Follow us on Twitter

Guest Post: Postcard from Amsterdam

This is a Guest Post by regular commenter Stuart Donovan, who has spent much of the last year living in Amsterdam.

Frankly my dears I’d have to give A’dam the full “douze points.”  Living in Amsterdam is like wandering around in the middle of a fairytale – you half expect Shrek and donkey to wander by at any moment.  The central canal district has been received UNESCO world heritage status and rightly so; it is astoundingly beautiful especially when cycling through on a sunny day.

Amsterdam is an economic powerhouse.  A quick click through Wikipedia’s hallowed pages reveals it has 1.2 million inhabitants who collectively crank out a large proportion of the Netherlands’ economic output.  But Amsterdam is more than a mass of economic activity; it is a city with a funky energy that permeates the whole city, even seemingly utilitarian aspects like transport.So what’s the link between Amsterdam and Auckland’s premiere transport blog? First, Josh and his partner have a new sprog on the family wagon so I figured he could use some guest posts to fill the gaps.  Second, Amsterdam’s public transport ticketing system was developed by Thales, which is delivering HOP in Auckland.  It’s there that the links between Amsterdam and Auckland end.

Amsterdam’s public transport system is supported by a high-quality heavy rail system that connects it to major destinations all over Western Europe.  Most of the network is not technically “high-speed” but trains still get up to 200km/hr and traverse the entire country in under 3 hours, so in comparison to New Zealand standards it’s essentially operating at the speed of light.

At the local level the public transport system integrates three transport modes.  A small but decent metro enables fast, long distance travel between the central city and some outlying suburbs.  At the local level light rail and buses provide the wider network coverage.  Notwithstanding the variety of transport modes, the overall public transport network comes together in a fairly logical fashion, mainly because of the emphasis on structured connections rather than point-to-point services.

This network structure is supported by the ticketing system, which manifests in my wallet in the form of an “OV chipcard.”  This card was quickly renamed the “OG she’s hot card” in honour of the high volumes of visually talented people that can be found riding on Amsterdam’s public transport system most of the time.  One of these people features rather prominently on the card itself (I’ll let you figure out who’s who).The card is accepted on all public transport modes where users swipe on/off. On the rail and metro system you find gates at the entrance to the platforms, while the trams and buses have onboard sensors. “Swipes” are fast (faster even than Oyster in my experience) and overall boarding speed is greatly increased, especially on the metro where pre-swiping is required.

Topping up your card requires tracking down one of the multi-lingual touch screen machines, which support a range of payment options, including cash/coin and debit/credit. One smart feature is the “balance readers” – shown to the right of the figure above – that allow you to scan the card and quickly check your balance without having to queue for a top-up machine.

Ticketing technology is complemented by a smart fare structure, which sends warm shivers through this transport economist’s cold heart.  One-hour cash fares start at €2.60, which is about twice the average cost when using a card, so there is a big incentive for people to get an OG card, even when visiting Amsterdam just for a few days.  Cards can be purchased on trams or via the top-up machines.  Alternatively, if you register for a personalized OV card then you get access to supplementary benefits, such as a 40% discount on off-peak rail fares.

With a stored-value card you are then subject to Amsterdam simple two-part fare structure.  Fares consist of a “base fare” that you pay for every trip (€0.79) plus a “distance-fare” that you pay per kilometer travelled (€0.105 per km).  This fare structure has a number of advantages: The base-fare discourages people from using public transport for short trips that should really be completed by walking and/or cycling, while the distance-fare encourages you to travel only as far as you need to.  The two-part system removes the need for stages, although a clever “zone-star” system is used to set prices for monthly passes.  Because the base fare is waived when you swipe on within 35 minutes of swiping out from another trip leg transfer penalties are greatly reduced.

For me the fare system is probably too simple: The distance-fare is the same across all modes and at all times of the day, which provides no incentive to use cheap modes (ie bus) or to travel at off peak times.  But the whole system is superior to most I have experienced, so let’s just put more sophisticated fares in the “room for improvement” box and move on.

