It’s time to take a look at Suica and Japanese mobile transit ticketing developments expected for 2023. The Suica transit platform and Transit IC partners will introduce some big and important new service in 2023 that will play out over the next few years. Some like Cloud Suica, were due years ago. Some, like Mobile ICOCA should have been done years ago. And some are a response to COVID which is the inflection point that has changed Japanese transit forever. There is no going back to the transit world that was 2019 due to, mostly imagined, fear. Once fear takes hold in society, it becomes a mindset and mindsets are very hard to change.
There is also the cashless factor. COVID kicked the Japanese cashless migration into high gear, but this smashing success hasn’t made life any easier in the checkout line, no thanks to QR Code payment apps like PayPay and dPoint, with people taking longer to pay than even before as they dig around for coupons and discounts codes in smartphone apps. These code payments apps also changed the consumer mindset: they don’t want plain old points, they want points that work like cash, everywhere and instantaneous, instead of being stuck in point ghettos like JRE POINT. This is exactly what the PayPay and Rakuten point economic zones deliver.
The biggest COVID business casualty has been transit, with profitable commuter passes taking the biggest hit as companies transitioned to working from home and Zoom conferences whenever possible. And while people are using transit more since mid 2022, it has not recovered enough to stabilize transit company bottom lines. It’s a tough environment with companies trying to entice people, especially workers, to ride again with transit point perks and off-peak commuter discounts.
Private (non-JR) transit companies in particular are looking to offer more flexible fare options beyond what transit IC card systems currently offer. This is created a huge opening for the SMBC group stera transit open loop system: an off the shelf package ticketing system that combines transit gate reader hardware and cloud system from QUADRAC hooked into the SMBC stera payment platform. The SMBC stera transit marketing team is hard selling flexible fares such as fare capping and open loop appeal for inbound tourism.
It’s clear that JR Group and Transit IC association partners have to innovate and change to reduce costs while keeping the great convenience and benefits of the Suica transit payment platform. However as Steve Jobs once said about focus, focus is about saying no. You can either focus on making one service work great on your platform or just okay when you’re spreading limited resources too thin on supporting too many services. Do Japanese transit companies want better Transit IC for everybody or mediocre ticketing potpourri as money and engineering resources are diverted to bolting on open loop for a limited user base?
That said the main arc of Suica and Transit IC for 2023 is expansion. Suica, ICOCA, TOICA are expanding station coverage but in different ways. JR West ICOCA will expand to cover all stations in 2023 with a mix of hardwired station gates, ICOCA equipped trains and region affiliate buses. And of course there is Mobile ICOCA launching this spring. JR Central has outlined a similar strategy for TOICA but no Mobile TOICA plans so far.
JR East had opted for hardwired stations using a mobile connected Cloud Suica system for lightweight fare processing. At the same time they are expanding Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate card reach with new cards and service extensions to existing cards. With all that in mind, let’s examine the month by month launch slate.
ID-PORT based Suica Smart Lock service launches in JRE B4T business hotel chain. ID-PORT is cloud super glue linking an ID with Suica for specific time-limited or region-limited based services. Think of it as a kind of virtual key that unlocks access to places and services: hotel checkin, room access, location or age linked transit services, discounts and so on.
While it’s good that Suica and Transit IC cards can offer features and services attached to the card number, the current reality is that each service comes with a separate app, separate registration process and ID/PW login. There isn’t a single sign-in service, a JR East version of Sign in with Apple ID, for easy service registration and linking. Smartphone users are already drowning in apps, I don’t see most people using the growing tangle of services unless there is an easy to use and secure single sign-in service and streamlined UI.
Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate MegoIC card launches for Konan Bus lines operating in the Aomori Hirosaki region expanding Tohoku Suica coverage, Iwate Green Pass also extended service to more bus lines. More on Suica 2 in 1 further on.
March and April are traditionally busy months with new schools, new jobs, buying new commuter passes that go with them, and launching new services:
1) Mobile ICOCA launches March 22. Mobile ICOCA will be hosted in similar fashion to Mobile PASMO which is based on Mobile Suica assets and cloud infrastructure. Osaifu Keitai will launch first followed by iPhone. This is a big development. JR West is building their ICOCA system expansion in a slightly different way than Cloud Suica by using separate ICOCA tap in/out readers on local trains and stripped down, simple ICOCA (no commuter pass support) for connecting transit affiliates. One interesting trend is the decline of PiTaPa card users since Kansai area private rail companies started offering ICOCA commuter passes (see the chart at the bottom of the post).
2) Off Peak Suica Commuter Pass
COVID has made it clear that the old style ‘station to station’ commuter pass is outdated and its fare model needs to be modernized to bring business users back. All transit companies have to come up with new flexible commute plans that work for different work commute styles.
