Metro Diary: Planes, Trains, and Confusing Transfers with TAP

A middle-schooler shows a Japanese tourist at the Aviation/LAX station how to use the Metro system. (photo: sahra)

“Do you need any help?” I asked the tall Russian guy.

He was making a valiant effort to look nonchalant as he shifted his gaze back and forth between the Metro rail map at the Aviation/LAX stop of the Green Line and the directions printed out in his hand.

He needed to get to Hollywood and Western, he said. The Google Map directions got him onto the Green Line and headed east easily enough. But then, they directed him to pick up the Silver Line at the Harbor Freeway stop and do some other things that didn’t make much sense on his way to the 7th St. Metro Center.

I told him to come with me, as I was headed to the Sunset/Vermont stop, and walked him through the purchase of a TAP card.

Next to us, at the second ticket vending machine (TVM), a pair of French siblings was having trouble.

They had been staring at the machine for some time, unable to figure out why it was asking them for nearly $100.

I couldn’t figure it out either.

“You just need to put $3 on the card – you’re only taking two trains,” I said, pulling the girl over to the map to show her the route to take.

We walked back to the machine and began the transaction all over again.

Even knowing what they needed now, the process was still slow. The instructions in the machines are more set up for regular riders who already are familiar with what a TAP card is and know what they need to purchase. Riders that don’t speak English or Spanish well are plum out of luck. Moreover, the somewhat more helpful signs posted at the Willowbrook transfer stop (below) were completely absent from the Aviation/LAX stop – the place where they are probably most needed.

TAP instructions at the Willowbrook transfer point. (photo: sahra)

The French tourists still had questions about whether they each needed a separate card or could they just load one card with enough money to cover all their trips.

“You each need one,” I said.

They gave me a dirty look.

“It’s not my doing, I swear…”  I held up my hands.

Finally, everyone had their cards, got their luggage through the turnstiles, and had made it all the way up the stairs.

Oh, God, my heart sank as I stepped onto the train.

In the chaos of trying to help everyone, I had forgotten to “tap” my card at the base of the stairs.

Since I hadn’t, I assumed that none of them had either.

Awesome, I thought. I’m going to get a bunch of foreigners fined and thrown off a train in the middle of the night. Welcome to America!

I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

The best was not on the menu for the evening.

The announcements must have shorted out after the first stop because the doors were opening and closing in silence at each subsequent station. The French siblings and the cyclist standing behind me went into a panic.

“This is my first time riding the train,” the cyclist confessed nervously. “I’m not sure where we are and I need to get off at the Harbor station.”

In the dark, it was hard to see the station names as we rolled up. So, we helped her with the countdown to her stop.

She got off and I looked around to realize I had lost sight of the French siblings. It had gotten very crowded as the train moved toward the Willowbrook station. I hoped they hadn’t gotten off at the wrong spot.

At the transfer point, the Russian guy and I headed down the nearest exit, which happened to be the west stairs. When we realized the Blue Line was already at the platform, we high-tailed it across the street, crossed the tracks, and made it up to the platform.

As we ran, I had looked for a place to tap my card. I hadn’t been able to find one.

Oh, God, I groaned inwardly. Not again!

It was now almost 10 p.m. The monitors at the Aviation/LAX station had said the Blue Line was experiencing delays and that Metro was sorry. We didn’t know what that meant – were they running fewer trains or spacing them at greater intervals? Or, were they just behind schedule? Uncertain, we scooted onto the train just as the doors were closing, foregoing hunting for a TAP machine, missing the train, and waiting for who knows how long for the next.

“I really hope the Sheriff is understanding if we get stopped,” I told the Russian guy.

Don’t count on it, David Sutton, Metro’s Director of TAP Operations, told me when I confessed my unintentional criminal activity to him and told him about some of the challenges we had faced in navigating the TAP system.

“Always validate the fare on your TAP card before riding by tapping the card at a station validator or gate. I wouldn’t want you or your readers to get a ticket!”

“I tried!” I said, explaining we had headed down the west exit at the transfer point, not the east one (which is much better signed and has both a TVM and a TAP machine).

At the base of the west staircase were gates that you could exit to the parking lot or to the Blue Line. They had TAP validators, it appeared, but it didn’t seem logical that you would tap your card there for a train that was all the way across the street. Especially because the TVM outside the gates had been a ticket station exclusively for the Green Line before the TAP changeover.

I don’t think it even registered with me that we might have been able to tap the cards at that exit. At least, not until we were already across the parking lot, heading up onto the Blue Line platform, and realizing that there were no TAP stations between the exit we had come through and the train.

What you see when you head down the west stairs from the Green Line at Willowbrook. (photo: sahra)

Do we tap cards here upon exiting the Green Line to transfer to the Blue? Tapping the the card to go up to the platform for the Green Line makes sense. But, tapping to exit doesn't, as you aren't in proximity of the Blue Line at this exit. Signs would help make that clear to riders. (photo: sahra)

Even when TAP stations are placed between transfer points and accessible, their positioning and lack of signage can leave riders confused.

