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Public Transportation pass woes….

The Netherlands is currently in the middle of a large project to change the way we pay for public transportation. We are moving from paying with a cardboard strip (called the "Nationale Strippenkaart", which must be stamped by the driver of the public transportation vehicle you get on) to a new system (the OV-chipkaart) involving an RFID chip on which you can preload money or one or more subscriptions. The idea is not new (the Greater London Oyster Card is a well-know example) but this is the first time I know of that it has been done on a nationwide scale.

Needless to say there have been problems along the way. Michel van Eeten, professor of Governance of Infrastructures at the Delft University of Technology, recently gave an interview to the Dutch engineering magazine De Ingenieur in which he explained how the project is suffering from an implicit choice of offloading all of the project risks (security, privacy, and so on) onto the customer. A few days ago I had a similar experience with problem offloading onto the public by this project…


Some background

Before I get into the problem itself, let me give you some background on the setup that Trans Link Systems (the executive organization behind the new system) has come up with. The idea behind the new OV-chipkaart is to replace the old Nationale Strippenkaart as a single method of payment for all public transportation services. This means that you must be able to wave your card in front of a machine at any train station, bus stop, tram stop, metro station and so on and be able to check in for travel or check out for payment (you then get charged based on distance traveled). Privacy laws in The Netherlands being what they are, each company must keep track of its own interactions with the passenger/customer, so a shared administrative database is out (meaning also that if you want to transfer from one company to another you must check out and check in again at a different sign-in point at the same station).

At the same time the government doesn’t want a monopoly on any part of the equipment, so the check-in/check-out hardware cannot be standardized to one offering by one company. Instead there is a general communications standard between the RFID chip (which is a MiFare chip supplied by NXP Semiconductors — the government agreed to a monopoly on that part) and the devices and between the devices and the public transportation operators. Trans Link Systems ties the machines together through a shared network infrastructure and also maintains a database of all transportation data (separate from the data kept by the individual companies) in order to deal with system difficulties, fraud and so on. In other words, Trans Link Systems is running a huge ESB with a monitoring system.

To reiterate, the idea behind all of this is to replace the existing Nationale Strippenkaart with the same level of service or better.

Where things started going wrong

As is often the case with huge projects that are forced on a large entity from above (a company by management or a country by the government), the problem with the OV-chipkaart project is not in the technology itself but in the interaction with the potential user base. There has been a lot to do in The Netherlands over the past few months about privacy and security involving this system. I won’t get into all of that, save to say (as mentioned before) that professor van Eeten has given a nice interview to the Ingenieur in which he points out that most of the problems are the result of some stupid choices by Trans Link Systems which boil down to dropping problems in the lap of the passengers rather than dealing with them themselves. These choices serve to lower trust in the system and the people behind it and increase the height of the hurdle to be taken in convincing people to switch.

Case in point is what happened to my mother a few days ago. My mother has had an OV-chipkaart for several months, which she ordered through the bus company (my mother travels by bus mostly, so that’s where she chose to order her card; all the cards use the same MiFare chip, but the cards themselves are supplied by many different companies and can either be anonymous or personalized). She doesn’t use it often because she is entitled to ride for free on the inner city buses, but she needs one for regional buses and the once-in-a-blue-moon train ride.

Last Monday was one of those blue-moon occasions. We took the bus to the station together and then she tried to check in for the train — and was promptly refused. Several attempts, no success. Finally I bought her an old-fashioned return ticket (say what you want about that paper stuff, it definitely works). On the way back we stopped in at the bus company to complain, who told us they couldn’t see what was up with railway payments on their machines and told us to go to the railway company (who, luckily, had an office in the same station). So we trudged over there and the railway bitch not-very-nice-person at the desk snippily informed us that my mother’s card was not equipped for the train. In order to use the train she first had to go online to order a special train subscription for not-railway-issued OV-chip cards (which was needed for the sole purpose of determining which class she wanted to travel in), which would then have to be loaded onto her card using one of the machines back at the station. And processing an order for such a subscription takes an hour, so even if you have a smartphone with Internet access and can order the thing right there it does you no good unless you want to hang around the station for an hour, thank you very much.

