"Akit is the man. He knows Clipper." (spenta)
"It’s a fantastic blog for any San Franciscan."
"Your blog is always on point, and well researched!" (Nina Decker)
"Everyone's favorite volunteer public policy consultant..." (Eve Batey, SF Appeal)
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(Greg Dewar, N Judah Chronicles)
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(Empowered Follower)
"If anyone at City Hall wants to make public transit better for all San Franciscans, it would be wise to follow Akit religiously...
or, better yet, give him a job."
(Brock Keeling, SFist)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Where is the Best Seat on BART?

In May, Muni/Caltrain Diaries posted an interesting entry about the location of the "pimp seat" on Caltrain vehicles. For the original gallery cars, it's the seats facing each other and gives people extra legroom and space to place their bags and such on the other chair.

So it made me wonder, where's the best seats for BART?

We all know about BART's well... seating reputation. People have put their feet on the seats, done some really gross stuff (in which I won't describe) that would get someone arrested, and some bicyclists thinks its cool to use the senior/disabled seats.

In my search for the perfect seat, there are lots of decent seats with comfortable legroom, but in most of the train car, the sound of the track noise can be unbearable.

During a trip to downtown, I found some decent areas to sit that are both comfortable for my long legs, and has a lower track noise.

Here's the two places:
  1. Almost any seat on the first car. When the car is in motion, the sound travels towards the rest of the cars, so if the track noise squeaks in the first car, it's much louder in the second car and beyond.
  2. Any car, as long as you sit within the front quarter of the car. The seats I'm talking about are the infamous quad seats (the ones that faces each other), the disabled seats near the door, and the four seats facing towards the opposite direction the car is moving. The reason is the sound pours through the thin doors and moves through the middle and rear end of every car. The front quarter of each car is well protected from sound due to the sliding doors separating each car, plus the wheels and motor of the train car is directly below the quad seats.
For you BART regulars: Where's your favorite seat and why? Please comment.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Will the City Ever Reopen Great Highway Southbound from Sloat to Skyline?

It's been nearly six months since the southbound stretch of Great Highway between Sloat Boulevard and Skyline Boulevard has been shut-down due to massive erosion of the shoreline from the winter storms (SF Gate & KPIX).

The articles stated the roads may re-open during the "Summer" and now it is the Summer months and the stretch of road has not been reopened to traffic. Even more odd is for the past couple of months, I have not seen a construction crew working on the closed stretch. It makes me wonder, when will the city ever reopen the road?

Since the city shut-down the southbound stretch, drivers who need to reach Skyline must turn left from Upper Great Highway to eastbound Sloat, and turn right onto southbound Skyline. Since the closure, drivers have been driving like aggressive maniacs (Vietnam flashbacks?) on eastbound Sloat:
  1. Just today, I saw a driver pass me on the left lane at 45 MPH when the speed limit is 35 MPH (as stated in the city's transportation code, section 702, subsection "B," bulletpoint #32).
  2. The same driver (above) and many other drivers aggressively cut their way into the right lane. Eastbound Sloat from Great Highway to Skyline has three lanes; the right lane is dedicated to the turn-off to Skyline while the middle and left lanes continue eastbound on Sloat after Skyline. The driver I witnessed today was in the far left lane, and sharply cut into two lanes of traffic while failing to signal.
  3. I fear the safety of pedestrians who cross the street on Sloat. I stop for them as per "right of way" laws, but the additional traffic and speeding has contributed to those refusing to stop.
  4. Due to the long-term closure of Great Highway, the city painted a white stripe so both lanes of Great Highway can safely turn left onto Sloat, thus preventing sideswipes and collisions by the far left lane illegally veering into the right lane of Sloat. It turns out I continue to witness near collisions and blatant disregard of the white stripe by left lane idiots who feel its OK to simply go past the white line so they get into the right lane first.
Get the Great Highway reopened. It's a matter of time until someone gets hit and killed on Sloat.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

CONFIRMED Dates for End of Paper Muni Passes & Mandatory Clipper Cards

There has been a lot of speculation on the end of paper Muni passes being transitioned to mandatory Clipper electronic fare cards.

In the local blogsphere, Muni Diaries and SFist reports the end of paper "fast passes" will be the start of the November 2010 pass cycle (or the last month of the paper version is October 2010). When the reports mentioned the end of the paper "Fast Pass," it made me question if it meant all adult passes, all passes (regardless of age or have a disability), or just the "A" pass. I regard the "Fast Pass" to be the "A" pass because other passes don't state that on their pass, but it's also used as a generic term for all monthly Muni passes.

Also to note, SFMTA/Muni posted on their website a broad range of when each of the passes will end by saying "Fall 2010" and "early 2011."

Being the sleuth I am, I took a photo of this announcement at the Cable Car booth at Powell. It mentions EXACTLY when the paper passes will be phased out:
  • Adult "A" paper fast passes and disabled stickers will end November 2010. The last paper pass will be issued for October 2010.
  • Youth and Senior paper passes will end February 2011. The last paper passes will be issued for January 2011.
  • Adult "M" Muni Only paper passes will end April 2011. The last paper pass will be issued for March 2011.
While Muni will be eliminating paper passes, it will be MANDATORY for all monthly pass users to convert to Clipper cards and purchase the electronic form of the passes. Muni does not intend to kill-off the pass program, just make it electronic; but they may consider the Clipper "pass accumulator" program.

  • Learn about Clipper and get a thorough tutorial from me by clicking here.
  • To order a Clipper card, visit Clippercard.com, call (877) 878-8883, or visit a retailer such as a Walgreens location.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Clipper Card Meeting - New Machines, Passes & $53 Million Price Tag

The Clipper/TransLink management board will be meeting on Monday, June 28th at MTC headquarters, and there are some great updates from the documents available to the public:

Based on their meeting minutes for their session held on April 26, 2010, here's information to know:
  • When vehicle operators attempt to restart the software for the Clipper readers (e.g. a malfunction), if done away from the bus/train yard's wireless range, the software would be inoperable for transactions. A patchwork is being corrected. The massive out-of-service card reader problem has caused Golden Gate Transit/Ferry to lose $80,000 in transit fares. Refer to my previous blog posting about the weekend of April 17-18 systemwide crash.
  • WageWorks and Clipper are not on happy terms when it comes to contract terms for peoples' WageWorks account funds being transferred to a Clipper account. The problem is being worked on by both sides, and affects approximately 5,000 people. If all else fails, Clipper will inform customers affected.
  • The board approved several key points, but I'll mention the useful ones: Senior and youth Clipper cards will be permanently free, adults will get a short reprieve on the $5 initial card fee, SFMTA will be able to do more tabling for youth and senior card sign-up, and any Clipper card is in-part or wholly funded with commuter benefits will receive no refund on their card when a customer requests to end participation.

Clipper Card Management Report:
  • As of May 31st, all VTA equipment has been installed, and Samtrans is nearing completion of their Gillig fleet.
  • Card transactions (tagging card) has increased 16.5% in May (62,850) when compared to April 2010, and nearly tripled from last year (May 2009).
  • As of May 2010, there are over 70,000 TransLink cards in the hands of the public.
  • Which transit agency gets the most transactions? Golden Gate Ferry comes first and Muni comes in dead last.
  • The new Muni metro ticketing machines/Clipper add value machines will be installed in August.
  • The new Muni metro fare gates will be installed in September and early October.
  • Clipper's in-person customer service center is delayed, but is confirmed to be in the Embarcadero station.
  • In the future, Clipper may have merchants/vendors with "super" capabilities; they will be able to exchange cards instead of just adding funds.
  • Clipper techies may need to revisit 100 installations of the Clipper technology on Muni vehicles. This is on discussion.
  • BART ticketing machines will be able to add Clipper funds in "early 2011."
  • Golden Gate Ferry plans to automate the ticketing and entry process, and proposed to complete the project by March 2011.
  • VTA's automated ticketing machines (the light rail stops) may be able to add Clipper funds in the future.
  • SFMTA wants to use Clipper cards to pay for city own parking garages.
  • Clipper admits there are problems with Muni's historic streetcar equipment due to electrical power problems, and will spend the next few months investigating and finding a proper solution.
  • The "Phase II Clipper Contract Capital Costs" since the 2002-2003 fiscal year has totaled: $52,632,006 or basically 53 million dollars. Ka-ching!

