Muni Plans for Full Transition to TransLink Smart Card

IMG_1538.jpgA crew removes an old fare gate at Civic Center station to make way for a new TransLink-only turnstile. Photo: Michael Rhodes

While AC Transit, BART, Caltrain, Golden Gate Transit and transbay ferries already accept Translink, in the coming years, nearly every Bay Area transit agency is expected to adopt the payment cards.

That means TransLink could soon be more than just a curious novelty to most Muni
riders, especially if the MTA Board votes tomorrow on a plan to transition all
Muni fare media to the green plastic smart card within the next year or
so, starting with the "premium" Adult "A" monthly Fast Pass this June. Given the variety of vehicle-types and fare media at the MTA and the size of the transit system (more than twice as many daily trips as BART), Muni could have the biggest problem of any local agency in making the complete transition.

The first challenge is general acceptance by the public: Fewer than two percent of Muni rides were paid for using the smart card as of October 2009, despite the fact that TransLink works on all Muni vehicles aside from cable cars. Switching hundreds of thousands of people over to an unfamiliar fare media, and actually getting the card into their hands, will likely prove daunting to the agency. Despite this challenge, the MTA hopes it can accomplish its goal in part by handing out thousands of the cards at locations across the city in the coming months.

Rescue Muni’s Andrew Sullivan said the agency should make sure it’s easy to get a TransLink card before it requires anyone to use it. "Before requiring anything, they really need to expand availability at the vendors and the vending machines," said Sullivan. "I would ask them to do that before requiring it for anything."

Another difficulty is the capital conversion: The MTA must replace all of its Muni Metro station fare gates with TransLink-only gates. Right now, there simply aren’t enough TransLink readers to handle a full transition to the smart card. But that’s visibly changing already, as Cubic, the contractor that’s installing the TransLink system for Muni, is currently tearing up old fare boxes in the Metro stations and new TransLink-only turnstiles are supposed to be in place by December.

Cable cars are another obstacle. A staff report says Muni now has hand-held TransLink readers on the cable cars, but they are read-only: They’ll be able to handle monthly passes, but won’t be able to charge a fare. Eventually, cable car operators will need handheld card readers that can charge for fares too, especially the daily and weekly passports popular with tourists.

To meet these challenges, the MTA says it will spend approximately $16.5 million in the next two fiscal years on the plan, with just over $2 million of that cost reimbursed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Of course, for that kind of money, riders will be expecting results, especially as the monthly passes and single-ride fares they load onto the cards continue to escalate in price.

Sullivan said the MTA Board should consider deferring the program until better financial times if the money will come from the agency’s operating budget, which already faces a $100 million shortfall over the next two years. MTA spokesperson Judson True was still looking into a request for further information about the budget implications of the plan this afternoon. But Sullivan said speeding up fare collection and enabling all-door boarding could make TransLink a net-positive for the agency’s budget in the long term.

"They really need to take advantage of that to enable rear-door boarding on any bus that has it, because that actually saves time," he said.

Regardless, necessity may compel change. Assuming the MTA Board sticks to its decision last Friday to require a premium monthly pass for express routes and cable cars (in addition to the existing premium monthly pass requirement for BART within the city), riders will likely shift their behavior as early as June and use TransLink more often.

Further changes will arrive in relatively short order. By January 31 of next year, almost every monthly pass, including the
senior, youth and disabled Fast Pass, will be transitioned to
TransLink, according to the timeline in the plan. The basic Muni monthly Fast Pass, which is $10 cheaper than the premium pass and is limited to Muni (no BART rides within the city and, soon, no express routes or cable cars) will transition to TransLink-only by April 2011.

Even the most basic Muni fare — the adult single token — will transition to TransLink by spring of next year, once Muni has installed machines that dispense limited-use paper TransLink tickets. Even tourists will get to know the limited use tickets well, given that one-day, three-day, and seven-day passports will switch over to the temporary TransLink cards, though the MTA staff report on the plan doesn’t include a date for that yet.

That means TransLink, which has taken well over a decade to put in place (and is soon to be re-branded as Clipper,) will finally be a major part of daily life on San Francisco’s transit system.

  • I’m confused – will it be a major part or the only part. From the sound of it, we’ll be required to use a translink card and cash will no longer be accepted.

    Also, I’ve seen people enter by the back door, use their translink, have it beep saying they paid, and still get yelled at to enter through the front. Good luck with that one.

    Oh, and I’m glad the MTA is flush with money. So 1/8th of the cost is going to be reimbursed by the MTC. I was unaware that money grew on trees, maybe the MTA needs to stop looking under rocks and start barking up trees.

