Editorial: Ferry Ride Highlights FUBAR Fares

The Bay Area's fare structure--or lack of one--is an unmitigated disaster that has to be fixed now

The fare structure is so FUBAR, even the people administering it don't understand it. Photo: Matthew Roth
The fare structure is so FUBAR, even the people administering it don't understand it. Photo: Matthew Roth

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I had an appointment Friday in Western Alameda. The fastest way to get there without driving was to take a ten-minute ferry ride from my home in Jack London Square (JLS) across the estuary to Alameda Main Street, and then bike for another eight minutes.

But my experience ended up illustrating everything that’s wrong with fares in the Bay Area.

I biked over to the 9:15 a.m. ferry and enjoyed a peaceful ride across the channel. However, when I tapped out at Alameda, the Clipper machine displayed a charge of $11.30, rather than the San Francisco Bay Ferry ‘short hop’ fare of a $1.70, designed for people who just want to make the crossing between JLS and Alameda. (Since most ferries between Oakland and San Francisco stop in both locations anyway, it doesn’t cost anything to offer the service; that said, it’s of limited use given how infrequently the ferries run).

When I got home (on the way back, I donned my ear plugs and respirator and biked through the Posey tube) I called Clipper support. After ten minutes of phone tree and hold music, I got a human. She looked up my Clipper account and acknowledged that the fare was obviously wrong. However, she told me to call back in 24 hours because the system wouldn’t let her refund the money until the next day.

$22.60 to travel from here to there? Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
$11.30 just to travel across the estuary? Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick


Begrudgingly, I called back the next day (note by the time I got through the phone tree a second time, I’d already spent twice as long on the phone as the duration of the ferry ride). This time the customer service rep claimed the ‘short hop’ fare was only available to users of their fare-payment app (which is not what it says on the ferry’s web page). “This is why we encourage people to get familiar with our fare structure,” she said, repeatedly.

Eventually she relented and agreed to put me in for a refund–which, she said, could take thirty days, if it’s approved. Of course, the only way the $11.30 charge would be valid is if I bent space-time and actually traveled between San Francisco and Vallejo (an hour-long trip) but somehow used the fare readers in Oakland and Alameda.*

“Clipper is especially frustrating because there’s little forgiveness for users (or in your case, operator) error, yet it’s incredibly onerous to resolve problems. So it’s like two slaps in the face for transit users,” wrote Ian Griffiths, co-founder of Seamless Bay Area, which advocates for fare policy rationalization and integration. “Meanwhile, Lyft and Uber make their billing pretty transparent, viewable immediately before and after you take a trip, and if there are ever any problems, like overbilling, in my experience they have been dealt with very promptly.”

“But the larger issue,” wrote Arielle Fleisher, Transportation Policy Director at SPUR, “is our dizzying array of fare structures, prices and passes.”

Rudick_clipper Fare-shorthop FAIL
A screen shot of my clipper record. The last two entries are for the trip to Alameda.

It reminded me of the time a friend was visiting from San Diego. He wanted to go from Castro Muni to Berkeley. He tried to tap into the system with his BART ticket. I explained that was the wrong ticket. We went to a Muni ticket machine. It rejected his credit card a couple of time, which is super annoying considering he’d loaded up a perfectly valid BART ticket a few hours earlier. After a couple of minutes of struggling with the machine, and realizing he had to pay two full fares to get to Berkeley instead of one, he looked at me and said “you know, if you weren’t here, I’d have given up and taken an Uber.”

That’s how most people react to this ongoing stupidity, where transit operators bemoan the loss of customers, and then deliberately perpetuate a system that’s so complicated that apparently even the people who programmed the ferry’s Clipper readers can’t figure it out. Why do we need a “short hop” fare anyway? Why do we need to separate fares for Muni, BART, AC Transit, etc? It should just be one fare per zone, regardless of whether one chooses to ride a bus, train, ferry, or regional train.

This panoply of arbitrary fare structures, with limited or no transfers between modes, is killing ridership. Incoming BART General Manager Bob Powers and SFMTA’s interim head Tom McGuire need to get together by the end of the summer with a plan for kicking off fare rationalization and integration, under a strong, customer-focused system. Then they can start working on Caltrain, AC Transit, Golden Gate, etc. and, yes, San Francisco Bay Ferry, to get on board. Fares need to be simple and make sense across all operators, with no penalty for transferring. If transit operators can’t do it, then it needs to be legislated in Sacramento. To do otherwise is transit malfeasance and a gift to Uber and Lyft.

