Picture this: you’re frantically running through the subway station, panicked at the possibility of being late on your first day back in the office after working from home all year.
You see your train pulling in just as you get to the fare gate. Barely slowing down, you tap your trusty CharlieCard.
Suddenly, the metal bar breaks your stride and the small screen delivers the bad news: expired. Your train rumbles down the tracks, but there’s a bigger problem ahead. Getting a new CharlieCard is easier said than done.
Reusable plastic cards that can be loaded with cash value, CharlieCards are usually available at an array of bus and subway stations. But riders looking to replace lost or expired cards over the past year usually left these stations empty-handed.
That’s because the MBTA has eased the monthly distribution of CharlieCards to stations because of the steep decline in ridership during the pandemic.
“While riders slowly return to the system, the MBTA will be ramping up distribution efforts,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said by e-mail.
For now, transit riders must travel to the CharlieCard store in the Downtown Crossing station, which is not open on Mondays, closes at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and operates from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. Pesaturo said the MBTA hopes to expand the store’s hours in the fall.
Riders have been venting about the inconvenience of obtaining a new CharlieCard on social media, especially after WBUR radio host Meghna Chakrabarti documented her struggle in verse earlier this week.
Any CharlieCard purchased after 2010 has a 10-year expiration date, and the MBTA has been using its website and social media platforms to remind riders to check their cards, Pesaturo said. But it seems many riders missed the memo and are discovering their cards aren’t active when they arrive at the station.
Madeline Donohue has depended on the T for years and has twice dealt with expired cards. The first time, she went three times to the Downtown Crossing station but said she couldn’t find an actual person to help her. When her card expired again last summer, she gave up.
“I don’t even want to go anywhere to get it fixed,” she said, “because I’m so annoyed.”
The MBTA has distributed millions of CharlieCards over the years but most are tapped a few times and never used again, Pesaturo said. Since January 2021, the MBTA has replaced more than 400 CharlieCards that were lost, expired, or damaged. When a card is replaced, its balance can be transferred to a new card. However, the agency does not track how much money remains on expired cards that were not replaced or how many cards expire in a given time frame.
Riders can mail expired cards to the MBTA Revenue Department and receive a new one by mail that will have the same cash value. But that takes time, and workers who are just returning to public transit after the pandemic are trying to figure out how to rearrange their schedule and get to downtown Boston.
Mela Bush-Miles, the director of transit-oriented development and the T Riders Union at Alternatives for Environment and Community, a Boston environmental justice group, was getting on the bus when she learned that her card had expired. She had to pay in cash.
Her sister, who is elderly, had previously broken her card in half and had to wait six weeks for a new one to arrive in the mail, Bush-Miles said.
Riders said there is no good reason the process is so burdensome.
“It’s unconscionable,” said Donohue. “Especially for the number of employees, educators, and caretakers that depend on public transportation.”
Pesaturo said the MBTA is working to distribute more cards to stations across the system so that riders don’t have to make a special trip.
He also said the MBTA is working toward installing a new fare system that would let riders pay their fares with debit and credit cards and mobile devices. Currently, riders can add up to $50 at a time to their cards by visiting select stations or online with a MyCharlie account.
In the past year, MBTA has seen ridership decline by about 60 percent, Pesaturo said. Policy makers and public transportation advocates agree it’s important that people return to the MBTA, and failing to make the fare process convenient won’t help.
The T Riders Union is lobbying for fare reduction programs and fare-free bus lines and Bush-Miles said the best way to address the CharlieCard problem is to eliminate fares altogether.
“You wouldn’t need a CharlieCard at all if it was free. That wipes out the entire problem,” she said.
Julia Carlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.