BART commuters take to EZ Rider

Bay Area Rapid Transit’s little-promoted pilot program for the EZ Rider electronic pass quietly signed up some 22,000 satisfied customers — more than 5 percent of the rail system’s 360,000 daily riders — in just 16 months. Although EZ Rider purchasing information is only found on the BART Web site, the permanent cards have been selling themselves with a hard-to-resist combination of multiple conveniences and a fare discount of some 7 percent.

The EZ Rider success offers valuable lessons for both the struggling TransLink regional transit pass — which is eventually supposed to be the universal ticket for 26 Bay Area bus/train agencies — and the FasTrak bridge-toll device that is not as widely accepted as its eastern U.S. counterparts.

EZ Rider cards can be electronically scanned by plastic disk sensors at all BART gates, and their value is replenished automatically. This enables riders to not only avoid ever waiting in line at a station ticket-selling machine; it also ensures that the card always contains the exact fare needed. Also the plastic pass does not share the risk of demagnetization that is increasingly known to afflict BART paper tickets.

The way this works is that a rider goes online at ezrider.bart.gov/ezrider/ and makes a credit or debit-card purchase of the smart pass for $45. Then anytime the EZ Rider card value drops below $10, it is refilled with an automatic $45 charge. However, each payment actually buys $48 worth of BART fares.

What the positive reception of the hardly advertised EZ Rider pass demonstrates is that many public transit users are more than willing to pay for genuine ticketing convenience improvements, especially if some sort of money savings is involved. This bodes well for ultimate success of the long-delayed TransLink project, which sooner or later is to provide much of the same benefits as EZ Rider throughout all Bay Area transportation systems — including Muni, Caltrain and SamTrans.

Right now, TransLink passes are operational only on the buses of Marin County’s Golden Gate Bridge Transit and the East Bay’s AC Transit. A rollout onto more of theregion’s larger transportation systems is tentatively scheduled for May. TransLink’s stumbling block has consistently been the software incompatibilities between all of the separate agencies involved, which shows the value of less Balkanized software design in the future.

And what FasTrak might learn from EZ Rider is that even a minimal permanent discount, as opposed to an introductory low rate, could significantly improve the sales appeal of their prepaid regional bridge toll transmitter. FasTrak officials have stonewalled numerous calls for a permanent lower-pay rate, arguing that Caltrans cannot afford any roadway discounts. But if widest possible acceptance from drivers is the goal, eastern U.S. toll roads have proven that ongoing discounts are the way to achieve it.

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