Mandatory Switch from Muni Paper Passes to Clipper Card Begins Soon

Flickr photo: Agent Akit
Flickr photo: ##

As Bay Area transit agencies transition from paper passes to the Clipper smart card, operators like the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which runs Muni, are hoping their most loyal customers take the switch in stride. To this end, the SFMTA started selling its November Muni A Fast Passes and disability Regional Transit Connection (RTC) passes online this weekend, and the agency is working overtime with targeted outreach to familiarize the nearly 50,000 A Pass and RTC users how to load their re-usable Clipper cards before the November 1st deadline, when those paper passes will no longer be accepted for Muni service.

“We have more than 40,000 customers who use the “A” pass and more than 7,000 who use the RTC stickers, so it’s critical that they make this transition as early as possible,” SFMTA Executive Director Nat Ford said in a release.

Even before the mandatory switch for A Pass and RTC holders, Muni customers have increasingly adopted Clipper on their own accord. When MTC officially announced the transition from Translink to Clipper on June 16th, Muni realized only 20,000 average weekday boardings using the smart card. As of October 8th, Muni had 108,000 average weekday boardings, a five-fold increase and half of total Bay Area Clipper usage. Of the slightly more than 40,000 current A Pass users, roughly one third already use Clipper. RTC pass holders will automatically be given Clipper-compatible cards when they renew, either online or in person at vendors or SFMTA customer service centers.

The SFMTA began deploying customer service ambassadors in August along with the Clipper street teams that have been providing information and customer service since the end of 2008 in Muni Metro stations. According to the SFMTA, since December 2008, the Muni Clipper street teams have distributed more than 70,000 adult cards and accepted more than 20,000 seniors and youth applications [sample Clipper outreach schedule pdf here for this week]. The SFMTA also noted it has undertaken an aggressive internal campaign to inform SFMTA employees, especially frontline Muni personnel, of the Clipper transition and how to assist customers. This campaign includes an orientation and multiple update videos as well as in-person training, of note after Muni operators on cable cars had reportedly been unable to work hand-held Clipper card readers.

Clipper use across the Bay Area is on a steady rise, but because Muni carries so many passengers, the transition from older fare media to the reusable card will be the bellwether for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which administers Clipper. MTC had come under fire for its early outreach in Chinese and concerns about staffing the Clipper customer service center with Cantonese speakers, but MTC spokesperson John Goodwin said they were working to resolve the concerns.

Goodwin pointed to the selection of the Chinese name for Clipper “Lu Lu Tong,” which essentially connotes “the go everywhere card” in translation, as an indication of MTC’s progress. Goodwin explained the name selection process, which involved a focus group of nearly 100 people across the Bay Area and in China, where they narrowed down approximately two dozen names to three finalists. BART Board President James Fang made the final decision, according to Goodwin, given his central role spearheading the translation process.

Overall, Goodwin said the MTC was pleased with the Clipper transition, noting across all agencies they are seeing an average increase of 10 percent each week. Acknowledging there have been “growing pains,” Goodwin called Clipper “a great success.”

Asked if he’s concerned with the looming deadlines at Muni and AC Transit for complete transition from paper passes (AC Transit 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), Goodwin said, “I can’t characterize my feelings as being worried about it, but I recognize at the same time that a lot of people are resistant to change and accept it grudgingly,” he said.

Ultimately, Goodwin added, “they’ll be glad they did.”

Bay Area Clipper Card Stats

Average weekday Clipper boardings through October 8th:

  • 215,124 – Total
  • 2,124 – Caltrain
  • 4,400 – Golden Gate Ferries
  • 8,150 – Golden Gate Buses
  • 32,550 – AC Transit
  • 59,900 – BART
  • 108,000 – Muni

Monthly “A” Fast Pass customers can get their Clipper cards from any Clipper retailer, by visiting or by calling 877.878.8883. Please tell us about you experience with Clipper in the comments.

  • “Of the slightly more than 40,000 current A Pass users, roughly one third already use Clipper.”

    So 2/3 need to switch over this month. Best of luck, Nat. Nothing like waiting until the last minute.

