More thoughts on Opal cards

Further to my previous post on Opal cards, I’ve had a few more thoughts on the topic:

  • Downside risk. If you buy a paper ticket, you’re set – got something to show to the ticket inspectors if they come a-calling, and even if you lose it the Sydney Trains staff are usually happy just to let you through the gates at the other end. With the Opal card, though, if you forget to tap off at the end of your journey (entirely possible at a station with no ticket gates), then you’re charged the full default fare, which’ll set you back up to $8.10 rather than the couple of dollars you were anticipating. If you forget a few times, there goes all the savings you made from the slightly cheaper fares.
  • Policing difficulty. Paper tickets are easy to check – they have the journey information printed on them. How do you verify that an Opal card has been tapped on? Unless Sydney Trains has made a significant investment to kit out transit officers with some sort of Opal readers, it seems like they’re relying entirely on the ticket gates as enforcement mechanisms. From what I’ve observed, they work well enough, but what about the stations without gates? Then again, I guess not every station need them for the system to work – the majority of commuters just need to use a gated station at least once in their journey.
  • Fashion. Apart from the other reasons I mentioned that people seem to like Opal cards, there’s also the trendy factor. There’s the novelty of using a newish technology for an otherwise mundane activity, and the card itself is fairly aesthetically pleasing. There are even Opal iPhone covers, for heaven’s sake! I suppose marketing the cards to probably Apple product-owning individuals is a good strategy – early adopters all over the place…

Opal card value proposition

Sydney has rolled out a new multipass transport system (think Oyster card, for those of you cognisant with London) that will be active on ferries and trains very soon. Makes sense that buses take longer to fit out with suitable equipment, but I would guess that the bus network will be integrated before long, too.

Opals and opal card

The marketing for Opal cards has been quite clever. Apart from doing an excellent job of ensuring that every commuter in the city is aware of the change, the terminology used to sell the value proposition reflects some top-notch behavioural economics.

The chief example of this is the weekly ticket pricing. For infrequent commuters, the logic of using an Opal card is easy – the fare is slightly discounted, and you’re saved the necessity of buying a paper ticket. The only downside is the free loan you’re providing the NSW government of however many dollars you preloaded on to the card. For more frequent commuters, however, the additional convenience of an Opal card is minimal, and the cost savings are debatable – between $1 and $3.40 compared to a regular weekly train ticket depending on how far you travel, but compared to a monthly you end up going backwards.

So instead of talking up the meagre (or negative) cost savings, the Opal card is billed as giving you FREE travel after eight journeys. That’s right: “all further travel until Sunday night is free“! To really light up those flashing neon signs in your head, it’s also called the ‘weekly travel reward’, as though you’ve earned it for your clever decision to obtain an Opal card and spend lots of time on public transport.

And boy howdy does it ever work. I’ve had people enthusiastically extol the benefits of the system to me and explain their brilliant plan to travel to work every day using Opal and then take a long journey on the weekend, haha! They get the double rush of using a new technology and also feeling like they are cheating the system in a legitimate manner.

Trouble is, as I alluded to before, if you make the same journey every day by public transport, you’re much better off buying a monthly or quarterly ticket (don’t go to yearly, it’s a step backwards on quarterly once you factor in your holidays) than using Opal. Yes, the new system is cheaper than weekly tickets, but since there’s no provision for travel frequency over time periods longer than Monday to Sunday, you’re spending extra money in the medium term.

So wake up, Opal sheeple, and smell the toilet carriage – despite the clever marketing, the new card is really just another ticketing scheme, and should be used in a financially intelligent way.

Play Magnus Chess App

I just downloaded a new chess app you should check out if you play: ‘Play Magnus’. As the name suggests, you play Magnus Carlsen – the twist is, you can do so for every year of his life from 5 until 23 (the present). So far I’ve beaten five-year-old Magnus and been too scared to try any older iterations.

Play Magnus app

Clever marketing, and great publicity for the world number 1. The app includes a link to his Twitter feed, which I assume will pay dividends for his follower count.

Two main thoughts:

  • It’s a bit gimmicky, really – without knowing any of the underlying mechanics, I would put good money on the whole setup revolving around a standard chess engine set to different ELOs for Magnus’s different ages. Then again, I guess it’s nice to be able to put a (young) face to what you’ve just played, rather than just a number.
  • Remembering that he’s only 23 (younger than I am) always makes me slightly depressed…