Fare is Fair? A look (back) at TriMet ticket machine performance

Back in June, Portland Mercury reporter Matt Davis and I spent a Sunday checking out ticket machines along the MAX Yellow Line and portions of the original Blue Line. We took along my video camera to document the results.

Matt wrote up an article at the time, but my video project wasn’t completed until recently. That video was presented in a Portland Mercury BlogTown post in January.

On that day, we found a number of problems, minor to significant. A complete spreadsheet was produced itemizing the situation at each stop. One of the most interesting finds was that at stations where the two platforms are split by an intersection (most of the Yellow Line, and the Blue Line east of Gateway), a passenger can be highly inconvenienced by following the law: It takes six signalized crossings and a number of minutes to obtain a valid fare if one machine is broken — potentially leading to missed trains. This provides an incentive for unsafe running and jaywalking.

I’ve held off on doing a Portland Transport post until I could get a response from TriMet regarding the current state of the ticket machine situation (especially since this reporting was originally done last June). Anecdotally, the situation hasn’t improved at my local station, which now has only one machine in total.

If you haven’t seen the video, check it out, then read on for TriMet’s response:

Mary Fetsch responded to the video and my follow-up questions… here is a summary:

  • Responsibility for ticket machines is being moved from the Finance division to Operations.
  • The strategy for deploying technicians will change, with an increased emphasis on repairing broken machines.
  • The number of qualified technicians able to work on ticket machines should double in the near term, with a long-term goal of tripling to 24 positions.
  • Work will be prioritized to maintain at least one working machine per platform, instead of the prior goal which was one per station, prioritized for locations where street crossings are required between platforms.
  • Fare equipment failures will signal alarms in the Operations Control center, similar to when there are problems with switches or substations.
  • Discussions are underway for alternative means of ticket sales at platforms when machines are down.

The full TriMet response is available after the jump.
Ticket Vending Machines Update
January 27, 2009

  • The Fare Equipment Maintenance department has transitioned from Finance into the Operations division. There will be changes in the way that the department is managed, including the allocation of resources and the prioritization of repair work.
    • We will deploy fare technicians in a strategic fashion that takes into account the present condition of machines across the system, the time of day and the customer loads. We will better balance the priority of work, focusing on repairs to down machines before preventative maintenance and installation of new equipment.
  • We have taken positive steps with our local union to increase the number of technicians who are able to work on fare equipment.
    • Eight technicians who were previously qualified to work on fare equipment will go through refresher training and will join the crews currently working on fare equipment. This will result in an immediate increase in technically skilled employees from eight to 16 technicians. Refresher training for these eight individuals will begin by the end of this month. Increasing the number of technicians will significantly increase our ability to respond quickly to down machines and increase the overall reliability of the equipment.
    • Our maintenance apprenticeship program is in the process of training new technicians, which will eventually bring the number of qualified technicians to 24 budgeted positions.
  • The previous goal of one fully functioning ticket vending machine per station is inadequate. We are now focusing on making at least one fully functioning machine available at each platform. Work will be prioritized at stations where platforms are separated by street crossings.
  • Failures of fare equipment will immediately register in the Operations Control Center as system alarms, just like other critical systems such as signals and substations. This will ensure more timely notification of problems and shorter response times for repairing equipment.
  • We are in discussions about additional ways to provide ticket sales at platforms where fare equipment is not working.

Some relevant email Q&A occurred after the formal response:

Regarding the standard of one operating machine per platform…

We have typically had the goal of each platform, but our performance
wasn’t high enough, so for a short term, we focused on stations. With more
resources and focus, it will improve.

Q: Does the standard of two working machines per platform imply an effort to install additional machines at some stations where there is currently only one machine per platform, or will the strategy solely be based on better maintenance practices and additional staff?

[The standard is] not adding machines… making machines work better.

