THE BLOG
09/09/2013 06:00 pm ET | Updated Nov 09, 2013

Fare Enough -- How Smart Technology Could Waste Commuter Time and Money

"Time is money, we are told, and increasing mobility is a way of saving time, but how successful are modern transport systems at saving time?" - John Witelegg, "Time Pollution" Ecologist 23, 1993.

Imagine if every commuter had a tireless personal travel advisor, an artificially intelligent and inexhaustible companion that told us where to go and asked us to pay - often a lot - for their services. Does this sound too futuristic for your liking? This is how our daily commute now often seems. With new emerging transport technology, you can now easily plan, track, record, and share your daily commute with others. However, can smart technology become too smart when it comes to travel?

South Korean commuters can use their transport card as a yearly ticket to the national theme park and to zoos. Londoners can now use their credit cards in lieu of the Oyster card, the city's travel card. 'Smartcards' were first designed and introduced to ease our daily hassles. But things are rapidly changing with technology- often so fast that most travel websites now offer a separate page packed with information solely on 'how to use your smart card' with the option of scrolling vertically and horizontally - depending on your device, of course. The ever-evolving industry of high-tech or smart travel cards can leave, ironically, travelers feeling like they've been "outsmarted" by the transport industry.

Intelligent electronic ticketing systems have caught on in many parts of the world, including the Netherlands, though Dutch travelers often claim that their smartcard's roads are still a little bumpy. The OV-Chipkaart (OV-chip card) is the national public transport ticket system in the Netherlands and is used on most forms of public transportation such as trams, buses and metros. The system requires passengers to 'check-in' at the start of their journey and 'check-out' at their destination. Since its official launch in 2011, millions of Dutch commuters use this OV chip card every day. Yet, surprisingly, many Dutch commuters are still unclear as to how to use it properly, and end up getting swindled by confusing checking in and out points. Forgetting to check out at the poorly located and signaled checkpoints results in an automatic charge of the maximum travel fare: up to €10 on the bus and €20 for the train.

Many public transport systems require commuters to check in and check out before exiting - but this is not always as simple as it sounds. While there is a wealth of information available on how to use OV-Chipkaart on the website, there is little to no information on the location of these check-out points, in many stations, looking for a checking out point can be a real challenge for commuters.

Until recently, both paper tickets and OV-chipkaart were used for public transport in Amsterdam and Rotterdam; with Amsterdam making the OV-chipkaart the sole method of payment in 2009. The Dutch transport industry, like others in cities across the world, underestimated the substantial difficulties that they would face in forcing passengers to adopt a new payment system. Simply distributing smart cards to the public does not automatically change their payment habits, or make the system faultless. Like all the new frameworks, when introduced, benefits must be greater than the barrier to use it.
The London Oyster card with its single merchant (Transport For London) was willing to double paper ticket prices to stimulate faster adoption. OV-chipkaart did not come up with a similar way to ignite adoption, and, as a result commuters were left perplexed by when and where to check out with their cards.

Unfamiliarity naturally breeds suspicion, especially in situations where the traditional alternative is suddenly withdrawn. Before implementing a new system, whether it is a new voting system or method for paying for transport, users need to be reassured of transparency and their rights. Many urban commuters today are hesitant to invest their time into understanding the potential of these new transport technologies. Because of rapid technology development, many technology-based products and services never reach their full potential and often lead to dissatisfaction among users and merchants.

Rapid digitalization on transportation neglects to take into consideration the reality that technology is intimidating and unclear to many of its users. Installation cost, pricing, clear instruction and even human rights become cause for concern when digitalizing transportation, while efficiency, speed and repeat use - though now questionable - support the idea of developing an intricate transport ticketing system.

Smartcards have undoubtedly encouraged many people to use public transportation over the last decade. But often, the speed in which technology advances is not necessarily the speed at which everyday commuters can adapt. We need to question the seemingly universal belief that enhancing the technology and options for our smartcard transport systems will increase efficiency, flexibility and quality of our daily commute.

Further, many organisations and companies do not fully understand the specific needs of different urban solutions. A new system can only be fully implemented when the developer understands its target culture. Whilst a sudden change in the Netherlands transport payment system might challenge the everyday Dutch commuter, it works spectacularly well in South Korea, where the T-Money system was introduced with few glitches. The reasons why it works so well are simple: first, Korean consumers are, on the whole, very receptive to new technologies and ideas and constantly seek new alternatives to daily habits. Secondly, all Seoul stations are designed in the way that passengers cannot exit without going through a barrier and scanning the smartcard. If you don't have enough credit on your card, you can reload it at a machine located conveniently near the barrier. Further, in 2004, Seoul's Metropolitan Government linked up with the electronics firm, LG Group, along with other credit card and telecommunications companies, in order to enable this credit application. Since its launch, the Korean Government has generated an average of $46m profit a day - enabling Seoul's metro to become absolutely paper-free, and creating savings of over $31m since 2012. Anyone can purchase and recharge their cards at stations, banks, convenient stores and kiosks, and the credit can be used in lieu of cash or credit cards in stores, fast-food restaurants and car parks. It is simple, appealing and available to everyone - but just because this digital fix works in South Korea, doesn't mean it can be adopted in every city.

Nonetheless, we tend to welcome new technological innovations with open arms. It has helped to improve the quality of our daily lives in many different ways. But have we thought enough about the challenges this technology can pose? Fancy-looking ticketing machines and cards containing complicated applications can seem alluring. There are hundreds of innovations that claim to have potential to change our tomorrow. Yet can these innovations really change 'our' tomorrow in an efficient manner? Adoptability and affordability are key points to consider before implementing new technology systems and services. We need time for new technologies to reach their full potential, and to change our daily habits. Smart transportation technology has the power to help improve the commute by understanding human flexibility. Rather than striving to develop at all costs, cities should take time to understand the needs of their commuters, when developing commuter-focused technology.