How TAP Stacks Up: A Comparison of Transit Smart Cards Across the USA and Canada

SmartcardsIn my recent travels, I’ve had my first experiences with a couple of smart fare cards on North American transit systems: the Bay Area’s Clipper, and the PRESTO card used in the Toronto and Ottawa areas. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten familiar with the features and routines of LA County’s TAP card (and, earlier, with the DC area’s SmarTrip), so these encounters with other systems were an interesting eye-opener in the dimensions along with different smart card systems can vary. For example, I had to buy my Clipper card at a store, because it’s not simply available at station venting machines, as TAP cards are in Los Angeles. On the other hand, Clipper can be used to pay fares on Caltrain (the commuter rail line between San Francisco and San José), whereas TAP can’t be used on the Metrolink system in SoCal. All this made me curious to investigate in a more systematic way how the different cards used around the US and Canada compare in their pricing and features. Drawing on the list of cards in this Wikipedia article, I whipped up a quick Google spreadsheet comparing cards on the following features (based on information I could find online):

  • Number of metropolitan areas where the card is used
  • Number of distinct transit agencies using the card
  • Price to purchase a new card
  • Whether the card can be used on commuter/regional trains
  • Whether cards can be purchased at stations
  • Whether cards can be reloaded online
  • Whether other prepaid fare media (typically legacy or single-use products) are also used in the same areas, and whether balances on these can be transferred to the smart card

Here are a few observations on what I found:

Continue reading


“Tap Your Way to Free Tolls” …and civil rights violations?

Oh, hello there! If anybody out there is still watching, it’s obviously been a long time since I added anything to this blog. Shortly after the last post I got a new job, and to make a long story short work has absorbed most of my energy for the last few years. As it happens, I’m in the midst of another job change now which will entail moving away from Los Angeles soon. Maybe because of that, I thought I’d revisit this blog to discuss a few last firsthand observations about LA transit, and as well hopefully share a couple of long-term projects that I’ve been working on in my spare time, and which I’m fairly excited about. And maybe there will be some things to say about the transit scene beyond LA.

So here’s a remark on something in Los Angeles. For a while on Metro, I’ve been noticing ads with the slogan “Tap Your Way to Free Tolls”. These are advertising the Transit Rewards Program on the 10 (El Monte Busway) and 110 (Harbor Transitway) ExpressLanes. Through this program, if you have a FasTrak toll transponder and a registered TAP card, you can earn a credit for $5 in tolls by taking 16 one-way peak-hour bus trips on the transitways. In essence, it’s a “frequent rider” program, loosely akin to “frequent flyer” programs on airlines, but with a critical twist: the free reward travel is in a different travel mode (private car) from the trips you make to earn the reward (bus). Continue reading

Bus lanes for Los Feliz Boulevard

A few weeks ago, before the mayoral primary, LA Streetsblog was asking the candidates for Mayor questions about transportation policy posed by several advocacy organizations, including one from Southern California Transit Advocates about whether they’d favor introducing peak-hour bus-only lanes, like the ones planned for Wilshire Boulevard, on other arterial streets. To the two candidates who’ve advanced to the May 21 runoff, I wanted to put forth one modest proposal for a stretch of a major road that could use this. It’s one I happen to live near, so this is admittedly a slightly parochial exercise–I’m focusing on this case out of my experiences with it and not due to any reason to think the need here is greater than in any other given spot in greater LA–but I think the benefits that could be gained would potentially be regional and not just local, as well as illustrating some of the kinds of nice effects you could get from doing similar things elsewhere in the city. Continue reading

Stray observations on signage and ads

If you ride Metro Rail regularly you’ve probably seen  posters like the one below advertising that you can “Go Metro to Grand Park” (this one happens to be from a Purple Line train). I noticed something funny about Grand_Parkthe graphic on this recently. The stations depicted are, in order from left to right, Westlake / MacArthur Park, 7th Street / Metro Center, Pershing Square, Civic Center (marked as the station to exit for Grand Park) and Union Station. To the left of of Westlake / MacArthur Park, the red and purple lines continue for a bit and fade out, as if to represent the fact that both rail lines continue beyond that station. That seems like an obvious way to interpret the graphic. But wait… the lines in the graphic continue past Union Station too! So a newcomer to the rail system, seeing this, could easily be excused for thinking the Red and Purple Lines continued beyond Union Station instead of terminating there. It would be cool if this poster were actually a subtle clue that the two subway lines were in fact going to be extended to a new station in the Arts District, but somehow I don’t think that’s what’s meant. Continue reading

Bus stations on the Hollywood Freeway

A few months back I wrote about the idea of extending the Metro Silver Line south to serve the stations at the Carson Street and Pacific Coast Highway exits on the 110 freeway. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this kind of freeway-based bus facility. Unlike the Silver Line’s stops on the Harbor Transitway proper, which are in the median of the roadway between the traffic lanes, these two stations are located at diamond-interchange exits. For illustration, here’s the Carson station:

The bus facility is most visible on the left, on the southbound side of the freeway. Marked on the map with Google’s yellow road-lines are the exit and entrance ramps. If you look closely, you can see that there’s an additional southbound bus-only lane, parallel to the main freeway, connecting the exit and entrance ramps. The bus stop is along this bit of roadway. The bus, traveling in mixed traffic on the freeway, exits at the ramp, enters the lane serving the bus stop, and then after stopping to pick up and discharge passengers, merges onto the entrance ramp and then back onto the freeway proper. Continue reading

Traversing California by transit, northbound

So if you’re the sort of person who’s interested in reading a blog about public transportation in Los Angeles, there’s a good chance you’re already familiar with Matt Nelson’s 30-hour, 14-transfer, $45.25 itinerary for all-transit travel from San Francisco to LA, Joe Eskenazi’s account in SF Weekly of making that trip, and Nelson’s subsequent post presenting how to extend that trip from LA all the way to the Mexican border at San Ysidro.