29 Comments

29 Responses to Fare is Fair? A look (back) at TriMet ticket machine performance

  1. R A Fontes
    February 3, 2009 at 4:18 pm Link

    You’d think that TriMet could have a system in place for riders to override validators which were not functioning properly. It’s not foolproof, but it could work. The validation would have to be overridden before boarding. The override would include date, time, and machine number (if not printed on the ticket).

    Riders could game the system by using tickets legitimately one time and then fraudulently overriding for a second ride. Another ruse might be to override a ticket after boarding but only if an inspector is spotted. So fare inspectors would probably have to verify that the machines were indeed not working when riders claimed they weren’t and have procedures in place to follow up on fraudulent tickets.

    One of the Eurailpass options – the select pass – works by having the customer write in the date that the pass is to be used just before boarding the train. They’ve had that system for years and it seems to work.

  2. Bob R.
    February 3, 2009 at 5:02 pm Link

    Thanks, R.A.-

    After giving this a lot of thought, my suggestion to TriMet, beyond putting additional machines on platforms, is to install supplemental fare machines on the trains themselves.

    These supplemental machines would be a transaction-of-last-resort, and would not have to be as bulky as the current platform-based machines. Something akin to city parking meters, or the aerial tram’s ticket machines, affixed to the wall, perhaps near the operator cab.

    On the streetcar, for example, the fare machines are on-board. Those machines have problems of their own, but one advantage over MAX is that if you are required to show proof of payment, and the machine is out of order, you can simply point to the machine.

    On-board machines for MAX would work in a similar fashion — if the machine(s) on your platform are broken, board anyway and attempt to use the on-board machine. If the on-board machine is also broken, then it is easy to point out to a fare inspector.

    I would even be open to the idea of making such on-board machines card-and-coin-only (no bills), if it helped to find a reliable, compact unit. It would be an inconvenience for some passengers to always carry either a card or sufficient coinage, but if it meant having on-board last-resort fare machines, it would be a net benefit for everyone.

  3. Jason Barbour
    February 3, 2009 at 9:02 pm Link

    At the most recent TriMet Board Meeting (to when I’m writing this), Fred Hansen said to the Board that one of the reasons for debit/credit only machines has to do with its acceptance into everyday culture, and that plastic is used for even small routine transactions like 70-cent cups of coffee.
    Would not surprise me at all if someday all machines and fareboxes are nothing more than card readers, leaving those without a bank account with no ride.

  4. Jason McHuff
    February 3, 2009 at 10:19 pm Link

    What I wonder about when talking about using debit/credit cards for small purchases is the processing costs. If someone uses their card to buy a single honored citizen ticket, how much money is TriMet really getting? And that’s besides money spent on ticket machines and fare inspections. Ideally, though, we’d have a cashless society.

    Also, there’s probably some still-useful information in the Self-Service Fare Collection report, from when they tried honor fares on buses in the 1970′s. A good part of it is about the fare devices (which were somewhat-untested and unreliable), but it also talks about how fare violators were made to pay a $20 surcharge.

  5. Matthew
    February 3, 2009 at 10:29 pm Link

    It isn’t the processing costs that harm credit card only machines, it is the people that can’t get/don’t have credit cards in the first place. If you are on food stamps, you can’t get a credit card, and if you write a couple bad checks, you can’t get a debit card either. That is a minority of the population in general, but it it is a fairly significant number of transit users…

  6. Nick Stewart
    February 3, 2009 at 10:34 pm Link

    TriMet could sell swipe cards – at Fred Meyer and Plaid Pantry etc.
    You could get them in 5$ increments and use them at ticket machines. Employers could optionally add a magnetic strip to employee ID badges or provide the same cards available at retail outlets and provide monthly transit benefits to employees.
    Perhaps each card is numbered like a starbucks card and passengers/parents/employers could log into a website and add money or buy all access options for certain time intervals.

