- Written by Matthew Hetz
29 Jul 2013
The TAP card (Transit Access Card) is now mandatory to ride light rail and subway on the Metro system. The card works by swiping it across a reader to deduct fare. It is also used at the farebox on buses for Metro, Culver City, Santa Clarita, Foothill and other bus lines, but not all. Santa Monica Bus does not accept the TAP card. Here the TAP card is superior to fumbling for change or a dollar bill for bus fare.
At subway and light rail stations, the card is either swiped at a turnstile or at a free standing, short column, and when authorized, a readout gives the “Go” to proceed to the station waiting platform. The fare is deduction similar to a debit card. When the card works, it a system which is does what is expected. But when it’s bad, it’s very bad, and it is bad far too often.
There are too many unneeded difficulties in using the card, and they are very large and very annoying. Two of most glaring are the purchase of the TAP card, and later adding more money to the card. My latest travails of a TAP card started when it was suddenly no longer accepted on Culver City buses. Thinking it could be their mistake or computer glitch, I tried to use the card on a Metro Bus, but it was also denied.
I later learned that the cards are active for a limited time. Once the time is up, to the surprise of the transit rider, they are not accepted. There was no advance notice of this when purchased, nor later towards the expiration time.
With an invalid TAP card, I attempted to purchase a new one. My first attempt was to go to the TAP website, something I had done many times to put more money on the card in exercised in frustration.
The website for TAP is one of the most user unfriendly sites I’ve ever used. It is more than unfriendly, it is hostile in how little information is stated up front, how confusing and difficult it is to navigate within the website, and its overall amateurism. It looks and works like a beta version website for a high high school project, and that may be unkind to high school students.
The site is a jumble of instructions which lead back upon themselves. For example, when I needed to put more money onto a card I already owned I would click on the “Replenish Your Tap” link, and I would just remain on the page, which has instructions on how to replenish the card: “Replenish Online Visit our secure Web site (I am already on your secure website.) and follow the simple check out process under Fare Products to reload a monthly pass or zone pass using your credit or debit card.”
But I am already on the TAP website page to replenish the card, and each click to replenish leaves me on the same page. Why was I not immediately directed to a page to add money to the card? At the bottom of this text is a button, “Purchase Pass.” When replenishing a TAP card, the user already owns a pass. There is no need to purchase a new one.
I don’t want to purchase a new card, I just want to put more money on it. With “Fare Products” link, I am given a list of locations to go to for purchase, and again, the confusing option to “Purchase Pass” when I already own a pass.
Attempts to put more money on the card are journeys into rabbit holes. Sometimes it works. other times no. The language and instructions are confusing. Instead of just a simple “Put money in the card,” in clear and precise instructions, the TAP web user is asked if they want to put “product” on the card. Product is milk, cheese, computers, dishwashers, cars, items that are produced. I cannot put a tangible item on the card, I want to simply put an intangible on the card: money-electronic money. I want “fare,” which is money paid for transportation.
Using the TAP website is so frustrating that at times I just give up. In one case three attempts to put $20 on the card were rejected each time. However, when I next used the card there was $60 added to it. The sales went through despite rejection notices. Besides being stupid, this wreaks havoc with planning a personal budget.
With no working TAP card after the surprise expiration, and despite my misgivings on using the TAP website, I decided I would use their website to purchase a new card. This process is no better than the annoying exercises in futility in trying to replenish fare. Rejection followed rejection with more explanations which were in an indecipherable mix of English and computer programming code.
Defeated, I decided to call the TAP customer service number. I knew I could go to the the Culver City Bus offices or Culver City City Hall to purchase a card. However, I ride mass transit out of deep environmental concerns on air pollution, global warming and the acidification of the oceans from vehicle exhaust.
It seemed wasteful and hypocritical to drive (pollute) just to purchase the TAP card. If I took a bus, it would require a special trip outside of my usual bus commutes. I noted on the TAP website that Ralphs sells the TAP card. This was perfect since I shop at a close-by Ralphs. During my next shopping trip I would buy a new TAP card.
But this is TAP, and despite burned fingers I knew nothing is simple nor seems as it appears. I called my local Ralphs, which I was assured carried the card by the TAP phone representative. True to form, they didn’t carry the card. The closest Ralphs to me to purchase the card was in El Segundo, which is very much out of my way driving or by bus.
I then remembered that the TAP cards are sold in vending machines at light rail and subway stations. I’ve purchased Day Passes and added money to the my TAP card at these station vending machines. I was going to Culver City, and would swing by the Culver City Expo Line Station and buy a new card.