  • Sean H

    Clipper works best for a zone based fare system. Im surprised that GGT has so little clipper boardings. Nothing slows boarding more than a rider explaining where he/she is going to the driver, and the driver having to reference a fare chart. I cant think of a regional bus that has a similar system in the rest of the Bay Area. Zone based fares make sense because they reflect the actual cost of the trip (fuel, driver salary for extra time, etc).

    MUNI still hasn’t addressed the late night special discount on Clipper, I got charged twice last time I tried to use this late at night.

  • Mick


    A big part of the problem seems to stem from mistrust. You can just look at a muni fastpass or transfer and see what it is, what it is not, and whether you are valid on a bus or train.

    But a clipper card conveys no information to the casual observor about it’s status or validity. If it had “gone wrong” somehow and does not hold the value that you think it holds, then some over-officious fare inspector is going to determine that it is no good and then you are fighting a citation with nothing visual evidence to support your case.

    I carry with me the receipt of the purchase of a fastpass as supporting evidence but of course that could have been bought by or for anyone.

    Finally, the Oyster card in London, which this is based on, gives substantial discounts on the regular fare to incentivize use. Why were muni too cheap to do this here? Make it a buck a ride and takeup would be 99% by now.

  • We need it on Baylink.

  • Alex

    @Sean I’d be interested in seeing what proportion of GGT riders use TransClipper. GGT pushes TransClipper pretty heavily. They’ve got a 10% discount for using your card, have discontinued paper passes/tickets, and have these new fareboxes that make paying with cash pretty tedious. The big thing is, of course, that GGT has a much smaller ridership than pretty much every other Bay Area agency (incl. MUNI).

    My experience was that a lot of people will use TransClipper cards at 1st and Mission, but as you work your way towards Marin the usage went down. It was maybe 50% within Marin. The zone based fares make sense for GGT, but not for something as dense as MUNI (altho perhaps it’s worth raising the metro fares to encourage people to take the cheaper to run buses).

  • When I take GGT 72 to Santa Rosa and back, Clipper usage is 99%.

    It’s flabbergasting that MUNI could do a 100 person focus group to come up with a name, but Caltrain did not do any focus work/outreach on how their customers use their service to make sure that Clipper maps onto it. There are so many basic screwups in the implementation it’s embarrassing.

  • @Alex,
    I’m still waiting on more comprehensive stats from MTC, but Goodwin told me GGT ferry Clipper penetration is 50 percent currently.

    @John Murphy
    The 100 person focus group was done by MTC.

  • @Matthew – noted, my point was primarily “Why didn’t Caltrain do some sort of user analysis”.

  • patrick


    “altho perhaps it’s worth raising the metro fares to encourage people to take the cheaper to run buses”

    I could be wrong, but I believe BART is cheaper to operate than the competing buses in SF. I’ve been told that BART is actually profitable in the portions that run through SF.

  • Converting close to 50K to Clipper is going to be a huge challenge for both MTC and Muni. I’m praying they won’t screw this up and those months and years of fixing the bugs has gotten to the point where it will go smoothly.

    On a side note, I love using my Clipper card on Golden Gate Ferry. I only ride it casually on some weekends, and the savings is substantial versus paying the cash price at the booth.

  • Akit, the question is if it is possible though. I just don’t see it happening and without paper cards available, what are people going to do? Just not ride? Fare-evade? I really doubt most will just switch to cash fares every time they ride.

  • Alex

    @Akit: It’s, last I checked, 10% across the board… which is really a shame because the ferry sucks all of the money out of Golden Gate Transit.

    @Patrick: The MTA pays BART a pittance, the cost of a metro rider is 2.5X+ what the MTA pays BART ($3 vs $.90 give or take). Dunno what BART’s cost is, but there are loads of stats on the BART web site. From the MTA’s web site LRV service costs about $3 per rider and diesel bus about $2. The LRV hourly cost of operation is significantly higher as well. Apparently there is yet another metro (DAMN ALL THAT AUTOMOBILE TRAFFIC IN THE SUBWAY…. not) meltdown in progress.

