TAP is being fixed, but the turnstile debacle will not go away

Screen_shot_2010_09_01_at_10.13.35_PM.pngUnion Station. Photo: Jim91773/Flickr

You might have noticed there has recently been much media attention centered on the problems of Metro’s TAP system and the gating of some of the Metro Rail stations. It all started when reporter Troy Anderson at the Daily News stumbled across this long festering situation that has been the object of much righteous criticism among activists and on the blogsphere. Anderson’s classic reporter instincts realized this was a hot story worth pursuing. You have to say the headline “MTA’s $46M system of locking turnstiles sits unused, waiting for fare cards to be adopted” is eye-catching and even accurate!

As Steve Hymon noted on The Source, Anderson’s expose caught the attention of several local television stations who picked up on it for news briefs.

Matt Raymond, Metro’s Chief Communications Officer, engaged in a telling bit of mis-direction in his response to the Daily News piece “Chucking Metro’s TAP smart card fare program as some critics suggest is like throwing the baby out with the bath water”. No one has suggested getting rid of TAP only that it is a fiasco built on massive mis-management and incompetence. But the gates are a different matter, as I discuss below.

Belatedly the Times’ Editorial Board jumped on the bandwagon with a fairly good summary of the problems surrounding TAP.

This time Metro CEO Art Leahy made the response, stating the smart card problems “can and will be cleared soon.”

Strangely Hymon alone (and even then only off-handily) mentioned the main near-term solution to many of TAP’s problems that is being readied: paper TAP cards with chips that can have value loaded on the bus fareboxes or rail station ticket machines. Bus operators will be issued these paper cards which will end the disgraceful flaw of the initial design of TAP expecting passengers to board already possessing a plastic TAP card if they want to purchase a day pass on the bus.

The paper TAP will be good for up to 30 days. All paper passes will transition to these paper TAP cards. Additionally Metro staff intend to overcome problems with having a EZ pass on TAP by using these paper cards with a EZ Pass sticker showing the month of purchase. These will be used as a flash pass on systems that accept EZ pass but do not have fareboxes for TAP.

This falls short of TAP being the regionally integrated fare system originally promised, but that goal was probably overly ambitious. Plus it is obvious the TAPucrats designed TAP for the needs of Metro with inter-agency integration mostly paid empty lip service. Given that several major agencies like Santa Monica and Long Beach have or are in the midst of pursuing their own smart cards that are not TAP compatible this compromise measure to preserve EZ-Pass may be the best solution possible to achieve the regional goals of TAP for the foreseeable future. Though one big question mark is what to do for Metrolink and its horde of riders who use Metro services to complete their trips. At the moment they do this by flashing their tickets and passes that are also EZ passes to fare inspectors and bus operators. The last solution I heard broached was for Metrolink to sell to its patrons a discounted TAP card they can use to access the Metro system.

And even with the paper TAP card in place Metro still couldn’t close the gates until it dealt with the 1/3 of its riders who are Seniors that still use the old monthly stamps and have not yet applied for a TAP card. Most K-12 students also don’t yet have TAP cards. When Metro undertakes a campaign to convert the remaining Seniors and K-12 students to TAP then maybe we can feel the possible locking of the rail station gates is finally at hand.

But I doubt it will ever happen. I think there is only a 50% chance of the gates being locked. Many of the assumptions about fare evasion and costs of the gates have proven faulty. Metro has even hedged about whether it may need station agents due to shortcomings of the gates. That would blast a giant hole straight through the financial assumptions to justify the gates. I understand Board members have started hedging their support of the gates as the truth is becoming apparent. Further the chief proponent
of the gates Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke left the Metro Board 18 months ago and one wonders if when push comes to shove whether ongoing revelations about the true cost of the gates will compel the Board to cut their loses. Which could be done easily since Metro never purchased the gates, only leases them from vendor Cubic and can at its convenience terminate the agreement and have the gates pulled out.

