Transit Report: Oyster
I’m going to start a series of “transit reports” here to report my findings and I’d like to start with Oyster, London’s smart card for transit.
The Oyster Card is a smart card that you touch onto a target when entering buses or when entering or leaving gates (“turnstiles”) at rail stations. It was introduced in 2003, and now accounts for about 80% of all fare payments on buses and the Tube. To get a card you have to make a £3 (refundable) deposit; then to use it you must add value using machines at stations, ticket offices, or at many convenience stores throughout London. The value is then deducted as you travel, and screens attached to the targets tell you how much you have been charged and your remaining balance each time you use it. The cool part is that fares with Oyster are much lower than paying with cash directly – for example, a trip within the center of London (Zone 1) costs £4 if you pay directly with cash or just £1.80 with Oyster.
The really cool part is that Oyster is programmed to always give you the best deal on a daily basis – so instead of getting a headache from reading the 20-page brochure on fares/tickets and prices, just touch in and touch out for each trip you make with Oyster and it will do the thinking for you. To do this, there are set daily price caps for different types of travel. For example, if you travel within zones 1-3 on a weekday including travel during the morning rush hours the cap is £8.60. So, no matter how much you travel that day you should not be charged more than £8.60.
There’s a catch, though – in crazy traveling around London (both as one looking at many flats and as one enamored with transit) Oyster can get confused! Last Monday I traveled within zones 1-3 as mentioned above but instead of getting charged £8.60 I was charged £18.90. Apparently, my travels confused the system, so it didn’t know what to charge me, so it charged me a maximum penalty fare. So the next day I got on the phone with the Oyster help line and after some research they agreed to refund me the difference. The same thing happened on Friday. When I called the next day, they told me not to worry because the system had already realized that it overcharged me and already programmed a refund (of over £6) for me the next time I use my card. So maybe that’s progress, learning from one’s mistakes – more than can be said for a lot of humans 🙂
Either way, these troubles should go away when we get settled and purchase monthly Travelcards, which are unlimited-ride passes that are stored on Oyster. All in all, the smart card system works quite well and removes a lot of the complexity, especially for visitors and infrequent users.