"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)
"You are doing a great job keeping on top of Translink stuff. Keep up the good work!"
(Greg Dewar, N Judah Chronicles)
"...I don't even bother subscribing anywhere else for my local public transportation info. You have it all..."
(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)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Big Changes for Clipper Card Starting June 1st

June 1st is coming up in just a couple of days, for some people out there, they will be affected by the few big changes that was planned a long time ago.

New Card Issuance Fee
A new Clipper card will cost $5 each for all adults starting June 1st. The blue cards have been given for free for nearly a year, and the free cards will come to an end after May 31st. During the 'free' card period, a person must purchase a minimum value to get the free card, such as $5 in e-cash or a transit pass. Since the new $5 fee is not a deposit or a credit to one's Clipper card account, it is unknown if a passenger must still load a minimum card value on top of the $5 fee.

Clipper cards for all youth & seniors will still remain free.

UPDATE: One of my fellow bloggers is questioning when the card fee may expire. My news sources from many months ago says: "...through June..." which could be interpreted as June 1st or June 30th (last day of fiscal year). If a Clipper representative is available, please inform me in the comments section on the OFFICIAL last date. Thanks.

Mandatory Muni Senior Pass to Clipper Only
Starting with the June 2011 Muni pass period, senior passes are only available on senior Clipper cards. Seniors who did not obtain a Clipper card can receive one immediately by going to one of these sign-up locations. Remember to bring proof of age to demonstrate to the staff member that you are eligible to receive the grey colored card.

For all sign-up locations this week, click here.

These places will always issue Senior cards (versus their traveling crew that does a few locations a day and moves-on to different locations the next day):
  1. Clipper customer service at Embaracadero Station & Bay Crossings at SF Ferry Building.
  2. SFMTA customer service center at Market & South Van Ness (SW corner).
  3. Presidio sales booth at Geary & Presidio (across from Office Depot).

Youth Muni Pass Goes Clipper Only Starting August 1st (not June 1st)
Muni has given San Francisco's youth a little break on switching to Clipper. The last paper "Y" pass will be sold for the month of July and will go Clipper only on August 1st.

This is a little more complicated than what it seems...

While the last paper pass will be July's, Muni will slash the number of locations where the youth pass will be sold for the July pass. Only 11 Muni pass outlets will sell the July paper pass, thereby encouraging all youth to start applying for their customized youth Clipper card as soon as possible. See list of the 11 retailers by clicking here. June paper passes will be sold at all Muni pass retail outlets as usual.

To sign-up for a youth Clipper card, complete the application form before arriving to a sign-up location (click here for application form; PDF file) and bring proof of age to the sign-up location. The form cannot be mailed to Clipper customer service or Muni, and must be submitted in-person.

A parent or guardian can submit the form without the youth's presence by visiting Muni's customer service center at 11 South Van Ness (Bank of America building). Make sure to bring a COPY of the birth certificate.

Youth cards can be issued on the spot at the following locations:
  • SFMTA customer service at 11 South Van Ness.
  • Clipper customer service at Embarcadero Station.
  • Clipper customer service at the Bay Crossings Booth in the Ferry Building.
Note: SFMTA did not clarify if the youth must be present at the Clipper customer service locations in order to obtain a card.

For other sign-up locations this week, click here. Be aware, the representative will only accept the application, and Clipper will mail the youth card within 10 days.

If the youth passenger will also be getting an AC Transit monthly youth pass, you must register for a new youth Clipper card at AC Transit's ticketing office.

AC Transit has a unique policy where the youth Clipper card will also include their photo and the card's chip is programmed to allow purchasing of the AC Transit youth monthly pass. Youth cards issued by other transit agencies or the Clipper customer service centers will not allow purchasing of the AC Transit youth pass, but will still honor the youth e-cash price for single rides.

If you are wondering, why can the SFMTA customer service office and the two Clipper customer service locations are able to issue youth cards on the spot?

The reason is they have the computers to enter the youth's information into the database (to prevent people from getting more than one card under their name so they can share the extra card(s) with adults) and they have special card reader devices to program the youth card with the youth's birth date.

