map of ORCA retail locations in Puget Sound
ORCA retail locations from Sound Transit

Getting cash paying passengers to switch to the ORCA card can speed up bus boarding for everyone and save operating costs. However, there are many who continue to use cash. There are many reasons for this but I would like to focus on just one: the lack of places to buy and reload a card.

There are only 139 locations in the entire four county area where one can add value to their ORCA card, only a quarter of them sell new adult cards, and a handful (with very limited hours) sell youth and senior cards. This is inadequate. Retail locations cannot sell new cards which is a step backwards from the pre-ORCA era and a big mistake. The coverage of ORCA outlets really is pathetic by comparison to Chicago, London, or ORCA’s sister system in San Francisco.

In spite of the limitations, ORCA is now used on half of the region’s transit trips. That was most likely achieved through conversion of pass users to ORCA, many of whom have employer managed passes. That was the easy part. The challenge now is to convert the other half to ORCA users and attract new transit users.

Not everyone has a debit or credit card for online or over the phone transactions. Not everyone can use the Internet nor can they afford to go out of their way at inconvenient times just to get a card. It is even more inconvenient for youth and seniors. And while one can buy an adult or youth card and fare with checks or money orders through the mail, it can take days to process.

If ORCA is to be used by over 80% of transit riders, it must be easy for all users to get a card and add value to it near home or work or on the way. King County’s approved 2012 budget provides funding for eleven ORCA vending machines throughout King County, one of which will be installed at King Street Center. That is a good step towards making ORCA more accessible but vending machines are expensive and other card distribution channels like retail outlets should be studied for expansion.

110 Replies to “Make ORCA Cards Easier to Get and Keep”

  1. Hear hear!

    It would be interesting to analyze the distribution of the current locations with an eye to race and social justice. Is there an unequal distribution? Are there locations in Delridge, White Center, and other low income communities, where ridership is high?

  2. Link up with Starbucks.

    I have their Gold Card and I can recharge it at any store from the cashier…dont have to use a computer at all. Starbucks has IBM POS so they could add another card I bet.

    1. The difference is that their ‘card data’ is stored server side, and matched with the card ID number. An ORCA card has an RF chip in it that stores the data itself. The system is also closed and secure. Each ERG unit that can load cards (TRU, TVM kit, CST card-reader) and also every SAFTP and OBFTP in the system has a security access module that prevents unauthorized equipment from being present on the system.

      Basically, if we wanted Starbucks on-board, we’d have to give them TRUs or equivalent, and the TRU is NOT a practical system, technically.

  3. Two other reasons that people stick to cash are:

    cash enables a rider to get a paper transfer, which can be gamed with Metro drivers beyond the two hour limit (ORCA cards can’t be gamed this way)

    cash is used by people who think they don’t ride the bus enough to justify the cost/hassle of a card, even though they might actually ride more than they realize.

      1. Look forward to it. Not happy there aren’t 1-day or weekend passes for tourists & business travellers who see a $5 fee as a large percent of their transit expenditure rather than de minimus.

        Let me explain: Paying $5 for a card and then loading that card w/ say $20 makes me want to use my Green Dot card & cash instead since I already pay $5/month to load money onto the Green Dot. That said, Sound Transit sure has good ticket vending machines at the light rail & Sounder stations for transit use!

      2. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a push to open up a card and value repurchase mechanism at the airport. If you’re going to force tourists to buy a card, it’d help adoption if they knew they could get that $5 back when they were leaving the area..

        Hotels do the same thing with the magnetic cards they use as door keys, so its not a hygenic concern.

    1. Cash also enables anonymous travel. Even with an unregistered ORCA card, all transactions made with the card are recorded in a database forever. To this day, I can look into my online account for the ORCA card my former employer gave me and I can see which buses I rode two years ago today, and the exact time I got on each bus.

      I prefer not to have my movements recorded in this way. Now that I work for a company that makes me purchase my own bus rides, I use cash.

      I can understand the need to keep a detailed transaction history for a limited time in case there are any questions about overcharging or something of that nature. I also understand the benefit of keeping detailed ridership data for each route so that future transit service can be planned more efficiently. However, these goals could be satisfied just as well with a database system that removes all references to individual ORCA cards from transactions more than a month or two old.