The best news of all, the Clipper folks are suggesting a pass accumulator program:
The idea is, instead of making people pre-purchase passes, they ride their favorite transit agencies paying e-cash, and if they reach a designated daily, weekly, or monthly purchasing limit, the rest of the rides on the agency for the designated period is free. VTA plans to implement a day pass program using the accumulator system.

For example: Instead of buying a $60 Muni "M" pass, just ride Muni with e-cash and when the transactions total $60 within the designated month, the rest of the rides are FREE. That alone instills confidence in the public so they don't overspend, but also may attract more people to pay for their rides with the Clipper card.

Akit's take: It's a very good concept for individual transit agencies as a way to promote more people to stop paying with coins and bills and go with an electronic option that is quicker. There would be no more guesswork for passengers to consider if paying in cash is a better value than buying a pass. Transit agencies benefit with quicker boarding, reduced printing of transfers, reducing the need for staff to count and sort coins and bills, and reduced maintenance costs on coin/bill fareboxes. For Clipper, there would be no concerns of passengers having problems buying a pass, including myself since all transactions would be e-cash with a threshold limit.

But it does have a unique challenge... how about a regional pass using the accumulator system? If all transit agencies went on Clipper, would it even be possible to get all of the agencies of the consortium to say "yes?" How much would be the maximum limit? Would be it a day pass, weekly, or monthly? Lastly, how would each agency get their share of the money? A good example is BART Plus allows passengers to not just ride BART, but a ton of Bay Area transit agencies under an agreement that each agency gets their share of the money generated from the program.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fast Food Tax in San Francisco?

If you thought our city has gone insane with new fees and existing ones going up the roof (like a $15 hike on a Muni Fast Pass), try this one for size: Would you pay a tax when buying food from a fast food restaurant?

Well, get ready San Francisco, you could be paying taxes for the "pickup" of the fast food trash.

The Department of Public Works wants to tax citizens for the litter on our streets, other than cigarette butts which will have a tax imposed soon for "cleanup," they claim it's the fast food.

In my opinion, I think it's a stupid idea to add additional taxes. We already pay 9.5% sales tax on the food we purchase at any establishment, so why the hell should I pay extra just because some irresponsible person littered their burger wrapper on the ground? If I bought something from a non-fast food joint, so I don't pay the tax?

Doesn't this just seem to just be a way to tell fast food establishments that they are not welcomed in our city? We don't welcome big box retailers in our city, and that plastic bag ban doesn't help too; so they spend their time opening up shop down in Daly City and Colma where the local government welcomes them with open arms, and also snatches taxpayer money from San Francisco citizens who decides it's better down south than in our city.

So what is the definition of a "fast food" chain that would be taxed? Could Costco's food court be in the same category as McDonald's, Burger King, and Carl's Jr.? How about Noah's Bagels? They serve their stuff fast and have multiple locations in the city.

OK, the city is poor. Do what you should be doing city government clowns, chase down those who didn't pay their property taxes, have multiple parking tickets, and start making your employees drink tap water instead of that bottled crap. And while you get a chance, why not take a bigger pay cut?

Hell, I'm doing all my business in Daly City. My office is just a few minutes away from the border.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

People who Can't Park Their Car Annoys Me

A lot of things annoy me (and maybe you too), from Muni buses running late or no-shows, to those who feel it's OK to cross the street against a red light. Those are puny versus what annoys me the most in this city, those who park like dimwits.

You've probably seen them before and they'd likely frustrated you when you are hunting for a parking space; they enjoy flouting with the law, and unlikely to get a ticket from the parking cops since it's not street cleaning day. I've already had a few close calls with illegally parked cars, especially in narrow streets like on Fulton near USF where the lanes get so narrow, that if a car parked in a tow-away zone, I'd likely lose my passenger side mirror.

My only relief from these parking clowns is to humiliate them on the internet by posting a photo of their car on Flickr. Call the parking cops? Haaa haaa haaa, yeah right.

Here's some great ones I caught on camera:
A Car Deserving to be Towed Away (License plate: CA WWHDD)
This idiot thought it was cool to pin me in my legal parking space while he/she decided to also park in a tow away zone next to Forest Hill Station.

BART Agent FAIL - Setting bad example
This BART station agent at Daly City thought it was cool to park in two reserved parking spaces. Just to make it more amusing, I caught BART officials four times at Daly City and continued to humiliate them online until they changed their ways.

Parking Idiot - I can't park 45 degrees
There's a general rule about street parking, if the other cars are parked 45 degrees, drivers shouldn't park 90 degrees. This idiot alone took out the parking space on the left. I've been begging the city to paint 45 degree parking stripes along Font Blvd. near SF State for a long time.

Parking Idiot on Clement Street (1 of 2)
I'm waiting for the day the SF Fire Department has to smash the windows of a car parked next to a hydrant to run a hose through it. Other agencies have done it before.

Parking Hog Alert: My Neighbors are Stupid
Parking hogs are the worst ever. Sure, they can comply with the laws about parking legally (e.g. curbing wheels and no more than 18 inches from the curb), but the unofficial rule is to never take more than one parking space. In this photo, one of my neighbors is an asshole and it really pissed me off because there was no other spaces available on my block.

Want to see more photos I've taken to humiliate people?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Eight Wish List Items for Clipper Card

It looks like Clipper is becoming a big hit with word going around that many retailers and even the SFMTA customer service office ran out of the fare cards. It's a normal expectation for many places to run out upon its debut or a big change in policy, similar to the Washington D.C.'s regional card known as the SmarTrip, ran short when certain agencies changed their policies requiring the card vs. a paper ticket or paying cash for parking.

Last minute update: Clipper cards to be distributed TODAY (4/18/10) at Powell station from 4-7PM.

With this surge of popularity and the fear of transit paper passes being kicked to the curb, I know the folks at the MTC and Clipper are working their butts off on projects to make the experience better. One big project I've mentioned before is modifying BART's ticketing machines to also add value to Clipper cards, and that is 43 new locations (in other words, hundreds of automated machines). While there is no set date, it is expected this or next year.

Since the folks at MTC, Clipper, and Swirl Integrated Marketing reads my blog, here's some great ideas to help improve the Clipper card experience:
  1. We could use more add value locations in areas near major transfer points and bus terminal stops. For example, 33rd and Geary in San Francisco is a transfer hub for Muni's 1, 1AX, 18, 38, 38AX, and 38L. A perfect retailer to do the add value would be Quickly on the southwest corner, or the coffee shop on the northwest corner. SF State could really use some add value machines since much of the campus population uses transit.
  2. The Muni metro platform at AT&T Park would be a great location to install card readers at the platform entrances to make it easier for ballgame fans heading home to tag their card instead of begging people to move away from the reader on a sardine packed train.
  3. "Clipper only" express gates would be great for certain BART stations to help speed passengers in and out of the station.
  4. Can the BART gates make a pleasant confirmation tone sound that the card was accepted? View this video of a fare gate in Japan that gives a confirmation tone.
  5. The BART gates have an interesting problem. If a cardholder tags their card and it's rejected, the card reader is deactivated for about five seconds before the green light is re-lit and returns to 'ready' status. The card sensor also is temporarily turned-off in the event a paper ticket passenger has insufficient value on their ticket; I've had this happen where the person in front of me with a rejected paper ticket had to move away from the gate, but I could not tag until that green light turned back on.
  6. This might be a long shot, but worth a shot: Hong Kong made different variations of their Octopus card for their customers, like a key chain size one, watches, and even wristbands for kids. Is it possible for Clipper customers to get more unique items than just the standard card, even if they are willing to pay more for it?
  7. Is it possible for the readers to also accept fare payment through those credit/debit cards with the RFID feature (e.g. MasterCard PayPass)?
  8. In order for the program to be successful, the card readers must be installed on all vehicles; with regards to this, why do some of the F-Market streetcars don't accept Clipper? The PCC and Milan (a high majority of the fleet) accepts the card, but the rare cars that usually only run along the Embarcadero like the boat car, "desire," and Melbourne don't have the equipment.
That's all I can think of at this moment. If you have any wish list items, just send a comment.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Folks, Don't Swipe Your Clipper Card

OK class, here's today's lesson: Do not swipe your Clipper card.

