signage

Fare Collection and Validation a Branding Problem for the MBTA

Every day on the Green Line, hundreds of light rail trains open their doors to let passengers board and many folks board through the back. In many other countries, this isn't so much a problem since fare collection usually happens on the platform. Here in Boston, fare evasion is a way of life because not all platforms have fare validation machines and the ones that do barely make clear what they're for.

Gator board signage has shown up at many stations with instructions on how to validate and why. They are very text-heavy and in the same style as the press release-style, copy-pasta signage that I first sought to correct and eliminate three years ago when I first started this blog.

Taking Resevoir as an example of this failure to bring attention to instructional signage and design that signage well, we see that the sign doesn't stand out at all as you come down the stairs onto the platform. If you're coming from the other side of the booths, you won't even notice a sign because there isn't one.

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As riders come closer to the sign, it becomes apparent that the sign is a wall of text. If you actually read it, you learn the MBTA calls these booths 'Fare Array Huts'. Otherwise, there is no clear warning about the penalty for fare evasion, which may as well be a good thing since there seems to be hardly a soul who gets ticketed and the so-called 'Inspectors' don't make frequent inspections; it is almost an empty threat to warn of a fare inspection and penalty with no proper process to enforce it.

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Once you get to the doors of the booth, there is even less of an indication of what these machines do.

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When you actually get into the booth and get in front of the machines, it's not very clear what 'Ticket/Card Validation' is and beyond the fact that it will 'deduct fare' there is not clear indication of what this machine will do. Why would anyone with a CharlieCard smart card, loaded with monthly pass and/or cash fare, tap in order to receive a paper CharlieTicket? This is especially confounding for or unclear to people unfamiliar with the proof-of-payment method of fare collection, which is a massive swath of Americans who either don't have access to transit or are used to metro (fare gates), bus (on-board payment at farebox), or commuter rail style (ticket and conductor) fare collection. Only after you tap do you get instructions on-screen to hold onto the ticket in the (unlikely) event of a fare inspection and that the ticket is your proof of payment.

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Standing next to the larger machines, the similar physical vocabulary and shape of the devices is plain and homogenous. Compare and contrast this with New York City MTA's full-size cash-accepting ticket vending machine (TVM) and the card-only TVM (below). To people from other systems with two different types of fare vending machines, or even people for whom the T is their home system, the smaller ticket validator machines look outwardly like mini-TVMs. I know when I first visited Boston, I myself was confused about the devices and actually tried to add fare on my CharlieCard with one.

As high a literacy rate as we may have in this country, we are all still bound by the very basic principle that we are humans who live in a complex world and are bound by the process by which our brains filter and perceive the most pertinent information; in short, we will see the physical shape and design language of the machines before we ever stop to read about them.

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New York City TVMs

In many other systems across the world, ticket validation and strict policing of fare collection with fines and even criminal charges is a way of life. These machines require little to no branding, but are clear in their purpose in the context of a society where proof-of-payment transport systems are a way of life and in the simplicity of their design.

Ticket validator in Germany on the Berlin S-Bahn (commuter rail)

With all of this said, is it worth it for the MBTA to take a more proactive and less reactive approach to all-doors-boarding, fare collection, ticket validation, and fare evasion? Absolutely. Is it a priority? Definitely not. Remember in my previous post that the cost of fare evasion to an agency is not only nearly negligible compared to total revenue collected, it is next to impossible to estimate and is a loss that, if recovered, would not be nearly enough to begin closing the growing operating budget gap caused by much more serious funding issues above the MBTA and outside of its control.

Legislation will soon be introduced by Secretary of Transportation Davey that will hopefully address the real need for more strict penalties for fare evaders and give Inspectors and plainclothes transit PD the real power to hold accountable those who are effectively stealing a public service by evading fare collection.

Of course, there are many other times people get on without paying, including those times that drivers wave people on, whether because they need to keep to schedule or a rider has large bills and cannot reload fare at the fare box. There is also an alarming regularity with which doors are simply left open for riders to get on at terminals before the train and fare box are programmed for fare collection. These are policy issues that need to come down from the top with better management of lower-level employees.

That said, let's not lose focus of the fact that these are trivial pursuits with respect to the larger funding issues that threaten to cut bus, train, and ferry service across the region. As The Walking Bostonian notes, fare evasion quickly becomes an emotional issue that blinds people from considering the return on investment of more strict enforcement (under existing penalties and operations practice). The recovery of under $830,000 (a projection of the original $400k estimate in 1984 assessed by the MBTA as the annual loss in revenue from fare evasion, not factoring in recent record ridership) is barely enough to run most routes by themselves for a whole two months. (Other estimates place annual losses in the millions.)

