The Little Things Count

It’s must have been a pretty light news day, because Friday the Oregonian had an editorial about TriMet’s ticket machines.

The gripes about reliability are real, but I had to laugh, because TriMet’s machines are 10 times better than Streetcar’s (we were ordering so few that we couldn’t interest a supplier with technology more modern than the Soviet Brutalist models we have on the vehicles now). Streetcar should be able to do much better when we order the next fleet for the Loop.

But at core the editorial is right, we have to do our best to make using transit easy, and ticket machines are just one of the many small barriers we need to keep working on eliminating.

7 responses to “The Little Things Count”

  1. Indeed, I’ve found TriMet’s machines to be finicky and unreliable at times, especially the older (non color-LCD) ones.

    TriMet’s official policy (as stated to me verbally by a phone representative) is that if no ticket machines are working, you must still pay for your ride by A) boarding, B) getting off at the next stop, C) buying a ticket there and D) waiting for the next train.

    The main problem is that the failure rate on the machines is such that the odds are very high, especially at a busy station, that both machines will be out of service.

    I know others have brought up the possibility of using smart cards like the “Octopus” card, but at this point part of my skepticism stems from the inability to keep basic fare payment mechanisms operating fully reliably.

    I testified about this at a hearing about the Transit Mall project, because TriMet intends to save money by installing fewer or even no ticket machines at some stops. (For example, the last few stops on the inbound/southbound line ending at PSU probably won’t have machines, and maybe not even shelters).

    TriMet maintains hundreds of ticket machines and I know it would be expensive to replace them all. What they should do is at the most busy stations (where machines run out of change and tickets the soonest) is double up the number of machines. Put 4 where there are 2, put them side by side so there are still just two places to buy tickets, and if one machine is broken, another is waiting for you immediately. This would require purchasing a number of new machines, but would not require immediately replacing the existing machines.

    If newer machines prove to be significantly more reliable (and if they have larger ticket rolls and change bins), then the older machines can be gradually phased out or doubled-up at other trouble spots.

    – Bob R.

  2. “TriMet’s official policy (as stated to me verbally by a phone representative) is that if no ticket machines are working, you must still pay for your ride by A) boarding, B) getting off at the next stop, C) buying a ticket there and D) waiting for the next train.”

    This is both offensive, insane, and stupid. Tri-met and the city/metro want people to use transit as a reliable alternative to their cars but one can’t even have a reasonable expectation of arrival time by doing what is outlined above. One already has to take into account a 2-3x multiplier in time it takes already, thus most people if they are using transit to do business of any type are already squeezed for time.

    With the downtime that is received in cold weather, the downtime of the machines, and the rules above one can expect to be delayed a horrible percentage of 20-50% of the time.

    I’m not pro-car but even with the horrid traffic of city interstates it’s better and more reasonable to go through that mess than use transit for business and life needs with rules like that above.

    In addition it is very symptomatic of a socialist service – they don’t care once control is had whether it provides a real service, the money motive is gone, and you’re just stuck with whatever you get.

    I’d hope that can change, and Trimet can become more and more market relevant with real service based provisions. If Tri-met’s equipment doesn’t work, they should for all practical purposes be ready to eat the cost, they should take that out of executive pay or something.


  3. I’m in full agreement that TriMet is in neglect of its duties by not facilitating the ticket-buying process.

    Metros must have accessible tickete… Otherwise, as the story implies, you are turning way riders.

    Come on TriMet, this is as simple as it gets. The basics.

  4. I agree that Tri-Met needs to keep their ticket machines running, and they need to make at least two available at every rail stop.

    However, I also would like to praise Tri-Met for at least having good machines to begin with. Having used ticket machines in many other locations — notably, San Diego and BART’s in the Bay Area — Tri-Met’s are easier to use, the newer ones take credit cards, and you only need to go to one machine (assuming that it is working) to do everything you need to do to purchase your fare.

    BART, on the other hand, has separate machines for making change, for purchasing new tickets, for upgrading the value on old tickets and for upgrading the value on electronic Translink tickets (even though they don’t yet use Translink, they’ve installed these machines at some stations already).

    Also, on the subject of Octopus-style smart cards:

    Please be mindful of the nearest example to Portland, in the United States, of an urban area attempting to implement a smart card for transit fare collection: the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve posted a lot of detail here:

    …so I won’t go much further except to say that this probably is a much, much more complicated proposal than it might seem at first blush, and the money that it would take to implement a system might be used much more wisely… for building a new Hawthorne streetcar line, for instance.

    Just my $.02.


  5. Garlynn –

    You are right that Portland’s ticket machines are superior to those in SF. And pity the poor person who shows up with $5 or more in bills and needs to board the MUNI metro at a shared BART station, such as Civic Center. When things are working, the transaction could involve three machines, and if they’re not working, forget about it, the gate agents don’t handle cash and won’t fix machines.

    At least the BART gate agents (not MUNI) will let you fill out a form in the event of a problem so that you can get a refund by mail (if you can find an agent.)

    – Bob R.

  6. Socialist systems, not concerned with money, not really concerned with actual service.

    They already get all their money from us regardless and beyond that it’s all a political game. So unless one has political pull, the machines getting fixed probably aren’t high on the list, UNLESS fare budgets drop drastically.

    But instead of fixing the machines Trimet is probably more likely to go after public money instead. It’s almost less work.

  7. Socialist systems, not concerned with money, not really concerned with actual service.

    Oh I don’t know about that… I’ve received far worse service from purely capitalist institutions like Circuit City, and don’t get me started on private health insurance…

    Plus, TriMet’s ticket vending machines, despite their flaws, are far more reliable and user-friendly than the self-service checkout lines at Home Depot. And lately, sometimes there is no choice besides “self service”.

    I can fully understand if TriMet doesn’t want to say “if the TVM is broken, you get a free ride”, because I know that Home Depot isn’t going to say “if your flexible gas line refuses to scan, it’s free”… I just think TriMet should add more redundant TVMs so customers aren’t stranded by a TVM breakdown.

    And at least TriMet puts the price of what you are buying on every TVM… good luck finding a price for the stuff on the shelves at CompUSA… every time I go in there I find stuff on the shelves which I would like to buy, but no price sign. In the rare event I can find an employee to go look up the price for me, they return with a verbal quote… why don’t they return with a freshly-printed sign for the shelf?

    Anecdotal gripes aside, I do agree that government-operated services have a different mix of priorities and funding sources compared to private enterprise, but I would not say that this makes them “unconcerned” with customer service.

    – Bob R.

    PS… Ever try to reach a human being about a problem or dispute at YouTube, a multi-billion dollar subsidiary of new-economy-standard-bearer Google? Forget about it. The ratio of humans to “customers” there is nearly zero.

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