  • Ben

    It is unlikely that they will replace cash with translink, they will replace paper passes with translink.

  • mikesonn

    “Even the most basic Muni fare — the adult single token — will transition to TransLink by spring of next year, once Muni has installed machines that dispense limited-use paper TransLink tickets.”

    To me that means they will make you buy a single-use translink from a machine and then walk over to the gate to enter.

    Either way, this is going to be a cluster-f*%@. 2% use to nearly 100% in a year? All while having huge failures with the tiered system and translink currently – charging people for the more expensive pass by default, etc.

    Fancy projects while MUNI crumbles. Why don’t they just build a useless subway while they are pissing money away? Oh.

    But hey, one less thing for the March Against MUNI to complain about. They already accomplished one goal and they didn’t even march yet. Must have been all that media coverage.

  • The most successful public transportation system on the entire planet (measured by per-capita trips) is the country of Switzerland.

    The country of Switzerland operates a fully integrated timetable and has a fully integrated fare system. (Hundreds of transit operators, not just the 26 we’re always told are so problematic in our pathetic insular nowhere retarded transit backwater.)

    The receipts for the fares are printed pieces of paper (and, as a supplement, images of printable data displayed on cell phone screens.)

    Paper! How … retro!

    The country of Switzerland conducted a study of the costs and benefits of so-called “smart” ticketing in the 1990s and determined that the costs vastly exceeded the benefits. Instead, it invested its cash in improving service. Everything single then (ridership, efficiency, customer satisfaction, service speed) indicates that this study reached the correct conclusions.

    In contrast, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, perhaps the least successful, and most corrupt transportation “planning” organizations on the planet, has wasted many hundreds of millions of your tax dollars on a technology-intensive, contractor-profiting, “smzart card” boondoggle while never supplying any sort of expenditure justification of any type, and it now forcing (see the MTC meeting minutes!) regional transit operators to abandon paper fare media, regardless of the cost to the user, regardless of the cost to the agencies, regardless of the opportunity costs, solely to pad out the elephantine, pants-busting, lard-basted bottom line of MTC’s favoured mafioso contractors.

    Another cap in the feather for MTC’s Steve “Bay Bridge East Span $5 billion over what I promised” Heminger. Another program from the people bringing your BART to San Jose, the Central Subway, High Speed Rail to Los Banos, FasTrak, and the Caldecott Tunnel!

  • James Figone

    @mike – Not sure if you have used translink but it is great. I use it on Bart, Caltrain, ferries and Muni. I do not use a monthly muni pass so I cannot comment on how effective it is in this case. However, for ad hoc use of all the transit systems, it is a boon and quite an accomplishment to pull it off given the differences in rules and fare structures.

  • I think the translink software is great and have never had any problems with it. The problem is the customer service. It is so incredibly bad! Every time I talk on the phone with them its 20 minutes and the operators can’t make any of the decisions. They must always ask a supervisor and then nothing still gets fixed.

    The technology has too much potential to let a simple thing like customer service ruin it!

  • Andy Chow

    Products like tokens should be discontinued altogether. Translink users can pay with e-cash. The current token provides no savings compared to e-cash. Physical token once has a purpose (provide alternative form of payment for one way fares, so that riders can pay with Commuter Check or Wage Works), but people can now load Commuter Check or Wage Works dollars directly onto Translink and can spend anyway they want.

  • Another $11 million is being paid for with project specific ARRA (stimulus) funding.

    All the complaints about Translink being broken and Muni employees not understanding it themselves are all reasons to clean house and consolidate down to just cash fares and consolidate all the other payment media down to just a single system. That system is Clipper/TransLink and training operators (and customers) how it works will be a lot easier when it’s only payment system to keep track of.

  • Smart move to get away from cash …. cash has too many associated costs to process and protect the cash collected. Does this move away from cash mean that tourists and others will have to switch to the paper “tokens?” Do they still sell those? Of course, none of this affects the folks who just get on the bus without paying …

  • Matt

    I use TransLink everyday and I like it. One problem though — does anyone else notice how “laggy” the system is? Most of the time it takes 2-3 taps on the reader for the card to register, and the reader makes you wait 3 seconds or so between taps. Even when the tap does register, it takes 1-2 seconds. This means that I’m holding up the entire line for 10 seconds regularly just to get on the bus. Imagine what will happen when the entire City has to tap the reader!

    I’ve used Hong Kong’s “Octopus” system and Boston’s “CharlieCard” system and have never had any of these problems. Those cards are so quick and responsive — I can smack my entire wallet on a reader and have it register in milliseconds. Unless TransLink gets a huge hardware upgrade, this is going to be an utter nightmare.

