Answers to your questions about TAP, 2011 edition

Note to readers: Due to some ongoing tech issues, we lost a couple of posts originally published on The Source this afternoon. We also lost the accompanying comments, which I haven’t been able to recover — my apologies. We did have a backup of the post, however.

We recently invited readers to submit questions about TAP, Metro’s electronic fare cards.

The cards have proven to be very popular – there are more than almost 15 million transactions a month with them and majority of Metro riders are now using them for day, weekly and monthly passes.

As we reported earlier this year, it is now possible to add stored value to the cards at ticket machines at all Metro Rail stations and on the taptogo website, something that had been eagerly awaited by many Metro customers (including us).

Nonetheless, readers have asked us many questions about TAP and that’s hardly surprising. TAP is still evolving. In fact, it was about a year ago this time we answered a slew of questions. And now a second batch:

Will TAP cards ever be available for purchase on buses, since buses still carry the majority of Metro’s daily riders?

Metro officials agree that selling TAP cards on buses could benefit customers. But there are still several issues to be worked — some technical, some not. Metro staff say they will hopefully have a plan soon on how to sell the cards on buses.

When will paper TAP cards debut?

From a technology standpoint, Metro can launch them now.

But Metro staff is still looking at how and where paper TAP cards can best be used. The agency still wants to move as many customers as possible to a reusable plastic card to avoid wasting resources and money on paper cards that are disposable.

One scenario being looked at: using paper TAP cards as a substitute for paper tickets on Metro Rail.

For what it’s worth, bus operators who have participated in focus groups tend to prefer plastic reusable TAP cards in order to avoid fraud and confrontation with bus riders.

When will the turnstiles be locked?

It’s important to understand there is nothing wrong with the technology. The turnstiles could be locked today.

But locking the gates remains a regional issue. There is still no regional fare system in place  – Metro is still working with other transit agencies toward that – and many Metro riders are still using paper tickets for interagency transfers, EZ passes and Metrolink.

The electronics on the gates don’t recognize these paper tickets. So locking the gates would mean locking out many Metro customers. There will, however, soon be some tests involving locking some gates for short periods of time.

Bottom line: locking the gates will best be possible when most Metro customers are using some type of TAP card.

Can a TAP card bought at a TVM be registered at the taptogo website?

Yes and it’s easy to do. The problem is many people don’t know where to look on the taptogo website, which is not always easy to navigate.

Once you sign up for an account, go to “my accounts” at the top of the page and then click on “balance protection” and scroll down (it’s easy to miss on some computer screens if you don’t scroll down).

You’ll then be asked to provide the TAP card number (on the lower left rear of the card), a PIN number and a card alias.

Does Metro plan to add TVMs at Silver Line stations?

The agency is considering it and is aware of the demand — particularly with the El Monte bus station being rebuilt. But Metro officials say that “budgetary constraints” may prevent it from happening.

Will the taptogo website have a Spanish site given the number of Latino riders?

Yes, the agency hopes to launch the site soon.

Does the TAP system handle the fare for seniors correctly — charging 55 cents per ride at peak times and 25 cents at all other times?

Yes. The TAP software calculates fares based on the time of the day and the type of pass on a TAP card.

Are there plans to implement daily price capping like other transit systems use?

The idea behind price capping goes as follows. A day pass currently costs $6. If a rider were to take five single rides using TAP, under price capping the TAP card would automatically buy the rider an unlimited ride day pass for $6 instead of charging the rider $7.50 for five single rides.

Such price capping actually exists in London. But it’s hardly prevalent in the U.S. for regular fares. One reason: it’s a revenue loser for transit agencies. A second reason: the technology can actually be tricky when there are many agencies and fares involved.

As for Metro, we’ve been asked this question before. I’ll try to explain it better this time as it has been explained to me: without a regional fare system, the TAP technology is strained by keeping track of many different fares from different agencies in real-time. In other words, getting the current TAP system to automatically buy you a day pass is not an easy thing to do.

On a related front, however, there is some good news. The Metro Board of Directors on Thursday will decide whether to allow rolling weekly and monthly passes for TAP cards. That means the pass will be good for seven or 30 days from the time purchased instead of being tied directly a traditional calendar week and/or month. More info here.

How much do TAP cards cost Metro to manufacture and why charge for them?

The cost of the cards is more than $2. As far as we know, most other agencies using similar cards also have a similar initial charge for them.

For what it’s worth, neither Fred or I think the $2 is that big a deal – a TAP card should last several years if you can avoid abusing it too much (repeated laundry washings, being chewed on by the dog, etc).

