Despite Cost, Clipper Card Promises Convenience

Photo: Matthew Roth
Photo: Matthew Roth

As the Bay Area’s larger transit agencies transition away from paper passes to the universal fare payment smart card, Clipper, transit operators and planners insist the card will lead to greater convenience and simplicity, which they hope will increase ridership and enhance the attractiveness of transit. At its simplest, in theory, a transit passenger would pair a credit card with Clipper, set it to auto-fill whenever the balance on the card goes below a set dollar amount and never again have to consider how to pay or when to pay for a transit trip.

Despite these hopes, transit advocates and neighborhood groups have decried problems with Clipper’s early outreach and implementation, and they fear the complete roll-out of the program will be mired further.

“The promise of electronic payment technology is huge. I’m really happy to see it moving forward, but the implementation so far is pathetic,” said Dave Snyder of the Muni Transit Riders Union.

Snyder said there were already too many problems with unreliable readers, which he said degrades the public’s perception of the transit operators and the program in general. He said even when Clipper works perfectly, it will be slower than flashing Fast Passes to Muni operators, so transit delays could increase if the readers malfunction. He argued that all-door boarding would help address potential delay.

Despite those concerns, and considering the large capital expenditures and net annual expense to operators participating in Clipper, representatives from various transit operators believed Clipper would prove, on balance, to be superior to the current array of fare instruments at each individual operator and would hopefully entice new riders to the systems.

“For a lot of people, their life is just going to be a lot better. That’s the win,” said Randy Rentschler, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the regional transportation planning entity administering Clipper.

“We want to make transit as simple and easy and friendly as possible,” said BART spokesperson Linton Johnson. “Carrying 16 different tickets is ridiculous. I think this is a wonderful idea and certainly is going to benefit our riders.”

“We certainly think it’s worth it. There are some real clear benefits to using a card like this,” said Clarence Johnson, AC Transit spokesperson. Among the benefits Johnson listed were reductions in fraud, faster boarding times and ease of payment. Johnson noted the only complaint they had heard was the need for more Clipper vendors in North Richmond.

AC Transit is nearly finished rolling all of its old passes over to Clipper. According to Johnson, youth passes have already been converted, while adult 10 ride and 31 day passes will no longer be sold in their old format after October 31 and no longer accepted after December 31st.

“It’s good for our customers. It makes riding our system easier and allows for a better regional commute,” said Muni spokesperson Paul Rose. “Our number one goal is to look out for our customers and this does just that.” Rose said Muni will begin phasing out paper A Fast Passes by November, followed by student and senior passes and finally all Fast Passes by March 2011.

Convincing the riding public that Clipper is as beneficial as the operators believe will require hard work, particularly those who don’t have easy access to computers and those whose primary language isn’t English. Advocates in San Francisco’s Chinatown and Visitation Valley have been upset and disappointed with the limited outreach in Cantonese. They also note the Clipper customer service center hasn’t had a full-time Cantonese speaker.

Marlene Tran of the Visitation Valley Asian Alliance said Muni and MTC were failing her constituents by not providing more information in the language their customers understand. She said she was upset the “Chinese” line through Clipper’s customer service number was in Mandarin, not Cantonese. Given the large senior population, who she said wouldn’t be able to access the Clipper website, a customer service line had to be intelligible.

“If you don’t have the key, how are you going to get inside to know what you’re looking for?” she asked. “I feel this is very disrespectful. They should provide the language needs for the people.”

A new Clipper ad near the MTC offices and Oakland Chinatown
A new Clipper ad near the MTC offices and Oakland Chinatown. Photo: Matthew Roth

In addition to the language concern, which MTC has said it is addressing, advocates in San Francisco’s Chinatown were upset with the reduction of vendors in Chinatown selling Clipper cards versus Fast Passes.

“I think there is a distance between what they’re saying and what we’re seeing,” said Deland Chan, a planner at the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC). Chan noted the MTC and Muni had met with CCDC, but she was concerned they were not fully addressing the effect the transition will have on Muni customers in the neighborhood. After raising concerns with Muni in a previous Streetsblog post about the agency’s failure to reach out to the Chinese language media in the area, Chan said they had advertised in some papers, but the translation “has been really terrible.”

Chan was pleased to note the MTC planned to set up a booth at the August Moon festival in Chinatown this weekend to conduct demonstrations of Clipper fare machines and card readers, but CCDC’s request that Muni pilot all-door boarding on Stockton corridor buses as Clipper is rolled out has not been addressed. She said given the early concerns, the full transition to Clipper in the beginning of 2011 had the potential to be very problematic.

