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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Adding Translink E-Cash or Passes via Phone or Web takes 72 hours - Here's Why and How to Fix It


FYI: It's called "Clipper" now, but it's all the same product.

I've been keeping an eye on Twitter about the Translink card program, and while users have complimented about the program, the most frequent complaint I notice is the "72 hour" rule about adding funds and/or passes to your account. People think this is a stupid policy, but it's not really a policy at all, it's purely technical.


I'm going to take a moment to explain why there is a "72 hour" rule:


The "72 hour" rule is for anyone who calls the customer service center or uses the internet to upload funds (e-cash) and/or passes to their Translink card account.

The reason why they have to tell you this "72 hour" disclaimer is because of the technology used on the vehicles and stationary readers.

Assume you called the customer service line and asked to add $20. The card readers on the buses and trains are NOT instantly updated that moment with your new e-cash amount. In fact, the data gets updated every time the vehicles goes to the garage and will inform the card readers that $20 has just been uploaded into your account. When you board the vehicle with updated information in the reader and tag your card, the card gets the new info of the increase and will deduct your transit fare in one quick transaction.

If your second bus/train doesn't have the new data of the e-cash increase and your card has been revised of its amount, it will acknowledge the updated info on your card since it is the most up-to-date information.

Translink vehicle and station readers are not connected to a network 24-hours a day to instantly update your information when making phone or web fund uploading (it's not a credit card terminal that dials-up for approval every single time). That would make the program even more expensive and wasteful.

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This is how you can get your funds added INSTANTLY and is usable WITHOUT DELAY:

  • Visit a ticket office that allows purchasing of Translink funds.
  • Visit a Walgreens location.
  • Use the automated machines like at all Muni Metro stations and the Golden Gate Ferry terminal in SF.
What happens when doing it in person is the machines are connected instantly with the Translink transactions network; since your card is inserted in the machine, it will instantly update your funds in your card for immediate use.

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Think of your Translink card as an iPod, and all e-cash and pass transactions are iTunes:
  • If you make a purchase WITHOUT your iPod in hand to sync (Translink lingo: phone or web transaction), your new purchase won't be updated until you sync it (Translink lingo: wait up to 72 hours for the card readers to update so you can tag your card to sync it).
  • If you make your purchase WITH your iPod in hand to sync (Translink lingo: make a transaction in-person or a ticketing machine), your new purchase will be playable on your iPod instantly because you synced it on the spot (Translink lingo: your card is inserted in the machine and updates your card for instant use).
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You can also stop the delay by telling Translink you want the "autoload" program
. Similar to FasTrak, if your card funds reach a certain threshold or your pass expires, Translink will charge your credit card with an updated cash balance or new monthly pass. Expect the 72 hour wait for this process to be updated on all card readers.

It's not always 72 hours, sometimes it is just the next day. It all depends on how often the vehicle goes to the depot. Stationary readers are typically updated at a more reliable schedule since they are hardwired to the Translink network.

Disclaimer: I don't work for Translink or any other public transit agency. This information is from several years of experience as a participant of Translink.

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UPDATE: The 72-hour process is similar with other agencies that also uses RFID transit cards and allows purchasing by phone and/or online. The process is known as "store and forward" and is used by Octopus Card (Hong Kong), one of the most successful transit fare card programs in the world. London's Oyster Card and many of other card programs also uses the "store and forward" process as well.

14 comments:

jwb said...

Good info. My chief complaint remains the incredible slowness of the refill machines down in the Muni station. I takes a solid 3-5 minutes to refill your card. Totally unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

There are also machines at SFMTA's customer service center (11 South Van Ness). Also, the 72 hour is indeed for mobile buses. Station gates and readers on poles should update faster.

Anonymous said...

In London, there is a similar card named "Oyster Card". When you setup auto-load OR you use the web/phone to recharge your card with money, you need to go to a SPECIFIC subway station.

This works very much like e-mail. When you remotely add something to your card, a "message" is sent to your card and the "message" is delivered when you tag your card. However, if there is million of messages in transit (London has 5 million Oyster Card users), that become quickly unmanageable. The tag machines can not hold all "messages" waiting for delivery.

