SFMTA Votes for a Surcharge on Cash Fares for a Faster Bus

Want to pay cash? Get ready to pay more. Photo: SFMTA
Want to pay cash? Get ready to pay more. Photo: SFMTA

SFMTA’s proposed budget for 2017-2018 was passed yesterday by its board. Next stop, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Included in the budget, a 25 cent fare hike for cash fares. And this fare hike is really for the good of the riders–seriously.

A few decades ago, if you boarded one of London’s iconic double-decker buses, you didn’t line up and pay at the door. You entered front or back and a conductor, not the driver, came around and collected your fare while the bus was in motion. The result was the buses didn’t wait at each station while people lined up to pay. Over time, with cut backs and changes in bus design, the decision was made to have drivers also collect fares. Thus, London buses, like buses everywhere else, started to have interminable dwell times. It’s a ridiculous system that makes riding a bus a slow, plodding experience (well, slower than it needs to be).

Now, of course, computers, smart phones, and pre-paid cards (“Oyster” in London or “Clipper” here in the Bay Area) can replace the old conductors for fare collection and allow everyone to scramble onto the bus at once, which is already speeding up commutes, with the added bonus of centralizing fare collection and making transit more seamless, at least in theory. And Streetsblog has long supported the idea of an all-in-one transport card that will work on everything from buses to car-hailing.

The problem is some people take the expression “cash is king” a little too literally and are reluctant to move on, especially seniors who aren’t always comfortable in the digital world. So they keep lining up to pay at the fare box. And we keep waiting for them to unroll bills and push them into the little machine. That’s why the SFMTA board wants to give people an incentive to get them over their Luddite tendencies; the aforementioned 25 cent surcharge for  paying a fare with cash.

Strong Clipper discounts can speed up the whole system. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
A cash surcharge can speed up the whole system. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Or as an advocate for seniors told the San Francisco Chronicle:

“We have people who don’t have Clipper cards for a number of reasons,” said Jessica Lehman, executive director of Senior and Disability Action. “They don’t trust it; they’re afraid of losing it. People in those situations shouldn’t have to pay for it.”

Advocates for the poor make similar arguments. But if some poor and elderly San Franciscans are slowing the entire transit system because of a psychological preference for cash, why shouldn’t they have to pay? Andy Bosselman, a long-time San Francisco transit advocate, agrees:

Do these self-appointed advocates for the poor really think that the people of this city are too stupid and lazy to use a Clipper card? Apparently I believe in San Franciscans more than they do.

Bosselman, in fact, has pushed for this incentive away from cash for quite some time, notably with a Streetsblog editorial, explaining that it already works to speed things up in transit systems in other cities. Moreover, as one City Hall insider explained, the point made by advocates for the poor and the elderly doesn’t really make sense, since people on public assistance are given transit subsidies via — you guessed it — Clipper cards.

Or as Bosselman continued:

In San Francisco, so-called advocates for the poor offer a knee-jerk negative reaction to this idea. But nobody’s actually talked to the thousands of people who already get free and discounted passes. Or the hourly workers this would affect most. I challenge anyone who thinks this will hurt the poor to actually talk to some people about this. Next time you’re in a restaurant or bar, ask a barista, waiter or cook what they want. Would they rather buy a Clipper card and get to work on time? Or would they prefer docked paychecks because the slowest, least reliable transit system in America isn’t allowed to make common-sense upgrades?

The staff report presented to Tuesday’s SFMTA Board meeting made similar points to Bosselman, albeit in a less impassioned tone:

The policy benefits of the proposed additional increase in the cash fare would be to incentivize customers to use Clipper cards and Mobile Ticketing to prepay for fares before boarding, thus speeding customer boardings and reducing dwell times. Also, this fare increase is expected to reduce farebox transactions and maintenance.

Seems straight forward enough. So what’s the next step? As mentioned, the SFMTA budget has to be approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It’ll go to budget committee next. But the Supes can’t pick it apart; it’s strictly an up or down vote on the entire SFMTA budget. And as the insider at City Hall put it, this one is almost certainly going to pass.

