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Shirley Leung

MBTA gets technology religion as it eyes new apps

David Block-Schachter briefly worked at the MBTA before joining the bus service Bridj in 2014.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/File 2014/Globe Freelance

Imagine looking at your iPhone and learning where the nearest bus stop is, directions to get there, and that the vehicle is running 10 minutes late, which means you have time to duck into a Dunkin’ Donuts.

When you step on the bus, you don’t have to fumble for change or a CharlieCard. Just flash your phone to pay. No need to figure out where to get off; your phone can send you a text.

It’s a world that David Block-Schachter envisions for MBTA riders, and the state has just hired him to make that a reality. Block-Schachter, 38, is the whiz kid from MIT who worked at the transit authority briefly in 2014 and then got lured away by innovative pop-up bus service Bridj as its chief scientist.


Block-Schachter returns this week to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in a newly created post of chief technology officer for consumers. His job will range from modernizing fare collection to improving the T website and mobile apps.

This is how he sums up his mission: “The whole goal is to make it incredibly easy to ride the T.”

At a time when the T is starving for more revenue, the state needs to keep every rider it has and find ways to attract new ones. The less riders have to think how about they get on the MBTA, the more likely they will use it.

The state has some of this technology in place, but it’s either outdated or isn’t well integrated. For example, the MBTA already has a cashless payment option — the CharlieCard — but it isn’t fully compatible with the commuter rail and not every T station dispenses the card.

That all sounds nice, but let’s be real here: What customers really want are modern trains and buses that run reliably.


Yeah, state officials know that, too. But the reality is that even if the state found billions of dollars tomorrow, it would be years before new trains could be built and put into service.

So instead, T brass are looking at ways they can improve the customer experience in a matter of months — and without spending a lot of money.

Take, for example, the way the T communicates delays. It uses Twitter and text alerts, but there are kinks in the system, which explains why sometimes riders are notified when it’s too late.

For short money, the T could probably design a software program that vastly improves the way it interacts with its customers.

“The way we communicate doesn’t work,” said Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a member of the fiscal control board and executive director of the 128 Business Council, a group that works on transportation management solutions. “MBTA riders are actually much more patient and tolerant than they get credit for.”

While the control board was set up last year primarily to manage the MBTA’s finances, another one of its objectives is to improve customer service. It’s a goal that has to be a priority as the board tries to push through a fare increase of up to 10 percent.

Tibbits-Nutt has been working with Brian Shortsleeve, the T’s chief administrator, on a broader strategy to improve rider experience. Creating a consumer-focused chief technology officer position — that pays $158,000 a year — is the first major step.


Shortsleeve said Block-Schachter’s Bridj experience should go a long way to helping the T adapt to today’s consumer habits. Shortsleeve is familiar with the Boston startup from his days at General Catalyst, the venture firm where Governor Charlie Baker worked before his election.

While the firm did not invest in Bridj, Shortsleeve has been tracking how the innovative company is using data and social media to build a pop-up bus service in the region.

“How exciting it would be if the T could take a Bridj-like approach,” Shortsleeve said.

Another model T officials talk about is London, where riders now have the option of ticketless transactions, hopping on with a swipe of a credit card or a mobile wallet program like Apple Pay. That has helped increase ridership and reduce passenger congestion in stations because people don’t have to queue up to buy tickets, said Shashi Verma, director of customer experience at Transport for London.

At the T, upgrading fare collection can also give officials the ability to offer flexible pricing — for example, charge by zones or more during peak times. Updating the system can also speed up the boarding process; for example, the right technology could mean that fares can be collected at both the front and back of a bus.

Is this all too good to be true? Block-Schachter was at the T before as its head of research and analysis and left after three months for Bridj. This time around, the MIT PhD thinks the MBTA is ready for change and hopes to attract software engineers and other digital-savvy staff to help him.


“It’s truly a different place than it was,” Block-Schachter said. “The administration is incredibly serious about fixing the T and fixing it right.”

A lot of us will be rooting for him to succeed. It’s about time T riders are treated like customers who are always right.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung.

Due to a reporting error, the original story misidentified where Bridj is based. It is in Boston.