Clipper Update and the Potential to Rationalize Fares

Advocates Discuss How to Reconcile Bay Area's Multiple Fare Structures

Image: MTC website
Image: MTC website

Yesterday evening, at the San Francisco Transit Rider’s new digs on Folsom Street in downtown, Sara Barz of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and Arielle Fleisher, with the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), gave presentations about the move to replace the Clipper fare-collection system with a new generation of technology and opportunities to create a more rational fare system for the 27 transit operators across the Bay Area. Some 30 people attended.

Barz of MTC presented first. “I have a love of all things transportation-nerdy, in particular, the customer experience,” she said. That, she explained, motivated her to work on MTC’s Clipper 2 project, which will revamp and replace the system. “Clipper was previously known as Translink and it provides seamless transfers, calculates the costs automatically, and settles payments to 20 different operators,” she explained. “It can hold cash, and it can hold Muni passes, Caltrain monthly passes, and all the products that transit agencies create.”

MTC started planning for a chip-card system back in 1996. It took ten years to get everything ready, and it launched in 2006. Since then, the demand for paperless, seamless transfers has grown. “In January, 2017, we had 925,000 unique cards used,” explained Barz,”and we settled $45 million in revenue.” She said surveys showed that 93 percent of transit users said they would recommend Clipper and, in another survey, riders said the thing they like most about BART was Clipper.

SFTR's Peter Straus, Sara Barz and Arielle Fleisher. Photo: Streetsblog
SFTR’s Peter Straus, Sara Barz and Arielle Fleisher. Photo: Streetsblog

Aside from being more reliable, it’s hoped the new system will bring on more transit operators and will be usable for things such as commuter parking and Bay Area Bike Share. The hope is to phase out all paper tickets eventually (Clipper accounts for about half of all fare-payments now). In a few weeks, MTC plans to launch a public survey to find out what customers most want to see with Clipper 2. They will also be looking at bids from companies to operate the new system, since the contract with Cubic, which currently runs things, expires soon. “We want electronic payment to be the primary method,” she said. And, yes, many of those fares on Clipper 2 may actually be paid with a phone app, not a plastic card (although there are no plans to phase the cards out as an option).

Adina Levin, Director of Friends of Caltrain, was the first to point out the elephant in the room. It’s nice to make it easy to pay, but it’d be nicer still–essential in fact, to grow ridership–for the payment structure to make sense. “Clipper lets you pay for all the systems, but that doesn’t mean you don’t end up paying three times, if you take three different transit vehicles,” she said.

Arielle Fleisher, Transportation Policy Associate with SPUR, addressed that issue in her presentation. “This is an opportunity to make a change in our fare policy,” she said. “The physical card has dominated too much of the conversation; we need to talk about the fare policies that feed into it.”

Fleisher talked about SPUR’s “Seamless Transit Report,” which looked at so-called “soft barriers” to using transit. That means schedules that don’t coordinate and fare systems that make sense to the operators, but are confusing as hell to riders. “When I use Uber, there’s no learning curve–but with transit we make you learn it over and over and over again,” she said, speaking of all the different pass structures and tickets. For example, “Depending on age, I can be a youth on BART–but not a youth on Muni.” Fleisher mentioned how, in Paris, it doesn’t matter which service one rides–as long as it’s within the right fare zone, the cost is the same to the customer. She imagined a system where downtown SF to West Oakland might all be “fare zone one” and it wouldn’t matter if one took BART, a ferry, a bus, or light rail–it would always cost the same within each zone. “How do we create fare products that are consistent among different operators?” She said the type of fare structure isn’t the issue as much as making it all consistent. “Simplicity wins” in growing ridership, she said.

One simple first step she suggested is adding an “accumulator” model to the new Clipper system. That would put a cap on how much one spends on transit in a given day. So if someone takes Caltrain, and then BART, and then a Muni bus, when the customer pays more than, for example, $7, all the remaining trips that day are free. That means customers don’t have to spend time thinking about what kind of ticketing options are best (and, with that, whether it might be more economical to drive). She mentioned that London has successfully used an accumulator model for its Oyster Card, which is the same technology as Clipper. She also implied that some kind of congestion pricing, like Uber uses, might help smooth out loads on transit.

