Bad Design On Wheels

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which runs Boston’s subways, commuter rails, and buses, is rolling out new fare collection devices on all of its buses. 356,400 people ride its buses every day, so you’d think that the MBTA would make sure that the new systems are efficient and user-friendly. They’re not.

Old Bus Fare Collector Old Bus Fare Collector--Detail New Bus Fare Collector Bus Ticketing System

The first two images are of the old fare collection system. Notice the funneled top: it allows passengers to dump their 90 cents fare in one quick move. In contrast, the new devices have a narrow coin slot that’s flush with the machine’s slanted faceplate, forcing riders to insert their coins one at a time. Think about it: that’s at least 10 seconds for each passenger as opposed to 1 or 2 previously; for every six people in line with coins, you’ve added an additional minute at the stop.

Even worse, the machines have to be coaxed into accepting money. Put a coin in too fast or at the wrong angle, and you’ll have to do it again. Imagine what rush hour is like with boarders lined up trying not to drop their coins and re-inserting them when they’re rejected (I’ve learned this is not easy to do with only one hand free).

The old fare collectors have slots on the sides for dollar bills. You roll up the dollar bill and slide it in. Not very high-tech, but it works. The new machines’ dollar bill acceptors resemble those on a vending machine, with similar acceptance rates. The other day the bill acceptor wouldn’t accept my crisp, new one. The bus driver didn’t have anywhere to put the cash, but fortunately another passenger traded me a bill the machine would accept.

“One of the beauties of the Silver Line is . . . you get on, you drop five or six coins, you continue on your way,” said Tony Piccolo, a banker in downtown Boston.

“Now I have to stand there, and I have to put in one coin at a time, and I have to do that for four quarters,” he said. “And a couple of them got rejected and the driver had to fish them out and hand them back to us.”

Tim Sharpe, a state employee who works in Downtown Crossing, said: “Usually you stop and people get on bang, bang, and you’re off in 30 seconds, but we were stopped each time three or four minutes, just processing people.”

In the past, riders simply threw cash in the fare collection boxes before sitting down. Riders with monthly passes also used to be able to slide them through readers atop the fare box. Yesterday they had to stop and insert them into the fare box for validation.

That’s from the Boston Globe, when the MBTA first ran trials of this new system over a year and a half ago. Somehow an organization that moves more than a million people around the city every day didn’t recognize the most in-your-face problems from its trial run, because the machines didn’t change and the same problems persist. Now the MBTA is going to use those same powers of observation to find bombs in backpacks.

You might forgive someone for thinking the MBTA was interested less in making bus travel better than in “encouraging” passengers to buy a monthly pass. Actually, that is exactly the MBTA’s stated intention; not only is it making the act of paying cash fares more difficult, it’s planning to charge extra to those customers who pay with cash. And that on top of the soon-coming 40% fare increase.

You can’t fight city-hall’s bus system, so this month I succumbed and bought a monthly pass. The first time I tried it out, the machine had just rejected a quarter from the girl ahead of me, so it wouldn’t take my monthly pass. I, obedient and acquiescent, still ended up delaying the line.


  1. Yikes, a 40% hike. Sounds like its time to roll out this old Walter A. O’Brien campaign jingle. (The song was popularized by the Kingston Trio, who changed the candidate’s name in the song so as to not be stained by the spectacular failure of his Progressive party.) If you’ve never heard the song, you should track down a copy. It’s fun.

    M. T. A.

    Let me tell you the story of a man named Charley
    On a tragic and fateful day
    He put ten cents in his pocket, kissed his wife and family
    Went to ride on the MTA

    Did he ever return? No, he never returned,
    And his fate is still unlearn’d.
    He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston
    He’s the man who never returned.

    Charley handed in his dime at the Kendall Square Station
    And he changed for Jamaica Plain
    When he got there the conductor told him, “One more nickel.”
    Charley could not get off that train.

    Now all night long Charley rides through the tunnels
    Saying, “What will become of me?
    How can I afford to see my sister in Chelsea
    Or my cousin in Roxbury?”

    Charley’s wife goes down to the Scollay Square station
    Every day at quarter past two
    And through the open window she hands Charley a sandwich
    As the train comes rumblin’ through.

    Now you citizens of Boston, don’t you think it’s a scandal
    That the people have to pay and pay
    Vote for George O’Brien and fight the fare increase
    Get poor Charley off the MTA

    Or else he’ll never return, no he’ll never return
    And his fate will be unlearned.
    He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston.
    He’s the man (Who’s the man) He’s the man (Oh, the man)
    He’s the man who never returned.

  2. CharlieTicket

    Actually all of us T riders know about Charlie, because the new cards—called “CharlieTickets” and part of the overall changes that include the end of tokens and the fare increase—are named after him.

    Which goes to show that the MBTA has no or a perverse sense of irony:

    MBTA General Manager Michael H. Mulhern said, “The Charlie Card is symbolic of the MBTA’s efforts to transform its subway system into a more convenient and easy-to-use public transit service with a strong emphasis on the customer.”

    Yeah, slower boarding times, fewer options, and higher fares: that’s what I call “emphasis on the customer.”

  3. Ah, you’ve learned that when someone says, “For your convenience,” it means, “For our convenience.”

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