Inputting the youth's birth date is important as the youth card will automatically turn into an adult card when the person reaches the age of 18; however, BART has a policy at 12 years old when the discount price is not applicable and must be charged the regular adult fare; thereby if a youth passenger is between the ages of 12 and 17, BART will be full adult fare, but other transit agencies will charge the youth rate.

When you submit an application at other locations such as a special sign-up table at a festival, the card cannot be issued because they don't carry the hardware needed to issue new cards.


So why can Senior cards be issued on the spot at all sign-up locations, including at festivals and temporary sign-up tables?

The main reason why they can issue Senior cards is because they don't need to be individually customized, unlike the youth cards. The general rule is seniors must be at least 65 years of age or older to get the senior citizen discount price to ride transit, thereby if the applicant shows they are 65 or older, they can get a card on the spot. Clipper will soon later process the application to verify if the passenger is not in possession of more than one card under their name.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

VTA Buys New Fareboxes - Is it Just a Waste of Money?

Silicon Valley's VTA is going to get a new toy for their fleet of buses, a new farebox.

In a press release from their outreach department, they state their current fareboxes are over 20 years old and at the end of their normal life cycle. Due to the aging fare collection boxes, they intend to purchase new boxes which will have more features for passengers. The boxes will be first installed on lines 22, 37, 72, 73, and 82, and full installation of the fleet will be done during the remainder of the summer.

The agency's website shows all the details about the new farebox. Unlike the old machines, these machines will be able to electronically count the types of coins inserted, and any bill up to $20. They will also issue day passes direct from the farebox with RFID technology so passengers can touch their card to another vehicle's farebox for entry. The box also has a magnetic card reader for passengers of Highway 17 Express and MST passes to board without showing it to the VTA operator.

Clipper card passengers will still use the Clipper card reader near the farebox (not the "day pass" card reader on the farebox), and those with paper transfers issued from agencies like AC Transit and BART will still be required to physically present it to the driver.

The manufacturer of the fareboxes is GFI Genfare, and the farebox VTA has selected is also used in other transit agencies, including Golden Gate Transit, LA Metro, and Washington DC Metro.


Akit's Opinion

In all honesty, I feel the purchasing of the new equipment is just a total waste of VTA's own money. OK fine, their current fare boxes are too old, but can't they just spend their money rehabbing them? Muni did this when their fareboxes was starting to break down too frequently and they contracted with Cubic Transportation Systems (manufacturers of Muni's fareboxes) to rehabilitate the boxes with new internal equipment and now they work so much better than before. Muni realized that rehabbing their boxes was much more cost effective at $15,200 each ($19 million contract divided by 1,250 fareboxes), and was able to get all the boxes rehabbed in 15 months vs. 36 months with new machines (SF Examiner article).

VTA also wants their new machines to spit out day passes in the form of paper RFID cards so other new fareboxes can easily read the card, just like a Clipper card. While a nice feature, it's not worth the money. Paper RFID cards are not that cheap to produce as Muni has to spend about $2.1 million a year on those to issue single and round-trip rides for their ticketing machines at metro stations (they cost about 35 cents each). A more cost effective option is for VTA to have their machines issue magnetic stripe tickets which are much cheaper and not pay extra for the RFID target card reader; this means, tickets issued can be quickly swiped at the designated location or inserted into the machine for verification.

GFI Genfare machines to be used on VTA might not be as exciting as the agency would like for you to believe. There are numerous complaints about the slowness of the machine as both drivers and passengers just hate using it.
  • A well documented case comes from Golden Gate Transit where their new official policy says drivers cannot assist passengers in inserting currency into the machine. The agency states the money inserted must be in very good condition in order for the machine to verify the bills. A large number of complaints from passengers says the bills needs to be in very good condition as the machine also verifies for counterfeit bills while also identifying what the amount is. Other agencies like Muni and AC Transit does not use verification and makes it quicker for passengers to insert their cash and the driver verifies through a window what type of bill was inserted. And why such perfect bills for the farebox? BART's ticket vending machines takes even the crappiest looking bills that have been crunched up and creases galore and accepts them with ease.
  • VTA's YouTube video states that coins can be accepted at the machines, but needs to be inserted one at a time as inserting multiple coins will jam the machine. Inserting one coin at a time is not a fast way when a passenger with pocket change needs to pay their fare. Other fare boxes like Muni's can take multiple coins at once and quickly calculate what amount was just inserted, and this means faster boarding and drivers can stick to their schedules; inserting one coin at a time takes FOREVER. Muni = Coinstar, VTA = Soda machine coin slot.
A feature GFI fareboxes can also do is issue "change cards" which is used for when a passenger pays with a bill that is higher than the fare needed to pay for the ride. Golden Gate Transit issues a change card when the difference is more than $1, and thereby the change card can be used for a future ride as fare credit or be treated like a debit card for multiple rides until the card is used up. VTA says they are willing to accept up to $20, but their transit fares (including day passes) don't even get that close.

