The heaven and hell of public transport in the US: Exit fares and 90’s sitcoms

San Francisco Exit Fare

New York City is well-known for its sophisticated IRT system: hundreds of buses and kilometers of underground train rails ensure that millions can easily navigate through the Empire State’s largest concrete jungle. For any foreigner, regardless where you’re from, it adds to the unique experience of visiting the Big Apple.

But just like you can’t compare Cape Town to the rest of South Africa, you can’t compare New York City or its subway system to any of those in other major US cities. However, I tried to do just that, hoping to find a similarly pleasant experience when making use of public transport. I mean we now have this luxury in Cape Town because we’ve always been told we’re “missing out”, right? How very silly of me and how very wrong we are.


Traveling east from New York you’ll find Boston in Massachusetts, home to the original Cheers bar. Boston was the first US city to build a subway system in the late 1800s. Although it never grew to New York’s size, the signage, effectiveness and cost of traveling on Boston’s MBTA System (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) is fantastic. Similar to New York, a card can be purchased which allows you access into a train station or bus with no need to swipe it again before exiting whichever station you choose to exit at. But the name of its traveling card, introduced by then-governor Mitt Romney, explains how fare cards through the rest of the US function. Named after a 1950s song “M.T.A.” about a guy who gets trapped in the subway because he doesn’t have enough money for exit fare, a Boston fare card is called a CharlieCard.

Why did Charlie get stuck in the subway? Because someone thought up the insane concept of an exit fare – something I now call Hell.

Exit fares were introduced in Boston as a way to collect money from those using the subway system upon reaching their destination. It was seen as a cost-cutting method for the MBTA who could increase fares through it without upgrading the ticketing machines at station entrances. But because of people like Charlie who got stuck in stations without a nickel to exit and consequently becoming “the man who never returned”, Boston finally brought an end to exit fares by introducing CharlieCards.

Now you only need to swipe the card when entering and can exit without it. In my case however, I didn’t need a CharlieCard. Some friendly local, who couldn’t speak English, grabbed me by my arm and let me to enter a station walking hand-in-hand. There are no turnstiles, like in New York, at entrances to Boston subways. Instead giant walkways, reminiscent of the walkway given to Moses upon parting the Red Sea, open in front of you allowing an obese American to enter with ease.


While you can easily navigate your way through Boston without a car, California makes this impossible.

Having said that San Francisco is more compact than Los Angeles, a city where much like Johannesburg you have no other choice but to drive everywhere. If LA is America’s Jozi then San Francisco is its Mother City equivalent, where much has been done in recent years to grow its mass transit system. If you grew up watching Full House like me you’ve seen the iconic cable cars the Olsen twins would travel with week after week. But of the 23 lines originally built, there remains only 3 lines today making it the world’s last manually operated cable car system. These days, electric streetcars will get you around downtown aside from their Muni’s (Municipal Railway) underground trains. But Muni lines only operate inside San Francisco’s city limits which means arriving at any of its airports or an attempt to travel to Napa or Silicon Valley will force you to encounter the worst transport system I’ve ever experienced.

It may conjure up images of the 90s runaway hit “The Bartman”, but BART has no relation to The Simpsons despite the fact that Matt Groening grew up on the West Coast.

Credit: Thomas Hawk at

BART (short for Bay Area Rapid Transit) opened to the public in 1972 and a year on they are still celebrating 40 years of train cars that look like Gerry Anderson designed them for inclusion in his futuristic 60s TV series Thunderbirds. The cars are at least twice the size of a New York train car with giant seats covered in soft material similar to the fabric in my mother’s 1984 Audi Quattro. Some cars have made the change in replacing the seat material with an equivalent to Cape Town Metrorail’s non-stick surfaces, an “improvement” announced on giant stickers stuck to a select few of these futuristic BART trains.