The real problem is at the State House, where legislators hold the power to properly budget for necessary transport services and infrastructure, which they have not done for many, many years, despite earnest attempts to do so.

Consumer Advocacy Group Decries MBTA's Sale of Station Naming Rights

AT&T Station in Philadelphia, PA (formerly Pattison Station) The Public Citizen's Commercial Alert released a public letter yesterday to MassDOT CEO and Secretary of Transport Rich Davey speaking out against the ongoing efforts to sell station names to corporations in an attempt to close the $160 million operating budget gap.

Commercial Alert is a Washington, D.C.-based consumer rights advocacy group under Public Citizen whose agenda is to 'keep commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting higher values of family, community, environmental integrity, and democracy.'

This news came in yesterday evening from the Metro and was mentioned in this morning's paper.

If the budget gap isn't closed, the MBTA may have to reduce service or cut certain services entirely, but if the MBTA continues this path, the amount it will gain from the naming rights sale to close the gap is dubious.  While Commercial Alert's primary objection to station naming rights is mostly to do with their issue with over-commercialisation and the idea that the city is explicitly endorsing certain products, behaviours, services, and corporations through naming stations after corporations, they also pointed out a fact that we have seen before:

As you know, attempts to sell naming-rights to T stations have not been successful in the past. Taken together, the lack of interest from corporations and the vehement opposition of citizens to these past plans should be enough to suggest that selling naming rights is still not the right direction for the MBTA. Not only does this plan compromise the public nature of transit services in the Boston area, it is also unlikely to alleviate the financial strain the MBTA is currently facing. In other cities, transit naming rights schemes have not yielded significant revenues. In Philadelphia, the recent deal between Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and AT&T will yield $3 million over five years. In New York, a twenty year deal to rename a Metro Transit Authority station after Barclay’s will yield only $200,000 per year. Were the MBTA able to raise similar revenues from its planned naming rights sales, they would amount to a drop in the bucket when compared to the reported $150 million deficit the MBTA faces for fiscal year 2013. Moreover, private corporations stand to benefit from any revenues the Transit Authority is able raise; consulting firms in the aforementioned examples have taken significant cuts of sales revenues, as they will in Boston.

While we may need to pinch pennies and make every dollar count (which the old MTA CEO set out to do earlier this year), we need to decide if selling the names of our stations is worth the effort. Before we can make that assessment, we need to wait for IMG Worldwide to finish their assessment of the market; no doubt they will find tepid interest from corporations as has been the case in the past and for other systems.

What's In a Name? MBTA Sells Out Boston In Its Naming Rights Plan

The question is on the table again as the MBTA moves forward with its interest in selling naming rights as IMG Worldwide as been announced as the firm that will conduct a 'a thorough analysis to determine if there's a market for naming rights and what the value would be', according to Joe Pesaturo of the MBTA.

Boston is not unique in its operating budget issues, nor is it unique in some of its attempts to close the funding gap. About a year ago, Boston joined New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Austin, Toronto, and New Jersey in the growing list of North American transit agencies trying desperately to close operating gaps with a funding concept that is an illusion and hardly effective for actually raising the revenues that agencies claim.

To bring it home, one of my followers on Twitter brought to my attention a sponsorship from 1997 to 2000 by Citizens Bank to rename State on the Blue and Orange Lines to State/Citizens Bank. The sponsorship eventually failed and the station's name was reverted.

Ben Kabak in New York has written numerous posts on the issue (in the numerous links above), so I won't bother rehashing a topic. I will however highlight one particular public-private partnership that Chicago capitalised on, which was the $4 million rehab of the North/Claybourn station, all paid for by Apple. If we're going to be selling the system to private entities, why not work with them to refurbish the system or even build out revenue-generating properties without selling the property or rights to profits (Chicago lost $11 billion from a poor leasing agreement of its parking meters to Morgan Stanley)?

While we shouldn't necessarily be relying on commercial entities to be paying for and completely refurbishing our public infrastructure just so they can use them as their own vehicles for advertising, public transport is in an ailing state. Budgets are tight and will continue to get tighter until the costs (of construction and maintenance) are reined in and publicly owned property can be made more profitable.

Of the latter, these public-private partnerships could be used to capitalise on unproductive, low revenue-generating properties owned by the state, such as station head houses, rights of way, and station platforms themselves. Looking at just Porter Square, why is the Shaw's located so far away from the public transport hub that likely brings in the majority of its business from commuters picking up their groceries on their commutes home? Why is there not a passage under Somerville Ave to connect to a basement level of CVS or another business and provide a safer crossing of the major boulevard? This is the ultimate form of not only transit-oriented development, but also leveraging MBTA property as convenient and profitable real-estate to developers. We may be far from Japan's platform-side malls and ramen shops, but it's high time the MBTA start pushing its property and really engaging with developers and private entities to serve the public more directly.

