The Byzantine Process of Getting a Metro Student Pass when Your Kid Turns Five

My four-year-old on the bus to nursery school earlier this year. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.
My four-year-old on the bus to nursery school earlier this year. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

Getting a Metro student pass for my daughter has been a lot more difficult than I expected.

This summer, my daughter is turning five and starting kindergarten. Riding Metro is free for four-year-olds, but five-year-olds need to TAP. My daughter is actually excited to get her own TAP card.

We don’t ride the bus all the time. When it’s just us two, we typically ride bikes – with me pulling her on a Weehoo trailer. We sometimes take the trailer on Metro Rail.

Her nursery school is a couple miles away, and we have taken the Metro 201 bus there together about a half-dozen times in her two years there.

I was hoping to get her her own student TAP card for her fifth birthday. Though she does like to be the one to TAP the card, the gift is more one of those presents that the parents appreciate more than the kids do.

My first stop was the “Metro for Everyone” Students and Kids page where there’s an online form. It’s sort of an online form… parents can fill it in online, then print it, sign it. While it’s possible to submit the form online, this requires that the student have their own email account, something most five-year-olds probably don’t have yet. The other alternatives are to mail it in, or submit it at a Metro Customer Service Center. (There are four of these centers in L.A. County.)

But that’s not all. Along with the form, one has to provide proof of enrollment. This has to be mailed or submitted in person.

That’s the hard part.

We went by my daughter’s school – an LAUSD school fairly close by with a language program that we like. We asked for the Metro-required “letter on school letterhead with original signature of school official.” The school administrator said that they don’t give that out until school has started. They gave us a xeroxed form letter addressed to kindergarten parents.

I took that form letter to the nearest Metro Customer Center thinking that maybe it might suffice.

The Customer Center representative said he would take the form if I wanted, but that he thought it would be rejected because it needs to have the student’s name on it. This is, of course, what the school stated that they can’t give me until after classes begin in August.

Assuming I get that letter on day one of school, the Metro form says they will mail me the student pass “within 20 business days after verification has been completed.” So, it does not appear to be possible to get a student pass to ride the Metro bus to school on the first day, or even the first month, of school. (Compare this to the way Metro bends over backward to give drivers days for retroactive TAP validation for park-and-ride lots – a process that is entirely online.)

There seems to be a gap between when a kid turns five and when they start kindergarten. Metro has a student pass, but when you turn five, you have to pay full price for those rides to pre-school. For my daughter, this is only about a month. For other kids it’s up to a year.

Is it a huge burden on me to get my daughter around this summer paying the full $1.75 Metro fare instead of the $1 student fare? No. But the added cost of paying for multiple full cost there-and-back rides adds up, and makes other modes (for our family: bicycling or driving) more attractive. The delays and costs are more of a burden for low-income families with fewer options.

I asked a couple of my parent friends if they went through the process of getting their kids student transit passes; none of them had.

My recommendations for what Metro can do to make their process more customer-friendly:

  1. Don’t Make Five-Year-Olds Pay Full Fare: Do five-year-olds really need to pay full fare? Are these kids really ever anything other than students? Make a student pass available to any five-year-old just because they’re five years old – whether they’re in pre-school or kindergarten or whatever. This will allow these kids to use a student pass to ride to school on the first day.
  2. Trust Parents: Below a certain age (maybe up to age eight or ten?) just let parents vouch that their kids are students. Instead of a run-around to get enrollment forms, let parents check a box or, at most, provide proof of their kid’s age.
  3. Make the Process Truly Online: It’s 2018, so it’s time to allow applicants to submit documents online. Instead of requiring parents to get a piece of paper from a school and mail it to Metro, let folks submit a photo of the form – or (see point #2 above) just allow parents to submit proof of the student’s age. (In an ideal world, perhaps the LAUSD computers could talk with the Metro computers to verify things, but I suspect that that’s asking too much.)
    Update 26 July: Per comments on Twitter, if you create a TAP account you can apparently sign the form electronically and can upload the proof of enrollment documents. It wouldn’t have worked for me (given the gap between turning five and being enrolled in kindergarten) and I would need to create an email address for my kid. Nonetheless, the process is actually online, more than I realized at the time I wrote the article. 

At a time when Metro is looking to reverse declines in ridership, the agency says it’s focused on improving the customer experience. It should invest in making it easier and more convenient for students to take Metro to school. If kids and families make Metro a habit, then Metro grows the next generation of transit riders.

  • calwatch

    OCTA and Foothill Transit has their age at five and under, Omnitrans uses 46″ as the cutoff. I commend you for your honesty and for setting a good example for your daughter, but in practice there are probably thousands of five, six, and seven year olds who are not paying fare. And in the past, Metro wants to restrict youth fares to residents of Los Angeles County so non-taxpayers could pay their share of the system, never mind that all visitors now pay 2.25% into Metro due to the various sales taxes.

    It’s the same way with senior fares. Santa Clarita uses 60, Metro and most agencies use 62, and LADOT decides to be unique and use 65, with the exception that they accept the senior EZ transit pass for those 62-64. Therefore, a 60 year old will get three discount TAP cards in the span of five years. When Metro originally proposed 65 while grandfathering in existing 62-64 year olds, those soon to be 62 complained because it is difficult to find work as a 62 year old to pay the fare. Regardless, the region should standardize on an age for senior and child cutoffs, or use the little person standard (which is objective and doesn’t require drivers to play officer) and stop this confusion.

