The truth is in the tap

The Nankai Visa Touch test launch launched endless Twitter discussions about slow EMV contactless tap speeds and performance issues compared with Suica and other Transit IC cards. EMV contactless transit in Japan is novel so this is expected. But suddenly people are also referencing Junya Suzuki’s 2016 pre-Apple Pay Suica launch era ‘Is Suica Over-spec?’ piece. This has long been a favorite theme in Japanese tech media: Suica is more than we need, EMV contactless is ‘good enough’ so let’s do everything with one card, life is more convenient that way. Be careful what you wish for.

The 2016 launch of Apple Pay Suica was a great success of course, that changed the Japanese payments market and opened the door for the proliferation of QR payment services you see everywhere now. The one card must do it all concept is old hat but Tokyo Olympics sponsors Visa Japan and SMBC are trying very hard to convince Japan that Visa Touch cards are the transit future.

My position was and remains that one size never fits all. It doesn’t have to be a EMV or nothing choice portrayed in tech media, nor should it. Different technologies complement each other for a better user experience. Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica combines the convenience of EMV cards on the recharge backend with the speed and reliability of FeliCa based Suica cards on the NFC front-end, for a best of breed closed loop transit user experience. One interesting thing I pointed out in my retweet of Suzuki san’s Nakai open loop launch piece was that QR Nankai Digital Ticket gate performance in the his video is faster than Visa Touch because it’s closed loop.

The comment touched off an odd but interesting set of tweets from Suzuki san and his followers about gate design, reader performance and walk flow that boils down to this: if the reader transaction speed is slow, increase the distance between the reader and gate flap to keep people walking instead of stopping.

His follow up piece deconstructs ‘FeliCa is faster’ as half misunderstanding transit gate antenna design and RF communication distance because EMVCo reader certification dictates a smaller RF distance, the result of using the EMV contactless supermarket checkout spec on transit gates it was never intended for. All I can say is the truth is in the tap. In theory all NFC flavors and protocols offer the same performance but in real transit use they don’t. Better to get next generation Ultra Wideband Touchless gates in service and dispense with the ‘redesign transit gates for slow EMV contactless/QR transit’ debate nonsense. Design things for the future not the past.

The current Transit IC local stored fare model does have weak points as suggested in FeliCa Dude’s tweet: discount ticketing, rebates and refunds. If you purchase a Mobile Suica commuter pass, you can easily get a refund back to the bank payment card used to purchase the commuter pass. This is because Suica extras like commuter passes and Green Seat upgrades are supplemental attached services that don’t use the SF purse.

Rebates and refunds via the SF (stored fare) purse are a bottleneck. Suica App has a mechanism for dealing with some of this called ‘Suica Pocket’ for JRE POINT exchanges and refunds back to the SF purse. Mobile Suica card refunds are another matter and can only be refunded to a Japanese bank account. Octopus Cards Ltd. (OCL) has a special Octopus App for Tourists that refunds a card balance back to original credit card used for the initial digital card issue. OCL also charges tourist users an arm and a leg for Octopus Wallet recharge and refunding. It would be nice if JR East could do the same…without the outrageous OCL surcharges.

For inbound discount ticketing JR East has adopted a similar approach they use for Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets: discount plans attached to plastic Suica cards. This is the whole purpose of the Welcome Suica + reference paper proving validity for inbound discount plan purchases at station kiosks. It would be great if JR East figures out a way to do the same thing on Mobile Suica.

Domestic discount ticketing and passes are still the glorious, mostly paper ticket mess that is Eki-Net and similar services. Eki-Net itself is still in a slow motion transition towards a Transit IC/Mobile Suica orbit with some things transitioning to QR paper ticketing that replaces expensive mag-strip paper. Eki-Net App is still limited to Shinkansen eTickets and ticketless express train seat purchases. The Eki-Net web site is where you access all the bells and whistles although the experience feels like navigating the Transit IC interoperability chart. Discounts are starting to change somewhat with Suica 2 in 1, totra is the first Suica for disabled users but exclusive to the totra fare region. Hopefully Extended Overlap will see wider use not only for Suica but across all Transit IC cards for more special, and interoperable, discount services.

