A brief history of smart ticketing: the world and your oyster


Krishna Desai, senior global marketing manager at Cubic Transportation Systems, discusses the history of how transport ticketing has changed since the start of the millennium.

It all started with the Oyster

With the arrival of contactless payment and digital media, public transport ticketing in London has seen more changes in the last 20 years than in the previous 140, when the first paper tickets were introduced in the 1860s. And it all started with the Oyster.

The Oyster card was Europe’s first multi-modal ticketing system and a trailblazer for contactless payment, shaping how EMV - a payment method based on a technical standard for smart payment cards - would be incorporated into public transport ticketing systems worldwide.

While it seems like it was only launched yesterday, the first Oyster cards were available from Transport for London (TfL) in 2003 and by 2012 accounted for over 80% of all public transport journeys, making them part of the fabric of life in the capital.

Since their introduction more than 125 million people in the UK and from around the world have bought and used cards and in September this year anywhere between just under one million and 1.8 million oyster cards were used every day. 

Over time, Oyster’s reach extended to other networks including the London Overground, DLR and Thames Clippers River Buses, providing customers with a more seamless travel experience.

Coupled with later developments of a digital platform and an app, it has continued to evolve, always with the aim of making planning and paying for journeys easier.

A trailblazer for EMV

After the Oyster, operators around the world were quick to recognise the advantages of using the existing EMV infrastructure for seamless fare payment, instead of issuing separate closed loop cards.

In turn, many customers needed no encouragement to swap from queuing and buying tickets to simply tapping their contactless bank cards to access and pay for public transport. As a result, it gave more options when paying for travel while increasing journeys made by tourists who no longer needed to navigate difficult fare structures.

Consumers had the added reassurance of secure, encrypted transactions and chargeback protection offered by EMV providers.

Again, TfL was at the forefront of innovation, introducing an industry-first contactless payment system on its bus network over 10 years ago, supporting Oyster and EMV cards as well as mobile device payment.

In 2022, contactless journeys made up around 71% of all PAYG journeys on Tube, bus and London rail services.

Across the world multiple cities have followed suit - including Sydney, Brisbane, New York, Vancouver, Chicago, Miami, LA, and San Francisco - rolling out contactless EMV as a more convenient, secure, and scalable payment platform.

Going digital with mobile wallets

While Oyster and EMV were pioneering contactless ticketing, mobile phone technology was also taking off. With the development of smartphones, travellers now had a powerful tool at their fingertips to store payment methods in a digital format as mobile wallet apps.

Mobile apps have enabled travel operators to add another level of convenience for passengers, allowing them to easily link their mobile wallets to transit systems.

As users already interact with their phones for multiple daily activities, paying for public transport via a mobile wallet was a natural extension of their digital lives.

Handset technology has also enhanced security through the phone’s built-in biometric authentication, reducing the risk of card loss or theft.

Early take-up has been strong in Germany, Los Angeles and London, with 20% of all contactless journeys on TfL made using a smartphone’s digital wallet. Payment via apps has also been popular in countries which historically have had low credit card penetration, but high mobile phone ownership.

ABT lessons from the US

North America has led the way too with smarter ticketing systems and the adoption of account-based ticketing (ABT).

Ten years ago, Chicago - the second largest public transit system in the US - implemented Ventra. This was one of the first large-scale ABT implementations to provide open payment functionality combined with online trip planning, fare calculation and capping.

Today, customers have the convenience and freedom to 'tap and go' for travel using a range of payment options to suit their own needs whether that’s a Ventra card, contactless bank card, or a mobile payment app. Users can also download a one-stop app for managing their trips, making payments, and receiving real-time alerts across all public transit services.

Chicago region

Over one billion transactions have been processed across all modes since the launch of Chicago’s ABT, including 3.2 million app transactions.

The success of those early days has encouraged other ambitious projects across the world. Recently New Zealand’s transport agency, Waka Kotahi, announced the deployment of ABT nationally providing passengers with a consistent and reliable customer experience whether they travel by bus, train or ferry.

It will enable open loop payments on credit, debit cards and mobile versions, plus maintain other payment options to ensure riders can choose their preferred payment method and be confident that they will receive the correct fare across multimodal journeys.

Where to next?

With so many benefits, open loop systems might seem like the future for transit agencies across the globe. However, one of the drawbacks is their inability to serve customers who don’t own, or want to use, an EMV payment card or smart device.

For the time being, agencies using open loop systems will need to provide alternative payment solutions or shift to ABT for greater functionality.

Modern ABT solutions are designed to work across multiple types of travel media, including contactless smart cards, barcodes (on paper or screen), contactless payment cards whether closed or open loop, and mobile devices.

They offer many additional benefits including flexible fare pricing, capping and collection, allowing passengers to tap in and out while having their usage tracked and billed accordingly.

ABT makes travel fairer and more affordable for users and, for operators, it can maximise revenues and provide valuable insights into passenger behaviour and usage to optimise future planning.

Looking further into the future, to give passengers an option to go gateless will rely on the ability to scale biometrics effectively. Recognition technology still needs perfecting, but it is on its way and biometrics could be one of the most exciting innovations to come in ticketing.

However, some people were worried about the surveillance potential of the Oyster card when it first came in. So, the future of ticketing might remain in passengers' hands, so to speak, for some time yet.   

Register now for full access

Register just once to get unrestricted, real-time coverage of the issues and challenges facing UK transport and highways engineers.

Full website content includes the latest news, exclusive commentary from leading industry figures and detailed topical analysis of the highways, transportation, environment and place-shaping sectors. Use the link below to register your details for full, free access.

Already a registered? Login

comments powered by Disqus