  • Nick

    Can I ask a few questions? How does “proof of payment” factor into all this? Will the fare inspectors have to beep and check each person’s card? That sounds 10 times slower than the visual check of the fast pass.

    And often the busses are so crowded everyone you can’t even walk over to the card reader. And if you have a pre-paid balance, there is a disincentive to use the machine especially when no one else is using it (is there a name for this? tragedy of the commons…?)

  • tNOB

    I went through Boston’s change to the Charlie Card a few years back. It was not pretty for a few months as they changed from the old tokens to the card. You would get on the T at one stop and have to use the card, get off at your destination, run your errands, get back to that stop which was still tokens. I will say that once the system was in place, the cards were MUCH better. You could get a smart plastic card that could be refilled, or disposable cards similar to a BART card, but could not be recharged.

    If this system ends up similar, I would never buy a $70 fast pass again…

  • I was in Chicago when they made the transition from cash subway fares to the prepaid transit cards. The part that they totally screwed up at the start was that the standard fare was $1.50, but the card vending machines only took bills and didn’t make change. The intent was probably to try to persuade you to buy in bulk, but the common effect was to make make you spend $0.50 more than you were actually going to use. Eventually they got that straightened out and it worked reasonably well.

  • “Either way, this is going to be a cluster-f*%@. 2% use to nearly 100% in a year? All while having huge failures with the tiered system and translink currently – charging people for the more expensive pass by default, etc.”

    The transition isnt a big deal. Every system that has moved to electronic fare cards goes from 0 to 90% within a year (the last 10% are tourists who use paper tickets).

    The question is, is it worth it? Fare gates are unbelievably expensive, at $10,000 or so for EACH gate. Im a fan of gate less systems that reply on POP checks ONLY.

  • Cable Cars can accept passes? Good start, but I’ve haven’t heard official word that it’s OK to use.

  • swissmiss

    As someone who actually lived in Switzerland and ONLY used public transit I can tell you the Swiss paper system was a pain in the ass. The Swiss system runs perfectly because it is SWISS, not because of an archaic paper ticket.

    As someone who has an Oyster card in their travel kit for London stays, electronic payment systems rock.

    I use translink and although it is not as good as the Oyster card, it is a huge improvement over the current “feed the turnstiles with lint and coins next to an agent who can’t make change for you” muni system.

  • There isn’t a single turnstile in Switzerland to feed lint or coins to. (At least not on the non-tourist public transportation network on which paper-based media like the GA are valid.)

    What exactly are they supposed to wave their Oystercards at to open, anyway?

    I smell a sock puppet.

  • orson

    Yeah I have to say, as a 3-to-5-trip-per-week rider, this is one time with Muni where I’m willing to overlook the inevitable complications and focus on a greater goal. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into a Muni subway station, seen the train I need pull in, and then miss it as I try to get the 400-year-old change machine to accept my dollar bill. The other day, both change machines at Castro station were out of service — Muni staffer just shrugged. Then there’s the new thing they’re doing (part of the budget problems?) where some entrances are unstaffed and therefore don’t allow coin entry at all — you have to run all the way down to another entrance. And nothing’s worse than trying to shove dollar bills into a bus fare machine. It’s going to be a bit of a mess, for sure, while it’s being implemented, but there’s just no possible way Translink could be any worse than the current system. Plus, the fact that there’s any cross-system cooperation whatsoever in the Bay Area is a near-miracle. Muni, you have my patience while you get this working.

  • In general I like my Translink card and find it much faster than using money. It is annoying, however, when I transfer onto a bus where the Translink reader isn’t working. (There is no way I’m going to pay the bus driver a second fare after I’ve already paid on the previous bus.) It’s definitely convenient for me not to have to mess with change or feeding dollars into bus fare machine. Muni does make it difficult, though, to get Translink cards for teens–have to apply in person at very limited number of places.

    Up in Seattle they have something similar they call an Orca card. I recently rode a bus up there where 95% of the people were using it and I felt like an idiot taking everyone’s time feeding in my dollars. But in Seattle, there was no choice to buy a single-use Orca card. (The minimum you can put on it up there is $5.)

  • @taomom you do not have to pay for a transfer when the TransLink machine is broken. This comes directly from SFMTA’s Mary Travis-Allen:

    “When a reader is broken, the TransLink fare should be treated the same as when a fare-box is not operational; the TransLink passenger would be allowed to ride without being issued a paper transfer.”

