Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Stop fumbling with your wallet at the turnstile and wear this ring instead.
The history of subway systems is one long string of attempts to improve the way riders pay fares. First there were tickets, then tokens. Magnetic swipe cards sped things up in their day, and tap-in payment cards came along to make things faster still. And now, in Moscow, all you need to open the gate is a little piece of jewelry.
No, the Russian capital isn’t installing pawnshops in lieu of ticket booths. It’s actually experimenting with wearable alternatives to payment cards. Since the end of October, help desks at two key metro stations have sold rubber bracelets embedded with microchips as part of a pilot project, bracelets that can be topped up with funds, and touched in and out with just like a standard metro payment card. For dressier people who fear a rubber band might clash with their outfit, Moscow has an alternative: 500 black ceramic rings, in large and small sizes, that will let you through a ticket barrier with a mere tap of the knuckle. Moscow’s Twitter feed shared some images of the rings early last month.
The idea is so ingenious it seems impossible that no one has thought of it before. There is, after all, no reason why a microchip for payment information has to be embedded in a card.
In truth, this has been thought of before: Startup projects suggesting just this type of innovation have been knocking around for at least two years. In fact, the concept is so simple that ordinary passengers have jumped ahead of transit authorities and designers to make their own makeshift versions. In the early days of London’s Oyster Card, one popular hack was to cut out the microchip and stick it to a watch. Last year, a London design student took this further by installing the chip into false fingernails.
Like Moscow’s new rings and bracelets, these watch and body hacks had the great advantage of removing the need to take a payment card in and out of a wallet—something that, depending on the thickness of the wallet in question, can still be necessary on some public transit systems. As such, they’re a great leap forward.
They’re still an innovation that may be reaching toward obsolescence, though. In London, payment cards are on the wane as commuters switch to using their regular contactless debit cards at the turnstile—cards that people are increasingly using everywhere, even for small purchases. Ticket barriers are sensitive enough that you can get through them just by waving a wallet (or even the bag it’s contained in) over the sensor. This could make it unnecessary for a transit system to sustain its own payment system, even if it can be conveniently embedded in a small ring.
And the future just keeps coming. Soon, even these debit cards may come to be replaced with biometric face scanners. There’s something distinctly dystopian about the idea of a payment system just “knowing” if you’ve got any cash by looking at you, but that would at least spare passengers some fumbling at the gate. By that point, Moscow’s advanced, rather clever new payment system might look as charmingly outdated (if not as cumbersome) as some elegant Victorian cycling contraption.
In the meantime, it still pays to remember that while Muscovites are wafting their ring fingers airily at the turnstiles, many New Yorkers are still waiting to move on from those temperamental, easily damaged magnetic strips… and Philadelphians are only just now finding out about life after the token.