TfL Card Mandate: Are we there yet?

TFL ANNOUNCED THAT BY OCTOBER 2016 ALL TAXI DRIVERS HAD TO ACCEPT CARD PAYMENTS

That was 12 months ago, and what a year it’s been. That ruling left the trade – drivers, orgs, operators, service providers, hardware suppliers and software developers – just seven months to transform the cultural heritage and operational practices of an entire industry. Payment processing surcharges could no longer be passed on to passengers, taxis had to be fitted with an approved device fixed in the back and able to accept contactless, Chip & PIN and mag swipe payments and new TfL signage was to be provided for the taxis.

It subsequently came as no surprise to anyone when TfL got into an almighty scrap about some of the details. Fixed or handheld, processing rates, signage, receipts, enforcement. Compromise after compromise followed and TfL eventually buckled to pressure and extended the deadline. Even when viewed through the strongest rose-tinted glasses this mandate was not one of TfLs finest moments. Let’s remind ourselves of some of the lowlights of the last 12 months…

‘Market Forces’

TfL left it to the operators to set the processing charges. They decided that ‘market forces’ would give drivers the best choice. Some operators devised mind-bogglingly complicated tariffs, with rental charges, cost-per-trip charges and headline-grabbing (but wildly misleading) transaction processing rates. Curb took the lead and published their simple, uncomplicated ‘all-in’ rate of 3.95% per transaction. Even with the benefit of hindsight, this has proved to be a very competitive and fair rate over the past year.

Fit & Proper

Bemused by the jostling for position amongst the providers, most drivers decided to wait to see who offered the best deal nearer to deadline time. This meant that the steady, industry-wide implementation programme that was meant to be shoe-horned into seven months, had to be concentrated into an even more frantic dash for the line in September. Curb expanded their technical and engineering teams to increase installation capacity, and introduced a double-shift and weekend working roster to work through the backlog. Even then, it proved too big a challenge, despite pulling out all the operational stops. Curb and the other leading service providers collectively lobbied TfL to extend the deadline as around 35% of cabs were still non-compliant with just two months to go. TfL had no choice but to comply, as the London fleet was by now in a state of mandate madness!

Technical Upgrades

In an ironic twist of fate, the mandate was announced just as Curb were getting excited about their new Taxi-360 card payment system. Taxi-360 was being developed to succeed the legacy VTS system that had served London so well for many years. However, much to the annoyance of the drivers, the black box that housed the VTS CPU took up space in the front luggage compartment, and the old driver PIN-pad looked dated against the new devices that had become so popular with the public – namely bigger smartphone screens, iPads and tablets. Taxi-360 featured, amongst other things, a smart touch-screen tablet mounted on the front dashboard to give drivers full control from the driving seat. VTS needed to be replaced, and Taxi-360 was now just a few months away from launch.

It made no operational or commercial sense to install the VTS system across London, only to rip it out and upgrade to Taxi-360 just a few months later. Instead, Curb pulled out all the stops to accelerate Taxi-360 development so it could be rolled-out in time for the extended TfL deadline. Many component suppliers rose to the challenge, although some were unable to fulfil their commitments. Curb had to source alternative components at the eleventh hour, and were forced to install them without full ‘pre-flight’ testing. Unfortunately, some of these parts caused technical or reliability issues which only came to light once they were fitted in working cabs. To everyone’s dismay this resulted in product recalls, Call Centre overload and cancelled installation appointments. Jon Wheeler of Curb wrote to all effected drivers to apologise and explain. They were dark days.

The Road Ahead

They say time is a great healer. A year down the line and drivers have adapted and embraced card payments. Passengers, especially business travellers, are using more taxis as a result – especially as one of the lesser alternatives is no longer available (for now). The new Curb Taxi-360 system has become the default solution for London taxis. The system is driver-friendly, TfL compliant, reliable and convenient. The driver tablet, when paired with the passenger PIN-pad featuring a fully integrated receipt printer, is now a proven winner.

More fares are now being paid by card. Curb estimates that card usage has increased by 50% in the 12 months since the mandate kicked in, and drivers are taking more in tips as this is encouraged onscreen by the Curb systems. And fewer PCNs are being issued when passengers have to be taken to an ATM to get cash out.

Once again the cab trade has beaten all the odds and risen to the challenge. The journey so far has not been a comfortable one for any of us. Are we there yet? No. But the road ahead is now a little clearer (and a little fairer). Long may that continue.