Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Charlie on the MTA

Boston's rapid transportation system (a.k.a., "the T") is replacing its token system with smart cards. They've had swipe-cards in operation for years for monthly pass holders, but you've had to get a new pass each month - there was nothing smart about them. Now the T is slowly, agonizingly, putting a plastic-based system in place for occasional riders, and it will be based on smart-card technology in which you keep the same card and keep filling it up.

I am sure that from an operational standpoint, this not the simple switcheroo it was when the Mass turnpike implemented its transponder-based Fast Lane. While this is not a huge transit system by NYC or London standards, we're still talking about hundreds of cars, dozens of stations. Fare boxes. Card readers. Card dispensers. Human beings. Lots of moving pieces. 

I will concede: I'm no transpo expert. Yet it seems that every step of the way, their implementation has been riddled with confusion.

For starters, while they have understandably rolled it out in piecemeal fashion. Most large scale projects are staged to help work out kinks in the system, etc. But this rollout may have had a tad too many pieces. Here's my first experience: friends dropped me and my husband off at the Wonderland station in Revere.  This is one of the system's few stations where the trains are on the same level as the entrance. It's also a terminus station, so the trains sit there for a bit. Well, we saw a train sitting there and raced in, tokens in hand. Hold on: Wonderland had just turned into a Charlie Card* station, and they weren't being weak-kneed about it. No running in parallel, with an option of using a token or buying a Charlie Card. Get with the program! Charlie Card only!

With the most confusing card-dispenser known to man, this wasn't any good-time Charlie. With the help of a T employee, and considerable curbing, we were able to purchase Charlie Card tickets, but not without missing the train. (The driver just smirked as he closed the door in our faces.)

For over a year, the piecemeal implementation continued. For regular commuters, things may have worked out smoothly - they could keep using their normal T-passes. For us irregulars, it was a nightmare. You wouldn't know from one week to the next whether a station was going to accept tokens or require a Charlie Card ticket. I finally went into a station, at a time when I wasn't actually taking the T, and put $20 on a Charlie Card ticket. A lot of people resisted this approach, since the Charlie Card paper ticket was so flimsy that it was easy to "bend, fold, spindle, or mutilate" - or just plain throw out. (And throw out people do: stations were initially littered with them.)

Now it seems that as of January 1, the T is going to an all Charlie Card system - no more brass tokens. That's fine. It will eliminate a huge element of traveling guesswork . But in keeping with maximum confusion, all the time, here's my understanding of how this final transition will take place:

As of January 1, you'll need to use a paper Charlie Card ticket, or a plastic Charlie Card, which, unlike the paper Charlies is sturdy and reusable - and they claim, much speedier to use, since you just tap it on as opposed to swipe it through, or insert it in, the fare box. So far, so good. You can surrender your tokens and apply them toward a Charlie Card. So far, still good. But wait, I read that you can't transfer your unused paper Charlies toward a new plastic Charlie. Which would be fine if the fares weren't going to be higher for anyone who still uses the paper Charlie.  Plus paper Charlies can't transfer from subway to bus. Plastics can. (Huh?)

Six months hence, when we're all plastic Charlie-ing, I'm sure we'll forget all of this confusion. But for now, it's giving my brain a major Charlie horse.

Easy to be a second-guesser here, but here's what would I have done differently:

  • For the first week or so, I'd have run token boxes in parallel with Charlies, giving people time to get used to the system and purchase Charlies when they weren't in a rush.
  • I'd have given people more of a head's up on when "their" stations were going to be converted. Yes, you could see the new fare boxes lurking there ahead of time, but a clear notice of the "go live" date would have been helpful. If there were any, I didn't see them in the four stations I use most often.
  • I'd have gone straight to the plastic Charlie. Even if you still need to maintain a paper Charlie component for people who are only going ever take one ride, what we're facing now is massive confusion on the "paper or plastic" question

Too late for that, but here's what I'd do about what's likely to be the confuser-ama over the next couple of months.

