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Most Googled: how do Oyster cards work?

how do oyster cards work
Photograph: Shutterstock

You ask, we answer: tackling the most popular Google searches about London.

Are you even a Londoner if you’ve never owned an Oyster card? Paying with your debit card might be on the rise, but the Oyster is still as quintessentially London as jellied eels, Adele or a night out at Rowans. In fact, 2.4 million Londoners (that’s about a quarter of us) make a journey using an Oyster every day. But how do these little blue cards work? You’ve been googling it, so we thought we’d find out.

Inside every Oyster card there’s a small chip that uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. When you beep on to a bus or through a ticket barrier, the tech transmits radio waves through the electromagnetic reader to a ticketing system. This keeps the Oyster’s balance updated and checks that you’ve got a valid Travelcard loaded. It also lets TfL track how people are moving around on public transport.

That all sounds pretty easy in today’s tech-saturated world, but it was a revolution back in July 2003 when the Oyster card launched. And it’s still snazztastic compared to backward places like, er, New York, which is gearing up to launch an Oyster-style card in 2021. (Guys, get with the programme!)

However, there are drawbacks. Oyster cards are expensive to make, and the next generation is already here: TfL has started encouraging contactless payments via phones and bank cards and monitoring wifi-connected devices to track people’s movements far more accurately than Oyster can. Don’t be surprised if your blue key to the city finds itself at the bottom of your sock drawer sooner rather than later.

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