Passing banknotes and coins from hand to hand will soon be an archaic notion, according to the proponents of a cashless society. Perhaps in attitude, if not in actuality, we are almost already there if the actions of bus drivers are any guide.
In Tauranga, one of their number caused a furore by refusing to let a boy on board because he had only a $20 note for his $1.80 fare. Any thought that this was a one-off incident was swiftly banished by revelations of similar experiences in Auckland. Drivers had apparently taken it upon themselves to decide the offer of legal tender was not, in itself, enough to gain access to their bus.
In the first instance, this refusal is a wretched advertisement for public transport. Those at Auckland Transport tasked with getting people out of cars and on to buses and trains must have been mortified that customers had been turned away on this pretext. Like the rejected passengers, they might well have viewed the drivers' actions as incomprehensible. Indeed, they are understandable only through reference to the deep penetration into society of electronic transactions, as evidenced in credit and debit card use and online shopping. Bus drivers who have embraced this process probably regard catering for a $20 note a dire inconvenience.
It is no such thing, of course. A decade or two ago, it would have been no more than a minor irritant. The same applies now, and people offering cash have every right to expect change or, failing that, a free ride.
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The only thing that has changed is the presence of electronic transactions. In some countries, such as Sweden, these now account for the vast majority of payments. Elsewhere, the process is also accelerating, driven by mobile phone payments. Long-running trends favour automated payments and electronic money over the ongoing use of cash. The common assumption is that at some point cash will automatically phase itself out because of the sheer preponderance of electronic transactions.
It may, however, be unwise to be too hasty. It was once assumed that new technology would be the harbinger of paperless offices and a leisure society. People decided otherwise. A cashless society will not eventuate without some degree of opposition. First, of course, there is the obstacle of an ageing society, For some people, a preference for banknotes and coins mingles with a suspicion of other forms of finance. Others, not only the elderly, may recognise that cash payment is the only system that never fails, and be keen to hold on to the anonymity that comes with its use.
Most people have dismissed such concerns and embraced the idea of a cashless society. Bus drivers who greet the presentation of a $20 note with a rude comment are probably among that number. But whether they like it or not, banknotes remain legal tender, and will be so for some time to come.
Therefore, Tauranga's Go Bus Transport was right to issue a warning to the driver who refused the $20 note, a decision backed by the Employment Relations Authority. Auckland bus companies should have the same policy. A cashless society may already be here in the minds of some but those who continue to prefer cash should not be penalised until it becomes reality.