TAP Cards and Universal Fare Media in Los Angeles Transit: History & Resources

The vision and concept for a universal fare system for Los Angeles County began at the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission in 1990.

The agency encouraged countywide transit policies among all the transit service providers: for example, Southern California Rapid Transit District, Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, Culver City Bus, Torrance Transit, Montebello Bus Lines, Foothill Transit, Santa Clarita Transit, and others.

When universal fares were “first launched” is a difficult question.

On January 7, 1963, local business and political leaders gathered at the Statler-Hilton Hotel downtown to hear a presentation on the need for a rapid transit system in Los Angeles.

One of the presentations that day was a speech by C.M. Gilliss, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority. He outlined the plan for a rapid transit system for Los Angeles, and buried in that statement is his prescient vision for what is known today as “smart card technology.”

From Rapid Transit…A Reality (1963)

A half-century before TAP, Gilliss spoke of a typical passenger on the new system:

He shows his individually coded credit card to the magic-eye fare computer, is admitted through the turnstile concourse and is taken by escalator quickly to the train platform. A computer-tabulating device will automatically record his entrance and his exit and he will be billed automatically for his total mileage at the end of the month.

From Rapid Transit…A Reality (1963)

So what happened to this vision? We documented the history of this 1963 proposal as part of a mass rapid transit plan here.

It took a long time for the vision of a universal fare system for LA to catch up to the technology that would make it happen, and then the implementation itself was a long complex project. 

In terms of contemporary ventures into universal fare media, the first — as in very first — would be the test group of UCLA students in September, 2006.

It was a multi-year implementation that grew by various categories of transit users.

March 15, 2009 is the key “no more paper monthly passes” operational date for smart cards systemwide.

Prior to TAP becoming the standard countywide, there was debate about moving to a universal fare system sooner by using magnetic stripe technology. Santa Monica Big Blue Bus had implemented magnetic stripe based passes, as did New York MTA, Mexico City Metro, other transit agencies using mag-stripe technology for years.

Smart card technology was right around the corner. Metro and our municipal operator partners decided to go with “what’s next” instead of what was old, and that would be standardizing fare collection with smart cards.

The Metro Board of Directors had adopted TAP as the standard. In August 2001, the Board adopted smart card technology as the regional integrating technology for Transit Access Pass (TAP) program, formerly known as the Universal Fare System (UFS).

TAP would be the regional automated electronic fare collection project, which had spanned a decade in development with a goal of creating a multi-modal, multi-operator fare system providing seamless travel for customers.

In March, 2004, the Metro Board of Directors approved the TAP clearinghouse and TAP service center.  A whole new fare system for Metro and the municipal operators also had to be procured and installed – approximately 3,600 buses between Metro’s fleet and the Muni operator fleets, along with ticket vending machines (TVMs) at all the rail and bus stations/terminals.

Metro then decided to add an additional complex technology project on top of that — fare gates.

September 22, 2006 MyMetro employee news digest. Click for more information

Fareboxes were roughly the same for the previous 100 years prior to going to a digital/electronic fare collection system.  The implementation was far more complex than anything that came before it.

September 22, 2006 MyMetro employee news digest. Click for more information

Fun fact – In 2006, the world’s first paper smart cards are tested out by visitors to the Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy.

By February, 2007, TAP began replacing paper passes (as Metro monthly pass counterfeiters everywhere shed a tear or two)

The October 18, 2007 Metro Board of Directors’ Executive Management & Audit Committee and Operations Committee received an update on Metro’s equipment contract with Cubic for universal fare media:

“Installation of the Universal Fare System (UFS) equipment on Metro’s bus and rail fleet was completed in May 2006 to allow limited use and testing of new TAP smart card capabilities on bus fare boxes and rail ticket vending machines. Working with Communication’s staff responsible for college and vocational school pass programs, the TAP team introduced an Institutional Pass (I-TAP) a controlled segment of UCLA students, faculty and employees to participate in a “pilot” program over 12 months ago.

The December 4, 2008 minutes of the Metro Board of Directors’ Operations Committee outline plans for the Transit Access Pass (TAP) and Metro’s rail fare gates.

December 16, 2008 MyMetro employee news digest. Click for more information

This December 15, 2008 Metro Press Release and December 16, 2008 MyMetro employee news digest article outline the many benefits of using TAP, as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa TAPs into the 21st Century with new, reusable transit fare cards.

December 16, 2008 MyMetro employee news digest. Click for more information

TAP cards officially replaced day passes on March 15, 2009. This March 10, 2009 MyMetro employee news article outlines the campaign to inform riders, which included outreach in several languages. Presentations were made in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Armenian, Japanese and English, along with translators accompanying speakers to some locations.

This March 9, 2009 Metro Press Release provides additional information.

Metro deployed creative social media marketing, outreach, and user education about TAP via the agency’s YouTube channel.

A timeline for all of the complex activities for TAP implementation can be found in this February 17, 2010 Metro Board of Directors’ Operations Committee report.

An update on policy revisions associated with fare gate locking can be found in this May 17, 2012 Metro Board of Directors’ Executive Management Committee report.

By December, 2013, fare gates being latched becomes the standard as TAP is further implemented.