Melbourne, where I live is a beautiful city with generous parklands, a dazzling cultural diversity and excellent public amenities. Established in 1835 as an illegal settlement which was quickly sanctioned by the Governor of New South Wales, General Sir Richard Bourke, who gave it the name of Melbourne in March 1837 after the then British Prime Minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne. Bourke commissioned Robert Hoddle to design the layout of the new town and the result is the famous ‘Hoddle Grid’ that defines Melbourne’s CBD.
Australia’s Victorian gold rush which began in 1851 poured wealth into the new town and it subsequently grew into a modern city with a population of almost half a million by 1890. By this time Melbourne also had all of the modern conveniences of the Victorian era like gaslights, telephones, electricity and a well designed, state of the art public transport system. In fact public transport in Melbourne has always worked for me with a huge rail network, dozens of tram routes and comprehensive bus services making it possible to get to all but the most remote parts of what has become a large sprawling city of 4 million people.
Public transport has become a hot topic in Melbourne in recent years as a succession of Victorian state governments has tried to implement a new ticketing system which has been less than a roaring success. The new system called myki is a smartcard ticketing system designed to replace the reliable old paper ticket system that has served Melbourne’s public transport system unfailingly forever. Billed by its creators Kamco as “a durable and re-usable smart card that stores value to pay your public transport fare”, it has been heralded as the solution to all of Melbourne’s public transport woes. The truth of the matter has, of course, been a far different story.
When the tender for myki was awarded to a consortium made up of Keane Inc, Ascom, ERG, and Giesecke & Devrient Australasia which set up a company called Kamco to develop the system for an initial cost of $494 million in 2005 with a 2007 roll out deadline. In 2007 when the pilot program was scheduled to launch myki was nowhere near ready and after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing by the stuffed shirts in the Victorian Parliament it was announced that in fact myki wouldn’t be operational until 2010. In the meantime the costs kept blowing out and by the beginning of 2008 (by which time myki was supposed to be operating and returning revenue) the real cost had risen to $1.3 billion and was still heading north. The latest figures show that it will have cost Victorians $1.5 billion to fix something that wasn’t broken all so that the then Labor Government could show the world that we were world leaders. Well they showed ’em.
Public transport has always been a government football and many years ago a short-sighted incarnation of the Victorian Parliament decided to do away with the service staff that were employed to sell tickets and replace them with vending machines. Of course, without the proper supervision on railway stations and aboard trams the quality of the service suffered but gradually it became the norm to stuff coins into a machine every day to buy your ticket instead of greeting the conductor. The rationale for this move was to save money but with the increase in vandalism and the ease of fare evasion it is questionable how much money was ever saved and the cost was that Melbourne lost much of its friendly charm along with its iconic tram conductors.
Even so, public transport has remained very user friendly and convenient which has always made it a viable alternative to using a car. That is until myki came along. Now, in order to take an impulsive tram ride to the local shopping center, Melbournians will be required to carry a cashed up myki smart card. As an alternative it may offer many users a great deal of convenience but those that are extolling its virtues seem to be blissfully unaware of the many drawbacks to a system that seeks to over-engineer a simple daily transaction for a basic public service. Apart from being outraged at the obvious waste of money on this publicly funded project; $1.5 billion would have paid a lot of wages for station attendants and tram conductors, there are some serious privacy issues that these smart cards raise and the fact that myki’s initial setup cost disadvantages those who need public transport the most.
In the 2010 Victorian state elections Ted Ballieau promised that if we elected him that he would scrap myki calling it “the most useless piece of plastic in Australia”. He went on to say, “It is five years since Steve Bracks and John Brumby as premier and treasurer, promised a myki card for all Victorians… it is not there, it has cost nearly three times as much, it doesn’t work, commuters didn’t ask for it and Myki remains a disaster.” Yet since he has taken office, the Right Honorable Ted Ballieau has flip-flopped and now the mandatory requirement for a myki smart card to use Melbourne’s public transport is imminent.
Overall I have three basic issues with introducing the mandatory use of smart cards into our public transport system which, to all intents and purposes, still works as well as it needs to.
