The Akbil and the Istanbulkart – lessons from Istanbul in electronic ticketing

Before I post my follow-up to the fare integration post, I thought I’d make a short diversion to Istanbul which is where I am at the time of writing. Apart from its intrinisc fascination as a city, Istanbul is also very interesting from a public transport perspective and has quite a few lessons for transport planners in Sydney and elsewhere.

In a future post I’ll talk a bit more about the investments in Istanbul’s infrastructure but for now I’ll take a quick look at the fare system. For the most part, Istanbul is a flat-fare, token-based transport network. Tramways, buses, metros, light rail and railways require token entry, either on-board or at a turnstile, with each “jeton” or token costing 1.75 Turkish Lira or about 95 cents Australian, irrespective of the journey length.

This entitles you to a single trip on a single mode or vehicle, with no interchanges. I’ll come back to the Istanbul concept of “interchanges” in future as part of my discussion on infrastructure, but for the moment all you need to know is that for the most part, each change of mode or even vehicle requires use of an additional token. Ferry journeys use the same concept but here the price can vary with the journey length. Even simple curbside tram stops have token entry through turnstiles.

Istanbul tramway token and smartcard turnstiles

Istanbul tramway token and smartcard turnstiles

In addition Istabul has not one but two forms of integrated ticketing. The first “Akbil”, which is reputedly being phased out, is my favourite. According to Wikipedia, Akbil is an acronym formed from “akıllı”, which stands for “smart”, and “bilet” meaning “ticket”; Akbil is actually a small stainless steel “button” that looks remarkably like a large watch or clock battery but which has a computer chip inside.

The Akbil is used to store value for public transport use; once purchased from a kiosk or shop it can be topped up using fare machines at major transport hubs. Every time you pass through a public transport turnstile or board a bus you touch the Akbil to a little receiver which deducts the fare, giving you a discount of roughly 6% on the cost of a token.

In addition an Akbil can be used for more than one passenger by touching on again for each person. More significantly, it also provides a further deduction for multiple use within a two-hour period (though not when you are using it for multiple passengers), thus overcoming the penalty inherent in the token system for users who have to change modes or vehicles on the same journey.

Akbil is supposedly being phased out in favour of the Istanbulkart, a stored-value “electronic wallet” similar to the Oyster card. Apart from it’s credit card format, Istanbulkart operates in a very similar fashion to Akbil; you purchase it and top it up the same way and place it on the readers on every turnstile at the start of each trip. The card format is slated for wider use to pay for parking fees, taxis, admission to museums, movies, theatres and other cultural venues and even as a form of ID (see Turkey Travel Planner for more details).

Istanbul Akbil and Istanbulkart smart tickets

Istanbul Akbil and Istanbulkart smart tickets

So what can Sydney learn from Istanbul’s experience in introducing electronic ticketing? Well, the first and most obvious thing is that they’ve actually gone and done it in all the time that NSW has talked about doing it, in large part because of the simplicity of the fare structure.

While I’m not a fan of flat fares, it’s obvious that Istanbul’s token system made it much easier to introduce electronic ticketing. Not only is there (pretty much) only one fare to incorporate, there is no need to make people touch off at the end of each journey. Touching off is probably unavoidable in any multiple-fare system (otherwise people get charged the maximum fare) but a simple zone-based structure is obviously going to be much easier to integrate into an electronic system.

The second is that, surprisingly, barrier entry seems to work even in the most unlikely of places, provided (again) the system is simple to use and fares are relatively low. Istanbul can be a fairly chaotic at times, but people seem to respect the system and even in the many places where it would be easy to get away with I did not see any attempts at fare evasion. No doubt it occurs, but it does not seem widespread.

The third is the commitment to overcome flagfall costs inherent in the flat-fare token system by offering discounts for multiple journeys. While Sydney does not have flat fares, bus users in particular suffer from the same problem that their Istanbul counterparts do (or did) – a journey involving multiple vehicles ends up costing much more than one of equivalent distance which can be made using a single bus. To a large extent the Akbil and Istanbulkart overcome this with the introduction of what is effectively a time-based ticket, which seems to work very well.

And why do I prefer Akbil over its more “modern” card replacement? I think it’s partly subjective – the little Akbil button and holder has a more tactile feel than a transport card – and partly practical. The Akbil can reside happily in your pocket attached to your key-ring, making it easy to pull out at turnstiles, while using the card involves digging out your wallet or purse, finding the Istanbulkart among all the other cards, placing it on the reader and then putting it away again.

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