*Note: if I could bend space, I would not take public transit.

  • mx

    Very well said!

    Does Clipper still eat your Muni transfer if you ride Muni -> BART -> Muni?

    Some of the years-long “glitches” with Clipper amount to fraud: the fares that are charged are several times those advertised by transit agencies if you dare do something as unusual as use a preferred payment method to ride between two regular stations. Seems ripe for a class action lawsuit and bulk refunds to Clipper cards for years of overcharges.

  • crazyvag

    Another bug is should your card fail to go through, your card here locked – which I understand – but your monthly Caltrain pass is practically revoked even though you paid for it.

  • Roger R.

    For the record, I got this as I was wrapping up the post:

    “Your Clipper refund request has been approved. The refund value of $9.60 has been applied to your Clipper Card Serial Number ######. Your refund value will be available to load to your card within the next 3-5 days. You must touch your card to a reader in order to load the value.”

    Thanks, but 3-5 days with an electronic fare payment system? And to quibble a bit more, they f’ed up. Shouldn’t they refund the full charge and just give me the trip for free? After all, they managed to waste a huge amount of my time? Isn’t that worth something? They also didn’t even bother to apologize. Terrible, terrible customer service.

  • p_chazz

    This happens because transit agencies make large investments in technology that soon becomes out of date. Because of the added cost to make improvements and institutional inertia, they fail to modernize. Plus, they made sweetheart deals with technology providers and basically gave the shop away by signing contracts that advantaged the provider at the cost of the transit agency. Commenter Richard Mlynarik used to rail on about this endlessly. This doesn’t happen in private industry, because if your technology gets out of date, people will jump to your competitor.

    Among transit agencies, there are no competitors, so they had the luxury to be lazy. Until now. With Uber and Lyft biting at their heels transit agencies, ridership is down. They no longer can have the attitude of “we don’t care, we don’t have to.” that they once did. But unfortunately, unless there is legislation at the state level to bring about improvements, I think they will remain locked in their ivory towers, impervious to all that goes on in the outside world.

  • Mike Schumacher

    I don’t perceive that Sacramento legislating 27 separate transit fiefdoms with separate infrastructure and remits without much concern for other districts to get mashed together will work very well; there’s a lot of extra system complexity inherent in setting fare structures that might be in legislated city ordinances and/or upgrading payment hardware.

    It’s probably better to get Clipper, BART, CalTrain and MUNI in a room to discuss a regional administrator and start from there, especially since BART and CalTrain have region-wide authorities running their systems. If two of BART/CalTrain/MUNI can agree with Clipper to cede some internal authority and create the initial regional authority, then accession of other transit systems into the regional authority can happen once they see the benefits.

  • thielges

    Part of the problem is the lack of customer focus that a monopoly enables as p_chazz describes. That can be solved as numerous large transit monopolies have demonstrated by providing excellent service without the threat of competition. It requires political will to hold our agencies accountable.

    Another problem is that our transit agencies are naive in the nature of computer technology deployment. These projects are usually implemented by specialized subcontractors which in itself is a reasonable approach. Those contracts are usually initiated by the customer (a public transit agency) defining the requirements and then engaging a contractor to fulfill the requirements. The problem is that those writing the requirements do not have the experience to ensure that those specifications are complete and correct. Many contractors are happy to implement flawed specifications knowing full well that once the system has been deployed that they have not only fulfilled their contractual obligation (and therefore must be paid), but also they also have a virtual monopoly on on the additional “unplanned” work to make the system actually work. The resulting change orders for minor engineering changes can be billed at exorbitant inflated rates due to both the naivety of the customer and lack of transparency within the contractor’s organization. It is as legal as swindling a naive person into buying a lemon car.

    Roger complains that receiving the refund takes 3-5 days on a fully electronic fare system. Delays like that used to be the norm for even routine Clipper purchases. This was fixed a few years later with what was no doubt a sizable change order contract to Cubic, the contractor who currently holds the monopoly on Clipper. It should have been part of the initial implementation. Then there’s that clipper.com website, full of basic UX flaws that might be expected of a new college grad, but not a seasoned corporation with decades of experience.

