Go with the Flow

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Lothian Buses has seen a rapid up-take in the use of contactless payments. RICHARD WALTER

Jonathan Welch learns about the growth in contactless and open payments from Flowbird’s Paul Rogers

How we travel is constantly evolving, and although the process of boarding a bus and paying might be something travellers give little thought to, there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly. A few decades ago, that would have meant handing over money to the driver, taking a ticket, then the driver cashing in at the end of the day and the money being transported to the bank. Some operators speeded up that process with autofare vaults and an exact fare policy. But it all still happened after the fact.

Today, many people have paid for their trip before they get anywhere near the bus, probably before they even knew which bus they were getting. Technology has moved on, and we have an almost bewildering array of m-tickets, online payment, smartcards, contactless payment, and more. And unless you work in the back office of a bus operator, you’ve probably given little thought to how that all happens.

And how does it happen? It happens thanks to companies like Flowbird, which specialise in urban mobility solutions. In this case, the wide-ranging term covers everything from parking terminals to bus travel apps. The technology is aimed at making journeys more seamless and more integrated, and encouraging multi-modal travel.


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I spoke to Flowbird’s UK Sales & Marketing Director for Transport Paul Rogers to hear more about where the industry is heading. First, he outlined some of the company’s background. “In essence, Flowbird is a fares and payment technology provider to the public transport and parking industries,” Paul explained.

“We’re a market leader in fare and parking payment systems The company goes back to the 1970s, when we designed the first electronic parking machines, and in the 1980s we developed electronic bus ticket machines. The bus side of the business was previously known as Wayfarer Transit Systems, and the parking business was Parkeon. Following various acquisitions and mergers, Flowbird as we know it today was formed in 2018.

“Today, we’re a diverse global business which operates across many countries. We’ve delivered projects on most continents, including major ones for on-street parking in Hong Kong and New York and for transit across North America and Australia. We’re the largest on-street parking payment provider in the UK.”

Contactless payments have quickly become the norm. JONATHAN WELCH


One of the company’s recent projects has been the introduction of a capped and contactless payment system in Edinburgh for Lothian Buses and Edinburgh Trams, both arms-length companies owned by the city council. Flowbird provided 700 on-bus validation systems to facilitate the tap-on open payment system, which marked a milestone high number of taps per day during this summer’s Edinburgh Festival.

Launched a few days before the 2019 Festival, Flowbird reports that over 50% of journeys now use contactless. “The Edinburgh installation was exciting for a number of reasons,” outlined Paul. “Edinburgh itself is quite self-contained, compared to many other cities, which have a lot of urban sprawl. With a population of around 500,000, it also has a huge tourist influx in summer, and many of them rely on public transport.

“The road infrastructure there isn’t immense, but there’s a growing tram system, a railway station right in the centre, and a great bus network. Lothian was keen to provide a state of the art solution to make it as easy as possible for people to use its buses, and there’s a lot of alignment between the buses and trams because they have the same owner.

“Our open payment pay-as-you-go system has been tremendously successful so far. Just before the pandemic hit, people were starting to realise they didn’t need to carry cash to catch the bus. Lots of people welcomed it, as an alternative to the Ridacard, which continues to play a role too.”

Because of Edinburgh’s flat fare system, passengers need only tap on, and don’t need to remember to tap off at the end of their trip. A back office system facilitates the payment, creating what’s known as a ‘token,’ a digital identity, for the card, phone or watch used to pay the fare. It records the journeys made and aggregates the fares for settlement at the end of the day. After multiple taps, the amount the user pays is capped at the cost of a day ticket. The system also helps operators boost their eco credentials by reducing the number of paper tickets issued.

“Part of a bus operator’s remit is to make public transport accessible,” continued Paul, “and that means affordable and friction-free. Open payment is widely regarded as the best way to break down some of the barriers to travel. For operators with complex fare structures, the arguments are even stronger; although there’s the England-wide fare cap, that’s not a commercial driver. There’s a place for legacy fare systems, but the customer doesn’t need to worry about them. The system will deal with working out the fares.”

A tap-on reader installed on a bus in the Canadian city of Laval. FLOWBIRD


I wondered whether trusting the system to work out the best fare without necessarily knowing what the fare should be could put people off. “TfL says only a small percentage of its users actually go online to check what the fare is for a journey,” Paul countered. “People trust the system. Operators can have the best of all worlds, they can reward customers for loyalty with weekly or monthly caps, without the customer having to sign up or buy a smartcard.

“The number of people using open payment systems is testament to its success. Lothian has seen as many as 100,000 taps per day. It means people from all over the world can come and visit and not have to worry about fares or cash.”

In terms of fraudulent card use, he added that there is no more risk to users in ‘transit mode’ transactions than paying in a shop. At the other side of the shop window, for technology and system providers, there are strict security certifications to be met to be able to offer such systems, whilst operators are protected by shared liability agreements for ‘transit mode’ transactions.

Unlike in a shop, where a payment is accepted or declined immediately via an internet connection, transit mode transactions carry what is known as a first ride risk as the payment is deferred. If the transaction is subsequently declined by the card issuer, the card will be added to a ‘deny list’ for future transactions until the issue is resolved. The operator is protected from losses, generally up to £10, in such a circumstance.