      1. I could not agree more. It’s clear that “the list of places and times you’ve used an ORCA card” is also personally-identifying information, and it’s not something I’m comfortable having tracked. If and when Metro comes up with disposable ORCA cards, or a privacy-enhanced version, then I’ll start using it. Until that day, I’ll proudly be a cash-only user.

      2. You should clarify with your employer what their privacy policy is on the matter, too – if its codified in some legalese document that they won’t use that information against you (except in cases where the law is involved – this disclaimer is pretty common), then you have nothing to worry about: if they try to use the information against you in an unlawful way, you get to file a lawsuit.

        The ORCA site itself has a pretty lengthy privacy statement – whether its terms are satisfactory or not is a matter of opinion.

    2. It’s not gaming if it’s Metro’s official rule. All transfers that expire after 10:30pm are good through the first run the next morning. And how many hours you get depends on how long the route is, how close to its origin you are, and whether it’s pay as you enter or leave.

      I see the point about anonymous travel but people seem to take it too far. Exactly how can it be used against you that an ORCA travelled between two points in the county every day, especially if it’s unregistered? All trips will be within the tri-county area anyway, so all it tells you is that the transit system is being used.

      1. It can and has been used by an employer in a personnel action. The records are subpoenable by law enforcement agencies and adverse council and given the patriot act, they are subject to secret subpoenas from the Federal Agencies (e.g. FBI, DHS, CIA etc.)

        I’m of two minds about this. We live in an era of limited privacy by virtue of technology and change in culture where social networks is the currency that is traded. At the same time, it is not unreasonable to limit some kinds of data from being in the public or semi public domain. Even if it may be a Quixotic endeavor.

      2. I think by “gaming” he’s not referring to the OWL/1st run carry-over but rather operators not closely policing expired transfers. For example you might be able to use a paper transfer all day if the operator doesn’t check it closely or doesn’t care to stop you, while an ORCA transfer definitely expires at the 2 hours.

      3. The ORCA database records more than just “that the transit system is being used.” It records the date, time, and route number whenever you use the card. Cross-reference that information with records of how that particular bus performed relative to its schedule on that date, and you can probably figure out approximately which stop the person used. That information could likely prove quite useful in all sorts of civil and criminal investigations.

        I don’t plan on doing anything that would cause someone to have a reason to subpoena my transit usage records, but that’s not really the point. I don’t think the records should exist at all. Recording the movements of private citizens and storing said records on an indefinite basis is not something that any government agency has any business doing, in my opinion. It’s very Big Brother-ish.

      4. I recall a case in New York, once, where a suspect was dismissed of a murder charge because data from his Metro card proved he wasn’t anywhere near the crime scene at the time of the murder. Such tracking can work both ways.

      5. You can get a paper transfer with an Orca e-Purse fare payment if the transfer is valid after 10:30 pm. I received the following from metro customer service:

        Yes, transfers that expire after 10:30p are to be issued as OWL, and the minimum time on a transfer is one and a half hours.

        From current Metro rule book page 618, Section 6, paragraph 12, subparagraph D columns 1 & 2:

        “ORCA cards & Owl transfers
        ORCA users are entitled to an Owl transfer on trips on which cash customers are entitled to an Owl transfer. The ORCA transfer window is only two hours. Owl transfers are good for all Owl service and the first trip on any route the next day. When you give the ORCA card user an Owl transfer, remind them NOT to tap the card reader again that night, otherwise they may get charged another fare if the two – hour transfer window has expired.”

        —–
        I only managed to use it once and it was a bit of a hassle. I’ve since switched to a $2.25 pass, since it now makes monetary sense for me to use buy that.

    3. I would say that occasional riders benefit from the ease of use of the cards far more. For occasional riders it’s difficult to figure out how to get paper transfers, what fare to use, how to use Link etc.

    4. Yeah, I see this one guy at the U-district during mornings standing near the bus when it arrives to look at the driver’s tansfer “letter and colour of the day” to re-use this wallet-full transfers to use on the bus.

      1. When I was in Seattle in 2002-3, the colours and numbers were used in a rigid order and the scammers didn’t even have to look – I personally knew one who had it down pat. The only thing that would trip him up is occasionally they’d retire a letter and substitute a different one for a while – I remember him getting caught when D replaced B, though everything else about the order stayed the same and he eventually built up a supply of D transfers. Has this rigid order finally been replaced with something random?

