Google Maps ‘Real-Time’ Crowdedness Caveats: wherever data is available

Google Maps Japan has offered crowdedness transit information since June. The latest app version is expanding this feature:

If you need to take transit, Google Maps can help you more easily social distance with live crowdedness information. On Android and iOS globally, you’ll start seeing how crowded your bus, train, or subway line is right now based on real-time feedback from Google Maps users around the world (wherever data is available).

Google Maps updates to get you through the holidays

Crowdedness is missing altogether in Apple Maps Japan transit, not surprising as Apple is very slow adding new features and transit only just got around to adding train platform numbers. Google Maps crowdedness information is a welcome feature but be wary about the ‘real-time’ label with the ‘wherever data is available’ sticker.

As the announcement explains, crowdedness data is ‘real-time feedback’. In Japan the feedback is solicited in the app: ‘how crowded is your train’. This is a completely subjective observation and depends on whatever the person making said feedback thinks and feels. Manual feedback may not the only measure, but it is time and train specific beyond the capability of GPS and carries the most weight.

JR East provides crowdedness information collected from train and station cameras that they plug into the JR East app. They also supply this to Google Maps, Yahoo Japan Maps and other map services. Detail level depends on the line: Yamanote line train cameras and sensors provide car by car crowdedness and much more while Chuo line trains sensors only summarize the entire train.

The gap between Google Map feedback and JR East crowdedness data sets can be seen in Google Maps transit directions. JR East supplied data is highlighted in red text labeled ‘live’, Google feedback data is not. In the above screenshot Google Maps feedback lists the Yamanote train as crowded, JR East data does not. The take away: use transit agency data when available, after a few months of using it I find Google Maps feedback crowdedness data is, at best, subjective.

JR East Ticketless Touch and Go Shinkansen expanding system wide

The yellow area is new

Another day, another Suica related announcement. JR East ticketless Touch and Go Shinkansen service for Suica and other compatible Transit IC cards will be expanding in March 2021. It will basically cover all Shinkansen lines directly managed by JR East. Previously it only covered the Kanto region. Touch and Go differs from Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets in that Touch and Go uses the Suica balance for Shinkansen fare, eTickets do not.

The service is very simple: register Suica, PASMO, etc. at any JR East station pink recharge kiosk for Touch and Go. Then waltz through the Shinkansen gate and get on a non-reserved Shinkansen seat. A typical use case looks like the diagram below.

Touch and Go Flow
Touch and Go Flow: recharge before you go

Of course the new service area comes with a campaign: 10% JRE POINT fare reward for Touch and Go travel in the new area for the first 3 months. As I have said before, JR East is busy ramping up for Super Suica. Now that we have expanded Touch and Go Shinkansen, a larger Super Suica stored value purse is a given. Do I hear ¥30,000? ¥40,000? The latter would put Suica on par with WAON.

Road to Super Suica: 2 in 1 shared infrastructure and mobile transit card expansion update

The JR West Osaka Expo 2025 transit vision looks exactly like the Super Suica one

The October 21 announcement from JR East-Hachinohe City-Northern Iwate Transportation is the 3rd Super Suica local transit card and follows earlier Super Suica local transit card announcements for Utsunomiya Light Rail and Iwate Transit Co. Ltd. These fit neatly into the narrow definition of Super Suica as a local area ‘2 in 1’ transit card within the JR East region that hosts different transit company commute plans and reward points on a single card. New FeliCa chips announced in September have new features like ‘Extended Overlap Service’ to support the ‘2 in 1’ model.

The real test of Super Suica is the wider definition and how it plays with both private transit companies inside and outside of the JR East (JRE) region, JR Group companies and what infrastructure resources JRE is sharing to eliminate needless duplication and save costs for all players. In the COVID era of constrained public travel, reducing costs while maintaining good service is more important than ever.

On the mobile front I think we can safely say that Mobile PASMO is an unannounced joint effort between JR East and PASMO Association. Mobile PASMO service and software is Mobile Suica dressed up in PASMO colors, the penguin character swapped out for a robot. The JR West announcement of Mobile ICOCA one week after the Apple Pay PASMO launch is no coincidence. The Super Suica mobile template is in place and road tested, PASMO and ICOCOA are the first 2 customers.

Who’s next? Junya Suzuki pointed out that Suica and PASMO together account for 80% of Japanese transit card issue, ICOCA added in makes that 90%. The next largest market and logical choice is manaca, the Nagoya area equivalent of PASMO. Forget about the Kansai area PiTaPa, the credit card as transit card concept was a bust and will likely never go mobile unless it’s repositioned as just a credit card. JR Central’s TOICA has deep pockets, and it’s said that TOICA runs on Suica servers, but JR Central has a sibling rivalry thing with JRE that might get in the way.