Suica Off Peak Commute and Repeat Point Service Quick Guide

As companies transition away from daily work commutes in the COVID era in favor of teleworking from home with occasional trips to the office, transit companies are forced to come up with incentives that encourage people to use public transit while keeping it safe. To that end JR East has a Suica off peak and repeat commute point service campaign. Transit users earn JRE POINT on their weekday work commute when they ride at designated off peak station times, or earn a free trip in JRE POINT with riding the same fare 10 times in the same month. JR East is promoting safe transit with less congestion and mobile ticketing as Mobile Suica earns more JRE POINT than plastic Suica.

It’s a good idea, unfortunately there are limitations: (1) only end to end transit on JR East lines qualifies for point service, (2) everything is tied into the not so user friendly JRE POINT system. The campaign comes in 2 flavors:

  • Commuter Suica Off Peak Point Service: start the work commute at your station during designated ‘Early’ or ‘Late’ time slots. Off Peak Point Service runs from March 15, 2021 ~ March 31, 2022
  • Regular Suica Repeat Point Service: 10 same fare Suica transits on JR East lines earns a free trip in JRE POINT, additional same fare transits in the same month earn additional points. Repeat Point Service started March 1, 2021 and is open ended. Repeat Point Service is basically the Suica equivalent of paper ticket ‘buy ten trips and get one free’, a transit institution that has been around forever but is quickly disappearing.

1. Off Peak Point Service
The service campaign for Commuter Suica users. There are a number of limitations:

  • Only end to end transit on JR East lines qualifies for service points. If any part of your commute route uses non-JR East transit gates you won’t get service points. JR East lists all invalid patterns in their PDF, there are lots of them.
  • Suica off peak does not cover all JR East stations. The Off Peak Point Service area is limited to a core JR East Tokyo metropolitan area that includes Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama. See the off peak map below or download the PDF file.
  • Weekday transit only. Transit on weekends and national holidays does not quality for Off Peak and Repeat Point Service.
  • Off Peak Point Service is limited to valid Apple Pay Suica cards with valid commute plans, Mobile Suica (Osaifu Keitai) commuter and plastic Commuter Suica cards. Off Peak is not valid for FLEX, Student, Green, Monorail and Rinkai Suica commuter passes.

There is only one work around for commute routes that start at a JR East gate, transfer to another line and end at a non-JR East gate: exit the JR East section of the transfer station via a JR East gate, then enter via a non-JR East transit gate. The diagram below gives you an idea. At some transfer stations this is easy to do, like JR East Gotanda > Tokyu Gotanda. I am working on a video guide and will post it here.

Off Peak Service Registration
To earn off peak points valid Commuter Suica cards must be: (1) registered in JRE POINT and (2) registered for Off Peak Service Point via the JRE POINT web site. If you do not have a JRE POINT account use this guide to create one.

Off Peak Service Commute Times
You must start your commute and enter the gate during designated off peak ‘Early’ or ‘Late’ time slots that are unique for each station. An ‘Early’ time block commute earns 15 JRE POINT, a ‘Late’ time block commute earns 20 JRE POINT.

An example: Chou line Hachioji station off peak time blocks are ‘early’ 5:35~6:35 and ‘late’ 8:05~9:05. Chuo line Asagaya stataion off peak time blocks are ‘early’ 6:20~7:20 and ‘late’ 8:50~9:50. Off Peak times are posted at each station, JR East also a PDF that lists all off peak station times.

Off Peak Service Point Reward Schedule
Off Peak Service Points are calculated every 2 months and rewarded to your JRE POINT account the following month. JRE POINT numbers ending in a even digit are rewarded on even months, JRE POINT numbers ending in an odd digit are rewarded on odd months. See the chart below



2. Repeat Point Service
The campaign for regular Suica users who go to the office occasionally but not enough to invest in a commuter pass. Ride JR East lines 10 times a month at the same fare and earn a free ride in JRE POINT. Same fare transits over 10 times in the same month earn an additional 10% of each transit fare in JRE POINT.

  • The repeat transit region is much larger than the off peak campaign one and covers all Suica fare JR East lines, all stations with Suica gates in greater Kanto, Niigata and Sendai.
  • There is nothing extra transit users need to do other than have their Suica card registered for JRE POINT. If you have already done that it’s all automatic.
  • The same end to end transit on JR East lines limitation of the off peak service point also applies to the repeat point service.
  • The Repeat Point Service is valid for non-commuter Apple Pay Suica, Mobile Suica and regular JR East issue plastic Suica.