Lastly, what really doesn't make sense is, why get these nifty fareboxes instead of just supporting and promoting Clipper? Is there really a need for the fareboxes to issue RFID day passes instead of asking Clipper to handle the job? Clipper is considering a day pass option for their card users by having passengers pay for their VTA rides with e-cash, and when it reaches a daily accumulated purchasing limit, the rest of the rides for the day is FREE. If that happens, there's no need for VTA's fare boxes to issue day passes and they can just restrict it to Clipper cards only for the purpose of getting passengers into their buses quickly, and also means less maintenance and replenishing of paper RFID cards for the fareboxes.

When Golden Gate Transit got their new boxes, they sold high value cards which can be used to purchase rides by inserting it into their boxes and deducting the balance (like a BART ticket). But everyone knew (and GGT was oblivious for a long time) that it was just an insult because the Clipper card made it quicker to pay their fare and everyone got an automatic ride discount as per GGT policy.


On a side note, you may have wondered why my blog posts have been sporadic for the month. A couple of things happened during this period:
  1. I was on vacation for three weeks and this included a two week cruise from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. The internet on the ship was expensive and very slow at times, and I couldn't dedicate a lot of time writing blog posts.
  2. During my vacation my last remaining grandparent passed away, and the family had memorial services upon the return of the ship to SF, as well as I had to fly to Hawaii for services for family out there (she was born in Honolulu). My employer gave me five days paid leave, which I used to fly to Hawaii. I am fortunate to see some of my family members I haven't seen in a decade, including one of my cousins I haven't seen in nearly 15 years.
It's been a challenging month for me, and I appreciate you for sticking around to read my blog. Take care and have a nice upcoming three day weekend.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Riding Muni is Going to be More Expensive Starting July 1st

Oh Muni... the system that keeps going in the red while the union whinos keeps bickering about striking.

Well folks, the price of Muni is going up. For most of us, it will be an additional $24 a year to ride of the most depressing systems on earth. Or for you suckers using commuter benefits with direct loading of passes to your Clipper card, it's $48 a year ($24 in Muni hikes, and $24 in commuter benefit service fees).

Let's see the changes. Starting July 1, 2011:
  • Adult passes will be raised by $2. "A" fast pass will go up to $72 a month, and "M" Muni only pass will go up to $62 a month.
  • Youth, senior, disabled, and lifeline passes will be raised by $1. Y/S/D passes goes to $21, and lifeline goes to $31.
  • Cable car prices goes up $1. Single ride will go up to $6 and on-board purchased day-pass goes to $14, and late night/early morning disabled & senior fare goes up to $3.
  • All visitor passport books goes up $1.
  • Special service fares goes up $1 and $2. Adults will pay $12 (from $10), Y/S/D pays $10 (from $9), and those with a valid Muni pass pays $8 (from $7).
What won't change:
  • Basic cash fares for Muni will still stay the same. $2 for adults and 75 cents for the rest.
For the complete list of changes starting July 1, 2011, click here (PDF file).

Lastly, a PSA for all youth and senior Muni passengers: Paper passes will not exist starting June 1, 2011. Get a specialized Clipper card NOW. Slacking off = FAIL.

Monday, May 16, 2011

$10,000 Each for a Clipper Portable Card Reader? More Expensive Stuff from the MTC

The MTC's Operations Committee has done it again... more of our taxpayer money being fried on expensive toys. They met last Friday, May 13th to discuss about six major expenses.

