What libraries can learn from public transport ticketing

23 November 2011

Recently I had a bit of a run-in with the bureaucracy running Melbourne’s new(ish) public transport ticketing system, Myki.  It got me thinking about introducing new technology into libraries and how many of the lessons that apply to new technology in public transport ticketing also apply to libraries.  Both of us are in the business of providing public goods to the whole spectrum of society.  Here are six lessons we can learn from the mistakes and occasional triumphs of public transport ticketing around the world.

Identify the problem you are trying to solve

With any new technology - whether it’s a new social media platform, a new metadata standard or a new way of tracking items in your database - the first question you should answer is “what problem is this going to solve?”  If you can’t think of one, it’s worth reconsidering whether you are just sating your techno-lust rather than providing productivity increases or genuine new services to your patrons.

The Myki smartcard system in Victoria has cost AUD $1.35 billion to implement, with ongoing cost of several hundreds of thousands more.  Bemused passengers have continued to ask what was wrong with the old system.  While the Metcard system using cardboard cards with magnetic strips had problems, the enormous cost of the Myki system doesn’t appear to have come with an equivalent increase in functionality.  The system should provide useful data on travel patterns and does enable passengers to casually travel through tiketing ‘zones’ without having to worry about buying a second or special ticket, but these advantages have been marketed poorly and there is little indication as to what the primary advantage of the new system is over the old one.

Policies should not be determined by the technology

Policies - whether on how many items can be loaned at once or how much a ticket from A to B costs - should be determined by what is fair and reasonable within the budget available.  When you start making policy based on the restrictions of the technology you have chosen, alarm bells should ring.  The should ring even louder if your policy is based on the restrictions of a technology you are no longer using.

Myki and e-books display both sides of this common problem.  Under the Metcard system Melbourne was divided into three public transport zones, with the ticket price increasing when passengers crossed a zone boundary.  The principle was that passengers travelling further should pay more, but the inner zone cost twice as much as the two outer zones, reflecting the more frequent and available services in the inner city.  When Myki was introduced, instead of just validating your ticket on entry, there became a requirement to ‘touch off’ to ensure the lowest fair.  The new technology had difficulty working out where it was, however, and eventually the government decided to effectively remove zoning on tram and bus trips travelling between zones.  This policy change was not based on any philosophical change, but rather a reaction to a new technology that could not do the job.

In libraries, we see the other side of the coin when it comes to e-book lending.  As I’ve argued before, lending e-books in the same way as we lend physical books is inherently ridiculous.  E-book technology allows unlimited perfect copies to be made simultaneously available.  E-book ‘lending’ should, at the very least, allow anyone who wants to ‘borrow’ the book to access it without having to wait for someone to ‘return’ it.  But publishers have forced libraries to treat electrons the same way we treat atoms - and librarians have agreed, because our patrons are demanding access to ebooks and aren’t interested in the broader ramifications.  These ebook lending practices are based on a legacy technology - paper books, rather than utilising the functionality of the new ebook technology.

Ensure your solution is not over-engineered, or under-engineered

Just as it is important to ask ‘what problem is this solving’ it is also important to ask ‘is this the best way to solve the problem?’  There were several problems with Melbourne’s transit ticketing system in 2001.  Were there $1.35B worth of problems?  Possibly not.  Indeed, Myki demonstrates how it is possible to simultaneously both over-engineer and under-engineer a solution.  The cost was mostly due to the fact the Victoria’s government decided to start building the new system from scratch, instead of starting with an ‘off the shelf’ solution.  Melbourne’s ticketing system and transport routes were deemed more complicated than other systems using smartcards and thus we needed our own bespoke tickets.  But this complex and costly system has been plagued by poor design and hardware that is simply not up to the job.  The most famous recent example is the short battery life of the machines ticket inspectors use to check the validity of tickets.  These machines have batteries that go flat a few hours before the inspectors’ shift is over, meaning they can’t do their job for a large portion of their shift.