    Cards are the only way to go. Also, MAX and bus need to have wifi. The same cards – if they had a serial number that could be keyed into a mobil device or laptop could pay for internet access. The splash page for the network would have direct links to transit maps/schedules/service alerts etc.. Or for a free internet experience stops/and park and rides could be sponsored by a business that would pay trimet a fee (like to advertise on the side of a bus or MAX) for a click through add that would be served based on the nearest network node. Don’t forget that under the MAX is a bunch of fiber optic cable owned by TriMet too. Seems like wiring the whole thing up would create a few jobs, make travel on transit more attractive and productive, and increase the ability to communicate service alerts and emergency information. Think amber alert to all passengers of TriMet and everyone waiting at a stop. The city visitors association could have a direct link for tourists giving them an events calendar etc..

    Wifi and cards instead of tickets. Why cant we have them?

  7. al m
    February 4, 2009 at 7:29 am Link

    Lots of cities around Amerika are getting internet access on their systems.

    Many foreign countries already have internet on their buses.

    TRIMET is far behind in its internet programs, although to Oregonians it appears that WES is the future.

    As far as the ticket machine problem is concerned, this is my Mercury post:

    Good Job Matt and Bob,
    But words are just that, lets see what happens.
    Do a follow up story in a few months to see if any thing has really changed.

    Did it ever occur to TRIMET management to have a BOOTH where a REAL LIVE PERSON sits that can sell tickets, provide information, and monitor security?

    Oh yea, I almost forgot, that costs money which can be used by real live people to feed themselves and their families.

    We can’t allow that in Amerika, no, we need to make sure we have as few LIVABLE wage jobs for Amerikans as possible.

  8. Aaron W.
    February 4, 2009 at 7:53 am Link

    Based on my experience with CC companies, the surcharge is going to be around 3% so you are losing a couple of cents on each ticket. That simply gets added in to the cost of doing business. I rarely carry cash and never have coins so when I buy a ticket I almost always use my credit card.

    I try to buy them in 10 ticket packs so that I can just validate them. This ensures that I have some options if the ticket machine isn’t working. If neither the machine nor validator are working…we’ll that’s a different story.

  9. Anthony
    February 4, 2009 at 9:08 am Link

    We need to move to some kind of fare card system. Everyone swipes when you board.

    No more unlimited ride pass – monthly pass holders would get a chunk of “ride credits” that would give them the two trips per work day for the month; and maybe a couple extra.

    No more confusing transfers- Swipe when boarding would eliminate transfers. One ride, one swipe. Current computer technology could easily provide for a free transfer or discounted rate of some sort.

    No more fareless zone- its just outdated and one of many large subsidies to the richest part of town.

    No more zone system – only adds to the confusion of transfers and runs on the assumption that everyone’s destination is downtown. Also provides subsidy to the richest part of town.

    Card readers could be placed at the entrances and exits of all buses, MAX, and streetcar. Inspectors could carry handheld units that verify the cards were swiped.

  10. Jeff F
    February 4, 2009 at 11:11 am Link

    al m Says:

    Lots of cities around Amerika are getting internet access on their systems.

    Many foreign countries already have internet on their buses.

    TRIMET is far behind in its internet programs, although to Oregonians it appears that WES is the future.

    I’m going to take it that you are referring to “internet programs” on vehicles because otherwise I’d consider them fightin’ words.

    I know that there are a number of transit properties experimenting with WiFi on their vehicles, especially in the Bay Area where they have a huge WiFi cloud. I also understand that the new WiMAX service being offered in this region can potentially provide customers with access while in a moving vehicle.

    My real question is, however, why should a transit agency “have” to provide WiFi? It’s a nice amenity, especially for people on long commutes in a single vehicle, but it isn’t free or even cheap, and we have already seen how well this worked out when the City of Portland tried it — and that was with stationary computers.

    Does your landlord provide free Internet service? How is it a transit agency’s responsibility to do so?

