Monday, January 8, 2007

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One consumer's suggestions for the MBTA system overhaul

The MBTA has been in the process of overhauling its fare collection machinery over the past several months, and with the new year turnover, it finally made the switch to the new Charlie system of ticketing. The system-wide changed involved a pretty confusing array of price changes, ticket styles, and terminology. Bostonist has a good writeup of some of the more important updates.

Writing as a daily MBTA user, I feel that the overhaul was successful from a technical standpoint but not from a human interaction standpoint. The subway doesn't sit out there in a vacuum - it's used by a massive number of consumers, and as one of them, I can tell you, there are a few things I didn't see that would have been extremely helpful.

A large-scale information campaign
This system-wide redesign pretty much pulled the rug out from what I knew about the MBTA, but I feel like I barely saw any information from the source - all of my data came from blogs, employer email, and other secondary sources. A change this massive should have been drummed into us ahead of time until we were sick of it and ready for it to just finally happen already. Posters inside the trains, flyers on the station walls, brochures on every surface, simple downloadable PDFs to put on your bulletin board at work - these would have helped to really drive the information home. We should have been able to recite changeover catchphrases just like we can quote "I doubt it!"

Warnings close to the date
Related to the lack of information: I used an MBTA vending machine on December 30 and paid the standard $1.25 for a ticket. There was nothing near the machine to alert me to the price increase in two days' time. Likewise, when I was queued up at another machine on January 2, there was nothing to alert me to the new price increase except a large chart on the opposite wall, out of my sight. I remember reading about the price increase beforehand, but it hadn't entirely sunken in because I'm normally a monthly pass user. However (see below), I hadn't received my pass for the new system yet due to being away for the holidays, so this morning I opted for a one-time ticket instead. It took the guy distributing the Metro to remind me about the new ticket cost!

Choosing a different month for the switchover
The beginning of January is an awkward time to implement these kinds of changes. The system is filled with tourists and visitors, many residents are away and not present to get either information or the new reusable fare cards, students are returning or just arriving, and it's a cold and cranky time to have to wait in line at the vending machine or bus stop. I don't know what would make a better month - I don't have access to MBTA usage rates - but there must be a better time than January.

Clearer distinction between the types of fare methods
Previously, the fare system involved subway tokens for casual users and visitors and plastic cards (a new one each month) for subway passes. The new system involves tickets for casual and visitor use and a plastic rechargeable card for more regular use. However, the names used are "Charlie Ticket" and "Charlie Card", which has boggled not just my head but others' as well. These serve very different purposes and it might have helped if they weren't so similar in name and appearance. Why does the ordinary ticket need a special name at all? And if it does, couldn't it have had a different color scheme or mascot to distinguish it from the reusable pass? Even just putting the Charlie mascot in a New England-style tricorner hat would have helped.

MBTA vending machine with handmade sign alerting users to fare increase

An example of informational material available to users to alert them to the price increase. Keep on rocking, guys.

4 comments!     click to join in

1 Demon   (12:16pm - Jan 9, 2007)

How true. How very, very true.


Having plastic cards, which are the only way to get a lower fare, only available from human beings, who suggest that they may not be free forever.

It's just one more step, I think, toward the eventual push to get us all chipped and tagged and tracked all everywhere.


(Also, hello!)

2 Jeph!   (10:51am - Jan 10, 2007)

You know, maybe it's just me, but I saw PLENTY of advertising about the changeover to CharlieCards. Just, a lot of it wasn't very specific ... I wonder if they were going for the old "get them curious enough to seek out more information themselves" route.

In any case, I should share a different perspective on the handling of the changeover -- from a business point of view. I manage my company's Corporate Pass Program, where the company buys monthly passes for its employees in one go. And I have to say, although I received plenty of promotional material explaining how the changeover was going to go -- the MBTA fell flat on its face when it came to following through.

"We'll mail your company out enough CharlieCards for everyone. They'll get there by the 13-14th. Your new password for the new website is included in the package. When you get the Cards, enter the password and their serial numbers, and activate the ones you want. Orders must be placed by the 20th."

"Whoops, we didn't get those cards out the door on time! They'll get to you on the 18th or 19th, we swear. We'll just e-mail you your password ahead of time, so you can get your website account up and running. Final orders are still due the 20th."

"What's that, you pay by check? Well, maybe you should send the payment in now, before you actually place the order, to ensure that we have it by the 20th."

"Hmm, it's the 21st and you still haven't received your Cards? That's odd. Well, that's okay because our system shows that we haven't received your check either, even though you mailed it over a week ago."

"We'll just send you paper CharlieTickets for January. We'll figure out where your Cards are later."

(The CharlieTickets and CharlieCards arrive the same day -- the 28th.)

"Hmm, well, we'd appreciate it if you'd return the paper CharlieTickets, and activate the CharlieCards instead. Looks like enough people had this problem that we extended the deadline for placing orders until the 29th."

Long, slow, sarcastic applause. Excellent going, Corporate Pass Program.


3 Jeph!   (10:56am - Jan 10, 2007)

Oh, and the MBTA Corporate Pass Program website is the most poorly-designed, impossible-to-navigate, counter-intuitive thing I've ever experienced.

Even something as simple as the login area is fucked-up! In the "user name" box, they didn't want me to enter the company username we'd had previously -- they wanted MY NAME. I had to call Customer Service to figure this out. Earth to web-designers, "username" has a different meaning than "full name of program coordinator".



4 Ethan   (7:30am - Jan 11, 2007)

This is a great post. I hope you're sending it to the Globe and the MBTA.

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