Investigating the Effects of a Common-Sense Change: Reducing the Bus Cash Fare

As one of the many changes made for the July 1, 2016 fare change, the MBTA reduced the price of the cash fare on-board buses from $2.10 to an even $2.00. This was intended as a common sense measure to make it easier to pay the exact change if a passenger was paying with cash-on-board a local bus. This fare was set at $2.00 in the 2012 fare change, but then increased to $2.10 when all fares were increased by 5% in 2014.

Now that we have a year of data, we can examine the effects of this decision. Clearly, this is a customer-friendly change: the fare is now easier to pay without having to find an extra dime, or receiving a 90-cent or $2.90 change ticket if one put three or five dollars into the farebox. But, if making it easier induced more people to pay with cash, that could be detrimental to the reliability and travel times of buses, as we have seen in other research.

Bus Short Transactions

When a passenger boards a bus or light rail vehicle with cash and does not pay the full fare, the operator can press a button to accept whatever payment has been entered as a “short” fare. This will also happen after a few seconds if the operator does nothing. This is both to re-set the farebox and also to count the passenger, who would not otherwise be counted by the AFC system. If a passenger evades the fare, the operator should press the same button to record a short fare of $0.

Note as well that many “short” fares are $1 — this could be people who only have a dollar with them, but there are also likely people in this category who are seniors or middle or high school students and qualify for a reduced fare. But their fare payment is misreported as a short fare by the farebox if they only flash their student or senior card.

The following charts show the year-over-year change from FY16-FY17 in the total number of short fares (excluding $0 short fares) and the number of short fares that were $2.00 even. Obviously, making the full fare on Local Bus services $2 greatly reduced the number of $2 short fares that were recorded, as now, the only way to pay such a short fare would be on-board a Green or Mattapan Line vehicle, or on an Express Bus. Note that at the time of analysis, a very small number of June 2017 records had likely not yet been probed from fareboxes, so the June counts may be slightly low.

A line chart showing the number of cash short transactions by month in FY16 and FY17
A line chart showing the number of cash short transactions of $2.00 by month in FY16 and FY17

The total short fares recorded for the fiscal year dropped from approximately 2,450,400 to 1,942,500, a drop of 508,000 or 20.7%. This is slightly higher than the difference in $2.00 short fares between the two years, which equaled 498,000. This difference could be noise, or due to fewer bus riders overall.

All payments on-board buses

The following chart shows the change year-over-year in cash payments at MBTA fareboxes, as a percent of all validations (taps or ticket payments using a pass), cash payments, and stored value transactions combined. In red are “short fares” (excluding short fares of $0), in green are the full cash fare, and in blue are the two added together. Note that “top-up” payments, which take the longest amount of time, are not included here as they are recorded as regular CharlieCard transactions.

A line chart showing the percent of short and full-fare cash transactions as a percent of all transactions at fareboxes by month in FY16 and FY17

As this chart shows, the rate of short fare transactions as compared to all payment types dropped by 0.35% from FY16 to 17, but the rate of full cash fare transactions increased by 0.63%. Overall, the percent of transactions using either full cash or short cash (so, putting cash directly into the farebox) increased by 0.29%.

A line chart showing the percent of all cash payments at fareboxes that were the full fare due, by month, fo FY16 and FY17

This final chart shows the same data in a slightly different way. This shows the percent of all cash payments that were the full amount due, and not classified as a short fare. This percentage increased from 42.28% of such passengers paying a full fare in FY16 to 54.97%.


The data show that roughly 500,000, or 20% of “short” fares became full fares after we lowered their price; however, making it easier to pay the correct fare did seem to induce a small percentage of riders to pay with cash. An additional possible benefit could be that making the fare an even number made cash payments take less time. We believe that the added convenience of not having to hunt for change and the likely increase in speed of even cash payments are an acceptable tradeoff for the increase in cash payments. Future research will look into this possibility.