Why not?
The system and hardware was never made to be "swiped." Many people complain the card readers or the cards itself are broken when you get the red light with three beeping tones telling you to try again. I'll just say it this way, it's your own fault (I can see grins on your faces).

Yes, I'll say it again, it's your own fault if you cannot use the card properly. Don't put the blame on Clipper. Stop thinking of the card like your credit card where you have to swipe the card's magnetic stripe to the reader to let it identify your card number.

How do I properly tag my card?
It's quite simple, and once you get the hang of it, it's a breeze. Just hold your card to the reader sensor and hold it steady. Once the reader gives the green light and single beep, just proceed on through. If you get the green and yellow lights with two beeps, it's OK to board, but remember to replenish the card's e-cash value. The entire process takes one second or less.

Become a 'pro' at it! You don't have to stop your stride, especially if you don't care what the reader's screen says; when boarding, stick your arm forward towards the reader, hold the card at the reader while continuing to walk or climb stairs, get confirmation, and remove card from reader.

Since the previous generation of cards (TransLink) has been upgraded to quicker responding Clipper cards, the procedure for properly tagging the card has not changed.

Ways you will fail and cause embarrassment with passengers staring at you (assuming you have a valid pass or enough e-cash):
  1. Swiping the card.
  2. Moving the card around the sensor while it's scanning.
  3. Quickly tapping the card.
  4. Removing the card prior to the reader giving the one beep and green light confirmation.
Class dismissed! Your homework, use your card, or grab a free one at a retailer, website, or calling them.

Update: I should have mentioned about BART gates as they operate differently. The process is, place the card at the sensor, do not move the card, and once the gate opens, remove the card from the sensor. If the gate is still open when attempting to tag, only enter the gate once the screen says "OK" as it indicates a successful transaction.

Update #2: The new Muni gates are similar to BART as well, but the sensor area is a round circle to the right side of the gate and above the paper pass swipe reader. Hold the card steady and only remove the card once the gate opens. When exiting, just walk towards the gate and it will open automatically (no tagging card).

Update #3: Keep all other RFID cards away from your Clipper card when it's being scanned at a gate, platform reader, or vehicle. Your card might not be read (signal is scrambled) or you may cause the card reader to panic.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Akit's Coverage of the Clipper Card Debut

Transition from Paper Pass to Farecard
Today is the debut of the Clipper card, and their launch event (press conference) was at Hyde Street Pier at 11AM. Akit's Complaint Department was invited to attend this event in the presence of some big names in the Bay Area transit society. It was interesting to meet many representatives, mostly from the MTC and Swirl Marketing, and many just walked-up to me and said, "you must be Akit."

Let's talk about the new card!
New Clipper Card and Carrying Case
The Clipper card does not include the classic gold chip that we TransLink users are used to. Anyway, the gold chip is not needed as the agency has converted the system to be completely contactless. There was a demonstration of the card with a card reader unit and it scans the card efficiently and quickly; in comparison with the TransLink card, you may notice a slight difference in the response of the reader, with the Clipper card being quicker.

The Clipper card also looks and feels different than their predecessors, it has a glossy feel, and can scratch easily, but hey, as long as it works, I'm not that worried.

For this press conference event, guests have been provided a very durable plastic card holder case, and while thick, it really protects the card from damage. It also has a place to attach a lanyard.

How to Get a Card
Starting today, you can get your card free through retailers, clippercard.com, calling Clipper directly: (877) 878-8883, or by visiting a participating transit agency's ticketing office. The fact sheet provided by Clipper says: "Customers are limited to two free cards per person. Customers who want more than two cards should be referred to the Customer Service Center."

The Guest Speakers
Celia Kupersmith, GM Golden Gate Transportation District Adrienne Tissier, MTC Vice Chair Marcia deVaughn, Deputy GM of BART Nat Ford, CEO SFMTA Scott Haggerty, MTC Chair
(Move cursor over photo for their name and position title)

While all of them gave their speeches, there is some good news from some of the transit agencies:
  • BART is in process of having their ticketing machines be able to add value to the Clipper cards, and this will mean there will be tons more places to add funds and passes.
  • Samtrans will be "revenue ready" in the summer, but won't be available for the public until the Fall. They are in the process of installing the readers on their brand new fleet of buses.
Here's new information from the Clipper "fact sheet" I was provided, and how it will affect you in the near future:
As I mentioned earlier, Clipper cards are FREE at all retail, ticketing agency offices, their website, and calling customer service.

Within the next few months, Muni's new fare gates will be installed at all metro stations.
  1. The fare gates will not accept cash.
  2. They will have a temporary magnetic card swipe for paper pass users.
  3. The new pre-paid ticketing machines will accept both cash and credit, reload Clipper cards, and will sell Clipper cards.
  4. The big shocker: The vending machines will issue paper temporary Clipper cards for those who need it for single trips and round trips for a 25 cent surcharge; but, the paper card can be reloaded as needed for up to 90 days.
Muni will be transitioning their paper passes to Clipper. Here's when it will happen:
  • Muni's disabled stickers: Fall 2010
  • "A" pass: Fall 2010
  • Youth and senior passes: Early 2011
  • "M" pass: Spring 2011
For you "M" passholders, you can breathe a sigh of relief, for a few more months beyond the planned November date for adult paper passes (as per Muni Diaries).

For now, SF Cable Cars will only accept Clipper cards with the appropriate monthly pass. The fact sheet does not tell when e-cash will be accepted.

Here's more photos from the press conference:

Monday, June 14, 2010

Clipper Begins on June 16th - Software Updates Causing Trouble

UPDATE (8:40AM): TransLink/Clipper card readers now say "Touch Card Below" instead of "Tag Your Card."

We are just a couple of days until TransLink will officially turn into the Clipper card (Wednesday, June 16th). Last week Friday, I was called by a TL/Clipper rep and invited to their press conference, but I'm not sure if my boss will give me the time off needed to be there for the historic moment (fingers crossed!).

Let's get onto some new changes in preparation for the big transition:

The automated add value machines now have updated software on their screen. It's not a huge update, but you'll notice the new blue Clipper graphic and all words saying "TransLink" is now "Clipper." I've produced a video for you to demonstrate how the add value machine works when using cash (bills) to be converted into e-cash for the card.

Adding e-cash is quick when you feed the machine cash, and the funds are available instantly for use.

In other news, it looks like the vehicle card readers have been given another update, and it's not going so hot. Since Friday, I have been riding Muni metro to get to the Giants-A's ballgames at AT&T Park and other short trips since the trains have oh so cool air conditioning in the hot heat.

While waiting for the train at the stations, I've noticed a lot of the metro card readers with all three color lights active, and it was when I rode the train late at night on Saturday after taking photos of the Giants County Fair, that I noticed the software change in the broken reader screen (see photos below).

