Monday, March 10, 2014

Bay Area Public Transit - 511 and BART Under the Microscope: Serious Flaws?

My own writeup about riding public transit systems to anywhere in the Bay Area has now been crucial to letting me know what routes to take, what stops do I begin and end at, and if there are any warnings and advisories that could affect my travels. As a regular rider on Bay Area public transit systems, I generally enjoy the operators taking me to appropriate places within the route that I would stumble upon. The only thing that would be the downside is the cost. So here is my own story of how one of the problems that originally started on a transit agency within 511's coverage area turned out to be a bigger problem upon what I specifically uncovered. From problems with accuracy of fares to the questioning of the mobile websites of some various transit agencies, I was keeping an eye on what was going on among transit agencies.

Before taking public transit to a destination, I generally use a transit planning website like 511 to help plan my trip, as well as to observe any alerts that could affect my travel. In general, the fare is suppose to be accurate depending on what fare setting that a user would be on. But my findings are not really true.


The problem started when one of the Bay Area's transit agency, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), was under the microscope of Tony Kovaleski's two investigations on fare evasion and credit card installation in 2012 on the subject of the light rail and the ticket vending machines that lets the public buy a fare or day pass prior to boarding the light rail. In the "Fare Evasion" investigation, he uncovered that the lack of anyone buying tickets is the cause of people trying to board a train that people could ride for free.

The problem that I am finding is beyond VTA within 511's coverage area and of what Tony Kovaleski has reported. According to VTA's website, the normal fare to ride a VTA express bus is $4, with a youth paying only $1.75 and the person that is a senior or has a type of disability paying only $1, but 511's website did not agree with the fares that VTA has stated on VTA's website. That part of the problem was discovered while I was trying to simply figure out how much I must pay to ride transit to get to a destination, which I decided to go investigate and put 511 under my microscope.

511's problems were so severe that even I had to post numerous times on social media with occasional photos attached to explain what is going on, as I was unable to e-mail 511 when photos are included as part of the evidence of the problem, which I have done at least twice to break down what the actual problems are in terms of fare use. I even had to ask them about what happened to VTA's tweets that never showed up on 511's website (in the Regional Transportation Tweets' section on the front page) in case that there are delays on the light rail, which left many riders with aggressive frustration and attempting to find other ways of getting around. 511 finally got to respond to my investigation on the transit tweets part, and eventually, posted their notice on 511's website about major delays on the light rail. I also asked 511 about the problems of applying the two-hour rule on VTA's light rail on 511's website, which 511 promised a fix on that issue.

The accuracy of the fares was also a problem at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), which I personally find to be the most serious of them all. The problems at BART in regards to the accuracy of fares published on 511's website in terms of the fares for qualifying people (the youth, senior, and disabled, including Medicare card holders) are what I am trying to specifically ask about, especially on why BART elected to publish reduced fares for the senior, disabled, and youth exclusively on BART's website and not reflecting on 511's website.

I picked up three booklets at the Fremont BART station to review how BART is dishonest of putting up fares for qualifying people. The three booklets picked up are "BART Basics Guide", "BART Accessibility Guide", and "BART Fares and Schedules". All three booklets provide some information on the 62.5% discount for qualifying people (page 3 of the "BART Basics Guide"; page 2 of the "BART Fares and Schedules"; and in the BART Fares and Tickets section of "BART Accessibility Guide"). On BART's website, the information that I found was similar, though separate red and green tickets do exist. But none of the booklets that I picked up have any fare tables for qualifying people, which leads me to question the use of the fare table, limiting the use to just the full fare-paying customers and not for qualifying people.