After dicking around with the confusing and convoluted off peak transit JRE POINT service campaign for 2 years amid a COVID induced commuter pass crisis, JR East is trying again: the confusing ‘Off Peak Commutes Pass’. Available for Suica cards and Mobile Suica, these new passes offer a 10% discount over regular commuter passes that are rising 1.4% with the condition: they must be used outside of the designated start station peak rush time. If you enter the transit gate during the peak rush time, bam, your Suica transit is charged the standard fare. No commute plan for you.
While this is a welcome development it doesn’t far enough. Flexible fare distance capped commute plans that are not tied to specific stations would be a much better deal for occasional business users. For example it would be great for sales people if there were commute plans that combined a selection of fixed distance zones (10 km, 20 km, 50 km, etc) with a selection of fixed trips (10, 20, 30 trips, etc.).
This isn’t a technology or system problem, it’s a business model mind-set problem. JR East has the Suica system in place to take mobile ticketing to the next level. It’s time that the JR Group lead the way for all transit companies to cooperate for a seamless national mobile transit solution.
3) Disability fare Suica/PASMO service starts in the following regions:
- Tokyo area Suica/PASMO
- Tohoku Suica (from May 27)
- Sendai Suica (with the odeca region joining in July)
- Niigata Suica
The challenge of disability fare Suica/PASMO/Transit IC is that while the card is issued by the transit operator, the disability Suica card has to be certified using the resident city issued disability ID. This authorization is why disability Suica/PASMO is limited to plastic cards for the time being, at least until Digital My Number Card is launched on Android and iPhone. Why is disability fare Suica important? Up until now Suica has been a ‘stored Fare is stored fare’ one size fits all card. Suica has to evolve to include different fare types and services to survive as a viable transit payment platform.
4) Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO Commute Plans for High/Jr. High School Students
Another big push away from plastic to mobile with a streamlined app process for student commuter pass certification via updated Suica and PASMO apps. Hopefully a more streamlined mobile app certification process for student passes paves the way forward for disability fare issue Mobile Suica/PASMO as well. Local governments need to help make this happen.
ICOCA extensions close the Transit IC gap between Honshu and Kyushu for thru transit via Shinkansen and plastic ICOCA/Sugoca commuter passes starting April 1. This is similar to the Suica-TOICA-ICOCA Atami and Maibara station extensions that launched in March 2021. The final piece of the JR puzzle is integrating their systems for thru local fare transit with regular plastic and mobile cards. It’s long overdue that they eliminate this last nonsensical nuance.
1) Cloud Suica extensions. A big one, a new Suica fare system that powers the Tohoku region Suica extensions for Aomoi (10 stations), Morioka (18 stations), Akita (17 stations) launches May 27. As outlined the separate posts, Cloud Suica is best thought of as Suica 2.0. The card is the same but the reader side and processing system is completely new. Ideally Suica 2.0 offers the best matchup of local stored fare with internet cloud based transaction processing instead of expensive dedicated pipes to the data processing center.
Lower system costs is one objective but not the only important one. The Suica 2.0 fare processing system will also power the new QR Eki-Net Ticket service that launches in the very same Tohoku Suica region in late FY 2024 (October 2024~March 2025). We’ll found out how flexible Suica 2.0 is if JR East starts offering much more fare innovation.
It’s important to reexamine the role of Suica 2 in 1 here. We have two new Suica developments that converge in the Tohoku region: we have the Suica 2 in 1 card itself, new updated FeliCa card and OS with new Suica architecture, and we have the cloud based Suica 2.0 fare system. In other words we have a Suica 2.0 card coupled with the Suica 2.0 processing system.
1) Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate odeca card joins the system, the first established transit card updating to the 2 in 1 format. All 2 in 1 cards to date have been new cards. The next established non-Suica compatible transit card transitioning to Suica 2 in 1 is Nagano City Kururu card in 2025.
2) Open loop stera transit comes to Tokyo in a big way as Tokyu Railway starts tests. If it’s anything like the gradual Nankai open loop tests, a few important stations will have a few gates retrofitted with open look EMV contactless and closed loop QR Code readers. They will also surely offer a smartphone app for QR ticket purchase and display. One interesting aspect of the Tokyu Railway effort is that Tokyu were responsible for pushing, and paying for, Mobile PASMO. It would not have happened otherwise.
Utsunomiya Light Rail due to start service using Totra 2 in 1 Suica.
The rest of 2023
There will certainly be more services announcements and launches in the 2nd half of the year such as Apple Pay ICOCA and more open loop test installations.
Coming in 2024
We have Suica linked financial services coming with JRE BANK (rebranded Rakuten Bank cloud infrastructure), Yamagata region Suica extensions (21 stations) and unspecified Sendai Suica region extensions that will pretty much complete the installation of Suica on the entire JR East rail network. And of course QR Eki-Net Tickets which build on all the Cloud Suica infrastructure rolling out this year.
As always I will update this overview post as new services are announced with links to individual posts and updated guides.
You must be logged in to post a comment.