“I want to express appreciation that we’ve met,” she said, “but I want to see more action.”

Snyder of Muni Transit Riders Union echoed Chan’s concerns and further argued the MTC and operators were not thinking about the longer term benefits that could be realized by smart card systems. Snyder said if the region were serious about convenience to the customer, operators should figure out a better fare policy for riders who use multiple systems. Clipper could, he argued, lead to a regional fare system that did better to facilitate increased transit use.

He also said Clipper should copy London’s Oyster Card price capping policy, whereby operators charge only the equivalent of the cheapest ticket option over a given time period. For instance, if  a Muni customer decided not to buy a Fast Pass in October, but traveled more than expected and spent the equivalent value on single rides, Clipper would automatically default to the Fast Pass and stop charging for additional rides in that period.

Though none of the transit agencies interviewed for this story were actively considered such fare options, all agreed they could add convenience (because BART doesn’t have a monthly pass, Johnson said it was hypothetically interesting, but politically much more challenging). MTC said Clipper technology could facilitate such a policy, but each agency would have to adopt such a business model independently.

As to the criticism, Rentschler acknowledged the concerns and said characterized them as growing pains. He also acknowledged that issues like the proper translation were being addressed. “It’s a new thing for us to be running this big retail fare instrument,” he said, but he argued the customer would ultimately be pleased with the result. He also pointed to the sharp uptick in Clipper usage over the past few months and said it would continue.

“We’ve had a great deal of success on Clipper so far.”

Use of Clipper for transit boardings over the previous year. Source: MTC.
Use of Clipper for transit boardings over the previous year. Source: MTC.

How Much Does Clipper Really Cost?

Coming up with a comprehensive price tag for Clipper is difficult and some depends on the volume of users projected over the length of the contract. According to documents provided by MTC, the capital costs of Clipper (and Translink, before the re-branding) from inception in 2003 to the terminus of the current memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 2019 is expected to be $141 million. To date, the region has spent more than $100 million installing fare equipment with the participating operators. Most of the funding comes from regional toll money, coupled with some federal and state grants, though the MTC didn’t provide a more specific breakdown detailing the sources.

In addition to capital costs, the system will require a net annual outlay from participating transit operators, even after the savings associated with the elimination of printing paper passes, vendor payments, fraud, etc. MTC holds a design-build-operate-maintain contract with Cubic Transportation Systems, Inc. that lasts for 13 years, concluding in November 2019. According to MTC, under the contract, Cubic provides system operations and maintenance services and MTC oversees Cubic’s performance. The contract calls for two types of payments to Cubic, fixed and volume-based. The fixed fees cover basic operations of the system, such as ensuring that the customer service center is open for business no matter what the customer volume is, though payments to Cubic increase as a result of volume-based fees associated with customer use of the system.

MTC and the participating transit operators will divide the costs of operating and maintaining the Clipper system, but essentially, MTC pays all of the fixed monthly costs and operators pay the volume-based costs. Operators will divide the total volume-based costs according to formula: Each operator’s share is based on one third of the dollar value of revenue collected by the Clipper system for a particular operator and two thirds on the volume of transactions processed by the Clipper system for a particular operator.

Thus, for Muni, operating costs in 2010-2011 are expected to be just over $2.5 million, rising to nearly $6 million by 2018-2019 [pdf]. For BART, the costs it bears this year will be $1.8 million and nearly $4.8 million in 2018-2019. Adding all the operating costs together, participating transit agencies will pay more than $115 million over the term of the MOU.

Still, this total doesn’t include cost savings from switching over to the new fare media. While BART and AC Transit didn’t have analysis of the overall cost savings, Muni prepared a report for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in July that detailed costs and savings from the transition [pdf]. According to the report, over the course of the MOU, Muni will save over $17 million in expenditures due to Clipper efficiencies, while expending over $43 million. The net $26 million over ten years will be paid out of Muni’s operating budget.

  • I’ll admit, while I write about Clipper a lot on my blog, the problems this article mentions shows just how much more work they need to do to be successful.

    Just like many other transit agencies and regional transit agencies using electronic fare cards, they always follow a pattern where certain clientele or certain problems always pops up at certain periods of time. Clipper is now facing growing pains, just like other transit fare cards when they started.

    One good example is the ORCA card used in Seattle, there was a big learning curve for the public to get used to the major changes in place and the media attacked them from all sides. In the end, complaints and issues was resolved after the agency worked-out the issues and educated the public better.

  • Richard

    How about writing about the issue with Senior and Disability. they need to do more communication and out reach.