I'd rather be able to grab a fresh bowl of ramen and groceries conveniently on my commute home than ride through Apple/Copley Square or Macy's/Downtown Crossing, especially if I know that one initiative is more likely to keep the trains running, the lights on, and the buses well-maintained.

MBTA's Fare Enforcement Campaign Dead on Arrival

MBTA Fare Evasion Sign The MBTA is at it again, but this time they're not simply introducing more inspectors to roam the system with a campaign to get people to 'pay [their] fare' because '...it's only fair'. MassDOT Secretary Davey has announced he is introducing legislation next January to the legislature to make more penalties for fare evasion more severe. All that has been announced is the increase of the first time fare penalty to $100, up from $15.

According to existing legislation (MGL Ch.159 Sec.101), there is a 12 month grace period to pay the pitiful fine before they notify you of your late payment and give you an additional 90 days beyond that before they prevent you from renewing your license. That is, if you even get charged the fine by the inspector or police officer. More often, they will simply ask you to pay your fare. Furthermore, these fines are non-criminal citations that barely have the gravity to make someone think twice about evading fare.

While Secretary Davey has yet to formally introduce the legislation, I am honestly unsure how effective these big pushes will be over time if the MBTA cannot sustain the manpower for frequent and random sweeps by plainclothes Transit PD with concealed ticket readers/validators (like transit gestapo...). You should always feel pressured to pay your fare in case you get fined; the fact that people still don't feel that way today is proof this has already failed.

Further, $100 is hardly enough for a first time fine, especially when other systems, even in the US, charge considerably more. In Portland, Oregon, fare evasion will cost you $175 and in London, it is a misdemeanor for which you will receive a summons[PDF].

The most problematic behaviour induced by the current penalty for fare evasion and lax policy of enforcement is fare evasion on the Green Line. People often sneak onto trains through rear doors, especially on crowded trains. The incidence of random fare validation checks by plainclothes transit police is few and far between or at least infrequent enough to not deter even the least daring Bostonian (or exhausted commuter) from not paying their fare.

While the number of citations is up to 3,248 this past year from 818 in 2007, how effective has this really been in closing the gap? In 1984, the MBTA estimated a loss of $400,00 in fares from evasion, which adjusted for inflation would be twice that amount, not factoring in the last two decades of fare increases and record ridership (of which has been recorded through fare collection) the system has seen. The current loss could well be in the millions of dollars, enough to cover the cost of running a bus route or two, let alone the improvement of several routes as part of the MBTA's cost-effective $10 million Key Bus Routes programme.

The platform-side ticket validators should be leveraged as part of the MBTA's campaign instead of deploying personnel to simply monitor stations for a short blitz. They are at most major surface-station stops  so you can validate your card as you wait or as the train is loading and board at the rear doors. As it is, most people don't see the purpose, few know what they do, and many don't realise they even exist.

The tickets they vend are proof of payment (and a receipt if you don't have a LinkPass) and you are supposed to hold onto them, not put them into the fare box on the train; some drivers will collect it from you if you hold it up and say 'fare validation', but they're not really supposed to. If I board at the rear after validation and a driver asks me to pay up front, I politely shout back that I've validated my fare. Drivers should be reminding you to pay your fare, not commanding you to come up to validate.

The MBTA needs to stop with these high-cost, high profile efforts, properly deploy all-doors boarding, should have pushed for this legislation sooner, and should also be including into the legislation more robust provisions to ensure that tickets get paid on-time (or at all). The MBTA has botched up all-doors boarding and proof-of-payment several times; this time the MBTA has an excellent opportunity with the high-profile announcement of the upcoming legislation to really reduce fare evasion.

This legislation should have been put forward years ago as the CharlieCard was introduced and the infrastructure to support it was installed. It should not have been prompted by a severe budget shortfall, but it is possible the leadership to push such legislation may have not been at the top. Davey's predecessors, both at the DOT as Secretary and MBTA as GM, were administrative characters who sought to run their systems, but were conservative in their approach to change.

While Davey may credit them for the work that they've done, she should take the credit for pushing through the significant changes he has done in his 3-year meteoric rise to his current leadership position. So far, he is taking to heart the popular mantra in transport: organisation before electronics before concrete[PDF]. Is he the Robert Moses-like leadership Massachusetts needs for its transport network?

