Transit Gate Evolution: why tap speed matters

As COVID restrictions are eased and the world slowly goes back to work, school and hopefully slightly more normal life, avoiding crowds will be key in keeping COVID from becoming resurgent in the months ahead.

For commuters in Japanese metro areas avoiding crowds is no easy matter. Fortunately the Japanese transit gate infrastructure is a great help. FeliCa based IC transit cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.) with fast transaction speeds combined with open gate flap design maximizes people flow: people walk through gates at normal pace. This is very important for Japanese stations that have to make do with large crowds in limited spaces and smaller gate areas.

It’s wrong however, to think that this only applies to Japan. The benefits of fast tap speed combined with intelligent transit gate design are relevant everywhere and very necessary in this day and age: fast gate tap speed is essential in keeping gate crowding at a minimum. It makes things safer not only for train operation, but also addresses crowd control health concerns in the COVID era.

A reader sent a link to a good discussion of NFC protocols and gate tap speeds that was apparently deleted when YouTube comments were turned off. I retyped the comment below from a screenshot with some light editing for clarity. If I find the author I’ll link to the original. The videos have already appeared in other posts but it’s good have them in one place. A previous installment already covered QR transit code gate issues, this post will focus on NFC.


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 following video passengers maintain their walking pace but never overshoot and trigger a gate closure nor slow down not even a bit:

It may seem like a minor difference but due to the high volume of passengers per gate and to reduce gate maintenance requirements, tap 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. A comparison example of large crowds at gates in Malaysia and Japan below:

Open Loop NFC ticketing in its current form is based on EMVCo Contactless specifications adopted in contactless bank cards issued worldwide including China UnionPay QuickPass which is PBOC derived from the EMVCo Contactless spec. All of these use 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 where normal walking speed is never supported.

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. Here are walk flow comparisons for Tokyo and London, and MTA OMNY Open Loop performance:

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

One hopes the NFC Forum works to increase NFC speeds and global specifications to “improve the overall user experience for NFC users.” We shall see.

With the exception of any Apple Pay news from WWDC20, this will be my last big post for a while. Stay healthy, stay safe and have a great summer.

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Catching up with Apple Watch Suica

Like most people staying at home I’m trying to put downtime to good use, catching up on review videos. I came across the Apple Watch Journal channel on YouTube and highly recommend it to any Apple Watch user with some Japanese ability. It covers all kinds of tips and functions with a keen focus on smart efficient use. The delivery is tight, simple, well organized and wonderfully narrated. Videos covering Japan only services like Suica, Line and dPoint are well worth the time investment.

The standout is the Apple Watch Suica video, rightly called ‘the killer Apple Watch app.’ I cannot agree more especially in these COVID-19 social distancing times. Suica on Apple Watch is stress free without the hassle of using Face ID Apple Pay with face masks. I even learned a few new things like Suica auto charge works without a network connection. It’s hard to believe that after all these years the competition has yet to match Suica on Apple Watch. Apple Watch Octopus will be a killer app for Hong Kong users when it arrives there, hopefully soon. The 12 minute video covers:

0:46 Apple Watch版「Suica」の基本的な使い方 (Apple Watch Suica Basics)
2:27 Apple WatchとiPhoneで併用する際の注意点 (Gotchas using Suica on both iPhone/Apple Watch)
4:16 Apple Watchがロック状態、Suicaは使える?(Using Suica when Apple Watch is off wrist)
6:46 Suicaは画面側でタッチしなくても使える!(Apple Watch Suica and wrist positions)
7:45 Apple Watch単体(オフライン)でも使える!(Apple Watch Suica works without network)
8:45 JR東日本の新型改札、Apple Watchの使い勝手は?(Using Apple Watch Suica on the new JR gate)
11:08 Apple Watchを「右手」で使う方法 (Using Apple Watch on the right wrist)

The new JR gate section is particularly interesting and fully covers what is sure to be a sore point with many left wrist Apple Watch users: the reader is on the right hand side and the slanted position makes it impossible to comfortably reach over with the left wrist. After running through many left wrist use cases, the narrator simply concludes, ‘let’s learn to wear Apple Watch on right wrist, it’s not that hard,’ and devotes the last section with some right wrist tips.

Another video does an excellent job of covering the recent Wallet addition of dPoint contactless point card. All the Lawson POS systems options are explained with some very helpful tips dealing with dPoint and PONTA point cards on Apple Pay Apple Watch.

UPDATE
For the very first time ever Apple Watch Suica could be in for some serious competition next month with the planned release of Garmin Pay Suica. If you need any proof that Suica is the smartwatch killer app for Japan, this is it. Any smartwatch without it is a nonstarter. It’s an encouraging sign that Garmin is advertising Google Pay for the Garmin Suica recharge backend for linked Android devices and suggests they might have larger FeliCa ambitions than Japan. We’ll see if the competition is truly catching up to Apple Watch Suica in May.