Eventually, say transit advocates, Muni will only take card or other electronic payments, just as they now do on London buses, where cash has gone the way of the bus conductor. For now, if you ride Muni and cash is really your thing, start saving up those quarters; some time next year, you’re going to need them.

  • RichLL

    No, the distinction is real. A fare structure of $2.25 and $2.50 is different from a fare structure of $2 and $2.25.

    By a quarter. Not a lot, perhaps, but not nothing either. We agree there should be a differential but disagree on how to get there.

    As for the delays for paying by cash, I already gave alternative methods of paying cash that mitigate those delats

  • RichLL

    And when they break down, which they will, will drivers carry the paper transfers as back-up? Meaning that they will still have to be accepted when boarding?

    Or will the driver just let everyone ride for free, which has happened a couple of times to me recently when the on-board Clipper machine has failed. For some reasons on-board machines seem to fail more than those at stations. All that vibration, perhaps.

    Anyway, it’s still a de facto fare increase for many, along with the penalty for using legal tender.

  • SF Guest

    That being said then there’s no more advantage of taking a surface bus over the subway.

    From the POV it relieves the bus driver of one less hassle I do see that as an improvement.

  • jonobate

    Well, I responded to your comment because I was annoyed to see falsehoods being propagated about a city where I lived for a good chunk of my life, and where I was as recently as six months ago. And given that context, your snide comment touting your “real-life experience and global travels” is both amusing and pathetic.

    But if you want to look at your actual points – you seem to be stuck on the importance of giving a discount for using Clipper, rather than an extra fee for using cash. As others have noted, this distinction is in your head. Imagine that SFMTA announced they were doing to raise all single fares by 25c for this financial year, and then give a 25c discount for Clipper. The end result would be exactly the same as what they have actually done, but by your logic it would be okay because it’s giving a discount for Clipper rather than an increase for cash?

    Now, if your point is that SFMTA shouldn’t be raising fares at all, and the fares should be $2.25/$2 rather than $2.50/$2.25, then you have a good point. But, the reason they are raising fares (providing an extra $3.8m in revenue) is due to the supervisor’s insistence on a reduction in towing fees for idiots who don’t know to park their vehicles (costing $3.5m in revenue). It’s a clear example of transit riders subsidizing motorists. That’s the real story here, and you completely missed it.

    As noted previously, you cannot cite London as an example of a city that gives a discount for Oyster payment, because they doubled their cash fare a few years after introducing Oyster in order to push people to use the new system. The reason Oyster (and now contactless) became the default payment method in London is partly because of the massive increase in cash fares, and partly because of the generous daily capping system that is not available when paying with cash. It’s a carrot-and-stick approach.

    Additionally, the convenience of being able to top up your card in almost any corner store – with cash – made paying using Oyster much more convenient than Clipper is in the Bay Area. This is the real reason for the success of Oyster; the cash ticket machines were only really for tourists who didn’t have an Oyster card, and have now been removed as their operating cost was far higher than could be justified by their usage. We should not be looking at bus stop ticket machines as a solution for the Bay Area outside of a few major transit/tourist hubs.

    In summary, if you want to apply the lessons from London to the Bay Area, the takeaways should be:

    1) Make cash fares cost more than smartcard fares
    2) Incentivize smartcard use through a daily capping system
    3) Push the ability to top up the smartcard out to every corner store, so that there’s no use excuse not to use one.

  • murphstahoe

    You really have a lot of concerns.

  • murphstahoe

    I considered typing that up and rejected it. VTA also works that way – the thing is MUNI has a substantially higher number of bus rides that require a transfer than AC or VTA, I’ve used 3 buses in a single trip.

  • SF Guest

    An alternative would be to not raise the cash fare and to collect transfers after the first use like Muni did before.

  • jonobate

    I would go further, and say that Clipper should adopt a daily cap and monthly cap system across all agencies, with two rules:

    1) Your daily charge is capped at x times the highest fare you paid that day

    2) Your monthly charge is capped at the y most expensive days during the calendar month

    The data nerds at the MTC would need to figure out the appropriate values of x and y, but I would suggest 2 and 18 as reasonable starting points. This would make the equivalent of a monthly Muni plus BART pass cost $81.