I challenge him to prove his leadership by presenting a unified vision of transport for Massachusetts in the next decade, because in dire times, we still need a vision to work toward and not simply a state of good repair to settle for.

Communication as a Service to the Customer

The MBTA's at it again with their signs. This time they had a template, but still managed to turn an opportunity to communicate with its riders into a  block of blithering text. Even worse is the fact that the text comes roughly from an MBTA press release that was verbose, redundant, and awkwardly phrased to begin with. These posters, which were first sighted Wednesday evening, were posted in few places around Alewife and Park Street stations, including on some blank A-frame sign boards next to another sign with poor body copy. The other signs present at the station posted construction updates on the switch just south of Alewife. (Photos at the bottom of the post.)

General Manager Rich Davey has stated his focus is on safety and customer service, and he reiterated this on a recent visit to Springfield. If he and the MBTA are serious about customer service, it's imperative that they get their act together and work on communicating with their patrons. It was said at the first meeting with the GM over three months ago that the MBTA does not do enough to tell its own story, to advocate for itself, and essentially keep riders informed. However, one would be hard pressed to find improvement in the communications side of customer service if many of those methods communicate very poorly to begin with.

I've focused a lot on signs and posters mostly because they're a passion of mine, but also because they are the perfect test for the agency's ability to communicate critical customer service-related information to riders efficiently and conspicuously. A family of four visiting from out of town managed to miss a sign that was right next to them at Park Street. When I asked them their thoughts on the sign, they noted that the reason they didn't notice the sign was because it simply wasn't conspicuous enough. Surely there are better ways of engineering the signs to be more conspicuous than having MBTA crew dress up like the American stereotype for a terrorist and walk around with the signs.

As of this posting, there still isn't a conspicuous notice about the emergency response drill on the main MBTA page and no immediate indication from the main page that such advisories even exist. Further, there is no information available online on the construction updates at Alewife. When all is said and done, the MBTA needs to work on communicating efficiently and clearly, in their signs, press releases, and other communication methods. If they don't, their attempts at informing riders will go unnoticed and the agency will continue to look like a bunch of bureaucrats doing an amateur job of serving the greater Boston area.

As usual, I've included my own revisions below, linked to PDFs of the revisions.

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New Signage Pilot due for next Service Change

After grabbing the attention of some folks on the web and at MassDOT/the MBTA, I’ve set in motion the steps to a better method of alerting fellow riders to upcoming service changes. At a meeting with my contact at the MBTA this past Friday, I handed over the template designs and uncovered a few ugly truths about signage and rider communication at the MBTA. When put to practice, the signs will not be placed within the trains themselves, as I had done the night of 6 May, for ‘union reasons’. Instead, they will likely continue to be deployed as ‘seat drops’, which basically means they’ll end up face-down on the floor under the seats after the morning rush comes in to peel them off the seats. I regret not having pressed harder for a better solution. These signs will also go up in stations, ideally in place of the large vinyl walls of text that have normally accompanied service changes.

Ultimately, all signs now deployed on the T for service changes are currently done line-by-line by each line manager, but this isn’t really news to us. What’s more distressing is that whatever design and brand integrity team that used to exist at the MBTA as part of the public relations team no longer exists, likely due to successive budget cuts and the resultant position eliminations that have happened over the past few decades of federal, state, and municipal disinvestment in transit.

A well enforced brand identity breeds comfort and familiarity and makes it easier for riders to passively spot helpful information, such as line maps, emergency procedures, or wayfinding signage. Splintering of this visual continuity hampers this and makes communicating with passengers much more difficult and energy intensive. The MBTA needs a brand and passenger communications czar; Joe Pesaturo and his team has their hands full with outward-facing communications with news media and internal communications at the MBTA.

In any case, the signs will make their way to the public relations team who will apply their touch to the designs and push them out as a template to the line managers. How it develops from there is up to them, but Josh Robin plans to keep me involved in the project. At the moment, my next step is to create a web app that will allow line managers to create the signs with an intuitive form using drop-down menus and canned statements that have been pre-approved by the public relations team. Anyone interested in contributing his/her web technologies talents should express his/her interest in comments below.

On the T with MBTA GM Rich Davey

I don't often travel on the T after 8 for various reasons, all unrelated to the number of notices I get via the T-Alerts emails about delays. Last Thursday evening it was an unavoidable affair, but it was certainly fruitful. MBTA General Manager Rich Davey, another person, and I were all heading home after the joint MBTA-MassDOT Developers event, Where's The Bus? 2.0 and we got stuck on a southbound Red Line train at Charles-MGH due to a broken down train at Park Street. Our idle chatting turned into an impromptu interview with the new GM nearly 11 weeks into his appointment.