Portland TriMet recently rolled out the first-of-its-kind-in-the-US “virtual” smart card. The virtual Hop Fastpass account requires use of GooglePay on an Android smartphone, but doesn’t require getting or using a physical Hop Fastpass. The smartphone accessing the account provides all the functionality of the physical Hop Fastpass, using the same motion of briefly holding the phone against the card reader.

TriMet has become the US transit industry’s leader in accessible fare collection in multiple ways:

  • It is the only agency with daily and monthly fare caps (only available on Hop Fastpass).
  • It is one of a small handful of agencies offering a low-income fare discount.
  • It is the only agency that allows smart phones to provide the same functionality as smart cards, without having to get a smart card.

TriMet is trailing the industry in one regard, though: the price of its smart card. TriMet charges the third-highest fee in the country for its transit smart card – $3 – with only the ORCA card and Anchorage People Mover’s Smart Card (each $5) costing more. As I’ve documented multiple times, the industry standard is to make transit smart cards available for free, or free after rebating any fee into the card’s e-purse.

Now, citing what reads like a bizarre social justice concern troll, TriMet is charging for the “virtual Hop Fastpass card”, even while saving the cost of producing and distributing physical cards.

To keep the Hop system equitable for all users, virtual Hop cards will cost the same as physical Hop cards – $3. To date, TriMet has distributed more than 90,000 Hop cards free of charge at community events and to community-based organizations and employers.

I contacted TriMet to see if there were more reasons for the $3 virtual card fee. Spokesperson Tia York got back to me with an answer:

The cost of card, $3, whether purchased in-store or through Google Pay, is to help maintain a convenient retail network for our customers. In less than a year, TriMet has grown the retail network from 150 to more than 400 locations where Hop cards can be purchased or reloaded. The value of this retail network is that it provides hundreds of locations where riders can load funds to their cards with cash. This helps bring equity to the system because it means you can use Hop, even if you don’t have a bank account. At the same time, it reduces the amount of cash in our system.

Hop increases access to transit in the Portland metro region with its unique fare-capping feature. With Hop, riders earn passes as they ride, instead of having to come up with the total cost of a day or month pass at the beginning of each month. Riders take one ride in the morning and tap for a 2 ½ hour ticket. When they’re going home in the evening, they tap again and earn a day pass. Once a rider reaches the cost of a month pass, they ride the rest of the month for free. Hop guarantees riders never pay more than the purchase price of a pass for their fare. It also ensures they won’t pay for rides they don’t take, due to illness or other unforeseen circumstances.

The cost of a month pass for TriMet’s Adult fare is $100 (equal to 20 day passes). For Youth (age 7 – 17) and Honored Citizens (riders 65+, on Medicaid, who have a disability or who qualify due to low-income), a month pass is $28, a 72% savings.

In addition, we determined it would be more equitable to charge $3 for the physical and the virtual cards, knowing some of our riders do not want or do not have a smartphone.

I should mention that the $3 fee is waived for individuals who enroll in our Honored Citizen program at TriMet’s Ticket Office, a requirement for riders who qualify for Honored Citizen fare based on low-income or disability. And one more note… as of February, TriMet had distributed 92,000 free Hop cards, with the intention of handing out tens of thousands more.

As someone who does not own a smartphone, I don’t feel like TriMet did me any favors by charging for both Hop Fastpass media. The answer still doesn’t explain how having the $3 virtual card fee improves access to transit for anyone, unless it is subsidizing the physical card distribution network or fares. If anything, it is encouraging infrequent riders to continue paying with cash, which slows down the buses for everyone. If the virtual card fee is helping to fund the physical card distribution network, it would seem like the physical card fee could then be reduced, but that hasn’t happened. And so, the social equity argument for the virtual card fee is hard to buy.

Most transit agencies with smart cards have figured out that smart card distribution costs pay for themselves through service efficiency and induced greater ridership. If the card system doesn’t pay for itself through service efficiency, it probably should not have been deployed.

The ORCA pod has figured out an answer to the critique that free cards could be treated as disposable: Just make the first card free for each recipient. TriMet almost figured out an even more elegant solution: Offer a free account on smartphones, to save the cost of producing and distributing a card. The answers I got from TriMet were ambivalent as to whether TriMet prefers fare payment by card or smartphone.

