06 November 2006

Not Fare

The public transit system here in the Boston area is operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or MBTA, but most people refer to it as the "T". This year the system is undergoing one of the most significant changes in its history, an updated fare collection system. Gone are the old-fashioned turnstiles into which riders would drop tokens (there was also a slot on top to read the magnetic strip on monthly passes). Riders no longer have to line up purchase tokens at a single fare booth in each station; multiple machines are being installed which sell fare cards that can be "refilled" with additional funds, and sturdier plastic passcards are scheduled to appear this month. (I'm still a little unclear on why they felt they needed two pass formats that do the same thing, and the explanation on the T's web site doesn't do much to clarify things.)

The transition is not yet complete, but about two-thirds of the stations have the new gates, and a similar system is being added to the T's buses. None of this matters to me, however, because I don't pay to ride the T. That's because, as I mentioned previously, I am legally blind, which entitles me to a special pass issued by the state's Commission for the Blind. I've had one of these passes for almost 20 years, and it's certainly been very useful, especially when I had a job about 25 miles from my home and I had to ride the commuter trains.

In the past I had to go to the token booth and show my pass, which has my picture on it, to the person inside, who would unlock the turnstile next to the booth to allow me to pass into the system. The new system is essentially replacing the token sellers inside the booths, so clearly I was going to need a new pass. Last winter I received a letter explaining that I would be getting a new pass with an embedded chip that would allow me to use the new system. I'd like to give credit to the T for handling this transition very well: I did not have to do anything. The pass was mailed to me well in advance of the new fare system's implementation.

After being shown how the pass worked (a panel on the turnstile "reads" the chip inside the ID card), I started carrying the pass and using it daily. One morning the turnstile area was more crowded than usual, and a mother with a couple of small kids and a stroller was attempting to go through the gate designated for wheelchairs (and the folks like me with special passes), because the wider gate made it easier for her to maneuver. Being a fast mover in general, and not wanting to miss the next train, I stepped to the side and pressed my pass against another turnstile. Nothing happened. I kind of guessed what was going on, and one of the T's "ambassadors" standing nearby confirmed it (none too politely, I might add): "You have to use the handicapped turnstile!"

Now, I want to be clear: I don't have an issue with being singled out as handicapped (though I can appreciate that there are those who might). I've lived with my disability my whole life, I'm fortunate in that it's not outwardly obvious and doesn't prevent me from leading a more or less normal life, and I do not have any special equipment such as a wheelchair that would require me to pass through the wider turnstile. But I feel there's a disparity in the system because, while
my pass (and presumably those of the other riders who have them) can be used only at that one special turnstile in each station for handicapped riders, any T rider can use the "special" gate.

I'm sure the percentage of riders with special passes must be very small relative to the total number of riders, but since my pass is permanent and does not have a stored value that needs to be refilled, what difference does it make which turnstile I use? In the interest of keeping things moving (and of fairness), it would be much more efficient and convenient to be able to pass through any turnstile. I could probably make the argument that it's discriminatory, because I honestly believe it is. I sent an email to the T's general manager and the manager of disability services asking about it, but I never received a response from either one.

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