  • Richard: The registration process for seniors and the disabled is a big problem. Some senior centers issue out the paper passes and I worry if Clipper or the transit agency will go out there a few times to help them register; especially those senior services centers where other languages are frequently used.

    The disabled are a little bit different, they have to get an RTC card if they want passes. Muni and AC transit issues sticker passes and one must have an RTC card in possession to be able to use it. Once a person gets an RTC card, the Clipper technology is already installed in it. The registration process is quite different than for seniors, but for both groups, it must be done in-person.

  • I have encountered many, many problems with my Clipper Card. At West Oakland it couldn’t be read at any gate and I had to purchase a BART ticket; on the J Church it couldn’t be read and I had to pay cash fare; I couldn’t exit downtown Berkeley BART without assistance; I even had to try *five times* to add value to my Clipper Card at the Powell Street demonstration project–with a hapless and embarrassed Clipper ambassador assisting me the whole time! This machine was out of paper for receipts, that machine couldn’t read my credit card…and on and on.

  • I really like these cards. I do a lot of cross-region commuting and cross-agency travel and really find the card makes this easier. They are particularly good on GG transit ferries (slashing the cost in half from a regular cash fare).

    However the online system for adding products, changing values, etc. is just terrible. It works OK if you just want to have a cash auto-load, but as soon as you add, say, a 10-ride ticket on caltrain but then don’t want another one when the first runs out, you have to cancel everything on your card, there is a huge delay, etc. I’m struck by how bad online systems like this can still be…

    – J

  • Like Akit said, I hope the kink will smooth out soon. The sparse retail outlet is a big concern though. Why can’t they put value add machine in existing retail locations?

  • Good point Wai Yip. I’m not exactly sure if existing retail locations will want to sell Clipper media. With ordering now available by phone and online, it makes it easier (but I still discourage these methods), plus existing Clipper vendors like Walgreens makes it mostly convenient. It all depends if the vendor wants to transition from paper passes to Clipper, or if even Clipper wants to allow the corner liquor store to be allowed to sell e-passes.

    Some brighter news, more add value locations are being added. All Muni stations within the next month will have the capability to sell passes, and all BART stations are supposed to have their ticketing machines ready sometime early next year.

  • Plus I think a small discount will really grease the wheel. Fastrak has a discount on some bridges. How about a 10% discount in the transitory period in the first 6 months, and then a 3% discount permanently? I known there is a permanent discount in Hong Kong’s system.

  • Richard

    Smart cards are great in concept, but the execution here is poor in so many ways:

    1. Why does my Clipper card fail to work about 1/3 of the time when I “tag” it to a reader? Back when I was living in DC and using their equivalent SmarTrip card, I kept it in the middle of my wallet and simply swept the wallet over the reader to open a fare gate- it always worked. So I know it’s possible…

    2. In DC every single Metro station had machines to reload your SmarTrip balance. Why can’t BART do the same thing?

    3. Why doesn’t AirBART to the Oakland Airport accept Smartrip? I was forced to pay $5 cash for my $3 ride because that’s all I had. Perhaps they want the bus to be as inconvenient as possible to convince us we need a $500 million tram?

  • Richard, here’s your answers:

    1: Clipper cards are not meant to be swiped. Hold the card steady to the reader and only remove it upon hearing the confirmation tone or the gate opening (for BART and new Muni gates). It’s best to at least move your card as close to your wallet’s surface for a better reading. There are various vendors that produces the equipment for agencies around the world, some respond instantly to a quick swipe while others needs an extra fraction of a second.

    2: Like I mentioned earlier, that’s coming-up in Spring 2011.

    3: That’s because Smartrip is not accepted on any Bay Area transit agency.

  • Akit, I think for #3 he meant Clipper. I’d be interested in hearing a reason why AirBART doesn’t have Clipper either. Maybe since it is just several buses that would require the readers to have a separate charge amount? I wonder how much work needs to be done to set up a different “account” to charge to.

  • I concur with Justin that I value my Translink card (I first had a BART smart card, then Translink when it came out, and still have my green Translink card during Clipper era). I mostly use BART, but occasionally use MUNI or AC Transit–and not having to worry about having correct change, knowing how much the fare is, or having to worry about transfers.

    That being said, the online interface and having to purchase different pots of money for the different agencies is quite a pain to set up. It would be great to just load the card and any agency would deduct from my balance.

    On the issue of where the cards are sold: Remember that Translink cards will generally be sold just once to a customer, whereas Fast Passes were a monthly sale. So Fast Passes increase traffic in a business every month, and thus more businesses will want to sell them (assuming a FP customer buys other stuff when buying their FP–same theory as selling Lottery tickets). The transition to “smart cards” should, by its very nature, decrease the number of stores willing to sell them.

