Cash versus digital payments in mobility systems

Cash is not king, but are we risking 'digital exclusion'?

The reign of cash as ‘king’ of mobility payments may be over. With the rising popularity of mobile and contactless payments, some argue it’s time to move to digital payments and cut ties with cash altogether. It’s a divisive subject, however, raising concerns about removing payment choice – or worse, excluding those who can’t or won’t pay digitally.

In the UK, Levelling-Up Secretary, Michael Gove, urged councils earlier this year to keep cash options at parking meters, rather than forcing the use of mobile apps, so that no-one in society is left behind.

He argued, “All local authorities have existing statutory duties to ensure that they do not discriminate against older people or those with vulnerabilities.”

Despite this, a recent survey by British motoring organisation the RAC of almost 2,000 members, found that one-in-five drivers said their councils want to make mobile phone payment compulsory in public car parks. Almost two-thirds (59%) were angry about the loss of coin and card payment options, with the number rising to 73% of drivers aged over 65.

Speed and simplicity of digital payments

In mobility systems, the benefits of cashless payments are widely known. For passengers willing to use contactless or mobile payments, transaction times are faster, there’s no time wasted queuing for tickets, or fumbling to find the right money. It’s easy to understand tariffs and fares and view transaction and travel histories using customer portals and apps.

For operators, being cash-free makes for a leaner, more efficient business model. They can cut the considerable cost involved in cash handling. In addition, digital payments, whether contactless or mobile, are trackable, bringing operators an enormous, valuable pool of data they can dive into to understand customer behaviour and design better services.

A wholly digital payments system would have compelling benefits for operators and many of the people who use their systems. But not all of them. And if we believe that social inclusion needs to remain a core principle of mobility networks, then this is best served by systems that offer a choice – of how to pay and when to pay (before, during or after travel) – and access to concessions linked to your personal status (for example, as a Senior).

No "winner takes all"

This month, on LinkedIn, we asked our audience to weigh-in on the future role of cash in the mobility ecosystem. The response to our poll was split. Over two thirds, 68%, said “cash must stay to be inclusive”, while 32% said “it is time to go fully digital”. 

Comments suggested that cash is not the only option for those who don’t have a bank card or a smartphone – transit smart cards, for instance, can be topped up using cash. Others made the point that it’s not necessarily the case that contactless EMV can’t provide ID-linked concessions – as there are new ways to get around this with white label EMV cards.

The subject is complex, and in the battle between cash and digital payments there is no hands-down “winner”. At Flowbird, our view is to continue to modernise the user experience, while also offering payment choice. We continue to innovate sleek UIs for terminals, ticketing machines and mobile apps, supporting multiple payment methods and tokens. In our mission to make mobility effortless, we maintain a duty of care to ensure access for everyone.


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