Why cash and buses don’t mix

One of the things that causes public transport to fail is when it starts to run late as passengers take too long to load.

The perfect opposite of this is the Hong Kong MTR (underground). All platforms have screen doors (so you can’t fall on the tracks, or be pushed). This also means you know where the train door is going to be. Now, in the image below, you can see some arrows on the platform. Basically, the white arrows encourage waiting passengers to wait at the sides of the doors, and green arrow indicates that exiting passengers go straight through the middle. Being Hong Kong, this works pretty well, and so there is pulse of people exiting, who aren’t hindered by those getting on, and vice versa. This means the train doesn’t ‘dwell’ in the station very long, meaning the route is quicker, and the chance of delay is less.

Underground systems also neatly illustrate why cash is the kryptonite of public transport. The transaction for your ride doesn’t occur on the platform, so it doesn’t hinder loading and unloading. It usually happens in a big entrance hall with a row of shiny gates (not so shiny in some systems), where people who have tickets already sail through at speed. Those who need to buy tickets are off to the side, and those who need to use a person to accomplish their sales transaction are usually marginalised further still. Thus, the tourist, or the infrequent user doesn’t hold up anybody else.

With trams, you usually buy your ticket from a machine on the street (e.g., Zurich, St Etienne, Geneva) or from a machine inside the tram in Lisbon (but not from the driver).

With buses on the other hand, cash fares almost always involve the driver, and the more cash fares there are, the longer the wait. What then, are some solutions for dealing with cash on buses.

Cardiff — don’t give change. Saves time, really screws you over if the smallest thing you have is a 20 pound note (so you won’t do it again).

Los Angeles — don’t give change. Saves time, but the US obsession with paper money means that you need to try to feed one of their super-ratty $1 bills into a note feeder, which can tak aaaaaggggges.

Umeå, Sweden — don’t take cash AT ALL. You either have a their bus pass card, or you have to use a credit card (no pin or signature required, just a swipe).

Dijon — use a round fare amount (1 euro), so that people don’t have to fiddle with extra coins. Travel cards accepted at all doors on the bus for faster loading.

Lisbon — make the electronic fares so cheap that even most tourists would have one. RFID card costs 50c. Fare with card 80c. Fare without card 1.40. Integrated ticketing for funiculars, trams, buses, and metro really make getting a card simple.

Now, let’s compare and contrast with Dunedin:

  • Cash accepted on bus (bonus points for time wasted with drivers sometimes grumbling over breaking of small notes) and fares requiring complicated change
  • RFID cards stupidly expensive ($5), compared to Lisbon card (50c, made of light card, easily replaceable)
  • RFID Go Card only gives measly discount (therefore, casual users unlikely to bother with high upfront cost and little discount)

The practical upshot of this is that if the buses are busier, it inevitably means each stop takes increasingly long as it is slow boarding people, and a busier bus becomes a victim of its own suggest.

Solutions for Dunedin:

  1. Get cheaper RFID cards (Lisbon’s cardboard ones work just fine).
  2. Create a real incentive to get a Go Card. Perhaps make a casual fare $3.00, or you can get a Go Card on the spot for $5, with $4.50 credit. This way, if you plan to take two bus trips, buying a Go Card is a no brainer.
  3. Make all the casual fares whole dollar values (simplifies change giving).

Longer term solutions:

  1. With the tap-and-go credit cards coming to NZ, enable these for use (and make them cheaper than cas).
  2. Get stronger RFID system, so that you don’t have to take your card out of your wallet/bag/purse
  3. Consider altering the zoning system, so that people with Go Card don’t need to interact with driver. In Lisbon, this is achieved by having no zoning. In Wellington, you tap your card as you get on AND as you exit, which then calculates zones travelled (if you don’t tap your card on exit, you get charged to the end of the route).



About James

I'm a scientist. Sometimes I get distracted.
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