Tagproximity card

The on-time trains and wonderful transit workers of Japan

I’m watching this mini-doc about the Tokyo Metro subway and they focus on customer service for a few minutes. They don’t explain why there’s a need to have so many staff at each station dedicated to customer service, aside from the plethora of passengers. I think one of the reasons is that the system is so vast and complex that so many people always have questions. Indeed I saw many Japanese confused or looking for where to go.

I experienced some of this great customer service myself. (In the video, skip to 14:00 to watch the segment on customer service training.)

I was at Ōmiya station in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo, and I wanted to ride the New Shuttle a short distance from Omiya to Tetsudō-Hakubutsukan to visit the Railway Museum, but I first wanted to get a “Suica” reloadable smart card so I didn’t have to keep buying single-ride tickets.

The scene outside Ōmiya station is a lot of mixed-use and malls

Oddly I noticed at least five different kinds of ticket vending machines at different stations. They all will display in English, and a sign above each lists some of its functions. There are many overlapping machines. After I tried to buy one with one machine I asked a worker how I can buy a Suica card.

Ōmiya station (JR side)

He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Japanese but his colleague understood my unaccented pronunciation of Suica, and informed him what I was looking for.

People wait in prescribed queues for the New Shuttle

It turns out that the machines at the New Shuttle “side” (more on this later) of the Omiya station don’t sell new Suica cards. The man walked me over to the JR side of the station and introduced me and my problem to a Japan Railways East worker. This second man spoke English and guided me through buying a personalized Suica card; a card with my name printed on it.

What was impressive was that the first man walked with me 570 feet away to the other side of the station, where he doesn’t work, instead of trying to point me in a direction. Even if he could verbally describe where I should go, that still wouldn’t solve my problem of obtaining a card because I would still probably have to ask someone else.

My personal Suica card for transit and convenience stores in Japan

This wasn’t unique in being “walked” to a destination. The next day in Chiba I bought a bento box “lunch set” (complete meal with veggies, meat, and rice) in the food hall of the Sogo department store, where there are dozens of independent shops selling fresh food.

After I bought the food I wanted to know where there was a place to eat it. Again, I didn’t speak Japanese and the woman who sold me the food didn’t speak English. I mimed my problem, by looking around, pointing, and making an eating motion. She nodded and walked me over to a small eating area at the edge of the food hall.

In Taiwan my host advised me that this would happen, and she also said to not hesitate asking someone for help. It happened one time in Taipei, but I don’t remember the circumstances. In a separate and similar occasion, however, a worker at the Taipei Discovery Center (which is similar to the city gallery in Singapore, Hong Kong, and many cities in China) approached me while I studied an exhibit. He talked to me about Taipei history, what I had seen so far during my visit (nothing, as this was my first stop on day one), what I planned to see (a lot), and then recommended more things for me to see (I checked out a couple things).

Station sides

I measured the 570 distance the New Shuttle worker walked with me to introduce me to a JR East worker who showed me how to buy a Suica card. Transit in Japan is privately operated and New Shuttle is one company (Saitama New Urban Transit Co., Ltd.) that operates one part of a station, and JR East operates the majority of the station. Tobu Railway also operates the station because it terminates a single commuter line here. Depending on how you look at it they are separate buildings but when you’re inside transferring from one to another there’s no distinction; the building connections are seamless.

The magic of the RFID card: Applications in transit

The Chicago Transit Authority should convert the U-Pass program from using magnetic stripe fare media to an RFID, or proximity, card.

Several times on weekdays on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, a crowd of up to thirty students waits for the 8/Halsted bus after a class period ends. A very high percentage of the students will use a U-Pass to pay for the bus fare. All U-Pass users have to dip their cards. According to the Transportation Research Board’s Transit Capacity and Service Manual, each passenger with a dip card will take 4.2 seconds to pay their fare whilst users paying with contactless cards will take 3.0 seconds each to pay their fares.

Converting the U-Pass student fare program to use the same contactless fare collection as the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus will improve the Chicago Transit Authority’s quality of service on all bus routes, especially those routes used heavily by program participants.

Contactless fare collection technology (also known as Radio Frequency Identification, RFID, or proximity cards) gives customers additional options to pay and manage their transit fares. It keeps prepaid fares secure against theft and loss. The customer can easily switch payment methods – between a credit/debit card online and debit card/cash at vending locations – and fare types – pay-per-use or 30-day unlimited use. What is most important is how contactless fare collection speeds boarding onto buses and passing through turnstiles at rail stations. This aspect of the technology most discernibly improves the CTA’s quality of service. Taking into consideration all these benefits, contactless cards provide the greatest passenger convenience for fare payment.

Quality of service is the customer’s perception or assessment of performance. The first percept would be the increased boarding speed at key bus stops. The improvements, visible to the boarding passengers and which positively affect the route, cascade from there: increased boarding speed reduces dwell time, which can help keep buses operating on their posted schedule and shrink the rate of bus bunching. The performance gains are measurable – there would be a half-minute decrease in dwell time at UIC bus stops, amongst other gains.

Contactless fare cards are more durable than the U-Pass, which is surprisingly less durable than the CTA’s paper Transit Cards. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the U-Pass card material is more prone to cracking and tearing than the Transit Card material. Currently, UIC students who require a replacement card must pay a $35 fee – an exorbitant amount that does little to deter the anger or frustration of those students who use their cards daily.

A secondary benefit in convenience for the student, the participating colleges, and the CTA, is that producing the U-Pass as a contactless farecard could be permanent: students would keep the same fare media through their entire tenure at the school. Each and every semester, the schools and CTA would spend less labor hours for temporary U-Pass farecard printing and distribution. Alternatively, the U-Pass program could be applied to the existing Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus system, similar to how London Oyster cardholders can add 7-day, monthly and annual passes, giving transit passengers more options than 30-day unlimited use or pay-per-use. During the semester and the U-Pass activity period, no fare would be deducted from the student’s contactless farecard. When the semester is over or the U-Pass activity period is complete, the contactless farecard would automatically switch to the user-defined fare choice and payment plan.

Converting existing fare programs to work like the CTA’s Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus would be a prudent and appropriate step for the CTA to take to improve the quality of service for U-Pass eligible students and the bus system alike.

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