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.


    An addendum: many Caltrain riders have figured out that, if they forget to validate their ticket (or intentional do not do so), they can usually get out of a citation by telling the official that the machine on the platform was broken. As previously mentioned, I have too much of a guilt complex to do this, but in any case I don't think that Caltrain prefers to solve this problem this way....

    Another observation is that on several occasions I'd heard Caltrain officials announce to the train at the 4th/King depot that riders could validate their passes with an official aboard the train if they had forgotten to do so before boarding. I can see how the officials would offer this service out of sympathy at the beginning of a line only and not be able to do maintain it as more riders on-board along the way, but it further confuses the issue, makes the experience inconsistent and should either be completely done away with (i.e. you can never get your ticket validated by an official aboard the train) or completely adopted (i.e. anyone can get a ticket validated by an official aboard the train at any time).

    I appreciated seeing this post when I was in Europe. It was a great usability challenge to figure out how to - or if to - validate tickets on the various intercity or in-city trains we took.

    In Amsterdam, the strippenkart is a multi-ride pass you have to buy at a grocery store or a transit office. You fold over the number of segments as appropriate and stick it in the validation machine on board the train. So if you manage to learn that you need to do this (and you won't learn by observation necessarily since many other riders are using an unlimited ride pass that doesn't need validation), then you have to figure out how to do it. It's two "strips" from any "zone" to downtown and then there's a base "strip" that you have to pay for any ride. This is actually more clear than the English language explanation in the Amsterdam transit visitor's guide. So after you stamp on the 4th strip for your first ride (?), where do you tag for your second ride, etc. VERY confusing. Add to that the various other rides we took where no one ever checks to see if you've got a ticket - or else it's so rare that you don't know if you will get checked or what the consequences are and it starts to feel like an honor system more than anything.

    But meanwhile your story reminded me of when the regional transit in Ontario (the GO train, government of Ontario) changed ticket systems. Decades ago, I guess, it used to be a very human/humane system where you purchased a perforated two-part ticket and deposited the first at your outgoing station, stepping past a station attendant in a booth and dropping the piece into a little bucket. To ensure that they knew your ticket from your adjacent passenger, they'd hit a lever to empty it every once in a while. At your destination, you just deposited the other half. When they went to an honor-system-plus-enforcement, the whole tenor changed. No people at the station, but policemen, with police attitudes, on board the train. Big guys, with billy clubs swinging from their waist, in dark uniforms and big dark boots. A week after this new system was instituted, I watched one such person tower over a seated female passenger, lecture her for doing something "wrong" and after inspecting her ticket and finding it wanting, tore it up in her face. By shifting the whole experience from error-trapping hosts to failure-punishing enforcers, suddenly it felt like living in a police state where people were violators who would receive tickets, and a significant something was lost.

    It's amazing how easy it is to blame yourself, rather than thinking about how the system can be redesigned. This was a great reminder for me!

    Here here. The question for me is what has to be done to actually make Caltrain improve?

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