The Late-Night MAX Experience

Regular followers of this blog may remember multiple discussion regarding safety and security on MAX, especially late at night. Several recent well-publicized incidents of assault and theft on MAX and at stations have increased scrutiny of the system and have prompted TriMet to announce changes, including the creation of special transit police precincts for the west side and east side of the system.

Last week, PortlandTransport regular Al M. and I took a late-night tour of the original eastern Blue Line, from downtown to Gresham, to see what we might encounter.

After visiting 11 stations and taking 9 trains, we witnessed a police fare inspection, and tested multiple ticket machines. The following video is a compilation of what we found:

Conclusions after the jump…
We did not witness any serious incidents, and most riders kept to themselves.

We chose a Thursday night with good weather, to see what a typical week-night experience might be for someone returning late from work or dinner downtown. In the future, we may do this project again on a Saturday night or during a period such as Spring Break to see what kinds of behavior might be witnessed.

At this point, this is by no means a scientific sample. If there is sufficient interest, we may repeat the weeknight experience again to try and quantify just how much late-night bad behavior happens on MAX.

The big discovery on this trip: The ticket machines are very unreliable. In the majority of cases (by just a bit), we encountered platforms which had either partially-functioning machines (coins only or bills only, exact change required, etc.) or completely out-of-service machines.

The other interesting tidbit: The fare inspection netted zero violators. 100% of the riders on the car we boarded had a valid fare instrument, and there were no sudden departures from the car as the police boarded.

Finally, a disclosure: One of the police officers was a personal friend of mine. However, this officer had no involvement in scheduling this production and was assigned to MAX that day as part of his regular duties.

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0 Responses to The Late-Night MAX Experience

  1. James X.
    March 10, 2008 at 8:48 pm Link

    I only watched till about 2:30. Was there ever anything but peace and quiet? The fare machines (and ticket validators) are notoriously unreliable, though.

    Also, it seems to me that fare inspections frequently happen at the same time of day in the same place. A friend of mine told me once that his fare was checked routinely on his ride home from work on the Yellow Line. In fact, they stopped checking him specifically because they became familiar with him and knew he had a pass.

  2. Bob R.
    March 10, 2008 at 8:52 pm Link

    I only watched till about 2:30. Was there ever anything but peace and quiet?

    Mostly peace, but not always quiet.

    Basically, the video boils down 3 hours of non-eventfulness into 13 annotated minutes.

    At Hollywood, we witnessed a meeting between two people which might have been a drug deal, but have no evidence of that and there is also a reasonable alternative explanation. The hidden camera wasn’t running at the time.

    Another thing we noted in the video is that the new solar lights (to supplement pre-existing lighting) at 82nd Ave. are basically useless. We did encounter a pack of five rider advocates at that station, arriving from another train.

    One more detail to add is that we always rode the rear car, which some people in past discussion have stated seems more dangerous to them.

  3. James X.
    March 10, 2008 at 8:54 pm Link

    Also, what if they piped in some muzak at the stations at night? The video reminds me how eerily quiet it and abandoned things can seem.

  4. AL M
    March 10, 2008 at 10:35 pm Link

    “Also, what if they piped in some muzak at the stations at night? ”

    THAT, is a freaking good idea!

  5. Phil
    March 11, 2008 at 1:06 am Link

    Could get some live bands too.

    God knows we have enough of them in Portland…

  6. Brian
    March 11, 2008 at 7:49 am Link

    I remember riding the light rail in Pittsburgh, PA. They pipe in classical or jazz from NPR at the major stations. It was quite nice. I do not recall any other systems having such a “feature.”

  7. george
    March 11, 2008 at 7:51 am Link

    Wow, I can’t believe you guys actually did this. I remember months ago in the comments section when Al proposed it.

    Good work!

  8. al m
    March 11, 2008 at 8:33 am Link

    “Could get some live bands too.”

    W-O-W!

    Another really great idea!

    Turn the max stations into sort of ‘carnival’ attractions! Music and food!

    That would actually be innovative!

    I’m sure someone would find some obscure rule to shut anything like that down.

    They pipe in music in lots of European stations.

