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OPUS 2.0 Urban mobility in the age of electronic payment

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“We transport millions of people…soon we will get to know who they are,”  said Michel Labrecque, president of the STM’S governing board, during his opening remarks for AQTR’s conference on Urban mobility in the age of electronic payment this morning.

He’s the kind of guy I wouldn’t mind getting to know. He’s been president of Vélo Québec and the Commité régional de l’environnement, a Plateau city councillor, and a CBC journalist. With his black, long-sleeved t-shirt and wire-rimmed glasses he is overtly going for the Steve Jobbs look.

I was invited to represent transit users’ perceptions of electronic payment systems like OPUS. After consulting with Spacing Montreal readers (thanks to those who commented!) and was able to bring not one, but 18 users’ perspectives to the conference. In a nutshell, I told the audience of transit planners, managers and engineers, we intuitively sense that the recent switch to electronic payments should have created new flexibility in how we purchase transit fares, but the OPUS experience has fallen short. Why not allow us weekly or monthly passes to start any day of the week? Or let multiple people to travel on one card? And while the OPUS card can be used in different transit systems (STM, STL, RTL, AMT), riders still need to run around to different terminals to purchase each fare (this post by Blork sums up the extreme absurdity of the situation for some transit riders). And at a time when Tim Horton’s cards can be recharged online – as one reader pointed out – we suspect that the potential exists for OPUS.

Some commentators insisted that all fares should be available at all terminals while others suggested that we should be able to mange fares online or simply charge the card with a dollar amount and let the terminals subtract fares depending on where we travel. Better yet, the system could be programmed to automatically calculate the best rate depending on the trips taken. As Ant6n commented:

“the better approach is if the ticket simply finds the best combination itself. For example you could charge the ticket with money, and if you use it once, it would charge the single ride fare. If you use it multiple times a day, it tops out at the daily max; if you use it many times a week, it tops out at the weekly max…”

I was thrilled when Labrecque scooped me on almost all these points. He described “OPUS2”, the metro card of the future, which would offer sliding pricing depending on the frequency of use, time of day, and distance travelled, special events etc. The next edition of the OPUS will also rechargeable on the fly by Internet or smart-phone. OPUS2 could also be the key to an transportation cocktail, unlocking Bixis and opening doors to Communauto and rental cars. However, if the future OPUS includes an online tax receipt, that just might be thanks to a comment from Spacing reader James – that idea seemed to surprise even M Labrecque…

We need to start seeing ourselves as a tech industry, not just a transportation industry,” said Lynne Gagnon, head of AMT marketing. Other presentations took electronic payments even further – for instance loading transit fares onto a bank card at the ATM or onto a USB key at home; or an app that accompanies riders throughout their trip (“next bus is in 6 minutes, and currently has available seating. In the meantime, transit card holders can benefit from a 10% discount at Starbucks…”)

So when do we get the all-powerful OPUS2?  Um, some time after 2015, Labrecque says. He seems to have become somewhat skeptical about deadlines in his line of work. Which is not, might I add, a good sign for a burgeoning tech industry…

Online payment, at least, appears to be in the works, although hopefully will not require a bulky adaptor like the one pictured here.



  1. “‘We need to start seeing ourselves as a tech industry, not just a transportation industry,’ said Lynne Gagnon, head of AMT marketing.”

    Considering how badly the original Opus was implemented (name one thing it does well. Name one thing it does better than the old system), maybe the AMT should set its sights a little lower. Most of the ideas mentioned above are good, though some are probably superfluous, especially given that none of it is free. I can only imagine the bureaucratic nightmare of getting the various transit agencies, Communauto (a private enterprise) and Bixi (a a private enterprise for the purpose of this discussion) on the same payment system. The privacy and logistic issues of merging databases alone would scare off anyone who’s ever seen the inside of a Canadian public service.

    Opus was billed as a “smart” card, yet it doesn’t do anything intelligent – like figure out the best combination of fares or allow users to manage their account via a web-accessed database. No, better to have users go down to the customer service booth at Berri-UQAM when their card mysteriously stops working. Even the hardware is lousy; for some reason the STM bought card readers that actually cause slowdowns at the front of the bus. Yet the agency has the chutzpah to assail users who hold Metro car doors open in its advertising.

    Did anyone discuss the cost of all this stuff? How much of what was initially installed (e.g., terrible card readers) will need to be totally replaced if we’re ever going to arrive at the “all-powerful OPUS2”? And how much can the STM legitimately demonstrate has been saved on fraud since the Opus card was introduced, since that was the original reasoning behind the transition to “smart” cards? By comparison, how many fares have been lost because a card reader is on the fritz?

