Imagine getting on a bus without having to fumble for exact change or wait behind somebody trying to stuff crumpled dollar bills into the fare box. Consider transferring from the subway onto a bus operated by the city of Long Beach or another municipal transit agency using the same prepaid pass.
For Wally Shidler, the fantasy has begun: He simply taps his new transit "smart card" every time he boards the Blue Line or gets on a Metro bus.
With a flick of his wrist, transit officials can track his every move: His 8:11 a.m. departure on board a bus near his Walnut Park home, his transfer 17 minutes later onto the Blue Line, his 8:47 a.m. arrival at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.
"Why have all the hassle? If I want to go someplace, I just hop on the bus and go," said Shidler, 68, a lifelong transit rider.
He is one of about 50 volunteers testing the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's new universal fare system. The accompanying Transit Access Pass cards should be widely available within the next two years.
At that time, transit users will be able to load prepaid products, such as student passes, onto their TAP cards over the phone, on the Internet or in person. They also will be able to add separate credit to the cards that can be used, like gift cards, for transfers and rides on other transit agency buses.
Passengers can designate amounts to be automatically deducted each month from a bank account or regularly charged to a credit card, or they can authorize transactions whenever they want to reload their cards.
Transit officials are gradually introducing the cards, each embedded with a computer chip, into widespread circulation. UCLA got the first batch in the fall.
"We want to be absolutely certain that we have completely tested the veracity and reliability of that equipment," said Jane Matsumoto, the MTA's project manager. The agency, also known as Metro, collected $280 million in fares last year.
Signs of the new system are already evident. Computerized fare boxes have been installed on all 2,500 Metro buses. Stand-alone card validators in subway and light-rail stations advise riders to "TAP here." And new ticket vending machines allow passengers to buy one-way tickets and day passes.
When completed, the regional transit pass -- similar to those used in Washington, D.C., Chicago and the Bay Area -- will help create the seamless system envisioned by transit officials a decade ago. So far, the MTA has budgeted more than $165 million for equipment and this summer signed a $32-million contract to provide customer service.
Computerized card readers should reduce delays because each ticket will no longer have to be inspected. All bus drivers will have to do is listen for a beep from the fare box to know a pass is valid.
"In milliseconds, it recognizes you, beeps and you move on," said Jeffrey Klompus, a project consultant.
Each TAP transaction also helps document rider trends, particularly transfers within the system. Transit officials say they will study the data to reroute buses to better serve passengers.
Morning travel patterns of Gold Line passengers, for example, might be examined to determine how riders get from Union Station to their jobs. Are they transferring onto particular buses? Are those buses going where riders need to go?
Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, an MTA board member, has pushed for the new technology for 13 years.
She believes installation of the TAP system will help transit officials recover millions of dollars in ticket revenue now lost to fraud and, in some cases, reduce customer fares.
"There is a lot of flexibility in terms of fare structure," she said.
Older riders, for example, can be offered a bigger discount if they travel during off-peak hours. The cost of transfers between transit agencies also can be reduced, she said.
As for fraud, under the new system, lost or stolen cards can be instantly invalidated. Fewer paper tickets will make illegal duplication and sales less lucrative. And workers who hand off employer-paid bus passes to others during nonbusiness hours or in unauthorized locations can be easily caught.
A few weeks ago, 1,000 UCLA students, professors and staff members became the first paying customers to get TAP cards. (The MTA's 10,000 employees, who already ride for free, have been testing the system for months.)
UCLA bought the passes -- valid for one school quarter -- in bulk. For security, each is emblazoned with a photo from the user's school identification card.
Students "thought the pass was really high-tech and cool," said Jane Gould, a UCLA transportation planner. Next quarter, riders will be encouraged to keep the same plastic cards and reload them through the university's transportation office.
Over the next several months, about 30 businesses that offer transit passes to employees will get TAP cards. Three municipal operators, in Culver City, Santa Clarita and Torrance, also will begin testing the card-readers on board their buses.
In all, 11 regional bus agencies will buy the equipment and honor the cards. Cash and paper tickets for casual transit riders will still be accepted.
New fare boxes will be installed in buses in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Norwalk, Montebello, Gardena, the Antelope Valley and the Foothill area within the next two years.
Meanwhile, Shidler continues to track his every TAP card transaction in a little notebook he keeps in his shirt pocket. Twice a month, transit officials generate a computerized report documenting his every move on the transit system.
He compares the two, searching for discrepancies. "They are pretty much getting the bugs out of it," he said. "One time they had me somewhere I wasn't."
That was a few months ago.
"It's getting better," Shidler said, noting that he doesn't care that the transit agency knows so much about his daily outings.
But if other passengers prefer a less personal relationship with their transit agency, they can pay cash for the card and decline to tell agency officials who they are.
"If you don't register the card, you are just a number," Shidler said, predicting the system might generate too much information -- even for transit officials eager to learn from it.