To me the recent low point of the TAP/gating debate is Steve Hymon in the above mentioned piece on The Source opining “I’m not a fan of the current “proof of payment” system or, as it’s often called, the honor system. I don’t think it’s fair to paying customers — even if fare evasion is estimated to be low — and I certainly don’t think it makes sense going forward as the Metro Rail system expands and stations are inundated with many more passengers. Most other large cities had long had gates or turnstiles and were able to convert them to smart cards; Metro is doing it from the ground up.”

With all due respect Mr. Hymon, your stance makes no sense. The cost benefit of gating is so laughable that justifying it on the dubious basis of fairness should rightly boomerang back on you. Is it fair that millions were spent by a clueless Metro Board of Directors that ignored signs from the get-go that the gating was a bad idea driven by dubious motives and a greedy vendor? The problem isn’t converting to smart cards (which is mostly a problem of competence) but the attempt to tie it to installing gates at the rail stations. Also, when you talk of other cities you glide over the fact those systems were designed to facilitate gating. No one has ever before tried to retrofit gating a urban rail system and in fact Metro’s effort will not be comprehensive as a number of light rail stations will not have gates as their designs make adding them physically impossible. How come that isn’t a gaping hole in the concept?

Proof of payment has become the industry practice in all new systems during the past 20 years because it makes sense. What’s fair to paying customers is the agency do what is right, not having a Board of Directors act out a bizarre psychodrama straight out of the theater of the absurd wasting millions in a wrongheaded quest. And where is the accountability? The travails of TAP are treated like a perpetrator less crime. Action to kill the gating should have happened at least a year ago. We have had enough playtime–are there no adults to finally step forward and end this farce? The mounting evidence the gating is a fisaco can no longer be ignored by illogical defenses and squint-worthy assertions.

Kymberleigh Richards in the original Daily News piece summed up the essence of the problem of the gates “We are never going to get ($154 million) in lost fares out of this. At $1.50 a ride, how many fare evaders do you have to catch to make back ($154 million)?” I agree with her and thus foresee Metro stumblingly will eventually have a workable if less than optimal TAP but that the gates may well end up being pulled out. Probably the best outcome for a debacle of massive proportions.

  • John K

    Since they were hell-bent on the gate install, why didn’t they install the same gates used in other cities (such as Boston or London) that accept both paper and plastic cards? How could they be so dense not to see that required every customer to have a plastic TAP card makes no sense? How to tourists and new arrivals get these cards when anyone who has ever riden transport expects to buy a ticket at a vending machine that given them access to the gates?

  • John K

    Sorry for the extremely typo-ridden response above (haste makes waste, I guess)

    Since they were hell-bent on the gate install, why didn’t they install the same gates used in other cities (such as Boston or London) that accept both paper tickets and plastic cards? How could they be so dense not to see that requiring every customer to have a plastic TAP card makes no sense? How would tourists and new arrivals get these cards when anyone who has ever ridden public transport expects to buy a ticket at a vending machine that gives them access to the gates?

  • la rider

    Let’s be real. There were kickbacks to those who awarded these contracts to the vendor. A little kid wouldn’t even base their decision around each and every metro rider having a metro pass. Do we even have 50% adoption? I surely do not see many people swiping.

    Looks like the LATimes new hobby is expose fraud and waste. I just wish their illegal ‘immigrant’ stance was a little less biased.

  • Tim Buchheim

    It was obvious from the very first day that Metro started talking about turnstiles that this was going to be a disaster. Even putting aside the design and technical issues, Metro’s own cost projections and fare recovery estimates showed that it wouldn’t be a good use of their money.

    In any case, they shouldn’t have even thought about turnstiles until after the TAP program was up and running, covering all riders, with all the bugs worked out. I know they’re working on adding missing features, covering more types of fares, etc. but I think it will be years before TAP is fully implemented, given the complicated set of tickets/passes/discounts/etc. built into the Metro fare structure.

  • Marcotico

    I feel mildly bad for Art Leahy, because this all kicked off before his tenure, now he has to deal with it.

  • Steve Hymon’s mental gymnastic on the justification for those non-functional gates is emblematic of the problem. The purpose of a gated metro system is to enable free transfers or distance based fares, not prevent fare evasion per se. Fare evaders will still not pay even if our gates are fully functional. Metro decided to install gates based on false premise and it’s about time they admit they don’t know what they are doing. If they insist on continue the gate program, then at least take the opportunity presented to introduce free transfers (which means making sure ONLY transfer stations are secured: e.g. 7th Fig Metrocenter, Union Station, Imperial/Wilingmton) and leave the rest of the station open and without gates.

  • bzcat, you do NOT need gates for transfers or distance based fares.

    All you need is a contact sensor near the entrance, which people with tap cards touch as they enter the system.

    A pole with a sensor is many, MANY times cheaper than a full gate, and requires less maintenance.

    Hell, Londons newest rail system, the DLR, which has station transfers to the rest of the tube has ZERO gates. You just tap as youre walking in. If you have a pass or paper ticket, you dont do anything, you just show it if the police ask.

  • Hey look, cool, it’s one of my photos at the top of this blog. Streetsblog likes me!

    Just for the record, I fully support TAP. I’m ambivalent on gates, but I think that TAP will be awesome.

    I’ve seen the good that smart cards can do in other cities, and there is no reason (other than sheer bureaucratic incompetence) why Los Angeles can’t upgrade TAP to the same levels found in San Francisco or Tokyo — 100 percent compatibility with ALL rail and bus transit services. Online reloading and other online services. A cash purse. Quick and easy entrance and exit of subways and buses. Cell phone smart card apps! YES, WE CAN!

    Paper TAP cards has been proposed before. They should be a “no duh” solution.
    And Metrolink, Santa Monica and Long Beach should have funds set aside in their budgets for adding TAP to their systems.
    So maybe they have to delay the opening of the Metrolink Perris-Moreno Valley branch for a little while. TAP is important, guys!

    I’m with Hymon: We’re NOT the Docklands Light Railway. Metro Rail is growing, and a growing system will be harder and harder to patrol. Station attendants would be a good idea with or with gates.

    BART-style fare gates would be better than turnstiles, but the turnstiles haven’t been a huge inconvenience.

    p.s. Since when did rail transit fans trust the Daily News? Their editorial board obviously hates rail.

  • Joe

    This probably isn’t the right place to post this. But I haven’t seen this idea before, so…

    It would be more convenient if, instead of requiring a rider to buy a day pass at the beginning of the day, the TAP card would simply keep track of the number of fares paid per day, and make the fifth and subsequent rides on any one day free.

    That way the rider wouldn’t have to decide ahead of time how many buses they plan on taking on one day.

    Of course, that would require TAP to allow you to load money onto a card and spend it $1.50 at a time, which it doesn’t. But maybe when they fix that, they can get rid of the pre-pay requirement for day passes as well.

  • James Fujita, no, we’re not the DLR…..but from what I experienced, there’s not a single gate in all of switzerland, and their rail system destroys everything in California.

    The athens subway system also has no gate system.

    The ONLY people that benefit from gates are the company that sells and maintains them.

  • Jass, I’ll see your Switzerland and raise you a Japan.

    I know Japan is the “game breaker” of rail transit systems, but there you have it: Fare gates as far as the eye can see and I think you have to get out to rural farm country before you see a train platform without a fare gate.

    And there are millions of train station entrances in Tokyo alone, so the cost of implementing Suica (Japanese TAP) must have been gargantuan.

  • Erik G.

    There are also NO gates on any system in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway or Finland. But there are hefty fines for fare-evaders!

    What I’d love to hear from LA Metro is why turnstiles?

    And how come the TAP website still is ONLY AVAILABLE in ENGLISH?!?