JR East Shinkansen eTicket Service Launch (Updated)

March 14 marked the end of Mobile Suica Shinkansen ticketing in Suica App and the start of a new open IC transit card eTicket Shinkansen service. It doesn’t have name. It’s just one of many ticket options available in the good old JR East ‘Eki-net’ (Station-net) online ticket reservation service, well known and not loved by many. A Japanese friend said it best, “You would think that a top tier Japanese company like JR East with many smart employees would create something better than Eki-net or pay somebody to do so.”

The problem is not that Eki-net doesn’t work. It works, but throwing everything new (IC transit card eTickets) and old (email tickets and paper tickets) in same Eki-net shoebox is a cluttered unwieldy package, a confusing and messy UI not nearly as convenient as JR East wants us to believe. Instead of a sleek new Shinkansen eTicket service, we get the same stodgy paper ticket service with a new hard to find eTicket option.

JR East would have been better off making a clean break by rebranding the new eTickets as a completely different service with a new spiffy name and separate multi-lingual app, just like JR Central’s SmartEX with the addition of new eTicket options over time. The less is more SmartEX approach focuses exclusively on Shinkansen eTickets and eliminates local line travel options because those are covered by Suica/ICOCA/Toica, etc. Eki-net on the other hand makes a big deal of ‘big trip’ options covering everything from Shinkansen and regular express trains to tour packages and car rentals.

The Eki-net approach does have one advantage over the 2-tier JR Central/JR West SmartEX (free membership with small discounts) and EX-Press Reserve (annual membership fee/special IC card/bigger discounts): Eki-net is ‘flat’ with free membership, offering the same discounts to all members in one service. Shinkansen eTickets are only available at launch from the online Eki-net site. I recommend the more streamlined smartphone online browser version. JR East has announced an updated Eki-net App for App Store/Google Play with eTicket support that should be coming March 21 (now postponed to an unknown future date). The new eTicket service is also available to JR West e5489 ticket reservation service members as JR West shares Hokuriku Shinkansen operations with JR East.

The end of Mobile Suica eTickets in Suica App means a mandatory app update that strips out the retired service. Users must update to the new 2.6 version by March 18. After this date older Suica App versions stop working. The migration from the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service has good and bad points:

Good Points
JR East Shinkansen eTickets are compatible with all major transit IC cards. This finally opens JR East operated Shinkansen lines to plastic and mobile transit cards, the old system was limited to Mobile Suica. An interesting new twist is that up to 6 transit IC cards can be attached to one account for family or group travel.

Bad Points
The migration from the Mobile Suica Shinkansen/Suica App system means no more Suica App/Apple Pay in-app purchases, you must register an Eki-Net account, yes another JR East service, and a credit card. The current Eki-net system is designed around the account registered credit card for paper ticket pickup at station kiosks using the card PIN code, this effectively eliminates Apple Pay/Google Pay as an in-app purchase choice. Last but not least the new Shinkansen eTicket service is Japanese language only.

New IC/QR gates at JR Takanawa Gateway Station opening March 14

Shinkansen eTickets are only the first step in a long term migration away from mag strip paper tickets. Mag strip ticket gates are more expensive than transit gates with NFC or QR readers with higher maintenance costs, there is also the increasing cost of recycling the special mag strip paper.

Paper tickets for all transit will remain a cash purchase at station kiosks, as they must, these will be QR codes instead of mag strip. The tricky parts are: 1) how much ticketing can be ported over to the transit IC card side 2) what local transit fare tiers apply to QR. Since Shinkansen eTickets are simply one time purchase options attached to a transit IC card number in the cloud, theoretically any purchased option can be attached to a transit IC card number. Local transit has fare tier for cash tickets and a less expensive one for transit IC cards.

I see local transit cash fare tiers staying in place for station kiosk purchased QR paper tickets, but I don’t see smartphone app QR Codes for one time local transit. The cheaper fare tier incentive for reusable transit IC cards will likely remain in place. This leaves smartphone app QR Codes for express trains, limited use tourist/season/campaign passes and group travel.

Mag strip tickets have served us very well for the past 30 years. The final migration to Mobile/NFC/QR will be interesting but I’ll miss those marvelously mechanical ticket gates from Omron.


UPDATE
Eki-net app v1.2 is out and supports Shinkansen eTicket reservations. The reservations process is straight forward and similar to SmartEX: choose the Shinkansen line, set stations points+date+time, select a Shinkansen train. The next step is departs from SmartEx because the Eki-net eTicket service supports up to 6 transit IC cards (plastic, Mobile Suica, Mobile PASMO), you select the transit IC card to attach the eTicket. The final step is ticket purchase with the Eki-net account registered credit card. A big difference with the old Suica App Shinkansen service is that Apple Pay in-app purchases are no longer supported.

