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Transit Tip: TransLink

October 29, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

translink card

This is the first in a series of tips on using the San Francisco Bay Area public transportation system, with an emphasis on details that are useful for outdoor trips on transit.

Like some other U.S. metro areas, the San Francisco Bay Area has several transportation systems serving different parts of the region. It doesn’t take long to get used to the specifics of a transit system that you will be using regularly for trips to work, school, or other frequently visited destinations. But traveling somewhere new on the weekend may put you on a bus or train that is unfamiliar to you. Planning for the trip takes some time with a system you do not use on a regular basis. While I look forward to many aspects of the planning process, I find it inconvenient to navigate multiple payment systems. Every transit agency has different fares, payment methods, and rules about whether or not you need a ticket before you board.

Although it currently is far from including all of the transit agencies in the Bay Area, the TransLink card helps a great deal with fare logistics. TransLink is a payment system that can be used (as of Fall 2009) on AC Transit, BART, Caltrain, Dumbarton Express, Golden Gate Transit buses and ferries, and Muni. The card can be loaded with electronic cash and various passes offered by the transit agencies. Instead of buying a ticket or paying your fare with cash or credit card, tag the card at a TransLink machine to make your payment. Here are some advantages of using TransLink:

  • You do not need to buy a ticket ahead of time for any of the systems that use TransLink. If you’ve ever missed or almost missed BART or Caltrain because you were waiting in the ticket machine line, this will probably be enough to convince you to get the card.
  • No worries about exact change for systems that use cash. Until ATMs start offering bills in smaller denominations, there is always the potential problem of being without the exact change that most buses require. Having the card is especially handy on the return trip from a park or trailhead that may be nowhere near a business where you can get change.
  • The card offers an autoload option, where you choose an amount you want charged to your credit card or checking account when it gets below $10. If you pay any of your bills automatically, you are already familiar with this process. I prefer this option, because I never have to worry about the card running out of money. If you don’t want use autoload, however, you can add high values (up to $300) so that you do not have to re-load the card very often. Please note that TransLink currently uses RFID technology. Although I have privacy concerns about RFID in some other uses, I don’t particularly care if the government tracks me going back and forth to parks and trails! But if you do care about this, use cash only to buy and load your TransLink card.
  • The fare on Golden Gate Ferry (Sausalito and Larkspur) is much less expensive using TransLink instead of cash. At this writing, it is $4.20 vs. $7.85 one way for the Sausalito ferry and $4.90 vs. $7.85 one way for the Larkspur ferry. If take a ferry trip even once, I highly recommend getting the card. A 10-20% discount is also given using TransLink on the Golden Gate Transit buses, and you can load discount or high-value tickets from other agencies onto the card.

I wanted to see how in intuitive and easy it was to use the card, so I got the card first and used it a number of times before reading all of the details on the TransLink website. I successfully paid for fares a number of times on different transit systems without any problems. If you use discount passes, are enrolled in a workplace commuter program, or have other specific questions, you may want to read about these topics on the TransLink website first. If you normally just pay cash for transit rides I recommend ordering a card online (the $5 cost is waived if you order autoload at the same time).

To use the card, you “tag” your card by placing it flat on the card reader on or near the transit system. If you use a transit system that has different rates depending on the zone traveled, you may have to tag off as well. Here’s a quick guide:

  • AC Transit: Tag your card when you board the bus.
  • BART: Tag your card at the turnstiles when you enter and exit a BART station. Note that TransLink cannot be used for the AirBART connector bus.
  • Caltrain: Tag your card at the reader on the Caltrain platform before you board the train and after you get off the train at your destination. Note that the maximum one-way fare is charged on the card when you tag on, and then adjusted to the appropriate zone when you tag off.
  • Dumbarton Express: Tag your card on the bus.
  • Golden Gate Transit buses: Tag your card when you board and exit the bus.
  • Golden Gate Transit ferries: Tag your card at the fare gate.
  • Muni: Tag your card when you board or (for stations) at the gate. Note that as of Fall 2009 TransLink is still in the trial use phase. I did not have problems using my card on Muni Metro. However, you may want to make sure you have some cash available for fares until their trial period is officially over. Also note that TransLink cannot be used on cable cars.

Based on my experience so far with TransLink, I give it a big thumbs-up and see it as a positive step in the direction of a more efficient and coordinated transit system in the Bay Area. As with any electronic device and new system, there are bound to be issues or problems. I’ll update this post if I experience anything worth reporting, and if other transit agencies are added (apparently SamTrans and VTA are next; if you really interested in following the progress, TransLink Management Group meeting materials are publicly available online.

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Categories: Transit Tips
  1. friscolex
    October 29, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    I just got my card in the mail! I Autoloaded it with a “high value” BART sum ($48 credit for $45 out-of-pocket) and also with e-cash, refilling $20 every time I get below $10. I’ll use the e-cash primarily for MUNI, but, heck, I’m so happy to know I can hope on a ferry if I want to!
    My only concern was this: Will the card be smart enough to know that BART should tap into my BART money on the card and other agencies into the e-cash? My fear is that all agencies including BART will just tap into the e-cash and the $45 I put on for BART will just rot. Of course this stems from years of using transit systems that don’t talk to each other and so I’m a little skeptical!
    Thanks for your awesome posts. I can’t wait to get outdoors once I have a free weekend!

  2. cfh
    October 30, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Not to worry. The BART fares will indeed be taken from the $48 credit balance, and Muni fares will be taken from the cash balance.

    I have been using Translink for several weeks on both agencies, and it works just as you would expect.

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