  11. Chris Smith
    February 4, 2009 at 11:47 am Link

    We need to move to some kind of fare card system. Everyone swipes when you board.

    No more unlimited ride pass – monthly pass holders would get a chunk of “ride credits” that would give them the two trips per work day for the month; and maybe a couple extra.

    Many cities have used swipe cards to move to a distance-based fare structure. This would be a lot more equitable than the current zone system and would provide economic incentives to use transit for short trips in places other than the center of the region.

  12. Bob R.
    February 4, 2009 at 11:57 am Link

    Another idea I’ve been tossing around for alternative back-up fare payment (not a primary, required system), is fare-by-text.

    It would work like this:

    1. Riders go through a one-time process to set up their phone for billing. (There are already established systems in place for doing this sort of thing.)

    2. To purchase a fare, a rider texts to a particular TriMet number from their enabled-phone.

    3. TriMet immediately bills the customer (either from a prepaid acct. or a card or on the phone bill, depending on the system used) and texts back a message which contains human-readable text of the date, fare type, expiration time, and a verification code.

    For fare inspection, the rider only needs to show the text message in their phone’s memory. If a fare inspector is suspicious, the verification code can be texted in from the fare inspector’s own phone or mobile Internet device.

    This would provide a great way for people who own phones to be able to get a valid fare in the event of machine failure, or just as an added convenience.

    There are two problems I see with this, which would prevent it from being a widespread means of payment:

    1. If a phone’s battery dies or the text message is accidentally deleted, the rider cannot immediately prove they had a valid fare. (But in this case, at least, the responsibility for equipment failure is borne by the rider.)

    2. It takes time for inspectors to verify these fares… too many cell-phone fares means a lower percentage of them will actually get verified, which can be an incentive for fraud.

  13. Aaron W.
    February 4, 2009 at 3:06 pm Link

    I like the fare by text concept. You can make donations to non-profits through texting systems why not purchase a bus/train ticket. I’m not computer savvy enough to know how to prevent fraud but there would have to be a way. What would prevent you from forwarding the text to someone else?

  14. al m
    February 4, 2009 at 10:43 pm Link

    My real question is, however, why should a transit agency “have” to provide WiFi?

    In that case, why should transit agencies provide seats?

    YOU WANT PEOPLE TO USE IT!

    Why do you think WES has it?

    I read the world wide bus news like most people read the oregonian, lots of places around the country and the world have decided that wi fi is a good thing to have.

    How much does it actually cost?

    Not as much as you might think I bet.

    AND;

    I just happen to be a landlord and do allow many of my tenants to use my wireless connection.

    My building doesn’t need incentives so why provide them?

    In plenty of apartment buildings internet access is advertised!

  15. Douglas K.
    February 5, 2009 at 1:31 am Link

    I agree we should have a fare card system. I like the TAP card system used in LA. The plan is to have every municipal bus line in LA County join the program so the TAP card will work on all systems.

    Given that, Tri-Met might look into joining the LA system — same cards, same machines, same on-line account maintenance. (Why reinvent the wheel?) The durable TAP card you use in Portland would be good in LA and vice versa, the only difference being the amount of fare deducted when you board any particular bus or train.

  16. Jeff F
    February 5, 2009 at 6:28 am Link

    al m Says:

    My real question is, however, why should a transit agency “have” to provide WiFi? In that case, why should transit agencies provide seats? YOU WANT PEOPLE TO USE IT! Why do you think WES has it? I read the world wide bus news like most people read the oregonian, lots of places around the country and the world have decided that wi fi is a good thing to have. How much does it actually cost? Not as much as you might think I bet. AND; I just happen to be a landlord and do allow many of my tenants to use my wireless connection. My building doesn’t need incentives so why provide them? In plenty of apartment buildings internet access is advertised!

    Forgive me for editing your personal style of writing, Al, but I get worn out typing in HTML for every line.

