Ofentse Mokwena | The rise of digital ID in SA’s transport system

Publication source:  fin 24

In a few months queues at the traffic office for fees, changes and fines won’t surprise motorists. At Level 3, buying bus tickets or loading tokens at the ticket office or queuing to board the bus with the driver clicking to churn your change and handing you a ticket. You’ll also find the ‘taxi maths’ running through the minibus’ stuffy windows in the winter mornings as it leaves the rank. Transport is plagued with transactions and contact with cash through winter (gloves or not) will inherently be avoided by those who can, maybe not the many who should.

A move toward account-based ticketing, automated fare collection, and through-ticketing could not come at a better time. As more affordable and accessible banking entities emerge in SA, and growing internet penetration, rising mobile smart devices and electronic wallets, there is little holding the digital identity for transport systems back.

Mid-way in mitigating the pandemic, hygiene is a key selling point. Pressure to embed long-term preventative measures to curb current and future viruses could encourage more cashless transactions, commuter identity and travel data.

Cashless transactions in public transport are a lower hanging fruit. Commuter identity and contact tracing are important in the event of an emergency. A secure digital identity in the transport system may channel information to relevant authorities, enable motorists to better manage licenses and fees, and provide various direct digital channels to redress transport inequalities. Incentives for creating a digital environment for transport users across all transport modes and walks of life are omnipresent.

The question is, are we there yet?

Driving licence card account

Driving in SA is set to change due to the implementation of the Adjudication of Road Traffic Offences Act, as its regulations came to market toward the end of 2019. The policy position was a source of complex debates. But, interestingly, it introduced a shift from traffic offences being criminal to being adjudicated; and exposed road users to greater penalties through a point system that intends to introduce higher penalty risks associated with infringing the law.

This point system, however requires policy reforms that account for the digitisation of the road traffic environment. One of the key steps toward this direction is the introduction of an electronically enabled Drivers Licence, that will probably replace the existing licenses in circulation.

At a Portfolio Meeting of Transport Meeting on the 6th May, the Driving Licence Trading Account team presented their plans, objectives and risks associated with introducing an ISO 18013 compliant driving license. Among other things, they aim to introduce an electronic/mobile driving licence; create a platform for introducing e-service; and re-engineering of DLCA process to allow for automation of support services and elimination of the manual process”.

In practical terms this involves the digitisation of the manual activities associated with creating and possibly renewing driving licenses, and it will be supplemented by satellites of distribution points.

The DLTA describe their role in improving the cost and service efficiency of producing and distributing driving licenses as a key element in their self-sustainability, and financial performance after taking over from a service provider in 2015. But with the shift toward a more digital platform, they revealed that the organisation will be reformed to complement their new services.

In addition to this, is a change in legislation to enable the satellite distribution of licences and create provisions for the secure digitisation of various business activities and administrative processes associated with turning over a new leaf.

Digital identities in transport

At the 2019 Smarter Mobility Africa conference, Alex van Niekerk introduced the dynamics of the National Road Agency’s ‘SANRAL App’ and its future prospects. SANRAL reported that R12m in transactions over the app took place, from the 2 501 people who connected it to their credit cards out of a total of 9 000 people logging in and 20 000 downloads.

In his presentation, Van Niekerk explained how a Digital Identity, and account for transport users, could enable easy payment of licence renewals, enforce the payment of traffic offences (which South Africans aren’t very good at), and provide for a mobility account for the use of shared transport (i.e. public transport, bike-sharing, ride-hailing, park-and-ride).

There are a number of issues which make this type of account platform complex, and in need of important data security protocols, but it might be an avenue for regulators and transport agencies to acquire better quality travel data in an integrated manner. When used appropriately, such large datasets enhance the quality of transport planning, and place pressure on more integration due to better insights about mobility, access and travel patterns.