We are currently lucky to be able to recharge our card (via web/autoload/phone) and get our card updated everywhere, even in the moving bus/streetcars. I suspect this is a temporary feature. When the number of users will reach a certain treshold, we will be instructed to load our card at a specific location.

Greg said...

If only the MTA could explain this as clearly as you have, well things would be a lot better.

I don't use Translink right now, but my brother depends on it as a once-a-week visitor to SF, and really likes it.

Akit said...

I appreciate the compliment Greg.

I find my Translink card much more convenient with my commuter pre-tax benefits program since they upload my funds automatically every month.

I used to get vouchers mailed to me and I had to claim them only at the SFMTA office for token tickets. Just planning time to visit that office was a pain in the back.

Anonymous said...

I agree with all of your observations except one. I have e-cash autoload and my observation has been that even on Muni vehicles, if my balance falls below $10, it will get autoloaded upon the next ride.

Another observation: I had a credit card expire a while ago, and it caused my TransLink card to be blocked. When I called to ask why, I was told that it was because my $20 had already been added (first) but the credit card transaction failed afterward, so I was in a sort of "bad debt" status until I fixed the credit card to unblock my TransLink card.

The combination of these two observations tells me that there is some kind of autoload data on the card itself, such that if you have autoload enabled, _any_ reader will replenish your card when it sees you below the threshold (and then _afterward_ the back-end systems will charge your credit card - the opposite of what this post describes, where you initiate the load and it takes time to get added to your card).

Also 72h is a bit pessimistic IME for the load process. Usually it should happen within 24. The same goes, incidentally, for balance checks by phone, which I think get updated about every 24h.

Anonymous said...

If there is no 24 hour connection between the card readers and the database with all of the clipper information, then how is it that the clipper cards can register transfers? Do the card readers also write data onto the card?

Akit said...

That is correct, the card readers are able to read and write data.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful information. Since the station payment machines are connected to the network, why not make it possible to tag the card at the payment machine to consummate the online transaction?

Akit said...

Not exactly. The 72 hour rule still applies regardless if you tag on a bus or at a station. Stations may not be instantly available, but possibly by the next day.

Anonymous said...

Re: blocking status: bad debt; this is the only website in all of Googlandia that had this info. Not even clipper! And thank gawd you did, too, or I never would have figured out that all I had to do was update my cc info. Been on hold w customer service for clipper for 10 minutes, and guess what: AT&T dropped the call - what's new? You're providing an important service, Akit. Now I just have to figure out how to change my auto-upload from $50 to $20 without it taking a week! I don't think its possible (seriously). THANK YOU!!

Pommes Frites said...

72 hours means 72 business hours apparently. The transaction will be delayed by weekends and holidays according clipper employees I've complained too about my six day and waiting added value on my clipper card.

Anonymous said...

So let me see if I understand this.

- Cards hold data about the user. Readers hold data about all users' cards
- The card readers don't know of the added funds until they go in to the garage or until they are informed by a valid card
- The card doesn't know of the value until it syncs with a card reader that has current information or unless it is physically updated at a Walgreens, etc.

So during the 72 hour period the a non-updated reader will use whatever data is on the card and will copy the data if it is more up to date

If I have bought a monthly MUNI pass during this window neither my card nor the card reader will "know" that unless I've updated my card at one of the physical locations where the new pass information is put on the card.

The result is that something carries around the current account information, but it's not the card if the card value is updated online. Once a reader that has been to the garage is updated with my MUNI pass information it can convey that to the card which in turn can convey it to other readers.

72 hours does seems like a long time though, but I suppose it's a good outer window of time. Mine took less than that. I think much of the grumbling about this would subside if Clipper had some automatic process of crediting you the MUNI fares that you paid for in the window ranging from when they registered the fast pass payment to when the updated information made it to the readers. They have all that information.

Thanks,
John

Akit said...

Yep, you've got it right.

72 hours is a large gap, but they put some buffer room for those buses that may not return to the depot due to Owl trips or parked overnight at a non uploading location, such as a maintenance yard.