    Obviously, seats/=WiFi. Seats are actually necessary for a lot of customers, although you’ll notice that Streetcar minimizes them. WiFi isn’t necessary for anyone. As I said, it’s a nice amenity, which is why some transit agencies are offering it, especially on commuter lines where their passengers can enjoy that other amenity — the seat — for an extended time.

    WES has WiFi because it was a nice amenity that could be provided *relatively* inexpensively and simply, along a 15 mi track that runs in a relatively straight line. The problem with outfitting vehicles with WiFi isn’t the antenna, it’s the network coverage. I have it directly from the mouth of AC Transit’s CTO that the only reason they could provide WiFi on buses is that the entire Bay Area was already completely covered with a WiFi “cloud.” Other transit agencies I’ve read about are either in a similar situation or they’re instituting it on a few lines (generally commuter).

    You offer free access to tenants because it’s a nice amenity, and because it hasn’t cost you any time or money. You yourself say that you didn’t need to do it to provide an incentive; you’re in pretty much the same position TriMet is today — you don’t have to offer amenities to get tenants. Actually, the parallel would make more sense if you were telling your existing tenants they had to make room in their apartments for new tenants and that you might have to take out their beds and couches. But, hey, at least the Internet is free!

    TriMet is in the business of getting people safely (and hopefully quickly) from Point A to Point B. You’re in the business of providing people with a safe and comfortable place to live. I don’t see anyone suggesting that you *have* to provide free Internet access to your tenants, and I don’t see the difference between you and a transit agency in that regard.

  17. al m
    February 5, 2009 at 7:20 am Link

    Jeff F; actually there is a difference between the two types of businesses.

    One is market based the other government based. In other words, I get NO TAX MONEY for running my business.

    I exist in the world of “free” (term used loosely) market economics, which of course is survival of the fittest.

    Now government funded programs on the other hand, have no such concerns, since they are ALL FUNDED from either the citizens or the businesses that make up America.

    Ergot, if the government is providing services TO TAX PAYERS, then the TAX PAYERS need to get MORE OF WHAT THEY THEMSELVES ARE PAYING FOR.

    Now, go through the administrative budget of TRIMET (or any other government funded bureaucracy) and tell me that there is no money available for the TAXPAYERS to enjoy the amenities that the bureaucrats themselves enjoy!

    Al M

  18. al m
    February 5, 2009 at 7:24 am Link

    The real problem in America today is that the people who run the government think they themselves own the government.

    The “we know what’s best” philosophy.

    Ronald Reagan, philosophically, was correct.

    Big government IS THE PROBLEM.

    I am no Ronald Reagan fan either.

  19. Jeff F
    February 5, 2009 at 8:37 am Link

    al m Says:

    Now, go through the administrative budget of TRIMET (or any other government funded bureaucracy) and tell me that there is no money available for the TAXPAYERS to enjoy the amenities that the bureaucrats themselves enjoy!

    The budget doesn’t have room to pay for implementation of WiFi through the service district, no. Nor do taxpayers pay for bureaucrats to have mobile WiFi.

    I think you missed my point completely.

  20. Bob R.
    February 5, 2009 at 2:36 pm Link

    Regarding fare cards, it just so happens that a TriMet representative gave a short presentation at yesterday’s regular Portland Streetcar CAC meeting, updating attendees on TriMet’s process for re-evaluating Fareless Square.

    During the Q&A, the TriMet representative said that in the near future TriMet would be taking an informal look at the system used in Salt Lake City — apparently the implementation costs are much lower than in other systems.

    Anyone know much about SLC’s fare system?

    It apparently launched on January 1st, here’s the FAQ page:
    http://www.rideuta.com/ridingUTA/amenities/electronicfarefaq.aspx

  21. Jeff F
    February 5, 2009 at 3:30 pm Link

    Bob R. Says:

    Anyone know much about SLC’s fare system?

    http://www.rideuta.com/ridingUTA/amenities/electronicFare.aspx

    My understanding is that the benefit of UTA’s system is that it utilizes debit cards rather than having to issue a separate smart card. The cards are “contactless” rather than the standard swipe debit or credit card, but the primary value is that the infrastructure is carried by the banks rather than the transit agency.