    (of course, Europe has ‘grown up’ while Amerika continues its struggle through adolescence.)

  9. Zora
    March 11, 2008 at 9:48 am Link

    As a professional female impersonator that uses the MAX to get to performances, I can tell you that I have not had any problems in the 6 months plus I’ve been riding. At times the ride is less comfortable than others, but I have never felt unsafe, and I ride from Interstate to Old Town and farther at times.

  10. al m
    March 11, 2008 at 11:08 am Link

    “At times the ride is less comfortable than others, but I have never felt unsafe, and I ride from Interstate to Old Town and farther at times.”

    There is definitely no threat of imminent attack!

    A lot of strange people riding, that’s all. People basically minding their own business.

    Its the same stuff you see on a main thorough fare like 82nd, downtown, parts of Sandy Blvd, etc.

    It’s uncomfortable walking in those area’s late at night, and its uncomfortable riding the max late at night.

  11. al m
    March 11, 2008 at 11:10 am Link

    BTW-

    Bob did all the actual work on this project.

    I was just there.

    It was interesting riding the max with that point of view instead of having some place to go.

  12. Bob R.
    March 11, 2008 at 12:37 pm Link

    Al –

    Give yourself some credit — you did all the non-hidden camera stuff, and encouraged the project to move forward.

  13. AL M
    March 11, 2008 at 12:51 pm Link

    well, ok, but thanks for doing all the grunt work bob!

  14. AL M
    March 11, 2008 at 12:54 pm Link

    Also;

    I’d put you in charge of any project in any event.

    When it comes to thoroughness and efficiency, I don’t think I have seen anybody quite like you!

    Certainly do a better job than I would do!

    That much I know!

    Al

  15. Bob R.
    March 11, 2008 at 1:40 pm Link

    A trip down memory lane —

    It took me a while to find the original reference, but the idea of riding and making a video first originated in this flame war over at the Portland Tribune:

    Pressure mounts for more MAX fixes (November 16th, 2007, comment Nov. 19th @ 8:01pm)

    Then Al mentioned teaming up over here on PortlandTransport, referring to the Tribune article as the “other blog” …
    TriMet promises fresh eye on crime (November 20th, 2007, comment @ 1:57pm)

  16. Dave
    March 11, 2008 at 6:59 pm Link

    Could get some live bands too.

    I’m okay with that, or radio, or whatever. As long as it doesn’t drown out train announcements and what have you, it’s not a bad idea.

    As long as I’m posting, the video was about what I expected. A few loud kids is about the worst I’ve ever seen on a TriMet vehicle.

    Er, maybe the likely homeless guys sharing a large jug of wine on the streetcar, but they seemed harmless. Quiet, calm, and probably smashed. Not a big deal.

  17. AL M
    March 11, 2008 at 10:18 pm Link

    Actually, the most interesting part of the whole thing was on my way to meet bob in downtown.

    I left my car in Gresham and rode downtown on the max from there.

    On that one trip, before the actual start of the project I encountered:

    one panhandler;

    one woman drinking booze in the seat across from me;

    one guy got on the train and started boxing with the hand hold straps;

    three Hispanics yelling at each other and
    several really shady looking characters.

    More action on the way to meet with Bob then the whole rest of our project.

  18. Bob R.
    March 11, 2008 at 11:30 pm Link

    More action on the way to meet with Bob then the whole rest of our project.

    At least I haven’t had dates which were critiqued thusly. :-)

    But seriously, perhaps 9 trains on one night isn’t nearly a representative sample. We’ll just have to do this again sometime. I’ll bring more quarters next time around.

  19. AL M
    March 12, 2008 at 11:12 am Link

    oh jeez bob, damn!

  20. Allison
    March 12, 2008 at 3:10 pm Link

    As a frequent rider from the NE 60th stop, I attempt to validate tickets just about every day and fail just about every day. Usually with a maintenance van parked right next to me. I always call trimet to let them know – apparently especially with the bill acceptors and the ticket validators, there is widespread vandalism – people shove coins or other objects in the acceptors so that they stop working and they don’t really have the manpower to prevent it or keep the machines in working order. Maybe trimet could develop less vandalism susceptible machines? I don’t know how other systems have dealt with what must be a wide-spread problem.