Since I have the right kind of geeky mindset to find this sort of thing really interesting, I decided to sit down and figure out (a) how the schedules would work out for making the trip from south to north (the direction more personally interesting to me, since I live in LA) and (b) whether it would be possible to press on past San Francisco to Sacramento, or even beyond. Most of the way through this little project I learned of the existence of the California Rail Map, which nicely illustrates the inter-city bus connections possible on the state’s public transit services (plus Amtrak and private bus carriers). As outlined below, what I was able to work out is that, if you’ve got a Monday through Friday to spare, you can get from San Ysidro to Live Oak in Sutter County in four days, 11 hours, and five minutes, for a total fare of $89.00 (if my math and understanding of pass policies are correct, plus the cost of lodging in Ventura, Santa Maria, Salinas, and Fairfield). Continue reading

Transit History: The Downtown People Mover

Perhaps more than in any other American city, in Los Angeles discussion of public transportation’s future takes place in the shadow of its past. The memory of the Pacific Electric Railway, and of its abandonment, looms large (often to mythological proportions) in debates about transit in Southern California. But of course, there’s far more than Red Cars to Southland transit history, and these other elements of our past provide interesting insights into varied and changing conceptions of the aims of a public transportation system, of who it should serve, and of how it fits into overall goals for the future of the city; provide examples (positive and negative) of how and where future transit projects could be built; and sometimes even leave behind physical traces to be explored, and maybe even to be re-used for transit again in the future. So one of the things I want to do with this blog is to look at the past of public transit in LA, including at past proposals which were never realized. Continue reading

On-board infrastructure for standing and sitting

This past Friday on the way to work I rode for several stops on the Metro Rapid 720 going down Wilshire, aboard one of those articulated busses. It was extremely crowded on board, and as the stream of passengers filled in I ended up having to stand exactly in the center of the point of articulation between the two sections of the bus. It was here that I discovered that this is not the most convenient place to be a standee. Continue reading

Extending the Metro Silver Line

So last Saturday, as a kind of prelude to the launch of this transit blog, I took a trip down to San Pedro to check out the Waterfront Red Car. On a weekend, this involved getting on the Silver Line outside 7th Street / Metro Center station and taking it to its southern terminus at Artesia Transit Center, then catching the 450 to ride the rest of the way down the 110 freeway to San Pedro.

It’s a little mysterious that there should be this discontinuity. The Silver Line’s route south of downtown traverses the HOV soon-to-be ExpressLanes on the 110, stopping at stations in the freeway median at 37th Street, Slauson, Manchester, the 105 freeway (where you can transfer to the Green Line), and Rosecrans, before terminating at the Artesia TC. But that’s not the end of the Harbor Transitway: there are similar on-freeway stations (but located at exits instead of the median) at Carson Street and Pacific Coast Highway. The 450 express route serves these stations on its way between San Pedro to Artesia, and continues on to downtown LA during weekday rush hours.

So given that there’s this BRT infrastructure further south on the freeway, it would seem totally natural for Metro to scrap the 450 and just run the Silver Line all the way down the 110 to San Pedro. As the comments on this Source post show, I’m far from the first person to think of this, and Metro has apparently contemplated it. Which makes it even more mysterious why it hasn’t been done. Continue reading

Welcome aboard

This blog will be about all things pertaining to public transportation in Southern California. I’m not in any sense a trained specialist in anything transit-related; I simply have a longstanding interest in transit systems, and as a recent-ish transplant to Los Angeles who left my car behind when I moved here, I use public transportation for most of my getting around, so it’s something I have occasion to think about a lot. I thought that now would be an apt moment to launch a blog about such thoughts as I have, since we’re in the immediate wake of the narrow defeat of Measure J; whether you were for the measure or against it, I think we can all hope that its loss-but-pretty-near-victory is going to further invigorate debate and discussion, from all perspectives, about the state of public transportation in greater Los Angeles, and what it could and should look like in the future. On this blog I’ll seek to document, comment on, and contribute to that discussion.

Because debates around transit, and the experiences of people who use it, are strongly affected by issues of race and class (as is every other aspect of society), I think it’s important for me to say upfront that I’m white and male; I’m in my early 30s, grad-school educated, and my wife and I have a stable middle-class standard of living (not affluent by any means, but comfortable enough that, for example, we could easily afford to own a car if we wanted). I realize that all of this gives me a particular perspective on things, and so I don’t want to use the anonymity of the internet to present my views and ideas as if they’re those of a Generic Default Person, as our culture gives white guys the undeserved luxury of thinking of themselves as being. Hence the disclosure. And as I said, I’m not an expert on transit or urban planning or tax policy or any of the complicated things that go into this, so nothing I say on this blog is intended to be spoken in a voice of authority. Public transportation is something I use and think about a good deal, and I just want to put the more useful-seeming of these thoughts out there, for whatever value they might have to the overall discussion.