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