I’m taking a wild guess but I think manaca will be the next mobile service announcement with the Kyushu area transit cards (SUGOCA and nimoca) following soon after. The next development to keep an eye on is the ‘2 in 1’ Super Suica local transit card model and if other major JR Group members offer a rebranded version of it in their respective transit regions.

From a western perspective people wonder ‘why not just have one national transit card and be done with all this nonsense’. A national transit card has been discussed by various Japanese governments from time to time, and gone nowhere. The shared infrastructure Super Suica model that aims to lift all boats certainly plays more to the traditional Japanese business mindset. In these challenging times that can be a good thing.

The Apple Watch Transit Gate Wrist Twist

The new JREM gates introduce yet another Apple Watch Suica•PASMO wrist maneuver or contortion depending on which wrist.

Transit gate tappers are endlessly fascinating to watch: feather touchers, slappers, pocket fumblers, precision marchers, schlep slumpers. The daily routine is never routine.

Apple Watch transit-gating has a different set of challenges compared to plastic transit cards and smartphones, and a different set of circumstances: left wrist vs right wrist, transit gate reader position and NFC antenna read sensitivity with the much smaller Apple Watch NFC device.

There is also the crucial wrist twist. Apple recommends a quick wrist twist so Apple Watch faces down to the reader for better NFC reception, best shown in the Apple Pay Octopus Ride and Buy video:

Twitter user S posted a fascinating take on the subject. S wears his Apple Watch Suica on the right and keeps it facing up on the reader, not down. Apple Watch Journal has a great video showing this in action. The Apple Watch face up trick works on JR East gates but not so well on PASMO gates. Why? JR East gate readers are manufactured by JREM. PASMO gates are a mix of Omron, Toshiba and Nippon Signal.

I notice PASMO gate difference with Apple Watch Suica, some gates work great face up, others not. When you use the same stations everyday you develop a natural sense of the best gates. The differences are tiny but noticeable if you pay attention. Even so I am not a face up Apple Watch Suica user, I go sideways and it works everywhere.

Public tests for new JR East Suica/QR combo transit gate (Updated)

The new JR East Suica/QR gate design was unveiled back in December along with the new Takanawa Gateway station details. Test gate installations have been in service at Takanawa Gateway and JR Shinjuku New South exit these past few months but only for Suica and the QR reader covered up. If you have your heart set on trying one out, go to Takanawa Gateway where JR East officials will take the cover off the QR reader from September 15~29 (except for 9/24~27) for public tests.

QR will eventually replace mag strip paper tickets which are increasing expensive to recycle, and the new gates will gradually replace those ingenious paper ticket/Suica combo transit gates made by Omron. I have tried the new gate in Shinjuku and all I can say is…I’m glad I wear my Apple Watch / Apple Pay Suica on the right.

No moving parts is boring…but cheaper than intricate mag strip reading mechanisms

UPDATE: Conflicted Impressions
Junya Suzuki has posted a deeper dive into the QR reader design on the new JR East gates with his usual fascinating analysis. Suzuki san is very big on the evolution of Suica away from local processing to a centrally processed unique ID model that does away with stored fare.

His IT background experience really shines through as he makes a convincing argument that a centralized unique Suica ID approach greatly simplifies the IT system by reducing hot-list/off-list refreshes that have to be coordinated between local and central systems.

We’ll have to see how things pan out with next generation FeliCa and next generation ‘Super Suica’ in 2021. There will be a definite focus on cloud + local, but I have doubts that Suzuki san’s centralized everything vision is always the best approach.

Perhaps I am missing something in his analysis, but I think there’s a happy medium that leverages the strengths of both for a robust innovative transit fare payment system as the centerpiece of the transit business platform.

Here’s a recap of his observations and reader feedback:

Separate QR reader placement
In Suzuki san’s piece JR East tech leads explain that widely separate NFC and QR readers work much better than an all-in-one approach. NFC always reacts faster than QR and this creates problems with the all-in-one reader and smartphones when fast, clean, precise read times are required. The gate QR sensor is made by DENSO. If you have ever used a poky DENSO POS QR+NFC reader at store checkout, you can relate.

Security Invisible Ink
As FeliCa Dude points out, JR East is likely using IR transparent ink to create unique ID codes for security. Apparently this is already used for Okinawa Monorail Okica QR paper tickets.

Poor Walk Flow
One of the great things about the mag strip paper ticket gates is they pull the ticket into the machine and spit it out at the other end of the gate. This is clever guided incentive to keep walking to pick up the ticket. With QR code transit gates people stop and wait for the reader to do something. Another nice thing about mag ticket machines is they eat the used tickets. The QR paper ticket downside not mentioned by JR East or the media: where do people put their used tickets for paper recycle? Who and what collects them, a bin?