  • Joe Linton

    Santa Cruz transit has a similar height limit to ride free (it’s marked on a pole where you get on the bus)… though this was not advantageous for us, as my daughter is taller than the average 4-year-old.

  • Joe Commuter

    Rather than a student pass, just have a child pass that provides reduced fare for anyone under 18, or have it cut off at 15 if preferable.

  • I agree that proof of age is better. Cut the bureaucracy and plow the savings into more transit service.

  • Jason

    One has to wonder whether they’re not spending more money on the people-hours to verify school enrollment than they’re saving on denying students the $1 student fare. Between the fact that it’s only 75¢ a ride and that as Joe notes, for some parents this may mean foregoing bringing their kid on Metro, my gut reaction is to say that they almost certainly have to be losing money on administering the verification.

  • Joe Linton

    I bet it’s also feast or famine. They probably get lots of applications in August, and much less at other times of the year. (Making for the difficulty of peak staffing, and greater delays at that peak time.)

  • calwatch

    The bureaucracy seems to be there just to deny out of town visitors the right for their children to pay for a student fare. If a visitor wants to jump through hoops to get a child’s TAP card, they should let them have it.

  • I’m guessing it is easier to apply for a London ZIP Oyster Card from Los Angeles:

    https://tfl.gov.uk/fares-and-payments/travel-for-under-18s/zip-oyster-photocards

    P.S. Have you considered getting the kiddo TAP card from SMBBB or Culver City Bus instead?

  • Oh geez, I thought 5 years were free until they went to school. Oops.

  • com63

    That’s pretty crazy. They should really just sell child passes through TAP card vending machines. Same with senior passes. No verification should be required. If you get stopped for fare enforcement, the agent should verify age at that time (probably just verbally for kids).

    Like other commenters said, they probably spend more money on bureaucracy than they lose with people abusing the system.

  • jannos

    I agree with others who said rather than having a student card for kids that young, have a kid card. I think we can just presume that most kids that young are in school. If they want to promote education through transit, do it for the high school kids, where there actually is a much higher chance the child might not be attending school.

  • Sirinya Matute

    So how did it go? And did you ask TAP for comment for this story?

    I have helped families and schools navigate the application process. In situations like yours, where you aren’t sure you have the right documents, I recommend people call or contact TAP directly through their website. Create an account first, then call and ask to be transferred to someone who processes reduced fare TAP cards. They know exactly what kind of documents work for them, and they can exercise more discretion than what a CSR at a retail location is allowed to say. They can also log that they’ve spoken with you in your account – because TAP is on SalesForce, the most robust CRM system in the universe.

    I wish this were all clearer. I have pushed for it before, and it would be more constructive if others would specify what kind of documents they might have available to corroborate a kid’s age. Like they know kids get older.

    The same applies for matriculating 8th graders. The application processors have told me that you can apply for a 9-12 card while your kid’s in 8th grade. Send your kiddo’s middle school report card and check off that you’re applying for a 9-12 card. The staff want your kid to have a seamless experience and can figure it out what’s going on. If you’re nervous, call or email so you have a trail.

    Last advice, apply online. Paper apps are processed in a different queue and can take months. Online apps are fast. You can even call TAP to ask about the processing time. I do occasionally so I can manage expectations.

  • Sirinya Matute

    We actually do not process TAP reduced fare applications ourselves. However, BBB co-organizes monthly senior travel trainings with a mobile TAP team that comes to Santa Monica to help process applications and equip seniors with temp cards they can use until they receive their cards with their ID photo on them.

    BBB will sell its 30-day youth pass on a regular TAP card only if you come in person to our Store. Customers cannot load a 30-day youth pass on a regular card online or anywhere else. If you put a BBB kid pass on a regular card, the kid does not benefit from discounted single ride dates on Metro.

  • Sirinya Matute

    It was really bad when phase 2 of Expo opened. You’d have to go to TAP for comment on the existing work load.

  • “Metro Customer Service Center. (There are four of these centers in L.A. County.)”

    These Service Centers, which I believe are holdovers from SCRTD days (someone will surely correct me) are, except the East Los Angeles one, all located in the City of Los Angeles.

    Really handy for the other 87 cities that pay into supporting Metro!

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/011ecd9d605c708c565bc413795030391d8fb2ce3500829eb89ecc347b6b8024.png

  • Wouldn’t it be lovely if Metro had a Fare Collection contractor that provides the same service as London’s contractor does? I believe TfL uses (checks notes) a company called “Cubic”?

    [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCR_4P0cpWk&w=560&h=315%5D

  • Sirinya Matute

    You forgot to mention the Metro Lost & Found…which is in Cypress Park. Fun fact, I have gone there. (No I didn’t find what I was looking for.)

  • calwatch

    They should offer temporary TAP cards to students as well as seniors, rather than waiting the 20 days. I’ve applied for my folks at Foothill Transit stores and they always instantly issue the temporary TAP card. I guess there might be a loophole of a child who does not go to school in LA County, but again if they jump through these hoops the TAP card should be issued to all youth.

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