Thursday, September 14, 2006


The mayor of London announced this week that there will be another rise in transport costs next year for people paying cash rather than using Oyster cards. For some journeys, paying cash will be more than twice as expensive as using Oyster.

In theory I like this idea. I loved the Octopus card system in Hong Kong. And it's frustrating when people paying cash fares slow down bus trips.

But in Hong Kong, Octopus cards were taken up quickly by the public despite savings incentives of only about 10%. The number of Octopus cards in circulation is now much greater than the number of HK residents.

Part of the reason for the slow take up of Oyster cards is that ticketing on London public transport is so complicated. The system of different travel zones and travel cards is very hard to learn. Many people don't understand how this complex system translates to Oyster cards.

A further problem is that the Oyster system still doesn't work all that well. Tube stations have many more machines available for purchasing cash tickets than they do for recharging Oyster cards. Many overland train stations still don't have facilities for Oyster cards. Unlike in Hong Kong, the swiping machines don't give a balance each time I start and finish a journey. About 20% of the time, the machines flash an error message and I swipe again, worrying that I might be paying twice.

Another issue became obvious when I taught a transport themed class yesterday. None of my students have Oyster cards and thus they waste a lot of money buying cash tickets. They don't understand the complicated ticketing system and tend to take buses only (paying cash), thinking that they are saving money. As a result they waste money and time.

Unlike Hong Kong, London contains a huge number of residents who are only minimally integrated into mainstream society. The majority of my students struggle to use tube and bus maps and don't understand the complicated ticketing system. These are the people who are suffering with the increase in cash fares.

And that's just local transport. Long distance rail travel in the UK is hideously complicated. Yesterday I found out that one of my students pays significantly more to go to Birmingham by coach (the government moved his daughter and girlfriend there but kept him in London) than I do on train. The system discriminates hugely towards educated locals with internet access. Hmm.

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