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."

  • While there are many things I like about the Clipper cards (no more quarters!), they were a royal pain to get for my daughters. To get them youth clipper cards, we had to take them (with ID) to the SFMTA customer service center on Van Ness which is only open from 8 to 5, Monday – Friday. Not easy to do when kids are in school, parents are working, etc. I don’t see how every kid and senior in the city is going to be able to go there and present ID before January, the month youth and senior passes are going to stop being sold at usual outlets. MTA should consider having more than just one place in the city where youth and seniors can apply for these cards, and also they should offer times on the weekends. Having little “events” here and there just doesn’t cut it.

  • I agree. We went last Friday to get the cards for my daughters before the start of school. Otherwise, the limited schedule is a pain. (Getting an adult card online is a snap, OTOH).

  • It’s unfortunate youth and seniors have to go through this hassle, yet, it’s the same hassle for disabled customers who gets their own card that also has Clipper technology in it. Other than the adult cards, they are custom made, especially the youth cards where the transit agencies have different age rules for the youth fare.

    Their next tabling event at Powell station from 4-7PM is on August 18, 27 and 31.

    I suggest asking your child’s school to call the SFMTA to do some tabling or hand out the application forms and some kind of process that they can provide proof of age.

  • Greg

    Yet another “agree” to the hassle of getting Clipper cards for kids. We actually went to the Van Ness service center several months ago and submitted applications (with kids and their passports), and never received anything. I eventually called both Clipper and the SFMTA, and neither had any record of the applications, so now we have to go back and do it again. Fun times.

    As others have mentioned, the process for adult cards is fine.

  • Hong Kong has the first widely deployed smart card payment system in the world. This has caught on to many major China cities. Today Guangzhou has 12 million smart card in circulation after it has launched in 2001. Rather than confused, I think most people in Chinatown are wondering why the heck isn’t there a system card system as convenient as what they have in their home town.

    Vending machine and adding value is an issue. It need to be more available and more convenient to make the system work well. But you can add value in Walgreens. This is a good start.

  • To further my point, the article seems to suggest we should go slower, people need education. I say that’s not what people need. They don’t need education. They need action. They need decisive execution. Like stopping issuing paper monthly ticket. This will create a critical mass of card holder. Problem will arise. But you don’t need to fix them all before start wide deployment. It is good enough, let’s do it. Once the need is there, authority will be pressed to address any problem arise. That’s the only way to get them done. Waiting will not get you anywhere.

  • thielges

    I think it is too soon to hang the MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner here. Clipper needs to become more than just e-cash for success, we need a truly integrated fare system. A rider should be able to hop a bus to the San Mateo CalTrain station, ride CalTrain to the city, and then transfer to Muni without needing to tag on/off with each mode change and pay separate fares. There should be one zone or distance based fare for that multi-mode journey.

    And it is not only child tickets that are hard to obtain. Try adding cash to a Clipper card with Commuter Checks.

    I’ll be sticking to the old fare payment system until these kinks are worked out.

  • thielges: I’ve never had a problem cashing the Commuter Check vouchers to add funds to my card. Walgreens locations that can do Clipper transactions can easily add funds with the vouchers.

  • Of course it is MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

    Cubic is sucking down your tax dollars, and that’s all that matters and the only driving force for this MTC snakeoil.

    Heckuva job!

    Hundreds of millions in capital expense funded by you and skimmed off the top of transit agency capital and operating budgets, more expensive to operate until the end of time, huge scope for contractor-enriching “change orders” at around million a pop each time, less convenient, and absolutely ZERO evidence for any induced increase in transit ridership: it’s all exactly what you’d expect from MTC under Steve “$6 billion Bay Bridge” Heminger.

    But hey … shiny … kewl …

  • Sweater

    This is EXACTLY what I want my tax dollars to go towards — increased efficiency and convenience for public transit users. When I moved to SF from Detroit, I was hugely impressed with my transit options, myself included. It’s not perfect, but it’s really, really good. Clipper makes it that much better.

    Snarky comments from anti-tax cranks nothwithstanding, I think it’s a terrific improvement.

  • Something discovered while out on a Sunday outing with son:

    My 3-year-old very closely followed Dad through one of those new “Cubic” brand BART faregates. As soon as I passed through, the gate slammed shut. The pinch point was precisely at the level of my Son’s head. Had he been a few inches closer, his head would have been crushed.

    It never occurred to designers of these fare gates to test them for use by parents with toddlers. I mean, why would they? In their mind, the only ones who use transit are criminals and deadbeats.

