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Guest Blogger Wednesday: One User's Experience With TransLink on MUNI

TransLinkCard2.jpgMichael Harper, who's guest blogged here before, offers up his personal experience using TransLink since its rollout earlier this year. Everyone's experience is unique - this is simply one person's experience and is meant to foster discussion to ensure TransLink can be its best. This is just one person's POV, and if you have a different experience with Translink on MUNI or BART, please post it in the comments! That's the point of free and open discussion on Guest Blogger Wednesday!

Having experienced the ups and downs TransLink from May to July, I feel obligated to stand up on this soapbox and tell you that the TransLink system is not ready for exclusive use. MUNI is talking about phasing out our beloved, tree-killing FastPasses in 2010. This gives TransLink a few extra months to get their ship in shape, but some of my experiences have led me to feel the system is inherently flawed. Let me go over the three months I used my card and then I'll follow up with what TransLink and MUNI can do to improve the system.

I switched to TransLink for simple enough reasons. As a full-time student who lived on campus, I did not leave the house often though to warrant an actual FastPass and I was sick of having to gather the odd change to make the $1.50 fare (Remember those days?). I felt that eCash was the solution for me. I found out pretty quickly that it wasn't that great of a solution. First and foremost, the most accessible way to add money to your card is with their website.

They say on their site that money added on the site will show up on the card within 72 hours. Well yes, it does take three days at minimum, but at worst it could take 5 days or more (god forbid some of those days are weekends). Compounding this, you can't view your balance online. You either have to remember what the scanner flashed when you "tagged" your card or call their 1-888 number, which won't reflect any balance changes from within the last 24 hours. Your other option is to find an Add Value machine, which are only really available at the underground stations. So, the only obvious solution to the eCash problem is to set up "Autoload". Autoload will automatically add a sum of money to your card after you've gone below $10. You can set the amount you want TransLink to add, but the minimum is $20.

The second problem I encountered was a series of bus drivers and MUNI representatives who were completely clueless about the card and how it works. The training these people received seems to have been limited to "Someone is going to get onto your bus and tap a card against this thing and you can't leave until it beeps." Questions about how the card works, why the card isn't working, or anything else are met with shrugs.

Honestly, I can't blame them. A physical paper transfer is pretty clear-cut while the various beeps and blips that the TransLink box may or may not be making are meaningless. The technical errors that the TransLink system encounters seem to happen randomly and can range from the reader not being on to the reader not recognizing your card. Some bus drivers will let you board even though TransLink isn't working, and the others will make you pay the fare anyway. Regardless, if your card doesn't tag, it won't read as containing a transfer if you run into a transit cop. TransLink warns you to bring money for an alternate form of payment with you and they aren't lying, you'll use it often.

Anyway, I graduated and moved off campus so I felt it was time to switch to buying a FastPass every month. These too can be ordered from the website and so also incur a 72+ hour wait before they can be used. The month of June went pretty well, actually. Except for the few times that the card reader was down and I had to dig for change to pay my fare, I did not encounter too much resistance. And so I went on to buy another FastPass on my TransLink card for July.

In July my card "broke". I don't know what happened, but nothing would read it anymore, so I called TransLink. I was told that if I had been using eCash TransLink could have transferred the balance onto a new card for me, which I could easily pick up from any TransLink vendor, but since I had used a FastPass I had to mail my card to Concord. I was told that they would inspect my card to make sure I wasn't lying, transfer my account onto a new card, and mail it back the same day. Two weeks after mailing in my card, I still had not received my replacement. I called again and was told that they had probably lost it, so they sent me a new one with my account on it a few days later. They also told me they would compensate me $20 eCash for the troubles, but I never received any of that fake money. I used my FastPass on my TransLink card for the remaining week of July and concluded that a paper FastPass was much more worthwhile.

These are problems that TransLink and MUNI can address, however, and it could potentially be a really neat way to use public transit. First, any money added to your card should be available instantly. I don't have to wait three days when I order a hamburger before I can eat it. Second, the actual balance on the card should be updated live and available on the website. Third, all MUNI employees should have an idea of how the card works, how Add Fare machines work, and how to reboot the system when the readers are not working. Finally, and most importantly, TransLink needs local support booths. One should never have to mail a card to Concord for any reason.

In the end, I'm going to regret the passing of the paper FastPass regardless of how professional and robust TransLink becomes. I'm all for adopting new technology, but knowing that as long as I hold a small, duo tone slip of paper I can travel the city is a very secure feeling. Especially when the alternative is a buggy "smart" card that has taken over a decade to actually appear on MUNI and will cost the Metropolitan Transportation Commission an estimated $338 million over 25 years.

Michael Harper is a twenty something writer/activist/geek based out of San Francisco. He likes reading books, writing about obscene, practical & practically obscene things, and listening to the rudest of musics. He dislikes fascism and dairy products. He aspires to one day live in a gutter with a bottle of whiskey or his best friends.

Comments

Hrmmm, as a fellow TransLink user, I actually haven't had any problems whatsoever, surprisingly. I've found that when I add fastpasses to my card, I somehow still get the three-day grace period between months — it shows a green light but says "July 31" if it's already August. And I really like how BART implemented it so you just tap your card on the little white circle on the ticket-taker rather than waiting in an exclusive TransLink only line (on MUNI).

They've gotta up the reaction time on the buses, though. I see where they're going with this, having lived in Tokyo and the like, but they've gotta make this thing go just a bit faster.

... Another thing. What will tourists do? Pay the cash fare each time and get no transfer?

The quote "In the end, I'm going to regret the passing of the paper FastPass regardless of how professional and robust TransLink becomes" seems full of bitterness and spite, IMO. I like the paper Fast Passes too, but Fast Passes on TransLink lead to lower costs for Muni (and all other agencies), in the form of less vendor management, less overhead, and less printing costs, as well as more accurate collection of funds and presumably, more funds available for better service.

While I agree that there can be some frustrations, especially during an *ahem* *TRIAL* period, I hardly think this is a case of an "inherently flawed" system, and I'm saddened that the N Judah Chronicles, which recently has been pretty spot-on in its Muni reporting, especially in the case of Muni funding sources, is now dipping its feet in the typical Muni Fail Whale drama again, especially when the benefits of TransLink clearly extend beyond the realm of Muni.

@eddo: well as I stated at the beginning, this is just ONE point of view, and it's a guest blog - the point was to use this to solicit MANY experiences so the interaction between the blog, the guest blogger, and the readers/riders/owners of MUNI can start a discussion so we can help Translink be its best.

I personally haven't had a lot of issues with it, but I've only used my translink a few times, before giving it to "Mason Powell" who relies on it to come in from the Peninsula via BART/MUNI. So far he's never had an issue with it, aside from a handful of times when the reader didn't beep, and the driver just told him to stay on board since it was clear he wasn't trying to be a fare cheat.

And let's be clear - that candyland bullshit and trash talking that Bart Director James Fang continues to peddle is pure crapola, and if he even thinks of quoting this guest blog out of context to push his stupid lying crap, I'll make it my personal crusade to get his ass un-elected. You can read my assessment of Mr. Fang here: http://www.gregdewar.com/2009/05/why_bart_board_member_james_fa.html

This whole thing is idiotic. Cash chips have existed for well over a decade now. Normally I'm against the death penalty, but the management at TransLink should be beheaded.

I wish I knew how Translink works, but I can't. On August 10, I requested a Translink card to go with my WageWorks Commuter Card. I received the Commuter Card (a transit-only debit card that gets loaded with pre-tax money) almost immediately from WageWorks, and it got loaded as scheduled on August 22. I've already used it hassle-free to buy a paper BART ticket.

I send my request to Translink, as they specified, by emailing them my filled-out PDF form. That was the evening of August 10. As of yesterday's mail drop, no Translink card (not even an acknowledgement of the email), and they have blown their "allow 10 business days" by 2 days. This is not an auspicious start.

eddo is right, it's only in a trial period. I use it whenever I ride Muni and there is bound to be a few mistakes. But when something goes wrong, I have a wad of coins to shove down the farebox, and I give Translink a call to tell them what happened.

For the guest writer, I can understand your frustration with the 72-hour policy on adding online or via phone call with customer service. My blog (which Translink even refers people to) explains the technical limitations of the system and why the 72 hour policy must be enforced. The Octopus Card program, which is wildly successful in Hong Kong has the same 72-hour rule as well. Look on Wikipedia for the technology term "Store and Forward" for a better explanation.

But I'll tell you in brief, just go to an automated add value machine (at all Muni metro stations) or visit nearly any Walgreens in SF with the Translink sticker on their front door/window and you can add value on the spot and use your new cash value immediately.

