TIP’s ambitious electronic fare-collection service combines NFC technology with BLE beacons, enabling customers to check in by tapping their Android NFC smartphones, then “be-out,” with the beacons recording the passengers’ exit from the system. The agency has faced challenges with the rollout of the app, however. Some of these involve the technologies the app uses, others relate to difficulties in changing customer behavior.
The agency said it sees an average of 2,400 new customers sign up for the Anda app each month. Since launching the app in June 2018, TIP has recorded nearly 1.5 million trips using the app. That’s still a very small share of the total number of trips TIP handles for the nearly 20 public transit operators serving the Porto metro area every month or nearly 15 million, pre-pandemic.
The agency that runs ticketing for 19 public bus, tram and train operators serving Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, says it has had success–and faced several challenges–with the rollout of its Anda mobile-ticketing app.
The ambitious electronic fare-collection service, launched in mid-2018, combines NFC technology with Bluetooth Low Energy beacons. It enables customers to check in by tapping their Android NFC smartphones loaded with virtual fare cards on contactless terminals on board buses and on train and tram platforms, then leave the transit network at their chosen stop or station. BLE beacons record the passengers’ “be-out” exit from the system.
But despite the dual technologies it is asking customers to use, the mobile app actually aims to make multimodal travel on public transit in Porto less complex for customers, according to Sara Lobão, chief administrator for Transportes Intermodais do Porto ticketing system, or TIP, who spoke at a recent Transport Ticketing Digital conference.
“Our (card-based) ticket system is complex, and it became necessary to simplify to use of it,” she said, noting that architects of the system had asked themselves, “How can we attract customers, (including) new customers, and maintain the rule of validation of every journey, because it’s necessary for our system? Naturally, the object people carry with them all the time are their mobile phones, and so that’s how the Anda app was born.”
Complicating matters was the fact that TIP’s ticketing system is completely without barriers or gates, and the new mobile fare-collection service had to record and validate every trip riders take.
TIP chose a hybrid NFC check-in/BLE be-out system. The first part uses host-card emulation in the Android app to create a digital version of TIP’s closed-loop Andante card, which is based on Calypso contactless technology. Riders tap their phones on Calypso readers in validators on board buses and on light rail and train platforms to enter the fare-collection system, said Marta Campos Ferreira, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Porto, who has studied the Anda app. She spoke at the presentation with Lobão as part of the virtual conference, which was organized in March by Clarion Events.
After tapping in, the system is designed to show passengers the stations or stops they are going through using beacons installed on buses and inside validators on light rail and train platforms, including underground trains. So the system requires users to keep their Bluetooth connections open during the entire trip.
“At the end of the journey, the passenger just leaves the vehicle, and the mobile application automatically closes the journey for the passenger,” Campos Ferreira said. “So here, in this case, the passenger only needs to interact with mobile phone just in the beginning of the journey.”
Customers pay their fares at the end of the month. TIP developed a “fare optimization” algorithm to minimize the final fare that users pay.
The agency said it sees an average of 2,400 new customers sign up for the Anda app each month. Since launching the app in June 2018, TIP has recorded nearly 1.5 million trips using the app.
That’s still a very small share of the total number of trips TIP handles for the nearly 20 public transit operators serving the Porto metro area every month or nearly 15 million, pre-pandemic. During the full year of 2019, TIP processed payments for a little more than 175 million total trips.
The agency has faced challenges with the rollout of the app, as well, however. Some of these involve the technologies the app uses, others relate to difficulties in changing customer behavior, said Campos Ferreira.
Poor NFC Coupling, BLE Problems Among Challenges
One problem was that the app didn’t work well with some of the Android phones customers were using, depending on the Android version their devices were running and model of phone. The problem required TIP to make tweaks or changes to the app just so it would work with specific Android phone models. “You may imagine how confusing this is,” Campos Ferreira said.