So, the question arises as to whether Next Generation ORCA will repeat TriMet’s blunder. Fortunately, per Sound Transit spokesperson Scott Thompson, the pod has not taken up the question of NGORCA fees yet.

44 Replies to “Will ORCA Follow TriMet’s “Virtual Card” Fee?”

  1. “The answer still doesn’t explain how having the $3 virtual card fee improves access to transit for anyone, unless it is subsidizing the physical card distribution network or fares.”

    That’s precisely what the first sentence of her answer says.

    1. It also goes against the last sentence in the first paragraph. Discouraging use of smartphone accounts will mean more cash fumbling at the bus door. How does this make sense?

    2. Also, since the distribution network grew before the $3 virtual card fee was rolled out, I have a tough time buying that answer. The distribution network ought to pay for itself in reduced dwell time on buses and increased ridership.

    3. And of course, if the card distribution network has a marginal per-card cost, the opportunity to get a smartphone account without a card directly reduces the cost of card distribution. If HopFastpass is like ORCA, that marginal per-card cost is in the range of $3, and probably more.

      I’m still confused whether TriMet prefers that I get a smartphone account or a card. Maybe the cards are faster at the readers? Tell me you’d prefer me to get a card, by lowering or eliminating the card cost, and I’ll gladly get one.

      Or maybe smartphones are faster at the reader and you’d prefer I get a smartphone account. Send me that signal by getting rid of the “virtual card fee”, and I might finally be convinced to go get a smartphone.

  2. Does Portland have the same aggressive fare enforcement that Sound Transit does? I’d be a little afraid that with the virtual card, if the app crashes or my phone battery dies I’d end up with a $124 ticket.

    1. While smartphones can break, keeping track of your account number should enable fare enforcement numbers to look up your account on the rare occasion it happens.

      Fortunately, TriMet just updated its enforcement process. Notice the irony: “That’s why I buy my monthly pass.” Sound Transit, are you taking notes?

      AFAIK, TriMet does not have a similar trap, with a tap-off tone identical to the tap-on tone, since all the fares are flat. I don’t know if an “earned” day pass or monthly pass is honored if someone forgot to tap on a particular ride, since C-Tran, Portland Streetcars, and TriMet have to figure out how to distribute fare revenue. However, ST told me a few months ago that a distinct tap-off tone is on the way (which should significantly reduce accidental mis-taps and enable fare enforcement officers to not waste their time harassing riders — as has happened to Mark Dublin, myself, and numerous other readers of this blog — who paid for a pass or had a valid transfer).

      1. You don’t have to tap off on TriMet as it is all one zone.

        I just carry a backup phone battery, though I don’t use the phone app to pay.

    2. The same issue already exists on Amtrak. You can use your phone as a ticket, but if your battery dies when the conductor goes by, I don’t know what happens.

      1. It’s a stop at the next RR crossing with to hand you over to the local constable for fare evasion !!

        Actually, the conductors have alternate ways to look up a passenger. Using the QR code makes the process quicker. Also, the Quik-Trak, or even the station agents can print a paper copy if desired.

      2. Amtrak has verified my ticket on board when the Quick-Trak machine at my origin station was out of order. They can radio to find your ticket.

      3. Once the reservation is made, the conductors have access to it, if it’s all e-ticket travel.

        The barcode/QR code just makes the process a lot quicker, and more accurate.

      4. And on Amtrak, you’re technically required to have an ID matching the name on your ticket. If you don’t have an accessible paper or electronic copy of your ticket, they’re more likely to check your ID when they look up your ticket on their phone. But there’s also no fine for not having a ticket because they (nominally) check every ticket, not just a random sample; they just require you to buy one at the walk up price.

    3. One of the fare enforcement people told me that all that they get in their display is valid / not valid, so if you forget within the transfer time it would probably not show up as a problem.

      1. After last year’s threat of being fined, not from failing to tap my card on entry- as regs state- but precisely because I DID tap my card on re-entry. After failing to “Tap Off”- about which there’s not word one anywhere in the posted rules.

