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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.