The Smart Card Revolution

How one invention transformed city travel.

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Remember when you had different tickets for different modes of public transport? A bus pass, a paper ticket for the tram, a subway token? (Not to mention paying with cash?)

Today, in countries all over the world, that’s history. Paris has the Navigo, Hong Kong has the Octopus, Stockholm the Access card, Sydney the Opal, and London the Oyster. They’re just five of the hundreds of cities that have ditched their old ticketing systems, introduced transit smart cards, and made multi-modal travel a whole lot easier for commuters. Among the major benefits:

  • Riders can use the cards across several modes of transport
  • The cards decrease the time it takes to board
  • Users automatically pay the right fare (and even get automatic re-imbursements in case of over-payment, and, sometimes, delays)
  • Fare collection becomes a lot easier (and requires less infrastructure and expenditure)
  • Closed loop feedback. The cards automatically collect travel data, which helps in planning future initiatives or route changes to actual rather than right-size demand.

The smart card revolution benefits more than just public transit. It can be programmed to pay for parking, and used in many restaurants and shops.

But the smart card isn’t as recent an invention as one might think, and electronic ticketing is only one of its many use cases. The first patent for the technology – a miniature circuit board that can hold secure electronic data – goes back to 1974.

The man behind it was Roland Moreno, a then 29-year old Frenchman. Moreno claimed the idea for it had come to him in a dream, and that he named his first smart card project TMR, after Woody Allen’s film Take the Money and Run.

Moreno was awarded the prestigious Legion d’Honneur award for his invention in 2009, but he missed out on global recognition – at least outside France, where, due to their great security, his smart cards were adopted relatively quickly for the Carte Bleue debit cards (while the rest of Europe was still using magnetic stripes). Shortly after, the French Télécom used his system for the Télécartes used in pay phones.

Internationally acknowledged or not, Moreno’s patent made him a rich man. And it has stood the test of time. In 2000, Moreno offered one million French francs to anyone who could break the security of the card within 90 days. Nobody succeeded, and the money was never claimed.

Roland Moreno, who died in 2012, was a serial inventor; but none of his other ideas were quite as successful as the “carte à puce”, which has evolved to include contactless transactions. And Moreno’s company Innovatron is still in the game. They’re working with licence-holders all over the world, and the smart card has revolutionized pretty much every area of life: Its technology is used in ID cards, debit cards, driving licences, passports, and SIMs.

…And, also in transport, where the next big thing is already happening. Many operators are in the process of adding new payment options for their travellers, while others are addressing technology compatibility for their collections systems to enable smoother customer experiences.

By accepting bank card and mobile contactless payments, operators can reduce costs. The Smart Card approach allows transit systems to existing, proven infrastructures and travellers to pay using a system they already own and carry with them anyway.