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A Really Smart Card: How Hong Kong’s Octopus Card moves people

Many people have experienced problems with public transportation systems: delays, ticket machines that are hard to use, inadequate or complicated signage making it difficult to find your way around a train system, disconnected modes of transportation, awkward payment systems, and poor transportation infrastructure to name a few. Such user experiences often result in people relying on their own car to avoid having to use public transportation.

Transportation in Hong Kong

In a crowded, busy, and fast-paced city like Hong Kong, with a population of close to seven million people, an efficient transportation system is critical to ensuring that people can move around smoothly. With over 90 percent of daily travel using public transportation—one of the highest rates in the world—Hong Kong provides a model for other cities experiencing or anticipating increased patronage as fuel prices rise and environmental considerations become more critical.

Hong Kong enjoys a superb public transportation infrastructure that includes buses and mini buses, the underground and overground trains and light rail of the MTR (Mass Transit Railway), ferries, and taxis.

A key component in integrating these diverse modes of transportation in Hong Kong is the Octopus card (Figure 1). The Octopus Card, or Octopus as Hong Kong citizens often refer to it, contributes enormously to the success of getting people around in Hong Kong. In fact, the Octopus has been so successful that it has extended beyond its initial use in public transportation and can be used to make payments at car parks, fast food outlets, convenience stores, supermarkets, vending machines, pay phones, leisure facilities, and schools. It has also been introduced successfully in non-payment uses such as access control.

photo of person scanning a transit card
Figure 1. Scanning an Octopus Card is easy.

Put simply, the Octopus is a card and service that people in Hong Kong cannot live without.

What is the Octopus

The Octopus is the world’s pioneering and most extensive electronic payment system and was the first in the world to use contact-less stored-value smart card technology for public transportation. The card can be recharged at railway stations or outlets such as 7-Eleven that accept the card, and it is debited by “swiping” in proximity to a sensor.

In 1997, within three months of its debut, three million cards were issued. The Octopus now provides access to most public transportation in Hong Kong and people can use the card with over 2,000 service providers. About 50,000 Octopus readers are currently in use with a transaction time of 0.3 to one second on average.

There are now over seventeen million Octopus cards now in circulation, and 95 percent of the Hong Kong population aged sixteen to sixty-five own one. Octopus processes over ten million transactions per day, valued at HK$85 million (approximately US$11 million).

Why do People Love Their Octopus

  • It’s easy to recharge at train stations and convenience stores.
  • It provides easy ways to add value. For example, you can link a credit card to the Octopus so that it recharges the card automatically. This helps both Octopus and MTR profit.
  • The card does not penalize you when you only have a small amount of money left on the card. For example, if your journey costs more than the available amount, one trip is still allowed (the card goes into negative value and will have to be recharged prior to a subsequent use).
  • The card is a nice collectible with the Octopus business creating key chains, watches, and cards embedded into mobile phones, moving the whole experience into people’s personal items.
  • The Octopus technology is scalable and flexible, allowing uses in car parks, on parking meters, and as a means of identification to allow access to secure areas. (By default, however, the card is completely anonymous and is equivalent to cash in that regard.)
  • You can check the remaining value, date, amount, and type of service provider of your last ten transactions via the Octopus Enquiry Machines free of charge at any MTR station. In fact, PCCW, one of Hong Kong’s leading telecommunication companies, provides a phone called “Eye” which allows people to check the latest ten transactions using a card reader at home.
  • Ticket machines are easy to locate at stations and easy to use. When you add value at your machine, you can use a debit card, credit card, or cash.
recent transaction list from a card
Figure 2. Checking recent transactions.

Complexity Beyond the Simplicity

The Octopus card overlays a highly complex technology. The Octopus reader/writer (called a “card reader”) houses a controller board and antenna that uses inductive radio frequency to transmit power and data signals to the processors inside the Octopus. Data communications to and from the Octopus is only established when the transfer of encrypted data verifies a mutually authenticated security handshake.

The card reader is connected to the Octopus processors and receives commands from the processor controller on the actions to be performed. The transaction data is then either stored in the card reader or sent back to a host computer, depending on whether the processor is online or offline. All transaction data is sent back to the Octopus Central Computer at the end of each day for clearing and settlement.

The amazing part is that all this complexity is shielded from the users with a simple user interface. All people need to know is how to recharge the card and to press the card against the card reader.

Same Service, Different Story…London and Melbourne

The main reason for the Octopus’ success is that it’s been set up as a joint venture with Hong Kong’s major public transport operators, so the operators and infrastructure that support it have real incentive to install the Octopus system. Other cities such as London and Melbourne have implemented similar systems, or are attempting to do so, with mixed success.

London implemented the Oyster Card which is used on the Tube, trams, buses, DLR (Docklands Light Railway), London overground, and some National Rail services. The Oyster Card can hold up to three products including Travelcards, bus passes, or pay as you go (“PAYG”).

There are some key differences between Octopus and the Oyster Card:

  • OYSTER CARD IS USED ON TRANSPORTATION ONLY – The Octopus has scaled to other uses including point of sale.
  • LIMITED INTEGRATION AND TRANSPORTATION INFRASTRUCTURE COMPLICATIONS – The integration of various Oyster Card types is limited. While PAYG can be added to a normal period Travelcard, it cannot be added to a Freedom Pass (seniors card). So users must carry two separate cards if they want to travel at peak times. The management of all student Oyster Cards is linked to the academic year and requires London’s secondary school students to apply for new cards within the same two-week period. Any value associated with the current card can only be transferred to the new card by telephoning Oyster Card customer service.
  • TOUCH IN AND OUT SYSTEM IS NOT OBVIOUS – PAYG users on the Underground, DLR, National Rail, and overground services are required to always “touch in” and “touch out” for the correct fare to be charged. This is not obvious at stations with only standalone Oyster validators available instead of ticket barriers. Without a physical ticket barrier, PAYG users can easily forget to “touch in” their card correctly resulting in a penalty fare being charged to the traveler.
  • SYSTEM INSTABILITY – Over the years, Oyster has suffered faults including the day PAYG system went live in 2004, preventing some passengers with season tickets from making a second journey on their travel card. In 2005, a software fault rendered the system inoperable during the morning rush hour. Ticket barriers had to be left open and PAYG fares could not be collected. Finally, in 2008, corrupt software disabled an estimated 100,000 Oyster Cards, including Travelcards, Staff Passes, Freedom Passes, Child Oyster Cards, and other electronic tickets. The PAYG system failed, resulting in thousands of users being charged penalty fares.

Melbourne’s myki Card in Australia plans to replace a number of ticket systems, primarily the current Metcard (metropolitan Melbourne) and V/Line (regional) ticketing systems. However, myki has been delayed until 2010, with the total cost of the system now at AUD$1.3 billion rather than the $1 billion originally budgeted.

As the myki system has not yet been released, it’s difficult to assess key differences and the positive impacts on the current system. However, the proposed system is intended to have the following benefits:

  • One card for both regional and metropolitan use
  • Calculates the “best fare” in metropolitan areas
  • Future-use as a stored value card to pay for non-travel expenses like parking and vending.
  • Reduction in fraud due to use of photo-based card

Beyond a Better Transport System

Hong Kong’s transportation system is one of the best in the world, but there is always room for innovation. The challenge for designers is to think of new ways to help encourage people to use public transportation to help reduce carbon emissions. What will it take to get people not to use cars and make public transportation a more moving user experience?