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November 17, 2006

Tickets Please !

The Beatles were wrong when they sang, “she’s got a ticket to ride… and she don’t care.” Passengers on Metro-North do care when they’ve paid for their ticket, but they see others getting a free ride.

Uncollected tickets are second only to the stinky bathrooms in generating complaints to the Metro-North Commuter Council. And despite years of pressure from the Council, the problem persists.

Here’s the typical scenario: you’re on a train from Grand Central heading home in the evening. The train stops at Stamford (or Greenwich or New Rochelle) to discharge passengers while other intermediate commuters come on board, filling the previously occupied seats.

As the train proceeds, the conductor walks through the train asking for “Stamford tickets!” and a few honest souls proffer their passes. But having seen the new passengers who got on and where they sat, you realize the conductor didn’t collect all the newcomers’ fares. Why?

Because the conductor, working several cars on a train carrying more than a thousand passengers, isn’t sure whose ticket he collected leaving New York City and whose ticket needs to be collected having boarded at Stamford. That is, unless he issued seat checks.

Those stubby, colorful seat checks are punched by the conductor when tickets are collected, indicating the number of passengers in that row of seats and their final destination. At least they’re supposed to be punched.

Sometimes, perhaps because a conductor is rushed or lazy, no seat checks are punched and then new passengers get a free ride. Free for them, but hardly free for the rest of us who’ve paid for our tickets.

Before the introduction of the Ticket Vending Machines in 2002, most fares were collected onboard trains by conductors to the tune of $50 million a year, cash. Now, the cash collections are minimal, thanks in part to an on-board “service charge” (penalty) of up to $5.50 for boarding without a ticket. (And that’s on top of the cost of the ticket!)

Conductors on Metro-North make good money. And they do a very important job, opening doors, answering questions, directing passengers in an emergency. For the most part, they get high marks from commuters for their work. But being human, sometimes they cut corners, don’t do seat checks and lose the railroad a ton of money that we end up paying.

People who get a “free ride” on Metro-North are the transit equivalent of shoplifters. If you saw someone stealing from a store, wouldn’t you say something?

If I see a conductor miss a ticket, either because the conductor didn’t notice the new passenger or, more likely, the deadbeat passenger didn’t offer a ticket, I’ll say something to the conductor like “I think you missed this gentleman’s ticket…” and then smile at the conductor and the chagrined thief.

For repeat offenders, you can report the conductor on the MTA’s website (linked from the Commuter Council’s homepage) detailing the incident by train number, date, time and car location.

Metro-North assures the Commuter Council they’ll act swiftly on malfeasance. After one recent complaint, undercover inspectors were dispatched within days to ride the train and observe the conductors. When appropriate, disciplinary action is taken.

We’re about to spend over a billion dollars on new rail cars. And we’re always trying to postpone the next, albeit inevitable, fare increase. All of that money comes from us, as taxpayers and commuters. If we’re paying our fare share, shouldn’t we make sure others do as well?

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and Metro-North commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

Traffic Calming

You’ve seen the bumper stickers: “Slow down in town”. They’re an often futile attempt to encourage speeding motorists to be more respectful of the neighborhoods they zooming through, especially of the pedestrians. I wouldn’t exactly call it road rage, but why is it that when we’re behind the wheel our goal is to get on down the road as fast as traffic will allow, the speed limit be damned?

Of course in our own neighborhoods our interests are reversed. We curse “those idiots” who speed down our local streets ignoring the signs (and bumper stickers).

Increasingly, local neighborhoods are serving as short-cuts around clogged arterial streets, spreading out the traffic into our sleepy, bucolic ‘burbs. But there is a way to enforce the speed limit without radar traps. It’s what traffic engineers call “traffic calming”.

You might not know that the first US city to develop a master plan for neighborhood traffic calming was Hartford. And the second city will be Stamford. Already focus groups are underway seeking stakeholder input. And next spring there will be community workshops seeking neighbors’ input. It’s all part of a $1.1 million project lead by Hartford-based Urban Engineers. (For more info on this project, check the website www.stamfordtrafficcalming.com)

More than just “speed bumps”, engineers have a slew of street re-designs in their repertoire that can force us to reduce our speed. Among them…

SPEED TABLES: Think of these as extended speed bumps with a six foot long ramp up, a ten foot long flat table and a six foot long ramp down.

ROUNDABOUTS: Small traffic circles with landscaping in the center make us slow down as we go around, eventually taking a right turn to continue our journey.

CHICANES: These are the stubby picket-fence-like mini-roadblocks seen on some private streets, alternating their placement on the right and left sides of the road, forcing drivers to make a zigzag maneuver down the street. The same effect can be achieved by placing parking spaces alternately on the right and left sides.

BULB-OUTS or NECK-DOWNS: These are extensions of the sidewalk into car parking areas at corner crossings. Again, you gotta slow down.

SIDEWALKS: It’s amazing how many of our communities lack these pedestrian amenities, forcing hoofers to compete for space on the asphalt with cars. Sidewalks get pedestrians out of the traffic and encourage us to walk and leave the car at home.

CROSSWALKS: What a concept! A place where pedestrians have the right of way over cars, sometimes even mid-block and without the need for stop signs or red lights.

ROADBLOCKS and MAZES: These were inspired by anti-crime efforts in drug dealing neighborhoods (“crime calming”), making it hard for drive-thru drug buyers to find their way in and out of a neighborhood. Local residents know how to maneuver the maze, but casual short-cutters won’t try it again.

Of course, all of these traffic calming techniques assume that the major traffic arterials, where the cars belong, can be kept flowing with their own traffic tricks. Otherwise, we’re just spreading the gridlock into the neighborhoods.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident, transit activist and Metro-North commuter for 15 years. You can reach him at Cameron06820@gmail.com or www.trainweb.org/ct