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London’s transport system has been at the cutting edge of technology for the past 150 years when 19th century engineers first decided to run trains deep underground beneath the capital’s busy streets.
Today, Transport for London, the body that runs the capital city’s network of tube, buses and roads, has maintained that tradition of innovation by revolutionising ticketing systems — helping to speed up the movement of millions of people through London.
The group pioneered the use of smart ticketing in Europe when it launched its Oyster card in 2003, enabling commuters to quickly tap on a reader to go through an entry or exit barrier rather than having to queue up to buy a paper ticket. This shaved precious seconds from the time it takes to get through congested ticket barriers at London Underground stations or to pay to board buses, helping to reduce the daily frustrations of busy commuters.
But Shashi Verma, TfL’s director of customer experience, says the operator is continuously looking at how to further advance its ticketing system. This has seen TfL become one of the first public transit systems in the world to enable contactless bank card and mobile payments.
“We came to the very simple realisation that nobody wants to buy a ticket and actually we don’t want to sell them one either. If you could find a means of making that very simple business process work more efficiently that would be the right thing,” he says.
According to Mr Verma, TfL is in discussions with about 40 cities around the world that are trying to emulate the advances London’s transport operator has made with smart ticketing.
MasterCard is using TfL’s experience to build its own network of partnerships to exploit the potential of contactless and mobile payments, to make urban mass transit systems work more efficiently — and expand the market for its cards. In tests from Philadelphia to Gujarat, the card provider has begun to integrate payment systems for train, metro, bus and road toll systems.
TfL has already gone one step further by extending contactless payments to wearables over the past year, including a key fob and sticker by Barclaycard.
But all this innovation comes at a cost. TfL this month announced another year of fare rises, reinforcing its status as one of the most expensive public transport systems in the world.
“London is a growing city and a growing city needs a lot of money from investment and a lot of that money comes from fare increases,” admits Mr Verma.
He says TfL takes lessons from other transit systems around the world, citing Hong Kong, which runs a very intensive service with fewer lines but bigger trains. It also looks closely at cities that run their system with less money.
London’s transport operator also faces huge challenges in dealing with a rapidly growing population. The capital is one of the fastest-growing major centres in Europe. Its population stands at 8.6m, having increased by almost 2m in the past 25 years. It is now expected to hit 10m by 2030.
“For us who worry about transport, growth is easily the number one challenge,” says Mr Verma. “The fact that London is growing so fast despite being a mature city is something that creates a lot of pressures. There are other cities around the world in developing countries that are growing even faster than London but, because they are at a much lower stage of development, it’s easier to add infrastructure there.”
This growth is already having an impact on the capital’s roads. In August, London claimed the title of Europe’s most congested city, dethroning Brussels, according to data from traffic analytics company Inrix.
“On practically every mode of transport we are seeing an increase in the quantity. As long as people find us an attractive place to come and live and work, we have to keep providing the means for them to get around the city,” says Mr Verma.