Photo by Simon Auffret

The NTA is celebrating an impressive landmark this week: it has now sold over 2 million Leap Cards.

The next step, and a good way to reward the travelling community for buying into this payment technology, should be to offer free transfers for all public transport users.

Probably more impressive than the 2 million card sales – we are informed that placed end-to-end they would connect Dublin and Waterford – is that 47 percent of all public transport trips in Ireland were paid for using a Leap Card during 2015. That’s up from 12 percent in 2012, so the technology is a hit and is fast becoming a standard.

That is important because it adds to the ease not just with which we can get around, but how we perceive we can get around. It removes one of the mental barriers to travel.

By now, most of us will have told a visitor or home-coming friend they’ll “need to get a Leap Card”, followed by “it’s cheaper and it works on the bus AND the Luas”.

Moreover, the facility is expanding its service range, like any good business would.

Automatic top-ups have been added (tricky enough to set up, but it works).

You can “associate” your DublinBikes card with your Leap Card.  What this means is you still need to own two cards, but you can leave one at home. Certainly good for those of us who want to spend less time fumbling in our wallets.

You can also get a personalised card with your own picture on it (a nice touch), and if you lose your card you can have it cancelled promptly and your credit transferred to your next card.

The Leap Card Team will do this and get a new card out in the post to you quickly. I know because it happened to me once and the service was extremely good.

Yet the Leap Card is not and cannot be described as proper integrated ticketing.

The technical term for it is an “e-purse” or “electronic wallet”. Essentially its job is to facilitate cashless fares and to establish the NTA as the clearing house for all public transport transactions.

What’s the difference? you might well ask. After all, it’s a plastic “smart” card and you can use it on near enough all services.

Well there’s an important difference. Integrated ticketing is something that has been promised by governments since 1994, when it was included in the seminal transport strategy for Dublin, the Dublin Transportation Initiative Final Report.

Integrated ticketing, in transport terms, means you can buy one ticket and use it to travel anywhere within a defined “fare zone” or time period.

There should be no financial penalty for transferring between services. Or for using multiple operators in your trip.

Neither is the case with the Leap Card in Dublin. In Dublin, you are charged an additional fare if you transfer to a second service.

Notwithstanding a cap on fares (and at least there is now a multi-modal cap), this is an unfair penalty on travellers and a huge restriction on urban mobility.

On rail services you are required to “tag-off” one service in order to “tag-on” to the next.  This is so that the NTA can reallocate fare revenue back to both operators, an operational issue which should be of no concern to travellers.

More egregiously, if you are a bus user, the driver is involved in the transaction.  This slows down actual travel times by around 5 percent for everyone research at DIT estimates.

By contrast, many French cities offer a 60-minute fare. You pay for the ticket and travel on any service during that time period.

German cities tend to charge by what zone you are in or how far you travel. Generally, you don’t have to take the ticket out of your wallet, boarding and alighting as you please within the travel zone you paid for.

Charging for transfers is akin to penalising the customer for not providing a perfect service to them. It is like saying, “We haven’t provided a direct trip in your case so we are going to charge you more for it.”

Passengers are already paying a penalty in terms of their time. Transport planners, in their fashion, refer to this as the “time-cost penalty”. Because people tend to value their time very highly, in most cases time-costs alone are a big enough deterrent to use public transport.

It turns out that quite a lot of Dubliners are being penalised by transfer costs (in financial and time terms), even without a comprehensive network to serve them.

In surveys of public transport users on two public-transport corridors in the Greater Dublin Area, 27 percent of people are already transferring either from or to another public transport service as part of their journey.

So if Dublin’s transport system is not designed to facilitate transfers, one in four Dubliners have to do so irrespective.

Being able to connect free of charge is also important because no public transport service can provide door-to-door trips for everyone. Many cities, including Dublin, try to predict where most people are going (usually to the city centre) and prioritise those journeys, to the detriment of others.

A better approach is to provide an effective, city-wide public transport network, which, with strong (and free) transferability, can connect anywhere to anywhere.

The usual question of why can’t we do this applies. Well, we can. But integrated ticketing is really a governance issue, a matter of policy if you like.

The irony is that Dublin once had fully integrated ticketing. Prior to the restructuring of CIE into Dublin Bus, Bus Eireann, Irish Rail etc., and myriad failed attempts to get private operators to provide an effective public service, there was a single transport agency (CIE) selling tickets and providing services.

Whatever the failings of the old CIE days might have been, those tickets were transferable and you paid for your fare in stages, not operators or services.

Now we have a single encompassing transport agency once again, but this time it is the National Transport Authority.

As successful as the Leap Card is, the NTA should cease penalising people for connecting and make public transport transfers free of charge.

David O’Connor lectures at DIT and co-runs the MSc in Transport and Mobility, a new multi-disciplinary programme in transport planning. Follow him on:

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