  • increased efficiency and convenience for public transit users

    THIRTY MILLION DOLLARS for faregates.

    Faregates that serve no purpose whatsoever unless you just happen to be a faregate manufacturer.

    Good God.

    Quick: name one way (other than the Central Subway) that even Muni could have managed to gain fewer riders for more money.

  • Nick

    I got one Richard:

    They spent $18 million to upgrade the St Francis Rail Circle area for “MUNI signal upgrades” when the main benefactor is private autos. The lights were all retimed to take forever for pedestrians while giving car traffic more time. It takes 6 minutes and 2 light cycles to legally cross 40 feet. No kidding.

    And shouldn’t it be done already as all the schools are back in session?

  • I would have gone with a barrier free system and heavier enforcement with fare inspectors on the subway portion. All Muni would have to do is install a few clipper readers in place of the old gates and put a red line that says POP required beyond the line.

    That would have meant extra millions Muni could have spent on something different like fixing their busted-up train computer system.

  • Mad Park

    There is no discernible reason for “fare barriers” (gates) on any system on the West Coast – this is a huge waste of money which we can hope Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and San Diego shall avoid. Save the money; use it for expanded service and fare inspecors on the trains.

  • thielges

    Akit – You are lucky to have capable staff at your Walgreens. My local Walgreens has been unable to successfully add value to my card, ever. So I went to another Walgreens about 14 miles away. There I had better success but it still took a long time and there were other snafus. After many visits over the course of about five months I finally gave up. You can read the details at http://sf.streetsblog.org/2010/06/16/clipper-card-transition-for-bay-area-transit-is-now-official/

    And why can’t the downtown San Jose Caltrain ticket desk add fare to Clipper ? It seems like a no brainer that the second busiest rail station on the west coast should be able to support Clipper.

    It is odd that this project seems to be centered on installing a lot of hardware, but they have neglected the details required to make the rider experience is better than the old fashioned ticketing system. For example a single tag on/off zone based system can be implemented just with changes to the software. Yes, I realize that there are political barriers with getting the different transit agencies to cooperate, but c’mon, if we committed the big money to install all of this hardware, why not commit to truly integrate the fare system too ?

  • Io

    Nat Ford needs to calm down. Those are just fare gates, folks, not rainbows to our dreams.

  • 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.”

    and by people he means contractors sucking public funds up and spitting out crap we don’t need. Pretty sure the old turnstiles worked just fine.

    And as for Clipper, I don’t see why they aren’t doing a “strongly suggested use” of the card for 6 months to a year and then phase out paper passes. This is going to hit people like a rock and many who need transit will be sitting out in the rain (cause you know, can’t do something like this at the start of the dry season).

  • Alex

    @mike Haven’t they been strongly suggesting people use TransLink/Clipper for a while now?

    As for the faregates… do you guys really think pop cops are cheap? Sure, $11 million is a lot of money (and would pay for over one hundred pop cops… for *one year*). What are they going to cost in five years? Ten? How much will their pensions cost us? Six of one, half dozen of another as far as I can tell.

  • I agree they have been, but the system really hasn’t been rolled out. MTA hasn’t been doing “card give-aways” for more then a couple months. I say keep the status quo, keep making cards available, but don’t push it to be mandatory until mid next year.

    Alex, maybe you can go out to Stockton street and explain to those without fastpasses how to get a Clipper card, the MTA sure isn’t doing it.

  • Sean H

    Why are there fareboxes on the back doors if that is a year away? What about GGT? With fare evasion down and the SFPD finally doing the job its paid to do, a systemwide POP could be accomplished in a month or two, there are no real barriers.

  • anonymouse

    I disagree with Richard that there has been no benefit: it’s actually a bit more convenient with a Clipper card now that I don’t have to carry exact change for Muni or AC Transit. But I agree that the benefit is small while the cost is presumably large. For all that time they’re taking and money they’re spending, the Clipper system is full of glaringly annoying gaps and inconveniences, including things like no zone upgrades on Caltrain, a poorly integrated fare system, which is especially glaring at San Jose, where you have to remember to tag off at the Clipper reader (for Caltrain) before you tag on at the (identical) Clipper reader (for VTA). If you tag the Clipper reader outside the tunnel on the right instead of the identical Clipper reader outside the tunnel on the left, it’s anyone’s guess as to what happens, but I suspect you’d get charged an extra $12 or something. Forcing all passes onto Clipper also breaks transfer agreements with agencies outside the Clipper zone: MST and Santa Cruz Metro.

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