Putting cash in its place at the MBTA

Eliminating payments on board buses, Green Line makes sense

A HIGHLY FUNCTIONING urban transit system is characterized by its speed, convenience, and reliability.  The Netherlands, a role model for efficient and sustainable mobility, has examples of this in abundance.  Go to places like Amsterdam or The Hague and you will have at your disposal multiple modal choices – trams, buses, and light rail – to traverse the city.  If you aren’t cycling or walking, you are probably on one of these transit modes (Amsterdam has a subway, too).  I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Netherlands and never once needed (or wanted) to be in an automobile.  There’s no need.

One feature of this highly functioning system is its payment process.  One card, what they call an “OV Chipkaart,” is all you need to gain access to any mode of public transportation throughout the nation.  You buy your card, and you simply tap it to gain entry to stations, or when you board a tram or bus.  Simple. Straightforward.  And here’s the best thing: there are no delays due to a rider making the often tortuously time-consuming effort to pay on board using cash.

Prohibiting cash payment while boarding a bus (or light rail vehicle) is an effective and important way to improve the speed of the ride by reducing dwell times – the time a bus spends sitting at a stop.  Dwell time is dependent on a number of variables, including the number of riders boarding and alighting, the number of bus doors you can board at, the internal bus layout, and the use of accessibility features (like ramps and seating reconfiguration).  Allowing cash payments while boarding a bus lengthens dwell times, slowing down the ride for everyone, because it means all doors cannot be used to board and because payment by cash is, by definition, more time-consuming than tapping a fare card.

Reducing dwell times is one essential component of a comprehensive strategy to improve bus transit.  If you can reduce dwell times, and then provide the bus with dedicated lanes and traffic signal priority, you can transform the bus transit experience from what it is today into a modern, first-tier, reliable and consistent mode of transit.

For many reasons, elevating the bus transit experience is – and ought to be – a matter of urgency for the MBTA.  Bus transit is the most agile and affordable way to transport large numbers of people to and from destinations.  And bus transit doesn’t have to be inferior to light rail.  With the proper components, it can provide superb mobility for riders throughout the region.

We haven’t yet reached the point in Greater Boston where our political leaders are prepared to adopt the approaches to managing urban mobility and traffic congestion that are in place in cities such as London, Paris, Milan, Madrid, and Stockholm: charging vehicles for entering into certain highly congested urban zones (cordon pricing), or significantly reducing where cars are allowed in the city (pedestrian zones), or charging cars higher tolls or fees to drive into the urban core during rush hours (congestion pricing), or charging vehicles using commercial parking spaces a fee to reflect their impact on the environment (carbon impact fee).  We don’t do any of these things, and given our political culture it is a struggle to make real headway advancing these approaches to sustainable mobility.  That’s why we need to rely, in the first instance, on the MBTA and the municipalities served by its bus system to take steps necessary to bring our bus transit system to a place where it functions at a high level of speed, convenience, and reliability.

The MBTA’s recent selection of a contractor to design and implement a new fare collection system commences a welcome and necessary initiative. The transition away from cash payments while boarding is absolutely the right approach to take.

Let’s be clear about a few things.  First, there is nothing innovative about what is being introduced here.  Boston is a straggler, not a pioneer, when it comes to adopting off-board payment and all-door boarding.  So we are not inventing the wheel by any means, and indeed we will benefit from a plethora of global and national experience.

Second, the new system will not be a “cashless” system.  Cash will still be used throughout the system to purchase or add value to the new fare medium.  The big change is how you pay when you board a bus (or surface Green Line train). You simply tap the fare card (or your smartphone or an enabled credit card).  No fumbling for cash, holding up the line of people wanting to get on the bus.  No figuring out how much to pay.  No waiting for paper tickets to jump up and down. Just tap and enter.  Anyone who has experienced the delays caused by a rider reaching for cash, then sorting out the cash, then feeding the cash into the bus fare box knows that is no way to collect fare revenue.

Third, the new system is not designed to disenfranchise anyone.  Any rider can purchase a journey via a cash transaction by using one of what will be many added fare vending machines, or at new designated retail reload locations.

How convenient will it be to use cash to buy or add value to your fare card?

Very convenient, because the MBTA’s request for proposals for the new payment system set out exacting standards for convenience that must be met by the selected contractor.  Here’s how it works.  The contractor is required to meet two principles: a coverage principle and a queuing principle.  The coverage principle determines where fare vending machines and other points of sale are located, to ensure widespread availability for cash payments. The queuing principle regulates how many machines or points of sale are available in a certain area, to keep transaction times to a minimum.  These standards are designed to work together in order to effectively respond to volume and convenience.

The system is designed to accept cash payments at numerous fare vending machines and retail locations. The retail locations do not necessarily have to be retail stores – they can also be senior centers, local non-profit centers, or libraries. Retail locations must be open and available for at least 75 percent of the MBTA’s service hour day.

Fare vending machines will be similar in size to the current Charlie Card vending machines, but there will also be smaller machines similar in size to the pay-and-display parking meter dispensers that are now commonplace in most cities.

