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Express Bus Service Goes Cashless, Leaving Some Riders In A Jam

Dashed Arrow Shumita Basu / Gothamist / WNYC

The MTA’s fleet of express buses, which whisk commuters back and forth between the outer boroughs and Manhattan for $6.75 per trip, are sometimes seen as the “luxurious” public-transit option. They’re generally calm, quiet commuter buses, where a congenial atmosphere prevails—some regular riders say they’ve seen people share a swipe or spare change with a fellow commuter who’s short on the fare.

Another shared trait of many express bus riders: they often live in areas where there isn’t a nearby subway station.

That has caused problems for some commuters in light of a new MTA rule that went into effect last week, eliminating cash fares on express buses. Now, the buses accept MetroCards only.

For most regular commuters, who have a weekly pass or auto-refilling EasyPay on their MetroCards, this change won’t matter much. But for some express bus riders it’s a major inconvenience, because until now they could pay the difference in coins when their MetroCards had less than full fare on them. This was a particularly useful feature for occasional riders.

Vittorio Bugatti is a bus commuter who started a Facebook group for fellow express bus riders in all boroughs. He has lived in southern Brooklyn, Staten Island, and now Riverdale in the Bronx, which means he’s been taking express buses for about 10 years. He said the handful of stores in his neighborhood that sell MetroCards were often out, and the closest subway station to him a 25-minute walk away.

“Mr. Byford takes the subway to work everyday, and he can walk to the subway and refill his MetroCard as many times as he needs to,” said Bugatti, referring to the president of New York City Transit. “People like myself don’t have the luxury.”

For some commuters, the deciding factor to take express buses isn’t proximity to a subway station, but accessibility and comfort.

Listen to Shumita Basu's report on WNYC:

Veronica White lives in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, about four blocks from the nearest elevated D station. She’s 64 years old and has bone-on-bone arthritis in her knees and ankles. From her quiet seat at the back of a Brooklyn-bound express bus, she said she’s been opting for the bus more often these days.

“It takes sometimes an hour and a half or two hours to get home by train, with bad legs, no place to sit,” White explained. “So I pay the $6.75 [for the express bus], just so I can sit.”

If she had to walk four blocks and take an elevator to access her nearest subway station just to refill a MetroCard in order to then walk to an express bus stop, she said she’d probably just take the subway more.

Bugatti wanted to know why the MTA put this no-coins policy into effect before implementing OMNY, the new contactless fare system which will allow commuters to use a smartphone or contactless card to tap-and-pay. The MTA said it plans to roll out OMNY on all Staten Island local and express buses, as well as some subway stations, in May. But there’s no word on when it’ll come to express buses in other boroughs.

“It seems a little bit like you’re putting the cart before the horse,” Bugatti said.

The MTA also explained this policy change by saying less than 1 percent of fares on express buses were being paid in coins, which does not justify the costly maintenance and upkeep of coin collection in the system. Eliminating coins, the agency said, will also speed up on-boarding.

That rings true to at least one bus operator, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. He said sometimes the fare box would get jammed while people were inserting coins, and he’d have to hold up the line just to fix it.

But would he kick someone off if they only had change? He admitted that he didn’t have the heart to do that. On a recent morning shift, when two passengers boarded with the exact fare in coins, he waved them on.

“I think a lot of people are gonna try to get on for free now,” the bus operator said sheepishly.

Shumita Basu is a host, producer and reporter in the newsroom. You can follow her on Twitter @shubasu.

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