NFC Payment in the Paris Metro

It took many many years, but I finally used an NFC payment service on a mobile device: For paying in the Paris metro! So how well does this work and how does it compare to other cities?

Digitization – More Complicated?

To me, digitization is something out of the 1980’s, but it seems to be a resurrected topic in the 2020’s. In my opinion, digitization should strive to make things simpler instead of more complicated for the customer. Unfortunately, in reality, many services that are digitized are often just as complicated or even more so than than their analog predecessors. There is one exception that comes to my mind, however, and that is how one can pay in the London metro. It’s so simple that I’ve come to see it as the ‘gold standard’ of a service that was digitized. So let’s have a look at London Transport first and then compare the system used by the Paris metro.

London, The Gold Standard

In 2003, i.e. 20 years ago (!), London Transport introduced the contactless NFC Oyster card, and in 2014, i.e. 10 years go, upgraded the system so anyone can pay in the metro by just holding a credit card in front of the NFC reader at an entry gate. The gate will then open instantly and the payment process is handled in the background. From a usability point of view, it is ingenious and much better than the previous process of queuing up at a vending machine or counter and buying a paper ticket with a magnetic stripe at the back. From a privacy point of view, it is of course rather less ideal, but there are Oyster cards that can be topped up with cash for those who don’t want to be tracked. One can’t get it much easier for locals and visitors alike.

Paris, The… Well…

Paris also strives to get rid of paper tickets and keeps removing more and more paper ticket readers. There are even rumors of removing them altogether in the near future. As we are in Paris quite often, I finally relented and had a look how the NFC based system works in Paris. My expectation: They are a decade behind the ‘competition’ so they could learn from cities like London. So, it should just be as easy. To my surprise it was not so. Instead of just holding a credit card to the NFC reader at an entry gate, one still requires a ‘Carte Navigo’, i.e. a NFC card the size of a credit card, or, an app on an NFC enabled smartphone. It took me quite a while to understand what the app actually does, as the payment function at an entry gate is just one of its functions. Also, despite lengthy descriptions I couldn’t quite figure out what I have to do when I’m at a metro station. So at some point I just installed the app and hoped for the best, and that it was actually the right app, as there are several similar ones in Google’s app store. I won’t even lament about the fact that the app is only available in Google’s Play store, which is an extra hassle for people like me who don’t want to use a Google ID on their device and use alternative app stores. Fun fact: Mobile payment only works with Android, no mobile payments in the metro are possible with iPhones. Srsly?

After installing the app, I found out that instead of just linking the app with a credit card or perhaps a Paypal account, one has to buy tickets in advance and store them in the app. In other words, the app just makes physical paper tickets virtual. To make things just a tad more complicated, one needs to install yet another app that links the Paris Metro app to the NFC functionality of the phone. At least that’s what I think that extra app does. After that, one can load tickets into the app and paying for them with a credit card, e.g. a ‘carnet’ with 10 single fare tickets.

Once at the metro station it is fortunately enough to just switch on the screen and hold the phone over the NFC reader. No need to unlock the phone but the screen needs to be on. Once the phone is held over the NFC reader, the gate opens just as fast or even faster than with a paper ticket that has to be inserted into a reader. At least this part is as easy. Fine, so at least once one has taken all the prior hurdles, opening the gate is fast and easy. One can even see how many tickets are still available in the app and buy new tickets at home or anywhere else for that matter. What I haven’t figured out so far is if it is possible to store single-fare tickets and a weekly ticket in the app at once. Or single fare tickets covering larger zones and a weekly ticket just covering the center of Paris. Well, things get immediately complicated again. Now compare this to things work in London: No app needed, no pre-purchase of tickets required, no hassle, no nothing. Just hold that credit card or NFC enabled phone over the reader. Done.

So What to Make of It?

So as you might guess, I’m not thrilled with the system and the Paris metro has lost the chance to use digitization to make things simpler. Yes, I’m sure, there will be a thousand reasons why it has to be the way it is so things don’t have to be changed. But that’s the wrong way of digitizing processes, at least in my humble opinion.

One thought on “NFC Payment in the Paris Metro”

  1. I haven’t traveled that much in the last years due to this pandemic that happened.
    But what I have experienced throughout my travel life with public transport as a kind of Top 3 of overall usability were

    1. The 9€ per month ticket we had last summer
    2. TFL / Oyster Cards
    3. Prague “tap your Credit card and instantly buy a one way ticket”

    Everything else is, as you write, immediately going to get complicated again.

    Unfortunately the 9€ ticket is history again, so Oyster Cards are on place 1 again …

    I also learned there are two words
    Digitization and Digital Transformation

    Both are sometimes mixed but to my understanding they don’t mean exactly the same.
    Digitization is the act of making analog things digital.
    Digital Transformation is the mega trend changing the way we work with technology.
    Unfortunately it seems that not all people in positions that make decisions are “digital natives” so it really feels like having a paper ticket in your app.
    And this is worse than the paper ticket you buy at a machine, if you factor in the privacy drawback…

    There is really much to do for Public transport – everywhere.

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