Summary
The JR East campaign Suica off peak commute and repeat point service campaign doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot. It’s full of promise but limitations and conditions make it difficult for many commuters who would enjoy the point rewards. It is better than nothing, but probably won’t get JR East commuters very excited.

JR East and other transit companies need to cooperate for reward campaigns, discounts, day passes and more that work across entire regions and reward point systems. There are many innovative things JR East should also be doing: leverage Suica smarts for a accumulated mileage calculated reward point campaign tailored for each user, offer a yearly commuter pass at a half year price that corporate customers would eagerly snap up, repurpose empty JR East hotels at Shinkansen friendly regional stations for telework satellite offices that help build regional business.

Instead of innovation however, we get complex and unfriendly ‘Tonosama’ style campaigns from stodgy transit companies used to having their way with customers. The big COVID era transit crisis demands big bold ideas. Japanese transit companies must truly innovate to make transit essential and safe again. Anything less is a waste of time and infrastructure, use it or lose it.

Suica off peak commute campaign misses the mark

The COVID crisis has changed many things, none more than public transit. As companies transition away from daily work commutes to teleworking at home with occasional trips to the office, transit companies are forced to come up with incentives that entice people to use public transit. To that end JR East announced the off peak JRE POINT reward campaign back in November and released details this week for their Suica off peak commuting and repeat transit JRE POINT campaign.

The off peak campaign runs from March 15, 2021 ~ March 31, 2022, the repeat transit campaign starts March 1 and is open ended. It looks complex at first but is simply a matter of registering and keeping an eye on your commute start time.

Off Peak Commute Point Campaign
This campaign is for Suica commute pass/commute plan users. Limitations: (1) limited to a greater Tokyo area commute zone, (2) limited to ‘early’ and ‘late’ commute times that are different for each station, (3) limited to Suica commute plans (Mobile Suica or Apple Pay Suica) and Suica commuter passes (plastic) registered for JRE POINT (4) users must also take the extra step of signing up for the off peak campaign via the JRE POINT web site.

The off peak commute region shown above covers JR East lines in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama. The tricky part is that you must start your commute and enter the gate during the designated off peak time that is different for each station, split in 2 separate ‘early’ (15 point) and ‘late’ (20 point) hour blocks. An example for the Chuo line: Hachioji station off peak hours are ‘early’ 5:35~6:35 and ‘late’ 8:05~9:05. For Chuo line Asagaya the hours are ‘early’ 6:20~7:20 and ‘late’ 8:50~9:50. Off Peak times will be posted at each station, JR East also released a PDF that lists all off peak station times.

Repeat Transit Point Campaign
This campaign is geared for working folks who use Suica to go to the office but don’t commute enough to invest in a pass. Ride the same route 10 times a month and earn a free ride. If you ride the same route more than 10 times in the same month, each transit earns 10% of the transit fare in JRE POINT.

The repeat transit region is much larger than the off peak campaign one and covers all Suica fare JR East lines, all stations with Suica gates in greater Kanto, Niigata and Sendai. There is nothing transit users need to do other than have their Suica registered for JRE POINT. If you have already done that it’s all automatic. Think of it as a Suica replacement of paper ticket booklets, the reliable ‘buy ten and get one free’ transit institution that has been around forever but is quickly disappearing.

Not nearly enough
Frankly I think these JR East campaigns are not nearly enough, though they are better than nothing. There are many innovative things JR East should be doing: leverage Suica smarts for a accumulated mileage calculated reward point campaign tailored for each user, offer a yearly commuter pass at a half year price that corporate customers would eagerly snap up, repurpose empty JR East hotels at Shinkansen friendly regional stations for telework satellite offices that help build regional business.

Instead of innovation however, we get stale stingy ‘Tonosama’ business style marketing campaigns from a big old stodgy company used to having its way with customers. The big COVID era transit crisis demands big bold ideas. Japanese transit companies must truly innovate to make transit essential and safe again. Anything less is a waste of time and infrastructure, use it or lose it.


Resources
The first step is registering your Suica in JRE POINT. For repeat transit points there is nothing more to do, JRE POINT are added automatically if you make the same trip 10 times in the same month. For off peak points you must have a JRE POINT registered commuter pass/commute plan Suica that is also entered for the off peak campaign, and start the commute during designated station off peak times.

