term value for the users and businesses of the transit region, a win-win, or give it away to someone else.

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Perception and Reality

I like writing but am no writer, so I prescribe to the ‘if you’re not a sharpshooter shoot lots of bullets’ school of wannabes. When the Financial Times, “The painful path of curing Japan of its cash addiction” (paywalled) piece came out, I had 2 hours to kill before going on a business trip and decided to post something while my reaction was fresh, figuring nobody would read it. The piece has not gotten many hits, but a few western journalists based in Tokyo tweeted about it recently, defending the FT piece and the overall ‘Japan failed’ game over narrative.

Here’s the thing. The cashless payments market landscape in Japan is the most messy and exciting one in the world right now. Nowhere else can you find such a concentrated investment in contactless payment infrastructure and different technologies (EMV, FeliCa, QR Codes, smartphones, etc.) competing and playing out in the market.

Japan is also the world’s great guinea pig test market. What works here first is adapted and deployed in other markets, like mobile payments. My take, covered in countless messy posts over the span of 2 years, is actually quite simple. The market revolution of mobile payments and smartphones is just getting started. The hot messy exciting payments situation you see happening in Japan right now will play out, in some other form, in other markets later.

That’s the story I think western journalists are missing. The ‘game over’ Japan narrative has been a stock western journalist in Japan ploy since the end of the Japan bubble, almost 30 years ago. A lot of journalists stick with it because it still sells. It’s entertaining for some people, but it doesn’t convey reality or educate.

JR East getting NFC-F added to the NFC Forum certification process and getting Apple to add global FeliCa to every iPhone and Apple Watch, to me, is an interesting story. Google following Apple’s lead and adding that same capability to every Pixel 3 device (but only turning it on for the JP market), to me, is an interesting story. It tells us where Apple and Google are going.

Our smart devices are quickly evolving into ‘do everything’ devices that, unlike plastic, don’t care about any particular payment technology. They just work. That’s where the puck is going. If you sit around declaring that the game is over, you’re gonna miss the game. And the opportunity to tell people about it.

iOS 13 b5 Apple Pay Suica Update

The latest iOS 13 beta Apple Pay Suica has a minor UI tweak that removes the Shinkansen/Green Ticket section added in b4 and, hurray, returns 3D/Haptic Touch notification shortcuts. This was expected as Suica notifications shortcuts have disappeared and reappeared in previous beta cycles. The new Core Haptics version doesn’t feel as nice as the older 3D Touch version on iPhone XS but there is time before the final release. The actual performance of Apple Pay Suica on iOS 13 is on par with iOS 12.3~12.4, a very good thing.

One new interesting tweak is that Suica notifications now appear simultaneously on iPhone and a paired Apple Watch, but I can’t figure out if this is a feature or a bug. The messy low resolution ‘In Transit’ Suica notification artwork is definitely a bug and a placeholder. I hope it’s an indication that dynamic card artwork is coming iOS 13 Wallet after all, even if it’s PassKit NFC Certificate territory that is out of reach to most developers.

And for those Apple Pay Octopus fans out there, sorry but there are no changes from the b4 transit card references when adding cards in a Hong Kong region Wallet.

Apple Pay Suica notification shortcuts have returned in iOS 13 b5

SmartPlate CEO Takes the Softcream Cashless Index Challenge

AquaBit Spirals CEO Tomohiro Hagiwara responded to my post and took up the Softcream Cashless Index (SCI) challenge, promising to deliver a SCI score of “over 5” with his SmartPlate NFC tag payment service that works with Apple Pay and Google Pay:

The Apple Pay side of SmartPlate depends on the background NFC tag reading capability of iPhone XS and iPhone XR models, and the enhanced Core NFC functionality in iOS 13. The new iPhone models this year with A13 Bionic will undoubtedly build on the A12 Bionic NFC functions introduced in 2018. The big questions are: will Apple Watch Series 5 have NFC background tag reading as part of the Apple Pay experience on a wearable, and what about NFC Tag Apple Pay on non-Bionic chip devices?

watchOS 6 does not support Core NFC, but developers with a PassKit NFC Certificate from Apple can do lots of interesting things with Apple Pay NFC functions. Not that I’m asking Hagiwara san to divulge anything because PassKit NFC Certificates come with all kinds of non-disclosure conditions. But I do look forward to all the Apple Pay goodies coming with iOS 13. So far we have Apple Pay Octopus, Apple Pay Ventra, and Apple Pay myki on the transit side, there will be lots of new stuff on the NFC tag side. It would be great if SmartPlate can join the iOS 13 Apple Pay service rollout with backup from Apple Pay lead Jennifer Bailey at the Apple Event.

I look forward to reporting about the NFC Tag Apple Pay experience, and tasting great softcream along the way.