    It appears to be a distance-based system, which means you have to “tap on” and then “tap off” or get stuck with the maximum fare.

  22. Dave
    February 5, 2009 at 6:06 pm Link

    Jeff: It seems to be either/or, frequent users seem to get them, or you can use the credit/debit companies solutions.

    The page you linked indicates that they will have more offerings soon, so it looks like that’s just the first four options they offer.

    This ( http://www.rideuta.com/ridingUTA/amenities/contactlesscreditdebit.aspx ) link also has an interesting part in it:

    Free Fare Zone. A credit card tapped on and tapped off in the downtown Salt Lake City free fare zone will not be charged. However, if you tap on within the free fare zone and fail to tap off when exiting within the free fare zone, you will be charged the full single adult cash fare.

  23. al m
    February 7, 2009 at 9:24 am Link

    Jeff-

    Actually I do see your point.

    Why is it in Wes then if your point is to be taken seriously?

    Bereaucrats may not be enjoying mobile wi fi,

    (are you sure about that? BLACKBERRY ring any bells?)

    but they are enjoying plenty of perks.

    So here again, we have two classes of TRIMET consumers, WES, luxury train with luxury amenities, and then the rest of TRIMET customers.

    CUTBACKS=sorry wes, no more WI-FI if it costs even a dime.

  24. Jeff F
    February 7, 2009 at 10:43 am Link

    Why is it in Wes then if your point is to be taken seriously?

    My point is, or was, I think, because I’ve been round and round on this and may have lost my way . . . WiFi is a very nice amenity, but there is no way it should be a considered a necessity. It was simple and inexpensive to install on the train, and completely the opposite pretty much everywhere else.

    I have seen zero evidence that adding WiFi to vehicles increases ridership and I remain convinced that it only makes sense on long commutes when people have room to sit and settle in with their laptop. In that situation, where commuters could actually get work done, it would be an incentive to use transit.

    And, yes, WES was intended to be “luxury” service. You’ll notice, however, that no one is being charged a luxury fee to ride.

  25. Jason McHuff
    February 7, 2009 at 12:03 pm Link

    no one is being charged a luxury fee to ride

    Well, technically they are since WES is completely in one fare zone but an All-Zone fare is required. However, 30 cents (and nothing to people who already have/need an All-Zone fare, such as an employer-provided pass) is nothing compared to the higher fares charged on many other commuter rail lines.

  26. Jeff F
    February 7, 2009 at 12:12 pm Link

    WES riders can go anywhere in the system for that $2.30, though. But, yeah, the point is that most commuter rail service is a premium rate, much higher than regular transit fares.

  27. Jason McHuff
    February 8, 2009 at 2:25 pm Link

    WES riders can go anywhere in the system for that $2.30, though

    True, but that’s useless to riders who are just traveling within the westside and are staying within one (maybe two) fare zone. Which is what WES seems to be designed for. But considering that WES a commute-hours only service and that its designed to attract better-off riders, its possible that many riders will have employer-provided passes from e.g. Intel or Nike, which are All-Zone.

  28. Jason McHuff
    February 8, 2009 at 2:32 pm Link

    And I should note that TriMet seems to think that “Fare is fair”.

  29. Edward Hopkins
    July 28, 2011 at 10:34 pm Link

    At the most recent TriMet Board Meeting (to when I’m writing this), Fred Hansen said to the Board that one of the reasons for debit/credit only machines has to do with its acceptance into everyday culture, and that plastic is used for even small routine transactions like 70-cent cups of coffee.
    Would not surprise me at all if someday all machines and fareboxes are nothing more than card readers, leaving those without a bank account with no ride.

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