    All Muni operators should be aware of this. You should report any broken TransLink machines, or operators giving you grief by calling 311 or

  • Mike

    Where does the BART+ ticket fit into all of this? Since I usually spend $30-$40 on BART every month, the BART+ gives me transit rides on MUNI and VTA (and a few others I rarely use) for an additional $56 per month above the BART cost. It’s much more economical than buying a MUNI fast pass plus paying VTA $4 on those days that I commute to work. If I use up my BART allotment before the next ticket period, I use my Translink card to pay. The only drawback is having to show the pass to the agent to enter the MUNI Metro.

  • Mike

    Jamison, I have had a 45 operator deny me boarding when his Translink reader was not working. Fortunately, there was a 30 bus just 2-3 minutes behind and I didn’t miss my once-an-hour express train.

  • Mike

    In general, I like electronic payment. I ride Caltrain, MUNI, BART and VTA pretty regularly, with occasional trips on other systems like the GG Transit ferry on a nice weekend.

    However, the cost of this project is just mind-blowing.

  • swissmiss

    Actually I relied primarily on the AutoPostale bus system run by the post office. The driver would take cash, give you change or punch your multiride pass that you purchased at limited locations. There was no mechanism to deal with lost passes, or if you ran it through the wash. If you wished to take the alternate system serving the towns that I needed to get to, you had to purchase a separate pass altogether.

    La prossima volta sei voi dire qualcuno e un “Sock Puppet” forse pensi prima.

  • Jeff

    While London’s Oyster card has its criticisms, they encouraged use by doubling cash fares. They charged a deposit for the card which is equal to 1.5 the cash price of a bus fare or .75 the cash price of a subway fare. Also, the Oyster card handles transfers so there are no free transfers but it has a daily maximum of about 3 rides. As a recent transplant, I’m amazed that the Muni is only now moving towards an electronic payment system.

  • Translink is only okay, and it feels really half baked. Like others have said, the card readers are really laggy. This causes problems when boarding a crowded bus or queuing in turnstyle lines since you want to tap the card and get out of the way so the next passenger can board. Unfortunately, you must pause to confirm that the reader actually deducted your fare before moving. This takes precious seconds and if it doesn’t read, you must try again; which takes even more time.

    Managing your card is also a royal pain. Unfortunately, the Translink website doesn’t give you instant access to your account balance and recent transactions. To get this information, you must request it, and this takes several days. Lame. Adding fare online is also a pain; since it “may” take up to 72 hours for fare to register in your account. Yes, you can add fare instantly at one of the few add fare machines and at some retailers, but this is inconvenient. The add fare machines are pathetically slow and utilize an unorthodox payment system that allows you to add money only in certain denominations if paying using a credit/debit. Again, really lame.

    Sorry, that’s more of a rant and not really relevant to the topic, but I don’t see the MTC or Muni or any other agency planning to address any of these issues despite the major Muni rollout. One of the touted benefits of Translink is speedy boarding on busses and trains, but the slow and unpredictable card readers render this feature dead. Along with the clumsy payment and management system, I think Muni will have some major issues with broad rider adoption.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Matt: don’t “tap” your TransLink, and don’t “swipe” it. Doing either of these things just fakes out the reader by bringing the card into range and then interrupting communications between the reader and the card. It drives me nuts watching people swipe their TransLink card 500 times while I’m waiting to board. Just put the card right on the reader and leave it still until the reader beeps. Simple.

    It works quickly and reliably for me without even taking my card out of my wallet.

  • @mike, that operator denied you entry against policy and should be reported. If you can get it the four-digit employee ID numbers are stitched onto the upper right sleeve.

    @jarrett, I was told be the consultants the new faregates will have faster readers and the add fare machines are being replaced with new ticket machines. Redesigning the website is part of the Clipper rebranding, but MTC has only put a small amount of money into the entire rebrand/relaunch/marketing campaign, so how much easier it will be remains to be seen.

  • I don’t find the Translink laggy. It usually beeps within half a second of when I put my card next to or on top of it. Way faster than feeding in money. Thanks, Jamison, for letting me know I’m not a scofflaw. The drivers haven’t given me grief, but I don’t know if they’re paying too much attention to what the Translink is doing while other passengers are busy paying. Though if they know the Translink is not working, a little “out of order” sticker would be helpful.

  • Andy Chow

    BART Plus will stay as is for a while since MTC isn’t planning to expand Translink in the short term to the other East Bay systems that accept BART Plus. On the other hand, that’s what Translink is supposed to do, bridge the transit system together by easing payment.

    MTC wants to use Translink to pay for parking, which is actually quite complex. MTC would have to create a new “purse” for parking. The current “purse” for transit cannot be used for parking because of tax treatment.

  • I also agree that Translink is not laggy. As long as the card is tagged correctly, you understand the technical reasons why online or phone purchasing of funds or passes takes 72 hours, and other rules that can cause issues for someone’s account; it works fine.