In transferring to the Red Line from the Blue Line, for example, I spotted two validators next to the staircase railing. I would have missed them completely if the area had been more crowded, if I had been a tourist, or if I was on my first trip through the station. Moreover, they weren’t marked, so it wasn’t clear what they would be validating. Was the validator noting the specific train you were riding or only the fact that you had paid to ride a train from the transfer point? What if it validated us for the wrong train?

We watched other people, figuring that they would know what to do.

This was not a fruitful approach. Nobody even bothered to look at the machines.

“Let’s do it, just to be safe,” I suggested.

I tapped my card and felt moderately less criminal at seeing $1.50 deducted.

TAP validators for those transferring between the Red and Blue or Expo Lines at the 7th St. Metro Center.

While I may be guilty of over-thinking things, this was my first time transferring trains since the new TAP machines were put in place. And, I was in the company of people who were completely new to the Metro system. Because of that, the gap in information available for riders about when and where to tap your card once you purchased it seemed glaring to me.

I actually retraced my route the next day to see if perhaps my being very tired after a long day of traveling was to blame for my faulty navigation of the system.

Nope.

At the Aviation/LAX station, I watched a very sweet middle-schooler shepherd tourists through the process of buying a card and figuring out how many trains they needed to take. He had just gotten out of school and was waiting for his mom, who worked in the area. They rode the Green Line back and forth to Downey together several times a week. There wasn’t a day that went by, he said, that he didn’t have to help at least two or three people with buying tickets and/or finding their way.

As he spoke, a man trying to buy a senior pass erupted into angry gesticulations at the TVM. He was apparently not an avid reader of The Source blog, which recently ran the instructions on how to do this. If I hadn’t seen that post, I can honestly say that I would not have known how to help the man find the fare he needed, either.

As I spoke to Metro’s Sutton about some of the glitches I witnessed, he kept emphasizing that much of the information riders needed was available on Metro’s website.

While this is true, outside of the transit enthusiasts, I’m not sure that regular riders (particularly lower-income people with less access to the Internet) regularly keep up with The Source or with updates about the changeover to the TAP system via the website. Even if they do keep up with the news, erring on the side of having more information available to patrons at stations would help Metro mitigate the user-unfriendliness of the system as it transitions.

Unless, of course, the confusion about the system is part of a secret plan to bring Angelenos together by forcing them to help each other navigate the TVMs and TAP validators.

Blue Line patrons holding TAP cards stared warily at the TAP validator (left) for a full five minutes before getting help from the ladies purchasing tickets at right. (photo: sahra)

While he is happy to hear that patrons are helping each other navigate the system, leaving Angelenos to fend for themselves is not Metro’s plan B, Sutton told me.

They are working to make a number of changes, and have been compiling a set of recommendations that they will be taking before the Metro Board of Directors in October.

Some of the things on the to-do list include finding ways to make the TVMs more intuitive by changing the overhead sign information and modifying the screens and menus. They are also in the design phase of adding new signage to make TAP validators more prominent so that people know to “TAP HERE” when transferring from one line to another.

Part of that redesign will entail relocating the validators so that they are both obvious and convenient, Sutton said, including those currently located next to TVMs (see photo above for example). Although right next to a TVM might seem like a convenient location for a validator to be, for whatever reason, it simply isn’t working. People are diligently buying their TAP cards and loading them with the necessary cash, Sutton told me, but forgetting to tap the cards.

I asked how long would it take before these changes were implemented.

He didn’t have a specific answer for me, but wanted me (and you) to know that right now, the conversion to the TAP system has top priority within Metro, and they are moving forward on improving things as fast as they can.

Putting staff out at major stations for special events, such as a USC game, can happen quickly. Moving hardware around can take some time because of costs and re-wiring. Software changes to how TAP cards are read or the menu choices offered at the TVMs can be implemented within a few months, he said.

But even deciding what changes to make to something like a TVM menu presents a significant challenge. As it is, the TVMs offer riders many options — day passes, senior fares, single or multiple rides, etc. — and finding the best and most intuitive way to present those within the older machines hasn’t been easy.

As riders get more sophisticated, they want more options. Families taking the Expo line to the USC games, for example, would prefer to have one card that they can pay for everyone with. In other cases, people have loaded their cards with day passes and single rides at the same time, only to have the TAP validator deduct the wrong fare. Right now, the machine scans the card for a pass first, and doesn’t give you the choice of just deducting a single fare from your cash balance.

Ideally, Sutton said, he’d like to see the machines be more like candy machines, where you can see the product you need and the cost. He also understands that people would probably prefer to have more of a touch screen format, perhaps with icons, that was faster and easier to navigate. But retro-fitting the machines without running Metro into the poorhouse is no easy task, he said. And new machines are not cheap. Cubic, the company currently contracted with Metro to provide the components and support for the TAP system, has some very interesting and easy-to-use new machines, according to Sutton, but any replacement of the current machines (if it occurs) is quite far off in the future.

“There’s no question that our system should be better,” Sutton concluded. And, he feels, it will be better. But making it better definitely takes time.

We’ll be checking in with Metro about pending changes once the recommendations are taken to the board. Have your own suggestions? Leave them below.