  • jim d

    Why does this article take 10 year off the inception date of Clipper payment system? This project started in 1993 and has an estimated cost of well over $300M.

  • Long story short, the 1993 project was to have a universal BART style ticketing system (mag stripe), but that subsequently failed. It was more like 2000 when they decided on RFID cards instead, and I joined the pilot program in 2002.

  • jim d

    Lee, I think many people will still have to visit a Clipper sales location periodically because they may not have a way to set up auto loading. In my mind, I have non-English speaking people who do not use Internet. They may not be comfortable with the idea of Clipper automatically withdrawing money from their bank accounts.

    Online purchasing and auto load is a bad way to buy anyway because there is a 72 hour delay before online adds can be used and during the first three days of each month, auto load Muni A passes, reportedly, do not work on BART.

  • Jim, you are right that there will be people who need to visit a store to add funds to their card. But this may be like the Lotto, the store will likely need some sort of secure internet connection to add the money to the correct account–another cost for the store and/or Clipper. I guess my point is that the nature of a “smart-card” is such that there will probably be fewer stores selling/recharging them.

    This is the down side of the card, especially if it means, as MUNI is planning on doing, getting rid of flash type passes: Those with high enough bank accounts will enjoy the convenience of auto-reload, but those whose finances are less stable will need to find a store from one of the shrinking locations.

    Part of the dark side of our growing online world: more separation of the haves and the have nots.

  • maaaty

    I have to say I really like the card, as I often use some variation of AC Transit, BART and MUNI on the same day.

    Through my employer I get the TransitChecks, a pretax deduction, to add to the cards.

    What stinks now is that the only place I can get the TransitChecks added to my card is at certain Walgreens. I hate that place with a passion. And only person — the manager — is empowered to add the checks to the card. So you can guess how long that whole ordeal takes.

  • paa

    Akit, it’s odd to respond to a question of “why doesn’t swiping/tagging work well” with “the cards aren’t meant to be swiped.”

    It’s absolutely mind-boggling that Translink/Clipper selected a card that: 1) is extremely finicky, 2) needs to be out of a wallet, and 3) even when used properly, is prone to numerous scanning errors. Other systems have cards that work far better and have been in place for a long time. Translink simply made the wrong decision and there’s no excuse for it (i understand that you don’t work there, and aren’t responsible; I just think the piss-poor implementation needs to be acknowledged head-on by everyone).

  • Why on earth would I pay for a MUNI ride using my translink card when I get a transfer that usually lasts for longer than two hours when I pay with cash?

  • “2) needs to be out of a wallet”

    I actually haven’t tried this on a MUNI bus but the Clipper readers for Caltrain don’t require me to get it out of my wallet.

  • SFResident: When you use your Clipper/Translink card, all transfers are automatically calculated, and you are only charged if it is required. When I take BART into the City and transfer to MUNI, I receive the discounted rate as if I had picked up one of the paper transfers in the BART station. MUNI-MUNI transfers will only charge you on the first bus you ride, not on the second bus (MUNI’s not charging for transfers these days, are they? If so, you’d get charged the incremental amount for the transfer on your second ride). I have found this system works fine.

    paa: Like John on Caltrain, I do not need to take my card out of my wallet for BART. I do keep it in my wallet closest to the outside, and place that side onto the sensor.

    I have found that SOMETIMES if I SLIDE my card onto the sensor, it doesn’t work (which is annoying), but if I PLACE it down onto the sensor, I have not had any problems. Yes, the cards should not be this finicky, and it would be interesting to look at the differences in engineering between Clipper and other transit agencies that have implemented “smart” cards with fewer problems.

  • I’ve been using my Clipper card for a few months with it buried deep in a pretty thick wallet and it has worked for me on BART, Muni and Caltrain. I’ve never taken it out of the wallet, though you do have to pause until you get the beep or the indication from the BART machines (which don’t beep). The pause is the key and if Clipper folks don’t get that message out, it will be problematic for them. When I’ve pulled the card away too quickly, especially on BART, it gives me a “See Agent” notice. One trick I’ve found with BART machines is, rather than go see the agent, wait a few seconds and tag it again.

  • Lee, SFResident is talking about the length in which the transfer is good for. Theoretically, paper and Clipper transfers on Muni are 90 min. However, we all know that paper transfers are usual used for a period well longer then 90 min. Let’s say you take a bus downtown, shop for 2 hrs, then head home. You do this with cash and receive a paper transfer – most people just use that paper transfer for their ride home as well. Now if you used Clipper on your earlier journey, then you have to use Clipper on your way home. Clipper will know that your transfer has expired and will charge you another fare.

