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.

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