From Streetsblog’s perspective, the takeaway was simple: the regional transit agencies have to get beyond “revenue neutrality”–the idea that every transit agency that signs on is guaranteed there won’t be any change in how much they take in from their fare boxes. Clipper needs to make regional transit agencies invisible to the user, and guaranteeing that the right agency gets the fare from every single trip on its vehicles simply isn’t always compatible with that objective. It’s also short-sighted–if more people ride transit as a whole, everyone in the Clipper system should see more revenue than they do now.

Whether MTC and the residents of the Bay Area ultimately decide on a distance-based fare policy, like BART already has, or some kind of zone system like those of London and Paris, the fares and passes should work consistently on any system in Clipper. And then Clipper would disburse fares based on whose trains, buses and ferries people are actually riding–not on a trip-by-trip basis, but based on percentages of ridership. And that should be reflected in the compensation of the employees and staff at each transit agency. That, at least, will give operators the incentive to woo customers.

Something else that came out of the meeting: any future funding measure that goes before the voters simply must include a mandate that no funds can be spent until the operator signs onto a unified fare structure for the region. The voters have to make it clear that having 27 transit agencies each with its own fare structure, is unacceptable. Before spending more money on improving infrastructure, this “soft” barrier to using transit has got to go. They’ve figured this out in European cities. The Bay Area can do it too.

That said, it’s impressive to see how the San Francisco Transit Riders is growing in membership and influence and developing the means to get these kinds of improvements done. As Fleisher told the people in the room, if they want to see a rational fare structure, then they need to “get loud to transit operators, boards of directors, politicians, etc.” So far, it looks as if advocates for the SFTR are doing just that.

Some 30 people attended the presentations at SFTR's new Folsom Street headquarters. Photo: Streetsblog
Some 30 people attended the presentations at SFTR’s new Folsom Street headquarters. Photo: Streetsblog
  • John French

    The mobile payment option shouldn’t be an app. It should be standard contactless payments (i.e. Apple Pay, Android Pay, Visa PayWave, whatever brand name you like.)

    London accepts contactless on every bus and at faregates on the Tube. You can use a contactless-capable credit or debit card, or a phone with NFC. It even automatically caps pay-as-you-go fares in a given week to the cost of a weekly pass, making the concept of a pass basically obsolete. It’s clearly the way forward. (In the US, Chicago and Salt Lake City already take contactless payments directly).

    Integrated fares across different systems would be amazing, but I’ll be amazed if it happens here, where the different agencies that take Clipper are each accountable to a different county (or group of counties) and seem to actively resist working together to provide a functional regional system.

    But while we’re entertaining pipe dreams of integrated fares, why not a fully integrated experience too, with regional maps and signage? Maybe even timed transfers between lines run by different agencies… Wouldn’t that be great.

  • John Murphy

    Presumes NFC capabilities on the phone, which isn’t completely universal, and note how many iPhones pre IPhone6 are still out there.

  • Maurice

    Isn’t the real problem that we have 27 different agencies? Doesn’t that result in waste and inefficiencies?

    I’d love to see the MTC take a harder line in resolving some of these issues (fares + schedules) when it distributes funding. There MUST be a way to consolidate more of our regional transit system while still preserving local control and funding? Right?

  • crazyvag

    Totally agree with you that London model should be our goal. Just as many people still use cash when we have clipper, many people will use contactless until all phones pick up NFC.

    Nice thing about contactless, is that we have a great example to model after in London.