        HOWEVER: posted in even fewer places is rule that my first tap is good for, I think two hours, deboarding and reboarding like for decathlon training. Just so I don’t “Tap On.” But as I’ve noted before, it gets better.

        I generally ride ST Express 174 to Sea-Tac, because traffic at Spokane Street Exit traps the 594 like a woolly mammoth in the tarpit under LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Since my paper pass purchase starts with a demand to pick destination station, I always choose UW.

        Which in the penal code of Planet ORCA makes me a violator if I’m caught at Angle Lake. In letter font from an ant in its own Defense Force’s desert boots. Since Aggressive Panhandling is also illegal, I’d be glad to pay the ORCA company cash for a break, instead of rudely demanding they Give Me One!

        But main Doesn’t Follow is that over the years, nobody has publicly “called out” this garbage in front of a judge, TV cameras, and the Seattle Time Leading me to believe that nobody who can afford an apartment in Seattle has ever actually paid the fine unless the change fell out of their pocket.

        For everybody else…unless Nikki Oliver doesn’t want to be Mayor anymore, no matter how soon the job could become available, why is she letting so many of her own electorate get victimized? Not one more link ’til I get an answer.

        Fact my pleas for legal information have brought me zilch over all these years makes me think the guy from Candid Camera is going to come out from behind the Judge and have the whole courtroom crack up. All these paper passes are also gonna wipe out every National Forest in the State!

        Mark (See RCW on the floor under the machine) Dublin

      2. Glenn, are you talking about TriMet’s fare enforcers or ST’s fare enforcers?

        My experience was that the officer was able to read the facts that I had a monthly pass (enough to cover the longest possible Link ride), had an active transfer, but had tapped “off” before getting on that train. He still proceeded to accuse me of attempted theft.

        Their training has possibly improved since then, but I don’t think they would have dumbed down their equipment to hide the evidence of clear and obvious proof of payment from the fare enforcement officers.

        I hope TriMet has studied ST’s procedures to avoid some of the most egregious mistakes. If TriMet, Portland Streetcar, and C-Tran have a formula for handling riders who have valid transfers or fully-earned passes. but forgot to tap on a ride, by a subtle recalculation of revenue-division on the back-office-end rather than harassing fully-paid passengers, then ST should look at that formula and bring it to the ORCA Joint Board. Wrongful warnings and fines by Sound Transit has got to stop before they make enemies of all their most frequent riders.

      3. I thought the question was about TriMet’s enforcement and so I was answering that.

        TriMet has signs everywhere reminding people to tap before boarding.

        It wasn’t clear to me if when transferring from a red / blue line train to a green line train if I had to walk to the end of the platform and tap again or weather boarding a train when the card hadn’t been tapped at any of the stations served by that particular train would be a violation.

        Since the fare inspectors don’t get shown the boarding station, number of taps after the first tap apparently isn’t an issue so long as it is within the valid time.

  3. Wish you hadn’t raised this, Brent, because for over a year it’s left me forced to pick between two opposing principles. You’d think we’re in Olympia! One, absolute personal hate for policy under discussion, and it’s author who then clucked a couple of times before also leaving the world with half of an omelet in its oval gift-box.

    (Not you, sweetie, just somebody posing as you so they’ll have their little head get petted instead of chopped off and fed to a weasel.)

    But at full 180 odds with my own sworn Gold Standard for Transit Revenue Collection: What Is The Cost of One Minute of Fare-Related Delay? In life, as well as on transit. So seriously need the assistance of someone who knows how to simultaneously read both the law and a stop-watch. Yeah, the one you bill your time with.

    Also some personal experience with taking an Evasion of Fully Paid Fare case to court. Especially at a level where somebody on Transit’s payroll will have to stand up and defend this pile of feathery yellow shredded newspaper in front of The Seattle Times, Essex Porter, John Niles, Maggie Fimia, and Senators Bob Hasegawa, and Steve O’ban.

    Who especially if they did order the policy, won’t miss the chance to repeat their stunning car-tabs demolition foray. No guilt here over ST-3 de-fund. Because amount of operating time saved will put Everett and Boeing Field in same subarea as Spokane and Prince Edward Island. Two minutes’ billed time for latte that is not Starbucks?