  • Eric B

    @ Joe: That is the “no-duh” solution that has been kicking around in my head for a while. Theoretically the same could be done for weekly or even monthly passes. It seems like the technology would be much, much easier: you just put limits on the amount the computers can charge–no calculation would even have to take place at the point of contact. It could all be done at the end of the day in the back room. This is one of the many, many reasons cash purse is preferable to the pass system. I can’t think of another system that implemented smart cards and a pass system like our Metro. DC, NY, BART, are all smart and cash-based.

  • Joe said “It would be more convenient if, instead of requiring a rider to buy a day pass at the beginning of the day, the TAP card would simply keep track of the number of fares paid per day, and make the fifth and subsequent rides on any one day free.”

    We were promised that during the many years the architecture of the UFS (Universail Fare System) that is the basis of TAP. A cash purse, a single card that could hold passes from multiple agencies, etc. Fair fare was the promise that was supposed to do exactly what Joe proposes. And like so much regarding TAP reality has fallen far short of what we were supposed to be getting.

    For the record I should note one member of the Metro Board has been a staunch critic of the gates–Richard Katz. He did his homework and has made the case that the gates will never pencil out. I worry that Metro staff (as reported last Nov. by Neon Tommy) seem to be claiming we are in too deep to dump the gates, even though in my mind that assumes we know just how deep a fiscal hole the gates will create. I’m not so sure about that.

    And if you want a good laugh scroll down to the comments on the Neon Tommy article, where I describe why Yvonne Burke championed the gates. It is a weird saga beyond surreal…

    http://www.neontommy.com/2009/11/las-metro-takes-aim-at-cheater

  • I meant to say “We were promised that during the many years the architecture of the UFS (Universial Fare System) that is the basis of TAP was being conceived.”

  • Bob L.

    “Kymberleigh Richards in the original Daily News piece summed up the essence of the problem of the gates ”We are never going to get ($154 million) in lost fares out of this. At $1.50 a ride, how many fare evaders do you have to catch to make back ($154 million)?” I agree with her and thus foresee Metro stumblingly will eventually have a workable if less than optimal TAP but that the gates may well end up being pulled out. Probably the best outcome for a debacle of massive proportions.”

    Yes, how many fare-evaders? But – the saving is less (no) fare-inspectors, more unemployment. But, more important is having the fare-inspectors (and Sheriff checking fares) riding and by there presence improve security.

  • Spiffy

    My guess is that Fare evasion, like red light cameras are transitory – after the initial period of terror where many people are caught and fined, you change people’s habits, and then you no longer need the infra-structure you built. Like communities now abandoning (or moving) red light cameras, Metro might well think of having a very visible presence of fare checkers initially, then taper them off, as evasion decreases.

  • la rider

    @Erik G.

    Good point on the turnstiles. Why Metro. I’ve been on five major subway systems that all have gates. Shanghai, Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Osaka. We should have gates, but turnstiles are really inefficient.

  • Ken Ruben

    My friends, Dana Gabbard and Erik G. have covered some of my concerns.

    But further comments from this Senior EZ Pass rider even though I have several TAP cards (with no money on them including one card with a faded picture-later replaced although I keep all of the cards for hobbyist reasons); until such time that Art Leahy is able to get all of the various systems onboard for UNIVERSAL coverage), I will continue to purchase the Senior EZ Pass (paper).

    I am a regular Culver CityBus user and at times, I see passengers try to use a METRO TAP card on Culver CityBus and of course, it won’t work.

    I will be curious when this alert light on the rail lines (where applicable) starts in two months and delays people like me with the EZ Pass and those with paper Metrolink tickets in getting through the gates (still not sure whether the gates will be locked at that time).

    Dana and Erik and others can follow-up to my comments here.

  • Hmmmmm. Based on recent comments, it would seem that Metro has two options: the Central European option, with no gates; or the East Asian option, with plenty of gates.

    So, the question is, which do you trust more: German police squads or Japanese technology?

    Seems like a no-brainer to me….

  • Erik G.

    @James F.

