BART Board Members Criticize Clipper Transition at Meeting

Photo: Jacqueline Ho/Muni Diaries
Photo: ##http://www.munidiaries.com/2010/10/26/clipper-newbie-guide/##Jackelyn Ho/Muni Diaries##

The BART Board of Directors had a heated discussion today about most things Clipper, from the large number of EZ Rider customers who have yet to transition to the universal smart card, to the ease with which customers can scam Clipper cards on BART and other operators.

Despite a more visible outreach and marketing campaign in the works, there are still 40,000 active EZ Rider accounts and 7,000 daily boardings with the card. Several board members feared a scenario where a flood of last minute Clipper adopters try to beat the deadline, overwhelming stations agents and customer service representatives with the burden of refunding so many EZ Rider accounts.

Adding to the challenge, BART currently has different cut-off dates for using EZ Rider for transit and parking. On December 8th, BART customers will be able to pay for parking with Clipper and on December 15th they will no longer be able to use the EZ Rider card, but there is no cut-off date yet for parking.

“It’s going to create a lot of confusion for passengers. I think there are going to be an enormous amount of questions,” said BART Board Vice President Bob Franklin, who explained that having numerous different deadlines for cutting off EZ Rider usage for transit but no deadline for parking would only increase confusion. Though he said some of the problem could be chalked up to procrastination on the part of customers, he argued BART and MTC could improve the outreach and be clearer with deadlines.

“I’m a big believer in this card, I want to honor our commitment to MTC,” he said. But, he argued, “There is going to be a crunch. That’s my concern, that we can’t deliver by December 15th.”

“I think it hurts the acceptance of the card,” he added.

Board President James Fang was more blunt with his criticism of the process, saying, “The bigger problem is that MTC is trying to dictate to us what we’re supposed to do.” Fang proposed establishing a committee of BART directors such as Franklin and Tom Radulovich to work with staff to improve communication of their concerns with MTC.

Radulovich and numerous other members also raised the issue of Clipper’s negative balance and the difficulty of adding fare to the cards at retail outlets. Though BART staff said most stations would begin to get new vending machines in March that allowed customers to add value to cards, currently the only way to do so is online, at Walgreens and some other vendors, or at the few San Francisco Muni Metro shared stations.

“Asking people to leave the station to recharge their card is dumb,” said Radulovich. “I don’t know who’s idea it was to roll out Clipper before we had a way to add value in stations. I can’t believe MTC and BART would want to put our customers through that.”

Radulovich argued that station agents would be the target of customer ire given the way the system currently functions and said it was particularly difficult for customers who didn’t have credit cards or customers of limited means who only operate with cash. He even raised the question whether the current system ran afoul of federal Title VI civil rights policies because of the difficulty low-income riders might have.

Director Joel Keller and Gail Murray raised concerns that Contra Costa County had too few retail outlets selling Clipper cards, a problem they said was exacerbated for seniors.

“It’s very difficult to find a Clipper Card location that is convenient. It’s very difficult for seniors to go get their card,” said Murray. “In Contra Costa, the only place I know of is County Connection. You can’t even get to County Connection on BART.”

As Streetsblog reported, MTC’s policy for anticipating the difficulty of adding fares is to program the cards to go negative, or assume debt of up to $10 during a single ride.

MTC spokesperson Randy Rentschler defended the policy, saying the most cost-effective way to handle the transition of the many transit agencies using Clipper was to go with a negative balance. According to MTC’s statistics, even with the widespread publicity of the issue in the media last week, single use of Clipper cards hadn’t grown significantly. While there was an uptick, the number is still far below a threshold they considered alarming, thought they are monitoring the issue every day.

“Can people scam the system because it’s not perfect, sure,” said Rentschler. “It’s better than not having it. We’re going through a transition and we’re not trying to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I think it’s overwhelmingly good.”

Rentschler told me MTC would take the concerns raised by BART directors seriously and would not dismiss anything they said, but he declined to comment directly on any of the BART directors’ complaints. He argued the Bay Area needed a single fare medium, but with the complexity of 26 Bay Area transit operators each with different policies and instruments, there would be no absolutely seamless way to roll out Clipper without upsetting some interests.

“Clipper is the electronic solution to what is fundamentally a political problem and that is that everybody wants to have local control of their transit system,” said Rentschler. “You can have fewer operators or you can have technology. We chose technology.”

“We want it to work for their customers, we want it to work with all customers.,” he added. “More than anything else, we think we’re going to have a good run with BART, but it’s not going to be perfect.”

  • Sean H

    I loved the old paper passes. Im sure if I was around when they were in regular use, I would have loved the old SF Muni tokens. But I understand the future. I’m starting to get tired of people complaining about Clipper to the point that there is a perceived option of limiting the roll out. Its been several years and its time: RIP colorful paper fare media. Its time for a truce between all the transit fiefdoms in the Bay Area.

