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. “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.


  2. @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.


  3. 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!


  4. “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.


  5. 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.


  6. @ 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.


  7. 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.


  8. @ 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.