“Always remember this one important rule,” my Computer Science 101 professor advised. “Never use technology for technology’s sake alone.”  A technological solution is not always the best solution. Sometimes there is a better way to get something done. A shining example of an ill-advised use of technology is the current implementation of the Rav Kav, the transportation payment smartcard.

By all accounts the Rav Kav is a failure. The Rav Kav promised to make life simpler for travelers by unifying fare collection. It did not. Fare collected by Dan is not accepted by Egged or vice versa. Dan uses an account balance system while Egged uses a virtual punch card system, contributing to confusion.

It was supposed to make bus boarding faster. It did not. Purchasing fare and boarding a bus has become an unnecessarily complicated endeavor. And card-reading errors from older cards are only making matters worse as bus drivers bend the card until the machine can read it. (Incidentally, bending the card likely breaks it even more, as the RFID antennas inside it are not designed for intensive bending.)

It was supposed to allow drivers to focus on the road. It did not. Drivers are still counting out change and are pre-occupied with fare collection as they drive. The only thing that changed is they are now pushing a whole lot of buttons while they drive as well.

It was supposed to allow passengers to be more informed about pre-paid fares and replace the need to carry around countless punch tickets. Instead customers don’t have easy access to find how many fares are left on their Rav Kav (nor for which company or lines these fares can be used). There is in fact a wonderful third party Android app that allows users to read the information stored on their Rav Kav from a smart phone but because the decision was made to use a non-standard RFID chip, this app will only work on a select few older phone models that have non-standard RFID chip readers.

Then, of course, there is the cumbersome and completely unneeded bureaucratic process you are required to suffer through to obtain a personal Rav Kav each and every time you need one, including if it was stolen, lost, or damaged.  Exactly why a photo is needed for this card — a time heavy and resource intensive requirement — remains a mystery. Bus drivers don’t ever look at the photo, nor should they be compelled to do so. And you have several cards of a more security sensitive nature in your wallet, such as credit cards that don’t require a photo. Most citizens of Israel carry a photo ID and that can easily be matched with the name on the card if, for whatever unique circumstances, photo ID is required for boarding a bus to your local grocery store.

And there are more shortfalls. In Jerusalem, if two passengers board an Egged bus with one Rav Kav, a time honored and cherished practice dating back to the introduction of the original punch card “cartisiya,” only one passenger can transfer to the light rail for no other reason than for the technology limitations of the way the system was implemented on the light rail. (The unmonitored reader is only designed to deduct one fare at a time to prevent double billing.)

On all these accounts, an old fashioned punch card or a one-time paper ticket score higher than this expensive failed experiment of a Rav Kav. So, as we are in the start-up nation and one of the most hi-tech countries in the world, we must ask ourselves two questions:

  1. With the Rav Kav today, are we simply using technology for technology’s sake alone?

And more importantly,

  1. How can we fix the Rav Kav so it will work the way it was intended?

How to Fix the Rav Kav

My C.S. 101 professor also gave me some more timeless advice. “To succeed with technology, K.I.S.S. — keep it simple, stupid!”

Here are the simple rules Rav Kav should follow:

  1. Bus drivers are never to handle money. Drivers should be focused on the road and their surroundings not on collecting fare. Drivers in New York City, for example, have never handled money in this author’s lifetime. Today, passengers can board with magnetic pre-paid Metrocards (or one-time cards) that can be purchased in stores all over the city or at most train stations. The passenger loads money onto the card without ever involving a driver. A similar system can be adopted in Israel.
  1. The Rav Kav will store only one piece of information (which can also be synced and stored offsite for backup). That piece of information is the account balance — and it will be the same balance used for all transportation companies. This will eliminate all confusion about the different companies. Users add money to their card and then when they board a bus or train and use the Rav Kav, money is deducted. It’s that simple. Rav Kav becomes a transportation bank clearing house that any transportation company can tap into and the truly unified transportation payment system, as was originally intended.
  1. Keep the concept of personal Rav Kav cards and anonymous Rav Kav cards, but change how they can be issued. Personal Rav Kav cards should be issued over the phone or via a website and arrive in registered mail. Anonymous pre-charged Rav Kav cards can be purchased all over, including in grocery stores, kiosks, and stations.
  1. Personal Rav Kav cards will contain the name of the card holder and can be linked with a credit card or bank account. Customers can add money to the Rav Kav cards by logging into a special Rav Kav website. They can also set it up to automatically recharge the card when the balance gets low. (New York City now has a similar feature for the Metrocard and the EZ-Pass payment systems.) And since the balance is easily displayed on the website, customers are never left in the dark about how much is left on their Rav Kav card. SMS alerts can even be set up to inform users of low balances. The current photo of the cardholder should be eliminated to clear up resources and save money.
  1. Anonymous Rav Kav cards can be purchased in stores with a pre-loaded amount. They can also be obtained at central bus and train stations. Machines, similar to the ones now found along the Jerusalem light rail and in other locations, will allow passengers to re-charge card balances and pay by cash or credit card. There should be enough machines to ensure long lines don’t form to use them.

There are many more issues that would still need to be addressed. For example, how would monthly or daily passes work?  The many fine details of transfers between different transportation companies must be hashed out as well.  And there are many other potential problematic factors that need to be considered. But they can all be solved. And this is an excellent place to start. We can develop an universal transportation payment system Israel can be proud to call our own. No engineer would have designed the current system with all its pitfalls, and it was likely the result of political, bureaucratic, and economic factors rather than technology, innovation and customer satisfaction considerations.  When it comes to technology solutions, Israel as a nation can do better and the people deserve better. The transportation ministry must fix the Rav Kav and the people must demand it.