NFC Tag Apple Pay and Japanese Softcream

Summer is here and the increasing number of Apple Pay Suica inbound tweets are fun to read as always. I saw inbound in action recently at a local station NewDays, 2 Chinese women walked up to the checkout and asked in English “Can we pay here with this?” One was waving a Suica card, the other waving her iPhone. People really appreciate the ease and speed of Suica Express Transit.

However, there are still lots of times on the road when you come face to face with the so called ‘curse of Japanese cash addiction’, and the fact that, even though things have changed a great deal since Apple Pay arrived in Japan, there’s still a long way to go.

I had the that kind of experience recently coming back from Minobu on the Keio Highway Bus. That particular bus has a 10 minute rest break at Shakado Parking Area just outside of Kofu on the Chuo Expressway. There’s barely enough time to dash to the restroom and grab a drink for a long congested crawl to Shinjuku Bus Terminal.

Like many Japanese highway rest areas, Shakado offers delicious looking local specialties. Kofu is a well known for it’s delicious fruits, the Shakado cafeteria softcream fruit parfait looked too good to pass up. With 6 minutes to spare I hunted for the softcream button on the meal ticket machine, which was Suica compatible, but couldn’t find it. I asked one of the staff and they pointed to a separate smaller ticket machine that was just for softcream, a separate stall vendor, and not only was it cash only, it was coin only.

Where’s the softcream button?

Fortunately I had lots of coins that day, a rarity, but pitied another poor westerner wandering around obviously interested in that delicious looking softcream without a clue how to buy one, but I was out of time and dashed for the bus. With a softcream fruit parfait. It was delicious.

After 2 years of writing about cashless/contactless trends, I think I have finally hit on the perfect index for Japan: The Softcream Cashless Index (SCI). Nothing is more regional, seasonal, ubiquitous, cash only and delicious as the endlessly glorious variety of Japanese softcream. Sure, MiniStop has pretty good softcream and all the cashless options like Apple Pay Suica, but those parking area seasonal regionals like Yamagata Cherry softcream (to die for) are always cash cash.

On a scale of 1~10, I put the Japanese national SCI average at 2. Softcream stalls are the worst candidates for the usual cashless options: credit cards/FeliCa/QR etc., because they are mostly one person operations, or side stalls of larger retail operations. Nobody wants to invest in cashless terminals, or even cashless ticket machines, for such mundane, low priced, low margin softcream side business. If softcream can be made cashless, Japan will truly be a cashless nation.

The NFC Tag Apple Pay Option
The ideal cashless payment infrastructure investment for softcream operations is no investment at all. This is why meal ticket machines are so popular in Japan for food serving businesses: they eliminate the cash register all together, the staff can focus on serving customers instead of wasting valuable time babysitting customer payments.

A good cashless payment option in this case is NFC Tag Apple Pay that Jennifer Bailey previewed at her Transact Conference Keynote. A PaymentsSource article covering that keynote makes clear that NFC Tag Apple Pay is built on two iOS 13 technologies: enhanced NFC tag read/write support in Core NFC, and Sign in with Apple ID.

The process leverages “Core NFC,” enabling an iPhone to scan an NFC tag that launches an app or a website, so users can skip the step of downloading an app when accessing a new service, Bailey explained.

“There’s no app requirement and no requirement to pre-sign up,” Bailey said, describing how Bird is using the technology in a pilot, with Apple Pay’s “pay load” automatically working to establish the account information to set up a one-time purchase. “It’s so much easier for new users to get into these services very quickly,”

For NFC Tag Apple Pay to succeed in Japan, it has be offered through major payment providers like J-Mups or Recruit AirPay (who already provide regular terminal based Apple Pay), who can package it together with their cloud backend and an app. From the softcream vendor side, all they need to do is sign up for NFC tag payment service via the setup app and receive a free NFC tag and logo. And that’s it, they are in business.

The concept is similar to the SmartPlate demo only more streamlined. It has to remove all payment involvement from the softcream side, just like a meal ticket machine. The only thing they need to do is look at a screen to confirm payment.

In lieu of Google Pay offering a similar NFC tag payment scheme, the payment provider could conceivably offer an Android app to include that platform but this breaks the Jennifer Bailey rule: no app, no sign-up. This rule is what sets NFC Tag Apple Pay apart from QR Code pay services who want you to sign up in an app to get your personal data. This rule will be the reason for the success of NFC Tag Apple Pay.

Can it change the Softcream Cashless Index? If Apple and their Japanese payment partners can replicate the hands off, no cash register, no brainer experience of Japanese meal ticket machines with NFC Tag Apple Pay, definitely yes. There’s only a year to go until the hot summer Tokyo Olympics but if the SCI average can make it to a 5, or more, that would be a huge tasty success and invitation to eat your way across Japan without a wallet.