  • What I would do:

    – Standard fare per 90 minutes of bus usage across all participating agencies.
    – Standardize fare zones and base rail fares on a basis of number of zones traversed per trip, regardless of which agencies run the routes used to do it.
    – Top out at a maximum system-wide charge per day, as suggested in the article.
    – Also top out at a maximum system-wide charge per month, eliminating the idea of monthly passes.
    – Use data about tag-in and tag-out locations to distribute each rider’s total fare payments across the various agencies automatically in proportion to their usage.
    – Get MTC more involved in the production of maps, signage and other wayfinding stuff so that transit maps and signs always reflect all available options and connections, rather than emphasizing the current agency in preference to others, and are presented with consistent design across the whole network.

    In general: to make the presence of differing agencies largely invisible to riders, instead presenting it as a single unified network.

  • John French

    Sure but the system won’t go into effect until what… 2021? And will last for decades.

  • Miles Bader

    It will never be OK to require people have a phone to use transit.

    Not everybody can afford a phone, not everybody wants a phone, not everybody always has their phone, not everybody’s phone is always working, not everbody’s battery is always charged, … etc.

    With a decently implemented contactless system, people can use their phone, or a card, and if they lose/forget their phone/card, they get a new card easily, cheapily, and quickly.

  • crazyvag

    We already require NFC for Caltrain monthly and 8 ride passes. Who cares if the chip is in your credit card, phone or some other piece of plastic.

    London buses went cashless in 2014, so makes you wonder why Muni still slows everyone down for cash fare.

  • crazyvag

    Care to predict what % of phones will not have NFC in 2021?

  • Miles Bader

    Sure, as long as they actually provide the mechanisms and infrastructure to make use of the system practical for everybody, including people who don’t use the system every day. [I see a lot of people waving their hands and saying “oh just make an app mandatory!”]

    Buses and other “stationless” modes are problematic because there’s less of a presence for things like TVMs.

  • crazyvag

    Here’s how London allows you to pay… Basically it’s 3 different forms of NFC: credit card, oyster card, paper NFC card. If you’re local, use contactless credit card or oyster. Visiting… Credit card, oyster or buy a paper ticket.

    You can buy clipper in most stores and underground, so not hard to obtain if your phone doesn’t have NFC.

    I don’t see your concern about stationless given that NFC on your phone will only get more common.

  • Miles Bader

    Relying on people having a phone is unacceptable.

    The point about stationless modes is that they need to offer some way of making the service available to those without a fare instrument. For rail, you can just have TVMs at stations. For buses, either you accept cash as payment, have TVMs on buses, have TVMs at [some large proportion of] stops, or make fare instruments widely available at other retailers (which can be problematic at certain times and places).

  • Charlie In SF

    Why has the adult muni fare gone up 4x the rate of inflation in the past 25 years?

  • tiabgood

    One of the reasons is that the State of California slashed much of the funding to public transit which means they needed to make up the budget somewhere.

  • Hunter

    Amen! We need to behave as though the 9-county region / 20+ transit systems are a single united transportation network (like NYC does thorugh its boroughs).

  • pickles94114

    London has solved this problem already, rather wonderfully. It’s not rocket science.

  • thielges

    Adina Levin has it right. The problems aren’t technical, they’re organizational. The various transit agencies need to truly join hands and start functioning as a regional transportation system. The current Clipper technology can support a more integrated fare system. The problem is that agencies are not cooperating.

    If Clipper2 is developed I hope that the deployment plan is accelerated. It took nearly a decade between when the hardware was installed at Caltrain stations and when customers could start using the cards. The vandals had a field day.

  • John French

    Treating buses and rail differently just based on the vehicle technology doesn’t make much sense; what do you do about light rail?

    Maybe you treat light rail as buses? But this doesn’t solve transfers from BART to Muni, for instance, which are one of the more ridiculous cases where you need to buy two tickets for what should be a simple trip…

  • John French

    Who said require?

    In Chicago, the equivalent to a clipper is actually a prepaid, NFC-enabled debit card. It works through exactly the same system as phone-based NFC payments but anyone can get one and load it up with cash.

    In London you can still use an Oyster card or even buy paper tickets.

    Phone-based contactless payments will never be the only option, but contactless payments DON’T require a phone, and are a much cleaner solution than a mobile app.

