Finally tapping in using the Compass Card

Almost two years after the Beta Test, the Compass Card is finally starting to become within reach of the general public.

The Compass Card was first rolled out for BC Bus Pass, TransLink employees and CNIB passengers in January 2014.  The U-Pass BC started transitioning to Compass early this year.  This past week, the Compass Card was made available for West Coast Express customers.

TransLink staff were handing out Compass Cards at the Waterfront West Coast Express station this week, so I went to get one on my lunch break.

For the past week, I’ve been tapping in and out. For the most part I can’t really see anything significantly different from the beta test. The readers on the buses emit a louder beeping sound, which is great.  I’ve still run into the occasional frozen faregate. And the transition on the readers from “Tap In” To “Proceed” is still green to green (one of the complaints was that it was difficult to see the change to “Proceed”).

All in all, it’s great to see that after two years we finally may see the Compass Card fully in use.

The Compass Card Website

This is one part of the Compass Card project that wasn’t ready during the Beta Test.

Compass Card Website
The main page on the Compass Card website where you can check your card balances.

The Compass Card website is very easy to use and mobile friendly.  I was able to register the card and purchase a monthly pass through my mobile browser with no issues.

Side note: If any of you use a three-zone monthly bus pass for $170, did you know you can actually save almost $20 by purchasing the cheapest West Coast Express monthly pass for $151.75, which includes unlimited bus/SkyTrain/SeaBus travel.

Compass Card History
My adventure home last night.

The website also shows when you tapped in and tapped out.  This means that information is inherently logged and identifiable by each Compass Card.

From TransLink’s perspective, this information is great as it is much more specific than the passenger counters that it currently employs.  Also it provides TransLink information as to the actual start and destinations of trips instead of just boardings.  This can definitely aid in planning routes and services that better cater to the actual demand.

However on the other hand, this raises privacy concerns.  If you have registered your Compass Card with TransLink (which they recommend for extra benefits like auto-loading of funds and balance protection if you lose your card), this means that TransLink has the data to track all of your movements on public transportation. We can take a look at the Compass Card privacy policy for some reassurance though.  Here are some quotations from the document.

On anonymity if you don’t register your card:

Unless you choose to share personal information with us, you’ll be anonymous. You don’t have to register your card, but if you decide to, we’ll require some information, so we can provide assistance and services.

Usage of travel data for planning purposes:

Anonymous and aggregated travel data (i.e., amassed data stripped of personal information) will be studied by TransLink to better understand, plan and forecast ridership volumes and transit service. This data will help shape better transportation for the region and provide new and better products and services in the future.

How long travel data is associated with your Compass Card:

We’ll keep your Compass Card transactions for 15 months so that, if you’ve registered your card, you can easily access 15-months’ worth of transactions online. After 15 months, your personal information is stripped from your travel details.

That should ease the minds of most people who may be concerned about privacy; giving the privacy policy a complete read is probably a good idea anyway. And of course if you don’t register your card, you will remain anonymous.

Comments on the new signage at SkyTrain stations

I was going through some of my photos and came across a set where I was comparing old and new signage on the SkyTrain.  Below is one example from Granville Station.  You can see the new sign in the foreground, with the existing sign further back.  What struck me is how complex the information is on the new sign.

Platform Signage at Granville SkyTrain Station
Directional signage at Granville SkyTrain Station

The primary emphasis (judging from the size of the text) of the new platform signs is placed on the platform numbers, as opposed to the direction of travel as is in the old sign.  In fact, the direction of travel isn’t even on the new sign at all.

I remembered reading the following guideline some months ago from an old New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual circa 1970.

The subway rider should be given only information at the point of decision.  Never before.  Never after.

The decision to be made at the faregates is whether I want to cross the faregates or not.  The information about the direction of the platforms is presented too early to the rider.  The information that I’d expect to see above the faregates to help me with that decision would be something along the lines of “To Trains – Expo & Millennium Lines – Westbound to Downtown; Eastbound to Burnaby, New Westminster, Surrey“.  This indicates that there are trains are behind the gates, which lines they run on, and where I could possibly go from here.  The information about the specific platforms doesn’t need to be shown at the point of the faregates.

After that, at the intersection where the old sign is, the rider can be shown information on the different platforms and destinations.  However, it would make more sense to me to emphasize the direction of travel, and the destination instead of the platform number, especially since most stations only have two platforms.  Platform numbers are only be useful for people following a trip plan, or if there are two or more lines at a station; they aren’t really useful in any other circumstance.

The effect of giving people information too early can also be seen on the signage at Burrard Station, depicted below.

New signage and fare gates at Burrard SkyTrain Station
New directional signage and fare gates at Burrard SkyTrain Station.  Notice the arrows pointing in a variety of directions.

There should actually be two decision points: one at the faregates whether to enter or not, and the second one at the intersection of the corridors to decide which train to take.  Since platform directions are given at the decision point of the faregates, the arrows pointing to the platforms go in all different directions.  The existing signs above the corridors to each of the platforms is the correct decision point (whether to enter into the corridor or not) to give platform information.

The guideline in the old NYCTA Graphic Standards manual makes a lot of sense to me now.  Putting relevant information only at the decision point makes signs less cluttered with information.

Hello Compass Card!

Yesterday when I got home from work, I was excited to find my Compass card waiting for me in my mailbox!

My beta compass card
My beta compass card

Compass is TransLink’s new electronic fare card that will be rolled out in Metro Vancouver this fall. Earlier this year, fare gates were installed in most SkyTrain station entrances, and Compass readers installed on buses. TransLink is running a “beta test” of the Compass system with 10,000 volunteers from September 9th to October 1st (testing before launch is definitely a good idea!).

The Compass card uses NFC to communicate with the card readers. There’s a small microchip and an antenna embedded inside the card. I was curious to see what technology was behind this. I’m glad my BlackBerry 9900 has NFC built in, so I got Eclipse up and running with the BlackBerry development plugin and proceeded to code up a test program to see what I could find out about the chip.

Reading the type of NFC chip off the Compass card
Reading the type of NFC chip off the Compass card

I learned that the chip inside the Compass is a MIFARE DESFire EV1 with 4KB of memory. This wasn’t really a surprise as it’s the same chip in the Oyster cards (London), which are also by the same company, Cubic Transportation Systems.  It would be cool to see what kind of information is stored on the card itself and whether it is publicly readable or encrypted.

Beta testing starts in just over a week. I can’t wait to start tapping this Compass card.