Today marks the second anniversary of the latest in a long line of payment revolutions on London’s Transport, but this is one that snuck out with an almost overlooked level of publicity.
Not no publicity, but the messages most people will remember are the dire warnings not to mix up prepay oyster cards with contactless payments. Like anitmater and matter, they must never be permitted to coexist.
The phrase “card clash” has joined the lexicon of London Underground sayings, alongside Mind the Gap and Inspector Sands.
Despite the dire warnings aimed mainly at London’s commuters, contactless has actually taken off, and been a huge success.
Over half a billion journeys have now been paid for using contactless cards where before people would have had to buy an oyster card.
As Shashi Verma, TfL’s director of customer experience told the FT last year, “We came to the very simple realisation that nobody wants to buy a ticket and actually we don’t want to sell them one either.”
So they looked for a model where people paid for a journey, but without needing a ticket.
The rise of the contactless card means TfL is indeed selling fewer tickets to people — roughly 13 million fewer Oyster cards have been sold since the contactless payment system came into use.
To put that into some sort of context, between 2003-2012, 43 million Oyster cards were issued. So the rise of contactless cards is a huge percentage of where the Oyster stats might have ended up today.
It’s not just the convenience for customers no longer buying oyster cards, but cost saving for TfL.
Although contactless cards were introduced in the UK in 2008, TfL had been looking at what the future might be even earlier, back in 2006, but there were such fundamental differences between how Oyster and bank cards worked that they had to rewrite their systems. Thus, it was in 2012 that contactless started a rollout with a simple model on buses, but really took off with the formal launch in 2014 for the tube and trains.
It was a year late though, as the Mayor of London had promised it would launch in 2013.
What’s particularly interesting though, is how the contactless card has changed not just how Londoners pay for occasional travel, but how visitors to London travel about.
Bank cards used by visitors from more than 90 countries have been detected on the system, These are people who would have arrived at Heathrow (for example), and then had their first experience of London queuing up to buy a train ticket.
Now, they just hop straight onto the tube using their existing bank card.
Just as Oyster was pushed onto people by making paper tickets more expensive, the same has happened with contactless, although with rather less publicity than maybe would have been ideal.
That’s because while Oyster has a daily cap on how much a person can be charged, contactless also has a weekly cap as well — which is pegged to the rate of a weekly travelcard.
It can add up quickly, a person travelling in zones 1 &2 for a week would pay £45.50, but a contactless card user would have their price capped to the weekly travelcard rate, of £32.40.
That’s part of the reason why it has proven so popular with tourists, they are certain that they wont be hit by a massive charge for daily travel in London — so long as they stay more than a couple of days.
It is still cheaper to use Oyster for a monthly travelcard, but it can only be a matter of time before that distinction also vanishes, and with it the entire reason to own an Oyster card at all.
Contactless isn’t just bank cards though – the same technology sits inside mobile phones and smartwatches. Since July 2015, around 15 million transactions have been made using mobile phone payment systems such as Apple Pay and Android Pay.
One day, oysters will go the way of the dodo. But it’ll be a few more years yet.
And a curious note to finish with.
Seven journeys were recorded as taking place using contactless cards on the tube and rail, on Christmas Day. Either some maintenance staff were beeped by accident when going through ticket barriers, or more likely, delays in processing by the banks.
Either way, even on Christmas Day, the tube still carries passengers, even if only in a spreadsheet.