Holding the Gate(line).

A London Underground gate-line.

Urban transit systems across the world are switching from paper fare media to reusable smart cards. These smart cards are often purchased by customers from vending machines in the lobby of transit stations then ‘tapped’ to enter the station, and ‘tapped’ again upon exiting at the destination station. By tapping in and out with smart cards, computer systems are able to determine the appropriate fare and charge the balance of the customer’s smart card. If a customer fails to tap out correctly the system cannot charge an accurate fare and thus resorts to charging a penalty fare, often the same price as the most expensive possible ticket. If a customer fails to tap incorrectly, they may be subject to fines from a fare inspector. From a user experience standpoint, one of the most important cues in a transit system where smart cards are present is the ‘gate-line.’ The gate-line is usually comprised of a series of turnstiles which indicate the ‘fare paid’ zone of a transit system. To pass through the turnstiles, the customer must present their smart card and pay for their journey.

Seattle’s ORCA (One Regional Card for All) smart card was rolled out in 2009. Sound Transit designers faced several constraints that prevented them from installing traditional turnstile gate-lines in Link Light Rail stations. One such reason is that busses share space with Link trains in certain stations, and busses in Seattle require an ORCA tap upon boarding. Turnstiles at Link stations would prevent bus passengers from accessing the platforms. Another potential reason designers chose not to add a traditional gate-line is performance related: as the light rail line is new, it is possible Sound Transit prefers favorable ridership numbers over fare-box recovery, as full trains are indicative of good investment in the minds of the public. The turnstile based gate-line could psychologically dissuade customers from exploring the system.

An ORCA reader

The solution for fare collection that was decided on by Sound Transit is not learnable, nor is it memorable, or efficient. In lieu of a gate-line of any sort, yellow pillars with card readers were erected in link stations. These structures are inconsistently placed throughout stations resulting in confusion about when one is supposed to tap their card. For this reason, most Seattleites do not tap out when exiting a station, thus incurring penalty fares (only a dollar or so over the regular fare.) Customers also frequently walk past card readers altogether, as they can be hard to spot in crowded stations. To improve user experience system-wide, Sound Transit should make changes to the way they depict the gate-line.

A Seattle Link gate-line: hard to spot, complete with two (inadequate) readers.

One of the most important features of a gate-line is the actual line: a definitive separator of ‘paid’ and ‘unpaid’ station areas. Seattle Link stations have no indications of this zonal transition, save for black and white signs which read ‘Fare Paid Zone.’ This signage is barely legible when one is focused on navigating through a station or running for a train. The accessibility is also poor, as the signage excludes non-English language speakers and those with poor vision. To better the user experience Sound Transit should improve the gate-line by including a literal line in stations to signify that users should tap their cards. Card readers could be placed on this line to indicate that users should tap. These readers could face both directions to ensure users know to tap both in and out. Rethinking the gate-line like this would decrease ambiguity, increase fare-box recovery, and reduce the number of penalty fares charged.

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