@eddo, This one guest post that I wrote shouldn't be counted against The N Judah Chronicles as them dipping their feet in MUNI fail drama. This post is about my personal experiences and Greg posted it to start a dialogue about TransLink, not to state the NJC's opinion of the service. In all honesty, I am a little bitter about my TransLink experience, which was very negative.

TransLink is an initiative by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to connect all of the Bay Area transit services with a unified payment method. While I did talk about MUNI a few times, the article is a critique of TransLink itself, which is not a service invented or run by MUNI. Since it's inception, it's been plagued by delays and technical failures that have cost the MTC a significant and ever growing amount of money. On top of the problems this system causes at the administration level, I also feel it's implementation on MUNI has some weird bugs in it. Mailing your card back to Concord when it breaks results in you being stranded without your FastPass while you wait for it to return, for example.

@Akit I'll keep that in mind if I ever go back to using TransLink. I now live near enough to a Walgreens with TransLink support that this would be feasible, but the time period that this blog post covers was when I lived on campus at SFSU and was far from any Add Fare machines.

I'm going to go with: it's a crappy implementation (I've got lots of mostly minor technical complaints), but it works pretty darn well for me. There's little to no accountability with TL, and I've whinged about that for a while.

The TL machines at the metro stations don't seem to work, but this is (IMO) more of a MUNI failing than anything else. The TL readers at the San Rafael transit center work just fine (and appear to let you add MUNI passes).

I've not had problems with the eCash, probably because I've linked it to my WageWorks debit card (previously a personal credit card). If I were more concerned about the TL privacy implications, I'd likely pay cash and suffer just the same.

What I've discovered recently (and rather liked) was that if you use your TL on BART and then on MUNI, you get the $0.25 discount (for about 12 hours it seems).

I've also never had a problem with a driver (or pop cop) insisting that I pay cash. Drivers tend to be pretty apathetic about fare collection, but the pop cops can apparently deduct payment if need be. And, yes, the readers aren't all that reliable.

@Michael your comparison b/t TL and a hamburger is a bit apples to oranges. Most TL readers aren't stationary objects. Wireless connectivity is expensive, and not necessarily reliable. Sure MUNI and AC Transit have NextBus (and the cellular data connections that go along with them) on all of their vehicles, but then you're talking one more level of bureaucracy to wade thru.

@Amy BART had EZ-Rider before they enabled TL. EZ-Rider reads much, much faster... but also presented them with the infrastructure to read RFID cards at all the turnstiles. MUNI's turnstiles have already reached end of life (as far as the vendor is concerned), and I can't imagine that upgrading all of them would make sense. In fact, I rather dislike the TL equipped turnstiles because they're harder to turn by hand.

Additionally, I loved Oyster in London. While you can still use cash, you can buy an Oyster card at pretty much any tube station. There are even (overpriced) tourist oriented cards, and the infrastructure is there to handle card returns and refunds. This is how I'd envision MUNI going. Eliminate cash and make it much, much easier to buy a TL card (altho you can already get them at pretty much any Walgreens).

The problem with simply disincentivizing cash is that you end up like Golden Gate Transit. They offer discounts for using your TL card, and have just installed these awful new fareboxes on their buses. TL users can board super quick. Cash users spend forever fighting with these new (atrocious) fareboxes, and hold up the damn bus.

I'd be upset if I had to pay cash after buying a pass. The two reasons for buying a pass are to have a set limit on my transportation costs, and to avoid digging for coins at the Metro stations. I'm not a regular commuter, but I do come close to the breakeven point most months so I usually just order a pass.

I will probably use the card on Caltrain soon, as I definitely do not ride enough to justify a monthly ticket. I also ride between different zones often, so the 8-ride requires an occasional upgrade fare. Not sure how well that will work with Translink.

I love the BART EZRider card. I've only had two problems with it since I've had it, and one was my fault (I forgot to update my credit card number and it couldn't autoload). Both times the station agent quickly saw the problem and let me proceed.

@Alex: Ah, I usually only take BART within the city as I'm a student yet — thanks for the clarification.

I agree with the Oyster system — Tokyo has the SUICA, which you could buy pretty much anywhere and could put cash on, to use at stores and stuff too.

The best way to keep up-to-date with the Translink program is to review the documents of their management meetings:

http://apps.mtc.ca.gov/events/agendaView.akt?p=1268

The meeting also talked about the lost card issue and the delay of receiving a new card.

