Most people who know me would characterize me as fundamentally an honest and upstanding person. I've broken very few laws in my life and suffer from a torturous amount of guilt any time I feel like I've wronged someone. True, I run the occasional stop sign on my bicycle when there are no other vehicles in sight, but on the whole I'd say I'm a law-abiding citizen who has no intention of cheating others and would immediately attempt to right the situation if I felt I had.

You can imagine how frustrated I am, then, when the ill-conceived experience design of Caltrain ticketing labels me a criminal for forgetting to validate my 8-ride pass a couple of times. Now, the first time I got a citation was a fluke: I'd never used an 8-ride pass before and didn't even know what it meant to "validate" the ticket, much less when and where to do it. My assumption had been that the Caltrain official would stamp or punch one of the rides on my ticket as he made his rounds through the car. Instead, the official unforgivingly cited me for fare evasion, when anyone who looked at the pass could have plainly read that I'd purchased that ticket exactly 11 minutes before he laid eyes upon it.

I have been racking my brain trying to come up with reasons for a ticketing and boarding design that punishes (criminalizes!) honest but forgetful people, but I have yet to come up with a good one, so will offer my critique, propose a new solution and invite the rest of you to share your perspectives....

The problem

The basic reason why the ticketing experience sucks is that there is no consistency in how riders are accountable for these different passes. You can buy a number of different kinds of passes for Caltrain: one-ride passes, round-trip passes, day passes, 8-ride passes, monthly passes, etc., and this is great because different riders have different needs and should have options for the kind of ticket that best suits their riding habits. What's not so great is that, as a rider, you are responsible for remembering different behaviors depending on which pass you happened to have purchased the last time. I purchased a monthly pass for April and all I had to do was get myself to the station, get on my train, and pull out the pass to show the conductor if/when he passed through my train car during that month. Being that my project is finishing up this week and the monthly pass is no longer the best economical choice for me in May, I purchased an 8-ride pass last Friday to use for the rest of this month's estimated rides. Yesterday, I showed up at the Redwood City train station 20 minutes early and passed the time studying for an exam, completely forgetting to validate the ticket and not even realizing I'd forgotten until the official was coming through the train car. I didn't bother arguing with her (she didn't make up the rules, after all) but was doubly pissed off when I later discovered that she hadn't even written "VOID" across one of edge of my pass to validate it and hold me accountable for that ride.

In every other transit system I've ever ridden, there is a single point in the experience at which all riders--no matter what their transit needs or pass types, and no matter whether they swipe or insert or drop coins into a hole--have to provide proof of payment for that ride. On Muni, it's when you board the bus. On BART, on DC's Metro system, on Chicago's CTA, and on most metropolitan public transit systems around the world, it's when you go through the turnstile to get to the platform. Why, then, would Caltrain require some people to do something extra to a ticket they've already paid for before they board the train, when the rest need only to show their ticket aboard the train?

The solution

This is really such an easy problem to solve that I can't believe Caltrain makes it so hard for everyone involved--especially for all those officials who have to deal with pissed-off riders when they issue citations. All 8-ride passes already come with an expiration date, so what is the need for additional validation? I only have 2 weeks to use it, anyway. Call it a 2-week pass, if you want, and charge a little bit more money--but do away with the ride limit. Or, keep it an 8-ride pass and don't make me validate it beforehand if an official is going to pass through my car to check it, anyway; Caltrain officials always carry little tools with them to punch mysterious strips of yellow paper, so it can't be any more work to punch one of my rides as validation.

In the larger scheme of things, Caltrain needs to think about redesigning a better system of ticketing and payment so that it won't need to employ so many grumpy officials to be ticket police. We frequent riders appreciate the service and are willing to pay for the convenience it provides in our life, but everyone could be a lot happier--and things would run a lot more smoothly--if a more considered and use-centered approach to design were applied to the overall experience.