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What’s in a name? The stories behind seven quirky smartcards.

Posted by Sarah Wright on Apr 6, 2016

Capture-5.jpgHave you ever wondered why London’s travel card is called the Oyster card? Or why Boston’s travel card is called Charlie? Smartcard names are often quirky, animal themed or hint towards an age of exploration. These cards allow us easy access to transport systems and are used across the globe by millions of people daily. So, what are the stories behind their names and how do transit agencies come up with them? Today, SmartRail World’s Sarah Wright finds out, taking a look to see how some of our favourite smartcard names were devised.

Atlanta Breeze

Back in 2014 SmartRail World spoke to Cynthia Jones, CEO of Jones Worley – the company that helped many US Transit agencies including MARTA implement smartcards – and asked her about the naming process. Jones suggested that transits and metros “choose a transit-agnostic name” reflecting the fact that the name often represents the entire system, not just the card. MARTA’s choice then was easy and described the way they hoped the card would “make riding a breeze for customers.”

London Oyster

London’s Oyster Card has several meanings behind its name, the first and perhaps the most obvious of these is connected to the saying, “the world is your oyster.” Afterall, for around 9 million people, London is their world and the Oyster card gives them easy access to it. Secondly, the name was conceived as a metaphor of the card itself, the hard plastic shell contains the precious chip, the pearl if you will, that makes the whole system work. Also significant to this choice was that the bed of London’s Thames is the home to many oysters.

Bangkok – Rabbit

If ever you plan to use a travel in Bangkok then get ready to use the bright orange Rabbit travel card that even helps you build up your carrot rewards each time you travel. What is the story behind the name? Well, there is no definite answer to this but here at SmartRail World we would like to think that it is aptly named as it allows passengers to hop on and off of public transport into the outside world as they wish, just like a rabbit hopping out of its hole.   

Vancouver – Compass

The simply designed compass card has found its home in Vancouver. The smartcard was named in 2010 after the public submitted 56,000 entries into a completion to choose its name. The competition has since had a controversial reaction, firstly as many did not agree with the decision and secondly as San Diego already had a travel card named compass. It is however undeniable that the name is simple and effective, the card allows you to navigate your way much in the same way that a compass would.Picture1-2.jpg 

Boston – CharlieCard

MBTA’s CharlieCard has one of the most detailed back stories. The card’s name harks back to a campaign song linked to the MTA (MBTA’s predecessor) and Boston’s mayoral race in 1949. The central character of the song, you guessed it Charlie, rode the MTA everyday. The message of the song fought to stop the increase of public transport fares and to make it accessible to all - something that the smartcard also aims to do. By 1959 the song was re-released by the Kingston Trio, reaching number 15 in the billboard charts, take a listen and see why. Clearly, Charlie was and still is a memorable character.

Charlie_main-table-card-1.pngHong Kong Octopus

First launched in 1997, Hong Kong’s Octopus was the world’s second smartcard system to be used for public transport, it can now also be used in shops, car parks and at vending machines. It seems to be spreading its tentacles all over the place! The card was the first to have a sea themed name, followed by the likes of London’s Oyster, New Zeland’s Snapper and Meryside’s Walrus. The name Octopus can be translated from Chinese to mean “go-everywhere”. It also links to the Chinese belief that eight is a lucky number. Perhaps it is this luck that has made the Octopus card so successful, "making everyday life easier” for 95% of Hong Kong's population, just as the slogan said it would.

UPDATE: Seattle - ORCA 

ORCA.jpgThanks to Dennis, Chair of the 2003 marketing committee for Seattle’s transit agencies, we now have the story behind Seattle’s ORCA card. You may be thinking, another sea animal? Well, yes and no. Originally planning to name their smartcard the E-Go, the committee were disappointed to find out that it had already been taken. Thinking of names that represented the Puget Sound area, someone came up with Orca. The whale is popular and well-loved in the area and the name was only opposed by one General Manager on the board. So, Dennis tells us “the committee reconvened and someone mentioned why not come up with an acronym for ORCA.  A Sound Transit staff person came up with One Regional Card for All which worked for ORCA.” Success! The name stuck and now the ORCA card (pictured here) services all seven agencies in the area.

The list of smartcard names goes on... In Philadelphia you can use the Freedom Pass, in Dublin the Leapcard and in Itami, Japan you can use the itappy. In Lorraine, France travel is made easy with the Simplicte card, flexible travel is key in Oslo with the Flexus and in Melbourne the city is opened up to passengers with the MyKi. The names behind the cards and the systems shine a light upon what a difference travel can make to people. In some cases the names reflect the quirks of a place and these smartcards, in our opinion, are always the best. We each have our favourite and are always on the lookout for the next inventive name.


If you liked learning more about the stories of smart card then you may also like…

‘Opal Man’ promotes smart card use on Sydney transport network

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NEW! E-book to download: Innovative IT for Improved Rail Performance.

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Topics: quirky

Sarah Wright

Written by Sarah Wright

Post studying for a Masters in History at the University of Essex and taking time out to travel Europe and South East Asia, Sarah came into the world of events and marketing. She has been putting her communication skills and creativity to good use here with us since.

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