Ultimately, my experience with Amsterdam’s ticketing system leaves me optimistic that Auckland’s HOP card is the real deal.  Nonetheless, maximizing the value of this technology requires that Auckland Transport use the implementation of HOP as a platform for overhauling the entire fare system.  To start they should get rid of fare stages and start providing discounts for off-peak travel.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the “ideal” fare structure for Auckland …

32 comments to Guest Post: Postcard from Amsterdam

  • rtc

    Those photos look like they’re from Amsterdam Zuid?

    Regardless of how great Amsterdam’s PT system is, I have to admit of all the times I stayed in Amsterdam I pretty much always travelled by bike – nothing beats cycling around Amsterdam on a bike. The difference between cycling there and in Auckland is like night and day.

    • Stu Donovan

      You’re right on both counts 1) it is Station Zuid (just down the road from my uni) and 2) cycling is absolutely the best way to get around Amsterdam. I think something like 30% of people cycle to work … it is amazing. And they’re mainly fit as rabbits because of it …

  • Ross Clark

    Hi Stuart, two questions:

    * What is Amsterdam’s physical extent? I get the impression that it fits its 1.2m people in the area of the Auckland isthmus?

    * Have they been able to expand the OV card into a national public transport card? We are working on something like this for Scotland (where I am based), and given that Scotland fits over 4m people into the Central Belt (its Randstad), we have room for improvement.

    • Stu Donovan

      Hey Ross,

      * Not sure of A’dam’s exact area, but I think it’s average density is about 50% higher than Auckland.
      ** OV card works on national rail network, but not sure about local PT systems – good question, I’ll try and find out.
      *** I’m actually living in Edinburgh this summer so contact me on Facebook and we could try and catch up in person.

      • Mike B

        Yes the OG kaart does work on other networks, like for example the HTM trams in Den Haag.

        I’m also a kiwi living in Amsterdam and agree that the PT is brilliant and the cycling even better. I’m currently in Edinburgh for a few days, and getting from A to B here is quite depressing in comparison

        • Stu Donovan

          Thanks for clarifying that Mike. FYI this Friday we’re having a homemade pizza party at our flat (Van Woustraat 216 – III) in De Pijp; if you’re around feel free to join and by all means bring friend(s). It’s a big flat …

          • Mike B

            Hey thanks Stu, very generous! but helaas I’ll still be in Edinburgh Friday. Playing for Holland in the Touch World Cup!

        • Stu Donovan

          Im actually in Edinburgh right now too – flying back to A’dam friday night.

      • OrangeKiwi

        The wider Amsterdam area has about 1.3 million people, whereas the core city has around 780.000 inhabitants. That core city comprises 219 square kilometres, the wider area is roughly 850 sq kilometres – but not all of that is built-up urban area. As a comparison, Auckland has an urban area of around 1,086 km2 and a wider area of 5,600 km2.

        Wouldn’t it be interesting to compare Amsterdam’s North/South Line metro tunnel project to Auckland’s proposed CBD Rail Link? There’s obvious differences though – e.g. soil type, more compact urban area, extensive existing network – but still…

  • Chris

    I think it’s a happy Lola on the card.

    I like the idea of a machine where you can check your balance. The one annoying thing about the Hop card is you have no idea what your balance is unless you check your account online, presuming you bothered to register the card – which I suspect many people haven’t. It would be good to have balance readers say on buses and at key points around the network like known busy stops such as 16 Remuera Rd.

    • Pickle

      @ Chris about tagging on and off: As you tag on or off on the bus, your balance shows up in green text and if your balance is below $10 the reader will tell to “please check your balance”.

      • Stu Donovan

        For sure, but I think Chris’ point is that it would be nice to have readers that were not on the bus that allowed you to check your balance. Is useful for people (like me) who don’t use their card all that often and forget what the balance is … rather than queuing up for one of the expensive top up machines (and holding everyone else up who actually does need to top up) you can just use the balance reader to figure out if you need to top up.