The reader now says: "Out of Service"
Clipper Reader FAIL

The readers used to say prior to this update: "Out of Order"
Translink - Out of Order

This is the second time a lot of card readers have failed at once. If you recall, on April 16, 2010, a software update on the vehicle card readers caused a massive failure of the system and all three color lights was lit.

Their official response of the April 16th incident in a presentation at a MTC meeting: "The DesFire software release on April 16th caused many on-board CID1s to power down after reboot."

Their official response of the April 16th incident on TL's Facebook page: "Translink apologies for any problems cause by a large number of card readers being out of service last weekend. You may have noticed this if you rode the bus or Muni metro. The problem occurred due to a bug in new software being rolled out to the readers; the problem should now be fixed."

So the software update fails again. Haven't they ever heard of testing the software PRIOR to updating the card reader devices, and if there are going to be problems, have people on-site ready to resolve it before the public even senses there is an issue?

What happens when the Clipper card goes full blown mainstream and there's a software update glitch/problem? The answer is simple, transit agencies will lose thousands of dollars in fare revenue.

The next TransLink/Clipper management meeting is Monday, June 28th, and I'm going to bet the board members are going to shake their fists at the contractor. Why you ask? The board members are the big bosses for the transit agencies they represent, like Nat Ford for Muni, and Michael Burns for VTA.


Lastly, here's a random thought, since TransLink cards can still be used when Clipper becomes official, I'd bet the drivers, station agents, and other folks will get tired of saying things like:
"Can I see your TransLink or Clipper card?"

Maybe instead of two separate names for the same purpose, maybe us locals should combine the two brand names into the nickname "Tripper" or "Tipper."

Friday, June 11, 2010

Learn From the Expert - All You Wanted to Know about TransLink & Clipper Cards

The conversion of paper Muni passes to only use an electronic farecard under TransLink & Clipper has been a very hot topic for the past couple of days with tons of comments (mostly from SF Gate, SFist and Muni Diaries) by citizens of our city and the Bay Area.

This blog entry is to give you the straight facts, answer your questions, and resolve the large amount of misinformation and rumor mill spreading around the comment boards.

I want you to give you the best information so you can be educated and make an informed choice to use the electronic farecard.

TransLink BART Millbrae

Why trust me and my blog?
A lot of people respect Akit's Complaint Department's coverage on TransLink & Clipper because I write about it the most often than any other news agency or local blog site in the Bay Area. I am your unofficial source of well detailed information, news, and opinion, even to the point where the agency refers people to my blog.

What are my credentials?
I have been a cardholder since 2002 when the program was on limited release to certain bus lines, train stations, and ferry lines (see proof). For the past eight years, I have paid for my transit rides using the card with e-cash only, a Muni pass, various valid electronic transfers, and through a commuter benefits company; I share my personal experiences to you readers so you understand how it works. I also conduct research by reading the agendas and meeting minutes of the TransLink management board, BART Board of Directors, and the SFMTA Board of Directors. My information, supported with documentation, has been used by other local prominent media such as SF Appeal.

TransLink Caltrain Millbrae

How this lecture works:
In each topic, I will describe the basics, and if you are curious to learn more, you can read the additional details. To quickly read this article, just stick to the basics.

In some areas, there is just a bullet point list with no distinction between "basics" and "more details."

Clipper Reader on Muni 2

The TransLink & Clipper Program
Basics: The TL/Clipper program is a universal fare card system allowing passengers to easily transfer from one agency to another, without the need to pay in exact change, and carrying multiple passes and tickets.

More details: The public wanted a farecard that is universal with all Bay Area transit agencies. For those who commute to work in another city may depend on two or more transit agencies to get there, but it's such a hassle to carry lots of pocket change, or worry if the ticket purchased has no funds left on it. When first tested over 15 years ago, it was a magnetic stripe, but the agencies argued the machines installed on the buses was bulky and unreliable. It wasn't until the MTC decided to get the ball rolling and follow in the footsteps of the successful Hong Kong Octopus card that made boarding buses and trains quicker and faster. Today, TransLink is becoming Clipper on June 16th with more improvements on the way, and transit agencies are willing to end their paper passes in favor of electronic passes as a cost saving measure.

The [Physical] TransLink & Clipper Cards
Basics: It is a plastic, reusable fare card, and is similar to an ATM/Check card; but, it is not a magnetic stripe, it uses radio frequency technology to deduct fares from the "purse" or allow entry with a valid electronic pass.

More details: The card itself has an antenna surrounding the card. If you shine the TransLink card under a bright light with the white side facing towards you, you will see an antenna about one inch wide surrounding the entire card. The card itself contains a lot of data, from how much is left in the e-cash purse, what transfers are available, and what passes are still valid.

How to Obtain a Card
Basics: People can visit most Walgreens locations around the Bay Area, or visit their website to order one.

More details: Adults can obtain the card without the need to submit personal information.

But... if you are eligible for a discount transit fare or pass (youth, senior, or disabled), you must get a specially encoded card by registering for one. For youth and seniors, you must apply for the card at special sign-up tables or physically visit a transit agency's office. Documentation supporting a person's age is required in order to be issued a proper card.

The youth card is smart to know if the person's current age is eligible for a discount fare, such as if a 17 year old rides Muni, they pay the youth rate, but if they ride BART, they must be charged the adult rate because the youth ticket has a lower age limit. Once the passenger reaches the benchmark age (18), the card is automatically an adult card.

For seniors, they will get a card that clearly says "SENIOR" on it; this helps transit police and fare inspectors to make sure that a senior citizen is not passing on their eligible discounts to a non-eligible person.

For those with disabilities, one must register for a RTC discount card at their local transit agency office. The new RTC cards have the TransLink/Clipper technology loaded on it with all eligible public transit discounts available.

What Transit Agencies Participate in the Program?
Basics: Muni, BART, Golden Gate Transit, Golden Gate Ferry, AC Transit, and Caltrain.

More details: Samtrans and VTA are the next agencies to join the consortium. The goal is to get all the agencies to participate to create one seamless system.

UPDATE 12/9/10: Samtrans will join Clipper on December 15, 2010. VTA will join Clipper on February, 2011. -- End of Update --

How to Use the Card to Board Trains, Buses, Ferries, etc.
Basics: On vehicle card readers and stationary card readers (e.g. ferry terminal readers), walk to the reader, place the card over the black sensor zone, and hold the card steady on the zone until getting a green light and single confirmation tone. On train faregates, place the card over the sensor zone, hold the card steady, and wait for the gate to unlock or open. DO NOT quickly tap the card, swipe, or move it around the sensor zone as it will cause the reader to give no response or the error message (red light and three rapid beeps in high tone). You can also read the screen about the transaction that just happened.

For Golden Gate Transit, Caltrain, and BART passengers, you must "tag-off" in order to be charged the proper fare. Failure to do so may lock the card out, or be charged the maximum fare.

Watch this video about how to properly tag your card on BART and Caltrain:

A passenger's card can go into the negative balance. The maximum negative balance is $10, but once it goes negative, the card can't be used until replenished.