      2. Let’s not forget that most of the people who hoard transfer slips do it because they honestly need the money. (Of course, a low-income ORCA would meet their needs in a much more equitable way.)

      3. Vancouver, B.C. used to have transfer stock with the day printed on it. Lots of waste but you couldent defraud the system. Their new cubic fareboxes have mag-stripe transfer printers which work equally as well as ORCA at enforcing transfer rules. Apparantly when the system was rolled out, there were many complaints as transfers that were a minute over their alloted time were rejected by the system and they had to pay another fare. Last I heard they are going to upgrade to a SmartCard based system.

  4. Let’s not forget the horrible Orcacard website. Slow, non-intuitive, and a horrid, buggy back end that makes buying or loading a card a major chore. Orca can’t be successful as long as it is more inconvenient than exact change.

    1. I disagree here. It is not a slow website and while it isn’t top notch in user experience, I find it easy enough to navigate.

      I’d much rather they spend money on adding capabilities to the system like daily and weekly passes.

      The other thing that I’d like ORCA to consider is the coming availability of “Near Field Communications” (NFC) payment systems that will be embedded in cell phones.

    2. They claim a ‘fix’ for the website is in the works, but it’s not a priority! Odds are that they’re going to farm out the work for this ‘fix’ to the same outfit they used initially for the present website interface. In other words it’s likely that it won’t be any better than it is right now and that’s pretty p poor.

  5. I couldn’t agree more — it’s actually quite difficult to obtain a card. The ORCA card website is rather ugly and doesn’t indicate (anywhere that I could find) a retail outlet where you can just purchase a new card. In fact, the map linked to in the post is the first I’d seen that.

    1. The reason for that is because you can’t buy a card from a retail outlet. Adult cards can only be bought by mail (order form on website), purchased via the website, at a Sound Transit TVM (Ticket Vending Machine) or at a service center in the four counties (King, Kitsap, Snohomish and Pierce). Youth and Senior cards can be purchased by mail (order form on website) or at a service center in the four counties (King, Kitsap, Snohomish and Pierce). Disability cards are only available from a service center in the four counties (King, Kitsap, Snohomish and Pierce). Retail outlets can only reload cards that you have already purchased. They can also be reloaded at any Sound Transit TVM (Ticket Vending Machine) or service center in the four counties (King, Kitsap, Snohomish and Pierce). Reloads are immediate when done at a retail outlet, TVM or service center since they have your card when you do the transaction. If they are reloaded by phone or via the website, there is a 24-72 hour delay because it takes time to get the information out to all of the buses and TVM’s so they can be tapped by the card holder and the funds downloaded to the card at that time.

      1. We know that ORCA cards aren’t distributed well, and I may be pointing out the obvious, but has anyone bothered to ask why? Was there such an oversight in planning that their focus on implementing the card system entirely pushed the thought of wide distribution from their minds? Other cities (I cite London) do this extremely well; how did such a glaring problem manage to fall through the cracks?

      2. I think part of it is a result of delays and they haven’t been able to get as many retail outlets as they wanted. Remember, ORCA was supposed to be in operation by 2006 but as we’ve learned from implementing large, complex projects that integrate operations of multiple agencies tend to have many unexpected problems.

        I want to know why retail locations don’t sell cards. I asked them before how does an interested retailer become an ORCA card revalue location. Unfortunately, I didn’t take notes and I vaguely remember the answer had something to do with delays in getting equipment and something else.

      3. Shrink-wrap pre-charged cards with $15 on them and sell them for $20*. There is no possible reason this can’t be done anywhere – including Starbucks or magazine stands (why don’t we have many magazine stands in Seattle?). Adding value would take some equipment, but just selling a card should be just as easy as selling a phone card.

        *though I wish they’d put $20 on and sell them for $20, I won’t hold my breath

      4. The problem with pre-charged cards is theft and fraud risk. Sure, you can have it activated at the cash register like gift cards but that means you still have to wait 24-72 hours for the activation to propagate though the system or go to a TVM or station, defeating the purpose of selling the card in a more convenient location. Instant activation requires a reader.

        Unlike ORCA, there is no value stored on the gift card itself. They’re just like a credit/debit card. When you pay for something with a pre-paid gift card, the register “phones in” to check the balance before the transaction is approved. Our buses don’t have that capability at the moment. Once we have that, we don’t even need ORCA cards, just use common RFID credit/debit cards.