  • Thanks Stu, nice post. To be positive we could say that A-dam shows us how much better things can get in Auckland: With integrated ticketing, a smarter fare system, reorganised and co-ordinated bus routing, higher frequency trains, more and smarter bus privilege, bus/train interchange stations, AK’s system will be exponentially better. And none of those things are vastly expensive, but will take a lot of work and talent from AT and partners. Throw in new buses, new electric trains, Manukau and Parnell stations… things can only keep getting better.

    But I guess the main thing is the consciousness is that what this effort must all work towards is a fully integrated smart network system not a competing set of low quality point to runs on various unrelated modes which is where we still are now.

    • Stu Donovan

      Completely agree, especially re: reasons to be optimistic about Auckland. Things have definitely got better and they continue to improve.

      One thing that Auckland lacks compared to Amsterdam is a high quality street network. We simply don’t put the necessary effort into designing our street networks in a way that lends themselves to good transport outcomes, whether now or in the future.

      And the one thing that history teaches us about urban form is that street networks are notoriously permanent. Even Pompei was rebuilt on it’s former street network, because all the property boundaries had been defined and the streets were relatively clear of rubble.

      Happy to do a follow-up “guest post” on street networks if Josh ever lets me near the keyboard again … my topic for next week however is Edinburgh’s public transport (ie bus) network.

      • Yeah and it’s all a bit chicken-and-egg: to improve AK’s streetscape we need to reduce and slow down vehicle movements, and to do that we real quality alternatives to car [and bus in some places] transit. This is why I’m so convinced of both the desperate need for, and certain success of the CRL…. Or perhaps another cliché is relevant here too: carrot-and-stick. The carrot of better quality PT and the stick of traffic restrictions.

        Please do the post, Stu.

  • I’m not that sold on distance based fares myself, because of their potential complexity. I like to know exactly how much my fare is going to be when I get on the bus/train.

    There’s always a balance between simplicity and fairness when it comes to PT fares. A place like the NYC subway has a flat fare – which is superb for simplicity but does mean someone catching a subway from Coney Island to the Bronx pays the same as someone travelling two-stops in Manhattan. That’s not really equitable (though it does serve as a fairly nice inequality reducer as lower income areas are generally further out in NYC) but it is awesomely simple.

    • NYC’s flat fare system could be considered as a disincentive to densify, I have always found London’s zone system simple and fair. But then I had an employer who routinely offered an all zones card as part of the salary, a great perk as it didn’t matter where you lived or played [I lived very centrally but then meant it was easy to explore other bits of that rambling city on my own time at no travel cost]. Of course I never considered buying a car either. What happens here?, people get a car and/or a parking space. With real integrated ticketing this kind of thing could be offered by employers….

    • Stu Donovan

      I think flat fares are ideal in small systems, where you could easily travel from one side of the network to the other in say 30 minutes. They fall down in Auckland simply because of the distances involved. As noted by Patrick R, a flat fare system is essentially subsidising long distances trips at the expense of short trips, which is not ideal if we want to encourage a compact city.

      And I think the effects of a flat fare on locational decisions would be substantial in Auckland – consider if the cost of the train from Papakura to Britomart was the same as the cost of a bus from Mt Eden. You’d see a lot more students living in the latter, rather than moving close to where they need to be. So I think flat fares are too simple in large cities.

      I had not thought of people taking issue with not knowing exactly how much it’s going to cost, but wonder if that’s a) slightly unrealistic (I mean, you don’t know exactly how much petrol you will use in your car etc) and b) not completely unattainable in a two-stage system, because once you have made a trip once you can see how much it cost you and plan accordingly (the swipe out readers in Amsterdam tell you how much they have deducted for each trip).

  • I’m definitely not advocating a flat-fare system in Auckland. We don’t have the geographical structure for it to work.

