Answers to your questions about TAP

Photo by Fred Camino.

We recently asked readers to send us your questions about TAP, the electronic fare cards used by Metro and several other transit agencies in Los Angeles County. We received several dozen inquiries, which we boiled down to the questions below.

The answers were written by Fred and I, based on information conveyed to us by the Metro officials who run the TAP program that is overseen by Matt Raymond, Metro’s Chief Communication Officer.

Before we get started, a little perspective.

TAP currently records more than 15 million transactions per month. About two million TAP cards have been issued to transit riders in Los Angeles County in the past two year and Metro sells over $6 million of fares on TAP each month. Metro officials consider it a reliable system in “full revenue production.”

The TAP system is also clearly a work-in-progress. Your questions are a testament to that. For one, Metro is hopeful that more transit agencies will adopt the cards, a precursor to having a seamless transit system across sprawling Los Angeles County. There are some issues involving technology that still also must be resolved and some policy decisions to be made about the type of products available on TAP cards and when gates at some Metro rail stations will be locked.

Now, your questions:

Why isn’t there a cash purse available?

A cash purse is available on TAP with several transit agencies in L.A. County — Culver City, Montebello, Norwalk, Foothill, Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley. Each allows customers to put random amounts of cash on their cards, but this can only be done at their local agency stores. It’s still a limited operation because it’s a pilot program to see if the cash purse works. So far, Metro officials say it has been successful and there has been widespread interest in this feature.

The new Nokia TAP validator that fare inspectors will be using to ensure that customers tapped their TAP cards.

Now it’s up to Metro and other agencies to decide when or if they want to begin the cash purse feature. This would permit the loading of cash onto the TAP card at Metro Customer Service Centers, retail stores that sell TAP cards, ticket machines at Metro Rail stations (and the Orange Line busway) and the website.

On the financial front, one key step that must be taken is to secure agreements that define when money loaded on the TAP card by customers actually reaches the transit agencies that accepted your TAP fares.

Another issue is how does Metro best check that riders using a cash purse with TAP actually paid their fare? When a customer has a paper ticket, a fare inspector can check the ticket for the correct date and time. A TAP card has no visual clue and that has led to concerns that with a cash purse, some people can abuse the system by carrying around empty TAP cards or not tapping their cards even though there’s value on them.

Why is that a problem? At this time, only some of Metro’s fare inspectors have handheld validators that can be used to check that a customer actually tapped their TAP card before riding. This is about to change, as Metro is phasing in a new type of validator that is actually a Nokia cellular device. These new validators use 3G technology (the same tech that makes surfing the web possible on smart phones) that is faster, smaller and more economical than the current non-cellular devices that are bulky, heavy and expensive.

Soon all fare inspectors will be carrying these new devices.

Which leads to the next question…

When will the fare gates be activated and why are they there if they aren’t going to be activated?

As many of you are surely aware, the gates that have been installed at some Metro rail stations have not yet been locked. But the TAP reader on them works and customers with TAP cards are required to TAP their cards before going through.

A customer taps his TAP through the turnstiles at 7th/Metro Center station in downtown L.A.

The primary issue is that Metro currently has two types of fare systems: the TAP cards, which are being phased in, and paper tickets, which eventually will be phased out. The turnstiles cannot read paper tickets from Metro or other transit agencies, such as Metrolink. So keeping the gates unlocked, Metro officials say, allows passengers from other systems to transfer to Metro until the time comes when all agencies use TAP cards.

A lesser issue to be resolved is how best to monitor the gates with cameras and/or station agents in case there’s problems with either the TAP machinery — or the people using the TAP system.

At this point, about 90% of those holding fare passes have converted to TAP cards. But there are still key ridership groups who don’t use TAP — occasional riders, students, Metrolink customers, etc. — and are still using paper passes. Converting them to TAP is an ongoing process.

An interim solution that is being looked at by Metro staff is to keep the gates unlocked but enable the gates to blink whenever someone walks through without tapping a TAP card. That would alert fare inspectors in stations which customers are using TAP and which are using a paper ticket and perhaps need to have their ticket checked. This and the new cellular TAP validators will help to ensure that customers aren’t abusing the system while the gates are unlocked.

Metro staff is also currently working on a paper TAP card that some employers can distribute to employees as they do today with paper passes. That will be a good alternative for employers who do not want to bother with the TAP website or the equipment needed to load TAP cards at their worksite.

These limited-use paper smart cards aren’t reloadable like the plastic TAP cards — but they do hold passes and should enable more people to use TAP. Also, the rail ticket vending machines that currently issue paper day passes and tickets for one-way riders will sell the paper TAP cards — and they can be paid for with cash or credit/debit cards. And, unlike the current paper tickets, the paper TAP cards will work with the turnstiles Metro is installing.

What’s the easiest way to get a day pass on a TAP card?

Metro's ticket vending machines at rail stations will in the future sell paper TAP passes.

One way to get a day pass loaded onto a TAP card is at one of the four Metro Customer Centers. Here’s a list of their locations.

