Friday, August 10, 2012

Alternatives to the front door-only policy

Common "off-peak" conditions from the back of a Green Line train
The front door-only policy on the surface Green Line is continuing, despite grumbling from customers. The universities open back up less than one month from now, so we shall see how bad it gets then. I have been wondering if the MBTA ever bothered to analyze whether or not the policy is actually saving or costing them money.

According to the NTD, the operating expense of Boston's light rail is $216.45 per vehicle-hour. Therefore, each delay costs, on average, approximately $3.60 per vehicle-minute. The actual increase is in large chunks, as increasing trip times force additional trains and drivers into service. This also does not include the costs to passengers of having their time wasted by needlessly high dwell times -- an issue which also leads to excessive train bunching.

In the CTPS analysis of the now-effective fare increases, the projected revenue for July 2012 going forward is $0.96 per light rail rider. Therefore, using these numbers, we must be preventing at least 3.75 instances of fare evasion for each minute of delay on the Green Line, in order to justify the added expense to the MBTA  of running more trains. Again, this doesn't cover the costs to users of the system, or the cost of losing ridership as people become dissatisfied with the slowness of the service, and with being forced to push through crush-loaded vehicles in order to exit the front.

The front door-only policy is only supposed to apply outside of rush hour, so arguably the greatest opportunity for fare evasion is not being addressed by this policy. In addition, even off-peak, many vehicles emerge from the Central Subway already crush-loaded, therefore forcing people to the front door to push through crowds, even when there are no people waiting to board outside. I have personally observed a driver unwilling to open the rear doors on a low-floor trolley in order to accommodate a person on crutches, late at night, when there was nobody else around but the two of us.

Is there a way to speed up boarding and also crack down on fare evasion -- if it does prove to be significant? Is there a way to do this within the current system and without collective punishment?

One of the biggest steps they could take is to eliminate stations. Current station spacing on the "B" and "C" is obscene: 250 meters in some cases. They need to re-evaluate the stations and space them out no less than 400 meters, and probably consider 600-800 meter spacing. Another step they could take is to offer better discounted passes through the universities, targeting students who are often the most likely to dodge fares, combined with higher penalties for evasion. The current discount is about 11% but that seems a bit low. They may be able to negotiate mandatory transit passes for all students if the discount is good enough, and would probably come out on top of that deal. My alma mater started doing that for my sophomore year, and it was a great deal.

The proper way to handle fare collection is to move to a true Proof-of-Payment system. But that would require the installation and upgrade of fare-box hardware, or at least the elimination of cash boarding. One way to have random fare inspections without making any physical changes -- in other words, it could be implemented tomorrow -- is to post an inspector in the back of a random Green Line train. If and only if the inspector sees someone board questionably through the rear door, then she has the authority to check that person's pass.

They probably could do this with one or two inspectors, maybe sending them out to "hot spots" of fare evasion as noted by operators or cameras, as well as randomly. At first, the inspections could be done in an advisory form -- basically to assess the actual level of fare evasion. Then they could set targets for fines and inspection rates, according to the expected value for catching and fining fare evaders, compared to the cost of paying for the salaries of inspectors.

I know this is possible; I have personally witnessed it happening here in the past. But fines were laughable then, at $15, and didn't act as a deterrent, nor did they pay for the inspectors' salaries.

Whichever way they do it, the primary purpose should be to increase revenue and improve service. This is the opposite of the current approach, which seems to be more about inflicting pain in the pursuit of some moral ideal.

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