        I agree that the card should be free with some kind of large purchase or commitment. “Sign up for Autoload and get the card for free” would be a good place to start.

      5. Pre-charged ORCA cards would have no more risk of fraud and theft than phone cards or the BART cards I used to buy in the Bay Area. You wrap them in cellophane to show they haven’t been used, and keep them behind the counter – I believe BART cards were kept in cash registers in the Safeway I used to buy them at.

      6. It increases risk from the current system. Will retailers accept that? It depends on the agreement between ORCA and the retailer. The old passes and ticketbooks are easier to pocket away than trying to load one’s ORCA for free. That’s why gift cards are blanks until activated at the register.

      7. Of course they’ll accept the risk. Just like they do at almost every city in the world with a major transit system. Go to a magazine stand in Zagreb and you buy a pre-paid ticket for the streetcar.

        Besides, stores are pretty good at getting people to pay for valuable goods. That’s sort of their entire business. Because someone’s come up with a single product (the gift card) in the past decade that lowers this risk doesn’t mean every product has to conform to these standards. That pack of cigarettes will never need validation before it can be useable.

      8. Then the agencies really need to lighten it up and let retailers sell cards. Even blanks would be a step up from nothing. I don’t know what kind of commission they get but if they sell lotto tickets, why not transit fare?

      9. We trust drivers to hold onto a stack of transfers and day passes. Why can’t we give them a few prepaid ORCA cards? It’s trivial to keep track of which ones came from which bus, so in the event that there’s an incident, all you need to do is wait for the thief to use their card and they’ll immediately get caught.

  6. One serious drawback to RFID technology is that it is not as ubiquitous as mag stripe. While tracking the card is much easier on the back-end, consumers of ORCA are limited by the costs and methods of acquisition, where they can refill it, the time it takes to refill, etc.

    For example, ORCA is terrible if you are an infrequent rider (i.e. tourist in town for a few days), and the nature of the technology of the card makes it difficult to reach these populations. If we are truly behind a transit “currency” and ORCA is it, there needs to be a shift in thinking on how to reach the other 50%.

    My opinion is ORCA should be available as a paper card, be refillable, and dispensed at station kiosks similar to MARTA Breezecard. (This option was recently discontinued, anyone know why?) Regular ORCA cards should also be refillable at kiosks.

    1. Sorry, quick revision. ST website says you can buy an ORCA card at the kiosk and refill it. This option is not obvious when I’ve used the kiosk and is for adults (credit card holders) only.

      1. Yeah, if you drop an ORCA card in the appropriate slot, the screen pops up with the orca options – add value, add pass, check balance.

        The vending machines are fine, but the vendor that supplies them is absolutely ripping ST off on the pricing.

      2. Now people have been griping about the UX (User Experience) of the ORCA website, but I find the UI (User Interface) of the Sound Transit TVM’s to be pretty horrible and talk about slow. Considering how long it takes to complete a transaction no wonder there are sometimes lines of people at Sea-Tac station.

        They should take a cue from the ATM’s at banks (even those evil ones) have done a pretty decent job of making transactions simple, intuitive and quick.

      3. Charles, I agree the ‘usage budgeting’ of TVMs is a little off. Some locations have too many; some have far too few. This will be fixed — slowly.

        However, I actually find the GUI for the TVM to be pretty good, especially compared to many other self-service terminals. However, it will have to be streamlined to accommodate more LINK stops when they appear.

    2. The MBTA’s Charlie Card/Charlie Ticket system in Boston would be a good example of that.

      Why must an ORCA card be *purchased* at all, for that matter?

    3. The RFID system should be no barriers to casual users. The San Francisco Bay Area has the Clipper card which is the same technology. You can buy a card at hundreds of machines and retailers. They also don’t cost $5 on top of fare. If you buy a new card with $20 at an SF Muni Metro stop, you get a card with $20 fare on it.

      1. I was just in SF and it was a breeze to get a clipper card. I went to the Walgreen’s around the corner from where I was staying gave them $10 and in about three minutes they have me two cards with $5 each on them. It was also very easy to reload the card when we needed to. It also appears that the only way to get the BART to Muni transfer discount is to use clipper.

        While you don’t have to pay to get a clipper right now based on their website (and what my friends down there told me) they are going to start charging $5 per card eventually (just like they did here).