Another challenge involves the Bluetooth technology, with phone makers introducing a BLE management feature on some of their models, she said. “What happens is that if it finds an application is consuming a lot of battery, it just shuts down the application,” Campos Ferreira said. “In this case, customers are on a journey and the trip would end, despite the passenger being inside of a vehicle.”
Some reviews of the app on Google Play noted that among the problems users have experienced is that the app did not track the stations users had passed through or where they exited the system.
Campos Ferreira did not mention during the conference whether TIP has seen problems with users phones running out of sufficient battery power to keep the app running, which would create an obvious problem in a be-out fare-collection system.
But she did say that another challenge TIP has faced is convincing more customers to use the Anda app to pay fares instead of staying with their closed-loop contactless fare cards. The cards have worked well for them, and many customers don’t want to switch to their phones. Some of these customers probably worry that their smartphones “may run out of battery” or experience other problems, she said.
The problems don’t just involve Bluetooth technology, either. Some of the Calypso contactless readers TIP is using in Porto are more than 10 years old, so the agency has had to upgrade them to try to get the readers to communicate more smoothly with mobile phones. “And, in some cases, despite that adaptation, they still do not work properly as they should,” Campos Ferreira said.
Advice for Other Agencies
She said other transit agencies attempting to launch mobile ticketing can benefit from the lessons TIP has learned from its experience rolling out the Anda app.
The first is to make sure that agency staff helps customers adapt to the new system, which takes time for customers. The customers will usually be used to tapping smart cards, not mobile phones, to pay fares, which sometimes will require more than one try to get the contactless reader to accept the phone tap. That can lead to frustration.
“So our advice would be for transport operators to help in wherever they can, like making tutorials and videos. And frontline employees (should) provide training to passengers,” she said.
Transit agencies also need to provide a clear value proposition to encourage customers to switch to their mobile phones to pay fares. For example, they could show customers that they would save money by using the app, or that they wouldn’t need to buy tickets before using the service or know the transport network well in order to ride. The Anda app offers all of those advantages.
“Imagine this situation that passenger has to do daily journeys from home to work every day, and he has to cross two zones,” Campos Ferreira said. “And on Saturdays, he has to go to the hospital for some health treatments. And in this case, he has to cross another two zones.
“With smart cards, people have to purchase the tickets in advance. And a passager in this case would buy a monthly pass for those two zones that he crosses every day to go from home to work. And these would cost €30(US$35.65). And he would buy single tickets just for the journeys that he does on Saturdays.”
Using the preloaded smart card, the customer would have paid €42.50 by the end of the month, she noted. But with the Anda app, which is “constantly grouping the journeys that the passenger makes to give the best price,” the system would calculate a monthly pass for four zones, not two, costing the customer a total of €40 at the end of the month. That’s a savings of €2.50. While small, the savings might be enough to convince a customer to switch.
Seeking to Support iOS, cEMV, MaaS
Campos Ferreira said TIP wants to introduce a version of the Anda app for the iPhone, but she acknowledged that it’s been “really tough” to do so because the Anda app uses NFC, and Apple blocks use of its NFC secure chips by third parties. The tech giant also doesn’t support host-card emulation like Google does with Android. Still, she said, TIP is working on an iOS version of the app to try to capture more customers.
TIP also plans to accept open-loop bank cards, especially to accommodate tourists and occasional passengers. Payments gateway company Littlepay, which has offices in the UK, said recently it was preparing for a pilot in Porto to launch within around six months. A slide Campos Ferreira showed during the conference indicated that beside contactless EMV bank cards, TIP would also accept wallets from such NFC payments services as Apple Pay and Google Pay. She said plans call for integrating open-loop payments with the Anda app, as well, but it’s not clear how.
Finally, Campos Ferreira said TIP wants to expand the Anda app and its “optimized mobility accounts” to handle fare payments for third-party transport and mobility companies, besides the 19 bus, tram and train operators that it already serves. That could include micro-mobility modes, such as bicycle and scooter rental and perhaps ride-hailing services. She didn’t, however, specify a timeframe for TIP to introduce a MaaS platform.