1. The cost of setting up a myki card, even an anonymous one, is $6.00. That isn’t a lot of money but it is too much to ask just for people to be allowed to use the public transport system. A family with three or four kids will be up for over $20 just so the kids can ride the tram to school. Many families already struggle and this is just another needless expense levied by a government to benefit their corporate supporters. There is also the issue of who is profiting from the money that is held in these myki accounts. A daily transport ticket in Melbourne is over $11 and assuming that many people will put a week’s travel into the card there will potentially be one million people investing $50+ in their myki accounts every week. $50 is a lot of money and at 7.5% the interest on it returns $70k every week and there is not much transparency about who’s pocket that tidy sum will be going in. It certainly shouldn’t be going into Kamco’s bank account.
2. It is no longer possible to pay for your use of public transport with cash. Most people understand legal tender to be currency that cannot legally be refused in payment of debt but in reality in Australia at least it is not unlawful to accept cash in payment. The problem with no longer being able to use cash on a tram is that it limits the practicality of the service to explicitly those times when a user is carrying a myki card. In this event it is only going to encourage fare evasion which is already costing the public transport system in Melbourne $40 million per year. That’s $10 for every person living in Melbourne that is not being collected since a long dead Parliament sacked the tram conductors. So in essence myki makes public transport in Melbourne less user friendly in order for it to be easier for myki to collect their revenues. Certainly this represents a pretty questionable business model for our elected leaders to be investing our tax dollars into.
3. The most disturbing aspect of myki is that they facilitate Kamco’s ability to track the individual’s use of public transport. Because of the “touch on- touch off” method of using these cards users are forced to swipe their cards as the get on and off public transport in order for myki to debit their account correctly. This means that Kamco (at least) knows where every individual card has been on every trip that it has taken. While it is possible to use an unregistered card to access the complete set of features and to ensure that your money can be refunded if the card is lost myki needs to be registered. Even anonymous cards can be linked to their users if they recharge it using eftpos or with a credit card, or even by co-locating it with another smart device like a phone that has a verified account name attached to it. In conjunction with the rest of the average person’s public profile that is available this creates a pretty accurate picture of who someone is and where they go every day for the rest of their lives. While I don’t think that this is an indication of some sort of Orwellian scheme by the government to watch what we are all doing I don’t want Kamco to know those things about me. Do any Melbournians want this corporation to know all about them, and just what are they doing with the information that they are collecting?
So I took these concerns to myki via their website. I admit to being surprised by their prompt reply but disappointed at their response. I had expressed my concerns about myki making public transport less accessible to me because my infrequent and impromptu use of public transport relied on carrying a card that I had to go somewhere else to buy and I couldn’t just stagger drunkenly onto a tram and buy a ticket with the change in my pocket anymore. A simple criticism. They replied with a form letter that suggested the correct form of product for my purposes would be to use myki money. So in order to be prepared for future drunken trips on my local tram I am best to invest in myki by buying some of their monopoly money.
Sensing that myki hadn’t quite comprehended the nature of my previous communication I replied and, in order to make my point clear I kept it simple. I reiterated that I didn’t want to have to buy a myki card at all. This elicited a new response which, while embedded into one of their standard form letters did have the personal touch of the anonymous Customer Care Team Member that sent it. In short their answer was;
“Many people have a number of bank, credit and other identification cards in their wallet or purse that they don’t use each day. All Victorians should have a myki in their wallet or purse for when the need to use public transport arises. You should obtain a myki card, so that you can use public transport in the future.”
Not being the sort of guy that is open to being told what I should do by a corporation, especially one that I have helped to pay for, I sent another e-mail;
“Dear Anonymous Customer Care Team Member;
I dislike Myki more every time I learn more about it. So according to you I SHOULD carry a card and your rationale is that I have cards in my wallet already so one more is not an issue. In fact I intend to have as few of these cards as is possible and adding another one needlessly is not something that I intend to do.” This e-mail seems to have flummoxed the Customer Care Team at myki as they have reverted to their stock of standard e-mail form replies. Their customer service protocols are of the same standard as their business model.
Needless to say, I have also e-mailed the Victorian Minister for Transport, Terry Mulder (firstname.lastname@example.org) but I am yet to hear what sort of response I get. Considering the flip-flopping that his boss did it seems unlikely that the Right Honorable Terry Mulder will have anything intelligent to add to the conversation. This leaves only the public. Many of my readers live in and around Melbourne so this affects you too. It was your money too. Do the rest of you out there think that it is okay for the government to sanction a private organization’s collection of the intimate details of our daily lives? Would we tolerate a government that wanted to do it? Australians overwhelmingly voted against the introduction of voluntary government identity cards not that many years ago- how is this different? Should our children be carrying a myki smart card that tracks their trips on public transport?