The shocking expense is a purchase for Caltrain. The MTC intends to spend $85,000 so Caltrain can accept Clipper payments with handheld card readers (they will purchase eight of them); the intention for the portable card readers is to use them for "collection of fares at special events" such as Stanford football games and after ballgames at AT&T Park.

The cost of each portable reader is a whopping $10,625 each. In my personal opinion, they should be able to find something a lot more inexpensive and able to handle the same job. Just one of those readers costs about one-third of my salary, but the MTC intends to spend that much crazy money on a device?

I'm wondering if the MTC knows there are other devices out there that can likely do the same job for a lot less money. LA Metro's fare inspection teams uses a special cell phone that is small and very portable to verify fares and transactions to check on passengers' TAP cards (see product description). Even rival RFID transit card company Scheidt & Bachmann offers a cell phone product that can verify fares and charge fare cards with just a push of a few buttons (watch here, fast forward to 3:57). We all know cell phones costs a lot less money, and I don't think Cubic would charge ten grand for each device that can likely do the same job versus the ones the MTC wants to buy.

The MTC could even invest just a little money for someone to create an Android or iPhone application and the necessary equipment (phone w/RFID reader attachment) to make it all work.


Onward to other items:
  • The MTC reports the a 14% growth in the "average weekday transaction volume" in the month of April of usage of the Clipper card and is primarily due to the mandatory transition of the paper "M" pass to an e-pass on Clipper.
  • Other developments in the program includes the ability to add e-cash at all BART ticketing machines, new Clipper ticketing machines at all Golden Gate Ferry terminals, and a 50% reduction in phone calls to the Clipper customer service center after extensive outreach to Caltrain passengers.
  • MTC intends to spend $500,000 to offer third party commuter benefit companies (e.g. Commuter Check and WageWorks) a 1% commission for each customer who utilizes the direct load benefit to have their passes/e-cash automatically loaded to their Clipper card account. Other transit agencies offers this 1% incentive, but as of right now, the Clipper card program does not offer it.
  • Regarding the above bullet point, there is more information about why the MTC caved into the $2 monthly fee for those transit benefit users who utilizes third party programs. The MTC says that they have very little influence in the service fee because Cubic was the one who forced the fee to the third party benefit programs. The MTC had no choice but to agree to the $2 service fee for direct loading of passes/e-cash, but was able to make the transit benefit companies provide informed consent to all users about the fee by "opting in." This service fee will be in place for two years and will be renegotiated if the agreement is a failure. Only 4% of all Clipper users would be affected, and alternate methods are available to get away from the fees.
  • Since buses and trains gets their Clipper card updates while in the yard (via wireless network), the MTC is going to spend $90,000 to improve wireless coverage on the largest bus and train fleet in the entire consortium, Muni. The goal is to provide "more consistent coverage in the SFMTA bus yards, so SFMTA vehicles will be better able to upload and download Clipper data on a regular basis."
  • The MTC is going to invest an additional $73,000 to the contractor at the Embarcadero station's new Clipper customer service kiosk. The extra funding (on top of $289,200 already budgeted) will be utilized to increase staffing for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.
  • Booz Allen Hamlilton Inc. has been providing technical oversight for the Clipper program and has a multi year agreement with the MTC. The MTC wants to amend their contract to add an additional $1.35 million for their services for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.
  • Lastly, a budget item of $280,000 for the 2011-2012 fiscal year charges that AT&T bills MTC for telecommunication usage for the connection of all card readers, add value machines, and other devices connected to the Clipper network.

Akit's Analysis:

With the mass confusion and frustration of the Clipper program for Caltrain, it seems the MTC's large investment in public relations is paying off due to a 50% reduction in calls regarding Clipper usage on Caltrain.

The 1% commission is something that I'm stuck in the middle about. It's a large expense (half a million dollars a year), but if the MTC doesn't provide that incentive, the third party transit benefit companies may wipe out direct loading of Clipper card passes/e-cash as an option; this is due to the fact that other transit agencies offers a 1% incentive when customers uses their transit benefits to get their transit passes/ridebooks mailed directly to their homes.

