Auckland Transport has ruled out bringing back cash fares on buses, as reported by Newshub and picked up by other outlets including Pacific Media News, whose tweet puts it in terms anyone who’s been a teenager can probably relate to…
— PMN News (@PMN__News) May 24, 2022
The removal of cash fares at the start of the pandemic made a lot of sense ,and there are a lot of benefits to having cashless buses. It helps to speed up services, as well as making things easier and safer for drivers. So it’s certainly a worthwhile long-term goal – but there are a lot of improvements that are needed to HOP and our PT system to make it really work for people.
As an example of just one of the improvements needed, as one Twitter commenter notes: “We need to roll out more places to purchase cards and top up. Like Sydney or London, you should be able to top up at almost every dairy.”
Because this is not just about kids “scabbing” a few coins to make it home safely, as the article spells out:
An advocacy group for digital inclusion, the Digital Equity Coalition Aotearoa (DECA), has questioned how this change will encourage and enable more people to use public transport.
A spokesperson for DECA says migrant communities, including Pasifika, and tourists are a large proportion of the “cash economy” and might not know what a HOP card is.
Even the Ratepayers’ Alliance has come to the party, saying that “if Auckland Transport were serious about connecting communities and making travel accessible for everyone then it would remove this unnecessary barrier.”
Prior to COVID, HOP card usage was around 93% on buses, 86% on trains and 45% on ferries, for an overall HOP usage of about 88.5%. The change to having no cash fares has mainly impacted use on buses, which has jumped to 99%, with trains and ferries only seeing a slight change.
The news story notes that the Reserve Bank says cash should be an option for all essential purchases. AT offers the counterpoint that cash payments on buses creates bottlenecks, and introduces the risk of robbery, and that digital HOP cards help with contact-tracing, and so on. It also mentions a number of aggressive or abusive attacks on bus drivers that occurred after cash was removed as an option, but stops short of drawing a direct connection. The story ends:
DECA says AT needs to consult with impacted communities, and help people with limited understanding of public transport or access to online services to enable greater patronage.
AT said it would give out free HOP cards to anyone trying to use cash in 2020.
The spokesperson for DECA says this is the kind of support that can help people transition from cash to digital payment methods, and they would like to see efforts like this continue to ensure inclusion.
It does make you wonder: what does this mean for the mass mode-shift to public transport we need to decarbonise daily transport?
Say you were a person who hadn’t regularly used public transport, but have started thinking about it. You’ve seen billboards telling you to “HOP” on the bus or train, some of which mention half-price fares. There’s a bus stop on the corner – you’ve seen people standing there as you peel out of the driveway each morning and join the queue on your street to join the queue for the onramp to join the queue on the motorway.
So, where would you start? Maybe by walking to the nearest bus stop, reading the time-table and having a think about if it was going somewhere you want to go. You might make a tentative plan for a test ride. Then show up at the bus stop with your mask, because you’ve heard about that – and your wallet.
Sorry, says the driver, no cash fares.
So you go home, jump in the car, join the queue. Maybe you put “HOP CARD??” on the shopping list for your next visit to the supermarket, or wherever they sell these things. Or maybe you’ve got too many other things to think about.
Maybe you’re aware there’s a (pretty decent) AT Mobile app. Or, maybe you visit the AT homepage – which doesn’t give up the answers easily. You can “Plan a journey”… but if you show up to the bus stop without a HOP card, your journey ends there. And you can’t “Register an AT HOP Card” unless you already have one.
Where would you start? With the search bar?
You get the picture. In the end, it takes half a dozen clicks to get to the page with the map that tells you where you can get a HOP card, if you’re lucky enough to have an outlet nearby. Good luck working this out on your phone while standing at the bus stop.It’s a lot of teeny tiny barriers that all add up.
If we’re to move permanently to cashless buses, AT needs to significantly improve the customer experience. We’ve covered many of these before, but here’s a quick summary of some of them:
- As already mentioned, we need way more places to be able to buy HOP cards. They should be available at stores almost everywhere as a pre-paid bundle, rather than just a small number of selected stores.
- HOP cards should be dispensed from HOP top-up machines at train/bus stations and ferry terminals – something that is possible in most cities around the world. It was a serious design flaw that the machines were not designed to be able to do this.
- There should be pre-paid bundles, not just for standard HOP cards but for concession cards, too. And how about some unique designs for children’s cards?
- On the bus network, particularly on our busier routes, AT needs to implement off-board fare payment. These don’t have to be large bulky machines like we currently have, but something not that dissimilar to a parking meter.
- HOP is a useful system, but we’re already seeing cities move away from stored-value card systems, or at least supplementing them with other options such as allowing people to use credit cards, either directly or through phone-based payments such as Apple or Google Pay. AT has promised (and trialled) some these types of technologies before, but never implemented them publicly – and it appears they’re now waiting on the new replacement nationwide system to do that.
There are bound to be many other, often small, things that could be done to improve the experience and streamline the process for people looking to start using public transport regularly. What do our readers suggest?
Finally one handy little tip: the government is currently covering half the cost of public transport fares – and notably, that includes the cost of a HOP card too. Although, oddly, this doesn’t apply to the cards that come with pre-loaded credit. Anyhow, if you need a HOP card to get started with, or want some spares for any reason, they’re just $5 right now. (Here’s where to buy and top up.)