Why The Victorian Government Shouldn’t Abandon myki

Dear Victorian Government, I understand that the option of ditching the myki smartcard ticketing system is on the table, with a review of the entire project currently under way. It’s not surprising that a newly-minted government would want to score brownie points by dealing with what was, by any measure, a controversial project. However, I really hope that you won’t set Victoria back by abandoning the use of smartcard technology altogether.

You won’t get any argument from me that myki (which, incidentally, would come across much better with a capital letter) has been really poorly managed, and that some of the technology that has been chosen stinks. Having used it over the past six months during my regular visits to Melbourne, here are my three biggest complaints:

  • The reader systems on buses are utterly hopeless. As often as not, they’re out of order. When they are operational, you need to hold the card down for several seconds to get them to register, which creates a major blockage if everyone boarding is doing it. On countless occasions, the driver has told me not to bother, which means that my trip isn’t registered and potentially I don’t get charged correctly.
  • The readers at station gates are a bit more reliable, but positioned really stupidly. It’d make much more sense to have them at the same height as the existing ticket readers. (This is the approach adopted in London, and those gates also accept paper tickets, so it’s definitely doable.)
  • Topping up is a pain. My local station in Melbourne is a “premium” station, but I can’t add value to my card on the platform where the ticket office is. I have to go to a separate (and rarely used) platform. Who came up with that plan? Every ticket office should be able to top up a Myki card. There’s staff and a network connection, so where’s the difficulty?

These aren’t one-off issues, or problems that change over time (such as the rather stupid staged rollout which was no incentive for anyone to use the system). They’re fundamental technology issues that need to be addressed. But the point is that they can be addressed. Get some better bus readers, shift the gate readers and roll out some more top-up machines, and the whole system would be eminently usable.

The general impression across Melbourne is that smart cards are a nuisance, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Properly implemented, smart card systems make travel easier. In my travel bag, I have smart cards for use in Brisbane, Perth and London. All of those work with no drama across the system.

I can add value to them pretty much anywhere I need to. The tap-on/tap-off process works with no problems and in less than a second — I’m so confident about it I normally just leave the relevant card in my wallet, which is something I’ve never ventured to risk with myki. Indeed, it works so well that buses in London frequently don’t offer any option to buy tickets on board, which means that boarding is a much quicker process altogether.

Properly implemented, smart card systems have benefits for both travellers and the governments that operate them. We get a more efficient ticketing system that works for both casual travellers and regular commuters and shortens queues. Operators get much more accurate data on how the system is being used, which is vital for future planning.

No paper tickets is the way of the future. I understand that fixing myki will be an expensive proposition. However, abandoning smart card systems altogether is even more damaging in the long term. And I should know — I live in Sydney.

Road Worrier

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman looks forward to when he can travel for days using nothing but smartcards. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.

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