The card can read through your wallet or purse; secure the card closest to the wallet or purse's surface for successful tags every time. If the card is too far away, it won't read. Also, if in a RFID shield, or even tin foil, it won't work. Here's video footage when a card is wrapped in aluminum foil:

More details: A lot of people are giving misinformation about the card's programming...
  • Let's say I am a Muni passenger, I have a valid Muni adult pass on my card and $20 of e-cash. When I board a Muni vehicle and tag my card, the TransLink/Clipper reader will recognize that I have a valid adult pass and will give me the green light to proceed; it will not deduct any e-cash balance. If the pass expired, and I don't have a valid pass for the new month, then the e-cash will be deducted.
  • Let's say I just rode BART to Powell, exited with my electronic farecard, and boarded a Muni bus or entered the metro. Assuming that I do not have a valid Muni pass, the system will automatically recognize the existing transfer agreement between BART and Muni, where the passenger receives a 25 cent discount upon transferring to Muni. The transaction works like this: Instead of deducting $2.00 from the e-cash purse for Muni, it will deduct $1.75. The transfer agreement also allows me to return on Muni to BART by giving me a 25 cent discount on my next Muni transaction within a 24 hour period. (Exception: BART passengers who exits at Daly City gets a free ride on Muni away from the station and to the station on the appropriate bus lines: 28-19th Avenue, 28L-19th Avenue Limited, and 54 Felton with no deduction of e-cash, unless the rider does not return on Muni to BART within the 24 hour limit).
  • Let's say I ride AC Transit, and I have $20 in e-cash and a Muni monthly pass covering that same month. When I tag my card on the AC Transit bus, the system will recognize that I have no valid AC Transit pass media and will deduct $2 from my e-cash purse. When I transfer to another AC Transit bus within the transfer time limit, the TransLink/Clipper card system will recognize the transfer first and only deduct 25 cents from the e-cash purse for the transfer fee.
Holding the card steady is the key to a successful read. Octopus card users are used to this procedure and uses the exact same manufacturer of the technology we are using here in the Bay Area; review the video below:

What do the color lights and beeps mean? Here's a list:
  1. Green light and one beep: Valid fare paid, pass, or transfer for entry.
  2. Green light with yellow light and two beeps in different tones: Card has low e-cash value or just went into the negative.
  3. Red light and three high pitched beeps: Card blocked, card invalid, try card again, poor tagging of card, or a problem with the equipment.
  4. All three lights lit prior to tagging card: The reader is broken and won't respond.

How to Add Value to the Card
Basics: Visit a participating transit agency's ticketing office, use an automated add value machine, visit an official outlet/retail location such as a Walgreens, call the TransLink/Clipper customer service office, and use the TransLink/Clipper website. A cardholder can also request the autoload program; similar to FasTrak, when it reaches a low balance, your registered credit/debit card will be charged to replenish your e-cash, or if a pass expired, a new one can be automatically issued.

E-cash is the official universal electronic purse to deduct transit "cash fares" from all transit agencies. A customer can also purchase ride tickets and passes, regardless of what city or town it is purchased from (e.g. buying a Caltrain pass in Oakland).

More details: Here's a description of how each location works and what payments they accept.
  1. Transit agency ticketing offices accepts cash and commuter benefits vouchers. Adding funds and passes is instantly updated on the card for immediate use.
  2. Automated add value machines are located at major stations such as all Muni metro stations and all downtown SF BART stations. They accept cash, credit cards, debit cards, and commuter benefit debit cards. Adding funds and passes is instantly updated on the card for immediate use. BART ticketing machines will eventually be allowed to purchase TransLink/Clipper fare media.
  3. An official outlet or retail location is similar to a transit agency's ticketing office. They accept cash and commuter benefits vouchers. Although the location could accept credit cards, it WILL NOT accept commuter benefits debit cards. I highly recommend you do not attempt to use a commuter benefits debit card because it may get rejected or the benefits company will hound you for using it an unauthorized location. Adding funds and passes is instantly updated on the card for immediate use. UPDATE: Walgreens locations will accept commuter benefit paper vouchers. For other in-person vendors, call and check with them.
  4. Over the phone or TransLink website accepts credit cards, debit cards, and commuter benefits cards. Adding cash and passes has a waiting period of up to five days before the new value or pass will be available to use. Click here to read more about the five day policy. UPDATE: Link updated due to change in policy.
  5. Autoload registration must be done over the phone with TransLink/Clipper or by visiting their website. You must register the card under your name; anonymous cards (unregistered cards) cannot enroll in this program.
Taking Care of the Card
Basics: Never bend, break, or punch a hole in the card. It has a little leeway when bending, but treat the card like like it is a thin piece of glass and one drop or bend will shatter it. If you fear that you may render the card unusable, I suggest buying a protective sleeve that is rigid enough to resist bending and breaking.

More details: Bending, breaking, and punching a hole in the card will destroy the hidden antenna in the card and render it useless. Replacing the card with it's existing e-cash balance and/or passes is a serious pain.

Registering the Card or Not
Basics: Registering the card provides automatic protection in case you lose the card. When the card is lost, just call TransLink/Clipper and they will cancel the card, and issue you a new one by restoring your e-cash and/or passes. Not registering the card is the opposite, but gives people the advantage of anonymity.

More details: If you have that fear of being tracked everywhere you go, DO NOT register your card. Understand the risk that if you lose it or it gets stolen, that's the end. You will not have the right to a balance restoration, nor be eligible for the autoload program. To be completely anonymous, always add your e-cash and passes by paying in cash.

Unique Exceptions to the General Rules
  • The TransLink card is still valid when the name changes to Clipper on June 16th. But the new Clipper card will be much more responsive than the old TransLink card.
  • When riding a Cable Car, show the card to the conductor, and they will use their mobile card reader. Current Muni policy only allows monthly passholders to use this (e-cash not accepted).
  • When riding Muni and a fare inspector has their card reader, present the card to the inspector to check for validity. It will not deduct your e-cash. The card reader can also show a history report of your most recent transactions and what type(s) of pass(es) you have on the card.
  • Golden Gate Ferry and Transit customers with a TransLink/Clipper card pays the commuter discount rate, which is lower than the cash fare price. Only valid for adults, but all people eligible for discounts (disabled, senior, youth, etc.) pay the e-cash price which is lower than the commuter fare the adults pay with their card. For the ferry boats, this means a nearly 50% discount for adults.
  • For those who use BART's high value tickets (e.g. $60 up front gets $64 in rides) a cardholder must register their card with TransLink/Clipper, enroll in autoload, and select automatic loading of the high value tickets. BART intends to change this policy in the future to allow non-autoload customers to have a separate BART e-cash purse.
  • Caltrain has what I call a "suicide refund" or "delay policy." If you tagged-on at a station/platform reader and tag again at the same station's reader within 15 minutes, the card will be fully refunded. This is perfect if the train is delayed or service has been halted. My recommendation is to tag your card 15 minutes or less, prior to the arrival of the train.
  • Caltrain passengers who have a pass can travel within the designated zones they paid for with no e-cash balance deduction. If I bought a monthly pass covering zones 1 to 3, I can ride within that area only. If going to zone 4, I must buy a one zone upgrade paper ticket. (This bullet point updated 11/1/10)
  • Caltrain passengers with a monthly pass must tag their card to activate their pass on the first day of travel on the new month. Once activated, there is no need to tag the card, and the conductor/inspector will notice you have a valid pass covering the zones.
  • Caltrain passengers must have at least $2.50 in e-cash fare, regardless if there is a pass or 8-ride ticket on the card. The unique tag-on and tag-off procedure automatically deducts the maximum fare of $11.25 when tagging-on, and will refund it upon tagging-off (being charged the proper fare for the ride). The $2.50 is necessary because the maximum negative balance is currently $10. (Update: This was corrected due to price hike on Caltrain)
Translink - Red Light

Let's talk about problem resolution. Follow this sequence if you experience problems tagging your card to a reader:
  1. Is the card reader on? If not, tell the driver.
  2. If the screen is active prior to tagging my card, and did I see a red light, or all three color lights lit at once? If yes, it is not your fault; the reader is broken.
  3. If the reader is acting normally: If I got no response after tagging the card correctly, the card might be broken. But don't assume that yet, try another bus or train.
  4. If the reader is acting normally: If I got the red light, try tagging the card one more time, holding the card steady. Do not remove the card from the sensor until given the proper response.
  5. If the reader continues to give the red light, read the screen, and give TransLink/Clipper a call. If your credit card expired and you have autoload, your card gets locked-out until you update it. If you have no e-cash or it went negative, you need to replenish the card.
BART Agent FAIL - Setting bad example