The coverage principle requires that full-service fare vending machines (that is, fare vending machines that can provide the entire range of fare card services) must be located wherever a current Charlie Card vending machine exists.  Fare vending machines  are also required to be placed within all commuter rail locations in Boston (Zone 1A) and within 500 feet of every Silver Line 1, 4, and 5 bus stop or station. On other bus routes, fare vending machines must be located at enough stops in order to cover at least 25 percent of all bus boardings and alightings.  This last metric would require fare vending machines at every bus stop handling more than 3,900 passenger boardings and alightings on a typical weekday.

A point-of-sale location (either a fare vending machine or a retail location) must exist within 1,000 feet of every bus stop to cover 50 percent of all boardings and alightings. A point-of-sale location must be within 650 feet of every ferry terminal.  Anticipating the future, a fare vending machine must be located within 500 feet of every Bus Rapid Transit stop or station.

This is not a comprehensive description of the full standard – the actual request for proposal performance requirements are lengthy and even more detailed. Here are two different ways to understand how accessible the new points of sale will be. Today there are 497 Charlie Card machines (some of which only take credit/debit cards).  With the new system, there will be about 840 fare vending machines plus additional retail locations, all of which will take cash.  It is unlikely that anyone will be unable to access one of these points of sale in a reasonably convenient way. From a bus perspective, the bottom line is this: points of sale must be located in order to ensure availability within 1,000 feet of boarding or alighting points for 95 percent of all bus trips, and within 2,000 feet of boarding or alighting points for 98 percent of all bus trips.

Layered onto this coverage principle is a queuing principle.  The queuing principle calibrates how many machines or points of sale are needed by setting the standard that no rider should wait a long time to access the fare machine during peak operating hours. This means 80 percent of transactions should have no longer than a one-minute wait, and 95 percent of transactions should have no longer than a two-minute wait.  And keep in mind that significantly fewer T Riders will be using these machines because under the new system, not everyone will use a fare card.  Many will be using their smartphones or other enabled cards, and those riders can easily add value to their fare card or other fare medium by using on-line features or mobile applications.

Finally, the system is not static.  The contractor is required to regularly assess the data, and add points of sale to ensure the established metrics are being met.

One important feature of the new fare collection system is that it will allow passengers to board using all doors.  There will be validation devices at every bus entrance, so you simply board the door closest to you and tap your card.  When San Francisco moved to all-door boarding on Muni buses a few years ago, bus dwell times dropped by nearly 40 percent.  That kind of improved efficiency means faster, more reliable rides – exactly what we should want our bus transit system to aspire to and achieve.

There have been some concerns and misunderstanding about the elimination of cash on boarding, primarily directed toward the potential social equity impacts.  About 4 percent of all T riders report having no smartphone or credit/debit card, and 77 percent of those riders pay in cash (some percentage of riders in that group use student or employer-provided passes). Of the 4 percent without smartphones or credit/debit cards, 7.5 percent take the bus.  There’s no question that a significant cohort of riders will continue to need to pay for their fares in cash. As someone who cares deeply about how our mobility system responds to the most vulnerable transit riders, I am convinced that this new system will be an important step toward improving the bus transit experience for everyone, but in particular those who take the bus by necessity and not by choice.

Given how the system has been constructed, there ought to be nothing but positive social equity impacts arising from this new approach to fare payment.  Cash will continue to be accepted at multiple locations – significantly more than exist today – designed to ensure easy access, availability, and convenience.  Buses will gain speed and reliability by having reduced dwell times, improving the ride for everyone including those who depend on the bus for their daily travel needs.  A lot of work will need to take place to help people understand and transition to this new system (which will start up in May 2020), but I am confident that we can embrace and utilize more efficient systems without leaving anyone behind.  I refuse to condescend to any T rider by assuming that they cannot comfortably move to this system.

There are also concerns about proof-of-payment enforcement, and the potential for that process to descend into inappropriate or illegal racial profiling.  This is a legitimate concern that is being squarely addressed by the proposed approach, which (in contrast to the recently discredited approach on Cleveland’s Health Line Bus Rapid Transit) will not criminalize failure to pay, and employ a civilian (not police) team trained to enforce payment universally and with civility.  Obviously this feature of the new system has to be carefully monitored, but all of the right components for success are being put into place. This includes an effort to give riders some leeway if they inadvertently board with a fare card that doesn’t have a balance sufficient to cover the trip.  Every rider gets a no-penalty ride when that happens, sending the card into a “negative balance” that can be corrected at the next point of sale.

Meet the Author

This is an important and exciting initiative because it is the beginning of a long awaited transformation of our bus system.  It promises to spark additional initiatives – like widespread deployment of dedicated bus lanes and traffic signal priority, and introduction of high standard Bus Rapid Transit – that will remake our transit system and compete more effectively with companies such as Uber and Lyft.  I believe this initiative has the potential to advance the cause of rapid bus transit in a meaningful way, and I predict we will look back on this as a pivotal moment in the remaking of the MBTA into the 21st century system we all want it to be.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group, and a member of the board of TransitMatters.