This morning, London’s entire transport network took a baby step into the future. Travelers can now tap in and out of the network by waving a credit or debit card equipped with near field communication (NFC) technology—the same used by Apple to enable payments in its new iPhones. Barclays has also launched a wristband that lets commuters through the turnstiles simply by waving their hands.
Apple’s contactless payments, heralded as the next big thing in the United States, aren’t entirely a revelation for Londoners. For the past decade, commuters in Britain’s capital have been urged to forgo paper tickets in favor of the Oyster Card, an NFC-enabled piece of plastic that made paying for Tube and bus journeys a quicker and less cumbersome process.
There remain some worries. Transport for London has not proved the best custodian of customer data—in April it emerged that TfL had been making public the travel data of millions of users of its bike hire scheme. Using a credit or debit card on the network also makes it impossible to travel anonymously, unlike paper tickets and Oyster cards, which can be paid for with cash.
Contactless credit cards are popular throughout Europe and especially in the UK. Yet they account for just 23.8 million of the 993 million card payments in the UK in June, 2014. In America, Apple is hoping to convince users, banks, and merchants that contactless payments are the future. But as the UK shows, it takes many years of gentle persuasion—and the support of public services—before such services go mainstream.