        Also, they seem to have a mobile customer service center that travels to different locations throughout their service area where people can sign up for reduced fare (child, senior, etc) cards instead of having to trek to a permanent location.

      1. Plastic ORCA cards are essentially really fancy ID cards. A server somewhere keeps track of your account balance. So even if someone made counterfeit ORCA cards, they wouldn’t be very useful.

        In contrast, paper cards are essentially fancy — and easy to forge — cash. You print out something that looks realistic (and there are no visual security features, so that’s easy to do), and the magnetic strip says that you have a jillion dollars.

        Some folks at MIT wrote a paper about this problem in the context of the MBTA’s CharlieCard and CharlieTicket.

        In a tech-savvy city like Seattle, I think skipping the paper tickets is probably a good thing.

    1. If you think the Loan Shark places are bad, have you ever looked into the details of the “Tap ReadyCARD”? http://taptogo.net/tap-readycard/

      I’m sure the real truth about why they picked these outlets because they were inexpensive. I’ve seen a few other utility type firms offer dropboxes at these “establishments” as well.

      1. The TAP ReadyCard is indeed a bubbling caldron right now, about to splash up into some very unprepared faces.

        Especially when combined with California’s pro-consumer gift-card laws.

  7. I am an infrequent bus user, but I do need to use a bus sometimes in unforseen situations and I don’t always have the cash on me (i.e. I have a bicycle breakdown) for the bus fare. I don’t use a bus pass often enough to justify paying for one through work, even if it’s subsidized. I do have an ORCA card for emergencies.

    My ORCA card has about $20 balance on it for this purpose. The problem with the ORCA card is that if I don’t use it within what, a three month period (very common in the spring/summer/fall), the card is ‘frozen/de-activated’ and I can’t use it until I call the customer service department and have them re-instate it as active. It then takes over-night to activate, usually too late for my need. And then, if the customer service person does not activate it correctly, I have to call again and do it all over again. This has happened to me – and it took almost an hour on the phone with the second customer service rep and her boss to get my card activated again.

    1) Yes, more places to purchase and add funds is good 2) the cards shouldn’t de-activate unless not used for 6 mos or more and 3) improved customer service.

    1. The only reason the funds “disappeared” from your card is you ordered a reload online and failed to interact with the system within two months so the funds never downloaded to your card. The system can only hold funds pending to download to a card for two months then they go dormant. They don’t just magically appear on the card. Had you taken your card to a retailer or a ticket vending machine and added funds to your card that way, the funds would be on the card immediately and ready to use “or not”, depending on your usage pattern. Funds that are loaded onto the chip in the card are available for two years until the chip has to interact with the system to let the system know it is still a valid card and the funds continue to be available for another two years. If your card does not interact with the system at the two year mark, ORCA turns the card off and send the funds on the card to the state unclaimed funds department.

      1. They don’t just magically appear on the card.

        Funds need to be on the card once a user makes the purchase. If it doesn’t work like magic infrequent riders won’t use it, and those carrying the card won’t be incented to use it.

      2. What happens to all the funds that go unused after two years?
        Kinda like all the gift cards that never get cashed? or do they mail a rebate check to the last known address.

      3. “The system can only hold funds pending to download to a card for two months then they go dormant.” This is a huge flaw in the system. I ordered 4 family members ORCA cards when they first came out, and as a gift gave them each $10 in credit. The first time they used it (they didn’t use the bus much back then), none of their passes worked, and they had to partially pay their fare – they didn’t have enough money on them to pay the whole thing. (then there was a whole other drama about finding a way of converting two of the passes to childrens passes – impossible to do in Bothell – but that’s another story) They haven’t used their ORCA cards since.

        Tell me why they can’t change their policy and keep payments for longer than 2 months. These are payments that people intended for their ORCA card, and every one that is cancelled leads to someone having a bad experience.

        Riders know that cash works every time.

      4. Ah, yes, this was the situation, thanks Mike! I added funds, but didn’t use the card again w/in two months. Which is still ridiculous. I don’t work or live near a convenient reloading station. It should be as simple to add funds online. The problem is that I had funds on the card already, $10, and I added another $10 online. The entire amount, $20 was then “frozen” in spite of the fact that my other $10 was paid prior to the additional funds.
        This is a very burdensome method. Essentially they are making me take a bus trip I don’t need to make, spending down my balance just to activate my card. And if I don’t, freeze up my entire balance. That is not a good model for those who have yet to be convinced to get an ORCA card.

