Not too long ago I wrote a column exhorting more people to consider taking the bus, in which I was super excited about CDTA’s new Navigator card and how it makes bus riding easier.
But as the deadline approaches by which the system will transfer over entirely, I’ve realized I have to observe the downside of the shift as well.
I certainly stand by my call to people who haven’t tried the bus in a while to discover that the combination of smart payment cards or payment apps and the transit option on your directions app makes it a far, far easier process that it was 20 or 30 years ago.
But as is so often the case, advancing tech can make things harder for the most vulnerable. Specifically, in this case, I’m talking about the new limitations on paying on the bus with cash. You can no longer get change cards when you overpay with cash, and you can no longer purchase a day pass with cash on the bus.
For most of us the card will be far more convenient than cash anyway. It was easy for me to overlook the hardship these changes will impose because I have a credit card that I can link up to my Navigator with autobuy and not think about it. I will always have enough. But for people with limited access to credit, or even those who are entirely unbanked, it will make life significantly more difficult. If they want the benefit of the day-pass rate they will need to show up in person to a few locations (primarily libraries, Price Choppers, the CDTA office) to load their card ahead of time. They will either need to do this very frequently, keeping careful tabs on how much is on there and when they will be nearby a place they can load it, so as to not get stranded, or tie up a significant amount of money at a time in their card that they can’t then spend on other things if needed. If they want to use cash they’ll need exact change, often requiring an extra expenditure or at least another stop to get.
This is a classic example of the extra cost of being poor. Having an inconsistent cash flow is a sign of our times, as employers dole out shifts inconsistently, and more people rely on the gig economy. It might seem like not a big deal, and most people will figure it out most of the time, but all of those extra stops, those extra hoops to jump through, add up, especially for people who are already transit dependent. What else falls by the wayside to make this new juggling act work?
Luke Stoddard Nathan just reported that CDTA’s ridership has started to fall. This is part of a national trend—ridership in most major metropolitan areas is down, with the notable exceptions of a few places that have been heavily investing in new and improved transit offerings, including Seattle and Houston. Competition from ride-hailing companies and bike share accounts for some of it, as does cheap gasoline and more focus on using apps to bring things to our doors. But Nathan quoted CDTA as guessing that the switch to the Navigator card also accounted for some of the dip. That seemed odd to me, as I would have thought it would make it riding the bus more attractive, until I remembered that people who are transit dependent, and often poor, tend to be the lifeblood of a transit system. And if they aren’t taking the bus, odds are high that that trip just isn’t happening.
CDTA is not at all out of step with other transit agencies on this score either. In fact, it may be the only bus system I’ve encountered that hasn’t always required exact change when paying in cash. But it’s still important to acknowledge the tradeoffs that come with the loss of that option.
Access to good transit is one of the strongest factors in economic mobility within a region. Enabling CDTA to stay strong and not shrink routes or timetables is crucial—but it should be possible to do so with an eye toward accessibility across economic situations. Change machines near major bus stops? Free-standing ticket machines that allow you to add value to your card 24/7? Figuring out how to make money added to a card by phone or app available immediately instead of with a 48-hour lag? (All of these things would, incidentally, be an advantage for every Capital Region transit user.)