I think there is a big difference in the TransLink experience between monthly fast pass users and users who just load on cash in various amounts to be debited per-use. It sounds like Harper's trials were related to the latter because, as he points out, if fare is not correctly charged at the point of entry you need to have cash at the ready, which is super annoying and defeats the purpose of having a card like TransLink.

For me (a monthly fast pass holder who predominantly uses Muni with a smattering of BART within SF), the TransLink trial has been fine. I feel sentimental about not having the paper passes that have seen me through my formative years, but Muni is not my therapist and logically I realize your monthly $55 outlay is better protected living in the cloud. If I lost the paper pass before, I was just fucked; now it's recoverable. That's a big improvement, I think.

I do find I usually have to swipe twice on surface buses, but this is probably because I'm used to moving through the door quickly and I don't give it adequate time holding still. Even having to register the card twice, I'm still 5x faster than a cash payer, who slows the boarding process for all. If TransLink serves the singular purpose of getting people on and the doors closed faster, that's a win, I think.

I also realize that as a mostly-Muni user I'm not fully reaping the benefit of regional integration. My little cousin from Boston who visits often touts his MBTA "Charlie Card" that allows him access to many modes within a much larger geographical spread than the city of Boston, and asked me two years ago why we didn't have something similar.

I have not, in the months I've been using TL on Muni, been stopped by a POP cop, so I haven't had a chance to test the card's mettle with regard to proving I have in fact paid. I commute on the N-Judah at least three days a week, and I forget to swipe the card nearly every time. I don't think this is a big deal, because the inherent benefit of the Fast Pass has always been the peace of mind of prepayment. I know I've paid to be on the train, and with TL that should be easily electronically verifiable. Having to carry cash to supplement a system's technological failing doesn't seem right to me, and I'll fight that ticket if I were ever to get one. But again, this is the privilege of the monthly pass vs. a decreasing cash balance.

My job isn't modern enough for wage works or e-cash so I still get paper commuter checks. There's a very nice little dude in a booth inside Embarcadero Station on the BART side who loads on my fast pass every month, and it's available immediately. I had not heard of a delay in processing availability, but I also don't use the online interfaces so much.


@Megan I use eCash with a linked credit/debit card. But even when the readers don't work, I've never been forced to pay cash fare. In fact, I got checked by a pop cop after boarding the 2nd car of a two car train where none of the TL readers were working. She tagged my card on her reader and said I was good to go.

The increase in boarding speed is welcomed, but do consider that Golden Gate Transit hasn't saved any money by using TL. Do also consider that they get more accurate rider information (which some like SFAppeal find too Orwellian) which means that more frequent fine tuning of routes can be done.

I got my Translink card about two months ago. Being unemployed right now, I'm not a regular commuter but I use the buses and Metro fairly regularly. I've had no problems on the Metro but there have been a few times that the bus machines were either just off or not working. In all cases the drivers just let me through (in two of the three cases I was boarding within my transfer period so if I had had to pay again I would have been annoyed). Generally I like it, but I agree there are issues to be worked out.

My TL experience is mostly on AC, but the problems have ALL been with TL itself. It took them 4 days to upload an AC monthly pass. Requests for usage summaries filed 6 Aug not yet received. Such delays might have been okay in the telegraph and hand written letter era but are ertainly unacceptable in an era where the charge for the pass purchase went on the credit card several days before I could use it.

I have had nothing but good luck with my translink so far. I am lucky enough to be able to walk to work though, so I do not use it every day.

But I have heard about people having issues using their commuter checks to buy a Fast Pass for translink. Does anyone else do this? Had any problems?

I think the biggest problem is what's happening behind the scenes at the TransLink operations center in the East Bay. Operations online that can be automated seem like they require manual intervention at their center. Why should it take a week for a report of my daily boardings to be compiled into a PDF?

I don't know how well TL can be used to track passengers' travel patterns. On my reports, when you board a bus/train, information only says "MTA bus", only difference is when you tag your card at the stations and it actually differentiates by station name.

I haven't had significant issues with my card, generally the readers off or I happen to tag twice but didn't know because the volume was off. I've only stepped off the bus once because a morning 28 woman bus driver didn't feel it was necessary to turn on the reader. Reported her to 311. hah

I've been using Translink daily since last December, both on Muni and GGT. The GGT implementation is fine: the readers are almost never down, the drivers know exactly how it works and what's supposed to happen and rarely have I needed to bring an alternate form of payment (though I wind up carrying a couple of bills around with me, just in case). Once the Muni implementation works the bugs out and teach their drivers how it works, it'll be fine. It's in trial mode for a reason.

