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L.A. Metro Readies Launch of Multi-Purpose Mobility Payment Card

Riders will be able to use different modes of transport, from buses and trains to electric scooters and ride-shares, with a single payment system.

One of the biggest public transit networks in the country will take the bold step of allowing riders to plan a trip with a car-share, a bike-share or other mobility providers, all within its own system.

L.A. Metro in Los Angeles is putting the finishing touches on upgrades to its Transit Access Pass — known to riders as simply the TAP card – to allow the agency to build relationships with third-party private mobility providers like Uber, Lyft, Lime and others.

The TAP platform is being rebranded as TAPforce and is set to be rolled out this fall, said Robin O’Hara, deputy executive officer, and director of technical systems for the TAP program at L.A. Metro.

“The plans are to launch with bike-share. And we’re already in talks with micro-transit and parking,” O’Hara explained during a webinar hosted by Meeting of the Minds on Aug. 1, 2018. “We’ve had some initial conversations with electric vehicle car-charging.”

TAPforce will be an account-based system allowing riders to load money into their account, and then use that account to pay for not only rides on the Metro’s bus and light rail system spread across Los Angeles County, but also other mobility providers that have partnerships with TAP.

“Right now, we’re building an account-based system that integrates pretty seamlessly with our existing TAP legacy system,” O’Hara explained. “And it’s a one-stop shop for payment and program signup. We can connect with any number of programs this way, such as bike-share, micro-transit, fare subsidy programs, parking, ride-hailing, electric vehicle charging, car-sharing, lots of different programs.”

The TAP system already partners with more than two dozen other transit agencies serving Los Angeles County, home to more than 10.1 million residents, facilitating 29 million transactions a month with more than 750 fare products. TAP sells $1.5 million in fare passes every month and $12 million in stored value.

L.A. Metro has been working with transit technology provider Cubic Transportation Systems and Salesforce to build out the TAP system to create the much vaunted “Mobility as a Service” (MaaS) concept. The move is similar to undertakings by other transit agencies, like the Chicago Transit Authority, to develop account-based systems that seek to marry public and private transit providers, in an effort to respond to the changing ways residents move around cities.

“It is absolutely the future and a great way for transit and TNCs (transportation network companies) to share the same space and be symbiotic,” said O’Hara in a follow up email with Government Technology.

Trends seem to indicate that riders are beginning to expect these sorts of technological innovations, which lead to a less fractured rider experience, said O’Hara.

“Historically, each of these different modes of travel were segregated systems,” said David Dekozan, vice president of business development at Cubic Transportation Systems, speaking during the webinar. “The objective here is, now, how do you connect them together?”

The power of TAPforce will reach well beyond simplifying the steps it takes to get from say, Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to the Hollywood Bowl (take the Red Line to the Hollywood/Highland Station and finish with a brief walk up Highland Avenue), but will allow transit officials to quickly work into the system discounts and other incentives to encourage transit use.

“So for example, if it’s a bad-air day, we can quickly provide program discounts such as free train rides, or discounted train rides, bike-share rentals that free up traffic,” O’Hara pointed out.

Developing the expanded TAP platform has been about a year in the making, with the biggest challenges related to how payment for different mobility services would be processed and handled, said O’Hara.

“Payment is a challenge across modes, but the new system that we are building offers a way to pay with your TAP account across many multi-modal programs such as bike-share and others,” said O’Hara. “Another challenge for our transit system is that we have to wait for the phone carriers to turn on the ‘tapping’ capability that enables your phone to act like a TAP card. It is a capability that has been turned on for other countries, like Japan, but it hasn’t yet been turned on in the U.S. Once that happens, the rider experience will be much more seamless.”

What about the riders who have neither smartphone nor bank account? Will they have access to the expanded mobility world of TAPforce? Yes, said Dekozan, adding, “as we start to look at certain portions of the demography you’ve got to be able to deal with cash.

“So facilities need to be set up where merchants will allow users to put cash, not a wallet, into an account, that then facilitates payment for these different kinds of services,” he said.

Loading actual cash into a TAP account could open the door to a wider cross-section of customers to use a Lime bike or step into an Uber, because these modes of mobility are app-based and generally do not accept cash payments.

Putting multiple transit options within one system allows users to “plan their trip based on their priorities,” said Dekozan. “Whether that’s speed to the destination, whether they’re trying to optimize environmental concerns.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.