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Complexity

September 25, 2012
Clipper TVMs

Clipper Ticket Vending Machines, Embarcadero Station

The story how Muni’s electronic fare cards can simply be reset using a smartphone with NFC and the “right” app reminded me of the fallacies that happen when technology hits complexity. The case here involves an extra twist to the plastic Clipper cards that everybody else in the Bay Area uses. But this being San Francisco, there seems to be a need for disposable paper cards, sold at the pictured  ticket vending machines. These allow for cash-only, no deposit access to Muni. Never mind the trash and extra cost. And complexity. And so it goes that these paper cards aren’t really checked out and ready for prime time. That’s because they can be reset to the state they came out of the machine, up to 90 days until they expire. As often as you please. So in theory, all you need is to pull a two dollar paper ticket from the machine every three months, and ride for free the rest of the way.

Update: Now, there’s an app for that.

All this futzing with other-than-standard-issue-cards of course is on top of all the wrinkles that other participating agencies throw in as well. Golden Gate Transit and Caltrain are tap-in/tap-out, while Muni is not, BART famously allows the Clipper cards to go negative because avoiding that would require BART-only refill machines at all BART stations. If you ride Caltrain on a monthly pass remember to only tap in and out at the first day of the month. And so on. And once that’s all figured out, you’re not done: Inject additional layers of complexity like employer sponsored plans, auto-load, and you end up with a decade plus project and a boneyard of bankrupted contractors.

So what’s the moral of the story? To me, if you think that technology enables you to harness the complexity of a problem, you will soon find out that it works the other way around. Complexity will sink your technology, because now you’re forced to work out every last detail and edge case that manual systems tend to informally institutionalize over the years. What needs to be done going in is to simplify and unify the system before even the first hour is spent on a technical spec. Easier said than done, because, in the case of a project like Clipper, the political powers-that-be will rip your project to shreds. As for the paper cards – those were introduced to cater to the cash-only crowd in SF and appeace their political standard bearers at the Board of Supervisors and elsewhere. So, good luck with that, as they say.

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