The dash from cash: can public transport providers balance the needs of staff and customers?

One of the unexpected repercussions of the coronavirus outbreak has been an increased use of card, mobile and contactless payments instead of cash. Concerns about handling money during the pandemic have prompted shops and public transport services to encourage customers to use contactless payment methods. However, many people relying on public transport to access work and health services have no alternative but to use cash.

A brief history of contactless payments

Contactless payments include credit and debit cards, key fobs, closed loop smart cards and other devices, including smartphones. These applications use radio-frequency identification (RFID) or near field communication (NFC) for making secure payments. An embedded circuit chip and antenna enable consumers to make a payment by holding their card or device over a reader at a point of sale terminal.

The first contactless payment was made available in the United States at the end of the 1990s. In the UK the first contactless cards were issued in 2007.

The UK’s public transport contactless revolution began in 2014, when it became possible to access London’s Tube network, Docklands Light Railway (DLR), London Overground and most National Rail services using only a bank card. By 2019, payments with contactless bank cards or mobiles made up 60% of all Tube and rail pay-as-you go journeys in London. Public transport authorities elsewhere in the UK have followed London’s lead.

The move towards cashless payments

Even before the current public health emergency, cash payments in the UK were in decline. In the past few years, there has been a shift towards the use of debit cards, while contactless payments have soared:

  • in the ten years up to 2019, cash payments dropped from 63% of all payments to 34%;
  • in 2017, contactless payments increased by 99% to 4.3 billion;
  • in the same year, 3.4 million UK consumers managed their spending almost entirely without using cash.
  • by 2028, forecasts suggest that fewer than one in 10 UK consumer payments will be made using cash.

The emergence of chip and pin, contactless cards, digital wallets and mobile apps has made many aspects of our lives much more convenient, notably when paying bills, purchasing goods and using public transport.

But although more and more people are moving away from cash payments, 2.2 million people rely almost wholly on cash – up from just 1.6 million in 2014. A Bank of England review in 2019 found that around eight million people  would find life “near impossible” without cash.

How Covid-19 is changing public transport

With high numbers of people in confined spaces and a large number of common touch points such as handrails and ticket machines, buses and trains are potentially high risk environments for Covid-19 transmission. At the same time, public transport is critical for sustaining the economy, and ensuring that people have access to shops, services, work and health care.

Public transport authorities around the world have been responding to the emergency in a number of ways, including increased disinfection and sanitisation, and encouraging physical distancing between passengers. Another key measure adopted by public transport bodies has been an acceleration away from cash payments and towards contactless and mobile ticketing.

While some bus operators have announced that they will no longer accept cash payments, others have warned that drivers could face disciplinary action if they refuse cash. Earlier this year, the trade union representing bus workers called for the abolition of cash payments on all UK buses to reduce infection rates among drivers.

Serving the ‘unbanked’

A recent webinar organised by Intelligent Transport explored the implications of the coronavirus public health emergency for public transport. One of the key points was that public transport operators now need to maintain a balance between protecting their staff while meeting the needs of passengers who may have no alternative but to make cash payments.

The webinar heard that there is a growing sense among public transport operators of a shift in perception concerning cash payments as a result of the global pandemic. However, cash payments remain vital for the 1.3 million UK adults who do not have a bank account (the ‘unbanked’), many of whom are on low incomes. Contactless cards may be unaffordable for lower-income passengers, while many unbanked passengers worry that contactless credit cards could lead to accidental overdraft.

As the webinar noted, public transport providers have been trying to overcome these obstacles. Some have continued to accept cash payments, while others have offered passengers their own prepaid cards that can be topped up with cash in shops or transport stations.

Final thoughts

It’s likely that public transport authorities will continue the drive towards cashless and contactless payment. Lower maintenance costs, speed and flexibility are some of the advantages provided by contactless applications, and transport companies can also benefit from the data on transport usage generated by electronic payment systems.

However, the migration from payments using physical money risks leaving over a million UK citizens behind. In the ‘new normal’ for a world living with the coronavirus, transport organisations will have to find innovative ways to balance the safety of their staff with the needs of their passengers.


Further reading
Articles on public transport on The Knowledge Exchange blog

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