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Monday, July 19, 2010

The History and Demise of Muni Tokens

If you have lived in San Francisco for at least five years, you should already know about the Muni tokens. Muni sold these little coins in bags containing ten, and made it easy for passengers to drop one little coin instead of multiple quarters or dollar bills into the farebox.

Even better, the tokens were good for life (similar to "Forever" postage stamps). When Muni sold the token bags, each token was 25 cents less than the adult cash fare, a great bargain for those who ride Muni on an infrequent basis.

Token Hoarding became a Big Problem
The tokens became a hot item to purchase when Muni announced their fare hikes months in advance. Since the tokens was fare hike resistant, people would go around to every vendor in the city to snatch all the token bags they can get their hands on and save up to 50 cents per token (tokens are purchased prior to fare hike at lower price, and utilized after fare hike).

The hoarding of tokens became so bad, there was a shortage of tokens. Muni ordered their vendors to limit sales to one bag per person, and the agency also decided to print "token tickets" as a substitute for actual tokens. The discount still applied per "token ticket" but it came with a little surprise, it was NOT fare hike resistant because there was an expiration date.

The Decline of Muni Tokens
Things changed for the little coin that saved people money. On September 1, 2005, Muni raised the adult fare from $1.25 to $1.50, but the token's special discount was to end. It was the last time the cheapskates can hoard on the token (coined version) before the hike because the price per token after the fare hike was to be the same price as the adult cash fare ($15 for 10 tokens or tickets).

Since 2005, the Muni token has been a ghost just wandering around the transit system. The token in coin and paper forms is a legal form of payment for passengers, but hardly anyone used it anymore. The coin was disappearing quick as a result of Muni realizing producing more coins was more expensive than the paper ticket version, and was a form of punishment for those who hoarded the coins just to save a few dollars (basically, those who hoarded promoted the token's demise). The paper ticket version was also not going well because passengers realized there are very few locations in the city that sells the ticket books, plus, with no discount per ticket, it was easier to shove a bill and a few quarters down the machine.

Tokens on Life Support (barely)
More recently, it has quietly disappeared with no more coins in circulation, nor paper tickets produced. The SFMTA's website now tells passengers to purchase their tokens through the Clipper card program. Clipper's price is $20 for 10 rides (e-tokens) or $2 per ride, the equivalent of paying cash or Clipper e-cash per ride on Muni.

Save the Token or Kill it?
Since Muni's current policy is the price per e-token using Clipper is the same as paying out of a passenger Clipper e-cash purse, it seems worthless for the public to even think of buying them.

Is there any real reason why Muni still sells them since it's demise in late 2005? I used to purchase the token ticket books (after 2005) because I used to get $30 Commuter Check vouchers to cover riding the bus to work on a part-time basis and I didn't need a monthly pass. Since TransLink/Clipper is now available on all Muni buses and trains, I can easily convert my Commuter Check vouchers into e-cash.

If Muni continues to sell the e-tokens using Clipper at the same price as an adult fare, the token will die for the consumer. The token can be saved if Muni is willing and able to offer passengers a discount for buying bulk pre-paid tickets through Clipper for those who infrequently rides Muni and knows buying a pass is not worth its value. Caltrain sells eight ride tickets for a discount, BART sells high value tickets with a 6.25% discount, and Golden Gate Transit & Ferry used to sell discounted commuter ticket books, but switched to Clipper by giving every cardholder the discounted rate, regardless if riding only once in a year, month, week, or daily.

Here's a good head scratching question: If Clipper is taking over sales of e-token rides, do they have an expiration? If not, the fare instrument would be fare hike resistant because people can buy as many 10 ride e-tokens as they please before the fare hike is active, thereby saving money per ride. But, if Muni demands e-cash be deducted to make-up the difference, then it's pointless to even consider buying the e-tokens regardless if they have an expiration or not.

Photo of Muni token from Flickr user "cbcastro" using a Creative Commons License.


Erorg said...

1. I think MUNI and Clipper should give a $0.50 discount on Clipper cards for people who use 10 Ride Tickets/Tokens - why not? They want people to ride, we need a discount, and Clipper rarely works, so give us a discount and something to adopt.

2. If there is a discount, have a 60 day expiration time on those tickets, just like Caltrain does.

3. If there is NO discount offered, make the tickets/tokens fare-hike proof, and good as long as THAT CARD is usable. The tickets are non-transferable for life, but can be transfered to a new card but must be used within 30 days.


Anonymous said...

About three weeks ago waiting for the 19-Polk a lady started chatting with me. She asked me if I had a transfer and I did not, so she grabbed from her purse a new bag of these tokens and gave me one to pay my fare. She gave one to another guy at the bus stop too.

Jay said...

I did buy the token books for a while but found them a pain the butt to use in the subway. Enter Embarcadero station at 1pm and both booths are closed...what can I do besides jump the turnstile? I could pay cash, but the coin machine is broken, the fare gate doesn't take bills, and in a way I've already paid the fare.

Then when boarding a bus, some drivers want me to tear off the stub and others want to tear it off themselves. So inconsistent...

The only benefit I found was for the riding the M from SFSU when the trains run 50 minutes apart during the middle of the day. The ticket machine at the platform sells tickets good for about 90 minutes and after the 50 minute waits, there is barely time to get to Embarcadero without the ticket expiring.

Everywhere else, I found using two $1 coins much more convenient and faster. In fact, it is faster and better than Translink. Coins register faster and I get a transfer with enough time on it that I might actually be able to sue it to transfer to another bus.

Anonymous said...

I still have a bunch of the metal coin tokens. Are they still usable?

Akit said...

Yes, the metal tokens are still good for Muni rides. I'd keep them as they are very good souvenirs as once they are used, Muni won't recirculate them.

Anonymous said...

When I tried to use a token in the machine the first time the machine did not take it, although the agent had said it would. When I asked the station agent again, he said, it will still give you a one say ticket for 1 token, but it won't accept it for a round trip or additional trips, he said. The ticket you then get does still include additional time within which you can use it, so the token (you have hoarded) should still get you the equivalent of what it did before, if what he told me is correct.

Anonymous said...

I would love to have one of the metal tokens, but don't know where to get one, who does?

Akit said...

Not sure. Not officially given out to the public anymore. Might have to go though some kind of black market.

Anonymous said...

Is it still good to use now? I had bought some a while back and moved so I didn't need to use them anymore. I still have a few. Is it still good?

Akit said...

It's still legal tender, but once you pay for a Muni ride, the agency won't recirculate that coin anymore.

My recommendation, make it into something useful. Some have actually made cufflinks by hot gluing the token.

Anonymous said...

I just found a handful of these rare hoarded tokens. You said it was still legal tender to be used for a ride on muni. What is the value on it? If it costs $2 an adult, do i drop in 1 or 2 tokens? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Ah, only 5 years? I lived in sf for 96 years now, thats because I'm born in U.S San Francisco in 1920,I still have a couple of bags of them from the 1950s. Any value of them.