Buy the Ticket, Fake the Ride: A Tech Scientist Devises a Means to Defraud BART

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

With regards to our country writ large, President Lincoln was prescient. With regards to our midsized city, however, we'll have to wait and see. San Francisco is a realm dramatically divided against itself — but the ever-sprouting cranes, orgiastic displays of wealth, and an ongoing reprieve from the wrath of the San Andreas Fault allow it to not just stand but flourish.

The question is: What does it stand for?

In this divided city, Google last week saw fit to peel $6.8 million out of its billfold and subsidize a Muni program for deprived children. That's a generous gift — though it represents the revenue the company earns in just three hours and 48 minutes. It's also a plush, cuddly cudgel wielded against activists who'd see fit to blockade Google's ubiquitous corporate shuttles as harbingers of displacement, evictions, and the inevitable transformation of San Francisco into a San Francisco-themed amusement park. Now every bus is a Google bus.

In this divided city, a dank barroom full of inebriates, a Google Glass, and a booze-fueled closing-time altercation are sufficient to inspire broad allegories, hyperbolic claims that tech workers are a persecuted underclass, and a froth of media coverage.

And into this divided city dropped an analysis, penned by a Twitter data scientist, no less, outlining how a small cadre of technologically savvy BART riders could elegantly rip off the system, saving themselves fare money, siphoning away funds from BART, and passing the burden onto the vast bulk of their fellow riders.

It'd be easy to assail Twitter scientist Asif Haque's recent academic paper published on science archive arXiv as yet another manifestation of an ascendant class of techie overlords with little regard for the social contract binding the rest of us. They're pricing you out of your apartment, commandeering your bus stop, and, now, devising a way to shave their BART fares even as they deign to ride among The Great Unwashed, sticking us with the difference.

Oh, it'd be easy. So easy. But wrong.

Read through Haque's paper and you'll discover functional calculus, graphs on the Cartesian plane eerily resembling footballs, and exhaustive analysis of BART fares. But you'll also come away with something else in short supply in our ever-divided city: hope.

Your humble narrator comes not to bury Haque but to praise him. In San Francisco, dialogue is fetishized — though it regularly leads to the most irrational partisans on either side of an issue vituperatively talking past one another, inducing a stampede of sane people heading for the exits and, possibly, exiting public life.

And yet Haque, unlike so many of us, has that thing called talent. He has something to add to the discussion. It may not be something you agree with, and a man can be brilliant without being a brilliant transit planner — but he's coming from a solid place, and should be encouraged.

Even if “transit fare arbitrage” should not.

In order to reach his desk at Twitter's mid-Market hive every day, Haque boards a BART train at Millbrae station and disembarks at Civic Center. He's a friendly and patient man who grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh (population 7 million), and is accustomed to big-city life. He enjoys his commute: “I don't have much to complain about. My paper is not a complaint. It is an exploration.”

Millbrae to Civic Center is a schlep, so Haque's mind wanders. And it occurred to him that he was a prime candidate for benefiting from “transit fare arbitrage” — an opportunity for a middleman to profit from pricing differences within BART's system.

Haque's ride to work runs $4.50; a hypothetical fellow rider boarding at Glen Park and exiting at Berkeley would pay $4.20. But if Haque and his buddy exchanged tickets midway, their fares would become $1.85 and $5.10, respectively. The cumulative cost of both trips would be reduced by 20 percent; if Haque tosses his pal a few coins the transaction works out for everybody.

But not for BART. The system has just been stiffed, and that money will have to be made up somehow — from somebody.

In the present day, such a transaction is far-fetched; it's hard enough to hawk candy bars or the Street Sheet on BART, let alone engineer a complex exchange of tickets — which must be priced only for a single ride — and then hammer out an accord on supplementary compensation in hard currency.

And yet, in the not-too-distant future, a Grindr-like app could connect desperately seeking arbiters and automate your virtual ticket swap via payments from digital purses like Google Wallet. This would “force BART's prices to be arbitrage-free and thus efficient,” writes Haque. “We can imagine companies like Uber and Lyft managing such apps to provide commuters with a uniform payment interface encompassing rideshares and mass transit.”

The notion of being surge-priced on BART during rainstorms, ballgames, or instances when police suspects flee onto the tracks is the stuff of nightmares. These are the sorts of passages that induced transit experts contacted by your humble narrator to grow uneasy.

Haque proposes several solutions to a situation no one versed in public transit would deem a “problem.” He suggests potentially imposing a Muni-like flat fee on BART rides — which would lead to intercity urban riders subsidizing the lengthy commutes of suburban passengers. Or, Haque posits, BART could adopt a Caltrain-like zone pricing system — which ignores the Gordian knot of regional and political deals underpinning the creation of the BART system and its continued existence.

The data scientist's paper has its functional calculus and football-shaped graphs, and an impressive glut of analysis. But one thing it doesn't have — jarringly — is an acknowledgment that the ticket-trading system he's describing is cut-and-dried fare evasion. Haque's own analysis also reveals that only 1 percent of the potential routes offered on BART's system are susceptible to significant fare arbitrage manipulation of the sort described above. Altering ticket pricing to eliminate high-tech theft by an enabled 1 percent — and, quite likely, shunting the financial burden onto those traversing the other 99 percent of BART's routes — is an odd way to counter blatantly illegal behavior.

Consider public transit “disrupted.” It'd be so easy to write Haque off. But wrong.

The nonprofit Code for America matches the nation's hackers with our vast and burgeoning infrastructure problems, attempting to sally the former to repair the latter. Haque's paper is something of a freelance stab at this. Except he's spotted a “problem” that doesn't exactly exist, and proposed “solutions” that could raise fares for the vast majority of riders.

So, consider it a start.

It would be heartening if transit planners both within BART and the larger transit community gave this scientist a bit of their own time and expertise. It'd be a shame to blow off Haque's efforts just because his knowledge is unequal to his skill. That could change.

San Francisco is a city divided largely because so many of the innovations suggested and brought about by its powerful tech barons and their ever-expanding workforces have been so blatantly self-serving. Perhaps, to a degree, that could change too.

Haque's next analysis may benefit us all. We'll have to wait and see.

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories