The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), commonly known as the “T,” is in many ways the lifeblood of the Greater Boston area. Its intricate network of subway, bus, commuter rail, and ferry lines connects the city of Boston and its neighboring suburbs. For many residents, the public transit system is by far the easiest way to get to school or work.
It is critical that the T remains affordable for all segments of the population. Thus, in the summer of 2021, the MBTA embarked on an initiative to increase access to reduced transportation fares beginning with its Youth Pass Program for low-income young adults. The agency moved to institute a new secure and accessible online application for the Youth Pass Program, including a new card fulfillment process, to get more Youth Pass CharlieCards into the hands of qualified citizens of Boston and surrounding cities that could be used to purchase half-price one-way fares or discounted monthly passes for unlimited rides on the T’s bus and subway systems.
Digitizing the Youth Pass application process was an ambitious project, in many respects. The MBTA had to account for:
- Program administrators – The dashboard had to be rolled out to 19 participating municipalities, each responsible for reviewing applications and determining eligibility.
- Eligibility requirements – To qualify for a Youth Pass, riders had to be between 18 and 25 years old, a resident of one of the participating cities, and enrolled in one of many partner programs.
- Program exceptions – Middle and high school students could apply for the program only if their school didn’t participate in the agency’s Student Pass Program, a reduced-fare program for middle and high school students.
- MBTA technology standards – The agency had to ensure that all security requirements were met and that the full digital customer experience complied with accessibility regulations.
- The card fulfillment center – MBTA needed to deliver reports expediently to the organization fulfilling orders that included shipping information and card type (new vs. replacement) for each approved applicant.
Since each municipality is responsible for verifying applications submitted by its own residents, the process had to be consistent across the entire region. These cities needed an easy way to view and authenticate official documents proving age, address, and enrollment in a qualified benefits, education, or job training program (e.g., SNAP, MassHealth, Boston Central Adult High School, Career Pathways).
“Our vision for the Youth Pass Program had many components,” said David Gerstle, Chief Digital Officer, MBTA. “We needed flexible technology to accommodate several potential pathways an application could take based on age, residence, and partner program participation.”
Even with all of these complex program elements, the MBTA wanted the application process to be fast and efficient—its goal was to get cards in the mail to approved riders within a few days of submitting applications. With an ambitious aspiration to go live with the digital Youth Pass application in early fall, the agency sought to get the solution up and running quickly, too.
MBTA turned to SimpliGov’s integrated digital form and workflow automation solution, which is purpose-built for government environments to create a secure, public-facing digital form for applicants, seamlessly route back-end processes, and streamline city and nonprofit employees’ tasks.
Customized Fields Keep Applicants on the Right Path
The SimpliGov platform’s unmatched flexibility enabled MBTA to tailor form fields to meet its unique needs and be as user-friendly for applicants as possible. The application asked eligibility questions up front and weeded out those who didn’t meet the program’s criteria immediately, saving users time and sparing them wasted effort.
Since there were several different profiles of Youth Pass applicants—eligibility and documentation requirements differed across age groups and residency—the agency went to great lengths to minimize potential confusion. MBTA developed finely customized error messages with detailed explanations of how to resolve specific issues at each step of the application process. It took customization efforts a step further by making the entire electronic form “backwards compatible”—when users modified any field, it triggered automatic adjustments throughout the application to reflect those changes. In addition, MBTA designed its forms to display fonts and colors that could accommodate the visually impaired in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The MBTA conducted penetration testing to make sure all data was secure from malicious actors.
SimpliGov Streamlines Verification and Fulfillment
SimpliGov could be similarly configured to meet MBTA’s unique application processing and fulfillment requirements. The workflow was programmed to automatically route Youth Pass applications to the correct municipality by zip code without having to build 19 separate point-to-point integrations. Permission settings ensured that each municipality only saw applications under their purview.
Once applications were submitted, the SimpliGov solution compiled key data and associated files for review, and enabled city and nonprofit staffers to correspond with applicants rapidly to obtain additional information and documentation. The approved version then went to the fulfillment center where transportation cards would be registered and mailed out to recipients daily. MBTA tailored SimpliGov to automatically generate reports every two hours that displayed the current list of new and replacement cards to be fulfilled, complete with addresses, which the fulfillment center could convert to a downloadable spreadsheet.
MBTA was able to learn and implement SimpliGov’s intuitive no-code platform, train end users from each municipality and the fulfillment company, pass security and accessibility audits, and go live with the Youth Pass Program in less than three months without help from outside consultants.
“Although there was a decent amount of technical complexity under the hood, we were still able to meet our goal of making the experience easy and seamless for citizens and employees alike,” said Gerstle.
The MBTA launched the online Youth Pass application in October, during the program’s busy reenrollment period. MBTA received 792 applications in the first week, and its program administrators processed 142 on the first day alone. All told, the process is taking up to five business days to get cards in the mail from the time applications are submitted. From October to mid-December 2021, municipalities processed 4,076 applications with only a 3% denial rate.
More important, the MBTA’s Youth Pass Program has made the T more budget-friendly for many Greater Boston riders who depend on it for their livelihoods and to connect with local friends and family. Equally important, the agency met its goal of making it as simple as possible for those same citizens, who are signing up for cards with minimal errors and friction in the process, to participate in the program and enjoy its benefits.
“It is critical that public transportation be accessible for everyone in the Greater Boston area. Our Youth Pass Program is making it easy for younger residents to afford getting around town on the T,” said Gerstle.