I think the term “Smart” is a misnomer

Dear Metro,

Please stop trying to shift us all over to SmarTrip cards if you admit that using one to ride the bus leaves you wide open to get screwed up.

urban bohemian

SmartTrip card at an electronic reader
A few months back our office told us that they were finally entering the modern era and giving us transit benefits. There was a little dog & pony show and lots of incorrect and redacted information, etc. but overall it seemed like a good plan. I signed up for it in March, which meant my benefits would be available in April. In one of the group meetings the representative insisted that we wouldn’t have to do anything and the funds would be applied to our account. This is incorrect, however even going through the appropriate procedure, I wasn’t getting the funds downloaded to my SmarTrip card. So I decided to poke around and find out what was going on. I left an e-mail to my HR reps to ask for a POC for our benefits company and then contacted WMATA themselves. Here’s where it gets interesting.

Sandy, a genuinely nice customer service agent, confirmed that my card was registered and I told her my problem and she asked me when was the last time I used it. I told her just this morning and she said that nooooo, they showed my last use in Feb 2006. Wha-huh?! I told her that my current card was a replacement for a non-functioning card and that I’ve had it for quite a while. I rattled off my past 3 addresses and eventually she confirmed that I got it when I lived on Hobart St, which means I’ve had a SmarTrip for ages. There was a lot of time on hold and a lot of keyboard tapping and lot of “Hm..” on both sides of the call, but she was able to give me detailed directions on what to do next. I had to go to a station manager and get an internal code from my card.

After walking across the street to the metro the station manager, also very nice and helpful, got the code and wrote it down for me. I called back and asked for Sandy and she gave a big “Mmm-hmm,” and saw that after riding the bus back in Feb 06, my card’s internal identifier had gotten crossed with someone else’s. She was able to see all of my activity and said that they’ll still need to send me out a new SmarTrip (this’ll be my 3rd) and that the funds and information will transfer to that one. She also asked if I would send them my card back, which is no problem for me. I’ll admit that aside from me having to make a quick trip to a metro station, things went pretty smoothly. I was afraid she’d send me to a Metro office which can be a nightmare and pure luck of the draw whether your problem will get resolved. The last time I was there, I was in line just ahead of someone that became an irate customer after about 30 seconds, and the police were called in to ask him to calm down.

She says this is pretty typical when SmarTrip users ride the bus and the bus drivers hurry them along or doesn’t properly close out the previous transaction. And she also mentioned that she recently spoke to a woman who was trying add value to her card while on the bus and was told to step aside by the driver so someone else could board. I know the situation, I’ve been in that situation and it most often stems from the driver not holding passengers to their full fare so the machine’s still waiting to be paid. Last week I kept trying to pay my fare and the driver just kept saying “It’s not taking it,” before he said “oops!” and pressed a button that seemed to fix things.

I think it’s great that they’re trying to get people to use SmarTrip cards, especially since when my first one stopped working, I didn’t lose any value on it and it’s a lot more convenient than keeping cash, change, paper farecards and transfers on hand. But it seems like they know the system is flawed and in most cases aren’t willing to fix it. Like for my case I have to get a paper card for the next few days, but if I were driving, I’d have to pay for another SmarTrip to get out of the lot today and then I’d get another one in the mail with my original balance making for a waste of a card. Not to mention the tourists that still come to town on weekdays and probably have “souvenir” SmarTrip cards they never planned on having.

So unexpectedly great service, but still a flawed system.

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3 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    This tourist still uses paper farecards. How lame is that?

  2. Lolypup says:

    I think im going to auction my SmarTrip card off to the highest bidder when I move in August, I mean 50% all rides, there has to be a buyer some where????

  3. Michael says:

    I found a BART card in my wallet from when you last visited, which was… let’s see… a LONG time ago. And it still has some value on it, which is nice for me, if I ever actually manage to get back to SF.

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