Guest Editorial: Make Muni Faster with Clipper Discount

Clipper discounts can speed up the whole system. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Clipper discounts can speed up the whole system. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Muni will carry 700,000 trips today, making it the most heavily traveled transit system in the Bay Area. But as you read this, many buses and trains are at a standstill. They’re stopped as people fumble with dollar bills and coins, needlessly creating delays that our transit system can’t afford.

In San Francisco, it’s not unusual to wait 30 minutes for a bus or train. Muni averages just eight miles per hour and its vehicles show up late half the time. Our city spends $1 billion a year on Muni; for that we get America’s slowest and least reliable transit system.

There are many ideas to accelerate Muni but one stands out as cheap and easy: offer discounts for paying fares electronically.

Clipper Cards have been around for years and Muni riders can even pay fares with a new smartphone app. But despite the convenience, about half of passengers still pay with cash—and with each transaction a surprisingly complicated ritual unfolds. First insert a dollar into the fare box, then one more, and then there’s the clumsy search for change. Finally, the driver tears off a transfer and hands it to the passenger.

Allowing a few seconds for this antiquated routine may not sound like a big deal. But on a single bus, hundreds of small inefficiencies can slow the vehicle by several minutes. Across Muni’s 1,000 vehicles and 82 routes, millions of little delays accumulate. That translates into many hours.

The unnecessary dawdling that happens when people pay with cash has real consequences, especially if you ride Muni to work. For hourly workers, Muni’s delays often mean docked paychecks and stressful warnings about losing their jobs. For salaried workers, Muni is a tired but widely accepted excuse for being late to work. And the costs are real.

In 2013, Muni’s delays cost workers $50 million in lost productivity. In April of that year, Muni riders were delayed a cumulative 19 years and eight months.

Speeding up Muni is a complex puzzle. And an important piece of it is to encourage people to skip the line at the fare box and board with a swift tap of a Clipper Card. That’s why I support SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin’s call for a 25 cent discount when paying with a Clipper Card.

Some have argued that this will burden the poor. But our city’s most vulnerable Muni riders already have access to discounted and free passes. Other cities incentivize electronic boarding. New York offers an 11 percent bonus. In Boston there’s a 50 cent incentive–twice what’s proposed here. In the East Bay, there’s an incentive on AC Transit. And London’s buses are already cashless.

Getting a Clipper Card is a simple, one-time task. And like our checkout bag ordinance, we know a small incentive can inspire changes that have a big impact.

It’s time to incentivize electronic boarding in San Francisco. If you support this common-sense upgrade to our transit system, please contact Mayor Ed Lee, your city supervisor, and members of the SFMTA board.

Andy Bosselman is an entrepreneur and a volunteer with the San Francisco Transit Riders, a grassroots nonprofit that advocates for fast, reliable Muni service. A version of this editorial appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

  • Henry

    I hope not. A contract was approved to explore replacing fareboxes, but I don’t think they found a vendor. As much as I’d hate to say it (partly because I don’t work for MTA), I think GFI (which is the only farebox manufacturer that has fareboxes with AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit, SamTrans, VTA, LA Metro, San Diego MTS, Omnitrans, Lane Transit District, TriMet, etc) might get the contract.

  • Rick Laubscher

    Wow, a guarantee from the sidelines. Work at making things better and you might be surprised.

  • AndreL

    But then the pass would have to be charged at a higher price, since part of the economics of long-term passes for any agency is to rely, partially, on pre-payment by some users who never make it good on their own preset expections of use.

    HAppens with gym plans as well.

  • murphstahoe

    Time is money.

  • Andy Chow

    Given that transit is not a for profit industry and has social goals, I don’t think transit agencies need to pre-sell a product that customers may overtime not to consume all they’ve purchased. I rather see new riders to use transit on a long term basis because they are not somehow excluded in a discount scheme because they didn’t plan, or that their financial circumstance is not compatible with the transit agencies. I want all riders to automatically get the best discount available without having to plan on it, or even think about it.

  • Roan Kattouw

    While smart cards don’t prevent you from boarding without paying, they make paying much easier. People are more likely to do things if they’re made convenient. Smart cards don’t reduce deliberate fare evasion, but they do reduce complacent fare evasion: people who don’t pay out of laziness or inconvenience (don’t have enough cash, don’t have exact change, etc). Tagging a Clipper card is a mindless habit, paying $2.25 in cash while people are standing in line behind you is a hassle.

  • RichLL

    But the whole point is that the 90 minute window is only tolerated by many because it can be finessed via a paper transfer. Taking way that latitude effectively imposes a fare increase through the back door.

    Why not at least make the new transfers good for 2 hours?

  • City Resident

    Problems with Clipper, unfortunately, aren’t rare. Too often it seems, transfer credits aren’t accurately applied. Clipper customer service is helpful but it’s a relatively lengthy process to correct such mistakes.

  • Robert Neff

    This would be great on VTA, too. What’s a transfer?

  • mx

    I agree with Andy. The point of monthly passes is not to trick people, but to provide a simplified fare structure for users (if the goal is revenue maximization, look at BART with no monthly passes). Many world-class transit agencies offer fare capping. In London, you don’t even need a pass or a card, just use a contactless credit card and you’re automatically charged the single ride fee or the daily cap, whatever’s cheapest, taking into account peak and off-peak rides and all the other fare rules.

    Buying passes on Muni is somewhat of a pain right now. There’s a fairly narrow date window to buy them. The Clipper infrastructure can take days to load passes purchased through the website (and inexplicably, you can’t use your Clipper e-cash balance to pay for a Clipper Muni pass). Autoload has failure modes that lock you out of your account and leave you stranded. Muni ticket machines aren’t available except at Metro underground stations (and some high-platform surface stops). Yes, retailers are an option, but why force everyone to do that?

    It would be far simpler to just use your card as you ride and have the system work out the best fare without planning required. Ideally, you’d even automatically upgrade users from an M to an A pass if they rode BART within SF enough times in the month.


How often have you climbed up from the BART platform and missed your Muni transfer because of the awkward connection? Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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