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Monday, December 29, 2008

I'm Convinced - Translink on SF Muni Works Fine

With all the reporting I do on this blog about the Translink program, I finally gave it a shot in the arm aboard San Francisco Muni last Saturday. I hopped aboard BART to stop at 24th St. Mission Station (regular BART ticket) for a tasty burrito, and went to downtown to look around and snack on food at the Westfield (SFSU students, staff, and faculty gets 15% discounts by showing your ID). I hopped aboard the F-Market shuttle bus, (I guess the historic trolleys were not enough to cover the passenger loads that day), and asked the driver if he will accept "the card" (a.k.a. Translink card). He said to take a shot at it, and I tagged the card at the reader, and sure enough, IT WORKED!

Sure, the bus was packed, but this young guy (passenger), a little younger than me, heard the beep sound, and asked me about the card. He was actually shocked that the device installed on the bus actually worked, and was not just an ornament installed to make Muni look fancy. So I told him a quick summary about how it works, and how I got an automatic transfer on my card.

So after venturing around town, I used the card again at the Muni metro platform at one of these gates:

and it worked perfectly. I was still within the 90 minute limit of the electronic transfer I was issued from my ride on the F-Market, so the ride was free. If you watch the YouTube video I posted (also seen here), you notice that when I "tag" my card at the "exit" Muni metro gate at Powell, it lets me through. It's like my own personal express entrance to Muni metro. Even one of the Muni supervisors monitoring the gates at the Embarcadero station (who was letting the folks with tickets for the Cal bowl game at AT&T Park) was familiar with the program.

It's actually nice that I used the card about three times that day, and every operator/agent I asked knew what the card does. Unfortunately, I haven't encountered the feared Muni fare inspectors.

What's really interesting from being a pilot tester for the Translink program is that I made many suggestions on improving the program, and one of my best suggestions has actually made it through the bureaucrats' ears!
  • I suggested that the vehicle card readers should emit a louder beep tone when cards are read and confirmed as paid. During the pilot test, the readers installed on station platforms like on select Caltrain stops and Muni metro stations were LOUD, but on the vehicles, it was more of hushed tone, like a softer than a normal conversation voice. My primary argument is that people with even minor hearing issues may not hear the beep (ADA requirements), so Translink cranked up the sound to be as loud as the station platform readers on the Muni bus readers.
Since the SFMTA/Muni and Translink representatives are now reading my blog entries and responding in my comments sections, maybe they can answer some of my questions:
  • Does Muni's "Culturebus" and the "Special Event" (a.k.a. Candlestick) buses allow Translink use with the proper fee charged? ($7 on Culturebus with an all-day transfer for free rides on Culturebus and other Muni services, and $7 for the Candlestick express with a free transfer for the return trip). Of course, I could just rip-off Muni and pay $1.50 for the Culturebus.
  • If a Translink cardholder on Muni accumulates the value of a one day Muni passport ($11), is the rest of the rides on the system free? It is possible for passengers to accumulate more than $11 in Muni fares, especially the high price for a Cable Car ride ($5 per ride, that is, when Translink offers the service on Cable Cars with portable card readers with the conductors).
  • Do the Muni fare inspectors carry Translink card readers?

Another nice thing, Translink accepts my Commuter Checks!
One thing I did today (Monday morning) is I brought my $30 Commuter Check to the Transbay Terminal AC Transit ticket office. The lady at the counter was so nice and said that my Commuter Check voucher is accepted to add Translink money to my account. This means that I don't need to buy anymore of those Muni token coupon books, and I can use the funds for other transit services using Translink, like the Golden Gate Ferry.

I haven't tried using my Commuter Check voucher at the SFMTA Customer Service office yet. AC Transit has been using Translink for a good while, but STMTA/Muni is brand new to the full rollout of the program. While Commuter Check can be linked directly to my Translink account, I still want the flexibility of a claim voucher so I can save it up or claim it for a non-Translink fare media like BART tickets.

Cool tip, if your employer offers Commuter Check, WageWorks, or a similar pre-taxed automatic payroll deduction transit ticket/voucher program, I suggest signing-up for it.

Instead of paying $1.50 for a ride on Muni, I only pay $1.15, or a 17% average savings (I claim it on token tickets). You can save even MORE by buying high value BART tickets that gives an additional 6.25% discount, and loading cash on a Translink card and using it on Golden Gate Transit/Ferry services which automatically gives all cardholders the "commuter" discount, regardless of how often you ride. But now that I can claim it on Translink e-cash, no need for physical tickets.

With this slight change in heart, I might just sign-up as a "victim" of Muni's testing of the Translink program (just don't reject my registration).


Anonymous said...

Answering your question about fare inspectors. During the summer (before the official trial period), I was using my TransLink card on the N Judah and a fare inspector used a card reader to inspect my fare. They didn't complain at all.

I also was testing out my card last week and was surprised that it worked every time. I did four tags on the system, twice on the bus, and twice on the Muni Metro. I wasn't keeping track of time or how much I was spending.

The express entry lanes are nice. It's like some ticket barriers in Paris where only smart-card (the Navigo card) holders are allowed to enter through certain faregates.

My main complaint is how long it takes the reader to read the card. In Hong Kong, the beep is pretty much instantaneous, while here, it seems like it's a few seconds. I hope they speed it up so that I could walk through the turstile without slowing my pace.

I also don't like the fact that it takes something like 48 hours before the credit shows up on the card. Maybe the autoload might be a good idea.

I have a few questions for TransLink:

If I tag after 10pm, does TransLink give me the same "late night special" privileges as a normal transfer? Or will it just give me 90 minutes?

After the first tag on Muni, how many additional tags can we do within the 90-minute transfer period? For some reason, I remember hearing that the card will only allow two transfers after the first tag before it charges another fare on the card.

Akit said...

Hi Alex,

Thanks for your comment.

I have to agree that the Translink readers are a little slow, and not instantaneous. It was a tad bit faster when I was pilot testing the program, so there must be a reason why it is a little slower (maybe it saves energy, thus backup battery life is extended).

As for that second question about the 90 minute transfer period, I actually used my e-transfer about four times and there is no limit to how many times I tag my card, just as long as it is within the 90 minute window.

But still, the program works. I tried on Golden Gate Transit, and it worked great.


murphstahoe said...

i used mine yesterday. Took the 44, to the 38, reversed on the 38, switched to the 33, and then the 35. All for $1.50. Very nice.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this -- it made me a lot more confident in the system, maybe I'll actually put money on the card I was sent three months ago ...

Just one question. Does the "late night service" factor into these e-transfers?

Akit said...

Hi proreality.

I don't know anything about the "late night service" e-transfers. That's a question you should call Translink about. Don't e-mail them, they have a tendency to not reply back.

Anonymous said...

"so Translink cranked up the sound to be as loud as the station platform readers on the Muni bus readers." So this is why I nearly lose my hearing every time someone scans their card? How about having a light indicator that needs no tone at all? Or a click noise rather than an ear piercing beep? This is going to be horrible once everyone is beeping their cards. Noise pollution is a real problem. Ask an audiologist what an appropriate noise level is for people to be exposed to - the noise of BART and these Clipper Beeps is WAY too loud.

Akit said...

What do you do? Sit next to the machine?

I suggest finding another seat so you don't go DEAF! (WHAT????)

Unknown said...

Akit, no, it's so so so so loud. Even if you're in the back of the bus. I think it makes a difference if the bus is full or empty - on an empty bus, it's definitely ear damage loud.

Akit said...

Bullshit, riding BART is ear damage loud. Get yourself some earplugs.