SoCal Smart Card Implementations Not Smart

In May of 2002, I arrived at the airport in Hong Kong and bought an Octopus Card so that I could get around the city. This was the first time I’d used a transit smart card, and it worked perfectly. You just tap it once when boarding the train or bus, and tap it again when you get off, and the proper fare is deducted. It is also accepted at many convenience stores.

Since then, I’ve used similar systems in Japan (Suica), Korea (T-Money), Singapore (EZ Link), China (公交卡), Taiwan (EasyCard), and England (Oyster). I’ve never had a problem with any of these systems.

I believe the implementation of the Oyster Card is especially well thought-out. You don’t have to decide in advance if it makes more sense to buy a daily pass or to pay for each journey, as it will never charge you more than the price of the day pass. This is key. You want to make it as easy as possible for people to use public transit, and not forcing them to make decisions is a good way to accomplish this. Just use the card, knowing you’re always paying the lowest fare. Along these same lines, the Oyster Card gives you a much lower fare than when paying cash, further pushing adoption of this technology.

In 2001, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) signed a contract with Cubic Transportation Systems, the same company that provided the smart card systems in England and Singapore, among many other places. Likewise, in 2002, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Agency contracted with Cubic for a similar system.

Yet here we are 10 years (and countless millions of dollars) later, and neither system has been fully and properly implemented. To wit, this quote from the pages of the Culver City bus system:

How do I transfer from one Culver CityBus to another Culver CityBus using a TAP card?

Simply tap your TAP card on the farebox. The base fare will be deducted from your card. Ask the Culver CityBus Operator for a Local Transfer and tap your card again to pay for the transfer. The Operator will then give you a paper transfer.

Excuse me??? This is a smart card! You should just be able to tap the card and have your fare deducted. If you use it again within the allowed transfer period (and it’s not a return trip), it should just deduct the price of a transfer. When the procedure to use a smart card is way more complicated than paying cash, something is very wrong.

The usefulness of L.A.’s TAP Card runs into more problems in those cases where you might exceed the price of a day pass. Even though they use the same technology as the Oyster Card, there is no daily cap. If you make many trips and just keep tapping your card, it will continue to deduct the full fare each time. So you must decide at the beginning of the day whether to buy the day pass or not. And if your trip starts at a subway or light rail station, no longer can you just tap on the fare gate or platform pedestal. Instead, you must wait in line at the ticket machine and purchase a day pass which is then added to your card, again completely negating the convenience of the smart card!

Things are no better in my hometown of San Diego and their Compass Card. Instead of a daily cap, they have set their systems to sell you a day pass by default. If you are at a trolley station and just want to make a one-way trip, too bad. You can’t use the pedestals and must line up at a ticket machine, unless you don’t mind paying $5 for a one-way trip. On the buses, you are supposed to be able to tell the driver before you tap your card that you want a one-way fare instead of a day pass, but in practice, when I do this, it still deducts the $5 cost of a day pass.

Commuting to and from work for me normally requires just two $2.25 one-way trips, and I don’t relish making a daily 50-cent donation to the local transit agency. But sometimes I decide to go somewhere after work. Again, a London style daily cap would work great and encourage me to use transit more often, as there would be no fear that I’ll end up spending way more than it costs me to drive.

There are several other problems with the San Diego system.

One is the slowness of the card readers. Bus boarding is severely delayed by the fact that it takes almost two seconds for the response to each card tap. Why oh why? L.A. uses the same fare boxes and the response is immediate, as it is too on MTS’s contract buses.

[2013-08-20 Edit: Interesting that an article I read concerning RTD Denver's new smart card system said that they decided not to buy the integrated GFI fare boxes that MTS uses because "integrated machines would take too long to process a bus-boarding transaction" Hmmm. Ref: http://www.denverpost.com/ci_17091718]

Also, despite the day pass supposedly being good until the end of service, it’s actually coded to end at 23:59. If you board a bus after midnight (I’m a late-night person, so this isn’t so unusual for me) and tap your card, it charges you for a day pass for the following day. (The same thing happens with their paper day passes. If you insert it after midnight, it eats the pass and doesn’t register as valid.)

Keep it simple. I should just be able to tap my card every time I get on a bus or train and know that I’m always getting the best fare. The easier it is, the more likely I am to use it. With the card set to auto-charge, it even feels like it’s free!

It can’t be that hard to get all this working. It’s just a matter of software. I can’t believe it’s been a whole decade, and while cities around the world have successful smart card implementations, here in Southern California they are still struggling through political and technical challenges to get everything right.

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