But we also think a great way to increase ridership would be to distribute the cards to many people as possible in the area for free. That’s the kind of thing that would lower the barriers for those who don’t take transit.

That said, even our grand idea has a downside: handing out plastic cards to people who are not going to use them is a waste of resources and perhaps not a great use of money that could otherwise be used to help people who actually do take transit.

Are there any plans to redesign the taptogo website?

Yes, there are plans. It’s no secret the taptogo website is not the best looking or most navigable website.

The problem, in short, is that there are constraints about improvements that can be made with the subcontractor that Metro hired to build the website. There have been upgrades and work will continue.

In the meantime, Fred and I will try to publish some tutorials on how best to navigate the site. I’ve found that taptogo works – but it takes some getting used to.

One thing you must know: to add value, you must have an account and register your card. If you are experiencing problems, call 1-866-taptogo (866-827-8646).

Several readers have reported that TAP readers on buses do not recognize the appropriate zone fare and riders are forced to pay with cash. When will this be fixed?

First things first: ask the bus operator before tapping your card for the zone upcharge. That should work.

That said, this is a case in which more training may be needed for Metro employees. The technology works.

Has there been thought to “theme-ing” the TAP cards with visuals of Los Angeles?  I have transit cards from NYC and Washington DC (which are re-usable) and both have images from their respective cities. This is also a good marketing tool. Transport for London made £2 million from the sale of special edition Royal Wedding Oyster cards

Yes, Metro is considering this. But first things first!

34 replies

  1. Please, please train Metro drivers to know how to handle zone fares with stored-value TAP cards. But in the meantime, please, please tell us *exactly* what the procedure is for paying for a base fare plus zone(s) on a Metro Express bus, so that we can tell the drivers what to do when they don’t know. Don’t be shy with the details. Too much information would be immeasurably better than the complete lack of information that we have gotten from Metro and TAP so far about how to use TAP cards under such circumstances, and the seeming lack of information that most of Metro’s bus drivers have gotten.

    It’s very annoying to be told by a driver, sometimes rudely, that there is “nothing on the card” because the stored balance (apparently) doesn’t appear on the driver’s console when the card is first tapped to the target. This has happened to me a few times over the last month.

  2. This article doesn’t answer my biggest question: when will we be able to put stored value on the cards at more locations? the taptogo website doesn’t recognize any combination of the numbers and letters on the lower left corner of the back of my card, so I have to schlep to a machine. I want more machines! Can you put one in the Americana, maybe? 😉

  3. Is it still possible for seniors to purchase just a SINGLE same-day pass using a senior TAP card by depositing ONLY the EXACT fare of $1.80? Or, have the menu options for TAP cards changed whereby one must insert a minimum amount of $20? This would force one to purchase a senior one-day pass in PAPER ticket form if one does not have more than $1.80 to spare.

  4. To Morris E. Warren: I’ve recently purchased a Senior Day Pass on my TAP card in the manner you suggested. The menu option is different than the stored value.

    RE: price caps. You’re conflating two issues. First, the price cap is strictly a Metro issue; it has nothing to do with multiple-agency fares. Second, the idea that’s is a money loser for Metro is ludicrous; if that’s the case, why have a day pass in the first place? The day pass was instituted when transfers were eliminated — a good move, in my estimation, not in other people’s, but that’s neither here nor there. If you have a day pass, the concept that you can’t get TAP cards to handle price capping is just typical Metro laziness and/or greed.

  5. Bus driver didn’t know how to charge a day pass from my TAP. I learned this after the trip was already charged. Fare capping makes up for poor driver training. More thoughts when I repost yesterday’s comment.

  6. Dear Steve Hymon:
    The TAP card number (16-digit numeric) is at the lower RIGHT rear of the card, not lower left as you put in your article. I think that is why Monica Waggoner could not register her card on the website. And to Monica Waggoner: Once you have successfully registered the card, adding stored value online is fairly easy. I just did that recently.

  7. I am still trying to figure out how to use a “Commuter Check” voucher to purchase “Cash Value” on a TAP Card.

    Also the TAPTOGO site is really, really not user friendly. Even the MTC Bay Area “Clipper’ site is far more user friendly.

    Why doesn’t Metro share some of the technology with the SF Bay Area MTC (Plus they have Autoload capability for adding cash value.

  8. Please do SOMETHING to advertise TAP more heavily in the Latino/Hispanic/non-English speaking ridership communities! What I see amongst these people on the buses (paying an ENTIRE $1.50 fare in PENNIES!) really slows down boarding! Especially on Line 266 Southbound which is OVER-CROWDED ON WEEKDAYS AS IT IS!

  9. My Comment got nuked yesterday, but effectively I think Price Capping is a big deal and for Metro to make it a low priority marginalizes the TAP program. As a causal user having a value added feature increased my Metro usage over the last few months because it made it easier for me. Adding Capping will make the TAP experience what it should be.

    Metro will pass a lower day pass option today which indicates they are encouraging it, so for you to say capping: “it’s a revenue loser for transit agencies.” is sending mixed messages.

    Capping and Day pass are the same thing. So lets get over the Technical hurdles, it’s called vendor management, and move TAP into the 21st century.

  10. Umm, why was my post regarding that actually shows set expiration dates for TAP cards deleted? Are you trying to hide something?

    • Readers —

      We unfortunately lost the original version of several posts yesterday, along with the comments that went with them. I reposted the posts from copies but I don’t think we can recover the comments. We’re not trying to censor anyone. Feel free to resubmit your comments and I’ll post them.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  11. I’m with Monica… I bought a TAP card last week from the TVM at Union Station, and the website doesn’t recognize the number. Does it take a while for the card to get into the system?

  12. Fine,

    #1: Why make it sound like TAP is supposed to last a long time when clearly when you register your TAP card online it shows an actual set expiration date? Why not just say “TAP has an expiration date which you can check online at”

    And if it has an expiration date, what’s the SOP of remaining cash-value on the card? Say if you have $5 remaining on the card, do you lose out on that $5 and have to get another TAP card for $2? What if the TAP card that I received was from an old inventory stock that as soon as I register online, it only has a 2 month lifespan? Do I do this all over again?

    My 2nd question which wasn’t posted yesterday was:

    Do you plan to offer any actual incentives for Metro riders to switch to TAP? Sure, going TAP is great on your end as it eliminates the costs of issuing and printing paper passes onto reliable plastic cards, but what’s our end of the deal? You’re not going to successfully implement something if we don’t get our bennies on our end too, ya’ know?

    Take for example, Boston’s CharlieCard ( . Transit riders who uses the CharlieCard actually pays less per ride and gets free transfers. See, they have a two-way street in making people switch to contactless cards: the agency wins by saving costs of printing paper passes, people are more willing to switch to CharlieCards as it gives them lower fares and free transfers, and overall the transit is smoother because no one has to fumble around with loose change anymore.

    So where’s Metro’s incentive for Metro riders to start switching to TAP? Lower Metro fares for TAP users? Free transfers?

  13. I was worried for a while that turnstiles were going to be abandoned and permanently left unlocked.It is good to know that Metro is still going forward with them.I feel like they add an air of legitimacy to our Metro system.Are there any plans to add turnstiles to the Expo Line?

  14. My post was one of those lost in tech-limbo yesterday…

    Metro’s TAP policies don’t align with the advantages and benefits of utilizing smart cards. The purpose of TAP can be summarized in two points:
    1) Faster boarding (fewer delays, more reliable service, lower costs)
    2) Accurate fare transactions (less evasion, more convenient payment, lower transaction costs)

    These benefits only accrue after the vast majority of Metro customers switch to TAP cards. To do that, Metro needs to make using TAP easy, convenient, and cost-effective. Currently, TAP users know more about how the system works than many Metro operators–to the point where I’ve explained how to charge the correct fare to multiple drivers. While not acceptable, it would be understandable if this didn’t penalize the customer. But many times mistakes can and do end up charging customers more–the very people you are trying to encourage to use TAP. Case in point: my experience this morning where loading a day pass failed, but I was charged for the single trip. Fortunately, my day only involves 4 trips so it’s a wash, but the driver error could have cost me extra!

    Here are five low-cost policy and programming changes that would pay dividends for overall system efficiency and encourage greater TAP use. I’d be surprised if they didn’t “pay for themselves” in terms of cost savings. All are features found on other systems. Remember: Delays cost money, it just doesn’t show up on the balance sheet.

    1) Fare discounts for TAP users – When a customer uses TAP to pay for their ride instead of cash, they save Metro money by boarding faster and reducing delays. That should be rewarded by a $0.05-0.10 reduction in fare. Alternatively, the next time fares increase, TAP fares should increase less. With stored value, exact change is not an issue, so fares don’t have to be in multiples of $0.25. In this way, the $2.00 cost of the TAP card will quickly pay off for customers. Currently, TAP users must pay for a card that primarily benefits Metro. (DC does this on their buses.)