    The biggest change created by such a system is that BART would now effectively have a daily and monthly pass, something they’ve resisted for a long time. In my opinion, this is a good thing, and will help dismantle the two-tier transit system we currently have, where it is assumed that rich people take BART and poorer people take the bus.

    Another important change would be that daily commuters would be able to ride local buses in their destination city for no extra charge. This is significant for Caltrain commuters, who currently have to pay again to use Muni to get to downtown. Caltrain riders shouldn’t be penalized for the fact that the Bay Area hasn’t gotten it’s act together and extended Caltrain to downtown yet, so it’s appropriate that they get a transfer to Muni at no extra cost.

  • RichLL

    So you don’t know if the drivers will carry paper transfers as back-up then?

  • RichLL

    As I noted elsewhere there was an additional factor in London in that bus drivers gave change, which slows the process down ever more.

    I get why Muni systems want to get rid of cash. Not just to reduce dwell times but also to reduce risk of theft and the costs of handling cash. My point is that I would prefer it if SF did what London did originally and incentivize non-cash by offering a discount rather than a “punishment increase” for cash (which I’d have thought might even be illegal and unconstitutional given that it is our legal tender).

    That is quite a separate issue than the general issue of whether fares in should go up or down. Given that Muni has about a 23% fare-box recovery ratio then the average ride costs about $10 to operate. So logically fares are much too cheap. But I digress.

    I do not disagree with your other ideas. But if you are new to the US, as it sounds like you are, then you might understand that there are cultural issues here which would not apply in Europe, and that may mitigate against their adoption. For instance, London has a congestion charge but SF rejected that idea, as has every other US city AFAIK. The voters here have a lot more power over individual changes than in collectivist Europe, and most SF voters are drivers.

  • jonobate

    I’ve been living here for six and a half years, so don’t try to lecture me on the culture of SF or the United States. And don’t try to tell me that Europe is “collectivist”, a term which is lazy American shorthand for a slightly less rapacious form of capitalism that is actually not that different to what exists in the big liberal cities of the United States.

    The reason your posts are so annoying is because in addition to being spectacularly misinformed, you’re also spectacularly condescending. I should know better than to engage, but as I said, seeing such obvious falsehoods thrown around tends to grate on the nerves.

    Regarding fares – fares are not too low, because the objective of Muni is not to maximize revenue, it’s to maximize ridership within the constraints of its budget. Even if the objective was to make money, a significant increase in fares would reduce revenue rather than increase it. If Muni increased fares to $10, everyone would immediately switch to Lyft and Uber, the buses would be almost empty, and the cost per passenger would skyrocket. If a bus run costs $1000, is it better to have 100 people riding the bus for $2.25 each (23% farebox recovery) or 10 people riding the bus for $10 each (10% farebox recovery)?

  • murphstahoe

    The only way that could possibly happen is if a bunch of techie transit nerds form a startup to go win the RFP for Clipper 2.0

    It would be interesting if they put in a bid without onerous numbers for trivial change orders – would that win the day?

    That’s not a bad idea, frankly.

  • Jimbo

    my wife used chariot to get dowtown this morning. it took her 20 minutes from innner richmond, where it takes 1 hr in mUni.

    only $3 for chariot. She will never use MUNI for work commute again. Why would anyone ?

  • farazs

    But SFMTA is not targetting a general fare increase at this point. It is just trying to recover the time/money costs of supporting cash payments from people making cash payments.

    > As for the delays for paying by cash, I already
    > gave alternative methods of paying cash
    No you didn’t, at least not one that would be cheaper than the status quo. Would you rather SFMTA increase its operating costs just in order to support equal fares for everyone and then have to raise fares for everyone to make up the gap?

  • jonobate

    It doesn’t require a tech startup to make this happen – Cubic implemented a similar system in London. What it requires is for the MTC to take the lead in creating a regional fare system, rather than simply implementing the uncoordinated and idiosyncratic fare policies of all the individual transit agencies, as was the case for Clipper 1.0.

  • baklazhan

    The point is that a paper transfer is still a better deal for many, even with the 25c increase.