      5. AJL, I recently “lost” $40 of employer provided ORCA reload because I didn’t use the card for months. It took a few emails with customer service but I was able to get the money back and you don’t have to waste a trip. Just tap a reader once then wait a few seconds and tap again to cancel the trip. The reader displayed something like “trip cancelled – no charge.”

      6. The “deactivation” thing seems completely idiotic.

        There are plenty of scenarios where it’s desirable to keep a card around and just use it occasionally (even for frequent riders—e.g., I keep a spare [non-Seattle] card in my bag, just in case I find myself somewhere late at night without cash and my normal card fails). There’s no technical reason for not allowing it. So what’s their excuse?

      7. I’m sure the CC companies and banks require there to be a time limit for pending transactions. The money can’t just be floating in the ether forever.

      8. It doesn’t have to be floating. In fact ORCA should be making money on the float. You’ve agreed to purchase transit credits. The CC transaction should be processed immediately. I know there are rules about charging before an item ships but I’d argue you’re item (transit credits) are immediately available for customer pick-up by tapping your ORCA card. Not refunding funds if they want to cancel the card is ridiculous. If they don’t want to keep the card on their books then refund to the card/account from which it came. If said account is closed only then should the money revert to the State unclaimed funds account. There should be a minimum balance requirement for voiding a card. For example, only if there is less than one valid fare on a “dormant” card should it be cancelled. They’ve made this about as customer abusive as possible! For example, only being able to replace a defective card by going downtown during business hours. Like when most of us have a job!!! I agree that there should be a minimum credit, $20 sounds about right, and the card should be “free”. They’re still making money on the float (or should be) on all of the money sitting unused on the cards. My other pet peeve is that you can’t set up an account you load through payroll deduct to automatically load from a personal credit card if it drops below a certain balance. It’s really like a committee sat down and tried hard to make this as unfriendly as possible.

      9. I keep an extra Orca card around that I only use for out of town visitors and have never had a problem with funds disappearing. I guess it helps that I’ve always picked the time to reload it a few days before the visitor who will be using the card arrives.

        Unfortunately, though, because I never figured out how to use the group fare, if I have two visitors coming at once, one of them still has to pay cash.

      10. Oran,

        As long as you continue to use the bus and say to the driver that I am paying for such and such number of people, the transfer function of the ORCA automatically gives you the transfer on the next bus or buses as long as you are within the two hour time limit.

        Example – rode the 358 with two people using one ORCA, told the driver I am paying for two, BEEP, and transferred to the 594, still telling the driver I am paying for two, and the system automatically counts that as a transfer for two people, BEEP. You arrive in Tacoma and transfer to the 41 and as long as it is still within the two hours and you still tell the driver I am paying for two people then you are still given the transfer credit, BEEP.

      11. Speaking of keeping an extra card around… What’s the easiest way of finding the value of a card? I still have mine that I used before my work gave me one, and I have no idea how much is on the thing (or if they’ve taken it back). I’m sure I set up a user name and password for it online but I’m also sure I’ve forgotten both.

      12. The reason for the time window to transfer website payments to the card the limited memory in the in-bus ORCA readers, or at least that’s their excuse. The buses have to download at the base an entire database of active accounts and balances and pending credits, and the time window prevents the number of credits from expanding infinitely as people don’t show up for several months. The TVMs are connected permanently to the database, so they can take payments and finish transactions on the spot.

      13. Useful fact: to check your balance at a TVM, put the card in the holder and press “Show ORCA Card Details”.

      14. “limited memory in the in-bus ORCA readers” I’ve heard this excuse before, and just don’t buy it. If the systems had enough memory to take the surge of new payment charges on the first week of service, it has enough memory to keep the small number of charges from people that haven’t used their cards. Again, every time they wipe a charge from the system they create a negative user experience. These are often users that don’t frequently ride the bus but are open to it – the exact customer base that leads to new riders if you treat them well.

      15. “The reason for the time window to transfer website payments to the card the limited memory in the in-bus ORCA readers, or at least that’s their excuse.”

