An explanation of the new MBTA fare system, launching January 1

In 1948 a couple folk singers composed a song about the plight of poor Charlie, who got stuck on the Boston trolley system forever because he didn’t anticipate the complex new fare system that required a 5 cent exit fee to disembark. Ironic, then, that on January 1, 2007 the MBTA will be rolling out its new CharlieCard system and bringing additional confusion and complexity to an already difficult to understand system.

The new system incorporates Automated Fair Collection, a fancy name for fancy new turnstyles that confuse the heck out of people, make it harder for fare evaders, and allow the MBTA to charge variable fares and change them easily at any time. The system is networked (via fiber optics in the tunnels, and radio on busses) so that computers can centrally track who is riding where and when, ostensibly to allow things like free transfers, but at the same time allowing for sophisticated tracking and data gathering for the government agency.

Anonymous fares can still be purchased on a CharlieTicket, a paper card with a magnetic stripe that comes in two varieties, one that can act as a declining balance account (load up $5 and use it for 4 rides, for example), and another that works for monthly and other pass programs. The tickets are sucked into the turnstyles, read, and then spat back out prior to the gate opening. CharlieTickets expire, unlike the previous token system. The new fare vending machines that dispense the tickets use touch screen interfaces to give users various options (in an incredibly unintiutive way) and allow for payment with cash, credit, or ATM cards. A word to the paranoid: if you buy your CharlieTicket with a credit card, you have already lost.

The new CharlieCard is a contactless RFID-enabled plastic card that can “store” declining balances, fare programs, or a combination of both. Thus your CharlieCard can be “loaded” with money as well as, say, a 7 day LinkPass. The “Pass,” then, is no longer a physical object, but an authorization placed on the “Card” or “Ticket”. Straightforward, right?

Users of CharlieTickets (or cash) pay an additional surcharge, although why this is the case has never been adequately explained. A CharlieCard holder pays $1.70 for a subway ride, while a CharlieTicket purchaser must pay $2.00. Because the CharlieCard and CharlieTicket are both free, and because all stations are already setup to handle the Tickets as well as the Cards, I can’t think of any cost savings justification, so the only other possibility that occurs to me is that the MBTA wants users to use the Cards so that they can better track our behavior and usage patterns. And because they’re giving us a discount, it is difficult to not comply.

There are additional problems and exceptions. People who take the commuter rail in Zone 1A or 1B (which have no been combined) need to keep a CharlieTicket rather than a CharlieCard, becase there are no Card readers on the trains, whereas the conductors can simply read the text printed on the Ticket. These commuters, then, probably need a CharlieCard as well to avoid surcharges elsewhere, but this is unclear from the literature I’ve read. Additionally, the LinkPass, which includes both subway and bus passage, does not include Commuter Rail Zone 1A coverage, a seperate pass is required for that which costs the exact same amount. Why is it not given by default on normal LinkPass accounts? Probably because of the T’s desire to force users to have the CharlieCards.

Finally, all toll booths have been shut down, replaced instead with the occasional customer service station, where people have reported mixed results getting help. And while the transition is ongoing, there are various exceptions to the rules, not helped by the many T employees who seem just as befuddled as the pasengers. It is interesting to note that, while the MBTA has installed $6 million $89 million or more in new infrastructure to support the new fare collection system, it has not done anything to actually change or expand the transport services it is offering. But I’m sure they’ll get around to that just as soon as they finish raising rates.

Or maybe they’ll decide to actually publish a comprehensive guide to the changes that explains what is happening, how it affects people, and what benefit justifies how all of our lives are being so disrupted. Nah.

One reply on “An explanation of the new MBTA fare system, launching January 1”

  1. Addendum: The MBTA claims that the CharlieCards will continue to allow for anonymous travel. I’d take their assurances with a grain of salt, but I’m glad they’re at least thinking about it. Still doesn’t explain their obsession with the cards. Tapping rather than scanning still takes more time than the old process of dropping a coin in the slot…

    From one of their FAQs:

    I am concerned about privacy. Will I have to give personal information to the MBTA? And what is registration?

    CharlieTickets are anonymous and not replaceable if lost or stolen. Anonymous CharlieCards will be available and allow for travel throughout the MBTA system. No personal information is required for any anonymous CharlieTicket or CharlieCard. Please see answer above for information on the difference between a CharlieTicket and a CharlieCard.

    The MBTA considers the privacy of patron’s personal information to be an important concern as the Authority introduces new electronic fare media. The MBTA has recently published a new “Website and Electronic Fare Media Privacy Policy”. Please read our Privacy Policy for more information.

    Customers will have the option to have an unregistered or, eventually, a registered CharlieCard. Unregistered smart cards are anonymous and will be available to customers wishing to utilize the benefits of smart cards (including reusability, ease of use, ability to put multiple products on a card) without providing any personal information to the MBTA.

    If desired, customers will be able to register their CharlieCards by establishing accounts with the MBTA. Registered smart cards will allow patrons to utilize additional features of the new fare collection system including automatic purchases of passes and stored value, as well as loss protection, which allows the MBTA to issue a replacement for a lost, stolen or damaged card with the product or value on the card at the time the MBTA was notified of the loss.

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