    Here’s technical info:

    Here’s how I tag my card: Hover the card about half an inch away from the reader with the chip facing towards you and pointing up and hold it steady. Holding the card steady is the most important thing, and never remove the card until getting the OK confirmation tone.

  • Alex

    I’d say that TL is pretty laggy. I can walk by the BART EZ-Rider parking reader and not even slow my gait. TL I have to wait at least a few seconds. Even the folks with practice, the pop cops, tend to shy away from actually using their handheld readers. Even at the BART turnstiles, my EZ-Rider was more reliable and read faster than my TL card.

    @Jeffery That’s certainly not my experience. Often times I’ve got to take the card out of my wallet for it to be read (there are no other RFID cards in my wallet), generally I’ve got to hold the card over the reader for a second or two for the damn thing to be read. It’s not a quick affair.

    Perhaps it’s time to replace the card… but I’ll be waiting until the card is completely unusable for that.

  • TransLink is one of the few Muni-related projects which I’m actually enthusiastic about. It took me a bit to get used to the time it takes to register, but it doesn’t seem laggy to me, you just need to hold the your wallet up to the reader for a while. For someone who alternates between Muni, cycling, and the occasional ZipCar it’s the perfect solution. I never have to worry about being unable to get on Muni because I’m at a downtown stop and all I have is a $5 bill any longer (which is completely ridiculous, BTW). I was initially skeptical about the auto-refill thing, but it’s worked great so far for both Muni and BART.

    One potential issue I can see with it is that the readers are physically distant from the operators – if I had a little button in my wallet that would make the same type of beeping sound that the readers do when I successfully tag on to a bus, I think I could quite easily ride for free all the time. I’ve never had anyone actually verify that my card has been correctly tagged, the most I’ve done is wave the card at fare inspectors as though it were a fast pass.

  • Jym Dyer

    =v= Thanks to poor service, one never knows whether one’s 90-minute transfer is going to suffice. With TransLink, one never knows how long one’s transfer will last. (It’s rumored that they give you a wee bit more than 90 minutes, at least for now, but there’s no paper slip or displayed time to give you a clue.)

    Also, isn’t it great that we just paid all that money to upgrade Muni’s fare machines? We may not get any service for our higher fares, but at least somebody got to cash in!

  • Robo

    Translink is a good, if fairly weak, step in the right direction. Real change would result from consolidating transit agencies and coordinating schedules and routes. We have the technology to do it, just not the will. meanwhile, every agency is it’s own little fiefdom, operating autonomously at the expense of the rider.
    Imagine what driving would be like if the roads didn’t connect at city and county borders.

  • Andy Chow

    I am not a believer in consolidation. I think it is not a bad idea to consolidate smaller city operators like those in Sonoma and Solano Counties, most of them have a lower operating cost through contracting, and can save more if they can get a lower cost through a larger contract.

    Most of the larger agencies are at the right size for the population they serve. I can’t see any benefits if you try to say, merge Muni and SamTrans. SamTrans keep their buses clean, Muni doesn’t. SamTrans drivers show up to work, Muni drivers go AWOL. Do you think San Mateo County riders want Muni’s baggage? Also politically speaking, San Mateo County would not have the same political clout as San Francisco.

    Already, VTA in Santa Clara County has a lot of governance issues (which made VTA dysfunctional) because of the political dominance of San Jose over the other cities in the county, and we are just talking about one county. MTC is also dysfunctional, and I wouldn’t count on them to run all the transit in the Bay Area. Unfortunately, our state is too big to have the state run the transit system.

    Translink at least helps solve one of the more pressing issues and create a common payment portal without having to deal with complex labor, funding, and political arrangements. Transit service planners are decent and they try their best to facilitate inter-agency transfers. For example, SamTrans coordinates its 397 owl bus with AC Transit 800 in San Francisco (which has timed connection with other routes in Oakland), and that VTA coordinates its overnight 22 bus from San Jose with SamTrans 397 in Palo Alto. You can ride all the way from San Jose to Oakland without having to wait an hour to transfers, even though it would take 3-4 hours (because the buses are local).

  • Mal Contente

    Apparently Sullivan is unaware that the MUNI cops are giving tickets to Fast Pass holders who use the rear door. All door boarding would be more efficient, but when has MUNI ever been efficient? Translink cannot change the motivation behind MUNI’s paranoia surrounding fare evasion. So MUNI is wasting a ton of our money installing devices it prohibits us from using.

  • Mal, what? They are ticketing people with POP? That doesn’t make sense. What is the ticket for? Not following directions?


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