"Data helps us provide better transport": TfL on Oyster cards, big data and contactless payments

One of the younger users of London's Oyster card. Image: Romazur/Wikimedia Commons.

In the last of the the Future of London series, presented by Transport for London, we talk to Shashi Verma, the transport authority’s Director of Customer Experience, about big data and new methods of payment.

When you picture a large public sector organisation you wouldn’t necessarily think it would be a leader in innovation – or that it would be in partnership with one of the most well regarded tech universities in the world. But Transport for London (TfL) has been making major strides with open data initiatives and the use of technology for a long time.

TfL has been a "data-driven organisation" for more than 40 years, according to Shashi Verma, the transport authority’s Director of Customer Experience. It has always been a data-rich organisation, recording information since 1971; but it was not until the Oyster card arrived in 2003 that the volume and richness of the data exploded, he says.

In 2005 TfL entered into a research partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to focus on how to exploit data. "To many this would be surprising considering it came into fruition before the term ‘big data’ was even coined," Verma adds.

"Data is key to enabling us to provide better transport. The population is currently 8.6m and is expected to grow to 10m very quickly. We have to understand how people behave and how to manage their transport needs."

Filling in the gaps

MIT started to use automatic data for planning, and to enable TfL to provide better information to customers. But none of this was without its challenges, and the first was to fill in the gaps in the data.

There are an average 46m bus journeys a week in London, and, because people do not need to "tap out" with their Oyster cards, their destination is not recorded. In order to make the usage data useful, TfL needed to know not just the boarding but also the alighting point from the bus network. This required mashing the ticketing data with bus location data.

For example, if the next tap follows shortly after one on the bus and is at the entry to a Tube station, TfL knows it’s dealing with one long journey using bus and Tube. This helps to understand how crowded a particular bus or a range of buses are at a certain time. And it enables it to plan interchanges, minimise walk times and plan other services such as retail.

TfL also analyses data to look at personal journey patterns. For example, if someone regularly catches the number 14 bus and it’s on diversion, TfL can send that person information to let them know what’s happening. Big Data also allows TfL to do things on a customer’s behalf, such as auto refunds for delays or incorrect charging because of card clash.

Personalised information

"Passengers want good services and value for money from us," says Verma. "But they also want to see us being innovative and progressive in order to meet those needs.’

Big Data analysis also helps TfL respond in a personalised way when disruption occurs. One example of this is occurred last summer when Putney Bridge was closed for repair work. While people were still able to walk or cycle across the bridge, cars were not able to, and buses had to stop either side.

Oyster card readers at a London station. Image: Cnbrb/Wikimedia Commons.

By stitching together Oyster taps and location data to predict how many people would be affected, TfL found that 56,000 journeys involved crossing the bridge in the middle of a trip. These journeys would now require two bus trips, one either side of the bridge, so it made arrangements to offer transfer facilities so that customers would not be charged twice.

It also sent targeted emails to provide people with information about alternative routes to minimise the impact of the disruption, and made some temporary bus route changes to help customers get to other rail interchanges such as Hammersmith.

This personalised approach to providing travel information is one focus for TfL’s data initiatives; its open data policy is another. Around 5,000 developers are signed up to the TfL website and there are around 360 apps on Apple’s App store using its data.

Verma added: "The growth of apps meant making data available online was the most efficient way to exploit it. We can put it on our website for others to use and then that offsets our expenditure." All of this has come at a relatively low cost. "We’ve spent £1m on opening up our data but that compares to a £58m saving for customers in time saved."

The convenience of contactless

As well as looking at innovative ways of analysing data, TfL has been experimenting with new technology for a long time. It was as early as 2005 that TfL started looking at what could replace the Oyster card, and it began to look at contactless in 2008. However, owing to the financial crash hitting that year, it was not until 2011 that other card companies started to commit to the idea.

In December 2012 contactless payment was launched on London Buses; the Tube and rail followed on 16 September last year. Delivering contactless payments needed the transport and payments industries to work together to create a new transaction model – a way for contactless cards to handle transport transactions.

This has resulted in a model that will not only work on London’s transport network, but on any other networks around the world. Transport authorities globally have been watching the capital with interest and TfL is keen to share its expertise with colleagues around the world.

More than 157m contactless journeys have been made on services since it launched on the tube. One in 10 contactless transactions in the UK are made on TfL's network, making it one of the largest contactless merchants worldwide. This high level of take up continues to drive the use of contactless elsewhere in the retail, food and leisure industry.

The drive to move people away from paper tickets reached a new stage when Apple Pay launched in the UK in July. "The more options people have of doing something, where the user experience related to their needs, then the better off we are," said Verma, who hopes that Apple Pay and the forthcoming introduction of rival services from Android and Samsung will be another step towards eliminating the use of paper tickets on the Tube.

Contactless payments, personalisation and the open data policy are just some of the ways that TfL is trying to make travelling simpler and more convenient for its customers. As Verma concludes: "From our perspective, it’s a real story about technology leadership in house, within a public sector organisation and we’re looking at doing much more in the future."

The future of London series is supported by Transport for London, and commissioned by CityMetric. 

You can see the other articles at the following links:

"What will the capital look like in 20 years time?" The powers the capital needs to thrive

"Good transport links will be the foundation of new homes for London": why Crossrail 2 will help solve the housing crisis


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.