QoS or JPS?

Now, I’m not quite sure what I’m complaining about in this blog but it’s either a lack of QoS (Quality of Service) or an excess of JPS (Just Plain Stupid). Either way, it’s a case of what Van Eeten was talking about in his interview: offloading responsibility from the service provider onto the customer making the system difficult to use and lowering acceptance.

Sure, it doesn’t sound so bad to have to get a special subscription for the train (it’s free, you just pay for using the train) and having to wait an hour. And the reasoning even sounds reasonable (after all, the railways must know what class you will be traveling in in order to know what to charge you). But here’s the point: the public transportation providers and the government decided to change the payment system without consulting the traveling public and must therefore convince the public to switch and they’re offering a lower level of service than the old system while doing this.

Really, they are. I said it earlier and I’ll repeat it here: say what you want about that paper stuff, but it definitely works. And that’s what people are used to. You buy a single ticket and then you’re good to go. And that’s the level of service that the new system must meet at the very least. Without that the hurdle is too high for the public and acceptance will be low and grudging. After all, you must realize (which Trans Link doesn’t seem to) that the public to convince is the general public. And that general public is being asked to make changes in what it is used to. For starters, the public is being asked to move from the following process:

  1. Go to stop/station.
  2. Get on board.
  3. Present ticket for stamping.
  4. Travel.

to this one:

  1. Go to stop/station.
  2. Get on board.
  3. Present ticket for check in.
  4. Travel.
  5. Present ticket for check out.

That’s only a single extra step, but for most of the general public that’s already pushing the limit of what you can ask of a person. If the card itself is difficult to handle on top of that, that’s a risk to the success of the system.

So what to do?

Compare the situation sketched above to that of the mobile phone (which I’m intimately aware of just now, having just switched :-) ). For that you need some sort of subscription from a telecom provider and a phone (call it a card with a MiFare chip). Many providers provide some network services in addition to voice communication (like voicemail, SMS, MMS). For those you usually get pushed configurations the first time you sign in on the network. In addition most phones offer additional services (like email) which you must configure. But whether they do or not: your basic network services work the moment you put your SIM-card in the phone. Easy-peasy, Japaneasy.

The phone situation is so normal that you might have missed the point: the basic network services work immediately. No extra work or configuration required. Extra stuff like email needs configuration, but the basics are plug-and-play.

So why doesn’t the OV-chipkaart work like that? Why didn’t they make it so that you can use all public transportation in the lowest class the moment you have the card? Sure, if you want to travel in a higher class you would have to do something extra, but at least travel would be possible immediately. Why was it necessary to push the problem of getting basic service working off onto the passengers? That’s Just Plain Stupid, all the way. Not to mention WTF

Are you kidding me?

Just as an aside, here’s an interesting question for you: how do you think tourists are supposed to get around using the new system? Tourists have to rely on the anonymous, prepaid, disposable cards that you buy at station bookstores and magazine stands. Available all over the place and no privacy concerns, for the ease of use of the hapless visitor to our country. And just to add insult to injury, those cards allow you to check in to any mode of transportation in the lowest class available automatically.

Update (05-09-2010): Since writing this blog, I have purchased an anonymous pass from the Railway Service and it has turned out that I have completely maligned them in the area of not being consistent in the treatment of personal and anonymous passes. As it turns out, you must also get a special train subscription as explained above for an anonymous pass, even if you purchase it directly from the Railway Service. So it’s equally inconvenient for everybody and tourists are just as screwed as everybody else. My apologies to the Railway Service for misrepresenting the situation.

1 comment to Public Transportation pass woes….

  • Ed Steenhoek

    Ben,
    Fun story – from an outside perspective – to read. And I agree. It’s even worse – I’ve been told – if you every once in a blue moon decide not to ride 2nd class but 1st class. You then seem to need a second card.

    I just love those yellow paper tickets :-)

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