TO HEAR CRITICS tell it, the MBTA is abandoning immigrants, poor people, and senior citizens by adopting a new electronic payment system. The truth is: The T is just too nice.
The $723 million upgrade replaces the existing mishmash of CharlieCards, CharlieTickets, a commuter rail ticketing app, and cash fareboxes. It will dramatically speed up routes by 2020 by allowing boarding at front and rear doors, and by eliminating the time spent waiting on the 7 percent of customers who pay in cash.
Critics fear that vulnerable groups will be left behind — tech-averse older riders, people without bank accounts or proper immigration status. “These investments on the T are long overdue,” one T Riders Union organizer recently told a Globe reporter, “but we don’t want to do it at the expense of riders who are unable to pay electronically, for whatever reason.”
Yet there’s a price to everyone — including poor and elderly people — if the MBTA treats riders like helpless sheep who can’t adapt. When riders scrunch in the front of a bus, rather than boarding from both doors, the system suffers. And when a slow-loading bus takes forever to move half a mile, low-income riders pay with their time.
If anything, the T should have been giving customers a firmer push away from cash payments long before now.
Given the delays and frustration that its ancient equipment causes, the transit agency is loath to rile people up in other ways. Historically, the MBTA’s buses have made more stops per mile than those of other transit systems, but eliminating redundant stops is difficult and time-consuming. Likewise, the Green Line crawls its way to Brookline or Brighton partly because of the traffic lights, also because trolleys spend too much time idling at stops that are only two or three blocks apart.
In general, our transportation system suffers because policy makers fear antagonizing anyone. On busy streets in Boston, buses jam-packed with passengers inch along with general traffic, instead of zipping by in dedicated lanes, because City Hall has been slow to ask a few car owners to park elsewhere during rush hour. Opponents of gas taxes, highway tolls, and congestion pricing bemoan the burden they impose on the little guy — leaving us with traffic-choked roadways and an economy where, all too often, people can’t participate without buying a $20,000 metal box.
But switching to an electronic payment system doesn’t take a social revolution. It just requires a modest change in customers’ habits.
Obtaining a CharlieCard or its successor is, to be sure, the kind of chore that can take six months and 15 minutes to complete. Before the state moved to all-electronic tolling, there were drivers who plied the Mass. Pike every weekend but never got around to signing up for EZPass — even though it would have saved them time and money. Long after I bought a phone with a payment chip, I’d never used the option because no one had shown me how. Then, a few months ago, I found myself at a cash register with a broken credit card and an empty wallet. Instead of voiding the transaction, the cashier told me to hold my phone next to a nearby chip reader and press the button twice. Eureka!
The T and its vendor, Cubic Corp., won’t just have to educate consumers. They’ll also need to install more vending machines and expand the network of stores where people can top up their cards. Advocacy groups should hold the T to its promises. Fortunately, there’s also a virtuous cycle: Once bus riders can no longer pay in cash, there’ll be more demand for these outlets.
Regardless, any assertion that older people and non-English-speakers won’t be able to navigate this system is, to be frank, a little patronizing. The single most progressive thing the MBTA can do is make public transit the easiest, fastest way for people to get somewhere. That means finding ways to shave off a minute of travel time here and 30 seconds of idle time there — and asking customers to help.
Deferring to their old habits might seem like the nice thing to do. Giving riders a faster ride home to their loved ones is even nicer.