    2) Inter-agency transfers – As TAP becomes the county-wide fare card for multiple agencies, the system needs to automatically calculate the right fare. The customer should not have to ask for a transfer and tap twice–this is a boarding delay. Using TAP on the second bus or rail should automatically calculate the transfer. (Again, DC’s SmarTrip is a good example.)

    3) Metro transfers – If fraud and fare evasion are the reasons for not having intra-agency transfers on Metro, TAP solves the problem. Easy solution: discount transfers for TAP users, but no paper transfers. Whether a trip requires a transfer is Metro’s fault, not the customer’s, so customers should not be penalized for Metro’s system design.

    4) Fare-capping – It’s been discussed at length already, but this really is just a programming fix. I’ll add that having to buy a day pass while getting on increases boarding delays and defeats the purpose of a smart card. TAP users should just be able to tap their cards and not think twice about fares or passes.

    5) On-board TAP reloading – TAP can easily solve another vexing payment problem: the need for exact change. If passes can be reloaded on the bus, then customers can pay cash and load the change onto their TAP. This reduces the need to pay with coins–the primary source of boarding delay. It also provides customers with an easy way to top up their TAP cards for those who don’t live near a rail station. Buses are already able to load day passes onto a TAP card, so this functionality should already exist with the current system. (DC buses allow this.)

    The ultimate goal for TAP should be a card that does all the thinking for the customer. The customer’s responsibility should only be to keep a balance on the card. The card should do everything else. These features should have been designed into the TAP program from the start, but none of them have insurmountable hurdles to implement in the near-term.

    • Dear Readers;

      A friendly reminder to keep your comments relatively brief as a courtesy to other readers and to increase the likelihood someone will read them.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  15. A well-reasoned, insightful and objective comment is a pleasure to read, no matter its length. Sound bites are for people with short attention spans!

  16. Steve,

    I’m sorry I don’t buy that argument. This is a forum for people to discuss things about Metro.

    And if so many things are wrong with it, you’re gonna end up with a huge list of complaints as shown on this TAP page.

    Sure, it’d be easy to say “TAP is broken, it sucks, fix it,” but how will Metro ever know what part people are frustrated about with just that commentary?

    Many here have visited transit oriented cities where they get these things right. Seeing Metro, we are stumped as why you’ve been trying to re-invent the wheel and it’s taking so long with all the things we’re complaining about. Metro is not the only transit agency that faces these problems, yet others manage it right.

    And yes, people read these things. Heck, what you just said just highlights the core of Metro’s problem; they don’t listen to our frustrations.

    You want feedback on how we feel about Metro’s TAP program, well, you’re getting it.

  17. Dear Steve Hymon:

    As a friendly reminder, not all readers of the Source have the attention spans of small children. I am much more of a Source reader than a commenter (this is my second comment here ever), and as a reader, I appreciate detailed posts as long as they are on-topic and do not ramble.

    • Hi Percival;

      I never said they did. But if everyone starts posting very long comments, that will impact the readability of the comments page.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  18. I am surprised nobody else is concerned about privacy. I don’t want my movements for months accessible to anyone who scans my TAP card. I intend to continue to buy only paper tickets as long as possible.

    Why has there been no discussion about the surrender of people’s private information to the card and whoever reads it???

  19. Steve,

    The Turnstile Debacle is a separate issue from the TAP follies.

    Because the LA Metro board chose to purchase turnstiles (they are NOT fare-gates, stop using that term please) that can only be opened by an RFID card (the TAP card), LA Metro is in the situation it finds itself in.

    Please try to avoid discussing these two issues in the same post as it IMHO clouds and confuses two issues.

    As it is, I’d like to know how LA Metro can ever lock the turnstiles without staffing each station equipped with turnstiles full-time.

  20. “As far as we know, most other agencies using similar cards also have a similar initial charge for them.”


    Boston, Chicago and San Francisco give them away for free. San Diego and Seattle gave them away for free for a far longer time than the 3 weeks, IIRC, LA Metro did. Even Foothill Transit gave away TAP cards for at least 3 months.

    And as pointed out above EVERY agency that uses these farecards (Magnetic Stripe or RFID) offers a discounted fare or purchase-bonus or free transfer (or all three) to woo customers into using the new fare collection system.

    Even the old Adopted-by-the-Munis-but-never-adopted-by-LA-Metro LA County Metrocard did this on most systems (such as SMBBB).

    LA Metro needs to get out of the Taj more often.

  21. @Jason L.: Actually, I tried the number on the right, first, because it looked more like an ID number. Then when that didn’t work, I re-read the post and started trying the numbers on the left.

