THE COMMUTE: If you do not have an unlimited pass and there are insufficient funds on your MetroCard, do not attempt to pay your bus fare by combining two cards. The MTA will deduct the remaining amount from the first card and a full fare from the second card, not just the amount you are short. That’s what Queens Assemblywoman Grace Meng discovered last week.
That is because the system was not set up to allow you to combine cards but to use cash to complete your transaction. This is not a problem on the trains since turnstiles do not accept cash. The system works fine if you are short just a quarter or so. But what if you are short $1.30? (Few people will have that amount of exact change in their wallet.) You would lose $0.95 and therefore would be paying $3.20 for a $2.25 ride if you use a second card. The problem is more serious on express buses where you could lose $5 if you do not have an extra $0.50 if you think using a second card will deduct only the money you still owe.
When using a second card, the system cannot determine that it is from the same individual because it was not set up that way for good reason. Passengers attempting to pay with a card having insufficient funds would often let someone else go ahead of them while they fumble for loose change. However, there are ways to correct the problem. The bus operator could be given the option to have the amount on the card subtracted, or to reject the card with the money on it still intact, depending if the passenger wanted to pay the remainder in cash or use another card instead. Allowing the use of two cards could be more problematic.
Although the system has always operated this way it has not been a problem until the last fare increase when the MTA changed the bonuses making it difficult to buy cards without having odd bits of change left over on them.
You can also avoid the problem by always carrying large amounts of change with you, which defeats the purpose of why MetroCards were introduced in the first place. Another way is to use a free app called “MTA Helper” available on iTunes, which tells you exactly how much money to add to your MetroCard, accounting for the bonuses so the number of rides comes out even.
No one knows how much money the MTA has stolen from its riders by overcharging them. If they were a private corporation, the Department of Consumer Affairs would not allow this “blatant theft,” as the assemblywoman calls it.
Not Our Problem
What is just as upsetting is the MTA’s attitude that it is not their problem, but the customer’s problem, since the farebox instructs you to pay cash if there is less than a full fare on the card. However, it does not warn you not to use another MetroCard. The MTA has put the onus on the bus driver to inform passengers not to use a second card according to Spokesperson Kevin Ortiz. Good luck with that. The MTA expects its customers to know at all times the amounts remaining on their MetroCards. How many people know their checking account balance? Not many; that’s why overdrafts were created. The MTA is placing too great a burden on its customers. It is easy to confuse MetroCards if you are carrying more than one, one with odd change and another with full rides. Also, if your trip exceeds two hours you could lose a transfer you thought you were getting and get caught short that way.
Subway riders can check their balance at special card readers. Bus riders do not have access to card readers if they do not also use the subway. They trust the MTA and most don’t even realize they are being cheated. The MTA is taking unfair advantage of that trust. A passenger’s assumption of expecting the system to accept a second MetroCard is not an unrealistic one.
Addressing the Problem
The MTA needs to address this problem. If the cost of modifying the system to give the bus operator options, or to accept two cards from one customer is cost prohibitive, the system could at least be modified to return cards if less than half the required fare is left on the card instead of assuming the customer has the correct amount of spare change. Or a message could be added to inform passengers that inserting a second card will result in a full fare being deducted so they are warned for the future. Signage on the buses, a note about the problem on the MTA’s website and publicizing the MTA Helper application on its website would show that the MTA cares about its customers.
Not addressing the problem sends a powerful message to the bus passenger that obtaining money they are not entitled to is more important than customer fairness. The MTA must recognize that if it is a problem for the customer, it is also an MTA problem. Just because roughly half the riders rely on unlimited passes does not mean the problem should be ignored especially when the use of unlimited passes are declining.
Since the December 30, 2010 fare increase, the use of 30-day passes has declined in most areas according to this article in The Wall Street Journal. An interactive map shows the differences by station. At the Sheepshead Bay Road station, the use of 30-day passes declined by 18 percent to 40 percent of the fares paid. In Brighton Beach, it was down 11 percent to 34 percent. No figures for seven-day passes are available at these stations. The statistics for Neck Road and Avenue U are meaningless since the stations were closed for construction for part of the period.
The governor appointed a new MTA Chairman this week — Joseph Lhota, a career politician — to replace outgoing chairman, Jay Walder, who was regarded by many as a transit expert. Was this the correct decision? Only time will tell. Gene Russianoff, spokesman for the Straphangers Campaign, believes the MTA needs a visionary as well as an advocate. I would tend to agree with him. Customer service must be as high a priority as balancing the budget. The MTA should care if it is unfairly obtaining money from its customers whether it is from collecting more than it is entitled to from the farebox, requiring that three-bus trips due to service cutbacks cost an extra fare, or unfairly giving summonses to undeserving customers. They should not rationalize that this extra money offsets what they lose from farebeaters and is, therefore, justified. That type of thinking shows a lack of customer concern.
The MTA will be at Community Board 15’s monthly meeting tomorrow night to discuss B44 Select Bus Service (SBS). Since 22 Limited bus stops will be removed when SBS goes into effect, and B44 local service will most likely be cut, for the plan to succeed, it is necessary that the MTA does not count a transfer between the local and SBS as the one bus transfer you are entitled to.
While some passengers may walk up to three quarters of a mile to access an SBS stop, during good weather because of its faster speed and frequency, how many will be will be willing to do that when the weather is raining, snowing, freezing, or steamy hot outside? On those days particularly, the locals will be very slow and overcrowded because transferring passengers may not be willing to pay a second fare to use SBS. You know that the MTA will do their surveys in fair weather and the media will only be interviewing content SBS passengers who are saving time, not local riders whose trips will not improve noticeably or may even worsen which will not be reflected in the statistics.
Allowing transfers between the SBS and the local without penalty is just another way that the MTA could show it that it cares about customer service. It will also help seniors who already require a bus or subway transfer who have difficulty walking and those who do not use an unlimited pass to also benefit from SBS.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).