What Caltrain Could Learn from Staples

One morning I looked out of my window and watched as a woman just missed the train. Experienced riders know that when they hear the "caution, the doors are about to close" announcement, it's already too late. The doors are closing, and unless you want to dive onto the train before they shut, you're out of luck. (And I wouldn't try the stick-your-arm-in-and-the-doors-will-reopen trick.)

This would-be rider looked like a new passenger, not one of the "regulars" who get on the train in Gilroy. And as we rolled away from the station I wondered, will she be back?

When a for-profit business sees that its customer base is in decline, its costs are up and its revenues are down, it faces a "code red" moment of decision:

  • Can we reverse these trends? At what cost?
  • Do we "double down" (I hate that phrase) and work to turn things around? Or do we determine that these trends cannot be reversed, and exit the business?

Notice that nowhere in this line of thinking does the business say, "hey! I have a right to exist!" or "but look at all the good I do!"

When a non-profit organization faces these same challenges of declining customers, growing costs and sliding revenues, the moment of decision often revolves around raising prices, cutting services, and asking for more subsidies.

I won't get into the discussion of whether organizations that provide a public good (like transit agencies) should be fully funded, fully self-supporting, or something in between. That's a discussion best left for others.

First You Commit, Then You Make it Work

My main point is that transit agencies, in this case CalTrain, need to think about the problem from their customer's point of view. Why do people ride the train? You could probably come up with a set of reasons.

  • It's cheaper than driving.
  • It's my only transportation option.
  • It's good for the environment.
  • It's less stressful than driving.

In most cases, few of these answers are valid justifications.

  • Given my commute, gas has to be priced above $4 per gallon before the gas-vs.-train ticket option tips in favor of the train ticket (lately, that's been the case).
  • Most people have transportation options, especially a car.
  • Riding the train is probably better for the environment that driving a car.
  • Riding the train is definitely less stressful than driving.

But it's also true that

  • Riding the train takes longer than driving… in my case it's about two hours each direction, when you include getting from the train station to/from work. Driving time can be anywhere from one to two+ hours depending on traffic conditions.
  • Riding the train means you have to work around the train schedule. You have certain windows of opportunity to catch the train. If (like many people) your day has undefined starting and (especially) ending points, you have to work to incorporate a fixed train schedule into your day.

My point is that the decision to ride the train, especially on a regular basis, is a lot less rationally based than you might think. Sure, if you happen to live and work near a CalTrain station you can just fall into the habit. But for everyone else, riding the train means making a commitment to it. You have to think about your work schedule, how you're going to get to/from the train station, arrange to purchase tickets and so on.

What Were Once Vices are Now Habits

Department of Obscure References

So when that woman missed the train, you have to wonder: how committed is she now that she was unable to take that first step? And what could CalTrain have done to make it easier for her to follow through on that idea of riding the train?

I remember when I figured out why the old book and record clubs were willing to sell you 10 books or CD's for a penny. It wasn't about marginal cost vs. marginal price. It was about the requirement that you buy a certain amount of product over a certain number of months. And that was about establishing a habit of purchasing. These companies knew that once they got you into the habit of at least considering a book or CD purchase each month, they were more likely to get you to buy.

Hitting the "Easy" Button

So here are some free tips for CalTrain, ones that would focus on encouraging the budding commitment of passengers to ride the train, and that would reinforce the decision for more established passengers.

Simplify Ticketing

Today you have three ticket options:

  1. Buy a ticket at one of the CalTrain vending machines.
  2. Buy an "8-ride" pass and use your Clipper card (a reloadable debit card) as your ticket.
  3. Buy a monthly pass and use your Clipper card as your ticket.

The first option is challenging because only a few stations have working ticket counters, and some of the ticket vending machines don't work. One of the two machines in Gilroy has been "temporarily unavailable" since at least 2007. Also, the vending machines sometimes will bill your card twice for a ticket, or fail to authorize your card for no clear reason. There's nothing like the pressure of trying to buy a ticket while the queue behind you builds and you're mentally counting down the seconds until the train is ready to leave.

Oh, and buying a ticket on the train? What do you think this is, 1990?

CalTrain has begun moving to a reloadable debit card, the "Clipper Card" as an alternative to ticketing machines. This is a good move, but is way behind the curve when it comes to simple, mobile payments. If you have less than $1.75 on the card, it gets screwed up (and the conductors think you're freeloading). If you try to use it to travel between other zones than the ones you specified when you charged it, the card is inoperable. You can load funds onto it automatically, but you have to wait up to three days for the funds to transfer and clear.

Imagine how much easier it would be if you just loaded a specific dollar amount onto your Clipper Card, and then had it deduct the right amount depending on the length of your train ride. And if you want to offer discounts for multi-ride sales, just offer a flat percentage discount.

Maybe the architecture of the Clipper Card makes it hard to deliver a more flexible payment experience. But here in the heart of Silicon Valley, many CalTrain riders carry smartphones, and there are any number of mobile payment companies—startup's and established companies. So why not partner with someone to offer a smartphone-based payment option?

Convert Unticketed Passengers to Paying Customers

As I mentioned earlier, you can't just walk onto CalTrain and buy a ticket. CalTrain is a "proof of payment" system, meaning you have to be able to prove you've purchased a ticket or face the possibility of a large fine.

In all the time I've been riding CalTrain, I can't recall an interaction with an unticketed passenger that was the result of someone trying to get a free ride. Inevitably, the offending person had a problem getting a proper ticket, got frustrated/confused, and boarded the train anyway. Then there's a discussion (sometimes tearful) between the train conductor and the passenger. The conductor has to play the "heavy" (a role they don't enjoy) and threaten to write a ticket, but they don't have an incentive to do this as they're busy checking everyone else's tickets and making sure the train runs on time.

A much better solution would be to have a way of selling a ticket to the ticketless passenger. CalTrain could make the ticket very expensive as a disincentive to relying on this method for buying tickets. Companies like Square offer very simple card-reader capabilities that work with a smartphone to process payments.

Partner with Large Employers

Remember the "80-20 Rule"? How about partnering with large employers, like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Lockheed and so on? Give these companies some incentive to encourage ridership among their employees—special shuttles, discounts, etc. Getting a few of these companies lined up gets you to a large portion of the potential ridership.

Make it Hip

Department of Obscure References

How about giving people a reason to feel good about riding the train? Some of the riders who bring their bikes are making a statement about avoiding oil consumption and the like. How about letting people know how much CO2 emissions they've avoided by riding the train?

Focus on Your Customers, and the Funding Will Follow

Maybe agencies like CalTrain focus on making sure they can serve all constituents equally. For instance, perhaps the idea of paying via smartphone was rejected because not everyone has a smartphone. I'm in favor of making sure that everyone has access to public transportation. But implementing programs that require everyone to be served equally doesn't work. Or it works too well—everyone is served equally poorly. It makes much more sense to provide a great experience to those riders that are choosing to ride, and let their ridership subsidize those that are riding the train out of necessity.

If you're a non-profit or other ortganization dependent on goverment funds as well as paying customers to survice, how do you want to succeed? Do you want to convince the public and your funders that y ou deserve to exist? Or do you want to make people feel like they can't live without you, that it's easy to say "yes"?