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September 09, 2005

Just do it like New York does it

The Globe reports today that the T is FINALLY getting ready to replace the ancient token system with the new "CharlieTicket" fare system throughout the T.  (Is anyone else disappointed that the T missed the obvious opportunity to call them "Chahlie Cahds"?)  Of course, the system, already operating on the Blue Line, has had numerous snags, such as the new gates and fareboxes not working right, but we are assured that the T is "aggressively working to fix them."

I've been spending a good deal of time in New York City lately, and have been entirely dependent on the subway to get around.  And I regret to report that compared to New York's subway, the T, frankly, sucks ass.  New York has had its MetroCard system in place for years.  The vending machines ALWAYS work.  The gate readers ALWAYS work.  Transfers from buses to subways are AUTOMATIC - your MetroCard remembers that you just got off the bus and lets you in the subway for free.  The trains run REALLY often - on several occasions I have walked into the station just as a train is pulling out and have settled in for a 10-15 minute wait (that's what I would expect in Boston), only to be boarding a train 4-5 minutes later.  And the trains almost never stall in the tunnels.  In addition, of course, New York's system runs 24/7, rather than crapping out at the absurd hour of 12:30 a.m.  Sure, it costs 2 bucks instead of $1.25, but there are lots of ways for regular riders to cut the cost substantially (7-day or 30-day unlimited cards, available at every vending machine, are just one excellent example).  Can't we just hire whoever got New York's system to work so well?

Compare this to Boston, where the trains show up every 10 minutes if you're lucky, the token vending machines never work so you have to stand in long lines, trains routinely screech to a halt and sit in the tunnels for unaccountably long periods of time, the new card system already is causing problems, and I could go on (and so could you, I'm sure).  The T likes to tell us that it is dealing with modernizing the oldest subway in America.  Well, New York's system is old too.  But it seems to work a whole lot better than Boston's.  Dan Grabauskas, the T's new general manager, has a good record of making things better at the agencies he is in charge of.  I really, really hope that he can pull that off for the T.  It so desperately needs it.

There's a mayoral election happening soon in New York City, so I've been hearing lots of campaign chatter, including a lot about improving subway service.  And I just want to tell these people: count your blessings - you have no idea how good you've got it.

Posted by David at 10:54 AM in Massachusetts | Permalink


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The Red Line comes more often than every 10 minutes, generally. It's the best of the lines.

Green Line, by far the worst. Reminds me of "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" at DisneyWorld, only broken and boring.

Buses: Awful. A bad system in a bad metro area for driving.

BTW, Chicago has also had its card system in place for more than 5 years now.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | Sep 9, 2005 11:30:19 AM

I think you overstate how well the MTA runs: sure, some trains run promptly and it's great that it runs late night. But try taking the F train at 3 AM and you can wait 50 minutes for a train. Even during the day, many lines - like the G train between Brooklyn and Queens - can be thin on the ground. What's worse is that construction rerouting is poorly marked and nearly impossible for non-natives to decipher.

Also, while NY and Boston both are old systems, the heritage of competing lines underneath a street grid in NY means that fewer trains need to be funneled through jamming points (like the Green Line does) and that express trains are possible. Perhaps a better comparison would be SF's Muni, which unbelievably functions far worse than the MBTA.

That said, I'm with you on the broken token/Card machines. Also, I was in Montreal recently and noticed that their automated station announcements actually work, prompting me to wonder why the MBTA so blithely accepts that theirs do not work. (Ditto the LCD bus signs).

Posted by: Chris | Sep 9, 2005 11:48:42 AM

Exactly. The T needs someone at a high level to get -- and stay -- pissed off at stuff like that. I hope Grabauskas is that guy.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | Sep 9, 2005 11:55:32 AM

I don't know if this is actually the case or not, but I would guess that a higher percentage of NYC'ers are dependent on their subway than Bostonians are on the T.

Personally, having spent time living on the B line and working off the red line, I end up just driving because it takes half the time of going all the way to Park Street and then back out, and the transfer time on any of the buses is ridiculous.

NY seems to have a more comprehensive system, which would translate to higher ridership, more revenue, and a greater demand for a better-functioning system.

It's about time they do the cards, though. And they should definitely take your advice on the name.

Posted by: eury13 | Sep 9, 2005 11:56:31 AM

I used to drive to Allston and Brookline from Cambridge all the time, even though I'd prefer not to. Bus service between those areas is terrible, too.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | Sep 9, 2005 12:02:43 PM

It's also a much more densely populated city so the subway needs to sustain the ridership... trains in Manhattan run as frequently as the orange line in rush hour, but service in the outer boroughs isn't so hot, nor are the stations lovely.

Posted by: Brittain33 | Sep 9, 2005 12:03:42 PM

If you start look at Europe’s subways, they are also leaps ahead of how the T has it. Both London’s Tube and Paris’s Metro work on the ticket and vending system with the option of getting long term passes. Also, both systems have been in effect for over a decade!

Posted by: Bentley92 | Sep 9, 2005 12:05:11 PM

Imagine what the T and a competent manager could have done with less than a quarter of the costs of the Big Dig.


Posted by: Lynne | Sep 9, 2005 12:12:09 PM

Am I the only one who likes the tokens? All over the floor of the subway stations in Manhattan, there are Metrocards scattered about. I see them littered throughout the city too. It feels like such a waste of resources because tokens can be reused over and over again but empty Metrocards just become litter. I agree, though, in every other way the NYC subway is far superior to the T. I lived in the SF Bay Area a few years before moving here, though, and the T is a lot better than what they've got there.

The buses ARE really bad around here though...some buses are reliable (like the 71), but the triple digit express buses? Useless.

