Thoughts on Systems

Emil Sit

Sep 22, 2006 - 4 minute read - Rants design transportation

MBTA Bus Idiocy

Today’s post is a cautionary tale for usability testing. The MBTA in Boston has been in the process of upgrading the entire T infrastructure to support automated fare collection, in the form of Charlie Tickets. The stated goal of these upgrades, including the new fare boxes being installed on buses, is to provide faster and simpler service. Public transportation is hard enough without slow boarding times. Unfortunately, the current impact of the new fare boxes (pdf) is the exact opposite of the goal: it makes boarding slower.

The old fare collection box allowed monthly pass holders to quickly swipe their card and board, taking less than half a second. The new box treats bus passes as Charlie Tickets which means they need to be inserted, read and then returned. This takes at least one second, maybe two. This means that during rush hour and at crowded stops, it will take at least twice as long to board all the passengers. I don’t take the T (subway) regularly but it may be a problem in subway stations as well. Bus drivers have noticed that this rapidly becomes ridiculous and have begun simply waving through monthly pass holders without requiring that the pass be read by the machine. I hope they weren’t relying on the fare box to measure ridership.

For the occasional rider, the new fare collection boxes only accept one coin at a time. The bus fare today is 90 cents. This takes at least five coins. The old boxes had a little funnel that would let them fall in without waiting for people to meticulously insert the coins. Now you have to carefully insert coins one at a time. Clever, no?

The main benefit today of the new boxes is their automated bill ingesters which makes it easier on the bus drivers who previously had special “stuffing” implements to jam folded up dollar bills into a tiny little slot. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really make up for the delays in getting people on the bus.

This latest upgrade only compounds idiocy related to new buses that the MBTA has acquired and deployed on popular routes. Never mind that their brakes still squeal; the seat layout of these new buses is simply awful. The best way to see why the new layout sucks is to compare it the old one with regards to how well it allows passenger to board the bus. The old buses (some still in use today) consist of a single-level reached by climbing a few steps from the curb. There is a section of facing seats followed by a section of forward facing seats and then a section of seats arranged in a U at the back of the bus. The middle seats are two columns: a single seat separated from a double seat by a wide corridor.

The new buses are bi-level. The boarding area and front two-thirds of the bus are on-level with the curb (up to the rear door). The rear third is up several steps. The first set of seats is about the same, but the bulk of the seats are now all forward facing, forming two columns of double seats separated by a narrow corridor.

When the bus is crowded, say at rush hour, there are two problems. First, the corridor up the middle of the bus is so narrow that it is difficult to squeeze past people with their backpacks, shopping bags, and baby strollers. People stand near their friends, near the rear door and clog up the front of the buss. This is exacerbated by the second problem: the steps in the middle of the bus act as a major disincentive to go to the standing/seating area in the elevated rear third of the bus. The result? The front of the bus is densely and uncomfortably packed while the rear is relatively empty.

There’s perhaps hope that when the Charlie Card becomes available in 2007 it will go back to allowing regular commuters fast and efficient boarding. That is what some Charlie supporters noted in response to a similar article on Bad Transit. Unfortunately, I suspect the buses will be around a lot longer. The MBTA ought to hire usability experts and run usability tests before approving bus (and subway) changes. It’s probably cheaper in the long run than upsetting and losing customers.