Suica penguin


Imagine if you could download an app and tap a few onscreen buttons to create a Tap and Go public transport payment card that lived inside your phone.

Then imagine that you could add some dollars to this card with a couple more taps. Now you’re using it on buses, trains, in convenience stores, at vending machines; at restaurants; everywhere you’re likely to go in a day: no wallet required, just your phone. Transaction histories would show up in the app; you’d always know your balance, and you’d never be caught short.

Slick, and convenient; and it would remove small and annoying barriers in everyday city life several times per day. You might even use public transport a bit more!

Well, wonder no more: there is good news. Such nirvana exists. The bad news: it’s in Japan (and maybe elsewhere too… but not here). There, Japan Rail East has built out their Suica card (their equivalent of our Snapper) into an amazing and useful cash and small purchases enabler. If you happen to be going, download the Suica app to your Apple-Pay enabled iOS device and run through these (English) instructions. You’ll be able to use your new virtual card on buses and city trains almost everywhere in the entire country just by tapping your phone to the reader. It’s sufficiently entrenched now that at least in Tokyo you’ll have a decent chance of not needing to carry cash on you (and Japan is a notoriously cash-centric society).

It doesn’t seem like a big thing, but believe me, once you’ve experienced it you’ll never want to go back to the old-style ways.

Well, what about Wellington? Are we close to any of this?

Unfortunately: no. And the really sad thing is that we’re not moving forward, we’ve been going backwards.

For a brief and shining moment it really did look like we were on track to achieve this kind of public transport nirvana. Back in 2012, it was possible to have a Snapper card remotely provisioned and embedded in your Android phone (the “Touch2Pay” service), and use it for public transport and for small purchases at convenience stores, just like you can today with Suica in Japan. There was every possibility that this would continue to grow and expand to the extent that I would not be writing these words six years later.

But now: Touch2Pay is not offered any more; and if you can find a dairy with a Snapper card reader it will be for offering top-ups to the balance only, not purchases. Snapper’s RideBank card is nice, but it’s still not letting me get rid of a stupid piece of plastic (and is it slow at the card reader or what?).

And there’s no integrated ticketing: we still can’t use Snapper on the trains after ten years.

So what happened? Where did the future go?

I wish I knew.

Yes, yes, I know: we’re a small market; technologies change; business shit happens; people aren’t as excited about the technology as we’d all hoped; but really this feels like another failure of vision, not necessarily or wholly from Snapper – at least they tried – but across the wider transportation sector and regional and central government. Collectively these are the people with the ability to push this kind of connected-up venture through our introverted, small, overly self-important and personality-driven business sector.

The current bus timetabling and route mess? Same people. Different symptoms of the same problem. It’s all just so… inadequate.