It's time to fight off the misinformation by others (humiliation!):
  1. There is no monthly service fee to have the card. If you don't get the card for free during the giveaway period, a one-time $5 fee is required; it's like a security deposit so people don't try to hoard on freebie cards.
  2. The same paper media you love to buy from transit agencies are available through TransLink/Clipper. It's just the transition away from paper to help save the earth from tickets and passes being thrown in the trash every month. Don't be like this commentator who made a dumb comment.
  3. It is impossible for a monthly pass holder for the agency they are allowed to ride to have their e-cash balance deducted when boarding the same agency's buses or trains. Hey dude, show me some proof, and maybe I'll believe you. When I had a Muni monthly pass and e-cash at the same time, boarding a Muni bus only recognized my pass and never touched my pool of e-cash.
  4. The paper adult Muni passes might go away in October. Interestingly, Muni Diaries first reported on it, but it's odd that Muni's website doesn't mention that (as of today).
  5. Someone said there is no 3-day grace period for the electronic Muni passes. I hate to ruin your party, there is a 3-day grace period for Muni passes on TransLink/Clipper. Kudos to the smart commentator.
  6. There is no fee to buy transit media for TransLink/Clipper online. But greedy ol' Muni will sure gouge you $2.50 if you buy the June paper pass on the SFMTA website.
  7. No, the fast pass won't be eliminated upon conversion to electronic ticketing only. If they did, passengers might break the door down at Muni Chief Nat Ford's office. Here's another idiot commenter, and another with a similar mention.
  8. There's a definite difference between FasTrak and Clipper. Duh!
AT&T Park 7/18/08 - Crazy Crab Bobblehead

Let's end it with a laugh:

Here's a fun slogan someone suggested on SFist about my idea to rename TransLink: "The Crab Card"
"[The Crab Card]: we've got crabs, and now you can too."

Thank you for reading! I hope this was helpful.

UPDATE: All links updated due to transition from TransLink to Clipper.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The End of Adult Muni Paper Passes in October Will Hurt Retailers

The news wire is hot about a claim that Muni will eliminate all paper passes for adults starting this October. Muni Diaries first reported this story, and it spread like wildfire to other news venues like SFist, SF Appeal, SFGate's "The Scavenger," and Mission Mission.

To some, it's a shock to see their colorful paper Muni passes going away, while others moan and groan about how TransLink somehow sucks or experiences problems. I'm trying to help cool down the fire in the comment boards by telling them of future improvements with the new Clipper cards, updates from board meetings of various agencies, and tips on how to make it a better experience.

One serious concern nobody has mentioned is if Muni does follow through with their threat to drop paper passes in favor of Clipper cards, are the retailers who currently sell paper media going to take this lightly if they might lose their regular customers?

In my opinion, I believe this will hurt local businesses who sell the paper adult Muni passes. Say for example, each establishment doesn't make any money for selling the passes, but they sell them so the patrons will likely purchase other items.

Here's a great example of why vendors would sell Muni passes:
  • The SFSU student center sells them (including BART tickets) in a venue where just steps away are two convenience marts, bookstore, and various food vendors. If someone was to purchase their pass there, it is possible the patron may get some coffee or a meal before going to class or home.
It's just like the California Lottery, only some retailers have the ticket machines. Some people go on a frequent basis to buy tickets, and sometimes grab some groceries or something from the impulse section.

Will Muni ask the TransLink/Clipper folks to install more add value machines at the existing retail locations so patrons can buy passes and add e-cash funds without trying to find a Walgreens or an add value machine at a major transit station?

I think we need more ticketing retail outlets to sell TransLink/Clipper media, including the e-Muni monthly passes. Not every person wants to order it online or by phone; they prefer that in-person experience. I believe existing Muni pass retailers will demand a proper alternative to maintain their customer base.

Want a Clipper Card on June 16th? Not That Easy for Existing TransLink Users

This Friday, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's (MTC) Operations Committee will be having their public meeting. On agenda item #6, it is updates from the Executive Director of the MTC about TransLink to Clipper transition.

Clipper Reader on Muni 3

Don't expect that new customer service center to be open anytime soon. It's now been pushed to the Fall because they are seeking a bigger space, and will be using Embarcadero BART as their San Francisco service office. They are also considering to open one in the East Bay.

But let's get onto the big topic. Here's where the news gets a little interesting from the Executive Director's memo...

As all of you know, Clipper is official starting on June 16th, and all the vendors such as Walgreens will be able to issue people a brand new blue color Clipper card. For the first three months, the Clipper card will be FREE, instead of paying the $5 initial fee to obtain it.

But not so fast to all you green TransLink cardholders! You won't be getting a replacement card that day or anytime soon.
(Ut-oh! No new toy for their existing customer base, yet!)

The Executive Director states: "For customers who already have a TransLink card but want to have a Clipper card, they can simply use any remaining balance on their TransLink card, acquire a Clipper card at no charge, and the begin using the Clipper card..."

For those who use Autoload, you would need to contact the customer service office in obtaining the new Clipper card.

Hmmm... I'm not liking what he just said. I don't use Autoload and I have a decent e-cash balance on my card. I won't be able to fry all the cash value in the TransLink card for a good while (I have a paper Muni pass), and by the time I deplete my account, the Clipper card fee will return to $5.

Plus, doesn't the MTC want some good P.R. by letting one of their most loyal customers since the start of the TransLink pilot program in 2002 (that's me!), to be one of the FIRST to use the brand new card?

Hey, um... where's my invite to the press conference next Wednesday? Are you going to have one?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Updates on BART Survey for TransLink (Clipper)

Since I have a Mac at home, I didn't notice the additional attachment in the PDF document from the BART Board of Directors meeting agenda for this Thursday. I needed to use an Adobe based PDF reader vs. Mac's "preview" program, and I found more information about the BART survey results, and some extra news about how BART will progress with TransLink/Clipper.

Here's more of what came out of the survey (read the initial results first):
  1. Invitations were sent via e-mail to 5,800 BART riders holding TL cards. The population they picked includes people who transitioned from EZ Rider, ones who enrolled in the high value discount autoload program (TransLink), and others who participated in TransLink.
  2. 45% accepted the invitation to take the survey (2,600 people).
  3. Two most common problems are: "See agent" when tagging card, and "takes too long" (when reading the card).
  4. The new card sensors are working better than the original ones. 35% agreed.
  5. The error rate of tagging the card is 7.8% systemwide.
Translink Cards - Current and Past

More news from BART about Clipper:
  1. There is a claim the new Clipper cards (by DesFire) will be quicker processing.
  2. BART is considering to do a replacement of their small fare gate displays.
  3. EZ Rider will be phased out by December. The parking program which is dependent on EZ Rider will transition to Clipper in November.
  4. The transition for high value tickets and senior/youth tickets is ongoing while they do an evaluation as per policy.
  5. EZ Rider cardholders will be sent an e-mail starting after June 15th to encourage them to transition to Clipper. This will be done in small batches to not overload the folks at both BART (EZ Rider) and Clipper with issuing refunds and new cards.

People Like TransLink (Clipper) on BART - How about Muni?

Not long ago, the SF Examiner published a brief article stating in a recent survey of BART passengers holding a TransLink card, 88% are satisfied with the card, an improvement of 6% when it was 82% a year ago.

As for recommending the card to someone else, the results show 93% would, while last year was 89%.

But problems are still quite high with 28% stating they had some type of problem; while down from last year (33%). One of the issues is the does not explain what the problem is with the program, so if they experienced even a minor problem (even if it's the user's fault) or a problem outside of the BART agency, it would still count as a problem.