    @Matt: GGT lists about 24,000 average weekday riders for FY09. So that’s about a 25% usage rate unless the ridership dropped dramatically in the past few months.

    @John: Yes, most commuters seem to have TransClipper cards. Most local riders do not. Granted GGT local service is a clusterfuck, but they could probably stand to do some more outreach to the Canal community (where I expect most of their riders come from as the Canal route(s) use the artics almost exclusively).

  • mikesonn: Hopefully, people got the message from reading the ads in the bus telling them to make the switch. I’m betting a good portion are going to be last minute.

    Worst fear would be the SF vendors (mostly Walgreens) will run out of the plastic cards as the days get closer to the new month. I’ve been warning people on my blog to get their card now rather than later.

    One of my other fears is the big backlash when the first of the new month comes by. There will be tons of people on Twitter and the mass media complaining about existing policies on Clipper that has been in existence for a long time, such as the 72 hour online and phone add value policy.

  • What’s amazing is the perverse incentive Muni has created with the A/M passes. When you use an A fastpass to take your trip on BART, Muni is paying BART about 1/3rd of what Muni would have spent to provide the trip itself on an LRV, or about 1/2 of what it would spent to provide the trip on one of its buses. In other words, Muni is saving $1-2 dollars every time. If Muni wanted to optimize their operations, they would have a campaign to get everyone to use BART for all their trips along the Market and Mission Corridors, resulting in huge savings from merely compensating BART at a very low rate for providing all these trips rather than having to run more and longer very expensive LRVs.

    The only time it might make sense for Muni to discourage use of BART for these trips is during off-peak hours when Muni is running LRVs with excess passenger capacity just to offer reasonable frequency, and the marginal cost of carrying additional passengers is close to $0. But since Muni runs at absolute crush capacity and provides the vast majority of its daily trips during commute hours, indicating that they have an extremely high marginal cost per additional passenger for most trips, I don’t find this to be a persuasive argument (certainly not to the point where it would justify a confusing structure where BART would be free part of the day and not at other times).

    So the fact that Muni has done the opposite and put in a fee to discourage use of BART informs you that what Muni wants to do is not run a transit system that provides optimal service for customers, but one that provides as much benefit as possible to it’s directors, managers and employees and tries to camouflage fare hikes as much as possible. Muni would prefer to provide the trip itself when someone else would do it for 1/3rd the price in order to keep the money within its own budget.

  • Sean H

    GGT #s for September 2010:

    All GGBHTD bus ridership(including commute,basic,local): 587,559
    Clipper Card boardings: 165,905
    % penetration: 28.2%

    Marin Transit also has local passes, but only 2.1% of psgrs pay with paper passes. This data shows that most GGT customers pay with cash. This does not account for the Marin youth pass, which is still an old fashioned sticker on a student ID (~2300 Marin County kids had one in FY 0910).

  • Sean H

    @Alex, Route 72 Clipper penetration is 85%, and Route 35 (Canal) is only 2%.

  • Alex

    @Sean That is abhorrent (re 72 vs 35) because that’s essentially a 10% surcharge on low-income residents. Sigh.

    @Steve You took the words right out of my mouth… that is precisely why I want to see Daly City on the BART FastPass. Move the SFSU student demand to BART and the MTA could ideally save enough cash to avoid starving the OMI of what little M service it provides.

  • I’m really concern about a backslash as the cut off day loom close. The retail network is sparse. There are Walgreens, but they are hardly ubiquitous. Besides, my guess is Clipper card activities is probably less than 2% of Walgreens’ total transactions. They are really not optimized to process this. I need to get in line behind other people who are buying sundry items. When I cash in my communter’s check, the cashier immediately call the manager out to handle the hot potato. It only takes 5 minute to get it processed and I’m sorry for holding up the cash register for so long. In my opinion, Walgreens is a better than nothing retail option. And for majority of people, they are the only option.

    The situation in Caltrain is even more ridiculous. Their vending machines don’t work with Clipper card at all?? At the same time they are closing the last 2 staffed ticket counters. Where can I add value?? Walgreens? Is that too much to ask to upgrade their vending machine to handle Clipper card if it is going to be the primary payment method?