I'm upset about the $2 monthly fee being charged for those people who use third party benefit programs and requests for direct loading of passes and e-cash to their own Clipper card accounts. The MTC should have flexed its muscles a lot more; instead, they caved in and was only able to make a provision that every third party benefit program must provide informed consent that the passenger is willing to take on the $2 monthly fee. An easy way we the people can say "FU" to the $2 fee is to either get paper vouchers to claim at certain in-person locations, or request a debit card to be used at automated machines, Clipper's website, or by phone.

As for the $90K being spent on fixing the wireless coverage at Muni's yards, shouldn't this have been corrected years ago? If the wireless coverage was poor, shouldn't a provision in their contract would have made the adjustments and repairs FREE by the contractor?

$73K for additional customer service support at Embarcadero station is not a bad idea. It's never open during the weekends.

I have no comment about the contract increase for Booz Allen Hamilton because I don't even know what the hell they really do.

Lastly, the $280K being spent on AT&T services is just an annual expense, there's no going around it. For the thousands of card readers out there, they all need a telephone or network connection to provide updates to the Clipper server and receive updates on new e-cash/pass purchases, hotlisted cards, and new software patches.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Total Disrespect and Discourtesy - My Neighbor Hogs Curbside Parking Spots

I've lost all respect for my neighbor's bad parking practices.

Let me ask you readers, when you try to find a parking space on the street, do you hate those moments when your neighbors take a parking space that can easily fit two or more cars, but their car takes more than what they should?

For me, I find my neighbors to be total assholes. Across the street from my home, there's a long parking space that can easily fit three cars, if done correctly. To fit three cars, the first and second car pulls to the front end and the rear end of the curb, and the third car fits in the middle. This technique works well if the first two cars parks properly by fitting it within 1.5 feet of the end of the curb.

Unfortunately, one of my neighbors have a very bad habit of breaking the unofficial rules of parking; they tend to park their car with at least a six foot gap between their front/rear bumper and the end of the curb, and this means only two cars can take the spot because the middle spot is so small, only a Smart Car could possibly fit.

Here's an example:
My Neighbors Are Parking Hogs (4)
My car is the one in the far right corner. I parked my gray car within one foot of the end of the curb and I never go further than the lamp pole. The silver car (my neighbor's) decides to put a six foot gap between the front bumper and the front end of the curb. The gap between the two cars is so small, there's no way to fit another car in there.

Another example:
My Neighbors Are Parking Hogs (2)
Yep, the neighbor has more than just the silver car, and once again, pisses me off by taking more than what is considered fair. The gap between the red and blue cars is so small, a third car can't fit.

Click here to view other photos I've documented of my neighbors being jackasses.

I feel ready to tape a sign on the lamp pole that says "3 parking spaces FOR 3 cars" and put a paper note on every parking hog's windshield that says "nice parking, asshole."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

SF State Folks Using Clipper Card on BART - Read this!

I got an e-mail from a SF State staff member and she told me of a curious problem with Clipper when exiting the Daly City Station.

She mentioned to me the problem stems from SF State students, faculty, and staff who utilizes the free campus shuttle away from the station, and uses Muni's 28 or 28L to get back to the train station.

When exiting the BART station with your Clipper card, it is automatically encoded for a free round-trip away and to Daly City station. But when you use the SF State shuttle or do not use the Clipper card on Muni away from Daly City station after one hour, the return free ride on Muni is automatically voided, thereby charging the passenger the full $2 ride back to the station.

In one point of view, it's not fair as the SF State shuttle and Muni's 28 line are like brothers and sisters, they take SF State folks to and from campus in quick fashion. But in a devil's advocate view, the automatic voiding of the free ride back is legitimate because let's assume that a friend picked-up someone from the Daly City station, and the person took Muni the next day to the station; Muni shouldn't be giving the passenger a free ride because the person didn't utilize Muni leaving the station in the first place.

Since SF State students have an option to take Muni's 28 or the SF State shuttle, this is likely why Daly City BART still offers paper Muni transfers inside their paid area.

Best advice for SF State students, staff, and faculty: Always take a paper transfer before exiting BART, even if you use a Clipper card. At least your return trip on Muni will be a guaranteed free ride back.