Posted by: Krissy | Sep 9, 2005 1:20:56 PM

Best way to "fix" many problems of the T? Retrench the green line between Gov't/Park and Kenmore, and lay 4 tracks instead of 2. This would alleviate the traffic jams, and allow B and/or C lines to express from Park to Kenmore -- making the long rides west far quicker, and with less variability. It would also prevent a single stuck train from clogging up the works.

Once the green line isn't the passenger bottleneck, it will be a more reasonable proposition to extend it toward Somerville, and to add ridership on the red and orange lines.

Posted by: stomv | Sep 9, 2005 1:21:09 PM

I know in London you can recharge the tickets you have so it doesn’t have to become trash when they are spent. It’s been too long since I was there to remember if it was less expensive to recharge or not.

Posted by: Bentley92 | Sep 9, 2005 2:09:55 PM

I think we should be careful to compare our city's transportation to London, New York, or Paris for the same reason we shouldn't compare anything else about Boston to those cities. We're just not a first-class international city. We're not close to the biggest or most important city in the country. Our tourism doesn't compare, we're not as dense, we don't have young people and immigrants flocking to us as their #1 destination for anything other than college. We're a lot more like a city than a lot of places in the U.S. with more people are, but that doesn't mean a lot.

We can compare ourselves to places like Manchester or Lille or Cologne. Those cities have extremely efficient, modern rail systems with advanced ticketing, but they only have a few lines and don't have anything like the comprehensive coverage Boston gets with more lines but cruddier facilities and backwards technology.

It's an interesting comparison. One place where there's no comparison is that all those cities have better bus networks than we do. Second-tier cities rely on buses so much more than big cities because we have less traffic and need to make our subways work on more of a feeder system because they don't make up a network on their own. Buses in these European cities have schedules posted and run more frequently. On the other hand, and this is a gray area, they're much better at running into a central location while the T has to weave a network of routes going everywhere. Just some thoughts.

Posted by: Brittain33 | Sep 9, 2005 2:15:28 PM

I'm disappointed that the card readers don't also read credit and debit cards--so many people have them it would be so easy for people to zip through the readers without having to stop and get a fare card. I really can't believe they didn't do this.

Since that's not happening, how about a 20% discount on recharged cards to prevent the trashing of them?

Posted by: mtnbkr | Sep 9, 2005 6:26:22 PM

Iif they had a $1.50 fare, as it was in Chicago, you wouldn't be inclined to trash your card, since $1.50 doesn't fit easily into $10 or $20, which is how you would add value to the card. But @ $1.25, you might find that to be the case.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | Sep 9, 2005 6:38:34 PM

Having moved here from DC not long ago, I really miss the quality of service the Metro offered. The trains were clean, frequent and (in the summer) air-conditioned. There weren't as many stops and some of the lines operated more like commuter rail than rapid transit, but damn it was nice.

That said, the T does alright with what it's got. It's operating budget is strapped and it continues to pay about 1/3 of it's $1.2B budget annually on debt service. A tight situation by any standard. Part of the problem is that, when it moved the T to Forward Funding, the state gave the T a fickle funding stream: a portion of the state sales tax. As the economy tanked back around '01, so did the T's operating budget.

While nobody wants to go back to the blank-check days of unaccountability, it's somewhat unfair to expect more from the T when it gets less from the taxpayers. Which brings us to the T's latest move... Charlie Cards.

Charlie Cards allow the T to jack rates and start collecting the same way the Metro does, on scheduled fares. (In DC the base rate was about $1.60 off-peak and ranged up to at least $3 as I recall.) This, of course, is a way of bolstering its operating budget, which it has been forced to do.

(Frankly, I don't mind tokens, they work. And we already have weekly and monthly passes. Anyone who has lived in DC will tell you about the extra fare cards they have with anywhere from $.80 to $4.30 still on them. It's a matter of what you want to pay, and whether you can pay it. Increased fares will also, inevitably, cut into ridership. It's a downward spiral.)

I can't speak to the quality of management at the T, but I can say that most administrations going back to Weld, have not been huge public transit fans.

It also needs to be noted that the Duke never implicated Grabauskas in his piece, though I understand Grabauskas' need to defend his agency. What the Duke was pointing out were some larger problems that require leadership from the T and the governor's office.

Posted by: drgonzo | Sep 12, 2005 11:49:03 AM

I've ridden the Metro from Vienna to the center of DC and it is great. However, I'd not experienced the varying fares that you mention. I guess that would take a bit of getting used to--that a card you purchase in an off hour, thinking it will get you to and from, all of the sudden doesn't so you need to get back in line on the return trip to recharge it. I really think that they need to get credit cards and debit cards working on these card readers--especially if fares get up in the multi-dollar range. If that happens I also wonder how much ridership the T will lose.

Posted by: mtnbkr | Sep 12, 2005 11:30:34 PM

Oh, and apparently a part of the Big Dig legal agreements (which gave us the Greenbush extension, and the pending Green Line extension) require that the T maintain low fares.

The way it works in DC is there are two rates: peak and off-peak. Peak is rush-hour, and you pay an average of $.70 more per trip. The base rate is $1.60 one-way and then the fare varies based on how far you're riding. An analogous example would be that you'd probably pay a base rate of $1.60 if you rode from Forest Hill to Roxbury Crossing on the Orange line but might pay $2.70 if you rode it all the way to Oak Grove, and that's off-peak.

I used to ride the DC Metro from the College Park stop on the Green Line in Md. to Falls Church Va. at the other end of the Orange Line. It was quite a hike, but I got a lot of reading done.

Of course the beauty of doing Charlie Cards is based on the same principle as gift cards: you will invariably leave a small portion of money on each card which results in net gain for the T.

Posted by: drgonzo | Sep 13, 2005 2:24:42 PM

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