New MBTA website

Despite the griping during the changeover, I think the new MBTA fare system — a change in the costs and the method of collections — is a good thing. In tandem with the near-completion of the switch, they have also released their new website.

New fare system

The new fare structore eliminates and evens out a lot of discrepancies, which was one of their main goals as far as I could tell. Previously, there were some lines with exit fares, there were some lines that were free in some directions, and there were no subway-to-bus transfers, even though the subway costs more to ride than the bus. The new system eliminates those random freebies and exit fares. For holders of monthly subway passes, it also solves the problem with being unable to use your subway pass (more expensive than the bus pass) on the bus. They have eliminated the subway pass and created the LinkPass, which gets you the subway, local bus, and some of the ferries. (This is an amazing development that will make life so much easier. No more digging for change to take the bus! I think they will see bus ridership go up.)

The standard subway fare has increased significantly – it’s gone up from $1.25 to $2.00 (it was $0.85 in 1998). But, those of us who take the T frequently don’t have to pay that full price. If you purchase a monthly pass, you get a great deal; someone who uses their pass 40 times (twice a day for 20 days, which approximates a workweek-only commute, says me) pays just shy of $1.50 each ride. I think it is safe to say that most folks with monthly passes use them more than that. Plus, as noted above you can also take the bus with this pass. If you ride the subway frequently but not enough to warrant a monthly pass, and you use a new plastic, RFID-enabled CharlieCard to hold your fare (this is what the monthly passes go on now), you pay $1.70 per ride. So it’s still an increase, but what can you do? I know this puts a sqeeze on a lot of people’s budgets, but hopefully it won’t be completely disastrous for the city’s low-income folks.

New website

One thing that happened in tandem with the changes to the fare structure and collection methods is a redesign of the MBTA website. They launched it a few days ago, and had to take it down within hours because it was running slowly (d’oh!). It’s back up now, and it is much more useful. Subway and bus lines are overlaid onto Google Maps and it is much easier to get route information. For example, when you look up information about a subway line, you get a graphical representation of the line that names the stops, and indicates what other subway and commuter rail lines connect there. But it also lists the bus connections you can get at that stop. This seems obvious, but it is a major improvement (at least as far as I am concerned). On that same page, there is also information about escalators and handicap accessibility. The schedules are also much easier to read. And the station information pages have a ton of useful information, including a map right there! I can’t tell you how many times I went to a station info page to get the address or intersection so I could pull up a map.

Unfortunately, something they have yet to roll out is email and/or SMS updates regarding service. I would love nothing more than to get a text message informing me that there are delays on the subway or bus line I am about to go try and catch. I did read somewhere that this type of service is on the horizon. We’ll see. (Come on, Dan Grabauskas! You can do it!) Cool kids with a device running the Palm OS or Windows Mobile can download schedules and maps. Starts & Stops says that they can also be downloaded to video iPods, but that feature isn’t easily findable on the MBTA site. The only mention of it that my search turned up was in the Privacy Policy. I don’t have a video iPod, so I don’t really care. However, it does make me sort of want one now, just to be able to look at the maps & schedules on the go. Heck maybe it is worth trying to get ahold of a cheap Palm on ebay. Hmm.

Buying a pass

Anyway, in poking around on the website I just discovered this information, regarding the timeline for puchasing a monthly pass:

Monthly passes are sold starting the 15th of the prior month until the 14th of the current month.

So that means that from January 15 to February 14, you can purchase a February monthly pass. This is an amazing improvement to have a full month in which to buy your monthly pass — previously, there was an eight-day window (January 28 – February 4 to buy your February pass, for example). I haven’t noticed this bit of information promoted anywhere, and I think it should get out there!

I am betting that this change is due to the new way of selling passes. Previously, you had to go somewhere to buy (or pick up, if you got it through work) your monthly pass. Each month, you got a new physical pass for that month. That means that at all the sales points (supermarkets, convenience stores, etc.) the MBTA had to drop off and pick up the passes, and the merchants had to keep careful track of the money so they could account for everything to the T. With that kind of system, a shorter window is best for accounting purposes. Not as good for customers, but if that’s when you can buy your pass, then that’s when you buy your pass. It only takes missing your opportunity once to reinforce that yes, this is an important errand to get done on time.

The CharlieCards are more permanent. Each month, you can reload it, either online, at a fare vending machine at a station, or at a little kiosk in some of the places that used to sell the passes. (For people who get their pass through work or school, their CharlieCard will be automatically updated with their new pass, every month. Hopefully this is the way the Simmons semster pass will work.) That means the money goes straight to the MBTA, and they don’t have to run around dispersing and collecting passes. So, you might as well sell them for a much longer time period. This is an awesome improvement.

Overall I’m really happy with what’s been going on with the T lately. Yes, it has been a pain in the butt dodging construction in the stations as the new turnstiles and fare vending machines were put in. Yes it’s been a pain as commuters’ learning curves collide. And yes, there are still service problems (it recently occurred to me that the T does really well when they know there will be a service interruption, for example due to construction, but not so well when there is an emergency or something unexpected, such as a “disabled train”) and there’s always that nagging wonder as you wait for a late bus — did it come before I got here? Or is it late? — since there is nothing to indicate when the next bus is expected. But they can only do so much at one time, especially given the perennial budget problems.

So, props to Dan Grabauskas for putting the T on a better path. Now I know why Mr. Darius had such faith in him when he ran for state treasurer.

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4 thoughts on “New MBTA website

  1. I’m a big fan of the T upgrades too. Despite everyone’s griping, it will ultimately be a much better system. I used to get a bus pass because a combo pass was just too pricey, but this new LinkPass is just about worth the money what with the fare hike for individual rides. My biggest complaint so far is that the new fare boxes on the buses and the Green Line are very slow to suck in your card and spit it back out, so it creates delays as people are trying to get on the bus. Hopefully with the CharlieCard passes next month, the tap-and-go technology will speed up the process.

  2. Despite some improvements, I’ve still got a few grumblings.

    First of all, the thing about being able to buy a monthly pass from the 15th to the following 14th has been on the MBTA site for ages, and it’s never been true in any practical sense. So don’t count on it.

    Also, they’ve still done nothing to account for the fact that there are many of us who live within the city of Boston who end up having to pay more for a monthly pass than people coming in from Quincy or Alewife, because we’re dependent on the commuter rail. I live less than 5 miles from Simmons, yet I pay $3.25 each way ($106 monthly before the Simmons discount) to get to school, while someone coming twice as far from Braintree can do it for $2.50 (or $79 monthly under the old combo plus pass structure).

    I’ll stop whining now, but it really is irritating.

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