    Somehow I think Steve Jobs wouldn’t have appreciated the comparison.

  2. I didn’t stick around for the entire 2-day conference, so i’m not sure how much cost was discussed. Labrecque estimated that they saved $12 million a year on fraud.

  3. I completely agree with Joey. Opus is a boondoggle and sooner it is cut the better off we will all be. 

    They could easily create a system that uses credit or debit cards with technology that is already on the market. Users who do not have either could purchase a throw away debit card or gift card.

    In the days when you could just jump on a train or bus and pay, I used to use public transportation a lot. I now drive everywhere. Great job guys!

  4. I wonder where they get that $12 million figure. I wonder how it compares to their pre-Opus assumptions. I wonder when they’re going to publish audited financial statements proving it.

  5. To be fair, the marketing folks did also mention how important it is to always have the “jump on and pay” option available (nothing stopping you from doing this now, although you need exact change, which can be problematic).

  6. sidenote, anyone know why the STM readers have such a delay?
    I’m from the south shore and the RTL readers on the buses are instantaneous, and cause no congestion during embarkation. 

  7. I would like to add that I saw Labrecque speak last year, and I asked him directly about switching to 30 day and 7 day passes instead of monthly (1st of the month) and weekly (beginning Monday, I think) passes. He flatly stated that the STM would lose money by doing so, and so it wasn’t going to happen.

    I think this is not how to run a transit agency. The only reason the current system makes extra money is that it is confusing and inflexible, so that it screws people out of money. The confusion issue stems from monthly pass not being obviously different from 30-day pass. I can certainly count myself as one of the many people who have bought a monthly pass late in the month, mistakenly thinking it is a 30-day pass. In terms of inflexibility, I’ve also had many instances where it would save me money to buy a 30 day pass, but where a monthly pass didn’t make sense. I ended up spending more money on individual passes simply because the system is designed to be inflexible.

    Making money by confusing customers and creating inflexible payment schemes is ridiculous. Subjecting customers to artificially created lines each month is disrespectful. Many other transit agencies try to treat their customers with respect, striving to make transit use easy and convenient. Apparently, Labrecque does not feel the same way.

  8. Anyone who has tried other transit systems will agree that Montreal’s OPUS card system is horrendous.

    Did you know you could subscribe to a yearly membership with OPUS that automatically renews and bills your credit card so you don’t have to wait in line with the other 30 people who didn’t recharge on the 1st of the month? You can, but it’s barely advertised anywhere.

    You can’t check how much you actually use the card in a month, nor refill it online or use it for anything other than pay transit fares. Contrast this with, say, CharlieCard (Boston) where you can refill your card online and buy a monthly pass without waiting.

    Or even better, Japan’s Suica/Pasmo system. Wondering how much money you have on your card? Scan it with your phone. ( Want to buy a water bottle from a vending machine? Just use your card and press a button. No clue what the fare is from hamamatsucho to ikebukuro? It’ll deduct the proper amount of money from your card and you can refill it if it’s missing a couple hundred yen at the exit.

    And if you’re saying it’s because their transit system is integrated and Montreal has the STM, STL RTL and AMT, it’s also the same thing in Tokyo; they have the Tokyo Metro, Toei Subway, Japan Railways, Tokyo Monorail, etc. all of which are different companies. They just sat down and figured out what would make the most sense from a user’s perspective, and it worked.

  9. “I would like to add that I saw Labrecque speak last year, and I asked him directly about switching to 30 day and 7 day passes instead of monthly (1st of the month) and weekly (beginning Monday, I think) passes. He flatly stated that the STM would lose money by doing so, and so it wasn’t going to happen.”

    One could offer a flexible monthly pass at 10-15% premium. I believe some German transit agencies have tickets like that. Flexible weekly passes may make less sense, because it would make it much easier for tourists/visitors to get cheaper transportation. Right now weekly passes are relatively cheap, it seems there’s the assumption builtin that people will continually get them. The only way I can see flexible weekly passes if they were way more expensive, i.e. more like 40% of the monthly passes. This is what the 3-day card does, which visitors should really use. (I wonder whether you can get those at the airport)

  10. The problem with OPUS is that it was integrated solely for the purpose of making more (or not being frauded as much) money. 

    The intent was not necessarily to improve the flexibility of the fare system. I am still confused, and do not seem to understand why you can purchase a (2) tickets bundle for 5.50 $ (or has the price changed already?) and then be asked how many of that bundle you want, while you have the option to buy (6) tickets for cheaper (or is that not an option anymore? I don’t know, I’m confused, it seems like it changes every 10 minutes). 

