The Importance of Integrated Ticketing

If one thing annoys me more than anything else in all the transport announcements we’ve seen over the past week or two – removal of the regional petrol tax, creation of a national petrol tax, news the government will pay for Auckland’s new electric trains, unsurprising news that the government is investing billions in state highways at the cost of everything else – it has been what has happened to Auckland’s integrated ticketing project. Regional petrol tax dollars were critical for funding this project and – unlike electrification – there has still been no word as to how the $100 million or so needed for implementing integrated ticketing will be provided. Furthermore, today we learn that awarding the contract for the development of an integrated, smart-card, ticketing system has been delayed. Well, on the positive side, at least it hasn’t been cancelled. It’s still damn frustrating though.

So, what’s up with this whole “integrated ticketing” thing that everyone seems to talk about? Why is it deemed to be so critical? Why is it so expensive? Why has it taken so long? These are all pretty good questions that do deserve and answer and some further discussion.

For a start, integrated ticketing is necessary because a variety of operators run our bus, train and ferry systems across Auckland. Veolia run the trains; NZ Bus (MetroLink, North Star, GoWest and Waka Pacific), Ritches, Birkenhead Transport, Howick and Eastern and Urban Express run the buses; and Fullers, along with a variety of other small operators, run the ferries. Apart from the NZ Bus family, each operator runs their own independent ticketing systems that are not interchangeable with each other. There are a couple of minor exceptions, in that you can get a daily Discovery Pass that can be used on any transport operator and a monthly Discovery Pass. But they’re so expensive and so poorly promoted that barely anyone seems to end up using them. So, effectively you’re left in a situation where you either need a different pass for each company (to get the small discounts they offer for multi-ride tickets) or you need to constantly carry change around with you.

From personal experience, this is REALLY annoying. Before I moved house recently the 008 bus route was the only way I could easily get from my home to my work and back. This route was run by Urban Express. However, all other buses that I ever needed to catch (home into town, work into town and so forth) were operated by NZ Bus – through either MetroLink or GoWest. After having the annoyance of always needing to dig around for change to catch the 008 bus, I finally gave in and spent $10 on an Urban Express pass – even though I already had another bus pass for my NZ Bus journeys. Needless to say, now that I’ve moved house the chances of me ever catching an Urban Express bus again are minimal – so it’s just a worthless piece of junk now.

Now while situations like this are annoying, the main issue that a lack of integrated ticketing creates is that it discourages trips where an interchange is required – from one bus to another or from a train to a bus. We all understand that it is very difficult for public transport to compete against the convenience of the car at the best of times, and also that it’s near impossible to bring high-quality public transport to near the doorstep of everyone in the city. The best way to get around this issue is to make it easy for people to transfer between services: so they’ll walk from their house a couple of minutes down the road to a bus stop, catch a bus from there to a transport interchange before jumping on a train whisking them into town. Feeder bus services bring a far greater proportion of the city within the reach of the train system. However they clearly won’t work when people need a different ticket for their bus trip and their train trip, or situations where someone has a monthly unlimited travel pass for their train trip – but that doesn’t cover the feeder bus to actually get them to the station.  The lack of integrated ticketing is a huge disincentive for people wanting to use public transport.

I have previously detailed how I would reform the ticketing of Auckland’s public transport system, which I hope to refine and post on here at some stage in the future. Needless to say, it’s a pretty major overhaul of how ticketing works in the city and would work much more around “time-based” ticketing rather than “trip-based ticketing”. At a basic level, a single ticket would be valid for as many different trips necessary within the space of 2 hours to get where you need to go. You would pay a varying rate, depending on how far your total trip would be. Daily, weekly and monthly passes would also be available at each varying rate to encourage the use of such “unlimited travel” tickets.

So why has it been so difficult to get integrated ticketing? And why is it so expensive? To answer the first question I really have to point the finger at all the transport operators throughout Auckland and say it’s completely their fault. Personally, I cannot comprehend why they would all want to doing something that will clearly have benefits for themselves (through increased patronage), but it has seemed over the past 10-15 years that the transport operators throughout Auckland are only interested in keeping their “slice of the pie”, rather than trying to “grow the pie” – as the saying goes.  It took the passing legislation last year, which gave ARTA a heck of a lot more power than before, to really kick start moves towards integrated ticketing – but only because the operators now had little choice but to accept it. So it is happening, as long as the money can be found for it.

Which brings us to the last question – why is it so expensive? To answer this question you have to distinguish between “integrated ticketing” and “smart-card ticketing”. Integrated ticketing is pretty simple process of coming up with some form of ticketing that can be used on each transport operator, working out a way to record who should get what percentage share of the fare, and making sure there is standardised equipment necessary. The last bit could be a reasonably significant cost, particularly so as all the operators are so stubborn about the whole integrated ticketing process and will probably force ARTA to pay for something they themselves arguable should be funding. But in the end, the process of integrated ticketing probably isn’t THAT expensive. If you completely change the way in which tickets and fares are structured, that would obviously be an additional cost, but once again probably not that great. Most of the cost in this process comes about from “smart-card ticketing”. Smart-cards are clever things like London’s Oyster Card and Hong Kong’s Octopus card, that you wave in front of a machine, the machine reads the card and lets you on the bus or the train. Then at the end of your journey you wave the card again, the machine interprets how far you’ve travelled and charges you accordingly. In London there are clever things like you can hook your Oyster Card up to your bank account so that it automatically tops it up when your funds start to get low. You can also often use these Smart-Cards for small purchases at dairies and other stores. Wellington has the beginnings of a Smart-Card system – with their Snapper Card. Ironically, the Snapper Card isn’t an integrated ticket though – and can only be used on some of Wellington’s buses and none of its trains. Smart-cards are expensive to roll out – as you need the back-office computer power to run the system, you need the special card-readers to be placed on every bus and at every trains station. This is where the serious costs start to occur, leading to the figures of $100-150 million for Auckland’s system.

Which gets us back to the current situation, where it seems like Integrated Ticketing for Auckland will be further delayed. After rail electrification, it is my belief that a Smart-Card integrated ticketing system is the most important next step for Auckland’s public transport. We’ve been waiting decades for it…

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