The BART Board of Directors will hear about the survey results in their meeting this Thursday.

TransLink BART Reader - Upgraded Version

Akit's opinions:
  1. It's a good sign that people are taking TransLink/Clipper more seriously, and BART's cooperation in the program is much better than the days when they screwed the MTC over with their EZ Rider card and James Fang on a tirade about cell phones to pay for BART rides (and wasting $350K of our tax money).
  2. 28% experiencing a problem is still too high for this program. If I was surveyed, I'd have to agree that I've had some problems where the gates would reject the card and not open, and there's about a 5 second delay until I can try again on the same gate.
  3. If we were to compare BART's survey results to other transit agencies, I would think Muni would be on the bottom. Just within the last few days, I've already noticed the card readers on vehicles having problems.
  4. I'm curious to know how many did the survey and if it was available to all participants, or a restricted few who voluntarily transitioned from EZ Rider to TransLink/Clipper.
  5. Lastly, if things are improving and Clipper becomes popular, will BART ever consider converting some of their gates at the busiest stations to the electronic card only to help make a speedy exit?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

More TransLink to Clipper Updates with Photos

Akit's Complaint Department is proud to be your unofficial source of information about the TransLink/Clipper program: providing insight, advice, tips, and the latest news that you would not likely hear from other news sources. If the folks at TL/Clipper refers their Facebook fans to an article on my blog, they know I'm some kind of legend.

Well... on to the updates.

With only a week and a half until the official change from TransLink to Clipper is completed (June 16), here's some updates on what's going on.

I made an error to the planned transition of the automated add value machines for conversion from the chipped (TransLink) to non-chipped (Clipper) cards. The re-branded automated add value machines still have their card slot, however, modified to be able to read and write to the card without the need of the gold chip. It's a cost savings for TL/Clipper and the MTC because it would cost extra to install a sensor pad reader similar to what BART's automated ticketing machines have. While BART's ticketing machine sensors are not active, they intend to be in the future to allow the adding of funds and other types of purchases.

There's a lot more people using the cards on the Muni system. When I was riding the bus yesterday (Saturday), the beeping sounds happened more often, but the traditional fare media (passes, transfers, and cash fares) are still the majority. If you pay for your rides in e-cash and transfer to another vehicle, the card reader screen now tells you how much time is remaining until the transfer expires. One item that needs improvement is the little screen on the BART fare gates. The balance paid and remaining balance should be in a larger size. The "OK" letters take-over too much of the screen.

Here's some photos of the re-branding:

Clipper Reader on Muni 2
The re-branded vehicle card readers have been done with industrial strength stickers covering the card target spot and the word "TransLink." Let's see how long those stickers will last until someone tries to pry it off.

Clipper Add Value Machine
As I previously mentioned, the automated add value machines' hardware has not changed; but do expect the software to be updated soon because it still says "TransLink."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My Experience as an Alternate Juror for a Criminal Trial

One of the hot topics in the local news is about the upcoming Mehserle trial (better known as the "BART police shooting trial"), and SF Gate was able to show readers some of the unique interview questions (Voir dire process) that was being asked to people who have been called-up for jury duty service.

If you ever get an opportunity to serve on a jury, it is a humbling and interesting experience. Don't be offended if you get excused during the Vior dire, it's just part of the process for an impartial jury.

I had a rare opportunity to be on a jury, but even more rare was being selected as an alternate. One of my co-workers asked me if I was going to blog about it after the verdict was said and done, and I thought about it, and now I feel it is the right time to talk about it.

Readers, be aware: Since the verdict has been decided and was read in open (public) court, I am legally allowed to openly discuss about the case.


Summoned to Jury Duty
A few weeks before I was instructed to report to San Francisco's Hall of Justice, I got the usual letter from the courthouse telling me about when I will have to be on-call. They told me to be on-call for a week starting April 26th. So I gave ample notice to my supervisors of my possible planned departure and waited until the first day to check their website if I was to be report in.

It turned-out, I was instructed to show-up at 9:30AM on the first day of my on-call service.

What a bad streak of luck for me... every time I have been notified of jury service, I had to report to the first day (Monday) at the earliest time slot (usually before 10AM). The first time, our group went into the courtroom where I was not selected as a jury member (bike vs. car civil case), and the second time the jury commissioner told us less than 15 minutes after arrival to go home because the defendant did a plea bargain.

Called Into The Courtroom
Shortly after checking-in and watching the video about how the jury trial system works, the commissioner instructed pretty much the entire group to a nearby courtroom for jury selection.

The judge informed the big group that she was only going to do hardship petitions at that time and told everyone that if they didn't have a hardship, they are ordered to return to the courthouse a week later in the morning. I could hear the grumble from the jurors that they now have to come back for another round of jury selection. Hey, at least they get their juror service stipend and mileage. I can't get the $15/day stipend because I'm a government employee, but the mileage at least gave me a one-way bus ride and a cheap cup of coffee.

One Week Later: The Real Jury Selection Process
On May 3rd, everyone came back, but you can notice a handful of empty seats. Some of them got their hardship petitions approved. The group learned that the case may take a few weeks, and reopened the hardship process because it could interfere with those who have vacations and assuming it would be a short trial. So as I sticked around since I had no petition, the real jury selection process started-up.

The judge informed us about the charges the defendant was accused of. He was charged with:
  • Domestic violence (assault with serious bodily injury, a higher level than simple assault or battery).
  • Dissuading a witness.
  • Possession of narcotics with intent to sell.
  • Multiple violations of a stay away order.
The court clerk called-up 24 people, with the first 12 people sitting in the primary jury seats, four sitting in the alternate seats, and the rest in additional seats near the jury box. This is when it got a little personal, the Vior dire process.

The Voir dire is a formal process that allows the District Attorney and the defense to basically filter out the jurors to create one that would be impartial and fair for a jury trial.

I was not called-up as part of the 24 person pool (random lottery), but I was instructed with the others to listen carefully to the questions and be prepared to respond if called-up to sit in the seats. Here's how the process basically went:
  • The judge asked everyone to verbally answer some basic questions, including what neighborhood we live in, people in the household, and our highest level of education.
  • The lawyers took careful notes about each person and asked more detailed questions which related to the case. Based on the answers given, each lawyer can excuse so many potential jurors for any reason, but they don't have an obligation to respond to why the juror was excused. The lawyers can also chat with the judge if they all mutually agree a juror is not suitable for a jury (e.g. not fluent in English).
Once the jury pool was reduced, they basically shifted the ones left standing in the jury box area. For example, if potential jurors numbers one and two were excused, everyone would shift over. One interesting issue that arose is that the number excused did not fill-in the entire jury box of 12 jurors and four alternates, so others had to be called-up for Voir dire.

Then it was my turn... I was called-up to sit in seat 19 and had to answer the usual questions the judge asked the jury earlier, mention to the judge if I knew any person in the courtroom, any possible biases I may have, and answer any questions from the lawyers.

After the lawyers excused some more people, the final jury was completed. I moved into seat 14, better known as "alternate #2." I was a little bummed that it is likely possible I won't be able to deliberate the case, but on the other hand, I get to do something completely different than work!

The judge instructed the newly formed jury to report a week later for jury trial.

The Jury Trial (Day 1)
The jury trial was to begin with the usual stuff you see on those courthouse TV shows; the District Attorney gave his introduction into the case at hand and showed us pictures of the victim, and some of the other documents he was able to enlarge for everyone to see. The defense (Public Defender? I wasn't sure) gave their view of the charges at hand.

Sure, those courthouse TV shows sound exciting, but in reality, jury trials are not that exciting. I won't say it's boring to the point where I wanted to sleep (I'd be in big trouble...), but was interesting enough for me to pay attention, and note taking in our official court notepad helped me focus on the case at hand.

