More than a year late, and about $13 million over the original $87 million budget, Auckland Transport's pre-pay, Hop travel card has finally achieved 100 per cent coverage of the city's train, ferry and bus network.

On Tuesday, Mayor Len Brown, Auckland Transport (AT) chairman Lester Levy and New Zealand Transport Agency planning manager Dave Brash were fizzing with words like "milestone" and "transformation" and "sophisticated".

Meanwhile, earlier in the day, we commuters on the usually reliable 005 bus to town also had reason to celebrate. The wondrous new Hop reader on our bus had gone feral and we got a free ride. With a smile and a shrug, the driver just waved us on board, saying not to bother swiping our card, or opening our purses.

A couple of stops further on, the free rides suddenly ended. Presumably the system had clicked back to life.


I bring this up not to knock Hop - glitches happen. But what the brief period of free entry highlighted was the time saved when passenger interaction with the driver while boarding the bus is minimised. This is what a smart card system like Hop is supposed to achieve - a quick procession of customers, swiping their smart cards as they enter the bus, with hardly a pause.

Yet despite the now 100 per cent coverage of the public transport network, we're a long way from this ideal. This was highlighted by Tuesday's little technical hiccup. Once the driver started taking fares, the bus stop delays returned.

To me, the celebrations are premature.

What's the good of a $100 million smart card system if more than a third of your passengers continue to insist on paying cash. On Tuesday, while the worthies celebrated, 98,000 journeys - 36 per cent of all trips - were paid for in cash. Over the previous 30 days, 40 per cent of travellers used cash.

Because of the narrow entranceway on most buses, it takes only one cash fare to stall the boarding process. One of life's mysteries is why a disproportionately large number of cash fare payers seem to wait until they're standing alongside the driver before remembering they have to give him some money. They then delve into their bags to find a purse, which they then scrabble around in for loose change.

Then there are the blokes who proffer large notes, then fume irritably when the driver punishes them with a cupful of small change.

Meanwhile, Hop card holders debate whether or not there's room to squeeze past.

AT has started a campaign to sign up more cardholders, but the miserable 10 per cent saving over the cash fare that is the main drawcard has hardly been a great success.


Nor has the minuscule and unpromoted 50c (no, not per cent) discount offered to those transferring from one bus or train to another using a Hop card.

Perhaps the answer lies in London, where the similar Oyster card is used for more than 85 per cent of all bus and rail travel.

There, the penalty for paying cash - or if you prefer, the discount for using the smart Oyster card - is so substantial it becomes a no-brainer.

On the bus in London, the cash price for travelling a single zone is $4.62. If the driver doesn't have change, he'll toss you off. The Oyster card one zone fare is $2.79. On the train, the single zone cash fare is $9.04, while the Oyster card fare is less than half that at $4.23.

For rail travel anywhere within zones 1 to 4, the cash fare is $10.97, the peak time Oyster fare is $7.31 and the off-peak fare is $5.20.

With differentials like that, is it any surprise that more than 85 per cent of London public transport journeys are pre-paid?

While AT is checking out the London model, it might also want to adopt the pledge in the Transport for London Charter entitling passengers to a refund if their Tube train is more than 15 minutes behind schedule.

A frustrated commuter has even designed a claims system, using Transport for London data feeds, that enables Oystercard travellers who have enrolled on his site to automatically claim a refund via their card.