Thursday, August 26, 2010

Metro Set To Further Annoy It's Best Customers

Metro, following in the footsteps of progressive organizations such as the Recording Industry of America (RIAA), will be enacting new policies designed to cause invoncenience, aggravation, and possibly legal problems, to the kind of customers it likes most: those who own Smart Trip cards. Starting August 29, you will no longer be able to exit a metro station if your Smart Trip balance is below zero.

"We asked if there had been a problem with Metro never recovering negative fares from travelers; [Metro spokesperson Angela Gates] said she'd have to look into that."

-- Dave Jamieson, TBD reporter

A few years back, the RIAA invented the "eff you, frequent flyer" business model by suing the very people who spent the most money on them. While largely a symbolic gesture, since only a couple people actually went to court and most cases were dropped due to them being absolutely insane to sue children in the first place, it set the stage for future acts of desperation by other organizations. Organizations that found themselves with management and cash flow problems, faced with a changing world but unable to keep pace, or just plain stupid.

I think metro falls in the "just plain stupid" category, since they don't really have any competition. They have, apparently, decided that their own hard times have warranted the implementation of the "eff you customer" program, rather than taking the more practical step of getting their shit together. The result of such poorly-thought-out moves is, inevitably, bad press, futher hemmhoraging of revenues as some customers stop using your service, and other collateral damage.

Let's take a look at what this means.

You must use cash to pay ExitFare.

Most people use SmartTrip card because of its convenience, and the ability to pay by credit card. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do the math here. Since you have not ever needed cash to travel by metro for a decade, there's a decent chance you won't ensure you have some on you before you head to work.

SmartTrip cards do not feature an "automatic recharge" feature.

Unlike almost every other "subscription" sort of service on earth, you must manually recharge your smart trip card when it runs out. At a machine. This means, inevitably, this problem is going to happen to everyone.

People don't think about their Smart Trip balance. That's why it's useful.

When you have a SmartTrip card, it's very simple: you go in, and when it goes below zero, you get a warning on your way out. That is a reminder that it's time to recharge. And if you forget, it won't let you go back in again on your next trip. So you refill on your way in. You can't get screwed. You can never find yourself able to get in, but not out. You can never find yourself stuck in a Metro station with no cash, and no legal way to leave. Until August 29th, that is.

It's like the "refuel" light on your car. It reminds you to stop at the next gas station.

But now, you won't get a "refuel" warning any more. Oh, and also, you can only look at the gas guage on your car at the end of a trip, or after you've already gotten on the highway. Because a metro trip can range from $1.60 up to $5.00, there are many, many possible trips for which you'd have sufficient balance to enter, but not exit.

It's like if your car suddenly just died on the side of the road at some point below 1/4 of a tank.

And I don't buy the argument that "people using paper cards have always had to deal with this." You know what's different about a paper card? It has your balance printed on it.


If you could link your SmartTrip to a credit card to recharge automatically, I don't think most people would care about this. But despite this technology being available for things such as EZ Pass for more than a decade, you can't. This is a whole different problem, but it's amazing that they would implement a policy change such as this one, before enabling automatic recharge. That shows extremely poor judgment.

Metro recently lowered the price of SmartTrip cards from $5 to $2.50, and seems to be rationalizing this move because they fear fraud from people buying SmartTrip cards, and leaving the system with a negative balance. Which could, at most, be $3.40, since the minimum fare if $1.60 and the maximum rail fare is $5.00. And that's even using non-rush for the minimum and rush hour for the maximum.

In the worst case scenario, Metro would be facing someone with a $3.40 negative balance on a $2.50 card. And I'm not even sure that scenario is possible, unless you crossed non-rush-hour to rush-hour lines during your trip.

Would anyone really ever do this? Would this ever be a possible method of "fraud" at any scale other than extremely isolated?

Furthermore, Metro earns tons of money from unused fares, and interest on money spent on transit before it's taken. I would guess the average balance on a SmartTrip card is over 10 bucks, and there must be millions of unused farecards purchased every year (e.g. by tourists, or from people who just toss low-balance farecards). I don't know how much money this is -- but I guarantee you it's far, far more than they could ever stand to lose from a handful of folks who would rather go to CVS and buy a new card, than pay (at most) the 90 cents difference to recharge their own SmartTrip card.

Apart from the insanity of even a tiny fraction of society going to all this trouble to perpetrate a fraud with a theoretical maximum value of ninety cents, what the hell?

If this is your only reason for this move, then why didn't you just price it at $3.50 which will effectively eliminate the, er, "incentive?" Even better, why didn't you just not change the price from $5 in the first place? Do you really think there's a single person on earth who prefers saving $2.50 on the cost of a SmartTrip card, which most people buy exactly once, to the convenience of not facing possible incarceration in a metro station every time they go to work?


Monday, August 30. Mayhem. Tens of thousands of people, probably 10-20% of all riders, cannot exit because they entered Metro at rush hour with under $4 on their card (as they probably do approximately 20% of the time).

Three-quarters of these people, the ones with cash, will be pissed as they have to wait in huge lines for the exitfare machine.

The other one-quarter, the ones without cash, will be jumping turnstiles.

Or, Metro station operators will just open the emergency gate and let everyone go through, costing Metro far more in a single day because of the chaos, than they could ever stand to lose.

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