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Glitches rock Lagos mass transit’s electronic payment platform

By Benjamin Alade
09 July 2021   |   4:11 am
Electronic payment platform of the Lagos Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) scheme is having more glitches than the operators are prepared to fix.

BRT PHOTO: Twitter

•Cashless scheme shortchanges commuters, exempts unbanked residents

Electronic payment platform of the Lagos Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) scheme is having more glitches than the operators are prepared to fix.

At least in the last couple of weeks, the complaints are the same – payment machines are either inaccessible or shortchange commuters. More so, the ‘hurried’ roll out is unmindful of Lagos residents that have no active bank accounts.

However, experts have said that the teething problems could be tackled by introducing more convenient methods of payment, and deployment of innovations to encourage public acceptance of electronic payment systems.

The state government, in August 2020, launched the cowry card, an expanded e-ticketing system that automates fare payment for BRT.

The innovation seeks to create smart mobility through a cashless prepaid card as passengers can travel different parts of the state using the cowry card on any of the BRT vehicles.

But as more Lagos residents embrace the cashless initiative, its operations have faced one challenge or the other. A commuter, Salau Adegbenro, said the BRT is a lofty idea; it conveys about 40 per cent of passengers across Lagos network. However, the system is far from perfect; “the service is still very poor, particularly the digital payment technology.

“It’s always faulty and denies many passengers their balance. This is fraudulent because the payment machine at entrance is always deducting money but sometimes in excess of charges.

“The exit payment machines that are expected to return balance to passengers on short trips is always faulty and make such passengers pay higher than the normal fee. This is unfortunate because the drivers cannot do anything to rescue the situation,” Adegbenro said.

Another passenger, Victoria Areo, said her last experience was great, especially with the enforcement of cashless cards. She further observed that some BRT were not yet optimised “to allow you tap-out when alighting.”

For Adaku Lilian, initially using the BRT bus was the best, but now “a nightmare”.

“Loading the card was easy. There was orderliness, but now, it is rowdy. Even the service providers are more determined to frustrate customers.”

She said the electronic device sometimes debit passengers twice and when you complain, the bus operators and drivers would say reversal cannot be done.

“I experienced a man who almost fought the driver saying this has been happening to him without reversal. I think those drivers purposely do that to get their own share of the money,” she said.

Like Adegbenro, Lillian also experienced the failure of the exit payment machine, where she was debited N300 instead of N200 for a short trip. She claimed the operators are aware of the situation but would not fix it.

“Sometimes when the machine malfunctions, it is to the passenger’s benefit because we end up paying less of what we were supposed to pay. When you board and it debits N300, you come down to tap-out; you discover it returns N200, which means you spent only N100. Sometimes it is N150 you end up paying. So, their malfunctioning machine is sometimes to our advantage and other times a disadvantage. But if you don’t have that card you won’t board the bus.

“There are people who want to buy the card, but those operators will always say there is no card. You will have to wait for three weeks or a month to get a card that should be readily available,” she said.

A station manager at Ikorodu terminal, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said most are unserviceable, so the handling company brought replacements that were initially not programmed for the Ikorodu corridor, while the Primero buses were deployed to operate the Island to Oshodi route.

He reckoned that is the genesis of the problem. “Because these buses were programmed for Island at the cost of N500, when they were brought to Oshodi route, commuters must have N500 to tap in on entry and on alighting; they tap-out for the bus to automatically refund N200 to their Cowry card.

“This tap-in machine that is installed in the buses works with the internet. Sometimes, commuters are not able to tap-out. At this point, you are asked to go to customer service, which is at terminal 2 while the Ikorodu bus is at terminal 3,” he added.

A lot of commuters are never able to get redress given the inefficient system and the popular alibi of – “no network now, come back later”.

Unlike in the global practice where BRT fare payments are electronically driven with rebate as compared with cash payment. Passengers are allowed to use cash but are encouraged to go cashless.

However, there are few people who could not afford the cowry card. For this category of people, The Guardian observed that agents at the bus terminal use personal cards to help them gain access in exchange for cash payment.

Responding, Primero Transport Services Limited that operates the transport scheme apologised for logistic glitches faced by commuters.

Managing Director of the company, Fola Tinubu, assured that his company was working with the state government to remove and resolve all the hitches.

He said: “Primero is not in charge of cowry cards. It is the Lagos State innovation for transportation transactions. A commuter can use this statewide card in all regulated Lagos State buses. So, those who have some hitches in the switch should bear with us as we are working with Lagos State to perfect it,” he said.

Efforts to reach the Managing Director, Lagos Bus Services Ltd (LBSL), Idowu Oguntona, on phone, via text and WhatsApp messages were abortive.

Be that as it may, experts believe that there is an urgent need for the technology providers to effectively enlighten BRT commuters on the usage, accessibility and benefits of the electronic card payment system so as to encourage increased adoption of the payment system.

They believe that policies should be redesigned to include features/services that will increase commuters’ patronage particularly the older population.

They advocated for the adoption of a fare structure policy that will accommodate more low income earners. The experts said operators should ensure transparency in fare charges and also make the electronic payment cards more accessible thereby improving commuters’ confidence with respect to charges and card availability, while ensuring transparency in fare charges via text messages that can alert commuters of the charge deductions after paying for a ride.

An expert on road safety, Patrick Adenusi, said in other parts of the world commuters are allowed to use both cash and card, adding that Lagos is ripe for an electronic fare payment system. He said with the electronic payment system, commuters can plan their trips.

Adenusi, who doubles as the Founder, Safety Beyond Borders, said not accepting cash in routes that have been automated does not align with global best practice, adding that such operators would lose patronage.

Adenusi said instead of the operator to completely log out the unbanked, it is imperative for the operator to give enough time for commuters to align with electronic payment with enough notices at bus stops and inscription on the bus to indicate the process.

He advised the operator not to scrap the electronic payment system but give room for cash payment to accommodate the unbanked.

Dean, School of Transport, Lagos State University, (LASU), Prof. Samuel Odewumi, said there are two sides to the issue. The first is that most innovations always have its challenges at the inception.

Odewumi opined that the important thing is to have a team that would be attending to the issues as they arise until it is perfected.

“That is why we always advocate for a period of trial run or pilot phase. This will afford corrections and modifications without heavy cost implications.”

The second issue, according to him, is that such innovation requires a transition period whereby the old and new may coexist before discontinuation of the old.

Chief Executive Officer, West Atlantic Cold-Chain and Commodities Limited, Henrii Nwanguma, said Lagos is ripe for electronic payment system but continuous improvement is the only way to go.

“If the operator, a private entity, refuses to improve, perhaps the aggrieved may institute a class action lawsuit to force improvement. The system is not there for the banked and literate alone,” he said.

Nwanguma said one of the reasons the electronic payment system was instituted would have been for transparent conduct of financial transactions for accountability to stakeholders.

In his words: “If a major stakeholder is complaining, I think the owners of the service ought to look into it to identify the source of problems. I will not advocate throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

Chief Operating Officer, Automedics Limited, Gbola Oba, said fintech payment methodology or automated e-payment mechanism is the inevitable next phase of mass-fund collection (be it as transport fares, stadium entrance fees, etc) to avoid physical robbery and operators’ sheer theft that cash encourages.

Oba said it may seem so to a commuter who’s not a regular user (and services like Uber, Bolt, the Danfo, etc, should suffice) but a regular commuter of the route will be happy and the management of the transport company can use the data generated from pre-ebookings to plan adequately for the commuters’ welfare, save staffing and other resources wastage.