    Incidentally, $3.00 is a single-shot ristretto and a tip so stingy you oughta get cited! Just pretend the TVM is a tin cup and three dollars is a dime in 1929, I mean 2008 dollars. And word to programmer: out here “Thanks” doesn’t have an “h”.


      1. You can pay for a single adult fare or earn an adult day pass on iPhone, but can’t get a virtual card that allows you to earn monthly passes and pay discount fares

      2. The web site says that it works for monthly passes too. See the link, which leads specifically to the phone section.

  4. And. Whoever thought of latest “Tap-sound Triumph” had better not swat the poor test-dog with a newspaper for not being able to hear the difference. This one whacks the squash-court wall a lot harder than Felony Paid-up Fare Evasion.

    Challenge to the Sound Transit Board and anybody else that got paid to think of it: Put a month’s salary in a special account programmed to note your ability to distinguish Tap Tones at Rush Hour, and hit Reader One at Westlake at four on Game Day Friday afternoon.

    We’ll have Affordable monthly lodging for with a moderate waiting list by six. Just be sure you tap off so you get time off your Evasion sentence for failure to pay.

    Mark Dublin

    Mark Dublin

  5. Just stay cool, Mark. You’ve got an hour and a half (or whatever) time to use every station on LINK for a stair-master and have a five course dinner on Broadway and dessert in Columbia City….just do you don’t say….

  6. 1) MY solution is real damn simple: Put the ORCA card in a laminated lanyard around your neck. Works wonders for me.

    Just another reason why Sound Transit should have a Pro Shop. To sell stuff for 12s for Transit like yanyards, ORCA Cards, train models, books & other educational materials about transit, action figures, et al. Community Transit has the beginnings of one at Lynnwood Transit Center.

    2) I do think it’s important to enforce fares. BUT I certainly think there has got to be an easier way for day pass & monthly pass holders (I use the day pass product) to show they’ve paid their fare than tapping on & off increasingly breaking ORCA Fare machines. Machines that are easy to forget tapping on and off from… and yet we’ve paid our fare :-(.


    1. Thanks for the reminder, Joe. LINK has already had the answer since it got named after a sausage. TVM’s will sell you a paper ticket that says “All Day Pass.” Now, if you’ve got an electron microscope, you’ll see that rules say you can only use it between station you board and one other one.

      Next time I ride, I’ll talk with a fare inspector as to who’d be riding back and forth between Westlake and University Street Station All Day? Or how they’ll know I didn’t cheat and ride to Stadium, and reverse to UW with a stop to make a 3D model at a tech place on Broadway?

      Fact is, what I do is put my ORCA card in a little clear-plastic envelope for use on buses. And back-to-back with it, put in a paper All-Day pass. Has worked up to now. My main ferocity isn’t the money. Warned twice over LINK’s lifetime, never been cited.

      It’s that a window seat on a train has been my lifetime “Place of Peace” in this world. Idea of having to fear anything when I’m sitting there ruins my ride- and the idea I helped build a railroad that does this to people is a lot to take.

      The reader-tone adjustment is about the last straw. I’ve got a lot better cure. Give the little Seat Hog (I’ll hold his luggage on my lap because so many LINK seats have a sander under them) a cute twin brother called The Tapmunk.

      And have a little stuffed critter sitting on top of every reader, with a pleading look in his shiny little eyes. “If you don’t tap, they don’t feed me.” And a lot of signs saying “Missed Taps Kill Our Troops!” But best of all, revive Gene Kelly’s great movie “On The Town.”


      Except turn “Miss Turnstiles” into “Miss Proof of Payment.” Sight of her kissing a sweet little stuffed animal should definitely divert Robert Mueller’s attention away from anybody else’s election interference. And redirect it toward present sad, dishonest campaign of tap-terror. And also make him go rent a teddy-bear costume.


      1. Missed introduction again. The lady’s name is Agata Burdonova, and her internet activities to date should soon entitle her to be The Seattle Times’ Chief of Transit Investigation. As far as the trolling goes ,The Times really doesn’t need her.

        But I do resent being told my country can’t successfully screw up our own elections. Also, her Uncle Vladimir needling me about our subway systems’ comparable public art.