        That’s not quite the reason why. The reason for the delay is because the readers on the bus can only be updated at the base, which, depending on what time your transaction was and what time your bus left the base, could be 24 hours. If you tap your card on a Link reader or check your balance at a TVM the transaction happens almost immediately. The only way around this is either to enable on-the-road updating of the bus readers or for everyone to have a smart card reader hooked up to their PC.

  8. Oran,

    The Bay Area’s TransLink/Clipper RFID card is a CUBIC product. ORCA is/was an ERG product. Yes, ERG’s USA operations were (unfortunately) absorbed into the Borg -CUBIC, but they still operate as two very different operations. Clipper is more like its biological sisters L.A.’s TAP and San Diego’s Compass than it is like the new step-sister ORCA.

    Also remember that Clipper has the advantage of being able to utilize the existing TVM networks (BART, Muni, VTA and CalTrain) in the Bay Area to offer card for sale by vending machine. Even if there needs to be a new TVM put in place that can sell and load/read Clipper RFID cards, the wiring and foundations and space are all already in place from S.F. to San Jose/Gilroy and from Richmond to Fremont to Concord/Pittsburg to Dublin/Pleasanton.

    Given that the Amtrak Capitol Corridor Service is run by BART, I could see that their San Jose to Martinez and Beyond corridor might also join the Clipper TVM network someday too.

    Big difference from Seattle where the only TVM away from Seattle LINK and Sounder are at the REX terminal in Bellevue.

  9. I was one of the early Orca Card users, and I still don’t know how how to get money on it that’s available the same day.

    1. Take it to a physical ORCA machine, like the TVMs at the Link stations. Money added there appears instantly.

      1. If the funds are dormant, they have been removed from the system and put into a holding account. The funds have to be manually returned to the system for you to have access again to them. That’s why it takes several days since a supervisor has to request the funds from the holding fund and then add them into the ORCA system again for you to be able to tap them on to your ORCA card.

      2. Wait. They aren’t returned to the original credit card after 2 months? So ORCA is holding my money in some “holding account” for me to someday call a supervisor to reinstate? Who gets the intrest from this holding fund?

  10. The autoload option also needs some major work. Each time there is a problem with a credit card, it stops and you have to go to an Orca outlet and pay CASH to resurrect it. It should just retry the credit card a day later…
    Yes, the Orca concept is so powerful, but bad implementation is holding its usage down.
    If the Orca card would become prevalent, then Metro could also offer a whole different fare system much closer to actual cost, meaning short trips would be cheaper, long trips more expensive.

    1. I had problems with Autoload twice due to an expired card and I fixed it online (buy pass with new card, add autoload for pass) without ever having to contact customer service.

      1. I don’t live near a TVM. The benefits of Autoload far outweigh the potential problems, which are caused by the person’s poor financial management (not knowing their card expired or insufficient balance in their bank account). It’s no different from automatic bill payments.

  11. I just got back from San Francisco, and new Clipper cards were not available in BART TVMs, and they did not appear to be available in Muni TVMs either, although you can use and refill cards in both places. There are ads everywhere for Clipper — it seems that they’re just introducing it now. The ads say you can get a Clipper at a community sign-up event or some shops, but don’t mention TVMs. They say BART will soon phase out magnetic-stripe tickets, but it’s not clear what it will replace them with. (New TVMs?)

    The 7-day Muni pass is not available on Clipper, so that was a second disincentive to get a card. Monthly passes are available on Clipper but they’re all single-agency passes, not universal passes like PugetPass.

    Another curious thing, the ads don’t mention that you can leave the card in your wallet when you tap. Everybody I saw tapped loose cards, so I can’t say whether you can leave it in your wallet or not. The bus readers look like ORCA readers though.

    MUNI buses have Clipper readers at all doors. There are large signs on the back doors saying “Illegal to enter through the back door”, but the drivers did not discourage people from doing so. So the signs may be obsolete? In any case, they’re even more scary than Metro’s “Use front door only after 7pm” signs.

    1. As a resident of San Francisco, I would like clarify a few things about clipper. There are actually three types of TVM’s: The MUNI TVM’s which are located in the Market St subway stations, The BART TVM’s, located in all 44 BART stations and specialized Clipper TVM’s that are located at several Transit centers not connected to BART stations. At the BART TVM’s you can only add cash to card, but you can buy fare media for all seven (of the 30 or so) bay area Transit agencies that use clipper at the two types of TVM’s. You can also buy the same fare media at any Walgreens in the current Clipper service area (San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, and Santa Rosa counties.), there’s also a gaggle of other locations (mostly Supermarkets and corner stores). And lastly, you can purchase the Child/Senior Clipper card at the seven customer service centers located throughout the Bay Area. And BART’s TVM’s were actually only installed a few years ago, and some people have picked up that you can tap with your wallet, though not that many. The back warnings are for the most the part obsolete, and have never really been followed to any realistic extent.