To figure out what the actual fares are on BART, which is not found on 511's website when the fare settings are either "Youth", "Senior", or "Disabled", users must go to the "Fare Calculator" section of BART's website. Users are then asked to put what their origin and destination stations are. BART's actual fares for qualifying people (in 2014 dollars) ranges from $0.65 to $4.35 depending on the actual destination between the two points in comparison to $1.85 to $11.65 for full paying-fare customers. The difference of fares shown on 511's website may differ because of BART's fares being off by at least a dollar or two, but especially when taking a combination of BART and Caltrain from downtown San Francisco or anywhere in the East Bay to San Jose Dirdon station. 511's trip planning website would then reveal a difference by up to as much as $4.75 - the actual total fare between Pittsburg / Bay Point and San Jose Dirdon stations riding a combination BART and Caltrain when using an RTC Clipper card is $6.05 (in 2014 dollars), though 511's website still continued to list the cost to ride both BART and Caltrain as $11 - a near $5 difference.* Also to note, if riding from Pittsburg / Bay Point station to San Francisco International Airport on BART using an RTC Clipper card, the difference between the adult and reduced fares is $7.30 by using 511's website.**


One of the 511 representatives did privately message me that some of my findings were only correct, specifically on two occasions that VTA's fare put on 511's website and the problems with BART's actual reduced fare. 511 did admit that there was an error that they guessed that VTA's normal express bus fare is $4 and $2 for seniors/disabled, but never realized the actual fare on express buses for seniors and people with disabilities.

Originally, there appeared to be no problems on BART's fares, but when I revealed the actual fares for qualifying people, the representative said that since the Trip Planner is currently set up to provide only the cash fares to customers, the reduced fare discount is not incorporated into the trip plan fares, which to me further questions the BART youth and senior/disabled fares being in line with AC Transit, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit, MUNI, SamTrans, and VTA in terms of fare category as being defined by 511's website and on individual transit agencies' website as mentioned herein. Most transit agencies, according to individual websites, set their youth ages to either 5 to around 17 or 18, but BART opted to set their youth ages instead to 5 to 12, leaving the teenage years to be charged as "adult fares" and not actual reduced fares on most Bay Area transit agencies. This leaves a big hole that 511 is unable to put up accurate fare information for youth and seniors/disabled riding on BART, regardless if using an RTC Clipper card, a Red BART ticket, or a Green BART ticket.

511's problems are not yet over in terms of fare accuracy. Until the problems are actually fixed among all Bay Area transit agencies within 511's coverage area, riders will have to plan their trips going to individual transit agencies' websites, especially if traveling to more than one county in the Bay Area.

BART's problems are also not yet over as well. When I attempted to contact BART about the problem that I have uncovered, I was unable to find a dedicated e-mail to address the problem to BART because the website only allows up to 1000 words at most - I was only able to find an e-mail that I could send to BART's board members while I was aboard one of the BART cars. I was also unable to post any pictures on social media as evidence of the problem. 

BART board members, BART's general manager, Grace Crunican, and/or BART spokesman, Jim Allison (the latter who appears on the news regularly, as well as occasionally on YouTube), have yet to speak about what I have uncovered on the issues of qualifying reduced fares and matching the fares shown on 511's website. While Crunican and Allison may be excited for the new Levi's Stadium opening in Santa Clara, which is only accessible via VTA's light rail, the only thing that the two may not be so excited about is what the response may be to the 511's perspective on BART's missing fare table for qualifying people and not the full adult fare.

Grace Crunican

I personally do not think that the solutions will be satisfactory to any transit rider who wants to know the actual fares for qualifying people with disabilities, children, and seniors, especially when it comes to any type of travel involving the use of BART through 511's website. If people recalled the interview with then-VTA general manager Michael Burns by Tony Kovaleski in the Investigative Unit report (before Burns was replaced by Nuria Fernandez), recall that Burns was embarrassed about the improvement of the ticket vending machines and the delays that the organization has faced. Now, the embarrassment could be not only be among VTA workers, but also 511 employees, transit employees within 511's coverage area, and BART union workers as well (and possibly the union presidents of those that work with BART and VTA) after my questioning about the fare accuracy on 511's website - and possibly, a "coming soon" fix.

NOTE ON BLOG: For the next part of my view on BART, please click here.

* indicates the original calculation was originally $7.60, but was recalculated due to an error. This has been corrected.
** indicates the calculation difference between the adult fare ($11.65) and the concessionary fare ($4.35) between Pittsburg / Bay Point and San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in 2014 dollars.

Original Work by Kyle Chak
Twitter: @KyleSChak