Don’t Fear the Beeper: Bus Hopper Tickets and the Future of Oyster

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“Today is a landmark day for transport in London,” London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan said on 12 September 2016. “It wasn’t right that Londoners had to pay twice simply to change buses.”

It is a deceptively simple statement for what was, ultimately, the delivery of one of his first transport manifesto pledges: The Hopper ticket. This ticket will allow all travel smartcard users to make a second bus or tram trip within an hour of boarding their first bus or tram at no extra cost. Two for one — £1.50 for two bus/tram trips within one hour of boarding the first leg of the journey.

The concept is simple, but in ticketing terms the ramifications have been huge. For the new bus hopper arguably represents the first introduction of new ticket functionality on London’s buses since the arrival of smartcards. As a result, an estimated 30m bus and tram trips a year will now be free.

“In terms of changes to the bus fare structure this is the biggest thing that has happened since buses went to flat fare in 2001.” Agrees Shashi Verma, TfL’s Director of Technology and Customer Experience. “The biggest thing since the introduction of Pay As You Go and capping.”

As the man ultimately responsible for the collection of fares, Verma’s understanding of the technical and financial complexities of the fare box on London’s buses is barely rivalled. As a result, he seemed the natural choice for LR to sit down with to explore the complexities involved in implementing the Hopper behind the scenes at TfL.

If there is one theme that continues to resonate throughout that discussion it is that this is a landmark change. The impact on the fare structure in London cannot be underestimated, he stresses. It required a reasonably complicated fare change. Yet, once the Mayor had reiterated his commitment to the Hopper, it became a matter of not “if” but “when.” Work on realising it began and a launch date for September was set.

This isn’t to say, of course, that the Hopper was an entirely new idea.

“[It] is something we have wanted to do for years and years.” Verma confirms. “But we haven’t wanted to do in the way that some politicians have wanted it to be done.”

“There is always this idea that we should have a one hour bus ticket, but actually no one wants to buy a ticket. People like Pay As You Go. So what we are giving them is the convenience of Pay as You Go and that they are not going to pay for that second bus ride. The important thing is that they do not have to make that decision in advance.“

That difference is important, he says.

“People talk about a one hour bus pass and all of that, which is what happens in European cities – you have to go and get the one hour bus ticket and you have to stamp it on the bus so that you show that you now have a one-hour bus ticket – but the reality is really that we have liberated people from all of that faff in London. I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the faff of having to stamp their ticket.”

“People like the convenience of these things coming to them automatically.” He continues. “And it would be really, really retrograde if we went back to: ‘I need to stamp you ticket please’ and all this funny stuff. “

Obstacles to implementation

Whatever the technological implications, it has been clear for some time that one major obstacle to implementing some form of bus hopper sooner has been the cost. Offering a free second bus trip within in the hour means revenue loss to TfL. The Hopper is going ahead now because the Mayor has agreed to foot the bill for that. The bus hopper as it is being introduced now, Verma admits, could have been offered earlier had the political will been there to accept that financial consequence.

Currently the cost of offering the new time based bus ticket is estimated to come in at £30m. Previous estimates billed the bus hopper at £50m – the figure given to London Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon when she pressed the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson on the cost of a One Hour bus ticket at Mayor’s Question Time in November 2014.

We ask Verma to explain the difference. He argues that the figure given two years ago is not actually significantly different from today’s in terms of how it was calculated. The £50m figure captured the estimated gross revenue loss at the time and that figure has since been corrected down. TfL now estimate that the gross revenues loss following the introduction of the new Hopper will add up to around £43m, not far off that £50m total. But they now anticipate that the new bus fare will attract an estimated £13m worth of new trips annually as well.

Breaking down the numbers

These estimates are based on Oyster card data, which allows Transport for London to see how many people are making a second bus trip within an hour. There are roughly 1.2m Pay As You Go journeys on buses everyday. Approximately 20-25% of passengers make a second bus trip within the hour – roughly 300,000 a day. This is how the £43m in lost revenue is estimated.