I hope that JR East restores Apple Pay in-app purchase at some point. Setting up a new account and registering cards for every new JR East service, (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-net, etc.) is also a huge pain and practically impossible for occasional users. Sign in with Apple ID and Apple Pay support for on the spot purchases is a much better deal for people who don’t want to juggle multiple accounts, passwords and credit cards. Last but not least Eki-net is Japanese language only, and account creation/management requires a trip to the awful Eki-net web site. Please fix this JR East, with so few people riding trains right now you have the free time to do it.

iOS 13.4 beta 2 Apple Pay Suica tweaks and questionable UI choices

Apple Pay Suica has more commute plan UI tweaks in iOS 13.4 beta 2. Commute plan information displays correctly now, and with more detail than before, but the renew button is gone and evidently dynamic: it only appears during the 2 week commute plan renewal period before expiration date. The design goal is clear but cannot absolutely confirm it until my plan enters the renewal period on April 15, hopefully beta testers will confirm it on Twitter before then.

A dynamic Suica commute plan renew button makes sense because the button does not function outside of the 2 week renewal period, but I’m not sure it’s the best UI choice. Most users will be confused when there isn’t a renew option showing. No button, no user feedback. My own choice is for a button that is always there but greyed out until it’s active for the renewal period.

What UI Apple delivers for the official iOS 13.4 release is anybody’s guess but the constant Suica tweaking before iOS 13 Dark Mode and after is telling. Apple is making questionable UI choices because Dark Mode severely limits UI color schemes. That is why Apple Pay Wallet buttons are black for daytime and white for Dark Mode. Grey is not an option. That’s why Apple is playing with dynamic buttons that only appear when needed. Dark Mode in fine in limited doses but things like Apple Maps Dark Mode are a disaster, Apple Pay Wallet Day/Dark Mode is a mixed bag. I hope iOS 14 Dark Mode delivers a better design than what we have now.

Outside of the UI, I’m happy to report that Apple Pay Suica performance on iOS 13.4 b2 is the best ever.

Update: My assumptions were correct and confirmed that iOS the Suica Commute Plan ‘Renew’ button is dynamic and appears only when the 2 week renewal period is active. It makes sense but what a weird UI to be coming from Apple, it doesn’t look or feel Apple-ly at all.

Transit IC only JR East Shinkansen eTicket reservations start today

The new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service debuts March 14, but 30 day advance ticket reservations mean it kinda starts today. The best explanation, Japanese only at this point, is the Eki-net online guide that outlines the new reservation, purchase and seat assignment process for PC and smartphone web pages. I find the smartphone online version more streamlined than the PC one but they are straight forward if you are familiar with Eki-net. The basic Eki-net process is the same until step 7, the section where you assign the eTicket (s) to your registered transit IC card (s). The differences from smartEX are interesting:

  • You can register up to 6 different transit IC cards to a single Eki-net account: Suica, Mobile Suica, PASMO, Kitaca, ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, PiTaPa, nimoca, SUGOCA, Hayaken
  • A single Eki-net account can reserve/purchase up to 6 Shinkansen eTickets then assign tickets and seats to registered transit IC cards

JR East Shinkansen eTickets are geared for family travel in a way that smartEX, EX-Press and the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTickets ending March 13 are not. Other systems can only attach a single IC transit card per account. The flexibility opens up some interesting possibilities, since Apple Pay Suica is just another transit IC card, one person can buy and assign eTickets up to 6 difference Apple Pay Suica devices. The downside is that transit card linking is completely manual and up to the user to update information when a new card is issued or the Apple Pay Suica ID number changes (less common than before but still happens). There are bound to be some very short trips that end with a transit gate error. Some other observations:

  • eTickets require a Transit IC card (paper tickets can be issued in the event of a lost transit card)
  • eTicket reservations are currently limited to Eki-net online but Eki-net app will gain eTicket support when the service launches March 14
  • As Suica App is tied to Apple ID and the Mobile Suica cards registered to it, I don’t see Shinkansen eTickets being integrated back into Suica App anytime soon
  • I don’t see QR Code ticketing support coming until after the transit IC eTicket system is complete and necessary gate infrastructure in place, a few years down the road at best

Eki-net eTickets are limited to JR East operated Tohoku, Yamagata, Akita, Hokkaido, Joetsu, Hokuriku Shinkansen lines. The next obvious question is when will other ticketing be migrated to Transit IC, and what kind of discounts will be offered?

Discounts, incentives and ticket system silos
Most Japanese don’t buy express train or Shinkansen tickets at regular prices. The whole point of Eki-net, smartEx, and all the other account based ticketing systems are the discounts and incentives to get people out of the ticket office line and online. Each operator has their own complex set of discount schedules which they guard and control carefully because it is their business engine.

For this reason I am not optimistic we will see an all-in-one train ticket app. Sure, there is some integration of JR East eTicket and JR West e5489 because they share Hokuriku Shinkansen operations, and there might even be an app than integrates many different ticket systems, but I don’t see it offering all the discounts of stand alone apps like Eki-net, EX, Odekake-net, etc. I also don’t see multi-lingual support in the mix, at least not in time for Tokyo Olympics. The fun starts March 14 with many things still coming down the pipe, from next generation Suica to new transit gates. It will be an interesting time.