Fare and Square: Car Design, Fare Collection, and Changing Technologies
The first horse-drawn streetcars required only one crewmember that both drove the car and collected payment. As cars became larger and electrified, these duties were customarily split between two crewmembers. The operator (or ‘motorman’) controlled the movement of the streetcar, and the conductor was responsible for signaling the operator, passenger safety, and collecting and registering fares. This separation of duties allowed the motorman to focus on dodging horse, pedestrian, and, later, automobile traffic, while the conductor could busy himself with making change, issuing transfers, and generally keeping order.
Passengers boarded through either the front or rear door and made their way to an empty seat. As soon as the boarding process was complete and the car was underway, the conductor said “Fares, please!” as he approached each of the new riders to collect their fare. In the early days, the conductor wore a vest with pockets for change and different fare types. Some of these vests even claimed to be pickpocket-proof with extra-deep pockets. Registering devices worn around the neck were also available, though these could usually store only a limited number of coins or tokens before they would need to be emptied into the vest or another larger box. In some systems, riders would deposit their fare into a portable locked box and pass it along to the next newly-boarded passenger until it was returned to the conductor.
As the streetcar’s popularity and physical size increased, collecting payment on the cars became slow and unreliable, especially during rush hour; the conductor had limited space to move about the crowded car and had to mentally track which passengers were new at each stop. With dozens of passengers, even the most diligent conductor would likely miss at least a few fares, particularly if a sly rider intended to evade the fare. To prevent missed fares and speed up operations, traction companies and car builders began to experiment with improving their fare collection methods.
The most successful early approach (and easiest fix) was simply to collect fares upon entry which would not only decrease the amount of missed or dodged fares but also increase the flow of passenger boarding, saving time along the route. This necessitated a streetcar design in which passengers could board quickly at one end and also leave without hindering the flow of incoming riders. This system, developed in 1905, is known as “pay as you enter” or PAYE, and many large and profitable systems ordered new single-ended cars best suited to these operations. In this PAYE configuration, the conductor was situated in the back of the car on a large platform from which fares were collected from boarding passengers. The motorman remained at the front of the car where passengers were encouraged to exit.
The success of the PAYE cars prompted a new era of car design improvements that were driven primarily by fare collection issues. (In fact, car design was fueled by fare collection for decades – only when fares were paid prior to boarding, with sale and collection entirely off the car, did car design become free from fare considerations.) A single-ended car with passengers paying as they passed by certainly helped with the fare evasion issue, but the dwell times as passengers waited to board the car still had room for improvement. The streetcar needed to be able to stop and go without delay, so companies had to find a way to deal with the line of people outside of the car.
Within a decade of the PAYE car’s success, “nearside” cars entered the scene in Buffalo. Thomas E. Mitten, a street railway pioneer involved with transit systems in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Buffalo, co-developed this design in which the operator, conductor, plus a double-wide entrance and exit door were all situated at the front of the car. The line of passengers previously waiting outside could now move inside to this ‘prepayment aisle’ as the conductor collected fares at the front of the streetcar, directly behind the motorman. The name referenced the strength the design was reported to have at stops located at the “near side” of an intersection where, before, passengers would need to traverse muddy, unpaved terrain to get to the streetcar’s back platform for boarding.
Even with a railing separating incoming and alighting passengers, it soon became apparent that this front area was a bottleneck at anywhere near peak capacity. A smaller door intended only for emergency use was located in the far back of the “nearside” car but ended up being used frequently, especially by those passengers who had chosen a seat near the rear of the streetcar and were not interested in fighting their way all the way back to the front door to exit.
Seeing the benefits of this prepayment area, street railway commissioner Peter Witt sought to decrease dwell times at the platform and increase passenger flow within the car. Witt’s solution was a car in which passengers enter from the front and exit from the center, with the conductor stationed at the center doors of the car. With the conductor at the middle of the car, the entire front section could act as a corral for unpaid passengers. After boarding, riders who paid their fare could move past the conductor to a seat in the rear of the car, but they also had the option of remaining in the front section and paying upon exit. Peter Witt cars were significantly faster to load than the earlier PAYE cars, with dwell times per station decreased by more than 10 seconds.
The increase in passengers and decrease in dwell times required the development of devices to assist with fare collection. For their recordkeeping, railways needed to keep an accurate count of the number and type of fares being collected. Fare registration required the conductors to meticulously monitor each payment or transfer and prevented careless or outright dishonest conductors.
Fare registers recorded a passenger’s payment in varying degrees of simplicity – some tracked merely the number of customers from the start to end of a trip or day, while other more sophisticated models recorded transfers, cash fares, tickets, and tokens. The Ohmer register and system, for example, could print reports showing data for individual trips or for particular conductors. Early registers could be portable and carried with the conductor or mounted on a bulkhead within the streetcar with large dials or counters activated by levers for the entire car to see so that passengers could be confident that their payment was recorded honestly. Conductors on busy lines would handle large amounts of coinage, and registers prevented the conductor from miscounting fares either accidentally or deliberately. Prior to the widespread use of registers, dishonest conductors or groups of conductors could pocket a portion of the day’s fares while appearing to have turned them all in by exchanging unused fares or counterfeit tickets with cash fares.
As devices to register fares evolved, many railways did not allow conductors to handle fares directly at all. The conductor oversaw the boarding of passengers and watched as they deposited their fare into a fare box. The conductor could make change or issue transfers as necessary. Early fare boxes were non-registering, meaning they simply held what was dropped inside. Some had a separate glass compartment on top through which the conductor could inspect the fare before activating a mechanism to drop the fare to a secure lower compartment. Fare boxes were locked and often accessible to only high-level railway company managers or accountants. Some also had a system of slides or chutes to prevent riders (or crewmembers) from reaching in or tampering with the fare box.
Registering fare boxes could sort or count the fares placed within and could even issue change from the bottom. Dials on the fare box could register the amount of money that passed through. Before the start of a run or a shift, the conductor or operator noted the reading. At the end of a shift or run, another reading was taken and the employee was responsible for turning in the amount of money registered. Different fare box manufacturers and types could register any number of distinct types of coins or tokens; early fare boxes could nearly all accept nickels, but as fares became more expensive, many had to be modified to accept quarters as well.
Just as fare collection matters influenced the design of cars, so did the design of cars change the way streetcar crews operated. Fare boxes, especially those that registered fares, were essentially performing the same job that the conductor used to perform himself. Always looking for ways to cut costs, management saw a potential 50-percent saving in labor costs: why have a conductor at all when the motorman can do everything himself? After all, the motorman is idle when the streetcar is not moving, and the conductor is not fully employed while the car is operating, so why not have a motorman-conductor who is occupied at all times? As street railways began to see more competition, particularly from jitneys (unregulated vehicles for hire similar to taxis that offered rates comparable to or lower than streetcars), the movement to eliminate the job of the conductor began.
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