Starting in December 2005, MARTA launched its initiative to move to a 100% “smart card” system in Atlanta, GA. Gone will be the tokens, turn-stiles and bus transfers. Citing fare losses to fraud, turnstile hopping and an added convenience and speed to patrons, MARTA began to convert its stations and buses. Although, only a portion of stations and vehicles have completed the transition, I thought I’d share my observations and concerns so far.

Breeze Vending Machines are meant to replace the token machine present in most MARTA stations. These devices will accept cash/coin as well as credit cards. They will also accept tokens while the system transitions. This part of the Breeze system is probably the most transparent and well performing. I’ve had no problems exchanging token for cards or purchasing Breeze cards with one so far.

The next element of the Breeze system are the smart gates. These six foot tall gates are equipped with a card reader instead of token slot and are meant to make turnstile-jumping more difficult. The initial design had to be changed after it was discovered people were simply slipping beneath them. The new modification includes lowering the ground clearance to approximately eight inches.

One concern I have is the speed at which these gates admit passengers. Even when operating correctly, they require significantly more time for a single patron to pass through. They must fully close, reset and clear before another patron can swipe her Breeze Card and pass through. Reliability is a concern, as neither I or Breeze personnel could get the gate to admit me on the first attempt more than 13% of the time. Additionally, if a follow up patrons attempts to swipe through before the gate has reset itself, their card appears to be registered as used but the gate will remain closed.

Much more serious than travel and admittance delay is the fact that exiting the system has also been slowed. The gates only allow one patron at a time to exit the station and require a reset delay between opening/closing. In the case of an emergency this could seriously disrupt the timely evacuation of a station.

The cards themselves come in two varieties; a limited-use and extended-use version. The first is a paper card intended for single or short term use and the later is a more durable, plastic card which can be “renewed”. Both utilize embedded RFID (radio frequency identification) technology such as those seen in inventory control, pet monitoring and security passes. MARTA will undoubtedly have much better statistical information about the general and individual commuting habits of its patrons by using this technology.

I’ve delicately applied an x-acto blade to a used Breeze card below.

The manufacture is Tagstar Systems, a German based specialist in RFID products. Technical information available here. If anyone has a RFID reader I could borrow I’d like to see exactly what is stored on the RFID element and share my findings here.

Regarding Breeze cards, one immediate concern came to mind when I saw the stacks of limited-use cards (the only sort available at the time of this article) littering stations, rail cars and surroundings… unlike the case with tokens, a limited-use card also serves as one’s bus transfer. In the token system, a patron only got a paper bus transfer on request (at the time they passed through the turn-stile). In the new system, anyone NOT needing a bus transfer is immediately in possession of a piece of litter after gaining access to the rail. From the amount of accumulated trash, its obvious how many patrons are handling that encumbrance. :-(

These cards can also be deactivated immediately as MARTA sees fit. Some reasons MARTA has offered are suspicious usage or too much delay between a rail/bus transfer. MARTA would not respond on just what constituted “suspicious usage” or “the time allotted” for transfers.

To its credit MARTA has employed additional staff to help in the transition (primarily at the airport station as I understand it), but my encounters with the Breeze personal haven’t always been pleasant. Several have expressed frustration with the system and with the patrons themselves. On more than one occasion I observed Breeze helpers physically jostling patrons when the system malfunctioned and snapping at travelers.

MARTA has set up a special website to handle information and concerns about the new system but it appears to be a static resource. Repeated attempts to contact them with questions and concerns have been met with silence. Phone customer for support for Breeze at MARTA was met with confusion and ignorance (“I don’t know” and “Go to the Breeze web site” being the most common answers).

My final analysis is that MARTA is desperate to regulate its usage and income better and has been “sold” on a wholly technological solution without sufficient public relations, advertising or customer relations support. It will continue stumbling but probably eventually find its way. Not the smoothest launch, but they are heavily invested into it at this point and will have to find solutions to the rough edges. In the meantime they (and their patrons) will have to endure difficulties and reduced performance. Overall, an excellent example of how advancement is more than simply plugging in a new gadget (and that from the admitted technophile, grin).

More Information: