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A recent trip took me to Atlanta for a family get together. We were staying in the suburbs, and wanted to go to downtown. After hearing some grumbling about dealing with Atlanta’s traffic and finding parking, we decided to drive to a park and ride and take the MARTA train into the city. We were a group of 14 adults and kids, and we need to get tickets. This should be easy, right?
I never realized what a pain point transit can be for tourists.Here are some things we noticed:
  • MARTA requires a separate Breeze card for each paying customer. Each Breeze card is $1. There are no paper tickets. Granted, that’s better than $5 ORCA cards, but still is annoying for a one time user. Could they be free and have some sort of “recycling bin” for collecting used cards?
  • You must pay for each ticket separately.  Some of the kids were under MARTA’s 46 inch height limit for riding free, but most needed tickets. That meant an adult had to navigate the machine 8 times.  The upshot is that we got good at using the vending machine by the 8th time, but why is there no way to buy multiple tickets at once?
  • Conveniently, there was a staffed office at the park and ride, but they have no ability to sell transit tickets. They can only help with parking fees. Parking was free for 24 hours, and fairly easily to understand for newcomers.
  • MARTA has a day pass for $10, or each ride is $2.50 + $1 fee for the Breeze card. But if you take a connecting train, is that a ride? There was nothing indicating “round trip” — just a question of how many rides we wanted?
  • Many of our riders were Canadian. They inserted their credit card, and it asked them for a 5 digit zip code, which didn’t accept letters (Canadian Postal Codes have letters too!). It also had no prompts of what to do if you didn’t have a numeric code, and couldn’t easily go back to the previous screen. So they were unable to pay with a card —  luckily they had cash.
  • All of our riders spoke English, but I don’t recall the machines having a way of switching to other languages. MARTA’s site only offers a machine translated copy of the site. This would not be helpful to most users, as machine translations are extremely unreliable.
  • The machine dispensed change as $1 coins, something despite years of the US Mint’s efforts, most consumers are unfamiliar with.
 The good news is that we cleared all of the hurdles and had a great time. The troubling news is that MARTA was a bit challenging for a newcomers, which probably acts as a deterrent to this type of use — how many people would say this is just too complicated, and drive off?  I know there are some signage challenges, but what’s Seattle’s transit experience like for tourists? Are there any model cities that handle this challenge well?

9 Replies to “Improving Transit Accessibility for Visitors”

  1. Even some big transit cities like Washington D.C., I’ve on occasion spent more time fiddling with the ticket machines than actually riding the train. Enough so that I eventually caved in and ponied up the $5 for a SmarTrip card.

    In London, I discovered with dismay that the automated machines at the tube stations took only cash to refill an Oyster card, and you couldn’t even just dump in a hunk of change to refill your card. Instead, you had to count out exactly 5 pounds worth of coins (the machine didn’t even take bills) to get 5 pounds added to the card. This had several problems:
    – The fare was 2.20 per ride, so there was no way to purchase a whole number of rides without leaving wasted money on the card at the end of the trip.
    – For a tourist, counting out exactly 5 pounds worth of coins is not a trivial matter, as many of the coins look similar, and many different designs exist for each denomination.
    – If all the coins you had added up to only 4.95, you couldn’t ride without getting change first, even though the fare was less than half of that.

    1. Still? I thought they finally solved that.

      I had a very long layover at Heathrow and took the tube into the city. I had to wait in line at the ATM next to the ticket machine, which only spit out bills. Then, I had to wait in line at the ticket booth to have the attendant change that into coins, then wait in line again at the ticket machine to actually buy the ticket.

      At the opposite end of the spectrum some TriMet machines don’t accept cash at all. Not sure what you are supposed to do if that is what you have. I guess maybe find a bus.

    2. Hmm. I was in London over the weekend and paid using my credit card (which is just a magstripe card, no chip) multiple times. Some of the machines will give change, others, *which are clearly marked* do not.

  2. In Chicago, if you’re starting far enough out in the ‘burbs to take Metra, you can buy tickets at the station if it’s open, or on the train from a conductor if it isn’t. On weekends the default is an all-weekend pass that covers the whole Metra system and is no more expensive than most round-trips.

    You can pass back the magnetic-stripe cards that most visitors would use on the L. Actually, I think you could pass back the old NFC card (“Chicago Card”), too. I don’t even think it messed up your ability to transfer. Not sure about Ventra (the new bank card-integrated NFC technology). A lot of people find magnetic-stripe cards to be tricky to use at the turnstile. But it’s probably less of a pain than trying to get Ventra set up for a group, unless pass-backs are allowed.

    Related to one of Mark Dublin’s recent themes (Sounder passengers from Tacoma, at King Street Station, figuring out how to transfer to Westlake Station, holding a paper Sounder ticket), I’m pretty sure Chicago doesn’t have any inter-agency transfers… but this isn’t as bad as it would be here, because the L and in-city buses (plus a few inner-suburban routes near L stations) are CTA, while suburban rail is Metra and suburban buses are Pace. So if you took a commuter train to Union Station from Naperville and wanted to get to the Museum Campus you’d certainly need to buy an entirely new ticket regardless of payment method. Within the CTA transfers are pretty easy if you have a mag-stripe card.

  3. Great Page Two post!

    I’m right now starting to plan for visiting the Oregon Air Show. Plus at first when visiting Seattle from Skagit… it’s really, really important that tourists be part of any mass transit strategic plan.

    For one, have an all-day pass.
    For two, make the directions easy to get the all-day pass.
    For three, just make damn clear what the taxi fares are versus an all-day pass ;-).

    ORCA by the way is the best. Da Russel Wilson to Jermaine Kearse pass baby.

    1. That event is an absolute zoo if you drive there – at least by Portland standards. People who drive from Seattle probably wonder where all the traffic problems are.

      By transit you take MAX blue line to the Washington County Fairgrounds.

      The day tickets are nice, but keep in mind there are also 7 day tickets available from the machines as well, and a few other things that might be helpful depending on how long you plan to stay.

      1. Thanks Glenn, I can’t drive. So my plan is to fly down there via Alaska Airlines and use Trimet.

        So jealous of you Portlanders – you got rail out to your suburbs. There’s just something about grade-separated transit and being able to sit down & enjoy the view.

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