The £13m worth of new trips that will be made is an estimate based on the inversion of the principle that if fares increase passenger numbers will decrease. In this case the opposite is anticipated: the significant reduction in the cost of some journeys is expected to attract new trips. This isn’t a concept plucked from thin air. TfL has fares and passenger data going back to 1970, Verma explains, and the £13m estimated is based on the observed proportional change in passenger numbers to the proportional change in fares over the years.

Shifting Demand

In general, Verma does not expect that the new bus trip pricing will lead to transport demand shifting from Tube and rail to bus except perhaps at the margins.

“The fundamental reason why people choose rail and pay a higher fare is speed. So rail and bus do not really compete with each other too much.” The exception to that rule is Central London, we point out, but as Verma points out: “the reality is that Central London traffic is such a small proportion of overall bus traffic, it’s not really going to make that much of a difference.”

Who benefits

Verma emphasises that the “first thing is that everyone will benefit. This was something we put to the Mayor very firmly: that on any given day it’s 300,000 people – or whatever it is – that will benefit. Over time practically everyone then benefits because the system will work differently. “

“One day you will make journeys where you will benefit from this. Those who will benefit most from this new fare structure are those who are most reliant on buses because they have not got a rail route running near there”, he adds. The bus network is so densely spread across London in particular in outer London. “It’s quite a fundamental change to the fare structure where everyone will benefit.”

In part it is hoped that the Hopper will improve journeys by reducing wait times as, like their season-ticket-holding counterparts, Pay As You Go passengers are now able to get on the first bus, even if that means a change later.

“When you are travelling on a season ticket you have an incentive to get on the first bus. You find a wider choice of buses and you keep hopping that way – you get to your destination faster.” Verma explains. “That is the principle reason people go bus hopping.”

Wait times are therefore expected to drive user behaviour with the introduction of the new fare.

TfL have not yet undertaken any analysis on how much individual journey times might be reduced. This would involve an extensive exercise that looks at a wide range of factors, including route planning, to compare season ticket and Pay As You Go users. Verma expects that this analysis will be done in the near future, as it would allow TfL to understand how people are using the service. As TfL themselves do not collect demographic data, no analysis of the effect on different demographic groups can be undertaken to understand its impact.

Two for one Bus Hopper

At a technical level, the new Hopper ticket is reviving existing functionality within Oyster rather than creating new functionality. This is why it was possible for Transport for London to deliver the manifesto pledge within a few months. The Oyster system, which was introduced in 2003, has been reconfigured to allow transfer between buses or bus and tram.

In terms of process, when a passenger taps their card on the Oyster/contactless reader a series of checks are made on the card. At the most basic level: Is there enough money? With the introduction of the Hopper ticket a new question was introduced: Have you boarded a bus or tram within the past hour? If yes, a 100% discount on the £1.50 about to be charged is to be applied. The 2-for-1 ticket works by fully discounting the cost of the second bus or tram leg of journey.

Two functionalities in the workings of the Oyster card are being used to create the Hopper: time since last boarding and fare discount. Both are already used for integrated fares such as when transferring from national rail services to the Tube. The time and the discount are configurable. The former could be anything: 15min, an hour or a month. The latter anything from zero to 100%. “Configure it to 60mins and a 100% discount. That’s how you create a £1.50 in an hour”, Shashi Verma summarises.

Because the 2-for-1 Hopper is reviving existing functionality rather than create anything new the price tag is under £100,000. To set this in perspective, the programmed roll out of Contactless on rail across London came to £68m.

Multi-Buy Hopper

Whilst rolling out to the 2-for-1 Hopper could be turned around with a few tweaks to the Oyster and Contactless card code, allowing unlimited transfers within an hour is more complex.

“So, to do that on Oyster is seriously difficult.” Says Verma. “Very, very difficult. Because we have to get into quite fundamental functioning of Oyster.“ Unlike the 2-for-1 Hopper, which uses existing functionality on Oyster, an Unlimited Hopper would require making changes to the Oyster card back-end product itself.

