With Clipper Card Change, Some Communities Bemoan Lack of Outreach

Nat_announce.jpgFTA Regional Director Lesley Rogers, SFMTA CEO Nat Ford, and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's Appointment to the MTC, Jon Rubin, at a press conference in the Civic Center Muni Metro station. Photos: Matthew Roth.
With the roll-out of the Bay Area-wide Clipper smart card, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the many transit operators adopting the card are promising the public a more convenient way to pay for transit rides across numerous counties and agencies, from BART to Muni, AC Transit to Caltrain. As the MTC and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which runs Muni, begin to make it easier for some to acquire and learn to use the new smart cards, they need to do better outreach to communities like San Francisco's Chinatown, say community groups there who argue the Clipper transition has many people confused and frustrated.

At a press event yesterday, the SFMTA announced the installation of a number of fare gates and vending machines compatible with Clipper, starting with the Civic Center Muni Metro Station. Every Muni Metro station will have the new fare gates and vending machines by the end of October, or 100 fare gates (including 19 for passengers with disabilities) and 40 vending machines in total.

SFMTA CEO Nat Ford hailed the installation as a much needed step to replace fare gates that were nearly 30 years old. Ford described the new gates as though they were being welcomed into the SFMTA family.

"These new gates will hopefully be here in the next 25 to 30 years serving those folks who need public transportation services here in the city, getting to and from their loved ones, getting to their jobs, getting an eduction," said Ford. "We don't look at these fare gates as steel and rubber and labels, we really look at them as instruments to help people achieve their dreams."

Ford also credited his regional and federal partners for helping the $30.1 million fare equipment project by directing $11 million of federal stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last year.

"This project had been sitting here on the shelf and we were able to fast forward this project through our partnerships with the MTC and the Clipper program and through federal stimulus dollars that were presented to us by President Obama's recovery program," said Ford.

Henry_Kim.jpgSFMTA Clipper project manager Henry Kim gives a demonstration on the new vending machines.
Despite the high praise for fiscal partners and the rhetoric for the equipment, Ford and the SFMTA's partners will have their work cut out for them in requiring all 700,000 daily Muni boardings happen with Clipper, a feat they intend to accomplish by March, 2011. Currently there are only 800,000 monthly boardings on Muni with Clipper.

The Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) is already concerned the SFMTA and the MTC haven't done enough to reach out to Muni riders whose primary language isn't English. Deland Chan, a planner for CCDC, said the transition to Clipper brings up numerous challenges in the community she serves.

"We like the Clipper card in concept, it will make things easier, but there are a lot of things that need to be worked out," said Chan.

According to the CCDC, there has been little direct outreach to the Chinatown community about the Clipper timeline and almost none of that has been in Chinese. The few articles appearing the in the Chinese press have been translated from the San Francisco Chronicle and much of it has been general information that has not been especially helpful to the community, said Chan. 

"We've heard a lot of concern from our senior members," said Chan. "There has been very little direct outreach in ethnic newspapers. I think what needs to happen is a full on saturation of information specifically targeted to ethnic media."

Although the MTC and the SFMTA met with CCDC recently to discuss the issue, a working plan had not been formalized to improve outreach. "We're looking forward to their follow up to show that they are sincere in their actions," said Chan. (It may have been a coincidence, but an hour after Streetsblog asked for comment on the issue from the MTC, Chan notified us her MTC contact had been in touch with more details).

SFMTA's Ford said they were rolling the system out slowly to better deal with unanticipated concerns and system malfunctions that might arise. "As problems arise, on a daily basis they are solving them as they come up. We are ramping it up and as we ramp it up we do expect some things that may be a problem and correct those problems as they arise," he said.

MTC spokesperson John Goodwin said they were concerned about outreach and would make sure every effort was taken to communicate the necessary information to every community where English was not the primary language, not just Chinatown. Goodwin admitted the Clipper customer service center didn't have a regular Chinese speaker, and said when a caller spoke Cantonese or Mandarin, they had to utilize an AT&T translation service.

While there is usually a Spanish speaker in the customer service center, Goodwin said, their goal was "to be covered in English and Spanish at all times." There was no timeline for a Cantonese speaker, but Goodwin hoped it would be imminent.

"We want everybody to embrace the convenience of Clipper, regardless of whether they speak English or not," said Goodwin. "This is something that is absolutely important to us. We want to get this done as quickly as possible."

Chinatown_CDC_map.jpgThe CCDC mapped Muni paper pass and Clipper vendors in Chinatown. The blue pins represent retail vendors currently selling paper fast passes (Source SFMTA). The yellow represent locations that sell fast passes and Clipper (Source: MTC). The red represent vendors selling Clipper but not paper Fast Passes. (Source MTC).
Another concern raised by CCDC was the digital divide for seniors who don't have access to computers and the current lack of physical Clipper vending machines in Chinatown. Even when the Powell Street Muni Metro Station vending machines come online this month, the walk for many Chinatown seniors there would be over a mile, something Chan said was unreasonable.

Some Chinatown community markets have proactively asked MTC for Clipper machines, said Chan, but many have experienced difficulty with using the machines and need more training. "You're asking grocery store employees who are working over capacity at busy hours of the afternoon to handle groceries and code Clipper cards. The machine has no bi-lingual signage," said Chan. "A lot of employees that work in Chinatown stores might not know how to use the add value machine. It's a disaster waiting to happen."

Chan hoped the MTC and SFMTA would put more effort into educating the merchants who have the new vending machines. She even suggested the agencies attend community fairs or market days with machines and show residents in the area how to operate both the vending machines and the tag machines that are on buses and light rail vehicles.

MTC's Goodwin said they were fully in support of CCDC's ideas for outreach and he agreed with the benefit of conducting in-person tutorials on how to operate the new fare equipment.

CCDC also urged the SFMTA to use the conversion to Clipper, particularly on buses on the busy Stockton corridor, as the opportunity to formalize its all-door boarding policy. Chan said given how many times she's heard community members, especially seniors, complain about the functionality of the Clipper card on buses, she doubted the conversion would actually speed up boarding without letting people on through every door.

"Right now everyone knows the Stockton corridor is overly congested," said Chan. When asked if she hoped the SFMTA would consider Stockton as a pilot corridor for all-door boarding, Chan said they should move right past the trial and make if permanent. Given the de-facto practice of allowing rear-door boarding and the new Clipper readers at the rear doors, she said it was "a necessary thing to do."

SFMTA's Ford acknowledged his agency wanted to move forward with a formal policy on all-door boarding, which he said made sense with the Clipper conversion, but he cautioned they were at least a year away from doing so.

"To move the system faster and carry the number of people we need to carry, we need greater capacity in terms of boarding and offloading. Trying to force everyone through the front door will not work for this system," said Ford. "But we have to gradually get to that point, it's not something we can do overnight."