Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Straphangers won’t have to put money on a separate fare card to ride buses and trains.
Singaporean commuters, like straphangers just about everywhere, endure the hassle of having to reload prepaid fare cards when taking public transit. But the city-state’s Land Transport Authority has plans the speed things up, launching a pilot program that will let riders pay directly at the fare gates with compatible credit and debit cards. The money will come right out of riders’ bank accounts, eliminating the need to stop at a machine to top off fare cards that are running low.
The pilot launches March 20 and will work for riders who have a registered, contactless Mastercard. If it’s successful, the city would join a small handful of places, like London and Sydney, in embracing or testing contactless credit and debit payments on their transit systems.
With experts touting multi-modal transit as the future of transportation, agencies across the globe are hoping to make the fare system more convenient and flexible for riders to switch between the subway, buses, and taxis. Contactless transit cards like the Octopus in Hong Kong and the SmarTrip card in Washington, D.C., are common in transit systems now. Other cities are experimenting with mobile payments—Boston, for example, lets riders pay for their commuter rail tickets in advance through the mTicket app, and ApplePay recently launched in Japan, allowing riders to pay with the tap of the latest iPhone at the fare gates.
Elsewhere, contactless credit and debit payment like the one Singapore will test is gaining traction. London was among the first to implement such a system, equipping thousands of buses with contactless credit card readers in 2013, then expanding it to the Tube a year later, and eventually shutting down most of its ticket offices. A recent Mastercard report shows a steady growth in the system’s usage over 2015—though the adoption isn’t without its kinks. The closure of ticket offices has led to Tube strikes over hundreds of job cuts, and recent figures put the amount of unused fares on “dormant” Oyster cards at roughly £235 million ($300 million).
So could it work in Singapore?
As The Atlantic wrote in 2013, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem with new forms of payment. The integration of contactless credit and debit payment in transit will partly depend on how widespread the adoption of contactless credit cards is in general. That helps explain why the U.S., where mobile wallets have yet to really take off, hasn’t quite warmed up to using them on buses and subways. Chicago is one city testing the system on its transit network, and San Diego is the latest to express interest. On the flip side, mass transit systems can also help facilitate the popularity of contactless credit cards, as it has done in the U.K.
That said, Singapore’s plan to introduce contactless credit and debit payments could see success. The city-state has been vigorously ramping up efforts to become a cashless society. The LTA, for example, is trying to make its EZ-Link transit card the go-to payment method in coffeeshops and supermarkets, according to Channel News Asia. NETS, an electronic payments company owned by Singapore’s three local banks, offers consumers four different cashless payment methods. And the startup Kashmi is going head to head with more established companies to expand the reach of its “all-in-one payment” app, which allows both peer-to-peer spending, retail spending, and bill payments.
LTA’s partnership with Mastercard hopes to attract some 100,000 riders, and avoiding long lines of people trying to top off their EZ-Link cards at the ticket station might be just what commuters need in a fast-paced city.