Follow-up On My Original Clipper Card Post - AirBart and e-Gov/Vocabulary Problems

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I wrote in my initial blog post about the success of the Bay Area's Clipper Card, which has integrated payment processing for two-dozen transit agencies and given commuters one easy card to use while they travel.  Overall, the card continues to be considered a major systemwide success.  The continued rollout isn't always smooth though, as evidenced by recent bickering over the potential use of Clipper on AirBART.  

At the end of my original post, I noted that Clipper was a good example of the high cost of layering new organizing systems on to existing infrastructure (just like the doctor's office, etc.).  This is the essence of the challenge for AirBART.  The buses are run by the Port of Oakland, but the card readers necessary for Clipper would have to be provided by BART.  (the Port doesn't use Clipper elsewhere, so it would be impractical for them to initiate for a single bus line)  Neither side feels responsibility to pay for the technology implementation, so the system continues to frustrate riders by relying on single-trip cash payment only.  How much could it really cost to install a few card readers on buses?  The answer is complicated, thanks to a legacy BART problem with schema and vocabulary.

BART doesn't operate buses, so when it wrote the code it uses to process payment throughout its regional system, it created a schema specifically for train rides.  Those rides are set at different rates for different station pairs and presumably use an organizing system that starts with an individual trip, identifies the start and end station and then processes fare based on pre-defined options.  When it created this schema and vocabulary, BART apparently never considered where a bus fare might fit in.  It's easy to see why this would now be a problem.  Unlike trains, bus riders only tag on (not off) buses.  They also get on in different places and pay a flat fee no matter where they're riding to.  These are problems a BART train vocabulary wouldn't have needed to deal with.  The result is a high cost and major structural overhaul to make life a little easier for those taking AirBART.  

Interestingly enough, Clipper Card can handle these payment quirks no problem.  The system does many of the things recommended in McGrath and Murray's "Principles of e-Government", including maintaining a very open and flexible infrastructure.  In the case of AirBART, it's likely that Clipper will never have the chance to show off what it can do.  Neither BART nor the Port of Oakland have financial incentive to invest in Clipper for AirBART.  And while a number of other benefits, such as improved rider experience (higher use), faster boarding and easier payment (less required support staff) would likely offset the cost over time, the buses are expected to become obsolete in 2014.  At that point, the new tram from BART to the airport will begin operation and, naturally, it will accept Clipper Card from the start.  (it's unclear who is planning to pay for that!)