The Transit Card Naming Edition
On payments, innovation, and cities
Mark Slavonia (MJS) is an investor, a pilot, and an avid cyclist. He wrote about radio altimeters, rowing machines, traveler’s checks, and more. He posts other things that are interesting on his website and on Twitter.
Mark here. One place technology has undoubtedly made life simpler is public transportation. Routes and timetables for most systems are integrated into mapping apps, waiting times are prominently displayed, and payment no longer requires exact change or even individual tickets and tokens.
Why is this interesting?
Before we were all carrying around iPhones, contactless smart cards that work across all of a region’s disparate transportation systems hugely simplified public transportation. First introduced in the mid-90s in Seoul, South Korea with UPass, contactless transport cards were one of the first mainstream applications for RFID chips, which can transmit small amounts of data when pinged at the correct frequency.
Hong Kong’s Octopus Card
Hong Kong followed shortly after Seoul in 1997 and kicked off the trend of giving these systemwide cards excellent names. The Octopus Card, commemorated the intelligent and adaptable creatures that live in the city’s bay, and evoked the broad reach of the region’s many types of public transportation. Soon after, other cities followed suit and introduced cards with clever and regionally-appropriate names. Around the world there are many great transit card names, loads of decent ones, and few terrible ones. London evoked its fishmonger past when it launched the Oyster Card in 2004.
London’s Oyster Card
Most, but not all, of the most clever card names commemorate local or symbolic animals, such as the ORCA card in Seattle and the LeoCard in Lviv, Ukraine (the latter’s city shield prominently features a lion). San Francisco’s Clipper Card recalls the fast clipper sailing ships of the 19th century while suggesting the way one just clips the card against the reader. Los Angeles’s TAP makes a more direct suggestion for how to use the card.
The greatest moment in the already illustrious history of transit card names happened in 2004 when Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority settled on the gently self-mocking name “CharlieCard” for its smart payment system.
Boston’s spectacularly-named CharlieCard
Boston’s subway system historically had a maddening and incomprehensible payment system that often required additional payment before exiting. A rider without exact change could theoretically be stuck in the subway. In 1949, a Progressive mayoral candidate named Walter O’Brian used a traditional folk song, adapted by Jacqueline Steiner and Bess Lomax Hawes, in his campaign, promising lower subway fares by singing the ballad of a man named Charlie who got stuck in the system for want of a nickel. A decade later The Kingston Trio recorded a version of the political protest song and scored a surprise #1 hit, M.T.A. The CharlieCard commemorates the system’s famous fictitious rider.
The heyday of the contactless transit card is rapidly looking like a thing of the past. More and more systems, like the aforementioned New York and London, have made their own cards obsolete by introducing direct tap-to-pay from credit cards and mobile phones, rendering a dedicated card unnecessary. New York, which never got around to launching a contactless card (the MetroCard used a magnetic stripe) jumped directly into the direct payment era. You can now ride the New York subway by tapping your credit card or phone. The program even has a decent name: OMNY.
A Wikipedia list of smart transit cards around the world. Some of these are probably great names in the local language.
The history of the New York City subway token
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Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Mark (MJS)
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