    Moreover, this cash cow is a real meanie! On top of not making more flexible the fare system, even making it more confusing than what it was before (although it was not all that great, however quite simple), they now put the police to make sure that your fare was paid… after, long after you’ve swiped (or tapped) your card/fare. Am I the only one who finds this totally crazy!? If you’ve just bought a single fare and are heading to Laval, the purpose of keeping that fare in your hands is pointless as when you arrive to Laval that fare cannot be used in the STL network. And even though you’ve paid that fare like a good citizen, you might just be caught off guard by a nice police officer handing you over a fine of 150$ and up. And then they (STM and various public transportation agencies) claim they bring public transportation to the people. They claim the system is fair and made for everyone and has gotten more flexible. Is the city police now allowed in the metro for crime prevention, or more so for global harassment? In my opinion, this fraud prevention is ridiculous, and probably more costly than the savings that are observed at the end of the year. 

    Maybe this is my paranoia… However, from what I’ve read from other users, this OPUS system has simply failed to offer what it should’ve offered right from the start. And at this point, the 2015 deadline seems far fetched. Common sense doesn’t seem to be a priority of our public transportation agencies, or our governments. Moreover, the idea of giving an efficient and fair service seems an ideology of the past. Why can’t I refill my OPUS online, yet I can get fresh Tim Hortons (although it might be a different brand) coffee straight from the Lionel-Groulx station. Oh and may I add, I get snippets of the news on giant screens that work half the time. It’s time for them to focus on priorities and make them work, instead of pretending to offer various “state-of-the-art” services which at this point are completely useless.


  11. Things I can do in Tokyo, Japan with my suica/pasmo pass (when I was living there and when I go back every year).

    * I put in a machine where I can charge it with the amount of yens I choose to charge it with.

    * If I have 10,000 yens bill and I want to charge only for 5,000 yens, I can do that.

    * I can pass through the gate without pulling the card of my wallet, I can just pass the wallet on it.

    * I do not have to reduce my walking speed for passing the gates, the card is read very quickly

    * I do not have to wait the card to be read at the bus, I just pass it on the card reader. It’s immediate.

    * I pass the card when I enter and when I exit because the price depends on the travel that I have decided to do in subway.

    * When the card doesn’t have enough money on it, there is a machine at the exist to adjust the count. If the machine is not working there is someone at the exit.

    * It is working in train, subways and bus from different companies of wide Tokyo area, including going to the airport.

    * I can pay my drinks, sweets in vending machines with it

    * I can pay in some cinemas with it. It is becoming a digital wallet.

    * The Suica is anonymous (which is good) and the Pasmo is nominative. The two cards co-exist and you do not have to give up your personal data or anonymity for being able to use the system.

    # Additional things

    * Individual tickets are still available.

    * On most platforms, there is a table with all stations and wagons where the exits are. It gives the possibility to choose the wagon you want to be in in advance so your exit will be fluid. Loading time is leisure time, Unloading time is key for optimization.

    * There are schematic maps with the prices.

    * There are tiles on the floor for guiding blind people

    * There are lift anywhere so disable people can travel.

    * In bus and trains, there are screens and/or automatic announces of next station, possible connections,

    * Delays are announced quickly.

    # Conclusion

    The OPUS card (and associated transportation) is a nightmare. I do not own a car by choice. I love public transportation but Montreal and its wide area are a kind of horror movie of transportation. You can go to Longueuil but can’t come back (???).

    * Just think about it, why is it far more effective to take a cab to go to the airport. There should be a train which goes to the airport from downtown *inside* the airport hall.

    * There should be trains to go on the neighboring countrysides at any time of the day in both directions (tourism, local economy, etc.). In Montreal to go on a week-end around Montreal, you have to… rent… a car.

  12. A few thoughts, aside the general “why did they have to go to try to solve a problem other cities and companies have solved very well already?” question.

    1. Privacy options. The topping up of my Opus card should not in any way be linkable to my payment details, unless I explicitly opt-in. The system then can be used for more things (general payment system.) 

    2. General payment system, tied into digital wallet initiatives going on in major cities (systems?) worldwide. See Suica in Tokyo, Octopus in HongKong, Oyster in London…

    3. Cardless option: let me use my NFC enabled mobile device. By the end of this year all major “smartphones” will have NFC and digital wallet technology.

    Saved already $12 million in fraud? Great! Reinvest it in the system… maybe give a bit back to the city so they can fix the roads. Will reduce STM bus repairs and stimulates competition with automobilistes… ;)

  13. “We need to start seeing ourselves as a tech industry, not just a transportation industry,” said Lynne Gagnon, head of AMT marketing.

    Well that would be a good start, but it’s difficult to expect such a move when the whole system is stuck with an external provider (the one that provides the OPUS technology) and that you barely control how it works…

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