Metro

New technology could radically reshape MBTA fare policies

The MBTA may adjust its fares as it moves to an all-electronic payment system, in which prices could be based on time of day, distance, or even income.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file
The MBTA may adjust its fares as it moves to an all-electronic payment system, in which prices could be based on time of day, distance, or even income.

Should you pay a higher fare if your subway ride is longer than other commuters’ trips? Or more for a bus or train ticket during rush hour, and less during off-peak times?

The MBTA has long relied on a set of fixed fares for most transit lines, but a pending shift to an all-electronic payment system could allow the agency to adopt a staggered fare structure, already used in some other cities, in which prices could be based on time of day, distance, or even income.

“We want to be able to have that flexibility in the future, depending on ridership changes or service changes,” said Laurel Paget-Seekins, director of fare policy and analytics for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. “Nobody’s saying we want to do this one exact thing. We want to be able to think through these questions and then have the flexibility to implement whatever we come to.”

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The T is already planning for a fare increase in 2019, the fourth since 2012. But the changes the agency is considering now would go far beyond just raising or lowering the cost of certain trips, and instead would set new rules.

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In public meetings, agency officials have mentioned time-of-day pricing, to encourage ridership during off-peak hours, and distance-based fares, which are already used on the commuter rail, as examples of possible new fare systems.

Other ideas include reducing prices on trains with low ridership, such as those during the middle of the day or that travel against rush-hour traffic. The new fare system would also make it easier to offer low-income riders reduced fares, which transportation officials have discussed for years but currently only offer to young adults.

Already some transit advocates are concerned by some of the ideas; for example, they see charging more based on distance as unfair to low-income workers — especially those who’ve been pushed by high housing prices to live in further-out communities.

“People who are making less money [and] are living further away from their place of employment would now have to pay more to get to their jobs,” said Leilani Mroczkowski, a community engagement coordinator with the Chelsea-based nonprofit group GreenRoots.

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Mroczkowski, who is on a working group to help the T develop policies, also opposes higher prices during rush hour, because service-industry workers with set hours have less flexibility about their commuting hours.

Mroczkowski suggested a system of consistent fares throughout the day, with rewards to riders who travel off-peak such as an occasional free ride. That too, would be possible with the new technology, MBTA officials said.

Paget-Seekins stressed the T is only considering its options, not leaning in any direction, and won’t make any decisions until after the new system is installed. The T will soon build a model to test changes in ridership and revenue based on different fare structures, which will help guide any future decisions, as will a lengthy public input process.

Officials have ticked off many benefits from the new all-electronic fare collection system, coming by 2021. Riders will be able to pay with a smartphone or credit card in addition to a plastic Charlie Card, and board buses and trolleys at all doors. And the MBTA could integrate its own system with other forms of transportation, allowing transfers between the train and the Blue Bikes system, for example.

The electronic system would make it much easier and faster to program in different prices, a big change from today’s system, which requires each individual fare reader to be reprogrammed.

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“It moves it from a horrible hardware problem to a much simpler software problem,” said MBTA chief technology officer David Block-Schachter.

The T has largely modeled the new fare collection system on London, which charges higher fares during rush hour, and has subway costs that fluctuate based on distance. Distance-based fares require riders to tap their payment card to a fare reader both when they enter and exit the system. The concept is not fully foreign: Washington, D.C., also uses differentiated pricing.

Jon Orcutt, director of advocacy for the national group Transit Center, said several US transit agencies are also considering different pricing as they develop new fare collection technology. Some are just now considering a system the T has had in place for years, allowing riders to transfer between bus and subway for one fare. The MBTA expanded that policy in 2016 to allow bus-to-subway-to-bus transfers at the cost of one subway ride, $2.25.

Orcutt encouraged the T to focus on fares that encourage more ridership, rather than something like distance-based fares that would make the system more complex.

“Simple fares are better,” he said.

That was the thinking in the Seattle area, where the King County Metro bus system recently shifted to one flat fare for all trips, eliminating distance-based and rush-hour premiums. Chris O’Claire, an assistant general manager for the King County system, said the goal was to make the fare system easier to understand both for riders and the drivers who often had to answer their questions. Previously, off-peak trips cost $2.50 and commutes during rush hour cost $2.75, with additional charges for longer trips. Now, all trips cost $2.75.

“We are hearing anecdotal information from our customers that the complexity of how you enter the system has been reduced, and it’s easier to access the system,” O’Claire said. “And that was a true goal of ours.”

In contrast to riders who only use the subway or bus, commuter rail riders in Boston are already familiar with complexity, with 21 different fares ranging from $2.25 to $12.50 based on distance. Some advocates have pushed the T to simplify the structure, especially by lowering fares on some stations closer to Boston. In the past, T officials have argued that the existing fare system is reasonable because even if longer rides are more expensive, they are cheaper for riders on a per-mile basis.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature ordered transportation officials to review fare rates on the commuter rail, including lower prices from certain stations, and different prices during off-peak hours.

The commuter rail is in for some of the biggest changes when the new fare system comes online. Until now, train conductors have visually checked riders’ tickets and monthly passes, or accepted payment on-board. With the new system, riders will pay by tapping their fare card or phone to a reader as they enter the train, and again as they exit, to determine how much they owe.

Some commuter rail stations may also get fare gates similar to those on the subway. Meanwhile, for the first time, the T will develop policies about combined fares for transfers from the bus or subway to the commuter rail.

Paget-Seekins said the T needs to get through these big changes first before considering a major overhaul of fares on the commuter rail or any other mode.

“It’s the last piece of the project,” she said. “There’s a lot of other stuff that has to happen first.”

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.