    Are you suggesting that 65 years after the defeat of the Axis Powers, fascist goon squads are checking fares on the Tunnelbana in Stockholm…

    …or that with Japanese technology, in use by L.A. Metro, nothing can go wrong…can go wrong…can go wrong…

  • Interurbans

    Dana has it right. CUBIC has their money and whoever they paid to get the contract has theirs. There could be no other reason for this gated system. Let’s move on and make what we have work. TAP could be a great system for the user and the many transit agency’s throughout our area. In Hong Kong their Octopus pre paid fare card works great on anything. Buses, their open LRT system, their gated MTR/KCR heavy rail system, mini busses and can even be used on many vending machines. But gates require that each station have an attendant, there must be service personal to keep the gates working etc. TAP can and should be a prepaid card that can be bought from any ticket machine, at a convenience store or even bus drivers through the fare box.

    To reduce fare evasion the MTA needs more fare inspectors out riding the trains which not only check for paid fairs but provide perceived security so that the riders have a greater sense of safety. The inspectors will also help reduce the homeless, the nosey and rowdy kids, venders and solicitors etc.

    I have a TAP card and do not use it. I just buy a paper day pass. Leave it to our MTA to figure out to spend a whole lot of money on a project that was not thought out and how to do it wrong when there are so many working TAP like systems in operation worldwide.

  • This whole debacle got interesting to me when I found out that the money for the gates was to “fight terrorism” (i.e. From the feds) and that TAP was to be used to monetize and track the ridership on the Metro a la big brother.

  • @ ubrayj02: Google Street Views got you feeling a little paranoid?

    @ Erik G. : Who needs fascists when you have the LAPD and the County Sheriff?

    Give me the Suica penguin any day…..

  • p.s. Fare gates don’t complain when I take their photo…

  • LOL. Yes, and do you ever hear the newspapers talking to you as you walk by???

    Seriously though, the money for the fare gates was secured through some Department of Homeland Security grant in the name of fighting terrorism.

    Burke’s staff were quoted saying that the passenger information would be used to screen “terrorists”, that TAP would serve as a de facto credit card for the working poor, and that our customer information would be monetized.

    I honestly think that the whole fiasco had to do with someone wanting to run for congress in L.A., or in someone in congress, sending money to Cubic to either curry their favor or as a payoff for something done in D.C. The rest of the b.s. about fare evasion, etc. was so patently ridiculous it was only there to distract reporters.

    There are similarly stupid stories about places in the midwest (during Republican rule of Congress) getting tens or hundreds of millions for high tech crap to fight terrorism that did little but make local vendors and defense contractors rich.

  • Andrew

    One thing I’ve never seen mentioned is the data collection that gates enable. Statistical analysis is crucial when determining when to have service and how often, and without any methodology of collecting this data (which gates could offer), metro will have a difficult time understanding traffic patterns or changes in what services people need, other than having someone there to physically collect this data.

    I’m not sure why more people haven’t added this as an additional benefit to the gating. It’s not just about saving money from non-payers. It’s about having a smarter system that offers data to analyze.

  • Spokker

    Do you have to TAP to exit? If not, I’m not sure how much more useful that data will be in analyzing travel patterns.

  • TAPping to exit would make a lot of sense if Metro Rail switched to a “pay by the distance” system.

    Before SUICA, Tokyo subway passengers (unless they had a transit pass) would have to read the subway map to find their destination, read how much it cost to get from point A to point B, and then push the right button for 60, 80, 120, 140, 160 yen, oh and don’t forget to calculate student or senior discounts.

    SUICA blew this complicated system out of the water. Tap to enter, tap to exit, and the price gets deducted upon exiting. No wonder it’s so popular in Japan.

  • Anna

    I happen to be German and I don’t know what makes you think we don’t have gates. On the metro we do – because it would be a waste of money to trust people to pay by honesty. On trains, there is personnel going though the train checking everybodys ticket (no police squads whatsoever). If you ever see the police at a metro or train station it’s only for safety not to check people’s tickets – that’s not their job and they wouldn’t do it anyway.

  • laura

    I always get confused about which way to scan my pass at the turnstiles.

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