The D.A. called in the first witness, the victim; she was brought in so the lawyers can try their hand at the domestic violence/assault, and dissuading a witness charges. I have to say, she was a little shaky with sitting on the witness stand; some of her answers were vague and it made it a challenge for the D.A. to ask good questions and get decent answers. I don't know if she was afraid to face her ex-boyfriend in court or not, and the defendant sure looked mad based on the look on his face while she was giving testimony.

With the witness on the stand, the D.A. played jail telephone recordings to help refresh her memory of some of the conversations they had over the phone while the D.A. is trying to demonstrate through the audio tapes that the defendant admitted to hitting the victim and trying to dissuade her from testifying in court and seeing the District Attorney.

It was the end of the day and the victim was dismissed from the stand. The judge informed us every time the jury had to leave the courtroom for a bathroom break, lunch, or going home for the day, that we are not allowed to talk with anyone about the case, and to make no judgments about the case. That included my parents too who were curious about the case, but I had a civic duty to keep my mouth shut.

Jury Trial: Days 2 & 3
On days two and three, the D.A. called-up a number of people to the witness stand:
  • Local SF police officers gave testimony on the domestic violence incident and the possession of drugs. One of the officers wrote the report that showed the victims injuries on a standard domestic violence form they use, and was also shown a picture to support those injuries. A second officer at the incident scene gave testimony about the drugs that the person had in possession, and it was a lot of drugs. You'll learn more about the drugs shortly. As standard policy, the defense asked their round of questions to the police officers.
  • A member of the SF Sheriff's Department who investigates jailhouse crimes was called-in to make sure the audio tapes played to the jury was authentic. The jury got to hear more of the jail telephone recordings. It's interesting to note that if you make a phone call from a jail, the jail will record your phone call, unless if it is to a doctor, lawyer, or a religious adviser. He was also asked about the large amount of drugs the suspect had, and if it was true if the suspect was able to sneak in more through his butt. I was trying to hold back the laughing because the D.A. kept saying "buttocks" as a formal term instead of other, more amusing words like anus, rectum, and asshole. It got even more silly when the D.A. said, is it possible to sneak in, say, 500 pills up the butt? Then went even higher to 5,000, in which the Deputy said, it is possible if the person can take that much in there.
  • Another member of the Sheriff's Department was called into simply support the regular procedure of transporting the narcotics to the drug lab in San Mateo County. Based on the responses given, it sounded like this was a no brainer, the process was done correctly.
  • A member of the San Mateo drug lab was called in to testify about the narcotics. The drug tech said there was 200 alleged ecstasy (MDMA) pills in the bag that was found in the suspect's sock during the time of arrest. The lab tech confirmed on one of the pills that it contained the drug. The defense asked the tech about the testing procedures, to create doubt in the jury, and it was known that only one pill was tested; it almost sounded like the lawyer wanted all the pills tested. The defense also wanted to know the strength of the tablet tested, but the D.A. wanted to point out that regardless of the strength of the narcotic, any amount is possession.
By this point, the D.A. rested his case and allowed the defense to call-up any witnesses. By this point, the defense didn't call-up any witnesses, and we had to get ready for the final statements from both sides on day 4.

Jury Trial: Day 4
In the morning, the bailiff met with the jury group and said that lunch would be free today; for the exception of the alternates. Damn... no free lunch for me? Turned out I went across the street to the Live Sushi Bistro for a tasty lunch while my jury colleagues had cold sandwiches and a can of soda. Bravo to the budget cuts; I thought they'd get Chinese food.

It turned out the estimated time of the jury trial was way overestimated. The trial was going to run at least two weeks or even four weeks, but my part of the service as an alternate was going to end quite quickly. It was day four of the trial and the final arguments by both sides was happening today. Each side gave their view of the case at hand and reminded us about the statements from all the people on the witness stand. The strongest piece given during this portion was from the D.A. when he played a snippet of the audio tape the jury heard earlier.

Jury instructions... oh my gosh, that was the most boring part of the process. The judge gave the entire jury (including the alternates) instructions, including how the law explains each charge and the lesser charges, if the jury decides if the defendant is not guilty of the original charge offered. A lot of stuff had to be repeated as per court procedure, and we were told later that we'd get it in writing too.

Once that was done, the judge sent the 12 jurors to the deliberations room, and the alternate group was informed of the process for us. I was next in succession if a juror was excused (originally, #13 moved to the primary jury on the second day), and she told us to be ready to report to the courthouse in the situation a juror was excused.

Deliberations and the Verdict
It kinda sucked to return to work on that Friday while being pestered by my co-workers about the trial. I couldn't tell them anything at that time, but I was also relieved that I could return to work and prepare for the last week of the Spring semester at SF State.

In the next week, I didn't hear word until I was eating breakfast in the campus dining center on Wednesday. The clerk called and informed me the jury made their verdicts:
  • Guilty on the lesser charge of battery.
  • Guilty on all remaining counts: possession of narcotics with intent to sell, violation of stay away orders, and dissuading a witness.
I told the clerk while I'm having my eggs and toast, that while it was disappointing I could not be deliberating, it was an interesting experience, and to pass on my appreciation for the hard work and effort to the judge and lawyers.

Akit's Analysis of the Case
While I could not deliberate, here's my take about the case after hearing all the evidence and testimony:
  • I felt the defendant was guilty on all charges.
  • The most damming evidence that got him nailed with being convicted with battery and dissuading a witness was the jail phone recordings. The automated recording system gives a disclaimer prior to calling someone that the phone calls are recorded and monitored. The guy should have kept his mouth shut because he basically admitted to the crimes he was charged of.
  • One tablet of MDMA is bad enough for a possession charge, but having a baggie full of 200 of them? That to me felt like intention to sell.
  • I knew that the SFPD drug lab was shut down, and it had to be shipped to San Mateo County for testing, but since the transportation and testing process was done properly, I believed the narcotics are for real and was not tampered with. Anyway, SF's lab didn't even touch the stuff.
  • The District Attorney's case was really strong and he had a lot of strong and credible evidence to back it up.
  • The defense was weak, but the lawyer had to try his best to fight back through cross-examination of the witnesses.

Akit's Tips to Surviving Jury Duty at the SF Hall of Justice:
  1. Bring a music player or an iPod. There will be times when the judge is handling court business outside the presence of the jury.
  2. If you can, bring your own lunch. If not, there's plenty of places to eat within walking distance of the courthouse, including fast food restaurants.
  3. There is a snack bar at the courthouse for those lighter occasions.
  4. Yes, you can bring in hot coffee to the courthouse, but the deputies will just ask you to hand carry it through the metal detector instead of feeding it through the x-ray machine.
  5. There is not a lot of sunlight in the courthouse, and the only place to get some is at in the jury assembly room. The room is not just for the potential jurors to assemble, but for those who are a member of the jury to soak in the views of the downtown skyline.
  6. The courthouse bathrooms are super clean and well stocked. Make sure to take care of your "business" during the trial breaks.
  7. There is WiFi in the courthouse, including the main hallways. Use it! It's free.
  8. If selected to be on a jury, you can get discounted parking for $5 a day. Not a bad offer since mileage is only $2.50 a day.
  9. Jury stipend is $15 a day and $2.50 for mileage, but won't get paid if it's their first day. Second and beyond days will get the pay. Local, state, and federal employees are not eligible for the $15 stipend and you must notify the jury office. Regardless of where you are employed, mileage can be taken or waived. The State will mail checks twice a month.
  10. Muni is an alternate option and is served by the 27-Bryant, 47-Van Ness, and 8X-Bayshore Express (AX and BX too). Expect delays eastbound on Bryant due to the Bay Bridge freeway entrance.
  11. Lastly, remember to get a decent night's sleep. You don't want to struggle staying awake during a trial.