    2. Clipper also doesn’t do multiple-passenger trips, or at least you’re not allowed to. The ads say that every rider must have their own card. I’ve never seen the multiple-passenger feature in any other city, so I’m not sure how much it’s worth supporting, especially when it holds up the line and confuses drivers.

  12. It’s nice to speculate from the comfort and safety of one’s home, but unless some transit riders who don’t use ORCA are interviewed, the “solutions” in this post are meaningless.

  13. Why not sell/offer them at the county and city libraries? They could combine the library card with the ORCA, as the library would just need to put a library bar code sticker on the ORCA.

  14. I used to drive some ST routes after they discontinued the paper transfers. It seems like there were a higher use of ORCA cards since that was the only way to get a free transfer. Does anyone know if ORCA card usage spiked after discontinuation of ST paper transfers?

      1. I would imagine the number of commuters with subsidized ORCA cards is significantly higher percentage of ST’s express bus ridership than it is of Metro’s total system ridership, too.

  15. I used to think that eliminating paper transfers was a bad thing, now i’m not so sure of that. At the very least there needs to be some cash transfer reform (Either by making the transfer valid for a single ride in the time alloted, or by having a cash transfer surcharge, or both). ORCA wise, I still think a daily pass is needed, the charge for it could be somewhat high to discourage most commuters from using it. Also i still think that more ORCA TVMs are needed at major transit centers and P&Rs, plus universal availability at retail outlets (All major drug and grocery stores). Finally, I’d like to see vastly expanded, if not 24/7 telephone support for ORCA and ORCA service centers open 7 days a week, for normal retail business hours. Expensive yes, but if the idea behind ORCA is to generate revenue through more ridership than these are importaint for its success.

    1. Many cities charge two single fares for a day pass; that’s the same as what a commuter would normally pay.

      1. KC Metro used to do it as well. The last fare increase they stopped doing it and now it costs 25¢ more to do a day pass than two fares.

      2. It was, and it was only on weekends/holidays. Other cities sell day passes every day. In Vancouver the Skytrain stations would only do it after 9am when the peak-hour zone surcharges end, but in some other cities you just pay double fare and get a day pass anytime.

  16. So it has been observed that for tourists/visitors orca is a bad deal because the $5 cost of the card is large relative to the amount of transit they can consume during a short visit.

    What about making visitor cards that visitors can return in exchange for their $5 back? Perhaps partner with the airlines and/or the port (and amtrak!) to sell the cards to arrivals and collect them when people return? The unused value on cards returned could be used for a variety of purposes…

    1. But in the spirit of creativity, offering to receive ORCA cards with unused balances could be credited to charity/low-income cards.

      The other thing to consider is sometimes people are nerds like me who make a point of collecting RFID cards from transit systems around the world where they visit as souvenirs.

    2. That’s the hidden profit in the smart-card model, that few people will ever zero out their balance when they stop using the card. Visitors have to plan carefully to exactly use up their balance on the last trip to the airport. If they intend to come to Seattle again and then don’t, the card will sit in a drawer until it’s thrown away. If something happens to a resident, their next-of-kin may not use ORCA or know what it is, and may throw the card away. If you switch from a personal card with a pass and e-purse to an employer-sponsored card or vice-versa, you can’t rationally use up your e-purse without “wasting” it on trips you’d normally use a pass for, or giving it to an occasional rider to use up. All that unused money eventually becomes a de facto fare surcharge. The same is true with gift cards of course, which is why companies love them.

      London offers a deposit refund on unwanted Oyster cards so I hear. I’m not sure if it refunds e-purse values. But the general argument against it is that people might find a way to counterfeit it.

  17. As is usual for this blog, a ton of great, thoughtful comments, many of which show a)how confusing the present system is when a pile of transit nerds are baffled, and b) how tricky it is to cobble together a system that a wide variety of people with different capabilities can use without said bafflement.

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