Everyone hates Sydney’s new smart ticketing system – even though it’s quite good

Sydney's central train station. Image: Hpeterswald at Wikimedia Commons.

Paper tickets are an obsolete technology: just about every city in the world is abandoning them in favour of the transport smartcards pioneered in Hong Kong and London.

Sydney is coming late to this, which should allow it to opt for a better system than the early adopters. But some residents are unhappy that the technological and political compromises made by the early adopters aren’t being repeated there. This is true, despite the fact that – in some ways – Sydney’s system will actually be better.

To explain what Sydneysiders think they’re missing out on, you need to consider the systems introduced by the cities that came before it. Hong Kong wasn’t quite the first city to introduce transport smartcards (that honour goes to Seoul), but it was the first to adapt them to work across a truly complex modern transport network.

Hong Kong's Octopus card. Image: Alan Levine via Flickr. 

The Octopus card system, run by the territory’s Mass Transit Railway, first appeared in 1997. It takes the form of a stored-value, pay-as-you-go (PAYG) card which works across multiple public and private transport providers. Each provider sets their own fare, debited from the money stored on the card; the system allows no season ticket, no bulk discount, and no caps on fares when they reach a certain point.

So the system was, as these things go, relatively simple. Rather than being specific to transport, MTR had accidentally invented pre-paid contactless payment cards: indeed, Octopus is now commonly used in Hong Kong for all kinds of low-value retail transactions.

London was the second major city to move to contactless cards, but infighting and the desire to avoid foisting change on passengers led to a more complex system. Following a painful battle between different branches of government in the 1980s, London had been left with a much simplified ticketing system based on a series of concentric geographic zones: the more zones you travelled through, the higher the fare.

In theory, this standardisation should have made the Oyster programme easier. Unfortunately, by the time the system was signed off in 1998, rail privatisation meant that the city was now served by multiple privately owned train operating companies (TOCs). These had an agreement to accept Travelcards (city-wide tickets, allowing their holder to use any mode of transport) written into their contracts; otherwise, though, they charged whatever fare their pleased.

“The reaction reflects a broader Aussie suspicion that any change is for the worse

All this made a big bang Hong Kong-style launch impossible. The train operators had no interest in switching to Oyster for ticketing, and a PAYG-only system that excluded one of the major transport modes would have been confusing, to say the least. The requirement to accept Travelcards, however, was written into the TOCs’ contracts: that was true regardless of whether they were physically stored on a piece of paper or on an electronic smartcard.  

London thus ended up with a bizarre compromise in which you could use Oyster on any mode of transport, provided you had a Travelcard; if you wanted to use it for a pay-as-you-go fare, however, you could only use half the network.

As train operators’ franchises expired, and as Transport for London (TfL) gained more control over the city’s rail network, Oyster PAYG finally became usable on all National Rail services in 2010. But while newer smartcard systems often involve an automatic cap on total spending, so that passengers are not penalised for failing to decide their schedule in advance, London's sysyem only applies weekly or daily caps -  Londoners must still decide whether to buy a monthly Travelcard or not in advance. TfL’s ongoing shift to contactless bank cards might address this; then again, it might not.

Sydney’s first attempt at a smart ticketing system was the T-Card, which it planned in the wake of Octopus. But the city never carried out the steps that London had to standardise its ticketing system, and buses, trains and ferries continued to use a dizzying series of incompatible single, season and multiple tickets. T-Card’s promoters claimed they could include these fares on a card system without reform. They were wrong. The project was cancelled in 2008.

The replacement Opal Card, launched in late 2012, avoided the T-Card’s worst sin. It was preceded by a shake-up of fares equivalent to the one London saw in the 1980s, which brought state and private operators across all types of transport into the same system. This created a simpler base for Opal, for commuters and backroom computers alike.

Syndey's Opal card. Image: 

Missing out on London’s contractual nightmare also allowed Opal to avoid pre-loaded tickets from the start: instead, it has daily and weekly caps on total spending. These allow bulk discounts and promote off-peak transport use in a way Octopus can’t, reflecting the way backroom technology has improved since the launch of Hong Kong’s simpler system. Better technology has also made payment easier: online Opal top-ups are instant, whereas Oyster users must nominate a specific station to “collect” online purchases.

But some who’ve used systems elsewhere are dissatisfied with these changes. Elizabeth Farrelly is a centre-left writer, living in New South Wales, a state with a centre-right government. In early October, she wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:

I wanted a monthly pass, like my old Oyster… [but] there’s no option to buy bulk rides. This is ideological.

Others are unhappy that the Opal system doesn’t allow the non-transport purchases that Octopus enables in Hong Kong, despite the fact that banks’ contactless payment systems have made them obsolete.

More controversially still, Opal has skipped the expensive step of integrating with existing ticket sales systems: Opal cards and top-ups are sold at convenience stores, supermarkets, petrol stations and newsagents, but not ticket offices. The government hasn’t yet officially announced a ticket office closure program – but given the worldwide trend towards reducing fixed ticket offices and moving staff to visible support and safety positions, this seems all but inevitable.

For now, Sydney public opinion’s take on the system feels neutral at best, and negative at worst. This partly reflects some poor decisions taken by the government in parallel to roll-out. Not all buses have yet been fitted with Opal, and pensioner/student Opal cards are not yet available - yet various paper tickets that include discounted or bus-only travel have already been withdrawn.

But it also reflects a broader Aussie suspicion that any change is change for the worse, and that everything being done overseas is probably better than what we’re getting. Once the introduction is complete, it’ll be interesting to see whether the people of Sydney embrace their smartcards like Londoners or Hong Kongers – or whether they continue to lament the days of dog-eared paper strips.

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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