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54. Tapped out

 

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I just got my TAP card to ride Metro. To get one, I had to go to downtown Long Beach. The MTA has about 400 locations selling cards in Los Angeles County, but none of them is anywhere near where I live. Mostly, they're sold in check cashing outlets. The one on Long Beach Boulevard is in the middle of a dodgy stretch of vacant storefronts.

 

But the staff at Continental Currency Services "? behind bullet-proof windows "? had some useful advice about my new card. It's just street folklore, the usual source of information for Metro riders, but the ladies of CCS were generous with it.

The card itself cost $2; CCS required that I put a balance on it (presumably to benefit from the "float" my cash would generate before the MTA gets paid). For $7, I now have a TAP card and an unused balance of $5 "? which will be assessed $1 a month if I don't use the card in 18 months.

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TAP cards are supposed to be reused, filled and emptied at vending machines at train stations and at readers on buses. The cards are supposed to last two years. Then you'll have to buy another one.

Cynically, I imagine that my card, no matter what its actual condition, will cease working two years from now, and I will have to buy a new one. Even more cynically, I see a business model based on retail gift cards, which have a fee to activate, a monthly charge to drain the unspent balance over time, and an expectation that a significant fraction of users will abandon unspent balances for the benefit of the card's issuer. Department stores make money that way; why shouldn't the MTA?

The ladies at Continental Currency Services were a little puzzled when I walked up "? an older, bland-looking white guy who is unfailingly polite when speaking to service workers behind bullet-proof glass. Given the kind of businesses the MTA has as its partners in TAP, I guess the MTA's model rider doesn't look much like me.

The MTA believes that TAP means convenience, ease of use, and environmental responsibility (by eliminating some paper tickets). As do all service monopolies, the MTA defines "convenience" and "ease," not transit riders.

I don't ride Metro every day, but when I do, I tie together several transit modes and lines to get from Lakewood to wherever. I used to buy a paper day pass at a Blue Line rail station. The MTA no longer offers paper day passes at rail stations or on buses. The only way to pay the $5 fare to ride both bus and rail is by TAP. You can make your way to a check cashing place to get your TAP card as I did or you can buy one online. It's returned to you by mail.

The MTA does not encourage spontaneity. And why should the MTA assist riders who might get out of their car and use Metro on the occasional weekend to connect to cultural and recreational destinations? More riders paying full fare for each leg of their trip (there are no transfers within Metro) marginally benefits the MTA's troubled revenue stream.

I have my TAP card. I will learn the several counter-intuitive steps required to use and refill the card, steps that are different for buses and trains. And I will continue to wonder how this is specifically designed to get you out of your car and on to the bus with me. You might inquire from the ladies at Continental Currency Services. They really are very helpful.

The image on this page was taken by Flickr user Frederick Dennstedt. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

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