  21. Bob R.
    March 12, 2008 at 3:22 pm Link

    Hi Allison –

    NE 60th is also my main station — I frequently report the machines there as well. As I’m sure you’re aware, the machine on the right is also a quarter-hater — if I have quarters the machine on the right refuses to accept, the one on the left can usually be finessed into taking them. These are both the same model and vintage of machine, so although I’m sure vandalism is a big part of the overall problem, there’s also something about the adjustment of otherwise-identical machines that is an issue.

  22. Mike
    March 12, 2008 at 6:06 pm Link

    This is awesome, I watched the whole thing and hope you guys can do some more. Thank you once again for doing this.

  23. al m
    March 12, 2008 at 7:07 pm Link

    I’m sorry, I hold TRIMET responsible for the failed ticket system.

    They have no right to even ask people for fares without a 90% working ticket machine rate system wide.

    It’s a joke, like everything else.

    The little guy gets screwed.

    As usual.

  24. lurker b
    March 13, 2008 at 12:13 am Link

    The ticket machines are very unreliable. In the majority of cases (by just a bit), we encountered platforms which had either partially-functioning machines (coins only or bills only, exact change required, etc.) or completely out-of-service machines.

    Bob, were you able to ascertain the reason(s) why this may be so? Vandalism, age, complexity? Does anyone have any suggestions for this problem?

    My thought has been to develop a few different types of smaller, simpler machines that do one or two things well instead of the larger machines that can do everything (when operational), then have a ton of them at each station. Have 10 machines that just sell tickets. Have a few machines for passes. Maybe have machines that just give change, so the others don’t have to have bill collecting mechanisms. When a machine develops a problem, there would be plenty of others to choose from, and perhaps the machines could be designed to easily switch out for functioning ones.

    If the machines were smaller, simpler and cheaper perhaps some could be spread around to the larger bus stops as well.

  25. Bob R.
    March 13, 2008 at 12:22 am Link

    Bob, were you able to ascertain the reason(s) why this may be so?

    Well, thus far it’s anecdotal … but I’ve had more than one “little birdie” tell me that there are vandals at work on the east side, jamming objects into machines.

    I have no direct evidence that it is true, but it has come to me from more than one rumor mill.

    Personally, I think the age of the machines is also a factor. For one thing, they just plain don’t like quarters since they started being issued with multiple designs. So there’s room for improvement on the machine-design front, and perhaps something more vandal-resistant is now on the market.

    It is actually quite important to quantify just how much of the problem is caused by vandalism — if this is a significant issue, then multiple machines on a platform may not solve the problem.

    Another idea is to put the additional redundancy on the trains themselves … put compact ticket machines (similar to the repurposed parking meters used by the aerial tram, for example) on each train car. They won’t take up much room, and offer redundancy which can be verified right on the train, and can be more easily supervised.

  26. Bob R.
    March 13, 2008 at 12:25 am Link

    If the machines were smaller, simpler and cheaper perhaps some could be spread around to the larger bus stops as well.

    I know that prior to the start of renovation, there were ticket machines at some bus stops on the transit mall. They were just like the MAX machines. One was located on 5th in front of Meier and Frank, as I recall.

    All of the machines I’ve seen are labelled “MAX and Bus Tickets” — it would indeed make sense to have them deployed to busy bus stops.

  27. Erik Halstead
    March 13, 2008 at 7:29 pm Link

    All of the machines I’ve seen are labelled “MAX and Bus Tickets” — it would indeed make sense to have them deployed to busy bus stops.

    As well as at major grocery stores, shopping malls, etc. They should be at ALL transit centers (even those that don’t serve MAX) – doing this would speed up bus boarding and would even allow passengers to board/disembark using both doors (or if TriMet would use articulated busses, all three doors) speeding up bus boarding even more.

    Doing this would also put transit “in your face” right next to the lottery machine or ATM, instead of having to figure out where to buy a bus pass at Freddy’s or Albertson’s or Safeway.