Here too, TAP fails to give clear instructions with confusion and conflicts between the use of “Fare” and “Product” and we are asked questions which do not yield easy answers because we don’t know.
Every time I use a TAP vending machine there are others who stand there baffled, trying to decipher the coded language. There is no simple “Add money for fare to card.” There needs to be explanations of the different fare types, trip differences between a day pass, monthly pass, and so forth. But there are no instructions, only questions thrown to the bewildered transit ride.
This creates a great deal of confusion for transit riders, and anxiety when they know their train is leaving soon, and they are stuck trying to figure out how to use the vending machine to buy a TAP to ride the subway or train and not get a ticket for riding without a TAP card. It should not be this difficult.
You can see these poor, confused people at any subway or light rail station, standing in front of the vending machine, dazed and confused, repeatedly pushing buttons hoping something, anything will make sense to purchase a TAP card or add fare.
After I purchased the new TAP card I went to their website for “Balance Protection,” to guard against theft or loss of the card. Following too many website links, I was directed to the page for Balance Protection. I entered the card number and established a PIN, and was rejected with: “Reseting Pin Failed !- Error: SiebelError: Card with Serial Number XXXXXXXXX not found(SBL-EXL-00151)***RAISE ERROR TEXT*** Error near no filename:1056 [RaiseErrorText()]. from no filename:1056 [BusComp_PreWriteRecord()]Card with Serial Number XXXXXXXXXXX not found(SBL-EXL-00151)(SBL-EXL-00151).”
Excuse me? I removed the card number for my security, but the rest is direct from the website. How does this help me?
I again called the TAP phone number, to register my complaint again on the incredibly incompetent website, and ask for Balance Protection for my new card. The phone rep. said she would add Balance Protection over the phone. A checking of the website today found that the card is still not under Balance Protection a week later, and I received the same error message.
Mike Bonin is the newly elected Los Angeles Councilman to District 11. In a recent Streetsblog article (bonin streetscape), he wants everyone to use mass transit just once in the hopes they will then become frequent transit riders. I support this idea, and wish him well, but already Bonin is defeated if the new rider has to use the TAP system with its muddled instructions, misdirections, rejections, incorrect information, defeating website and systemic hostility to users which is sure to send people back to the vehicles.
I am not alone in my complaints. A Google search of TAP Card has dozens of articles of the incompetence of the system and its hostility towards transit riders.
Whenever I call the Tap offices to try to either put more fare on the TAP card or purchase one, I tell the phone representative to send a memo to their supervisor with the complaint that their website makes no sense. Each time I do this, the phone rep. will say they get this complaint all the time.
Here is a situation where there are constant complaints from the public about an incompetent website for using public transportation, and nothing changes.
A Google search of TAP Card, Los Angeles, Management yields nothing. A TAP phone rep tells me TAP an independent third party, which seems to work in secrecy. The “Contact Us” links on their website leads back to an e-mail address, phone number, and a post office box.
Metro in Los Angeles is closely associated with TAP, but does Metro run the organization? If it is an independent third party, who is running this system? Are they paid? Are there paid consultants who concocted one of the worst websites on the net and one the most frustrating mass transit systems imaginable? I would like to send TAP management a complaint letter, but now that just seems ridiculous.
I had sent e-mails to TAP to register complaints and while these are registered on their website, I never received an e-mail, letter of phone call from them. Yet, my complaints were closed as resolved.
As a long time transit rider, the operations side of Metro remains mired in a disregard to the needs of transit riders. When the TAP card was first installed for subway riders, Metro installed the card readers at the entrance level. Metro does not issue transfers between its own trains or buses, so the Metro rider must pay fare for each ride. If a rider wanted to transfer between the subway Red and Purple lines, which share tracks and stations, the rider could not pay fare through TAP at the waiting platform but instead would have to go upstairs to the entrance level, swipe the card, then return to the waiting platform. This is nonsense. It increases odds the rider will very likely to miss a train and creates a complete waste of time. Thankfully Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky intervened to correct this, but the question is why didn’t Metro think of this in the first place.
The TAP systems needs a complete overhaul and reorganizing with transparency and accountability with the public naming of management. Going back to City Councilman Bonin and his wish to have everyone try riding mass transit once. Good luck, but with TAP, the odds of repeated riders are close to nil.
(Matthew Hetz is a member of Los Angeles Council District 11 Transportation Advisory Committee, a bicycle rider since 1965, a driver since 1975 and a dedicated transit rider since 1992.)
Vol 11 Issue 61
Pub: July 29, 2013