Another alternative is to visit any one of Metro’s rail station ticket machines to load the TAP card. You can also buy a day pass on the bus — HOWEVER you must already have a TAP card. Admittedly, since paper day passes are no longer sold on buses, this can be an issue for irregular bus riders (such as tourists) who don’t own a TAP card but would like to take advantage of the value a day pass offers. Again, the paper TAP card may be the solution.

Although no date has been set, Metro is hoping that by late 2010 customers will be able to load single day passes onto their TAP cards online — with customers able to purchase up to eight single day passes at a time. It’s not the same as a cash purse, but it should be a useful feature for customers who want to purchase tickets ahead of time so that they don’t have to stop and buy tickets while on the way to the trains or busway.

Are TAP cards frequently defective and why do passes often take several days to load?

“Defective” TAP cards are rare. But TAP is an electronic system and messages and sounds made by TAP equipment can confuse customers, bus operators and fare inspectors.

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with TAP cards but customers believe they’re defective because not all passes that are purchased are loaded onto the card right away. It comes down to this:

1.    Loading the cards at the Metro Customer Center, a retail outlet, or a rail station Ticket Vending Machine ensures that the card is loaded immediately because the chip in the TAP card comes in direct contact to the sales device. The card can be used immediately and is “active” as long as the customer remembers to TAP.

2.    Loading remotely by internet or phone requires a “waiting period” for the TAP purchase to be uploaded to the bus fare box, the rail station validators and ticket machines. The longest period can be 48 hours on the bus fleet, when the information is fed electronically to all of the bus fare boxes (which makes sense, as buses are out driving around all the time).

Metro is investigating whether cell phone technology (the same 3G technology that is being phased into the portable validators) can be used to upload TAP data in a quicker fashion to bus fare boxes. But that has issues of its own, namely whether the cost of the air time and equipment is overwhelming. One thing to keep in mind is that even a relatively mature smart card system like London’s Oyster Card (which has been around since 2003) doesn’t process online or phone orders immediately — fare media is added the day after the purchase is made.

ANOTHER very important factor to consider when it is assumed that the card is defective is that sometimes passes on the card have simply expired or are not yet valid. Some reasons this confusion occurs:

•Weekly passes are sold from the previous Thursday before the valid week and monthly passes are sold from the week prior. If the card is tapped after a purchase, in advance of the valid period, the farebox or station validator will display messages and sounds that indicate the pass is not valid.

•Some of our customers come from transit systems that have “rolling” passes. That means that the pass is not fixed to a specific date and works immediately upon purchase — i.e. a 31-day pass that is good for the next 31 days. They assume when they purchase a Metro pass that it will work immediately, irrespective of the validity period of the pass. While the “rolling” feature is available on TAP for some transit agencies, Metro has kept its passed locked to the calendar in order to be consistent with paper passes the agency still sells.

•The last thing to consider is that errors can occur while loading the card, most frequently called a “walk away” transaction. Some customers walk away too quickly from the ticket machines or bus fare box, not allowing sufficient time for the pass to load on the card.

The most frequent complaint comes from customers hearing a “bad” tone from a farebox due to what is called a “passback.” This often happens when a rider taps the TAP card several times in succession, sometimes as  a way to confirm that they tapped their card.

A “passback” is not a malfunction or the result of a defective card. It is intended to prevent riders from sharing their TAP card with others — i.e. helping other people avoid paying a fare. Bus drivers have been trained to recognize accidental “passbacks” and realize that TAP cards are still valid. Still, there is a seven-minute period before the card can be tapped again at the same farebox or station validator as a way to prevent one person gaining entry for others who don’t have their own TAP cards.

When will more munis and Metrolink begin using the TAP card?

Currently Antelope Valley, Culver City, Foothill Transit, Montebello, Norwalk, and Santa Clarita are operational on TAP, although only Metro, Foothill Transit and Antelope Valley passes can be reloaded online at this time. Discussions with other transit agencies, including Metrolink, are ongoing.

One issue: Some muni bus services have been waiting to see how TAP works before adopting it.

Another issue: how do users of multiple transit agencies get the fare products they need on their card? Example: Let’s say a Metro monthly pass holder wanted to transfer to the Culver City bus for an occasional trip there. There is no cash purse for Metro and Culver City’s cash purse can’t be bought online. So the Metro monthly passholder’s TAP card is rendered useless when boarding the Culver City bus. In order for TAP to truly be seamless, Metro has to activate the stored value purse.

Metro is also  examining the sales of TAP cards to consider where they should be sold — here’s the online locator. There are currently about 400 stores around L.A. County that sells them. For example, if sales data shows there are places in the county that need more outlets, some may be added.  A lot will depend on how popular the stored value TAP card becomes, and where customers are loading them – at outlets, over the phone, on the internet, rail ticket machines and transit customer centers.

Why doesn’t the TAP card website look and function better?

Metro officials say revisions to the website are underway and hope to have them online by the end of 2010. One suggestion from Fred and I — make it easier to quickly find a list of fare products and prices.

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Categories: Feedback, Policy & Funding, Technology

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