How Friendly Public Transit can be Cynical

People seem to agree that the Caltrain is a better experience than BART as public transit options in the Bay Area. Whereas the BART is a dinky, old subway system, the Caltrain is overall a comfortable and happy experience from station to station. I agreed with Caltrain’s superiority until recently when I had several difficulties with it that have me thinking that BART is overall an easier, friendlier system.

The BART is rapid transit, so it’s like a subway but mostly above the ground. The trains follow several different routes half way down the peninsula and up and down the East Bay, so it’s particularly useful if you need to go to the airport or Oakland. The trains themselves feel old and rickety with fabric cushions that make you think about every hypothetical previous rider and their hygiene. Running through Oakland, I have been led to believe that the trains are full of hoodlums at all hours. To get on and off the train, you have to get prepaid tickets and swipe them at turnstyles on entrance and exit. When you swipe upon exit, it’ll deduct the proper amount from your ticket.

One form of BART tickets is the Clipper card, which is like a prepaid debit card for public transit around the Bay Area. Load it up with money as you need it, and ride to its remaining balance. Without one of those, you can buy a disposable ticket at BART stations for precisely the amount of your fare.

The Caltrain is a train that runs primarily from San Francisco to San Jose on a single track. Stations lie in one of the 6 zones, which determines the total fare. The trains are spacious with seats made out of some synthetic material, and open containers are allowed (primarily for pre-gaming Giants & Niners fans). The stations are open, so you buy your ticket in advance and walk right onto the train. You can either buy one-time tickets from one zone to another, or you can “tag on” with your Clipper card at a machine at the station and then “tag off” at the end. On the train, the conductor will walk up and down the aisles to check that you have a valid ticket. At the end of your ride, you just walk off the train and move on to your final destination.

Overall, the Caltrain just feels nice. The stations are well-kept, the conductors are nice, the seats are comfy, and the riders are generally friendly (and the seatbacks are high enough that you can keep to yourself if they aren’t). It’s friendly and open and easy, until it’s not, as my recent experiences have led me to discover.

To get to a conference in San Jose, I bought an 8-ride pass from the Stanford zone to the San Jose zone. These rides were put onto my Clipper card at a slight discount over 8 single ride tickets between these zones. The first problem I had was that I once forgot to tag off. The net effect is that for a $5 ride, I was out $13. $5 was the lost use of one of my 8 rides that I had prepaid for. The $8 was the Clipper penalty for not tagging off. So that people can’t take advantage of Clipper to get valid tickets for less than the actual cost of their ride, Clipper deducts the maximum possible fare when you tag on, then refunds the proper amount when you tag off. Since I didn’t tag off, I in theory could have ridden all the way to Gilroy, and Caltrain understandably wanted to charge me for that possibility.

I forgot to tag off: I knew the consequences and made a mistake. Caltrain even puts up signage around the station to remind you to tag off. Even so, the station is laid out to make tagging off compulsory before leaving the station. In this case, the open layout of the station requires Caltrain to adopt the cynical policy of maximum fare with a refund to address possible exploits. Were everyone required to tag off before leaving the station, this loophole wouldn’t be possible, and this policy wouldn’t be necessary. In short, a trusting environment leads to distrustful policies that punish honest mistakes.

The next issue I had was that I ended up skipping a day of the conference and had 2 extra prepaid rides on my Clipper card. This wouldn’t have been a problem except that these rides expired in a month, putting me out another $10 or so. Expiration is logical for Caltrain: since the 8-ride passes are discounted, a clever rider would just buy 8-ride passes to use as single ride tickets and assume that he or she would use the rides eventually. Again, Caltrain has an apparently generous design (discounts for regular riders) that punishes honest mistakes because of the need to deal with loopholes.

The worst situation, however, occurs when a rider is on the train with an invalid ticket. Riding without a ticket is clearly a problem and is punishable by a roughly $300 fine. Riding illegally sounds bad, but it’s actually quite easy to mistakenly do. You might

  1. fall asleep on the train and ride into another zone
  2. take the wrong train and ride into another zone
  3. failed to tag on properly
  4. misunderstand the conditions of your ticket

If you’re caught in this situation, you’re only hope is the generosity and understanding of the conductor.

These problems all sound like necessary conditions of the system as is, but with a small tweak, these all go away. Like BART, add turnstyles on entry and exit from the stations. It makes us feel like robots for a few seconds and requires locking down the station, but it results in a clear policy with fewer consequences for mistakes.

By requiring a valid ticket at the exit turnstyle, BART doesn’t need to deduct the maximum fare on entry: it knows exactly how much to deduct at the end. If you rode farther than you intended, it simply charges you more. If you didn’t pay enough, you can go to a machine to add more money to your card. Because of that, you can’t ride BART illegally without jumping a turnstyle. The ticket got you in, and you’re never “out of zone”.

That’s it.

Caltrain makes a better first impression than BART does, but because BART has a more structured and less trusting design, it doesn’t need a strict policy. Public transit here needs rider payment to run, and BART has offloaded that process to technology and layout. Caltrain, however, compensates for its open design with a punitive policy.

In the end, these two systems aren’t alternatives: there’s only a short stretch that they both serve, none of which has ever been relevant for me. The takeaway for me was realizing that technology can be a trust-inducing tool. Nowadays, we hear more about privacy rights, malware, surveillance, and other evils of technology that make us suspicious of the world we’ve built. There is, however, something comforting about the cold rationality of technology that can wipe away our own cynicism. When we know the machines have our back, we don’t have to worry about what other people may do.

2 thoughts on “How Friendly Public Transit can be Cynical”

  1. so interesting! I always found the open system of CalTrain extremely baffling compared to every other transit system I’ve ever seen. Your point about punishing mistakes is so true. Just last year, on probably at least the 20th or so time I’d ridden Caltrain, I managed to not only grab a receipt instead of my ticket from the ticket booth, I actually took SOMEONE ELSE’S RECEIPT and ended up halfway between San Francisco and Palo Alto with literally no proof at all that I had paid my fare. It was a totally honest, if a bit stupid, mistake, and I came very close to getting kicked off and getting a fine. Luckily, I was on my way to a Stanford football game and was surrounded on the train by tons of other Stanford fans, which I think made me seem less like a hoodlum, and a few older fans/alums told the conductor I’d clearly made a mistake and to just leave me alone (gotta love Stanford pride!)

    tl;dr – I was almost out $300, while unemployed, for picking up the wrong piece of 1×2″ piece of thin white paper. That could never happen on BART. (Although I did once almost get trapped in BART for dropping my ticket and not having any cash to get get a new one at the cash-only SFO station… but that’s a different issue! Okay, this makes me look like I am constantly losing tickets!)

  2. I completely agree with you, I recently found that the last rides of my 8-rides package simply disappeared or “expired” as they call it, I really feel that it was a robbery since they did not warm buyers about it. if i knew that I would not buy it and I just figure it out after reading the FAQ section of their webpage,

    Of course the cost/benefit turns out to be bad even for frequent riders like me, since sometimes when im in a hurry i also forgot to tag on my way out. Unfortunately there are very few places that are currently warning riders about this policy, maybe they are hoping that catch people like us.

    David

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