Apple Pay Suica Commute Plan Refunds

In the COVID era people are working from home as much as possible. With less need for commuter passes, people are either not purchasing them or buying short term one month passes. The situation is unpredictable and can change if the Japanese or local government declares a state or emergency. JR East posts Mobile Suica system notices on a regular basis for canceling a Mobile Suica commute plan and getting a refund. The Mobile Suica support page only covers the process in Japanese, here it is in English. Other Apple Pay Suica Commute Plans options are covered in the guide.

Cancel and Refund Apple Pay Suica or PASMO Commute Plan
To cancel your commute plan and get a refund before the expiration date, you must have a Mobile Suica account and Suica App. Refund of a current plan costs an upfront ¥220 processing fee. The refund amount is calculated on how many valid days are left before expiration. If too close to the expiration date you won’t get a refund. Follow the screenshots below for a refund. Note that refunds are made back your to Apple Pay credit/debit card used to purchase the commute plan. The commute plan is invalidated immediately but you can still use it as a regular Suica for purchases and transit. You can also purchase a new commute plan for the Suica at any time with Suica App.

Suica App Commute Plan Limitations

A reader asked about Commuter Suica and limitations. It’s a good question because there are Suica App limitations to be aware of when creating a virtual Commuter Suica or purchasing a commute plan for Apple Pay Suica use.

Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association Map
The Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association project started in 2007 and achieved transit and e-money interoperability in 2013. It continues to evolve and incorporate other transit smartcard systems into a single standard. Wikipedia

Let’s review the limitations of the current Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association standard. The various JP transit cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.) are tightly bound to the physical rail network fare area of the card issuer (JR East, JR West, etc.). Transit IC cards are compatible and allow users to travel in any transit IC area with any card, but the system architecture is limited to a single fare area per trip that has to be calculated and paid in same fare area of origin. It does not allow continuous travel between 2 different fare areas (such as Suica and TOICA) on the same trip.

Unfortunately this results in ‘gotcha gaps’ when a user might start a trip from a Suica region station but exit in an area outside the Suica region or an area with no transit IC card coverage at all. Going from Tokyo to Minobu for example: Suica works fine up to JR East operated Kofu but the JR Central operated Minobu line that starts there is outside any transit IC card fare area. Good old paper tickets or cold hard cash only please. If you make the mistake of traveling from Tokyo to Minobu with Suica, the train conductor or a station attendant will issue a paper voucher that you have to use to get Suica reset for transit use when back in a Suica area station. This kind of nonsense should disappear with Super Suica in 2021.

Metropolitan areas like Tokyo (Suica & PASMO) are highly integrated fare areas that operate as one virtual region covering all possible commuter routes that transverse different rail company lines such as JR East, Metro, Seibu, etc. Buses are also part of the mix and covered by Suica or PASMO cards.

Apple Pay Suica supports Suica Commute Plans of course, but there are limitations when creating them with Suica App:

  • The start point must be a JR East station
  • Bus, Shinkansen Commute Plan (FREX), or Student Commute Plan options are not available

Suica FREX Shinkansen commute plans that cover both Shinkansen and regular lines in the JR East Suica region can be purchased via a web link (virtual), or JR Station (plastic) then loaded into Apple Pay like any Suica card.

Suica bus commute plans have to be purchased at a bus company window such as Seibu, Tokyo Metro, Odakyu, Tokyu, etc. depending on the bus line. Confirm with the bus company that a Mobile Suica commuter purchase is available for the commute route. Purchase the Mobile Suica commute plan then show the attendant your iPhone so they can record the Suica ID card number.

Suica student commute plans are available for university students is the Mobile Suica web site but are complicated by the credit card requirement for using Apple Pay to setup a virtual Suica. Not every university student has a credit card. Mobile Suica support recommends purchasing a plastic Suica commuter pass at a JR East station then transferring it to Apple Pay, but there are some potential glitches. Apple support:

Commuter Suica cards that use romaji names or international phone numbers are not supported.
If you are trying to add a second Suica card to Apple Pay, make sure the name on the second card matches the first name on your My Suica and Commuter Suica card. If you have different names on multiple cards, download and register in the iOS Suica app, and call Suica Support at 050-2016-5005.

For complex Suica commute plan route options not covered in Suica App, Mobile Suica support has a web link to apply for a virtual Suica Commute Plan.