    Another idea is to put the additional redundancy on the trains themselves … put compact ticket machines (similar to the repurposed parking meters used by the aerial tram, for example) on each train car

    You mean like these?

    http://www.scheidt-bachmann.com/content/blogcategory/172/181/

    I like the one in the upper left hand corner (the FAA-2000/CM) – about the same size of the machines on the Streetcar today, but they are full-featured (unlike the ones on the Streetcar). The “Farebox” would directly replace what TriMet uses on the busses today and offer the very same full-featured service, including use of mag-stripe cards (credit/debit cards).

  28. Erik Halstead
    March 14, 2008 at 6:57 pm Link

    All of the machines I’ve seen are labelled “MAX and Bus Tickets” — it would indeed make sense to have them deployed to busy bus stops.

    Bob, I should give you credit for your statement.

    Thanks for your support.

    :-)

  29. Bob R.
    March 14, 2008 at 7:21 pm Link

    Thanks. :-)

  30. Bob R.
    March 14, 2008 at 7:42 pm Link

    Regarding faulty ticket machines, I suppose we can count our blessings that TriMet didn’t go high-tech too soon, as it’s recently been revealed that the proprietary encryption scheme used in a number of RFID “smart cards”, including those used in London’s tube stations, has been cracked by university researchers.

    (Yet another example of “Security through Obscurity” being foiled, causing widespread problems — Open public-key encryption schemes are less prone to these kinds of attacks.)

    Here’s a YouTube video demonstrating how the security/access card of a random employee can be stolen and duplicated wirelessly, without the employee ever knowing, allowing multiple attackers to enter a building. The same technique can be used to duplicate and use a person’s fare card:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NW3RGbQTLhE

    Here’s the technical explanation of what’s going on:

    http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~kn5f/Mifare.Cryptanalysis.htm

  31. lurker b
    March 15, 2008 at 1:32 am Link

    …I’ve had more than one “little birdie” tell me that there are vandals at work on the east side, jamming objects into machines.

    I was thinking that we should promote the adoption of a contactless card system, so there wouldn’t be anything to jam, but…

    …it’s recently been revealed that the proprietary encryption scheme used in a number of RFID “smart cards”, including those used in London’s tube stations, has been cracked by university researchers.

    …so maybe that’s not a super idea after all. :)

  32. Erik Halstead
    March 15, 2008 at 1:48 pm Link

    I’m not sure that whether RFID tags have been “cracked” is such a huge problem. Let’s face it – ANYONE can counterfeit a $1 dollar bill. Two of them (and a common nickel or five pennies) gets you a ride on TriMet. It’s only slightly more difficult to forge a credit/debit card, but it’s relatively easy (all you need is a card blank, a “skimmer”, and a magstripe writer.)

    Frankly I would think that a TriMet operated RFID system would be MORE secure, given that at least on the bus system there’s almost always someone there at the farebox. I guess a TriMet employee could install something that would crack it but what’s the benefit to him/her – he/she already has free transit privileges for him/herself and their family. What is the loss if TriMet finds out that a tag has been cracked – simply deactivate the card. And you can still use other security functions with RFID (i.e. photo identification, non-duplicating watermark) so if there is a question of validity, a Fare Inspector could always check those two to make sure the card belongs to the person, and whether the required watermark (proving the card was issued by TriMet) exists.

    I’ve had an RFID card for going on twelve years now through various employers for access to my worksite. I haven’t heard of anyone stealing my card information in order to gain access to my building (or anyone else’s, for that matter). Anything can be cracked; it’s a matter of how bad does someone want to try, and whether the “reward” is worth it.

  33. Bob R.
    March 15, 2008 at 2:38 pm Link

    I’ve had an RFID card for going on twelve years now

    The point I was trying to make was that it was a good thing that TriMet was NOT an early adopter of this technology. The exploit was only just discovered, and compromises a huge chunk of existing RFID security/payment infrastructure.

    As I mentioned open public-key encryption systems are less prone to these kinds of attacks, because they can be scrutinized openly by a wide audience of experts as a system is deployed.

