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As mass transit systems go digital, many consumers are left at the station

An app on your phone isn’t the same as a token in your wallet.


Anna Conkling


The world is becoming rapidly digitized, changing the way society operates in the process. From making appointments online to paying with a tap of a phone, people have become accustomed to having their needs met in a matter of seconds. 

That includes in the transportation systems in major cities.  

But while commuters are beginning to have access to public transportation from their smartphones, a number of problems and indignities are arising from these new advances, as reliable “tech” like tokens are being replaced by something dependent on a satellite in the sky why you’re underground.

Long waiting times to receive tickets, monthly subscriptions that must be canceled in advance, and a system that is not accessible to everyone has created new consumer headaches across the globe.

The changes have taken place over the last few years. Mass transportation systems, a lifeline to commuters in urban environments, are adapting to the digitized world, and thinking of new and innovative ways to keep pace with a customer base that relies heavily on their phones.

Some cities are offering apps for daily trips and monthly subscriptions, while others have installed new machines that offer touch-and-go interactions from mobile wallets or credit and debit cards. Whether they’re working depends on how you define it.

In Germany, monthly tickets for transit systems can cost nearly 100 per person, a price that has proven steep for some throughout the country.

From January to May, inflation in the country rose to 7.9%. To combat rising prices, the country announced a discounted metro ticket nationwide for the summer. The ticket cost 9 a month and was purchased over 52 million times throughout its three-month lifespan. It resulted in commuters saving over 200, and inflation went down in the process, according to an article by Deutsche Welle 

Once summer ended, the discount went with it, but inflation continued to rise. 

In order to alleviate some of the burdens of an increasing cost of living, Berlin launched its own discounted ticket, which costs 29 for October to the end of December, a deal that is only accessible through the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG) app. 

The offer is part of a monthly subscription and needs a plastic card to be paired with it. That can either be attained through waiting in long lines at customer service centers, bought at specific Berlin stores, or by ordering it online.

If ordered online, customers have to print out their confirmation and use the paper ticket until their plastic card comes in the mail, which can take weeks, a complicated, convoluted process that negates the efficiency of technology.  

Additionally, the promotion replaces one hard copy ticket with another and does not account for those who do not have a smartphone or are not tech-savvy, while also not providing an alternative if one’s phone dies while commuting. 

When customers receive their card, they have to open the app and enter their pass number, a further hassle just to get the promotion. And there is no way to use the printed confirmation in the BVG app while customers wait for their order in the mail, another confusing step.

The complexities surrounding it have vexed some Berliners, and they’ve documented their sometimes hour-long wait to buy the app card in customer service centers at specific stations. And while it would save money for three months, it also might prove problematic in the long run if prices return to the city’s 89 monthly ticket in 2023. 

“So it seems Berlin’s venerable public transit authority wasn’t exactly ready for the demand for the €29 monthly ticket, can’t process orders, and can’t say how long it’ll take before you can actually make use of what you’ve paid for,” wrote journalist William Glucroft on Twitter.

And journalist Konstantin Nowotny wrote “In principle, the 29-euro ticket is a subscription trap that, with a mandate, will simply collect 600 euros for the annual ticket next year unless there is a follow-up solution. Please remind your friends to unsubscribe at the end of the year.”

Berlin is not the only city that is moving its platform online. In the city notorious for fast-paced living, New York City is also shifting its MetroCard to an in-app purchase. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) launched a contactless fare system, a pilot program called OMNY in 2019. The program added updates to turnstiles, which were once only accessible by purchasing a flimsy, yellow paper card.

New Yorkers can now tap their virtual wallets or bank cards on the lit-up screen and make their way to a train’s platform.

OMNY has been an easy alternative to a fast-paced city where people can miss a train when they pause to add money to a paper card. It has since become available at all train stations in New York and on the city’s buses. 

But recently, the MTA announced that they would completely phase out the MetroCards over the next two years, replacing them with OMNY entirely. The new system will work like Berlin’s BVG does, by app and plastic cards if someone does not have the app or credit cards. This once again replaces a card with another card. It also pushes a cost onto those who don’t smartphones. In a city with a poverty rate of 13.9%, the only way for those who do not have smartphones to use the city’s subway will be to purchase these cards for $5. If they are lost, they’ll have to replace them.

Some riders are voicing their concerns about how New York might be leaving out marginalized communities in its strive towards digitizing the MTA.

One user wrote “My concerns: (1)not everyone has access to a smart phone, so how can this transition address access for those that don’t have a smart phone? (2) Phones are not always reliable (low battery, phone died, screen doesn’t function, etc.) – what’s the solutions in this case?”

OMNY has taken account of efforts to respond to New Yorkers who are not entirely convinced by the new fare system. The company addressed questions about riders who do not own smartphones or are using a reduced fare for low-income communities in a statement on their website.

In Italy, the MyCicero app was launched in 2013 as a way to connect all modes of transportation in various cities, including Rome. 

MyCicero labels itself as “The app you can take anywhere,” connecting in-app purchases to all modes of transportation, including parking, buses, and trains. 

But, the app has caused countless problems, and it has just under a three-star rating on both the Apple and Google’s app stores. The reviews include notes about the app crashing, valid cards getting rejected, and SMS verification requirements not being delivered to users.

One reviewer on the Apple store wrote, “This app won’t let us login because it needs an SMS verification code and won’t send. Tried 4 different phones, tried Wi-Fi, and data. Doesn’t work unfortunately.” Another on Google Play wrote “The app stopped working after purchasing my tickets so I wasn’t able to validate my ticket while I was on the bus. This resulted in over $100 in fines. Don’t use this app.”

The supposedly easy app, designed to make commuting seamless, can take what was once an extremely easy process and turn it into something chaotic, as the complaints on the app stores reveal. But regardless of these faults, once advances are implemented, they are rarely walked back.  

When it comes to technology on transit systems, every trip forward can sometimes send you two stops back it seems. 

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