  • Make paper Charlie's available in only a couple of clearly outlined "denominations": one ride (subway-only); round-trip (subway-only); one ride (subway-bus combo); round-trip (subway-bus combo).  Or make them good for "this day only".  This would help eliminate confusion between paper and plastic. It would be clear: paper Charlie = one trip (or round-trip); plastic Charlie = ride as long as you've got the money on it.
  • DO NOT PENALIZE PAPER CHARLIES with a higher fare. In no case should someone have to try to wrap their brain around why they can put $20 on a paper card and have it worth less than putting $20 on a plastic card.

Tomorrow I plan on getting myself one of the plastic Charlies.  Armed with a couple of tokens, $6.25 worth of paper Charlie, and my new plastic, I will be prepared for any eventuality.

*Readers of a certain age may recall a faux folk song, Charlie on the MTA, popularized by the Kingston Trio. The song's "hero" was the hapless, eponymous Charlie who got on the train, only to find that the fare had gone up and he couldn't get off the train. The refrain ran, And did he ever return? No he never returned. And his fate is still unlearned. He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston. He's the man who never returned.

With the confusion over the transition to Charlie Cards, I'm sure there'll be more than a few occasional riders who, like Charlie, will never return - at least not for a good long while.


John Whiteside said...

I'm amazed Boston is only doing this now.

DC handled this transition pretty well. The old system was a paper card with magnetic stripe (never had tokens, as fares have always been variable). They introduced to their smart card (SmartTrip) and for a while, you weren't sure when there would be readers, or there would be only one readeron a bank of 20 turnstiles. Ugh.

But now it seems that they are everywhere, and more people are using them. They also have finally started putting them on buses (as well as parking garages to pay your parking fees).

They do still take the paper cards, but I wouldn't be surprised if they start phasing them out at some point too. They are terribly fragile - I can't tell you how many unreadable cards with $1 on them I used to wind up with, and if you wanted a new one, you had to go to Metro Center and trade it in - in other words, not worth the effort.

Anonymous said...

The reason they want people to get a charlie card is so they can load up money on the cards and not have long lines at the booths, remember waiting in line for tokens when all you need is one token..? Its annoying..this is much better. The paper tickets waste time at the booths, and I think they want people to look into getting a regular card, because you can see your balance as you go through the gate and reload later. Also they are working on implementing a system to transfer balances from one card or ticket to another, etc.
It should be operational this year. Also they are working on a way to check balances online.

Maureen Rogers said...

I agree that things are getting better. I think that there is still some confusion between paper and plastic with the machines. Recently,I bought a paper ticket thinking I was getting plastic and not realizing that I needed to get a plastic ticket from a T-worker.BUT, I had everything transferred to plastic by a very helpful T person and am now fully using plastic. It's easy to update the card, works pretty smoothly, etc.

Anonymous said...

Get your head out of the dark . . . I just returned from Boston and with next to no knowledge of the Charlie card and its procedure my family and I left Logan got the Charlies loaded them up w/ $10 each and went downtown to our hotel in short order. The rest of the weekend we buzzed around on blue, red, orange, silver & green with ease. We had a great time and I've never riden the MBTA in my life. Boston is a great city and all the citizens should be proud of what the have!! The city is great, the people were helpful and courteous where ever we went and I will return again soon.

Maureen Rogers said...

Glad to hear that you enjoyed your time in Boston. The T has made ENORMOUS strides with the Charlie pass since I posted this in December. My husband and I both have Charlie Cards and they work flawlessly, as far as I can tell. Early on, it was very difficult to work the system. Kinks are now evened out - even for out of towners. Good for the T. Throughout the prosess, I do have to say (in agreement with you) that the T folks for the most part were courteous and helpfu.

Natalie Loopbaanadvies said...

I do agree that cards are better than coins. They are reloadable and easier to use.

Natalie Loopbaanadvies