My Business in Vancouver column:

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TransLink’s Compass Card needs course correction before rollout

I am a creature of habit. You are too. It’s the brain’s way of being efficient.  By not having to concentrate on something done by rote, the brain uses less energy. We go into a kind of Zen state.

At least that’s what seems to happen when I’m on a bus or trolley. Once I’ve boarded, shown my pass or registered my FareSaver card and found my seat or a stable place to stand, that’s all I have to focus on. I’m in a state of timelessness until my destination.

I was part of a beta test for TransLink’s Compass Card – the stored-value, all-purpose card being slowly introduced by TransLink. It was then that I discovered how changing a habit can be quite traumatic.

Compass requires that passengers tap the card on a mounted pad when getting on – and again at the rear door when getting off.  That’s not a problem when using a card to get through a turnstile for a subway (you’re already alert), but it’s quite another thing when required to exit a bus or tram.

Chances are, your brain has geared down; you are unprepared. All of a sudden, on hearing your stop, you have to find your card, locate the pad, make sure the swipe has registered, get through the door and not cause a backup. When a crowd is piling up behind, with the doors closing and the bus about to pull away, yes, it can be traumatic.

In that situation I found my brain went into panic mode.  I jumped off the bus, swipeless, only to realize I would be charged extra as a penalty when the system was up and running – an automatic three-zone fare deducted from my card. And this happened repeatedly.

I realized that being prepared to tap out would take time and practice. In other words, it had to be a habit.

Unfortunately, when Compass is rolled out onto the bus and trolley system, the trauma part of the process is going to happen to tens of thousands of people all at the same time.

And it won’t be because the system is too slow; TransLink has insisted on a high level of performance from the vendor.  This is not a technological problem; it is a human one.

How many new users will jump off the bus like me, especially under crowded conditions and be frustrated, annoyed or angry? Maybe some might push back; others will yell at the bus driver.

Even if it’s a fraction of 1% of riders, the number will be in the thousands. There will be hundreds, every day, of pissed-off passengers.

Take the 1.8% tap-out failure rate in places where they have done this, such as Perth, and apply that to the bus riders in Vancouver at about 700,000 per day. They will be told to call a help centre, and many will. If it is overloaded or unhelpful, it will only reinforce the hate-on that is the typical response to TransLink failure.

The backlash will be vocal, and it will get political, especially leading into the transit referendum likely happening this spring.

After the mechanical and accidental failures of the last month, TransLink needs a win, and Compass could deliver it for them – eventually. Transit riders want something easy to use, easily rechargeable, easily replaced when lost. In time, it may even allow for replacement of the zone system with a distance charge, so customers pay only for how far they travel. That’s one reason for embedding the tap-off system now, as well as for providing an immense amount of data for the more efficient management of the entire system.

But at the time of launch, there will be no purpose for the swipe-off system on buses, only for turnstiles. It’s not surprising, in fact, that no sizable bus system in North America has a swipe-off requirement.

Since a lot of data can be provided simply be having a swipe-on system, transit providers decided the additional cost and risk was not worth it.

And risk is what TransLink will be taking with the Compass rollout if it occurs before the spring referendum. There will be no shortage of frustrated transit users willing to speak into cameras to express their unhappiness. Perceived failure might be sufficient to doom the referendum if even the most ardent transit users vote against it.

The board of TransLink needs to take this into account, and not just focus on a technologically smooth execution. After the two system failures in one week in July, the media will be primed for anything that smells of incompetence – no matter how minor or how small a percentage of people affected.

But the decision to forgo a tap-off requirement on buses and trolleys must be made now, before the system is given a green light. If that light turns red after execution, there’s probably no way to reverse direction.