Thursday, June 14, 2007

Public Transport User Interface

Embarcadero, San Francisco

Earlier this week I had a breakfast meeting in San Francisco so decided to go green and take BART into the city. Mistake number one was parking at SFO instead of Millbrae. Still not sure how I ended up in the short-term car park at the International terminal but I think it had a lot to do with a 5:30 am start and a brain that was on therefore on autopilot. Anyway, all that aside, made it on time and so the next step was to buy a ticket.

Across all the public transportation systems I've used over the years - Tokyo's included - BART wins the prize as having the worst and most impenetrable ticket machines I have ever encountered. All I wanted to do was to buy a return ticket to the Embarcadero, not, apparently, a simple function that the machine supports. The routine went like this ...

- stick credit card into machine to start the process. Offered a bunch of ticket options that seemed to be squarely aimed at regular commuters (monthly tickets, tickets discounted for seniors, transfer tickets, etc.)

- randomly pick one of the above.

- figure out I now have to load some amount of money onto the card I chose. But how do you figure out the cost of the journey you want to take? Turns out, you read it off the piece of paper stuck, if your are lucky, to the side of the machine. $10.30 turns out the be the answer.

- ticket I picked has a minimum amount of $38 it turns out. Cancel; start-again.

- OK, back where I was with what looks to be a basic ticket but still one onto which you have to load some amount of money to cover your journey. But, you quickly discover, $1 is the smallest increment. (So why the hell do they price in dollars and cents??) OK. Pick $11.

- spend 5 minutes figuring out that the reason the transaction keeps failing is because said machine doesn't take American Express.

- dig out the only cash I have - a $20 bill - and try to get back to same place.

- after more failures, realise that the maximum change the machine will dispense is $4.50, meaning I have to load $16 onto the ticket for a journey that's supposed to cost $10.30.

- finally get a ticket I can use, plus $4 change ... delivered to me all in quarters. Clearly, this is an element in Gavin's scheme to support the SF homeless because the first guy I found panhandling after I got off the train got the lot so I wasn't stuck lugging around all this change in my pockets.

Thankfully, BART itself is a very good system with largely on-time trains and a reasonably convenient set of routes. However, quite how a tourist coming into SFO and wanting to get into the city is supposed to figure all this c&*p out after 11 hours on a 747 I have no idea, and quite frankly this is a disgrace for somewhere that's supposed to be a showcase for all that's great about technology.

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