    The taptogo site does not recognize ANY of the numbers on my TAP card, but it does have stored value on it and I’ve used it several times.

    @Linnea: I have that concern too. I’m less bothered without my card registered, but one reason I’ve waited so long to register my card is the fear that someone could compromise the Metro database and then be able to track the movements of TAP subscribers by name.

  22. Counterpoint about daily capping

    “Such price capping actually exists in London. But it’s hardly prevalent in the U.S. for regular fares. One reason: it’s a revenue loser for transit agencies.”

    Maybe if you end this flat-rate fare non-sense and go to a variable zone based pricing like the London Underground it would make sense.

    Of course it’s a revenue loser; it already is on this flat rate model to begin with!

  23. “But if everyone starts posting very long comments, that will impact the readability of the comments page.”

    Indeed it would. That’s why exactly nobody, least of all me, has suggested that everybody should make very long comments. What I and several other of your readers are trying to tell you is that *some* very important facts and arguments can’t be stated briefly. Those that can certainly should be, hence my earlier proviso about rambling; but this is not Twitter, and the subject of transit in Metro’s district is at least as complex as Metro itself is…

    I appreciate long posts from people who have something to say. They make The Source more, not less, readable.

  24. Since the topic came up; are there plans to add turnstiles to all Metro Rail stations? Because if we are committing to having these and the expenses associated with them then it should be consistent. It would improve the sense of system integration rather than fragmented lines and stations with different logistics for each. Perception is very important for LA mass transit and each rail line needs to feel equally important as part of that integrated backbone system. Otherwise people will see more differences between say the red line and the gold line (which has very few turnstiles) even though they both ideally serve the exact same purpose regardless of the rolling stock.

  25. @ Ronny

    You’ve posted that before and I say again, all that report says is Metro’s ineptness to actually start doing something because “waaaah, going to a variable rate model is soooo confusing, it’s soooo much easier to just keep on taxing everyone more and keep public transit mediocre for everyone, while letting me collect 80k a year for running the agency the way it is.”

    No duh it’s difficult and expensive. But it makes sense and there’s a reason why it’s being used in every other successful transit agency in the world. Even buses in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore run on distance based models.

    Flat fare makes no sense, it’s a tax waste that never makes any money, it’s a model that makes everyone beholden to more tax hikes on mediocre service.

    You want change, go to a distance based model. If Metro can’t handle it, find someone outside Metro that can make it happen.

  26. Getting a TAP card is still a bit of an ordeal, and discourages occasional riders from buying one.

    An earlier entry here mentioned that they should be available from the North Hollywood Red Line station. I’ve been there several times and I’ve only been presented with the option of reloading – but not buying – a TAP card. I’m hoping that I somehow overlooked an option in one of the menus.

    Ordering a card online is a pain. You can buy one, but only if you preload it with a monthly pass. This completely removes casual, and many first-time Metro users from the equation. Why can’t I get one with $5 or $10 in cash value loaded on it? I ride the Metro a few days a week, on an unpredictable schedule. A monthly pass would be a colossal waste.

    I used to live in Boston. Those who are planning a visit, moving there, or live in the city already and want to ditch their cars can get a CharlieCard preloaded with modest sums of cash value via 3, very obvious clicks from the front page of the MBTA’s site.

    It encourages transit use, and makes it an easy decision for those who want to give it a try, or don’t ride it every day. A person who has never set foot in Boston can arrive at Logan, place their wallet on the turnstile or farebox on their way out of the airport and start exploring the city.

    Metro should make it just as easy to get board.

  27. @ Y Fukuzawa

    I think you have valid ideas and concerns but it makes no sense into respond in such a condescending manner. I believe their is a place for both flat fare and distance fare models and LA metro could make progress in trying to implement both in a successful manner Much like the Tokyo Metro has a distance based rail system with a flat fare intra city bus system.

    Regardless I don’t switching to distance based fares will solve metros budget problems because the system is constrained to a 30% farebox recovery ratio. So what ever distance pricing scheme they come up with has to ensure the system still receives no more than 30% of its operating budget from fares. So we would switch to a system with more operationally difficult fare system with no added revenue to justify it.

  28. @ Y Fukuzawa
    I have to say you make a really good case for distance based fares especially after seeing many of your other posts. I had no idea metro was constrained to a 30% recovery ratio. That’s just insane! I mean what possible sensible reason is there to have a policy like that? All its doing is limiting the system. Its good to know though because it does help to explain a lot of problems regarding chronic funding. I just don’t understand WHY?!?! Maybe someone can explain.