Paul also added that electronic payment systems have no access to customer data such as the name of the card user or even the card number. However, the unique ID, or token, can generate useful data for operators, especially those which require passengers to tap off as well, allowing them to build up a picture of travel habits and patterns, a factor to balance against the simplicity of tap-on only.

No cash

Paul explained that although not all schemes will accept all contactless cards, it’s generally up to the operator to decide how wide to cast the net when it comes to what cards they will and won’t choose to accept according to what they feel will be most useful to their demographic.

“The Covid-19 pandemic supercharged the trends already in play,” Paul continued. “It had a big impact on people not wanting to handle cash. The transition was already happening anyway. Contactless has been around for more than 10 years, it’s nothing new, but it was becoming more widespread.

“Even now, Covid-19 continues to be a factor. Fewer people carry cash, and more places don’t like to accept it. It’s a fundamental social responsibility of public transport that it remains accessible to all, so operators have to remain inclusive and accept all payment types, including cash. That doesn’t have to mean on a bus, though. It could mean tickets which can be pre-purchased in advance at a travel centre or at local shops, as well as options such as e-purses, smartcards and m-tickets.”

Moving a step further along the line, ‘white label’ cards, which share the common EMV (‘Eurocard, Mastercard, Visa’) standard and security levels, are seen as a way to offer the same benefits as smartcards, along with increased functionality. They adopt the enhanced security measures of the card payment providers’ systems and reduce the need for devices that support multiple card formats.

Australia is another city where Flowbird products can be found. In Perth, Transport Minister Rita Saffioti demonstrates tapping on to a bus. FLOWBIRD

Integrated ticketing is another area of growing importance and interest for a number of reasons. Integrated, that is, in the sense of with other transport modes such as Transport for Greater Manchester’s plans for its Bee Network, but also integrated with other users such as cinemas and shops, where passengers can be offered an all-in-one payment for more than just the journey to or from a venue.

One challenge, as Paul explained, was that there is no unified way of creating an identifying ‘token’ across different technology providers’ systems. So that where a passenger uses different operators which all have different technology suppliers, their journeys are treated separately for each operator.

“It’s a question the industry is trying to address,” Paul explained. “There are working groups looking at how that can be done.”

Looking into the future, Paul suggested that the use of loyalty will become increasingly important, something which pure cash transactions don’t permit. “I can imagine a scenario where that extends beyond transport, such as discounts for products or services elsewhere,” he said, “such as city centre shops or restaurants.”

Multi-operator revenue apportionment will also become of growing importance, he said, as more schemes to offer integrated ticketing emerge. And multi-validation, where multiple passengers travelling together can tap the same card, is also seen as an important step forward, and one that is already available in other countries.

For Flowbird, Paul said that, in the short term, the company is going through a process of harmonisation across its transport and parking divisions, to make the company ready to face the challenges of the future. “We’re investing millions in the development of transport technology to provide increased multimodal functionality,” he explained.

“Our next big thing is a comprehensive interpretation of Mobility as a Service, MaaS, which combines public transport and micro-mobility along with parking and electric vehicle charging to provide a seamless solution to inter-modal journeys. We want to put our arms around all mobility touchpoints, so you can for example arrive at a park & ride, plug in your electric car, catch a bus, and buy a ticket for an attraction all in the same app.

“The UK bus industry is already advanced compared to other regions in the world, with the majority of buses already offering contactless payments. There will still be challenges as we move forwards but it’s a very exciting future,” Paul concluded, and one which could see tap-in and tap-out readers ultimately replaced by Bluetooth-enabled ‘be in, be out’ functionality, requiring no action from a user as they board or alight. Exciting indeed.


In the northern French city of Lille, a full service ticketing system, designed to deliver network-wide interoperability and make mobility easier and more convenient, was installed by Flowbird in 2013. The network had used a competitor’s system for over 15 years and it was reaching its technological limits.

The project to modernise had several goals, including making hardware management easier, introducing new payment methods, and simplifying multimodal journeys and cross-border travel. Ultimately, the operator wanted to make public transport easier to use to encourage more patronage.

The hardware requirements were extensive: over 300 ticket vending machines, more than 2,300 validators (on-board, gate and handheld), 600 bus consoles and 200 fare inspection devices were provided. In addition, to enable ticket sales beyond the confines of the transport network, over 300 point-of-sale terminals were placed in retail outlets and other approved resellers.

A single contactless pass was introduced called Pass Pass, which can be used to access the entire public transport system, as well as self-service bicycles, across the city, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region and in Belgium. Tickets were made available that combined parking and transport, enabling a park & ride experience that helps tackle road traffic congestion and emissions.

The city authorities, the transport operator and Flowbird continue to work together in partnership. Their most recent success has been the launch of open payments, which arrived in time for the Rugby World Cup, during which Lille hosted five rugby matches, each attracting almost 60,000 visitors; open payments removed two of the most persistent friction points of public transport use: getting a ticket, and understanding the fares structure for fans arriving for the games.

Keolis operates the public transport network in and around Lille under the Ilevia brand. JONATHAN WELCH