One Question Quiz
a selection of AT hop key tags on a squiggly pink and blue background
The ultimate public transport accessory (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyJuly 12, 2023

The curious cult of the AT Hop key tag

a selection of AT hop key tags on a squiggly pink and blue background
The ultimate public transport accessory (Image: Archi Banal)

The lucky Auckland Transport users who’ve gotten their hands on limited edition keyring Hop tags love tagging on and off with something other than a card. So why isn’t there more innovation like this?

Niko Elsen keeps something very useful on his keychain: his Auckland Transport Hop card, in key tag form. “Before the key tags arrived I had so many Hop cards,” says the dad from the Auckland suburb of Waterview. “They all had varying degrees of top-up, scattered across different coat pockets.” His life changed for the better when he got a glossy key tag, permanently attached to the rest of his things, set to an automatic top-up, so he never had to be anxious about being caught without one. 

“While juggling a baby, when wheeling an electric bike through the gates at Britomart, the ability to dangle that little tag onto the beeper is a crucial urbanist tool to help bikes, trains and busy parents seamlessly interconnect.”

a pakeha man and baby on an auckland street looking happy and waving on a sunny day
Niko Elsen’s one-year-old daughter loves playing with the Hop tag on his keyring (Photo: supplied)

Elsen isn’t the only key tag fan. Troy, based on the North Shore, describes having one as being “a bit of a dream, honestly”. The utility was what initially attracted him to the concept. “I liked the idea that all of my transport stuff was in one place – my car keys and my key tag for the bus and ferries, like the Swiss army knife of transport.” 

Troy has a theory that keyrings tell you something important about a person. “A gym card and a bottle opener – you can make some assumptions about that person,” he explains. “If you have your Hop card on your keychain, it’s like saying that buses, trains and ferries are as important as private vehicles.” 

Tragedy struck Troy earlier this year, however, when the thin piece of plastic attaching his Hop card to his keyring broke. “I miss it,” he says. More importantly, he couldn’t find a replacement. His transport Swiss army knife was no more; he’s back to the quotidian navy blue of normal Hop cards. 

In longing for the return of the Hop card key tag, Troy isn’t alone. Periodically pleas for details about where to find key tags appear on the Auckland subreddit, with rumours circulating: “the ferry terminal had a few last month”, “I found one at the dairy in Commercial Bay”, “I bought a few at Newmarket before they disappear again”. One user suggests that “selling them was the best thing AT have ever done” and another says that making key tags “was the only good decision AT has ever made.”

three plastic keytags with cool hand drawn designs by kids
Some of the limited-edition Hop key tags were designed by Auckland children. (Image: Auckland Transport)

The rumours are true, confirms Auckland Transport spokesperson Blake Crayton-Brown. Over 200,000 key tags with Hop chips in them have been produced since they were launched as a promotion in 2018, in seven different designs. The cards were available online from Auckland Transport and at selected retailers; on Auckland’s subreddit, there are reports of stock remaining at several random shops from earlier this year. The only design left is 4,000 of the gold Hop card, for people with Super Gold cards and discounted travel. 

There aren’t any plans to produce more for the moment. “The manufacturing process for the AT Hop key tags is manual and quite intensive. We have experienced some supply chain and manufacturing issues with this product in recent years which has contributed to our decision to not produce any more for the time being,” Crayton-Brown explains. 

Auckland Transport appreciates that the key tags are harder to lose. “Our chief executive has two of them!” Crayton-Brown says. Frustrated travellers searching in vain for a key tag may be galled to discover that key tag hoarding goes to the highest level. 

Bringing the key tags back “could reawaken a bit of love for Auckland Transport”, suggests Troy. “They have that nostalgia factor – part of the attraction of having one was that it felt limited edition, it was really hard to find on the North Shore,” he says. “It’s that nostalgia factor, like Georgie Pie – when you hadn’t had it and you’d heard the good stuff, it made you more keen to try it. Yeah, that makes sense; key tags aren’t a Swiss army knife, they’re a Georgie Pie!”

The question of the key tag raises a bigger issue: why is there so little design innovation in the “cards that have chips in them” sector? For Elsen and Troy, one of the appealing features of the key tag was having one fewer generic plastic card to sort through. The kinds of chips used in Hop cards can be put into anything. In Sweden, people have used chips embedded in their skin to pay for train tickets. Or there’s the (unverified) video of a person with a London Oyster card in their magic wand.

Hop key tags are popular on trains (Image: Supplied by AT)

“I just found cards were inconvenient to hold on the bus,” explains university student Raymond Hu, who has taken a novel approach to his transport card: he’s made it into a ring. He dissolved the Hop card’s plastic in acetone, then fished out the delicate chip and coil. He replaced the coil with his own one, then carefully put the chip into a circular mould and poured resin over it. 

Admittedly, this did take quite a lot of trial and error: Hu says he initially tried to copy the source code onto another chip to save the faff with the acetone, but the security on the cards didn’t allow him to. He had to buy two or three Hop cards which broke in the process of making the ring before he made a functional one. He lost that initial ring and has replaced it with one with glow-in-the-dark resin, which he admits he doesn’t like as much. And, just like with the key tags, there’s a bit of a trick to topping up the ring on a Hop machine, but he’s mastered it now. 

a clear plastic ring on a grey table with a copper coil inside
Raymond Hu’s original Hop card ring (Photo: Supplied)

“Lots of people like it when I use it on the bus, and I’ve had a few offers to buy it – but I’m not going to sell it, because it was way too much work to make.” As delightful as the ring is, the novelty has worn off. “I use it to get to uni every day, so it’s just ordinary, it doesn’t seem magical any more,” he confesses. 

Troy loves the idea of a Hop ring. “Auckland Transport could wheel that out for Valentine’s Day,” he suggests. “But why stop at rings? The sky’s the limit!”

Hu is cynical about Auckland Transport’s ability to innovate. “I think they just buy the hardware as it is,” he says. “If they release cool stuff people will just complain that they should be focused on the buses.”

Perhaps the cult of non-card Hop options is all a moot point: Auckland Transport has announced that tapping on with contactless credit cards, phones and smartwatches will be an option by 2024. A national ticketing system that allows payment on all public transport systems is also going to be rolled out from 2024: no more having to shuffle your Christchurch Metro card out of the way when you’re looking for your Snapper or Bee card. Will the government have any more willingness to look beyond rectangles for the new transport system? Only time will tell. 

Keep going!