These trains run at infrequent times announced by what sounds like the same talking-software Stephen Hawking employs. But unlike anybody else, who might use speech-generating devices to convey information, say like Radiohead in their 90s runaway hit “Fitter Happier”, people paid by BART to generate sentences telling you in which direction the next train will go, decided to exclude spaces/breaks/breathers between words. In some ways it is reminiscent of that British-sounding lady announcing train arrivals in Cape Town Station, just far less human.

The effect is a stream of electronic words pronounced in such a terribly awful way that they made the decision to have a male voice indicate the airport-bound direction and a female voice reading the downtown-bound direction. So you can’t hear what the Hawking-voice says, you can just about distinguish the male and female tones. Staff employed to sit in BART stations are the most unhelpful bunch that can’t comprehend why tourists would need any assistance, especially when traveling from San Francisco International Airport. On numerous occasions I asked for assistance and was told to look at the giant poster hanging from the ceiling saying “Downtown”. Yeah, I get where the train is going, how the hell do I buy a ticket to get on it though?

To make matters worse BART runs on my understanding of Hell [exit fares] that had me paying over $10 before I could exit a station. In my opinion the system is too old and feels more like an attack on the comprehensiveness of New York’s transit system than anything else, almost like whoever designed this thought to be deliberately different to those on the East Coast.


But the East Coast cannot be spared from criticism. In Washington DC the same exit fare policy is employed and during President Obama’s second inauguration I saw numerous out-of-towners struggling to exit stations as they only needed a nickel or a dime to exit. But without an ATM in sight they were forced to beg fellow travelers to spare some silver.

As for traveling by car in any major US city that too has its own struggles. Following my frustrations in San Francisco, which included yet another commuter rail system (CalTrain) that broke down on my first trip, I attempted to avoid Californian public transport in LA. Renting a car seemed like a sure-proof way to be free from exit fares. The dream was short-lived when I arrived 2 minutes late to refill a $8-an-hour parking meter and got fined a whopping $62 (excluding state tax).

So what I’m trying to say is be a little more content with Cape Town’s car guards, the lack of Sunday parking on Beach Road, midnight car break-ins on Highlevel or paying that R300 to get your car un-clamped for parking at BP overnight. Make use of the dirt-cheap Metrorail, MyCiti or taxi buses now spread out through our beautiful city and be thankful we don’t have the parking restrictions and 40-year-old “rapid” trains that the cast from our favourite 90s TV shows had no choice but to travel by.

About André-Pierre du Plessis

André-Pierre du Plessis has been a journalist in South Africa for nearly a decade working for Die Burger, Huisgenoot, YOU and DRUM Magazine. More recently he was a reporter for eNuus and the eNews Channel. He co-created and produced the channel’s flagship technology-news programme “Tech Report”. He’s currently completing a MA in Business and Economics Journalism at Columbia University in New York.

There are 3 comments

  1. Mark

    Are you kidding? The issues you mention are pathetically minor… you don’t like the way the voice of the announcer sounds? You find the payment system confusing? You rented a car and got a ticket for illegal parking that was your fault?

    Ag shame. Poor baby.

    Those systems serve millions of satisfied customers efficiently and effectively.

    I’m a South African living in the USA and let me tell you, the BART, NYC Subway, even the BUSSES are safer and more organised than the informal taxi system in South Africa.

    Your quibbles with these systems, and the overall message that somehow Cape Town is better off without them, sounds like the sourest of grapes.

    Imagine Cape Town had the same iconic trams or cable cars of San Francisco! Imagine what an amazing impact that would have on the streets and liveability of the city.

    This article is totally out of place on a Future City blog and I’m amazed it was published here.

  2. Local Bargain Jerk


    You certainly seems to be well-versed in American television programming (e.g., the Simpsons, Thunderbirds, Full House). Next time, please feel free to stay home and watch reruns of these on YouTube instead of traveilng abroad and criticizing everything you see. While watching these shows, you could even multi-task and write an article criticizing your own town. Don’t forget to slip in some gratuitous insults involving obesity!

    You are a moron. People who know you must think you’re a twit.

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