    Paper – $2 trip
    Clipper – $4 trip

  • Peter

    Not only do paper transfers almost always last longer than the 90 minute transfer time Clipper gives, but Clipper doesn’t give out Late Night transfers, either.

    IMO there’s not much of a reason to use Clipper rather than paying cash

  • “Why does this article take 10 year off the inception date of Clipper payment system?”

    Because all MTC propaganda gets filtered by Minitrue to erase the past. When MTC makes a prediction that turns out to be wrong, bureaucrats go back and rewrite the past so that any prediction previously made is accurate.

    Just something to keep in mind when you read that the Bay Bridge retrofit is “on schedule”, or that the BART-SFO extension has “record” ridership, or that Clipper “reduces fraud”.

  • So just much dies Cubic profit anyway when such a vacuous piece of drivel is posted about “convenience” magically somehow or another justifying an undisclosed number of hundreds of millions of tax dollars while adding an undisclosed (but rounds to zero with good sub-percent accuracy!) number of new transit riders?

    God bless our brave transit/defense mafioisi.

  • dc

    Growing pains indeed.

    KRON4 found a “glitch” with the newly-installed fare gates:

  • spenta

    1. Akit is the man. He knows Clipper.
    2. I use Clipper on BART and MUNI. I never remove it from my wallet and it works fine. In a BART faregate, slap the wallet down on the sensor and leave it there until the gate opens (usually very quickly). I understand that the new blue Clipper cards are supposedly better than the old green Translink cards.
    3. I wish Clipper worked on AirBart too, but remember @Richard #8, you can buy a $3 BART ticket from any BART ticket machine (better yet, buy two and use one for the return) and use it to pay for AirBart. Admittedly not as convenient, but these machines do give change.

  • anonymouse

    Clipper is reducing, or at least not increasing, convenience for Caltrain riders. For one thing, it used to be possible to buy Caltrain tickets at any station, but with mandatory Clipper, it’ll be impossible to buy a monthly pass or ten ride at ANY station. Nor can you add value to your Clipper card at ANY station. Not one, not even if you count the Walgreens at 4th and Townsend as part of the station. Zone upgrades just don’t exist on Clipper (you have to buy paper ones) and if you foolishly assume that they do, you get charged full price. And apparently, you have to “activate” your monthly pass by tagging it in the relevant zones, so if I’m travelling outside the zones on my pass on the first day of the month? Well too bad, I get to pay full price despite the fact that I just paid over a hundred dollars for a pass.

  • Anon

    MUNI must have released that paper fast passes might have said money for the customers, so they took advantage of the smaller Clipper system in order to leech more money out of us. Clipper makes public transportation more complex in the stations- they charge additional fees for a regular transfer, and I even had to wait for my friend (who had to deal with rude service) for over 15 minutes just to get his one-time transfer. Hmm… I remember before when we just dropped 75 cents in a slot, got our ticket, then we were good to go. If it a’int broke, don’t fix it.

  • Mick

    And how in all of this did they get away with increasing the fare from $2 to $2.25 for a one-time trip?

    0r $55 to $60 for a monthly pass?

    Issuance fee, my ass. I hate muni.

  • kevin

    DO NOT participate in Clipper until the Fast Pass becomes obselete. I wanted to purchase a Fast Pass on Clipper at Powell Street. The Clipper agent at the machine was extremely rude and begrudgingly offering guidance to those of us that didn’t know what we were doing. His exact words were, ‘This isn’t even my job, go get the Muni Agent’ which I did. She told me she wasn’t budging and that he worked for Clipper, deal with him. Back to him I went, he told me I wouls NOT get a Fast Pass put on–watched me as I selected the 60 dollar option–end of transaction.
    Now, everytime I use Clipper it deducts 2 dollars per ride. While company representatives were very sympathetic, nothing was resolved.

  • Elizabeth Frantes

    The devil is always in the details, but seems to me that the overhead on this means higher fares are inevitable. When it costs so much to collect the fares, we might be better off just going to free fares for all. This is like the huge overhead on the ACA, the money would have been better spent on building hospitals and training providers, since insurance isn’t health care and a computer card isn’t a bus. So CUI BONO on this mess?

  • Elizabeth Frantes

    Amazing how inconvenient ‘convenience’ is for those of us who pay those who tell us how ‘convenient’ their new system is So how much does this cost to administer? That’s the real question.

  • Elizabeth Frantes

    LOL . . . and they keep telling us how CONVENIENT this system is!


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