  • david vartanoff

    “the voters simply must include a mandate that no funds can be spent until the operator signs onto a unified fare structure for the region.” YES!!! including cross honoring of “passes” so that AC Transit riders can use BART between two bus trips at no extra charge as Muni riders have done for decades.
    As an historical note when Calrain was taken over by the JPB, Muni Fast Passes were honored with SF.

  • The bus/train distinction is a proxy for travel distance. Muni Metro is a bus for the sake of my “plan”.

  • John French

    But then to get from AT&T Park to the Mission (for instance) I’d need to pay a bus fare to get to Embarcadero and a rail fare to take BART, unless I want to deal with a bus which stops every couple of blocks and gets caught in traffic (when there’s a perfectly good subway following the same route).

    I’d go with something that’s more of a hybrid of zone and distance systems. For trips within one “zone” (San Francisco would be one zone, for instance) you’d pay a flat rate; for trips which cross zone lines you’d either pay each zone’s fare, or pay by distance (but bus connections from your origin to the train and from the train to your destination would be included).

  • WhatIsYourFavoriteColor

    It sounds like the push for change is 10% about making fares simpler and 90% about making fares cheaper. I’m all for that, but I don’t see any way it can work unless there’s a shared revenue pool. Ferries would have to operate at a loss (if they don’t already) to come to price parity with busses.

    The operational inefficiency of 27 agencies is obviously a factor, so consolidation would help on a lot of levels, but we’d then need to create a special district to run the trans-county system (like BART). The problem with this is that the political influence at the local level gets watered down, and under the proposition system we end up with with operational gridlock. Are residents in San Jose going to vote to raise taxes for a new subway extension in SF? Unlikely.

    Complicated problem, complicated solutions.

  • david vartanoff

    Correct that fares should be both simpler and lower. Having a single backroom do all of the payroll work, losing most of the general managers, asst. mgrs, from the midget agencies, joint vehicle purchases (such as SF Muni recently partnering w/Seattle to get a better bulk price), no more printed schedules, paper tickets, transfers. Yeah all of that seems small, but it is a begining. As to funding, the real story for AC was that prop 13 retroactively whacked their tiny percentage real estate tax which they dumbly replaced w/ flat fee parcel taxes. The nine county area needs a uniform percentage RE tax to be paid out to the agencies based on ridership–pretty easy to count w/clipper.

  • david vartanoff

    Spot on. a transit ride is a transit ride. Not only should BART simply be priced as what it is–the subway–but it would save everyone time and money to make transfers in the joint Muni/BART stations direct. instead of forcing passengers to go up to fare control and back down again.

  • Maurice

    New York state (and the port authority of NY/NJ) has tremendous authority over metro NYC transit. Why doesn’t Sacramento / MTC get involved and create a framework to “merge” these services, while still maintaining local funding + control?

  • Maurice

    Also: merge Bart + Caltrain. No brainer.

  • helloandyhihi

    I’m glad to see the term “customer experience” thrown out there. Let’s hope that translates better user experience design. Right now, it’s too difficult to use the Clipper website, especially to take advantage of what makes Clipper powerful: “autoload” of cash and passes. #ux #ui

  • Hunter

    I don’t know if there’s ever even been a state/capital-wide discussion of uniting them, but there def should be.

  • Maurice

    Sacramento got involved to create the Water Emergency Transit Authority. Not sure why they don’t do more.

    https://sanfranciscobayferry.com/weta

  • Hunter

    Just emailed Scott Wiener’s office to ask that he spearhead this. I recommend everyone do the same: http://sd11.senate.ca.gov/contact

  • Maurice

    Count me in. Feel like there is some coalition building to be done.

    Will not be popular with local governments + boards of transit agencies.

  • thielges

    My impression is that the primary contractor billed for the creation of clippercard.com and then promptly outsourced development to a budget contractor, pocketing the difference. I reported several bugs and suggested many enhancements that would have been easy to implement. There seems to have been one update since the initial rollout of clippercard.com, probably yet another pass-thru skim job by the primary contractor. A couple of bugs were fixed but hardly the proper application lifecycle support that most web applications enjoy.