But, there is a fundamental flaw in Translink that you don't address and that is privacy. In their terms of service, they state that they can and will release any information they have to pretty much anyone who asks. If you load the card via cash, then all they can do is tell exactly where and when a certain card gets swiped. If you load it via credit card, they can effectively use it to track who goes where and when. Not to mention that these cards use RFID, which is notoriously insecure. A google search on translink privacy concerns brings up more thorough writeups on these topics.

The potential for abuse is what has me concerned right now, not the robustness of the system.

I've been using Translink on Muni (primarily busses) for a few months now and it seems to work fine. There was one instance where the reader was off that I had to use a cash fare. Now that BART accepts Translink as well, paying for transit in SF has gotten a lot easier for me. The one thing I do wish they would add is automatic upgrading to passes where appropriate (i.e. charge the $2 fare per ride until you reach the cost of a Fast Pass and then stop charging).

I've been using the Translink card since the early trial days on MUNI too. I just want to add two more bits of feedback in case anyone from Translink reads the comments. To me, the biggest problems / annoyances are:

1. The Translink card doesn't read when it's in my wallet. i.e. I need to take the card out of my wallet and place it on the reader. This is weird because I also have a Visa Passpass card and my work HID card in my wallet, and they both work fine. I also tried removing both of those other RFID cards from my wallet to see if the translink card would read, but it wouldn't.

2. I don't like how long it takes to "beep" when I hold the card onto the reader. (I used this in both debit mode and fastpass mode.) Other cities (I lived in DC and London) have "instant" gate openings.. so you could walk up, hold up your wallet, and not even break stride. But the translink card takes a second or so to register, which slows down the process. Ordinarily I wouldn't complain about that, but how is it that other systems can be instant but translink isn't?

Where is the inherent flaw? Everything you listed is a bug that is fixable. Nothing that is fixable is an inherent flaw

having used TL on GGFerry, GGT many times, MUNI a bunch, and now BART, (maybe once or twice on AC Transit but now that I'm at UC Berkeley we get free rides), i've seen a few kinks here and there. i've gotta say though, the convenience far outweighs the few times the reader's been down or something's quirky.

also, i tagged my TL card on BART last night a little too fast after the person in front of me, and the gate closed and when i brought the card to the station agent in downtown berkeley, he check the card and let me out the gate, no problem. so seems like they got a little more training.

it's true though, TL has taken so much time and so much money... it pains me when i remember my trip to hong kong, knowing that they have had octopus since the 90's, with all the old ladies boarding the bus instantly and my family fumbling around for the (really odd) bus fares. plus they can use them at 7-11, and i remember if you take the escalator / walk up the hill, they even give you some credit.

so yeah, why TL is having so much technical trouble, who knows. i'm very glad that it's finally working on some of the major operators though... it's like we're reaching a critical mass (once caltrain's on board). this is what i see as the first step in making bay area transit easier to ride (the next being to merge all the agencies and coordinate service, planning, and growth in a much more insightful manner.)

so, let's hope they can iron out the kinks by the time TL goes live!

@Brian

it must be the wallet... i keep my TL in the money compartment closest to the outside, and it works fine (though the non-feedback of BART gates is confusing), even with my RFID uc berkeley ID in my wallet at the same time...

It would be a welcome improvement if Translink provided its users with a way to look up their usage online, like FasTrak users can.

Funny how after posting a comment here, I stepped onto a bus with the reader turned off. The driver claimed it was malfunctioning. I don't think that just because the reader didn't turn on when the bus started up is the reason why it would be malfunctioning.

Driver continues to tell me to pay the regular fare and I tell her that I loaded a fast pass onto my card. She simply didn't not understand what I was trying to say. She then told me to buy a monthly sticker to affix to my card, I scoffed. I refused to pay because of her lack of training or her lack to do anything else besides sit herself down. All the driver has to do if the readers don't turn on, they can turn it on through their console. Reported the TL issue to 311.

they definitely need better beeps. the current one is loud and ugly. this is san francisco, we care about the way things look (and sound).

Followup to my August 26 comment. After a second request, I received a card, but had to phone in to get Web access. I get my transit through my employer, and the Translink documents did not mention that I had to phone in that case.

I ordered value for the card, but it did not work even after 72 hours, so I called again. The CSR was very helpful, fixed the problem, and credited my accout $5 for my inconvenience.

Since then, the card has worked flawlessly on Muni & BART.

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