    The fix: MTC should hire somebody who’s been around the block a few times with similar electronic transaction systems to safeguard their financial and customer experience interests. This isn’t a role that you an just grab a senior manager from your existing staff to accomplish. An employee who’s a wizard with operational planning on bus and rail networks does not have the relevant experience to understand the complexities and nuances of computer based systems like Clipper.

  • thielges

    I like this suggestion. Caltrain+BART as the initial BeNeLux leading to the European Union of getting all 27 agencies to cooperate.

  • David

    The 3-5 day period is unacceptable by modern standards, but let’s not forget that Clipper is 1990’s technology. The Clipper 2.0 system will fix this issue, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars over the life of the program, of course.

  • David

    MTC is the #1 guilty party. They don’t operate any transit service but dictate what transit operators should do. They specifically wrote the Clipper 2.0 contract such that only Cubic, the existing Clipper contractor, would be willing to bid on the project. Us taxpayers and transit riders will be paying for that mistake for years to come; we probably paid $50-100 million more than the work was worth because of how the whole RFP process was handled.

  • p_chazz

    State law preempts local ordinances. And good luck getting those players to cede their authority voluntarily. The state will have to take it away from them, kicking and screaming. Look at what happened with Scott Wiener’s SB 50, which would take some local zoning authority away from municipal planning agencies.

  • Michael Escobar

    Fix the schedules first. Make the agencies run service with coordinated transfers at Millbrae, Civic Center, and similar points where multiple modes meet. Coordinating fare policy does nothing to improve the competitiveness of transit for a person who is choosing between an hour in their car and 2.5 hours via public transit (including more than one transfer wait time of 10+ minutes). We’ve spent all this money investing in fixed infrastructure and rolling stock – we could increase utilization rates just by shifting schedules a few minutes.

  • CJ

    Bay Area transit is full of Clipper oddities like this. Hard to keep a system that was designed in the 90s updated for modern use.

    I ride the ferry often and have never had a problem with the tag on/off there, but I have been charged full fare for a supposedly “local” leg of the AC transbay bus route. It really sucks that this happened to you and then Clipper rep tries to act like it is your fault. There is nothing on the SF Bay Ferry website that mentions the short hop being exempt from Clipper. In fact, it actively encourages you to use Clipper: https://sanfranciscobayferry.com/fares-and-tickets

    Better off bringing a couple bucks in cash next time!

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Sure but that hardly seems related to the Oakland-Alameda ferry which doesn’t enjoy transit connections at either end.

  • Cynic13

    These systems should be privatized so we can sue them and put the executives in charge (who get astronomical salaries for their incompetence) in prison. But as government-run monopolies, they can remain faceless.

  • disqus_zdpshJXNlX

    FasTrak isn’t any better.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    The 3-5 days is basically just them hedging, isn’t it? They can’t control where you tag your card next and if that is a mobile terminal then they have to guarantee that the vehicle has been back to a facility where it can have the credit transactions loaded onto it. Yes, that is how Clipper works. If you tag your card on a wired terminal like a BART station vending machine you will probably get your refund today.

  • Mike Schumacher

    SB 50 was exactly what I was thinking about when I mentioned legislation, as it wouldn’t surprise me to have cities suing in response with an “interference in local control” argument. We’re also seeing how effective legislation to get CARB and CTC working together for SB 375 is panning out (hint: not very well the last time I checked).

    I’m not opposed to eventual legislation to force an agreement if the public wants it, but carrots in the form of better economies/efficiencies of scale (equipment/software purchases, maintenance contracts, etc) and eventually better service could be a better motivator for transit authorities at first.

  • nodolra

    The Jack London ferry terminal is close enough to the Amtrak station that it would be beneficial to have the ferry schedule align with Amtrak’s. That could work as an alternate way to get between SF and the Capitol Corridor besides Amtrak’s bus shuttle or BART from Richmond.

  • nodolra

    Caltrain+BART makes a huge amount of sense since they’re both regional rail systems and already share a station in Millbrae (and soon two more in San Jose). With Caltrain hoping to offer BART-like frequencies once the new electric trains arrive, there would be huge benefits to integrating the two systems with timed transfers and a single fare plan.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    A pleasant idea but the arrivals of both the ferry and the train are so irregular that it would never work in practice.