Why Paper Tickets Should Be More Expensive

A proposal to ditch paper tickets for public transport in favour of only using smart cards has been dumped in Queensland. I don’t think that we should be dumping paper tickets, but I do think we should be charging a lot more for them.

Picture by Daniel Bowen

Last week, Queensland officially abandoned a long-standing but controversial proposal to completely eliminate paper tickets and make everyone use a go card instead. The state will now retain paper tickets for single journeys, but will require a go card for any more complex passes.

That seems a reasonable decision, but it’s also backed up by a strategy of making go card journeys cheaper, so that people have an incentive to adopt them. That still leaves a paper ticket option for very occasional travellers and professional luddites, but provides a reason for even vaguely regular users to go electronic and make the system more efficient. There should be a lot more of that approach if we want to encourage electronic ticketing systems and increase public transport usage.

Admittedly, sometimes circumstances dictate that you can’t do that. Melbourne’s somewhat messy rollout of its myki card ran in stages, with train users able to use it ahead of bus and tram customers. That strategy meant that offering discounts to early adopters really wasn’t on, since anyone who wanted to use multiple modes of public transport would be penalised — a dumb idea when you’re trying to encourage people to use the system. Right now, pricing is effectively identical across myki and the existing Metcard system, which means there’s not necessarily an incentive to switch if you haven’t already.

And I’ll admit offering discounts doesn’t always seem to make a difference. I’m constantly amazed whenever I visit Perth at just how many people purchase paper tickets on buses, even though there’s a discount of 15% if you use the SmartRider card instead. I don’t visit Perth terribly often, and I’ve taken up the card; why someone who lived there wouldn’t do so is beyond me.

Aside from the individual convenience of not scrambling for change, using smart cards offers other improvements for travellers. If no-one needs to buy a ticket on a bus, then the process of boarding is much quicker, shortening overall journey times. At crowded railway stations, being able to just tap a smart card to get through exit gates is quicker than waiting for a magnetic stripe ticket to pass through. (Brisbane tries to solve this problem by using staff to check paper tickets, but that also creates bottlenecks.)

Moving to a smart card requires a fare system where you can build in discounts for more frequent travellers but also encourage overall usage (something that’s conspicuously absent in Sydney, where we’ll be lucky to see any kind of electronic ticketing system for years). Once you’ve done that, then adding a penalty for infrequent users — people who just buy a paper ticket — is the obvious next step.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman sometimes suffers from wallet bulge owing to too many travel smart cards. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.