Fricka-fracka, fricka-fracka

Purchasing anything, let alone a train ticket, should not be this confusing

Brian W. Budzynski / January 29, 2018
Brian W. Budzynski

I’ll be the first to admit, I am of middling intelligence. Neither stupid nor brilliant. Agile, educatable, but not particularly visionary. A fairly normal dude, capable of making my way through this world with a good deal of aplomb and a dearth of general confusion. I don’t get tripped up, generally speaking, by new things.

So, imagine my vexation when, while out and about during my off-hours at the recent TRB Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., I descended the myopic tunnel into the Dupont Circle rail station in order to catch a quick train up to the Metro Center where my hotel was situated—and was stumped by something ostensibly designed to take my money (and thus be operable by a 10-yr-old).

I had been on my feet more than 4 miles and was cashed. I had seen quite a bit of the early evening city, enjoyed the determined bustle and scents wafting out of various restaurant entryways, and was now good and ready for a sit-down on the train and a quiet meal close to the comfort of my room.

The escalator into the station itself is tremendous in its ability to poke a needle into one’s nascent, oft-suppressed vertigo. As hundreds of feet rolled steeply past me, I stared intently, self-consciously, at my
own feet.

When the descent was finally over, I gathered myself and stepped up to one of the half-dozen ticket machines, looking for a simple one-way. But the interface has more seeming entry points and stitches of information than a flight control panel. I regressed nearly a decade in learning while trying to suss out how in the hell to avoid purchasing a $14.75 “pass” in order to take one ride. I failed.

My exhaustion, which I admit played a minor role here, eventually goaded me to swipe my credit card and settle for being pretty much ripped off. But then an angel descended (angels, I am sure, have no vertigo) and blessed me with a mulligan: The machine rejected my transaction, despite the slip it produced indicating that it was not a matter of my credit card being rejected.

I was stupefied. I stood there like a lemming, staring at this machine, transfixed. Then I steeled myself for another long, eyeball-ringing journey on the escalator—at the end of which Uber got the coin that Metrorail seemed not to want.

I later read this online: “DC Metrorail fares vary by distance and time of day; there is no such thing as a ‘single trip’ or ‘multiple trip’ fare card.”

That this was not blatant at the point of purchase, I fault the system for. This position is bolstered by the 100+ similar opinions I have been able to dig up on the Web (there are more, but I called it at 100, self-justification soothing me like a scotch). I have never had such a struggle at any public transit interface. While technology certainly aids such transactional stuff in most respects, when it alienates those not already in the know (i.e. visitors), it fails, plain and simple. Time for a new system. I plan to return to TRB next year; how nice would it be to actually be able to get a (reasonably priced) ticket to ride?

About the Author

Budzynski is managing editor of Traffic & Transit.

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