Thursday, August 13, 2009

TransLink & BART: A Follow-Up

TransLink is now up and running on BART -- this is a fact that I can now personally verify.

This morning, I caught an AC Transit bus in north Oakland, and after first receiving three beeps from the TransLink reader (and an admonishment from the bus driver to "Get back here and tag it again, it beeped three times!" -- successfully tagged again and paid my fare with my TransLink card. No cash involved. The fare came out of my general "e-purse" on the card, which I had previously filled using a Commuter Check by physically going to Elephant Pharmacy (R.I.P.) and being assisted by their friendly customer service center.

After my meeting in downtown Oakland, I caught BART, entering the system using my TransLink card. I exited the system in downtown Berkeley, again tagging my card on the round luminous circle on top of the fare gate, causing the orange arms of doom to part and allow me to pass. My co-worker commented at this point that he saw somebody else tag out without removing their TransLink card from their wallet, which is good -- this was expected all along (and indeed, when I participated in the original TransLink pilot program in 2001, I routinely tagged in and out of the BART system without removing my card from my wallet). I then caught another AC Transit bus from downtown Berkeley up to the office in the gourmet ghetto -- and attempted but failed to tag with my card still in my wallet. I had to take the card out to tag -- apparently, it was buried too deep in the wallet to be read.

Prior to my trip home, I moved the position of my TransLink card in my wallet, such that it was positioned next to the leather (rather than behind 10 other plastic cards of some variety or another). Sure enough, I was able to tag on both the bus from north Berkeley to downtown Berkeley, and the next bus from downtown Berkeley to north Oakland, without removing the card from my wallet.

So, after a full day of using TransLink to ride both AC Transit and BART, I can report that it seems fully operational, and ready for anybody to use! Congratulations are truly in order, all around! Round of drinks, on me!

Now... regular readers of this blog might feel somewhat let down if I ended this post on such a positive note, without some kind of constructive criticism that may prove useful to our enlightened regional leadership. So, here it comes.

Issue 1:

BART currently has a policy that "Passengers are always responsible for fare payment. Please be sure to bring along other means of payment such as an EZ Rider card, a BART blue ticket or cash as backup during the rollout period." Let's dig down a little deeper, and examine this policy.

Scenario 1: You arrive at a BART station. You tag your card, the faregates open, you enter the system, travel to your destination, tag the card, the faregates open again, and you exit the system. This is the ideal scenario. Great, and congratulations -- you've successfully used TransLink to ride BART!

Scenario 2: You arrive at a BART station. You tag your card, but something goes wrong, and the faregates don't open. Instead, a message pops up on the faregate to "See Agent." Seeing no agent, and being in a hurry, you must provide an alternate form of payment to enter the system. In this case, yes, you should use a paper ticket. You do, you make your journey, and use the paper ticket again to exit the system. Fine. Pain in the butt -- but, fine.

Scenario 3: You arrive at a BART station. You tag your card, the faregates open, you enter the system, travel to your destination, tag the card and -- the faregates don't open. Now what?
- Option 1: You pull out your paper ticket. It was not used to enter the system, so it will not work properly to exit the system. One possibility is that it will deduct the maximum amount (something like $9.60 now, I believe) possible. The other is that it will just not work.
- Option 2: You go talk to the station agent, if you can find one. They charge your paper ticket for the correct amount for your journey, and cancel out the pending charge on your TransLink card. NOTE: I'm not sure that they actually have the ability to do either of these things... in fact, I'm pretty certain that they can't.
- Option 3: You exit the system using the swinging door next to the station agent's booth. If there is an agent present, you stop to explain to them the issue, and if they cannot read your TransLink card and ensure that your account is only debited the correct amount for the journey that you made, then you exit the system and you ride for free. Why? It is BART's responsibility to properly install, configure and maintain their fare collection systems. If they fail in this obligation, then it is THEIR failure, not yours, and they must forfeit their right to collect fare until they can resolve the issue or provide an alternate and convenient means for fare collection. This puts the burden on BART to quickly and efficiently stem the bleeding, and fix the problem ASAP so they can resume proper revenue collection.

Clearly, BART needs to clarify its policies with regards to Scenario 3, as this is a potentially very frustrating issue for the (hopefully small) minority of riders who may someday find themselves in this situation.

Issue 2:

I've got a stack of old paper BART tickets that's three inches high. Most of them don't have much value on them. Yet, as far as I know, there's no easy way to combine them all and add their value to my TransLink card. This process needs to be clarified, and made easy for the BART-riding public during this transition period from paper to electronic fare collection.

Issue 3:

There's not very good signage at BART stations, on the BART website, or even (as far as I can tell) on the TransLink website that clearly and easily shows TransLink users where to tag their cards on the BART fare gates to enter and exit the system. I know, it's probably bleedingly obvious to most of us, but I think that a small TransLink logo in the middle of the luminous white circle atop the BART fare gates would do wonders to clarify this simple item for customers. Besides, it would be a much more elegant solution than the clumsy graphic that I'm using atop this blog post...

Issue 4:

Yeesh, does this list ever end? I was taught to try to make three points in general, because three is a good number. But, here I go on to number four anyways... BART and its unions have announced that the BART strike will begin this coming Sunday night, August 16th, 2009. Aside from the fact that this will mean that, temporarily at least (I hope), BART will cease to take TransLink (again...), this also means that it is going to become rather difficult to cross the bay in a timely manner during rush hour using your TransLink card. Though the AC Transit TransBay buses are normally a good option, they don't have a dedicated lane to run in across the bridge, so they're going to be stuck in the same 30-mile-long traffic jam as everyone else (or, however big it winds up being). Which brings me to my main point: The Alameda-Oakland ferry service does not yet use Translink. I recommend that somebody go snag like the four readers from the warehouse that they would need to turn on Translink on these ferries ASAP, and install them on the boats over the weekend. I know, it's a relatively minor issue, but hey, it's also a relatively good excuse to finally do something quickly, for a change.

As the Obama administration/Rahm Emmanuel like to say, "Let no good crisis go to waste." Let's turn on TransLink for the Alameda/Oakland ferry in anticipation of the upcoming BART strike!

That's all for now - -except, one last time, congratulations to all for getting TransLink finally opened on BART!!!



Janis mara said...

I enjoyed the vicarious TransLink trip and hope you'll post updates. (Obviously, this won't happen if the strike drags on, but eventually...) This could mean that 17 years of effort finally paid off! ya think?

Garlynn Woodsong said...

It's definitely all worth it, if TransLink on BART is here to stay... finally, the promise of universal electronic fare collection on Bay Area transit is here, at least for the central core of the region (Alameda/Oakland ferry notwithstanding)!

Anonymous said...


Over the weekend I used TransLink successfully on both BART and CalTrain. I got on CalTrain at California Avenue in Palo Alto, the TransLink head was on and said "tag your card." I did and it said "good for $7.50." The conductor did not know how it worked. She said it was supposed to be turned on today (Monday 17 Aug. '09) and she would have a hand-held reader to see if people had paid.

Knowing how the tag-on tag-off system works on Golden Gate, I tagged off at Sunnyvale and it said "$5.25 Refund." So it works on CalTrain as well.

-- Chris Peeples –

Garlynn Woodsong said...

Chris, thanks for the update on CalTrain, that's great news!

According to this report:

...MUNI will soon be replacing their faregates with models that ONLY accept TransLink. This will be a huge step forward in terms of putting these cards in the hands of more everyday users, I hope!!!