Don’t use “Out of Order” when you mean something else


While visiting San Francisco recently, I planned to ride their excellent BART train from the airport to downtown. When I got ready to buy a ticket, I saw that all of the turnstiles were open and marked “free”. Some nearby signage explained the reason: it was a “Spare the Air” day, in which many forms of mass transit are free until 1 pm to encourage more ridership, thus reducing air pollution. Fine by me, I thought.

Then I tried to buy a ticket for my return trip, which was scheduled for after 1 pm. As I went from one ticketing kiosk to the next, every screen was covered with a hand-written “out of order” sign. I asked a station attendant if there were other working ones somewhere, and her answer surprised me. Instead of changing the screens to say something like “You can buy tickets here, but you don’t need them if you’re riding before 1 pm today”, the kiosks simply don’t work during these free ride periods. They are “out of order” on purpose.

Perhaps BART doesn’t have a centralized way of making the machines show different messages on these dates, so they just turn off the ticket sales system at the main office. Or maybe the main office doesn’t consider the lack of notice to be an issue. Instead, the staff at each station are left to come up with a solution. So to prevent customers from buying tickets when the rides are free (and thus asking the staff for a refund), they just say the machines are “out of order”. But this is a dangerous practice: seeing an “out of order” sign regularly will train customers to expect the machines to be broken, and eventually reduce usage of the systems — thus negating the cost savings associated with self-service ticketing.

I think one simple change would make this scenario a lot better: BART’s main office could print up signs to tape onto the ticket machines on Spare the Air days. These signs would tell customers that tickets aren’t needed for any rides before 1 pm on that day, but they can still use the machines normally. Aside from better serving those customers who want to buy tickets for later use, this would also increase people’s confidence in the ticketing kiosks — since they wouldn’t be “out of order” so frequently.