Pass Back

Orca card and readerYesterday morning I overhead a conversation between a Metro bus driver and a passenger sitting in one of the front seats. The driver was complaining about the wording of an error message produced by the automatic fare card reader. “Why can’t they just write it in plain English?” he said.  Yeah, tell me about it.

A little context. King County Metro has a transit pass called an Orca card, which is a blue wallet-sized card that can be waved at a proximity reader that sits near the cash fare box at the front of the bus. Most regular commuters pay their fare by tapping their wallets against the reader, a grey plastic box at waist height equipped with a readout screen that displays card status along with the occasional terse error message. There are two kinds of Orca cards.  One has a running account that you deduct from every time you tap on and replenish with a credit card online. The other is a unlimited ridership card that works for any number of trips within a given period of time like a month or a year.  Since there is no deduction for each individual tap for this kind of card, there is a potential for fraud. You can tap the fare box with your card, then pass it back to the person behind you, who would then tap on with the same card. In theory a whole line of people could all board the bus with only the first one paying for the trip. To prevent this, the reader is programmed to detect when the same card is used on the same fare box within some set period of time.  (I don’t know how long this window is, but I’ll bet it’s on order of a few minutes.) When this happens, the reader emits a shrill beep and prints the words “Pass Back” on the readout screen, at which point it becomes the driver’s job to scold you and I become deeply grateful that I don’t drive a bus for a living.

There are two problems with this, one technical and one linguistic. The first is that the “Pass Back” message crops up not just in the double-tap scenario, but pretty much any time something goes wrong. It’s the de facto general purpose malfunction alert. (And this was true over a decade ago when I used to get three-month magnetic swipe passes which managed to demagnetize themselves after a month and a half.) Even if this were not the case, the phrase “Pass Back” is a bad choice because the fraud scenario is actually very rare. What is vastly more common is a situation in which a person with a valid Orca card taps the reader, doesn’t hear the accepted “beep”, then–in the spirit of honesty and good citizenship–taps the card again, at which point the paranoid grey box shrilly accuses them of being a thief. In practice, the pass back alarm is going off all the time, and drivers and experienced riders alike ignore it. That’s what you get when your user interface cries wolf.

It’s a mistake, but you can see how it happened. Fraud prevention was foremost on the minds of the people designing the system. A fare box is a fraud prevention system.  We only have them because we don’t trust riders to be honest enough to just mail a check to Metro every month. Each free rider scenario was undoubtedly the subject of much deep thought and debate. When someone came up with the idea of putting a time window on Orca card reuse there were probably hive-fives all around.  “We nailed ‘Pass Back’!” The designers were focused on their motivation, not the daily use of their device, and certainly not its chronic malfunction.

The bus driver I overhead thought a better message would be “Been Used”. This is a huge improvement.  It’s just as succinct, and describes the facts of the situation without making any presumptions about the honesty of the pass-holder. The only flaw I can see is that every Orca card that’s not brand-new has been used, so a better error message still would be “Just Used”, which gets in the whole time window concept in an unobtrusive way. I wonder if you can reprogram the text in the card readers, or if Metro is stuck.

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3 Responses to Pass Back

  1. The worst part is that since people don’t understand what the pass back message means, they will often try a few more times to get the device to read their card until it works or the driver tells them to move on.

  2. Elle says:

    This just happend to me and the bus driver just sat there staring at me do I just sat down. I probably would’ve looked much less idiotic in front of other riders if he had just told me the first time that I had already scanned it

  3. shigg says:

    A smartly-written article (except for “hive fives”).

    I got the “pass back” message yesterday and I was nonplussed. I ended up paying cash for my fare, and then on the transfer bus, it worked. Then this morning there was some error which the bus driver told me not to worry about. Ugh, I have the feeling that I got my Orca card into a bad state that isn’t consistently repro-able.

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