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Metro Warns About End of Paper Transfers

The transit authority has launched a campaign to remind riders that it plans to eliminate the paper transfers used by many bus passengers. Once the paper transfers disappear in January, the only way to get the free bus-to-bus transfer or the rail-to-bus discount is to use a SmarTrip electronic fare card.

What bothers me about this isn't so much the $5 cost of getting the card in the first place, or even the limited number of outlets that sell the things. It's the difficulties bus riders face in adding value to the cards.

That will change. Metro plans to add several hundred more outlets where people can pump up the value of their SmarTrip cards, but now and for the next few months, the options still will be limited.

Riders can always add value as their standing by the bus's fare box. But to do so, they've got to feed cash into the box while other riders waiting to board stand behind them. How many times do you see someone adding to the SmarTrip card that way?

For a less pressured experience, people can add value at vending machines in the Metrorail stations, or some commuter stores or Metro sales offices. But this is a mass transit system serving several hundred thousand bus passengers a day across a huge region. It ought to be a lot easier than it is to pay the fare every day with the electronic card.

Improved access to the add-value machines had better come quickly. The more people who feel compelled to use the fare boxes on the buses, the worse the bus system will perform. One of the advantages of moving to the electronic card is that people will be able to board more quickly. That benefit goes to zero -- and may even become a negative -- whenever someone has to feed money into the machine and slow the boarding process.

By Robert Thomson  |  October 21, 2008; 2:19 PM ET
Categories:  Commuting , Metro  
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The real rip-off is for the people who use the multiple-ride passes on Metrorail. Because those are not available for SmarTrip users, people who ride the bus and who also use the passes will have to choose between using the passes and losing the cheaper bus transfer rate or using the SmarTrip card and losing the cheaper rail fare that comes with the pass.

Posted by: Rich | October 21, 2008 3:22 PM | Report abuse

So there are no plans to put Smartrip machines in places where bus riders can recharge them (grocery stores, drug stores, banks/check cashing outlets, post offices).

There is no plan to make it possible to recharge these cards online -- which I know would be a problem itself for quite a few bus riders; if many have problems getting the money to pay for a card, owning a computer is going to be out of the question.

Like you, Dr. G, I can't see any way people will recharge their cards at the fare box. Is anyone at Metro thinking about these things? It doesn't seem like it.

Posted by: dirrtysw | October 21, 2008 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Metro should figure out how to let people add money online, and also cut deals with more stores, like CVS and Safeway, to put machines in there.

Posted by: max | October 21, 2008 4:16 PM | Report abuse

you wouldn't believe how much of a hassle it is to put money on once you've boarded the bus! Not only is there pressure of the passengers behind you, but if you press the wrong button the machine will just take your money- no receipt, no record, and no money on your card! You wouldn't believe how many times this has happened to me, so I NEVER do it that way anymore.

Posted by: Amy | October 21, 2008 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Please Metro, allow us to add value to the cards online. Pretty Please!

Posted by: dkf747 | October 21, 2008 9:10 PM | Report abuse

I stopped using smarttrip card and metro when it became next to impossible to get a new card when mine went bad. Metro had limited days and locations that could do this. And on top of it all, the metro person behind the window was less than helpful. Metro needs to wake up and give us premium service for the premium prices they charge.

Posted by: Gary | October 21, 2008 9:15 PM | Report abuse

"Premium service"? I'd settle for something more than the current third-world service.

Where's Lisa, the intrepid Metro apologist on these comment threads? *paging Lisa to the comment thread*

Please explain why any Metro upgrade takes until 2015? How difficult is it to install one of these machines? Does it take the usual army of bureaucrats and unionized employees?

Posted by: Hahaha! | October 22, 2008 8:39 AM | Report abuse

And what happens to tourists who travel by bus and would not need the smart card once they leave this area? During summer a large number of tourists are here and want to travel around by the cheapest means, and bus paper bus transfers are a great help. Please find an easy way considering these other infrequent users of the bus system. I am sure the bus system will lose several commuters if the system makes it more difficult to get transfers.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | October 22, 2008 10:22 AM | Report abuse

If you add money to your card *after* you've paid your fare, you lose the free transfer: when you then swipe your card while transferring to another bus you pay the fare all over again (and they never, ever, never refund your money). Same thing if you add money before completing a rail-to-bus transfer: you get charged $1.25 instead of 35ยข.

Posted by: DrB | October 22, 2008 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: Metro Man | October 22, 2008 11:17 AM | Report abuse

As a federal employee, I benefit from Metrochecks. And every first week of the month have to deviate from my usual bus commute to go to a metro station to upload my monthly benefits. Since Metro claims some 300,000 feds use the system, how about letting us upload our benefits on the conveyance we actually use to get to work?
And I fully concur with the comments about visitors. Every other US city I have been to in the past year (Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, San Francisco) has paper transfers and riding the bus is the cheapest way to explore a city. Eliminating paper transfers is counterproductive.

Posted by: bus girl | October 22, 2008 1:43 PM | Report abuse

A) Many cities do not have bus transfers. You buy an all day or multi-fare pass if you are a tourist. (which we currently do not sell on the bus)

B) Adding money to SmarTrip on the bus does not take much more time than paying via cash (and probably less b/c you won't be fishing for change) and will not need do so every time you ride. The time will be more than made up by the increased usage of SmarTrip

C) Read the article. They do have plans to install recharge machines in groceries stores, etc.

D) They are working to provide auto-recharge and single recharge via Internet

E) This will save Metro about $300K a year, plus reduce fraud

F) They are working to upgrade SmarTrip technology to include passes.

Posted by: learntoread | October 22, 2008 5:03 PM | Report abuse

They've been working to provide internet and auto-recharge for years. Maybe they should call them Dumbtrip cards, since it takes YEARS to implement any changes to them. EZ-Pass can do it, New York Metrocard can do it... but not DC's beloved Metro.

And I'm sure they do have plans to install them in other places. That will ALSO likely take years. This is Metro, after all.

Metro mismanagement at its finest! I agree with "Haha!"'s post above.

Posted by: O RLY? | October 23, 2008 9:56 AM | Report abuse

I agree with "O RLY?" New York's MetroCard is far less technologically sophisticated than Metro's SmarTrip card, yet the MetroCard allows you to make a free out-of-system "walking transfer" and the SmarTrip card doesn't (think: leave system at Farragut West, walk across the square, re-enter system at Farragut North within half an hour at no additional charge). I find it utterly ludicrous that WMATA can't implement this sort of thing.

With all that said, I did buy a SmarTrip card way back in 1999 on the first day they were generally available because it was more convenient to use for parking than it was to fumble for $2.25 cash every evening at Vienna. I still have the same card and I still use it, would never go back to the paper farecards, but I find it to be far less awe-inspiring than WMATA would like us to believe.

(BTW, why did the field to enter one's name disappear? I have no idea what it will put for my name on this post.)

Posted by: Anonymous | October 23, 2008 10:46 AM | Report abuse

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