Thursday, April 3, 2008

I've Got A Ticket To Ride (Free!)

The Ride On, MoCo's local bus system, is often the first part of my daily commute to downtown Washington. Ride On has a fare structure, and I take full advantage of it, buying a $20/20 trip ticket that works out to $1/trip. (Having gone through the MoCo public school system, doing the calcs in my head was a snap.)

This low-tech option--your driver punches a hole in one of 20 spaces each time it's used--is 25¢ cheaper per trip than using the more convenient, durable, high-tech SmarTrip card most of us Metrorail riders also happen to carry. So when the last space on the ticket is punched, I go out of my way to do something really frivolous with the $5 I've saved, like buy an extra gallon of milk or gas.

I bought my current ticket over two months ago (January 30 to be exact, as Quicken reminds me) and it still has seven punches left. Sometimes I drive to the Metro or catch a ride with a neighbor, sometimes I'll walk the two miles to the train if the weather is decent, and then there's an occasional day off to go find brisket in Texas or tend to a sick MoCoKid at home. But there's no way I've only used the Ride On just 13 times in the last two months. Something's not right here.

Then I thought about it some more. A few weeks ago, I gave my driver the pass for punching. And he tells me his bus isn't "equipped" with a hole punch. ("Equipping" isn't a major undertaking, as the 99¢ punch is typically connected to the transfer-holder with a cable, string or cheap chain.) He shoos me along to take my seat, free of charge, along with another pass-carrying rider at my stop. The next day--same driver, different bus--there is a hole punch, and I remind the driver that I owe him an extra one. "It's okay," he says, as he punches my pass once.

The next day, he returns with the first bus. Still not equipped. And I'm shooed along to take a seat, my counteroffer to cough up an extra quarter and pay with my SmarTrip card politely rejected. And the next day.

Sometimes, like this morning, he waves me along for no apparent reason when I see the punch hanging there. My speculation was that it takes about 15 seconds to fumble for the hole punch, find the available slot on the ticket (my old driver needed to take time to put on his glasses), punch it and give it back to me. And 15 seconds to deal with my pass now could mean an additional red light down the line, putting him another two minutes behind if he's running late.

But this morning, he wasn't running late. In fact, he was running a minute early. The punch was in easy reach. And once again, I got the wave and no explanation. So here's another theory: A lot of riders on the route are flashing 100 different passes at him (seniors, students, riders of cooperating transit systems) that presumably entitle them to a legitimate free ride, and he waves them on quickly. He couldn't possibly keep track of all of them in his head, so it's easier just to let anyone by rather than checking out what's actually being put in front of him. So just for smiles, tomorrow we'll see how far I get with my Snyder's Creative Pretzel Eaters Club card.

A few times, everyone has gotten a free ride. At least twice I've been on buses that had malfunctioning fare collection equipment, and the driver simply sends everyone to their seat telling them "the box is broken." Then there's the one bus that has no fare collection equipment whatsoever on which I've gotten at least four free rides. Watching the reactions of the passengers boarding this one gives you the eerie feeling that the ghost of Allen Funt is going to be boarding at the next stop.

Then there are the few times everyone has been comped for no apparent reason, accepting a grunt from the driver accompanied by a wave of the hands to take their seats as he rejects their offers of tickets, SmarTrip cards, and cash.

And now I get to look forward to Ride On's public policy free rides. Anyone rides free the week of April 7-13 if they donate a canned/boxed food item when they board. (Note to self: Visit the Giant. Find the marked-down dented cans of kidney beans. Ride On will actually be paying me to ride that week.) And with summer rapidly approaching, everyone rides free whenever the air quality index reaches "Code Red," which around these parts is, oh, pretty much daily throughout July and August.

The ticket itself is made of paper, just slightly thicker and no more durable than what comes out of the office copier. Mine has long exceeded its typical 2-4 week lifespan, falling apart by being removed from and returned to its resting place between the IDs in my badge holder for so many punches that never seem to materialize. The cynic in me has pegged Ride On's business model: Let the ticket disintegrate faster than it can be punched.

The unfortunate irony is that while I'm being given a free ride perhaps half the time over the last two months, MoCo is simultaneously cutting back on or eliminating bus routes to the detriment of some of its neediest citizens in order to close the county's massive budget shortfall. At a micro level, just adding a 99¢ hole punch to one bus would have brought in at least $8 in revenue from me and the other guy at my stop over the course of a few weeks. While I may not be able to extrapolate $400 million in found revenue over the course of a year by ensuring buses are equipped with working fare collection equipment and operated by drivers who will let riders pay what they owe, it could be a start to saving a few needed bus routes and restoring other vital county services.

1 comment:

B and T Crowd said...

I understood your Alan Funt reference without using Wikipedia! I'm so proud of myself.