  • City Resident

    my 2 cents worth is that these machines are easy to use, fast and reliable

  • david vartanoff

    single use transfers are a very rider hostile policy in a system where a given trip often requires 3 separate segments. The whole point of transit is to enable getting around in the service area. Transit is not for the convenience of the agency; it is for the necessity and convenience of the riders.

  • david vartanoff

    Agree wholeheartedly. BART should simply be required to honor AC, and other bus agency passes as it does Muni. The current double fare system is indeed a ripoff. Ifthey want the State of Good Repair bonds to pass, this should be part of the deal.

  • david vartanoff

    When you purchase a product or service you ARE entitled to receive same as described by the vendor. If the vendor out of sloppiness or whatever gives you more than called for in the purchase agreement, the vendor is responsible not the purchaser. Suggesting I am gaming the system because Muni drivers are careless is just wrong.

  • murphstahoe

    Suggesting that we should not increase the cash fare because the cash fare is a great deal because the vendor is careless is pretty cheeky.

  • jonobate

    You are correct, it’s the merchant’s responsibility to ensure the correct amount is provided, not the customer. However, if the merchant takes steps to fix the issue and ensure that the customer gets the correct amount, the customer has no reason to complain, and calling it a “de facto fare increase” is just ridiculous. (I know you didn’t say that, but someone else on this thread did.)

  • p_chazz

    No. Fare evasion is crowding in the back door without paying by either cash or Clipper.

  • mx

    It’s always hard to tell who truly is doing this though, since people have fast passes and don’t need to tag the Clipper card reader every time. I sometimes don’t bother to tag my Clipper card when I know I have a pass for the month or a valid transfer, especially if the bus is crowded and it’s going to take a significant amount of work to get to the reader. That doesn’t mean I don’t pay my fare on Muni, but you wouldn’t always know it to look at me.

  • mx

    Exactly. But even without a regional fare system, we could still accomplish an awful lot with automatic capping within existing fare structures. It’s stupid that at the beginning of every month, I have to commit to buy a monthly pass for Muni (or deal with Clipper Autoload, which has its own pitfalls), choose between A and M passes, wait days for Clipper to load the pass if I bought it online, etc… Just let me tag my card when I ride and cap my spending at the appropriate pass price if I get there.

    Of course, knowing Cubic, they’d demand $8 billion to implement it, the MTC would screw up the contracting, and they’d be stuck with a half-baked implementation.

  • Pius_XI

    A woman friend told me about a Muni bus driver on the 24 Divisidero who used to flirt with her. As a token of his affection, he would give her “Late Night” transfers in the early morning that she could use for almost 24 hours. When she showed the transfer to get on another bus, the driver would look at the Late Night transfer, look at her and nod significantly.

  • RichLL

    Cheeky, perhaps, but it is a change that will disadvantage some people and so has significance to them.

    There is something arbitrary about 90 minutes anyway and, as someone else suggested, the transfer window could be increased to, say, 2 hours to compensate those people who are absolutely losing something as a result of these alleged new “machines”

  • RichLL

    Unlike Europe where it seems the authorities can cram down a mandate like “no cash” on buses, cash must be accepted on buses.

    And I have no complaint about making Clipper a better deal – in fact that should have been done from the start.

    But punish people for using legal tender leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. Better to wait until the next “regular” fare increase and than not apply it to Clipper.

    Same 25c difference but it wouldn’t feel like having my wrist smacked for using cash

  • RichLL

    I never said fares should go to $10. I said there is room to increase them, given the true cost of a muni ride. I don’t even object to a fare increase – I just think it should not be on the backs of the kind of people most likely to use cash i.e. seniors and the poor. Consider it a European-style nanny-state empathy.

    My comments on culture were made because you reacted to my criticism in a very defensive and un-American way, and I was seeking to help you become more persuasive by suggesting ways of better establishing rapport with the American psyche. For instance, your criticism of “capitalism” and defense of “collectivism” won’t win you many votes or friends here.

    We love patriotism and capitalism here. If you don’t I would question why you moved here from somewhere that does not.