    I would think an ideal system in Auckland would be zoned based, with around 4-5 main zones. Most people would buy monthly passes that give them unlimited travel within x number of zones. You would obviously need some sort of system to cope with what happens when people travel further than normal (which you would want to encourage, but charge for).

    • Stu Donovan

      Hmmm … but what you’re describing sounds exactly like what happens in Amsterdam – the monthly passes are based on defined zones; whereas the stored value is based on distance. Or am I misunderstanding something here?

      • Nothing to stop stored value being based on zones. Let’s say your ticket options would be a 2 hour, daily, weekly or monthly pass and then choose how many zones you need to travel in and that works out how much you pay.

        • Stu Donovan

          Ok I see where you’re coming from. But I do think you’re misunderstanding the complexity and issues created by zones for stored value. So many arbitrary points where you go a wee bit further and suddenly the fares go up a lot.

          I’d have the time-based tickets for people who don’t have a card like you say, but if you have a card with stored value then the distance based fare works no problems here.

          I mean if you are really interested in knowing the exact fare before you go, look it up on MAXX.

  • Stu Donovan

    But you’re probably right that most people would choose a monthly pass …

  • obi

    When I lived in Amsterdam I used strippenkart tickets. They were long and thin and printed in horizontal sections. The city (and most of the country?) was zoned for public transport purposes. Trips within one zone cost two strippenkart sections. Trips outside a single zone cost an additional strippenkart section per zone you traveled through. You folded the strippenkart at the next unused horizontal section plus the number of sections you needed for your trip, then popped the folded section in to a machine on the tram or bus which validated it with the boarding time. Can you still use these? For nostalgia’s sake I hope they’re still around.

    Photo of strippenkart: http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/p/m/a0e71/

    As for Amsterdam itself… It was always clogged full of cars. Ghent in Belgium had canals and similar buildings, had pedestrianised bits of its city center, and showed what Amsterdam could have been.

    • Stu Donovan

      No, the strippenkart has gone the ways of the dodo. I have heard others talk affectionately about that system though, so even last generation Amsterdam ticketing sounds better than what Auckland has had until HOP.

      Not sure how you define “clogged” but that’s definitely not my impression. The city has exceptionally high non-car mode share. The motorways are busy, but again nothing like Auckland. My street is a fairly important arterial road (Van Woustraat) but always easy to cross – compared to Dom Road etc.

      Looking at the statistics for Ghent, I see it has a population that’s about one quarter of the size of Amsterdam and not exactly an economic powerhouse – so it’s not really a valid comparison. Not saying it’s not a nice place, I’ll definitely add it to my list of places to visit ;). But this week it’s Edinburgh …

      • obi

        By clogged I’m talking about moving traffic but mostly about the parked vehicles that line EVERY street and canal in the city. Ghent has managed to pedestrianise some of the streets running along their inner city canals, and these are great places to walk along or to hang out. I don’t see this is dependent on total population. It might be dependent on population density, but given that the buildings look similar then I’d guess that the densities are about the same.

        Ghent is an ugly place from the bypass motorway. You see high rise apartment blocks from the motorway as you drive past on your way to the Channel. But these disguise a pleasant center.

        • OrangeKiwi

          It’s all relative – it may look like it’s clogged, but keep in mind that there’s not that many carparks in the city centre. So looking around the “canal area” it’s what you see is what you get – that’s basically all the parking space available if you want to park anywhere near the canal-side buildings. Imagine Auckland CBD with only about ten carparks (including private carparks) and then imagine all those cars they’d harbour usually – but parked out on the CBD roads instead… Which city would be more clogged?

        • rtc

          Sounds to me obi like you’ve spent pretty much bugger all time in Amsterdam because if you had you’d know that the city is full of areas without cars parked ‘along EVERY street and canal’. These discussions get really boring when you have people debating about things they clearly have mininal or no experience with.

  • James B

    Rush Hour. Netherlands style!

Leave a Reply