To illustrate, Octopus Holdings Limited, in Hong Kong, is one company that leveraged on automated fare collection for transport services by diversifying to retail and rewards programmes, and sharing expertise globally. Evolving from ticketing for public transport by proactively joint venturing transport entities, to a multi-dimensional payment solution. It is not to say that SANRAL should take a similar route, but instead, highlighting the extent and scope of secure and effectively managed digital accounts. Value is derived from integrated and seamless payment across all transport modes.

Through-ticketing in multi-modal transport networks

While the DLTA and the SANRAL transport user accounts stretch from the same cloth, their material impact will only be felt when the platform threads public and private transport modes together at a policy level.

Perhaps a user subsidy through the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) could make it easier to provide affordable transport through a tap and go solution. Ghalieb Dawood from the Financial Fiscal Commission, and Dr Mathetha Mokonyama from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research once made such a proposal, which would cost between R44 billion and R 50 billion per year. That’s about five years ago. More recently, contactless cards, QR-codes embedded in mobile apps or pasted on transport vehicles and bicycles, in addition to mobile money payments, are all part of the digital payment movement in transport. Any token of exchange is increasingly acceptable.

On the surface, one of the most challenging industries to introduce a payment platform may be the minibus taxi industry due to the various individual businesses and associations coordinating activities. However, attempts such as the FairPay scheme in 2016, offered integrated travel data, digital payment and accidental death, permanent disability and emergency response cover, given the commuter’s digital identity. There are many other examples, but it is important to note the opportunities this identity or account provides for customers and suppliers throughout the industry.

Scheduled bus transport could benefit from a digital identity platform that is integrated throughout all operators. Consider the various bus companies operating in major cities, all of them fighting for different commuter markets. But on some days commuters make unique trips outside of the operators network. Without a universal digital token attached to a profile, cash is queen.

The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa’s 2019/2021 corporate plan envisioned integrated ticketing that would provide concessionary fares for low income users, better quality data, more flexibility for commuters and be integrated with local operators. This vision is underpinned by the 54 high-tech gates were installed more than 8 years ago, and haven’t been used yet.

Urban buses such as Bus Rapid Transit in cities and the Gautrain system, have automated cards, but they are not interoperable with each other nationally. Nor are they integrated with other transport modes and services.

For particularly high capital transport entities, digitising transactions assures an accurate understanding of the company’s performance, efficiency and impact across all income and social classes in society. For low capital transport entities, will future bike-sharing schemes in SA use transport tokens that are specific to the service provider? I don’t know. But transport tokens that are not interoperable may be good for organisations disinterested in centralisation, while still pursuing multi-modalism and customer focus. Paradoxes, and inconveniences producing a lack of harmony, are feeding ground disruption and missed opportunities.

Digital decade to 2030

South Africa’s policy environment contends that ‘seamlessness’ and ‘through-ticketing’ are key parts of an integrated public transport network (IPTN). The national policy position clearly aims connect people from all walks of life, by public and non-motorised transport, ride-hailing and park-and-ride. The aim is to induce a multimodal series of options for all commuters, and encourage the use of certain combinations of transport modes.

With the right policy decisions, a digital identity in the transport system could be for all through various types of tokens. Tokens could be cards, QR codes, transfers from an electronic wallet, a ticket—anything that qualifies the transaction. They open a new channel for monitoring and managing transport contracts in buses and subscriptions for transport services in the taxi industry (i.e. scholar transport).

For transport authorities, improved and accurate data can enhance their ability to regulate and create more sophisticated incentives for compliance with contracts, local area needs, and transparency. Municipalities may need to be capacitated to manage the ‘infostructure’ (as Madeline Zhu called it) technology will bring to transport planning, service monitoring and compliance.

Citizens may also be more empowered to communicate directly to authorities and service providers through responsive customer care systems, beyond social media. Regulators need to gear up of this wave of change, because as noted by the DLTA, policy is lagging behind.

Initially described by transport policies drafted in 1996, seamlessly integrated transport has come a long way. When it gets here, it might be a token of the digital age for some, but for many it could be new leaf for affordable mobility and access.