Electronic fare collection on Bermuda’s public transportation system

One of the more interesting things to arise from today’s budget is the government’s pledge to introduce electronic fare collection for public transport. I think people underestimate how complex and challenging this can be to achieve if you get caught up in flashy solutions vs. looking at the root problems to be solved. Bermuda’s limited economy of scale makes it difficult to implement solutions in a cost effective manner.

People are excited and suddenly have visions of systems like the British Oyster card powering our local transit. In theory it sounds great, in practice, perhaps not so much. These sorts of systems are expensive and complex. It would require a massive undertaking for us to implement it and the important question needs to be ask whether they’d be the right. In order to determine that, it helps to identify what exactly is wrong with our current paper / token system. Why is it a problem? Does the proposed solution address that problem? If not, why change?

The overarching problem with the current paper system is that it is difficult to buy tokens. You have to go into a central location to buy them before you can take the bus. Otherwise you can pay using exact change. Thus, if you’re a tourist visiting the island or an infrequently travelling local, it can be difficult to use public transit. This is the clear pain point to be addressed.

Would an Oyster card system solve this pain point? Not really. The trouble is that card based systems are designed for transit systems with large economies of scale. Systems like subway lines where it is affordable to put kiosks at every station. How about for Bermuda? Can we afford to put kiosks at every bus stop? Not likely. So, we end up with a solution that requires you go to to a central location to be able to purchase and charge a card. Which of course takes us back to the original problem we’re trying to solve. Its a fancy tech solution that sounds great on paper but doesn’t address the pain point.

How do you solve the pain point in a simple, cheap and cost effective manner? Create a pair of smartphone apps for transit users and operators. Transit users could use a simple app to be able to register their payment details and load credit or purchase passes. That app can then be used to display a barcode when boarding. Transit users could also top up their accounts via existing sales points via cash rather than card.

Transit operators could then have an app that scans barcodes and verifies their validity or triggers a ride charge against the users credit. The app could offer the added benefit of leveraging GPS to provide live route tracking as well as monitor passenger numbers as users scan in. Theoretically it could be tied into a wireless barcode scanner to make the process more seamless for drivers.

Perhaps not an inspired technologically impressive solution like Oyster cards but simple, cost effective and largely implementable in both a short timeframe and at low cost. Here’s hoping the new government keeps it simple.