Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Long Coming TransitChek Rant

For my job, I have quite the commute. Our office is in Larchmont, NY, so I take the MetroNorth to work every day. I actually enjoy the commute – I wouldn’t get to read as much as I do if I could walk to work every day, but taking the MetroNorth to work is relatively expensive. I get a monthly pass which, if you buy it online, it is $180. If you buy it from a teller or a machine in Grand Central, it is $184.

Thankfully, my firm participates in the TransitChek program. This allows you to set aside up to $105 of pre-tax income for public transportation. Until recently, TransitCheks were literally checks. They had a face value, and you would turn them into a teller (as you might expect, you couldn’t use them online).

Because my monthly commute costs more than the maximum $105 pre-tax allocation, what I usually did was buy a monthly pass online to save up my TransitCheks, and then the next month use the Cheks I had accumulated to buy the full monthly pass. A little bit of a pain, but hey, it was relatively simple and worked.

When our office manager informed us that we would be switching to a prepaid Visa Card TransitChek, I was thrilled. In my mind, I automatically assumed that we would be given a single Visa TransitChek that would accumulate value every month. I could still do my every-other-month routine, but I would be able to buy my monthly pass online, and get the small discount. Plus, no more having to keep track of old-fashioned Cheks!

My mistake: I unconsciously assumed that the program would be intuitively designed with the commuter’s needs at the center. How wrong I was.

The new credit card version of the TransitChek is, in a word, frustrating. It feels like the program took one step forward and three steps back. You are now given a new credit card every month. The card has the “Initial Value” imprinted on the face, but once you use the card, you have to keep track of the card value yourself – there is no way to just scan the card (much like a MetroCard) to see its value.

But here is the most annoying thing I’ve encountered to date: you can’t combine one month’s worth of a card with another month because you are not allowed to use two credit cards in one transaction. So you can’t put $105 on one TransitChek card, and the remainder on another. PLUS, you can’t put $105 on your TransitChek card, and then pay the remainder with your credit card. You have to pay for the remainder in cash. So to buy my monthly pass, I now have to take out $80 from the bank every time.

OK -- I'll stop ranting (but trust me, I could go on...). In sum, the whole system just smacks of thoughtlessness. I can’t help but think that whoever designed the program did not put a single hour of primary market research in to understand commuters’ routines and needs. If they did, they would have quickly realized that the redesign would sorely inconvenience anyone whose monthly travel is greater than $105. Instead, the system design seems to be entirely driven by what is easiest (and cheapest) for the TransitChek program’s administrative staff.

More than 10 years ago, I remember my Dad using the same TransitCheks that we used until just a couple of months ago. Is it going to take another 10 years before the MTA updates their commuter-hostile system?

Does anyone else feel the same way? Any quick fixes?

1/22 UPDATE: Thanks to the brilliant comments of a few readers, all critical problems have been solved. It is possible to transfer money from one TransitChek card to another on the TransitChek website, and even add post-tax money from your credit card to a TransitChek card. I spread the news to my colleagues and received emails such as "Hallelujah!" and "This is the best thing that I have ever heard. Thank you, thank you!" I am forever in debt to Adam and Mark for my new found popularity. ;)

I still contend that it is silly to give us a new card every month (and apparently very cool startup WageWorks has a system that just gives you one card) -- just an admintrative short-cut take by TransitChek. But I am very thankful for the work around!


Nate Westheimer said...

I'm so glad I don't have to deal with that crap. This is a perfect "vent", really... Have you checked out the VentBox beta yet, by the way? I'll email you with the info.

Adam said...

I recently had this switch happen to me (and the rest of my company) it seems that you can transfer the balance of one card to another online (on the transitchek website). The whole process is horribly bad but at least you don't have unused money on your cards. I would as I spend an "odd" amount every month and would have $3 left on every card.

Good Luck

Sarah Tavel said...

Adam, you are brilliant. I will check that out right away. Thank you!

Mark said...

My firm just switched as well, but we keep the same credit card from month2month. (I have not checked if you can roll over funds in it.) Actually, it's pretty great b/c you can "charge" the full amount to the credit card (over the $105 limit). In your paycheck, you see a deduction for the $105 (pretax) and then a post-tax deduction for the remainder.

The credit card is issued by WageWorks, which also issues us a new flexible spending credit car.

Montauk6 said...

Besides the total lack of awareness of customer needs, isn't this a ridiculous waste of plastic??? But your rant is so in line with how I'm thinking right now. I just got the card thinking, like you, WHAT A GODSEND! But to top it off the website REALLY STINKS! I've been trying several times throughout the week to register a new account on several machines using different browsers and I can never get past "page not found" or "invalid address." And the least they can do is give you a different colored card (if they're going to go through this charade), so you don't mistakenly toss the wrong one. I'm just sayin'

Abhi said...

Add value from one card to another!! Not so great you can do that only three times. And if you don't read the warnings and try more than three times you money is kept on hold [at least thats what they say] or lost. Their customer service is worst as they do not have any answer. Whoever designed this system never kept any easy way out for problems.

Anonymous said...

You know, WageWorks has been around a long time...I used their continuously-refilling card from 2003 until earlier this year when I moved to a new employer who uses the inferior TransitChek cards.