It is currently possible to code the Unlimited Hopper for Contactless. This is because the back office of Contactless is newer and more accessible than Oyster, whose own back end dates back to the early 2000s. The back end for Contactless allows TfL to create and process data differently from Oyster – in short, more easily. “The mess is the same mess you find with any IT after 15 years. It starts to look a bit old”, Verma adds.

The intention in the long term — not just for the Hopper but in general — is to upgrade the back office of Oyster to the same level of service as Contactless, including linking the two systems. This will allow the complicated fare rules stored in the more sophisticated Contactless back office to act as a single source of information on those rules for both systems. In practical terms this would mean a tapped Oyster card charging a passenger for their trip but also talk to the back office of Contactless. If that passenger is making their third or fourth bus journey within the hour, the Contactless back office can then see that and issue a refund to the card.

This merger of the back offices of Oyster and Contactless is currently set for 2018. Once complete the Unlimited Hopper can be introduced. Yet, this will likely not be the biggest thing to come out of that eventual merger. This will be weekly capping on Oyster – fare capping for travel between Monday and Sunday at the price of a 7-day pass. This is currently only available for Contactless users.

The back office merger is part of the wider Contactless programme which began in 2011. The first phase of the programme was launching Contactless on buses in 2012, followed by the roll out of the system across the Tube in 2014.

“The third phase is being done on an extended basis – because unlike the first two phases the third phase is a bit more messy.” Says Verma. “This is where we get into all the complex technology behind Oyster.”

This phase started with upgrades to the telecom infrastructure over the summer. The upgrade will also allow the topping up and buying of tickets to become even easier, via an app with instant delivery rather than the next day as currently. Verma reiterates, however, that although the tweaks may seem small they get into the fundamental functionality of Oyster and are therefore not trivial to make whilst ensuring the system keeps running without hiccups.

Testing

Rigorous testing is key to avoiding such hiccups. Verma explains, “we have got to be very careful in what we are designing so that we understand where we are touching Oyster in terms of software, in terms of hardware, in terms of locations. We have got to be very clear where we are touching Oyster. Once we have designed the system we have got to test not just the new functionality but we have also got to go back and test all the functionality that we have touched already to make sure nothing is broken. That is called regression testing and regression testing is a big thing with IT systems.“

“Where people don’t do it things go badly wrong.” Verma continues. “Most of it is because of a lack of regression testing on antiquated systems. I wouldn’t let anything on Oyster go out without regression testing”

This isn’t to say that changes aren’t still being made to the current version of Oyster. Tweaks are made the fare system every week. The majority are smaller tweaks such as the addition of stations to the Oyster card network. In the past months stations including Gatwick and Dartford have been added. The complexity of adding a station varies – testing in advance therefore also varies in complexity and duration. It may only be three to four days in the lab and a few days of testing on the live system for a station like Dartford. Gatwick, by contrast, was more complicated and time-consuming. New rules had to be written as it required new rules to be applied for the Gatwick Express, whilst passengers using Southern or Thameslink would have the integrated fare structure applied. Introducing the Hopper was much more extensive than adding a new station.

Testing for the Hopper has been going on all summer. Live system testing started in July, following successful lab testing. For this TfL sends out its testers on the system to stress test the new code. The more extensive the change, the longer the live testing period. Contactless, for example, was introduced after nine months of testing.

Live testing is done in a very controlled manner. The live testers are sent out and test the new functionality in the live environment using test credits on both Oyster and Contactless. For the Hopper ticket, testing was first rolled out on the bus routes at a small garage. This was then expanded to routes from multiple garages, with trips being made between them. As the Hopper also allows free transfers between trams and buses, the next step was to expand testing to include the tram network. The Oyster team only has two dedicated testers normally, but when needed during crunch time – such as in preparation for the Hopper roll out – up to twenty temporary testers will be out and about across the system.

Nothing goes ahead without Verma’s sign off: “I am the Master Tester. Nothing goes out until I have seen the report.” A lot of testing also gets done by the team during regular travel – including by Verma himself.

“Occasionally my team gives me testing to be done.” He admits. “I’m not kidding. I take this very, very seriously. I use the contactless card every day. Anything that customers should complain about, I should be the first one to find out.”

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Written by Nicole Badstuber