  • as always, something that was accomplished in regions more complex than ours is a big f*ck up here. The MTC needs to pay a penalty for their years of failure and foot dragging on this matter.

  • Please do not use the sensation words like “scam” and “dirty secret” to characterize the practice of allowing people to leave negative balance on the card. As we have commented before this is widely adopted practice used in many other highly successful smart card system like Hong Kong and London. It is only a problem when people abuse it, with the blessing of the transit agency who hands out the card unconditionally for free, by using clipper card for a single ride ticket. Such sensational journalism mislead people and add to the already rampant cynicism.

  • “I don’t know who’s idea it was to roll out Clipper before we had a way to add value in stations. I can’t believe MTC and BART would want to put our customers through that.”, said Radulovich

    He hit it on the nail on the real problem. So shut up now and do your job to put value adding machines throughout the station.

  • Bob Davis

    This whole saga (like the TAP card in the Los Angeles area) gives more credence to the “Fare-free transit” movement. I have reservations about that concept, but at least it avoids all the discussions about fare zones, transfers, providing for the “financially challenged” etc.

  • I have to just stand at the border of this issue. I highly support the program, but the more I get in depth with it, I find it to have some really bad chronic problems.

    BART really needs to can it. They’ve been pushing their weight around for too long. They made EZ Rider to compete against TransLink (now Clipper) and they knew from day one that EZ Rider was doomed to die because the public wanted an all-in-one transit card. If people are lazy enough not to switch, they’ll pay the price later. Hell, same happened with all those youth cards on AC Transit, too many people too lazy to register. Although it will be another few more months, hundreds of BART ticketing machines will be places to add Clipper funding.

    Also, my most recent blog post shows that the MTC is spending another seven million, some for good ideas and others for their mistakes, such as not targeting the limited English proficiency neighborhoods.

  • Drivers should require Clipper Cards. Deduct 25 cents per mile should be about right…

  • Al

    It seems the solution is simple: make the cards cost $5, or $10 with a $5 credit, or something similar.

    If they’re worried about adoption, just give a 25 cent discount for a year on every ride taken with the card. Ultimately, people will figure it out.

    But, yes, you should be able to add value in the station. But I remember doing it on the ferry terminal at the Ferry Building. Clearly the tech is there, just install some more machines.

  • AB

    There’s currently no way to pay for parking using Clipper, so how is the BART board expecting old EZ-Rider users to switch to Clipper?

    Until the system works just as it did in the past, those users will continue using something that _works_ for them.

    I currently have a Clipper card but I do not use it – I use paper passes simply because with them I can use Commuter Check and pay for both BART and Parking.

    When parking is available I will switch to Clipper, as I know many people will also do.

  • Tweety

    I use Clipper and it works great! It is so much easier than scrambling for change every time I want to use MUNI. It encourages me to use MUNI more often, since it is more convenient now.

  • Michael Smith

    BART deserves full credit for this screwup. They decided to create their own separate EZ Ride system when it should have been absolutely clear to them that a regional card, the Clipper, is the solution. So they wasted millions of dollars, delayed the implementation of the Clipper, and now are having trouble switching people over to the new and better system.

  • Bikes Are More Efficient

    I am really glad that we have TransLink/Clipper, but the unwieldiness of the technology – serving none other than the Silicon Valley!! – is pretty pathetic.

    – Why does it take 3 days for my online purchase to register to my account?

    – Why can’t I get a high-value BART ticket ($64 for a $60 commuter check) without committing to Autoload that doesn’t work with commuter checks?

    – Why do I have to go to Walgreens to load my card instead of being able to do it in the station?

    I used a DC SmarTrip card this summer while traveling and it was so much easier, plus even the fare gates opened FASTER there instead of taking a second to “think” about what the computer chip was telling it. We bought bad, old technology and then instead of upgrading, we rebranded.

    Not impressive, MTC.

  • The Clipper debacle shows once again that MTC should not be in the business of engineering projects. They were originally only intended to serve as the region’s MPO (i.e. planning and funding), but then somehow morphed into an agency that does everything from construction of toll bridges to Clipper.

    The staff simply has no technical competence to undertake such a mission. The result can be seen with Clipper — decades late, hundreds of millions of dollars blown on a convoluted, unreliable technology.

  • @Bikes…

    Here’s the answers:

    1: https://www.clippercard.com/ClipperWeb/useWaysToAddValue.do#timing
    and: http://www.akit.org/2009/07/adding-translink-e-cash-or-passes-via.html

    2: It in the works to remove the autoload requirement and have vendors and vending machines do the work.

    3: BART stations are not yet equipped. This article says in March.