    I’ve little hope for the transit agency to be able to improve this in the short run. Short of that, a small discount will be the easiest thing to grease the wheels. How about a 5% discount in the first 6 months and then 2% in the future? Clipper card is going to save them money in the long run, it is for their best interest to have the transition go smoothly.

  • “Clipper card is going to save them money in the long run, it is for their best interest to have the transition go smoothly.”

    Show me where it says Clipper saves transit operators money in the long run. So far, the program fails every cost/benefit test.

  • Clipper is great – if you are in the system. It definitely magnifies some “have/have not” of life in America.

    If you have a credit card and can just link it to Clipper, it’s simple. You get your card, and you never have to hassle with payment. And on GGTC, BART, you are easily in the discounted fare part of the system. But if you are carrying a balance on your cards, you are paying interest on it.

    In my case, my “credit card” is a WageWorks credit card, through my employer, so not only am I getting a discount from GGT/Caltrain/BART, I am paying for ALL my transit with pre-tax dollars, and I never even think about paying. The “schlubs” have commuter checks and have to go to Walgreens occasionally. Still a great deal over those with no access at all.

    The 72x is laptop central. Sleep from Santa Rosa to San Rafael, then boot up your laptop and check your email over the wifi. Total after tax cost if you have pre-tax commuter benefits is laughably small, barely more than just a bridge toll. But this is as it should be. We need to figure out how to pull up other transit, not deride the posh 72x ferrying people from their vineyard houses to Financial District jobs. OK, a lot of them are secretaries but it’s still up there with Caltrain in terms of discretionary ridership.

  • EL

    @ Alex – Of course it costs more for Muni LRV’s versus BART trains. The Muni LRV is, at most, 150-feet long. BART’s maximum length is 710-feet and the luxury of an exclusive right-of-way with minimal stops. Do the math on manpower, exposure to collisions, and wear and tear.

    @ SteveS – Regarding the extra Muni fee to ride BART, it sounds like an element of demand responsive pricing for parking. Ooops, I meant transit.

  • Alex

    @John It’s not that I’m criticizing the posh express service (altho), it’s more that the TransClipper discount creates some pretty hefty inequalities. That said, it’s doubtful that they’d be making 10% (the TransClipper discount) a month in interest on their checking account balance (presuming, of course, that they have one in the first place). Of course they could put money on the card weekly, or every few days, no?

    Money added at the add fare machines does not have the 72 hour delay, no?

    @EL Sure, but I’ve not actually seen the numbers from BART. The numbers from the MTA, tho, indicate that the per hour cost of the LRVs is significantly higher than that of the diesel and electric coaches… and the LRVs have a benefit of a large swatch of exclusive RoWs. In any case, the MTA should encourage the use of the less expensive (to the MTA) service, not of the more expensive, more trouble prone LRV service.

  • thielges

    Caltrain’s latest move of closing their staffed ticket counters made life a little harder for those who need to use Clipper and/or cannot use the vending machines. I’ve used transit systems where you’re required to buy tickets from privately owned newsstand/tobacconist outlets. That works OK, mainly because you can find one close by or perhaps even in the rail station. The Walgreens retail outlets are no where near Caltrain stations. Plus the Walgreens staff is often overworked and under trained.

    The funny thing is that when I discovered that the downtown San Jose Caltrain ticket counter was closed, there were two Amtrak ticket agents on duty to sympathize with my situation and explain who to contact. Surely these Amtrak agents could also sell Caltrain tickets and/or recharge Clipper.

    It is ironic that the second busiest rail station on the west coast cannot sell tickets to the most frequently served rail line.

  • The unfortunate news is… it was planned for Clipper to upgrade the Caltrain ticketing machines, but I don’t know between Caltrain and MTC who decided not to do so.

    So now the MTC has to install their add value machines at each station. Many of them will come from the ones recently removed from the Muni metro stations. Yep, the ones that uses dial-up for debit and credit card transactions.


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