  • Andy Chow

    With the new fareboxes coming in, they will need to reduce the amount of people paying cash because new readers tend to slow down boarding because they actually read the bills (and reject them if they aren’t fed properly or in bad shape).

    I think when the new boxes come in the fare should be normalized as a 2 hour pass.

  • jonobate

    This is San Francisco, a place that is less patriotic and less capitalist than most places in Europe, nevermind the rest of the US. Sounds like you’re the person out of place here, not me.

    I’m not defending “collectivism”, because the idea that anywhere in Europe operates today on collectivist principles is completely laughable, and would only be espoused by someone who had zero knowledge of the place they were talking about.

    I’m married to an American – not that it’s any of your business – and don’t need any advice on “establishing rapport with the American psyche”. Thankfully, most Americans do not share your views on patriotism and capitalism, particularly here in San Francisco.

    TLDR; Fuck you. Go pollute some other blog with your presence.

  • RichLL

    Agreed, and if SFMTA declares war on transit riders who prefer cash then maybe we should all feed super-glue in the fare machines

  • RichLL

    Wow, your abuse is so persuasive. I thought British people were supposed to be deferentially civil and polite?

    But OK, you won the green card lottery and now think you are in a position to lecture real Americans on what it is to be Americans?

    Good luck with that.

  • murphstahoe

    y u mad bro

  • murphstahoe

    They should raise the cash fare by 2 bucks and lower the Clipper fare by $1. If you are too lazy to get Clipper, they sucks to be you

  • murphstahoe

    I see – you believe that intentional sabotage of the public transit system is a good thing. Have you no decency at last sir?

  • sebra leaves

    Good idea. Give MTC a job that solves a problem instead of creating one. Doubt they could handle that though.

  • Andy Chow

    Transit historically does not work well with bills. In the old days, the fares were low enough that people can pay with coins. Even today dollar bills are not accepted on buses in New York City.

    The feds tried to introduce dollar coins without much success (they’re big and heavy), but electronic payment has improved over the years. People these days prefer to pay electronically.

    In many cities where electronic fare payment card has been introduced, they’ve become the preferred payment method even for tourists. Even when I travel to other cities, I would rather get a card and buy one of their day passes for the card instead of paying cash.

  • Andy Chow

    Just make them a 2 hour pass like what Las Vegas and Dallas have done.

  • RichLL

    I agree that payment via some kind of card is preferable. I do have my issues with the Clipper Card. One is that you cannot tell if it is valid by looking at it – even the crappy old BART tickets tell you how much money you have left.

    I don’t like the fact that the card could be used to track your movements.

    And there is always a nagging doubt that the value on it will somehow get erased and you will have no way of proving otherwise.

    All that said I use one, although even then am careful never to put too much money on it at any given time in case I lose it or the value gets erased.

    And perhaps it is all a cunning plan to get people to pre-pay and effectively lend SFMTA money.

    So I also understand why some people won’t use cards and I suspect there would be riots in the streets if SFMTA ever tried to totally ban the use of cash. Discount the card and allow 2-hour transfer windows, but allow cash for those who prefer it.

  • SF Guest

    I concur with your position. I voted to disallow cable car fares bypass the ordinance which mandated all Muni fares must be the same amount but lost to the majority vote who wanted cable car fares to be treated separately.

    If the majority had voted in favor of keeping cable car fares the same as all Muni fares this 25 cent cash fare increase would probably be illegal today.

  • SF Guest

    If they’re going to bump up the cash fares Muni should then bring back the option to buy tokens at a discounted rate.

  • As are so many of his tiresome blog comments. So, so, very many.

  • I have been given generous paper transfers when the driver knew the bus would be inordinately delayed, which seems eminently reasonable. Not entirely unachievable with technology, but I don’t forsee a business case for implementing that.

  • farazs

    > Unlike Europe cash must be accepted on buses.
    News flash, it is and will remain so!

  • RichLL

    I know. I was trying to explain to our English friend why some of the ideas he saw in London won’t fly here, for cultural, constitutional and other reasons.

    Several supervisors said today that they will not vote for the budget with this cash surcharge in it because it is regressive. So it may be DOA.


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