It turns out that the Port Authority has a name for this system of paying your fare: It's called "pay in your country," a phrase which only enhances the Orient-Express mystique that, to me at least, is part of any mass-transit experience. Just think of your fare as a passport, a ticket that allows you to travel from the golden minarets of Carnegie to the dusky spice-laden skies of McCandless! That may not help you appreciate the fare system any better, but it will help you ignore that chunk of gum someone left on the back of the seat in front of you.
"Pay in your own country" is actually a fairly straightforward system. On most inbound buses, you pay when you get on; on most outbound buses, you pay when you get off. According to Port Authority spokesperson Judi McNeil, the system is designed so that, "You're always paying your fare where you live" -- your country. See?
There are a couple reasons for the system. The first is that Port Authority routes run on a zone system, in which fares generally escalate the farther from Downtown you travel. Obviously, a bus driver who took your fare when you got on board would have to trust you to pay him the correct amount. And clearly you, as a City Paper reader, can't be trusted. So don't even try it.
The other reason for the fare structure is to reduce what the Port Authority calls "dwell times." (Have you noticed all these obscure terms they use? They're like the Freemasons or something. And I'm told that if you know how to decode it, the color-coded snarl of their route map actually spells out one of the forbidden names of Beelzebub.) "We're trying to reduce the amount of time the bus spends at a bus stop, especially Downtown," says McNeil. "One of the issues that we always face with the city is the number of buses on the streets, so we don't want them to get hung up longer than they have to be."
McNeil, who I'm happy to report rides the bus herself, says that precious minutes are saved this way. "When I get on my bus in the morning, it's a good two or three minutes before it's on the way. Everyone has to go through the front door." By contrast, she says, "On the way home, we're all loaded -- I mean, we're all on the bus -- and going in less than a minute."
Of course, if you work strange hours like me, you've learned that in the evenings, you have to pay as you enter no matter which direction you're going. McNeil says this policy goes into effect at 7 p.m. each night because "We always want to make sure the reporters pay." That strikes me as a wise fiscal policy, and as O'Neil notes, once rush hour is over "there isn't the same concern about dwell times Downtown."
It's true that sometimes people sneak off without paying: On the T outbound, for example, people scurry out the front doors while someone else is occupying the driver by paying at the fare box. (If you've ever wondered how people can afford to live in Upper St. Clair, there's your answer.) But McNeil notes, "You're going to have a certain amount of fare evasion no matter what system you have."
Other transit systems handle the problem differently; on the St. Louis light rail system, for example, you have to buy a pass but you don't have to show it when you get on. But there are conductors prowling the system, and if you aren't able to produce a pass on demand, you can be fined hundreds of dollars. On the real Orient Express, if mystery writer Agatha Christie can be believed, all the other passengers conspire to kill you, leaving a little Belgian with a handlebar moustache to figure out the crime.
So really, the Port Authority's system could be much, much worse.