        Wonder why nobody ever says anything about how many bike racks it could buy…


  7. One thing to keep in mind though is that the choice is not cash or Hop card. You can also just use Google/Apple pay. The only 2 advantages of a Hop card vs just using Google/Apple pay is the ability to get non-adult fares and the ability to earn a monthly pass. Both day passes and transfers work the same way whether via Google Pay or the virtual Hop card.

    So for most visitors, Google Pay actually works out quite well. If you live in Portland and use transit enough to quality for the monthly cap, then the $3 is not as big a deal.

  8. I used my Apple Watch and Apple phone in Portland in the Max MONTHS AGO. So convenient. Just be sure to use one or the other for the day, because they are treated as separate cards and won’t be grouped to accumulate to a day pass. No virtual card was necessary. I don’t understand what was newly introduced in comparison to what I experienced.

    Also, if someone has a smartphone, $3 ain’t gonna break their bank, right?

      1. A smartphone costs much less than a car, and a data plan, less than car insurance, alone.

        In some ways, a smartphone is actually more of a necessity if you don’t have a car. Without it, you have no idea when a bus is going to show up, and you’re also locked out of Lyft and Uber, which can be the only option to reach some suburban destinations, particularly when travelling at odd hours. While ride hailing is too expensive for a low income person to do every day, it’s still a godsend for those occasional trips to hard-to-reach areas. In fact, I even recall reading that low income people actually use Lyft and Uber more than average, largely due to reduced car ownership.

      2. Smartphone usage by lower income people still lags other income groups. At the same time, a growing number of low-income people have smart-phones, but no home internet. It is possible the second bit of information got conflated somehow and people just assume that just about every poor person has a smartphone now. Anyway, here is the data from last year showing over 1/3 of low income people don’t have a smartphone: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/03/22/digital-divide-persists-even-as-lower-income-americans-make-gains-in-tech-adoption/

      3. Nobody claimed every poor person has a smartphone. TriMet just seemed to assume that only rich people have smartphones, and so a $3 fee on a smartphone account would only hit rich people.

        And so, proclaiming that TriMet is trying to make HopFastpass accounts more accessible, TriMet made HopFastpass accounts a little less accessible to everyone.

      4. The assumption was… if people are poor, how can they afford a smart phone as it’s a luxury item. As we know now that’s not true as there are methods for the poor to obtain such devices & for some they are indespensible.

      5. Nowadays you can get a cheap droid and limited data plan for what you used to pay for a land line phone and landline service, especially once you accounted for all the service fees and government fees that got added on to land lines. With long distance charges, some land line bills were getting up to Comcast cable TV levels….

    1. The new(er) “virtual card” allows eligible riders to pay discounted fares, as well as allows earning monthly passes. Using a phone (or watch) directly only allows adult single tickets and day passes.

  9. Is it still possible for visitors to purchase single or multi-day passes from ticket machines?

    1. Yes, you can still get single rider or day pass tickets from the TVMs. Though trimet has considered going paperless, though I’d rather see them install new TVMs with hop fast passes available to buy at MAX/WES Stops and Transit Centers

      1. I guess I’d rather they stick with the paper. That way they only need to buy one paper stock for the bus ticket printers (no transfers now – the bus machine issues the same printed time stamped ticket as the MAX machines do). Disposable media HOP cards won’t be recyclable.

  10. 100% an age thing. But am I the only person on Earth to still demand the right not to see my house- not just the location but the satellite picture of it- available to anybody willing to send a card with all their own financial information.

    Which means I can’t see what anybody with a gun, a fire bomb, or a warrant to use all three can have, without turning over the code to every dime I have to my name, potentially to my worst enemy.

    But a lot worse on my nerves is the gleeful Moonie-on-Amphetamine-Falling-All-Over-Itself Competitive Worship of a technology that’s already got my last scrap of freedom where the whole world’s population can have it for a touch screen fingerprint.

    Not asking for return of cash only. But I am vehemently demanding the continued right to buy a piece of paper with permission to travel. That will not submit me to the clear and present likelihood of indignity and punishment that presently accompanies my ORCA card. And that will let me travel in Beep-Free Peace.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Thanks for pointing that out!

      $3 card fee, including for first-time recipients. Ugh. They say they want to get rid of paper transfers. I don’t think they thought this through.

Comments are closed.