Sunday, December 25, 2011

Charlie Cards

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority never seems to get public transit exactly right. We were all excited when they started a new system five years ago, with plastic stored-value cards. I keep my card in my wallet and just tap the whole wallet on the gate sensor as I enter the system. I even used to turn around and back up against the sensor without withdrawing the wallet from my pocket, but this got me into trouble with one of the MBTA shortcomings.

We use the same gates to enter and to leave the subway system. This means that an unsuspecting passenger can spend money from his stored-value card to open an entry gate only to be swept away by somebody emerging from the station. We all struggled with this when the Charlie gates first arrived, but now most people have gotten pretty good about joining a stream of traffic going one direction or another at each gate. Notwithstanding this cooperation, I confused a lot of people when I used to back up to the gate so it would read the card I was too lazy to get out of my back pocket. Not surprisingly, I kept getting overrun by people leaving the station when I was trying to enter backwards.

We all started getting new surprises in the last two or three months. Apparently it’s been exactly five years since Charlie Cards came out. We learned this because the cards expire five years from their first use. Lots of disappointed people discovered that their stored-value cards suddenly stopped working, regardless of the amount of money they held the day before.

I got caught with an expired Charlie Card today, and asked the station manager to give me a new one. Instead of a card, he gave me bad news. Everybody has been asking for so many new Charlie Cards recently that the entire MBTA system has run out of them. He didn’t know when they might receive new ones, so everybody is struggling with different forms of payment until the MBTA sorts out its supply problem. What I want to know, then, is why do these cards expire at all? I just can’t imagine how the MBTA gains more from killing old cards than they lose by facing a flood of free-card requests every five years.

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