    From what I understand of the current exploit, if you stand in a crowded area you can capture the signatures of dozens of cards as people walk past you, for later processing. An attacker could, given sufficient computing resources (which are cheaper every day), clone themselves hundreds of codes and use them disposably without being detected.

    You are correct that there’s not much incentive for a buck or two, but with annual passes costing hundreds of dollars, the incentive adds up.

    If a transit agency figures out a way to detect and disable cloned IDs (for example, by analysing all trips for two that started at nearly the same time but from far-apart origins), it would inconvenience the legitimate rider. Further, to do so in real-time (to deny entry to a bus) would require a constant network connection between the bus and the database of bad cards. Otherwise, the database would have to be updated daily, and the hacker using disposable codes would never be inconvenienced, but the legitimate rider would be inconvenienced the next day.

    Once the technology becomes more open and mature, I’m sure it will be fine for TriMet. I’m happy, though, that they’re not having to replace tens of thousands of smart cards and reprogram readers system-wide, like is happening elsewhere right now.

  34. Erik Halstead
    March 15, 2008 at 10:05 pm Link

    If a transit agency figures out a way to detect and disable cloned IDs (for example, by analysing all trips for two that started at nearly the same time but from far-apart origins), it would inconvenience the legitimate rider. Further, to do so in real-time (to deny entry to a bus) would require a constant network connection between the bus and the database of bad cards. Otherwise, the database would have to be updated daily, and the hacker using disposable codes would never be inconvenienced, but the legitimate rider would be inconvenienced the next day.

    Once the technology becomes more open and mature, I’m sure it will be fine for TriMet. I’m happy, though, that they’re not having to replace tens of thousands of smart cards and reprogram readers system-wide, like is happening elsewhere right now.

    Any form of “theft” is going to inconvenience the “legitimate” rider – what if a monthly pass is stolen today? There is absolutely no way for TriMet to block use of the stolen pass, and the “legitimate” rider has no recourse but to pay for a new pass.

    When I receive my annual pass (okay, sticker) each year I have to sign something that not only acknowledges my receipt of it, but that if I lose it, >>Ihttp://transit.metrokc.gov/prog/smartcard/smartcard.html). The ORCA card is still in “beta test” and not all vehicles are equipped with the card readers (I believe the card functions as a flash card, like TriMet’s passes, when boarding a non-RFID reader equipped vehicle.)

  35. Bob R.
    March 15, 2008 at 10:47 pm Link

    The technology IS open and mature – I’ve been using this technology for 12 years. My employer (mind you, a major electric utility) hasn’t announced they are replacing our cards.

    The exploit is fairly recent and is only now getting widespread publicity.

    And our card system provides access to our
    electric grid control room

    If it uses the same chipset detailed in the exploit, they’d better start switching them out fast.

    As TriMet has not already adopted this technology, TriMet has an advantage of securing a system with much stronger security.

    I agree fully. That’s why I mentioned that public-key encryption systems aren’t as prone to these types of attacks. (When you go to a secure web site, for example, you are using a form of public-key encryption.)

    You mentioned NYC’s mag-stripe system known as MetroCard. There have been numerous people arrested for MetroCard fraud which is less wide-spread now because of upgrades and real-time networking of the various stations, but these were expenses incurred due to “unexpected” fraud.

    For a brief summary:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MetroCard_(New_York_City)#Fraud_and_scams

    Another story from 1999:
    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F07E7D61130F93BA35752C0A96E958260

    The above NYTimes article mentions a simple exploit made by physically modifying the card but doesn’t reveal details. The exploit was later publicly revealed and wide spread, and involved creasing or destroying the mag strip at a position where certain bits of data would become unreadable and fool the reader into thinking the fare type was different.

    Setting all the previous discussion aside for a moment, I think we are in agreement here but just talking past one another. I agree that TriMet needs to improve ticket selling and fare collection methods, and do so soon. I agree that card-based technology, if cheap enough to deploy on a TriMet-sized system, is an improvement over what we have today, especially for pass-holders.

    I’m just very glad that TriMet didn’t invest millions in the now-compromised RFID system a couple of years ago, which would just be adding a new scandal on top of the current problems.

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