While it may not be be the one-year anniversary of HOP’s public launch yet, the arrival of March makes my HOP card a year old. Last year, in late February, I received confirmation that I had been selected to be one of the first members of the general public to beta test Portland’s new fare card system, HOP Fastpass. I was more than ready to say goodbye to my paper tickets, but TriMet’s recent decision to put paper tickets back in stores might make me part of a minority.
The State of the Network
A year later, I would say the network is in overall excellent condition. While there were some teething issues with the validators during the beta period, finding a validator out of service today is actually a bit of a challenge. In fact, I’m actually impressed with how little vandalism I’ve seen to HOP validators compared to my experiences elsewhere. I’m looking at you, Melbourne.
While you still can’t get a HOP card from a ticket machine, the retail network for HOP is dramatically better than I’ve seen in other cities here in the US – notably San Francisco and Seattle, who have been on a regional fare card system far longer than Portland.
However, a fairly sizable chunk of the HOP retail network is cash-only, something that drives me nuts seeing in 2018. HOP still seems to get a lot of criticism that it’s not friendly to cash users. If you live in Portland proper, I disagree. We have a good number of 7-11 and Plaid Pantry stores throughout the city, both of which are cash-only, although 7-11 currently does not sell HOP cards and is a reload only site.
On the other hand, if you live outside of Portland, I would have to agree a bit more. While HOP cards are available at any Freddy’s or Safeway and there are plenty of Plaid Pantry locations on main roads, there are sizable gaps in the retail network outside of the city if you are topping up with cash. While autoload has yet to fail me, I get not everyone has a credit or debit card to add to their account, and I definitely can see regions where that might be a problem. While some of these regions may only be served by a single bus line, they are still regions TriMet serves, granted you can still pay with exact change on a bus for now.
The Lack of Employer Support
When TriMet originally announced it was pulling paper tickets from retail outlets at the start of February, I was hopeful that it meant I would finally be able to take advantage of the discounted pass program I get through work again. I had stopped when I started testing HOP. What I encountered instead was confusion all around.
For FTEs, my workplace offers a discount on a paper TriMet monthly pass. However, it’s a pass you have to buy from one of our stores, which became a problem when we stopped being able to sell them. I asked several stores and several departments within the company what this meant for the future of our commuter program. I got a unanimous, “I don’t know.”
I understand moving to an electronic fare system means potentially having to move thousands of employees over to a new system, however that move shouldn’t be rocket science. For the employers that currently issue TriMet passes via a sticker on an employee ID, why can’t the sticker be revised to have an antenna in it? Yes, the obvious answer is durability concerns, but HOP cards don’t store funds on the card; it’s all in the cloud, which is why it is technically possible to have a negative balance on your card if you tap to a validator that is offline.
I’ve worked for several corporations long enough to know that corporations generally don’t like change. However, TriMet arguably leads the way for technology in public transport in the US and has been around long enough that this shouldn’t be a disaster of a transition period – yet it is.
Pay-As-You-Go Is Great Only If It’s What You Actually Want
The one and only thing I miss about paper passes is my annual Streetcar pass. A year in, you still cannot pre-load a pass to a HOP card, unless you are specifically issued one by one of the transit authorities.
While HOP has meant I no longer have to figure out what kind of ticket I’ll need to purchase for the day, it does mean I technically pay more than I should every month, and I’ve actually had that confirmed twice now by Streetcar, yet TriMet refuses to change the way monthly caps are calculated.
A monthly Streetcar pass costs $40 and with the amount of travel I do on Streetcar, I should be hitting that cap very, very easily. However, because I transfer to TriMet to get to work, I don’t.
A monthly pass for TriMet costs $100. A 2.5 hour fare on Streetcar costs $2. I typically start my commute on Streetcar. When I transfer to MAX, HOP charges me the 50 cents difference for a TriMet 2.5 hour fare, which costs $2.50.
Originally, when I would transfer to MAX, HOP would apply the full $2.50 towards my monthly cap for TriMet, while Streetcar only had $2 applied towards its monthly cap. Now, even if I don’t transfer to TriMet, my Streetcar fare is applied towards a monthly TriMet pass.
However, and this is the part that annoys the absolute hell out of me, if I start my ride on TriMet and then transfer to Streetcar, absolutely zero of my TriMet fare is applied towards my Streetcar monthly cap. As a result, I almost never hit my monthly cap for Streetcar.
So, if Streetcar gets none of my fare applied towards its cap if I transfer from TriMet, why should TriMet get my full $2.50 applied towards its monthly cap? By the logic HOP screws me over with, TriMet should only get my 50 cents transfer. And again, I’ve been told twice, by two different people at Streetcar, I am probably paying more than I should, yet TriMet insists everything is working as designed.
While there are definitely things I would like to see changed with HOP, I’m overall happy with it. It’s a system that generally works well and is significantly easier than paper tickets were. However, I think it still needs work to be friendlier to those still paying with cash, those with an Honored Citizen card, and for visitors. I won’t deny though its first year went far better than other systems I’ve seen; it’s a system other transit authorities could learn from, but there are parts of other fare systems I wish HOP would learn from.