Fare Collection? Prove It!

I sympathize with the T’s difficulties collecting fares on the Green Line.

Traditionally, subway stations (in New York, for example) separate train platforms from the outside world with fare gates.  To get to the platform you have to pay the fare, so when a train arrives everyone can step on immediately.  Many Green Line stations are immediately adjacent to the street, though.  Equipping these with any sort of fare gate would be logistically untenable.

Commuter Rail stations are often similarly situated, but their stops are farther apart.  Conductors can let everyone aboard freely and then collect fares en route.  With some Green Line stops only a block apart, there’s no time for that.

Buses seem like a great model for these streetcar-like trains.  Stops are closely spaced and street-adjacent.  Bus drivers, of course, police fare collection as passengers board through the front door, but on a 22 meter Green Line train one door isn’t enough.  Either passengers will end up “stuck” at the back when they need to alight, or (more likely) people will cluster near the front door, leaving the rest of the car underutilized.

Adding to the unique challenges of the Green Line is one common to most transit systems: everyone’s going the same way.  People commute into the subway in the morning and back out in the evening.  On the Green Line, this means most people are boarding inbound trains at the tricky above-ground stops, but boarding outbound trains at the more traditional underground stations.

The T has tried some interesting solutions to these problems.

Through the end of 2006, for example, outbound trips were free above ground.  The many people disembarking at every stop could use any door.  On inbound trips, they only needed the front door generally, since very few people would need to exit before the subway (and they could stay up front).

For rush hour trips, when one door is simply insufficient, the T tried a “Show-and-Go” program, where passengers with a pass could hold it up while boarding.  An inspector might be on hand to supervise and police the process, or it might be largely an honor system.

In 2007, CharlieCards came out in full force: plastic cards that store cash value and/or monthly passes in electronic form.  Inspectors were then stationed on platforms with hand-held card readers, collecting fares before trains arrived.

These policies express trust in passengers, while still supporting fare collection.  Some people might try to sneak aboard during “Show-and-Go” with an expired pass (or no pass), and some might slip unnoticed onto a platform while an inspector’s back is turned, but they might also be caught and made to pay.

The inspectors disappeared after a few months, leaving mild chaos in their absence.  They’re back now, but without their card readers—their one weapon in fare collection.  Reduced to the role of “hall monitors,” they now just ask everyone to board through the front door only, sacrificing efficiency for rigidity.

This is insulting.  Morally, I’m entitled to board any train I want: I paid the T $59 for the privilege.  Of course, I expect to have to prove that, so I’ve carried a valid monthly pass each and every time I’ve stepped onto MBTA property.  The insult isn’t the request for passengers to prove they paid; the insult is the assumption that we haven’t.  It’s a subtle but critical distinction.

Assuming most passengers are like me—honest commuters just trying to get to work—the T should let us aboard freely.  To catch fare evaders, ask passengers randomly for proof of their payment.  Many transit systems, including some in California and many abroad, use just such a “Proof of Payment” system.  The T even promised one in 2007, but then never followed through.

Through signage and announcements, ask those paying cash to board at the front door, while letting everyone else board unchecked.  Then have inspectors patrol trains and platforms, asking for proof of payment.  Cash-payers can show a receipt, and everyone else can show their CharlieCard or CharlieTicket.  When you find someone with no payment, levy a $400 fine.  (The current fine for fare evasion is $25.)

Catching one person can then cover the revenue lost from 199 other fare evaders!  Sure, the math is more subtle than that after accounting for people who won’t pay the fine and for the inspectors’ salaries, but it’s workable.

An approach like this restores trust in honest commuters: we can board efficiently at any door.  Cash fares are largely unaffected: they board the front door, like in any of the previous systems (and a good system of warnings for out of town or first-time fare evaders will make it even more transparent).  And true fare evaders?  They finally pay up.

Personally, I’ll strongly support any move toward this system, whether implemented through MBTA policy, or through Massachusetts law.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *