SFMTA Board Considers New Muni Fare Discounts

Muni fares will automatically increase with inflation as part of the SFMTA’s next fiscal year budget, but the agency’s board is exploring ways to fine-tune its fare adjustments to keep the system accessible to low-income riders [PDF]. The board is also considering higher fares for cash-paying riders in an effort to speed up boarding.

Photo: punkrawker4783/Flickr

The latter measure could come in the form of delayed fare hikes for Clipper card payments, to create an incentive for riders to use the more efficient medium. About 55 percent of Muni riders still pay with cash, according to the SFMTA. Board members said yesterday that they favored the idea as a way to reduce delays caused by cash handling.

“Folks, if you’re not on Clipper card yet, you’ve gotta get with the program,” said board member Joél Ramos, who bemoaned “the delay of dwelling time that it takes to get everyone on board.”

By default, inflation indexing would increase general single-ride Muni fares from $2 to $2.25 in July, but the Clipper incentive option would apply the 25-cent increase to cash fares only. Discounted cash fares for youth, seniors, and disabled riders would go up from $0.75 to $1.00. Adult monthly passes which include intra-city BART rides are also set to go up from $76 to $78, then $81 in fiscal year 2016.

Free Muni for low-income youth, a program originally implemented as a two-year pilot, is now set to be funded for at least two more years, thanks to a $6.8 million grant from Google. The SFMTA is also considering expanding the program to include 18-year-old students (currently the cutoff age is 17), as well as free Muni programs for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. Several dozen speakers urged the SFMTA board yesterday to adopt those programs.

The push has spurred discussion at the agency about tailoring Muni fare discounts based on personal income, rather than age or physical ability. Traditionally, monthly passes for youth, seniors, and people with disabilities have been discounted at 33 percent of the regular fare. The SFMTA proposed increasing that to 50 percent, using the revenue to help fund new free pass programs for low-income riders. Board members said they liked the idea, though it wouldn’t fully underwrite the expanded free pass programs, and said finding the rest of the funding for those programs would be a major challenge.

Of the other targeted fare increases put on the table, the greatest opposition has arisen to hikes on the F-Line to as much as $6. SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said that proposal is based on the higher costs of running historic streetcars compared to regular Muni vehicles (similar to the costs of cable cars).

Supervisors David Chiu and Scott Wiener sent a joint letter to the SFMTA today opposing fare hikes on the F, saying that it “disregards the critical role the F plays in San Francisco’s transit system for everyday Muni riders,” and that it “appears to assume that F-line riders are largely tourists.”

The SFMTA has also proposed increasing fares for multi-day visitor passports and Muni’s express lines, on the basis that they provide a “greater benefit” to their riders. Board members generally said they didn’t favor an express line hike.

Board members didn’t discuss positions on the mayor’s proposal to reverse Sunday parking meters, though Vice Chair Cheryl Brinkman requested data on parking citation rates for Sundays last year.

The SFMTA’s operating budget has an expected surplus of $22.2 million for FY 2015 and a $15 million surplus for FY 2016. Reiskin said that although using the money to increase Muni service is an option, the agency still has a dire need to fill its “structural deficit” first, adding staff for vehicle and infrastructure maintenance, Muni operators, and other departments to keep the system working efficiently.

“We need to staff up in order to do these things just to deliver the service plan we have today,” he said.

  • UnderTheDome

    The operating surplus will all go to salary & benefits increases to existing workers; have no doubt.

  • shamelessly

    “SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said that proposal is based on the higher costs of running historic streetcars compared to regular Muni vehicles (similar to the costs of cable cars).”
    Wasn’t the original motivation behind the vintage fleet to save upfront $ on capital costs? If they’re really that much more expensive to operate, then how about we buy some modern streetcars to run on the F line instead?

  • 25 cent fare hike or save a quarter by paying with Clipper. That depends on the paper transfer. Clipper cards issue a very strict 90 minute transfer while many Muni operators cut a transfer valid for much longer; on most weekends, I usually get a transfer good for 3+ hours, even one I got for 5 hours. Also, Muni operators will issue late night paper transfers, but Clipper card paying passengers get stuck with the 90 minute transfer.

    As for the $6 fare for the F-Market, that’s not a good idea. What happens if the Muni metro goes down? Muni can’t provide substitute buses like magic, so people ride the F-Market to get between Castro and Embarcadero.

  • SFGuy

    Its not just a matter of getting with the Clipper Card program. There are times I cannot afford to purchase a monthly Muni pass and can only scrape up the couple bucks I need to travel on a given day. Someone who lives paycheck to paycheck cannot always keep cash on a Clipper card.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Every time anyone boards a Muni vehicle, Muni loses money. The F-line is popular, therefore it is expensive.

  • jonobate

    Muni should be more aggressive in setting price differentials between Clipper and cash fares. In London, for example, a zone 1 tube fare is £4.70 cash or £2.20 with an Oyster card (equivalent to Clipper card). The price differential is so huge that even with the £5 deposit, getting an Oyster card will pay for itself in a day.

    If Muni increased their cash fare to $2.50 while leaving the Clipper fare at $2 the impact to budget would be the same as increasing both to $2.25, with the benefit of encouraging use of Clipper to speed vehicle boarding.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Raising the cash fare to a non-integral number of dollars is going to cost Muni and the public at large vast sums in dwell time. Trust me, I wait for people to dig dimes out of their pockets on AC Transit every day.

  • voltairesmistress

    Interesting point. Would a $3 cash/$2 clipper fare difference speed Clipper adoption and almost eliminate delays with boarding?

  • coolbabybookworm

    One problem with clipper cards (and bike share) is that something like 25% of SF doesn’t have a credit card, making maintaining a clipper account difficult if you don’t live near a train station with clipper loading machines.

  • jonobate

    Debit cards work just as well as credit cards for Clipper payments. Does 25% of SF not have a debit card? I would find that hard to believe.

    I agree that you should be able to top-up more places, though. Comparing to London again, every corner store over there will top up your Oyster card, and the credit is available instantly.

  • You can link autoload on Clipper directly to a bank account. You can also add value to a Clipper Card at “participating retailers” which, according to the map at the Clipper Card website, includes most Walgreens and Whole Foods.

  • Washington DC charges an extra $1 per trip for not using a Clipper-type card. The New York MTA charges a $1 per card for every time you get even a paper metrocard. Only way to avoid this is to have refillable Metro Card (similar to Clipper Card.) I agree the fare differential between Clipper and cash fares should be increased. Probably what makes sense is a clipper card fare of $2.25 and a cash fare of $3 (to make it an even number). Leave cash fares for non-low income senior and youth at $1.

    Just as note, we have an English foreign exchange student living with us for a while. On first arriving here, he didn’t even leave SFO without getting a Clipper Card and was surprised to hear there wasn’t a significant discount for using one on BART or Muni.

  • coolbabybookworm

    I’m not sure, but the 25% is probably just credit (still an issue for bikeshare). Lots of people stay all cash though so the debit card and bank account payment options do not help and it can be a challenge for many people to deal with mostly electronic systems like clipper. Does anyone know if the proposed BRT routes will have ticket/clipper machines? I’m not saying that it’s a deal breaker, but SFTMA will need to do outreach and work with poor and immigrant communities to find solutions that do not penalize people who are unbanked.

    That said, and though I’m against fare raising in general, I think a discount for using clipper would be a good thing, especially since Clipper allows MUNI to charge into cents rather than dollars since the payment is electronic, like for the proposed GG Bridge tolls.

  • no_thanks

    Be aware that a Clipper card electronically maintains a record of all the trips you take as you use it—yet another example of how people’s reliance on the “convenience” of technology enables Big Brother to encroach upon our privacy. I’ll pay the extra quarter.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    It’s off-vehicle pre-payment and multi-ride tickets (hourly, daily, weekly, 30-days, etc) and all-door boarding and level boarding with wide doorways that work.

    Throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at rent-seeking defense contractor Cubic for “smart” card technology and giving it millions of dollars of cash float is not the only means to that end, as hard as it seems to be for the English-speaking world to understand.

