Thursday, November 30, 2006


An Octopus Card for Portland?

Only occasionally does a BlueOregon post of mine seem relevant here, but I think this is one of those times.

I have a suggestion for the City that Works: develop a Hong-Kong-style Octopus Card.

It is not a particularly new idea--a rechargeable, plastic card that can be used for payment on public transportation. Portland, in fact, has a version of this for street parking called the "Smart Card." But the genius of the Octopus Card is not in its technology, but its application. This is hinted at by the card's name "Octopus," which apparently arose out of the number of ways it can be used. Whereas the Smart Card is only useful for paying for parking, the Octopus card is good for all public transportation in Hong Kong: buses (city and regional), the subway, light rail, ferries, parking lots, taxicabs, the Peak tram and Lantau Island aerial tram, and--well, you get the picture, it's ubiquitous. But the uses don't stop there. Since its release almost ten years ago, retailers have started to use it as a payment alternative. It's even used as keyless entry for apartments and offices.

What makes it especially handy for users is that you don't have to insert it or swipe it, just hold it near one of the payment readers. I watched men wave their wallets and women swipe their entire handbag. When you're in a herd of commuters on the morning subway, umbrella under one arm and Starbucks in one hand, this makes things speed along. Once the computer reads your card, it displays the deducted fare and the amount remaining on the card. For consumers (and confused travelers), it's like magic.

There are advantages for the city as well. Because it's an electronic device, the cards can track where people board the subway or a bus and charge them for the actual distance they traveled. When you board a bus, for example, you wave your Octopus card on the way in and it records where you are; when you exit, it assesses a fare based on the distance you traveled.

For Tri-met, it would eliminate the cumbersome zone and transfer system. It would be possible to keep Fareless Square, but still track numbers of users and how far they travel when riding around Fareless Square. And it would also help track usage on the Streetcar and could be used to earn more revenue for those trips beyond Fareless Square (wherein people mostly stiff the city).

I have no idea how successful the Smart Card program is, but it must pale in comparison to Hong Kong's Octopus system. There are 14 million cards in circulation and 9.9 million daily transactions; 95% of the population uses one; 420 service providers accept them as payment; and they generate $3.6 billion a year in transactions. The real value, obviously, is in integration, which gets people using the cards.

Portland is positioned well to use this kind of technology. The City has already spent the money to convert parking meters, it has a broad web of public transportation, and it has a user-friendly downtown--just like Hong Kong. It would require buying more machines for buses, light rail, and the streetcar, but the benefits would outweigh the costs. I suspect retailers in Portland would, like those in Hong Kong, begin to integrate these if they became as common as they are in Hong Kong. So consider this a personal appeal to the City of Portland: bring the Octopus Card to Portland.

The only thing left is to come up with a name. RoseCard, anyone?


iggir said...

having an electronic tracking device planted on my person is not particularly appealing. meaning, the city could track me from the morning bus, to the lunchtime Max, to the after-drinks cab seems highly invasive.

it's bad enough that we're filmed without our consent or, most of the time, knowledge (ie, surveillance cams) let alone having the State track me - for their own diabolical purpose - as i travel around the Metro area.

but i can see the draw to these types of systems. assuming you trust the watchmen not to take advantage of the power inherit in tracking millions of people, then i guess it could have some benefit.

[yes, i'm a paranoid]

Jeff Alworth said...

As a fellow paranoid, I almost mentioned another bennie to this whole system (but BlueOregon is no place to flaunt your paranoia): the info is linked to your card, but your card is not linked to you. At least in HK, you can by a generic card that you refill with cash. No one can ever link you electronically to your movements. In essence, it functions like smart cash.

I was especially attracted by that feature.

iggir said...

ahh, well that makes things much better. anonymity is a good thing.

Ignatius Reilly

A little bird said...

I think it's a great idea! To not have to keep track of bus tickets or scrounge for change would be excellent.

I didn't have one of those cards when I was in HK so I got to stand at the little subway ticket machine, staring at it in bafflement until a commuter blazed in to rescue me and then blazed out again so fast I hardly had time to thank her.

I love the idea of being able to use them in cabs too.