Friday, May 12, 2006

Charlie Fairies Visited

"Old timer, where'd all these big rocks come from?"

"The glacier brung 'em."

"Well, where's the glacier now?"

"Went back for more rocks."

The MBTA version seems to be the Automatic Fare Collection project. The Park Square swells at the Transportation Department have never rushed to support the Orange Line and this project is no exception. However, they sort of, kind of, finally coverted the Forest Hills terminus while I was away. This has been months in the making and built out with all the suddenness of a quilting group.

Now, you have the same privilege as the other colored subway lines. You must enter at some places with your Charlie Ticket or Card, and you absolutely cannot use either -- tokens only -- at other stations on the same line.

I left Saturday morning, taking the Orange Line from Forest Hills (token only) to State Street (I stayed underground, but it is also token only in a similar state to FH) to the Blue Line's Airport (Charlie only for entry). I knew I would be returning on an overnight from Nevada. So, I went to buy a Charlie Ticket to prevent a rush-hour backup on the return.

The well-intentioned T lackey at Airport was not confidence inspiring. Where I have seen the conversion, such as at South Station, the T knows it's Byzantine and has employees hovering around the vending equipment to prevent exasperation.

This character was not a great marking person. First of all, he urged me to buy only one ride's worth. Stop for a moment to imagine if all riders during the transition loaded a single ride on a Charlie Ticket, and repeated that everytime they were at a Charlie-enabled station. Right.

The machine was clearly not from a usability lab.

Likewise, the readers present feeding issues. For those with a lot of computer experience, the 5.25-inch floppies come to mind. They had eight ways they would fit in a drive slot, seven of which were wrong and would not work. You learned to feel or see the cutout tab to orient the floppy each time. Similarly the vast majority of Charlie Ticket users have ticket feeding issues, which suggests that it is not their shortcoming, rather the equipment's. There are four ways to feed a ticket, three of which are wrong.

Counter-intuitively, the back, white side of the ticket must go up. Then it must feed only orange arrow first (dark station, orange on white for guaranteed confusion). Clearly, the equipment should be able to read these cards in any of the four ways they accept the tickets. Anything else is madness and a paternal insistence on training each user in a single technique. Inane. Whoever specified this system must have a chauffer driven ride to work.

I put $10 of value on the Ticket, despite the opinion of the T guy. This too was not as easy as it should have been. The equipment does accept tokens to increment a Ticket's value. Short-term that's nice to help people get rid of their tokens, but why would you build this permanently into a system designed for Ticket and Card only use? It's more to manage and maintain.

It also takes cash and credit or debit cards.

Then the machine is not user-friendly or considerate. First, it is quite vertical; riders must adjust their height and angle to comply with the machine to see the options and use the functions. Duh. Then the feed for credit card or debit card is badly designed. Even worse than typical grocery stores' swiping systems that are ambiguous about which side of the card to put in the slot, this shows a tiny, fuzzy representation of the numbers on the face of the card. I hung around to watch one person after another fumble to see what to do. This is poor design. The graphic should have been larger and clearer and embedded wording should also appear next to it. This alone will cause many hundreds of lost rider hours and much frustration.

Returning on Thursday a little after dawn, I found the entry with my Ticket slower than using a token, but acceptable. Clearly here again, it will be the job of the riders as it was in D.C. to learn to add extra moments here and there to use T Daddy's system. This is a user-tolerant, not user-friendly system.

Transferring at State, I saw the same transitional setup as had been at FH. Tarps hide the pending equipment. Riders throw tokens or coins in a steel box -- the honor system.

At FH, the equipment was kind of working. I had not anticipated what a clot of humanity would fight for space at rush should, bidirectionally. The reader/gate systems are also the exits. Commuters want in and out simultaneously. It makes me wonder what happens when an exiting rider appears when the Ticket feeding commuter has fed the scanner and triggered the gate. Will this decrement the Ticket if the exiter goes through?

Anyway, this was a huge pinch point. At busy stations, there must be independent exits or there will be screaming, shoving and fisticuffs. Imagine Boston drivers on a single-lane, bidirectional street.

So, I return to a quasi-operational Charlie-ized FH. If I bike to work, I don't care. If I take the T, for at least a month, I need my new friend Chuck at FH and a token at Downtown Crossing. Lame, slow and not well planned.

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Anonymous said...

>I put $10 of value on the ticket


The damn things go bad if you keep them in your wallet for a couple of weeks; and once they do you can't get your money back because - well, the ticket is unreadable!

I never had problems like this in DC.

massmarrier said...

Major bummer. Thanks.

I'll see if I can find anything about that. The ticket itself has an expire date, a year and one-half out. That too seems odd; they have the money and can use the float -- why should it expire at all?

Also, one of my kids who gets the T pass through school has managed to wash a paper ticket. The old plastic ones would wash and try okay, but the paper Charlie becomes mush.