    Making Fast Passes attractively priced (they are no longer so); making daily and multi-day tickets attractive and widely available (and “multi-day” should include “30 day”; doing away with calendar month stupidity); providing ticket vending machines at the busiest transit stops; decreasing Muni operating costs by transit priority; … all these are ways of addressing the problem, while “forcing more transactions to be subject to skimming by Cubic” is, on the most charitable interpretation, an example of “something-must-be-done / this-is-something / therefore-this-must-be-done” thinking, and less charitably, a fine example of “vendor capture”.

  • A lot of welcome ideas to make Muni fares more sensible. However, they did not appear to address the outrageous 7 days unlimited free cable car rides that go with the San Francisco CityPass (that, for $86, also includes entrance to a museum, an aquarium, Cal Academy of Sciences, a cruise and 7 days unlimited rides on all the rest of Muni. Geez! I bet Muni only gets $7 or $8 dollars out of that $86.) This is why the line for cable cars is always ridiculously long, scaring away cash-paying customers and all locals. This is why we, as a city, have to heavily subsidize our cable cars, taking money from the rest of Muni, even though theoretically the ride costs $6 which is quite close to the cost of operation. The City Pass should include one (or two, at most) free cable car rides. (It also should include one or two, at most, free F-line rides.) Then our cable cars, even if a Disneyland ride, would at least be a self-funding Disneyland ride.

    The F line is a tourist attraction almost as popular as cable cars. Its charm is the old-fashioned cars, so replacing them with modern ones wouldn’t work, plus the modern ones can have worse fare-box recovery than the F-line, depending on the route. (The J-Church and M Oceanside in particular, according to Muni’s own revenue per mile data.) The F-line is painfully slow, so I can’t see most regular Muni riders depending on it, but it does serve as a back up during Muni meltdowns. One obvious way for it to work both as a tourist attraction and as a Muni meltdown back up is to make riding it included for free with a monthly Muni pass, to charge clipper card single fares $3, and charge cash fares $5.

    I am happy to see free Muni being offered based on income rather than solely age or disability. Muni’s number one priority should be increasing their reliability via maintenance and proper staffing, number two should be implementing TEP recommendations, number three adding service on Friday and Saturday evenings until 1 am to keep people out of their cars, (which would reduce the amount of drinking and driving.)

  • Michael Smith

    While I don’t believe the number is 25%, a large portion of transit riders are indeed “unbanked”. This means no credit card, no debit card, no bank account, nothing. Just because you and I might not have an issue with getting a Clipper card there are many out there who currently cannot. This is often because they are poor. Charging poor people significantly more is quite problematic.

  • Michael Smith

    So the mayor’s answer to San Francisco not being affordable is to make parking on Sunday free while raising the fares for Muni riders???

  • coolbabybookworm

    I totally agree. The 25% is just credit cards I think, and I could be wrong, but it comes up with Bike Share expansion issues. With a clipper card you can buy one in person and add money with cash at the downtown stations (or potentially walgreens according the the website cited by Karen) and still get the potential discount. That said, I still agree that this is the kind of thing that often ends up penalizing the poor and/or undocumented.

  • So I was curious what the percent of the “unbanked” are in San Francisco. Turns out there’s a whole program for the “unbanked” that is run by San Francisco’s Office for Financial Empowerment. (Who knew?)

    The stats are: in 2005, 50,000 out of 324,000 households in San Francisco were “unbanked.” (15.4%) So SF started this program in conjunction with 14 banks and credit unions to get these folks signed up with checking accounts. They’ve gotten 10,000 households signed up for bank accounts per year since the program began in 2006. (This would imply they’ve gotten 80,000 households, signed up, more than the original number of unbanked.) I am sure there are still recent arrivals/hardcore cases “unbanked” in this city, but I would guess the percent at this point is below 5%.


    Evidently this program is a model for others across the nation.

  • coolbabybookworm

    Thanks for the research! It turns out SF actually can get stuff done… Now let’s apply that ability to some of the other challenges in the city.

  • murphstahoe

    “Calendar Month Stupidty”

    Hmm. I need to get the bus. Here it comes. When did I buy this pass on my card? 29 days ago? 31 days? If only there were a technology over a thousand years old that I could use to know when to get a new pass

  • murphstahoe

    They get charged anyway. Lack of adoption of the technology costs MUNI money and is reflected in fares and service

  • Mario Tanev

    You need a transit pass accumulator that accumulates up to the next interval, and this way you wouldn’t need to know when you need to renew. This way users are never overcharged. This is deployed in London and I hear that AC Transit is interested in it, but Clipper currently doesn’t support it and Muni seems to have no interest.

  • jonobate

    All of your suggested solutions make sense (though I’ve no idea what you have against calendar months), and none of them are in conflict with what I’m proposing.

    The money’s already been spent on Clipper implementation. Now the system is in place, the implementation cost of deviating the Clipper fare from the cash fare negligible. Take a look at the draft budget; there is no cost associated with making this change. Some of the other fare changes (e.g. $6 F-line fare) have an implementation cost, but not this one.

    There’s a valid argument that better regional fare coordination would have been cheaper and more effective than Clipper implementation, but that’s not a reason to not leverage the system now that it’s in place – unless your motivation is resentment and spite.

  • murphstahoe

    I dunno. Do you think tourists are taking the cable cars back and forth and back and forth all day long, dealing with the lines on their time limited vacation to SF?

    There is great reason to use low entrance fees for tourists to places like the Academy of Sciences. Locals might go there and see the sharks. A tourist will go and also eat in the expensive cafeteria and buy an overpriced t-shirt and stuffed turtle. They will also enjoy themselves so much they tell their friends to come and spend a thousand dollars on hotel rooms as well.

    Disney doesn’t make money on the rides, they make money selling $8 hot dogs, $4 cokes, $30 Talking Woody, and $400/night condos. So does SF. But without the rides, that income stream dries up.

  • coolbabybookworm

    The comparison of SF to Disneyland is a little too apt.

  • Yes, I think tourists who buy these passes are taking more than two cable car rides over 7 days. No, I don’t think any fewer tourists will come to San Francisco if these passes only include two free cable car rides. Now getting rid of cable cars altogether would be very bad for San Francisco. But these passes are such a good deal, reducing the number of free cable car rides to two would not reduce the number of passes sold by even 1%.

    I am not against a pass giving people discounted admissions to various places. (It’s up to the museums/aquariums/cruises to decide if what they get from it is worthwhile.) I am not against a pass including unlimited, non-cable car Muni because I would much rather have tourists take Muni than drive in San Francisco. (In fact, I would be happy if the pass included a free BART trip from the airport to downtown so that people had an incentive not to rent a car.) But in the face of inadequate money to provide the robust, reliable, pleasant and frequent public transit necessary to combat climate change and make San Francisco resilient in the face of the coming energy crisis, I am against scarce Muni funding going to wildly subsidize cable car rides for tourists when tourists are not all that unhappy to pay for the rides themselves.

  • Literatrix

    To be fair, you don’t have to have a monthly pass to have a Clipper card. You can load amounts on it for a regular balance usable on Muni or BART.

  • Kinda true, kinda false. For Muni buses, your records only identify the time and date of boarding, but does not link it to GPS data or what line you ride. The exception is the records will show if you rode the 14L, 28, and 28L to enforce the free ride rule for Daly City BART passengers.

    Muni metro stations are a little different, your records will show the date, time, and what station you entered, they do not know what route or direction you took.

  • gneiss

    There is no requirement to purchase a clipper card tied to your identity. If you buy one at a MUNI metro station with cash and only load it with cash, then you can’t be tracked to your identity, as the only tracking is to the identity of the card, which you can easily loose or toss.

  • murphstahoe

    Well, we disagree, and barring stats from MUNI we’ll just have to agree to disagree. My experience having hosted hundreds of said tourists is that once was pretty much enough. Certainly if riding the cable car is being done simply to ride the cable car – it might be different if said tourist was staying in the wharf and that was the most efficient mass transit option out of the wharf.

    As a counterpoint, most of my guests were staying in Noe Valley with us, it would have been a pain to get to the cable cars more than the requisite one trip, and their host (me) could not care less about the cable cars and just wanted to take them out for a nice dinner, preferably not in Chinatown or Fisherman’s Wharf.


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