Public transit has changed rapidly over the past century with the steady development of faster, more reliable technology. The transit ecosystem has also benefited from the creation of various ways to optimize its processes, even automate them. Since the advent of ticket vending machines, they have played a crucial role in the way people interact with transit, facilitating their access to the network and making it faster to buy tickets. Inevitably, TVMs showed their darker side to both riders and transit agency staff. So today we want to look at the pros and cons of ticket vending machines, and how they changed the transit landscape!
In this article:
- What is a ticket vending machine?
- Advantages of ticket vending machines
- Disadvantages of ticket vending machines
- In conclusion
What is a ticket vending machine?
Ticket vending machines are used to produce paper or electronic tickets and more recently, to recharge smart cards and e-wallets. The first self-service machine was introduced on the Central London Railway in 1904. Since then, TVMs have evolved to become a common part of many transit systems across the globe, and have various uses (public transit, railways, airports, etc.).
A ticket vending machine typically has two parts – hardware and software. The hardware part usually consists of a thermal printer, card reader, password keyboard, coin drawer, network modem and a screen. The software connects all these elements and may also be used to exchange information with a back end through the modem.
Ticket vending machines have long been a way for transit agencies to reduce the burden on service window staff at busy stations or remove service windows altogether. As they can operate 24/7, TVMs are a way for people to always have an option to buy a ticket no matter the time of day.
Ticket vending machines can also be conveniently placed on board public transit vehicles (mostly used for buses). In this way, riders do not need to bother the driver to buy a ticket. This has proven especially useful in efforts to reduce dwell times and improve service.
With the advent of automated fare collection, ticket vending machines became an important part of the ecosystem, filling in the gaps in accessibility and convenience for riders who do not use public transit that often and still prefer single-ride fares. TVMs that allow top-ups can even be used to reduce fare evasion when no service window is available.
Unfortunately, as important as they are, ticket machines are very expensive to buy and maintain. They also have a number of known issues that can frustrate even the calmest riders and can require regular servicing.
Even though we now have very advanced account-based automated fare collection systems, TVMs will probably be part of the transit landscape for the foreseeable future. They certainly have a place in this ever-evolving world of automation. But let’s take a look at some specific pros and cons that will help you understand why they may be deemed a necessary evil!
Advantages of ticket vending machines
Ticket vending machines have clearly proven their right to exist in public transit systems. What makes them such a staple?
- TVMs do not need to be staffed
Service windows are great, but they need to be staffed. Nowadays, automated fare collection systems can remove the necessity to have more than one or two service windows for a whole town, and these are mainly used for top-ups by people who are still not tech-savvy enough to use web-based portals or mobile applications. But since all riders need to have access to options to purchase tickets easily and quickly, TVMs fill the gap for people who cannot or simply do not want to use technology or service windows. This includes unbanked people and those who ride infrequently.
- TVMs operate 24/7
Ticket machines can be installed in safe places inside stations where they can be accessed during each time of the day (or during the operational time of the service). This means that service windows no longer need to work late shifts and riders will always have access to an option to buy a ticket. This is especially important at airports or train stations where this might be the only option for riders to buy a ticket.
- TVMs provide an alternative to pre-purchased fare options
Some people do not want to use a smart card – they might have their objections to the security of the service, or they simply do not travel often enough to justify getting one. Tourists are also a group of riders who may not want to purchase a smart card (or may not have the time to wait for it). For these riders, TVMs can be an extremely useful option that takes out the need to visit a service window to buy paper tickets.
Lower-income riders can also benefit from this option if they cannot afford to pay for a smart card top-up upfront.
- TVMs can offer multiple payment options
Modern ticket vending machines can be preconfigured to accept payments with cash (coins and bills), bank cards and even with smartphones via NFC. Riders can choose the most convenient way to pay and having spare change is no longer a prerequisite to using the machines.
- TVMs can be incorporated into an account-based fare collection system
Ticket vending machines can become a part of an account-based fare collection system with the help of a network modem that connects it to a cloud-based back end. Riders can top up their accounts or purchase fares easily via a TVM in case they do not have access to the internet on their smartphone, for example.
- TVMs can be flexible
Modern TVMs can be modular, meaning that each transit agency can pick only the parts they need for their machines. For example, they can choose to have a TVM that accepts only cash, or one that does not have a network modem if it is not needed.
- TVMs can be installed inside vehicles
To ease the burden on the driver, smaller TVMs (fareboxes) can be installed on board public transit vehicles. This is done mostly on buses but can also be used on trains, trams, etc. In this way, dwell times can be reduced, and drivers can be more focused on being on time instead of handling cash.
Disadvantages of ticket vending machines
- TVMs are expensive to purchase
Depending on the functionalities that an agency may need, ticket vending machines can cost between $20 000 and $50 000 apiece. If a more specific type of equipment is required, the price can go even further up. Unfortunately, the price barrier often means that agencies purchase a limited number of TVMs and put them only at high-traffic stations.
- TVMs are expensive to maintain
Like every type of vending machine, ticket machines need upkeep, sometimes daily. Coin drawers need to be restocked/emptied (notoriously, TVMs tend to run out of the most used types of change), staff needs to handle stuck bills (which happens very often after it has rained, for example!), machines get vandalized and need repairs, etc. This maintenance requires the daily attendance of staff on site, sometimes having to travel between stations several times per day.
- TVMs can be frustrating to customers
If the software is not particularly user-friendly customers can get confused and frustrated at the machines. The user flow must be carefully created to offer a seamless and quick ticket purchase or top-up as sometimes people are in a hurry to catch the bus or train. If this is not the case, some riders will get angry and even vandalize machines. Another quite common issue is bills that get stuck or when the machine does not accept the rider’s change.
- TVMs can be damaged easily
As already mentioned, TVMs can be fragile. Not that engineers do not try to do their best to create them as heavy-duty as possible – it is just that if someone wants to damage a TVM, they most probably will find a way to do it. Screens are often the first victims but stuffing the coin opening with rubbish is also a pretty frequent occurrence. In some cases, entire machines can be damaged beyond repair.
But riders are not the only source of trouble – freak weather conditions can also inflict considerable damage, especially if the type of machine is not created to withstand extremely high or low temperatures, extreme humidity and even hurricanes.
- TVMs need to be substituted as technology evolves
Purchasing TVMs is not a one-and-done procedure. As technology evolves, both hardware and software need to be updated and upgraded and at some point, replaced. It may take years to reach this point, but it will inevitably happen.