Contactless in the UK

John Bradburn | 18 Feb 2016 | Comments

London transport network reaches 300 million contactless payments but what about the rest of the UK?

Last month Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, boasted how Londoners and visitors from around the world are embracing the use of contactless technology across the city’s transport network  - with an impressive array of statistics to back up the claim. 27% of all pay as you go journeys on tube and rail services are now made using contactless, contributing to a staggering 300 million journeys since the initial role out of the technology across the network with one million transactions per day.

Contactless in the UK
Transport for London (TfL) first began accepting contactless card payments in December 2012 on London buses. A further roll out in September 2014 brought contactless payments to the tube, tram, DLR, London Overground, and most National Rail services in London. And it seems this growth is set to continue – with TfL announcing that all London black cabs will accept contactless payments from October 2016 . Contactless payments on London transport have been so successful that around one in seven of all contactless transactions in the UK now take place on London transport.

The success of contactless payments isn’t just limited to TfL’s network - last month it was reported that contactless payments in general now constitute as much as 10% of all payments - an impressive proportion given only a year before the same figures stood at 3.7% . There is therefore a clear appetite for contactless payment from much of the public.

So whilst contactless payment has become the norm for London commuters and visitors, what of the rest of the UK? In my home city of Birmingham, transport operators are yet to adopt contactless payment – though the Swift Card (Birmingham’s answer to the Oyster Card) is finally being rolled out. Meanwhile Manchester – which ditched plans for a its own version of the Oyster Card late last year  - is looking to adopt on-board contactless payments across its network at some point in the future. 

If our leading cities are struggling to adapt to contactless payments – London excused– what of rural transport networks? With cuts to council funding, many rural bus services face the threat of reduced subsides , so it seems unlikely that investment in technology to accept contactless payments will come soon. 

There is perhaps one glimmer of hope for all those public transport users outside London – the recent announcement of a national framework for the UK wide roll out of contactless payments across train and bus networks . What’s interesting to note about this framework is that it isn’t led by government or transport operators, but by the card payments industry itself, in the form of The UK Card Association. This development is a positive move that could eventually lead to the use of contactless payments across the UK transport network, though it will be down to traditionally conservative transport operators to push forward with the proposals.

And what about the end user? Whilst many younger people are happy to use contactless payment, does the age-old claim that older people struggle to adapt to new technologies apply here? In such cases it’s useful to look wider to learn from other experiences, for example the impact of the closure of high-street banks. Many forecasted that older people would be hardest hit by bank closures , and whilst it’s regretful if some older people have been negatively affected, many more have adapted to this new reality and have taken to online banking in droves – as evidenced by research showing that ‘silver surfers’ are the fastest adopters of digital banking.

One bank deployed an age-simulation suit for use by staff so that they could experience some of the physical effects of ageing. The suits limit movement using weights and mimic sight and hearing deficiencies, and helps staff test how easy it is for older people to use branch, internet and telephone banking services .

We should learn from this, and help older people adapt to new technologies rather than presuming their ignorance. There is no reason older people, already users of debit and credit cards, could not use contactless payment – after all, bus users in London adapted to the suspension of cash payments on TfL’s bus network in July 2014.

So what for the year ahead? My prediction for 2016 is perhaps quite mundane: that contactless payments will continue steady growth – with the proportion of payments by NFC equipped phones and other devices also rising. I also predict that we will see transport users continuing to expect, and perhaps demand, that contactless payment technology on public transport outside London become normalised – particularly on the National Rail network, as technology savvy commuters expect more for their money.

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