In libraries, its always good to consider whether the technology you are about to introduce will provide a great service to the public, or will simply confuse and frustrate them because it is less than fully formed.  Early adopters of ebook technology made this mistake and now  have drawers full of clunky e-readers to show for it.  Likewise, you don’t want to pay for a Rolls Royce with a Toyota Corolla will do the job just fine.  You could spend a lot of money building a Fab Lab or an 'Experimedia' multimedia workshop - but if your community only requires a tool library or a copy of Photoshop on one PC then you have just wasted a lot of money and space.

Make it easy for infrequent users and tourists

Recently Victoria’s new government announced that they were pulping millions of dollars worth of one-use Myki cards and would remove ticket machines from trams.  This move, in addition to a previous decision to discontinue ‘short trip’ tickets - means the cost for a tourist to travel a 500 metres in central Melbourne jumps from around $2.00 to a minimum of $13.80 ($10 for the card plus $3.80 for a two hour ticket).  In addition, tourists will first have to find a Myki card retailer to actually buy a ticket, as they won’t be able to buy one on board.  Helpfully, if all this is too much hassle for you while you’re in town for a few days, if you are caught without a ticket in this Bizarro World system you get slugged with a $180 fine.  Welcome to Melbourne.

Libraries are often associated in peoples minds with arbitrary rules and regulations.  Some of these are necessary to ensure we provide equal access to our collections or to minimise stock loss, but some are simply petty, inefficient or unnecessary.  It’s also worth looking at your processes and what technology and services you provide.  How easy is it for a tourist to pop in and send an email home?  Do you provide quick access to daily newspapers and local street directories?  Do your staff know where the nearest post office, bank or public phone is located?  These things matter when you are a stranger in town.

Avoid replacing old barriers with new ones

Sometimes, even when you have ensured the new technology is solving a problem and the policies are right, you still find yourself creating new barriers just as your replace the old ones.  Metcard had a barrier to infrequent travel between zones for those with periodic tickets in only one - you had to buy a second ticket for the extra zone to supplement your periodic ticket.  Myki overcomes this barrier by automatically calculating the fare, but the new system creates a new barrier by removing on-board ticket purchasing options.

Libraries should be mindful that we are not creating new problems at the same time we solve the old ones.  Will your RFID-enabled auto-return system have unforeseen ramifications?  Will your new virtual desktops cause USB stick incompatibilities?  (Hint: yes, they will). It’s important to be able to answer these questions before you commit.

Consistently provide excellent customer service

Finally, whatever you do has to be supported by consistently excellent customer service.  That means staff who are not only enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the new technology, but also empowered to find solutions when things don’t happen as expected.  The experience that prompted this post was an example of rigidly enforced rules, poorly trained staff and a culture of buck-passing and the ‘customer is always wrong’.  The problem was a card which got lost in the mail, but rather than enthusiastically trying to solve the problem, using the features of the system (ie the ability to wipe the original card remotely), or even apologising, I was told bluntly that I would have go pay an ‘administration fee’ for the privilege of actually getting the service I had already paid for.  Whilst eventually it was sorted out, it took intervention from another angle and a Myki staffer defining it as a ‘defective card’ - their system seems to have no allowance for cards being lost in the mail.

Does your library offer excellent customer service? Consistently?  Really?  Some ‘secret shopper’ tests might surprise you.

To sum up, what you should be aiming for is an experience akin to catching a train in Tokyo.  An experience where a customer who can’t speak the local language can still easily find the train they need to catch, buy a ticket quickly and easily, know the train will be perfectly on time, validate their card through the gates knowing there is no ‘wrong way around’ or ‘upside down’ way to insert the ticket, and then pay the difference between the ticket they mistakenly bought and the ticket they should have bought when they alight.  That is, a system that is easy to understand, easy to use, forgiving of mistakes, and friendly and unintimidating.  If you can do that, you’re on the way to a world-class library.