    A unified Bay Area transit agency should be big enough to justify at least one good full time web ap designer who could continuously improve the product. It would probably also be a lot cheaper than paying a middleman to skim the revenue.

  • Ever wonder which company manufactures the Oyster, Ventra, and Clipper cards? #CommuterClues

  • Gov. Schwarzenegger campaigned on not resuming a vehicle fee that had been suspended. Instead, he pushed through the largest bond measure in U.S. history in order to pay for highways (and for 30 years of debt service on top of that), Prop 1B. Prop 1B has a token amount dedicated to transit, as is the usual deal in these propositions, in order to get some buy-in. Once it passed, he removed a greater-than-the-token-amount from the general budget. So here we are.

  • John French

    Interesting, I was not aware they were all maintained by Cubic.

    If Cubic’s got NFC payments working in London and Chicago already, I wonder what’s stopping them from flipping the switch here… Just for fun I’ve tried swiping my phone by a Clipper reader on Caltrain, and it does trigger Apple Pay, implying the technology is at least on the same frequency, if not actually compatible.

  • John French

    And I feel like it should have a single name. And although I know it would probably anger a lot of people, I feel like that name… has to be BART.

    It wouldn’t actually mean the BART board taking over all bay area transit (rather, MTC would gain more power over the existing agencies), but the BART name is by far the strongest brand among bay area transit, and it accurately describes what a unified system should be: Bay Area Rapid Transit.

    Yeah, that means Caltrain becomes another BART line. And MUNI Metro and VTA light rail become BART light rail; and all the buses are BART buses. But at least it would maybe stop people from thinking that we need a new BART line from Millbrae to San Jose, built to BART’s unique non-standard technical requirements…

  • John French

    On top of that, if fares are simpler and cheaper, transit will be a workable option for more people and ridership (and revenue) will go up.

  • John French

    Hopefully this would shut up the people who think we need a BART line (based on ultra-expensive non-standard rail technology) all the way around the bay. Build BART to San Jose (NOT Santa Clara) and run Caltrain frequently all day from San Jose to Millbrae, and you already have that, for BILLIONS less.

  • Miles Bader

    Phone-based contactless payments will never be the only option, but
    contactless payments DON’T require a phone, and are a much cleaner
    solution than a mobile app.

    Er, that’s what I said… ><

  • John French

    Ah, sorry if I misunderstood you! Glad we agree here. I’m just saying it should be standard contactless payments (where you have the choice to use a phone, a credit card, or a prepaid card), not a proprietary contactless system (like clipper) or a phone app (like MuniMobile).

  • Chris

    Although simplifying fares is tremendously appealing, part of the the reason for the current complexity is that different jurisdictions have made very different decisions about how much tax revenue to raise and spend on transit. If the residents of one city pay more in taxes for transit than residents of a neighboring city, will they revolt at subsidizing their free-riding neighbors?

  • John Murphy

    Shouldn’t apply. The service level in any given area can be a function of the taxes and fares from that area.

  • Edward

    Interesting discussion. The two systems I am familiar with are:

    The zone system in Germany: You buy a ticket/pass/whatever for the number of zones traveled in plus one. There are a lot of transit agencies and companies, but it is all transparent to the user. This does not cover the whole country, but the districts (transit associations) are large.

    The fee plus distance system in The Netherlands: You use a Clipper like ticket when you get on and off each vehicle (with the exception of changing intercity trains). You are charged a small amount (less than a dollar) plus so much per km. This one card is good on anything in the country that runs on ground or water. It can be cheaper to buy a train ticket for long distances (not Oakland – San Francisco but San Francisco – Sacramento), but such is life.

    Both The Netherlands and Germany allow you to buy an annual ticket for the entire country for all surface transportation. It is considerably cheaper in The Netherlands. 🙂

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