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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Open Thoughts about the Clipper Card

Before I start today's blog post, I'd like to thank everyone for trusting Akit's Complaint Department for being your resource for the Clipper card program. It's great to hear positive and negative input, and people leaving me e-mails and comments about how helpful I've been for the past couple of years.


Today, I feel it's time to just let out a stream of consciousness about the Clipper card with everything that's been going on.

A lot has changed in the past year. Nearly a year ago, TransLink was re-named Clipper, and while I'll never really understand why the name change and the massive $1 million+ cost of doing so, a lot of growth has happened throughout just a period of one year. Being at the press conference at Hyde Street Pier of the debut of the Clipper card program was quite interesting; people from the MTC, Swirl marketing and Cubic knew who I was (odd, ain't it?), and I was one of the first ever to receive the brand new Clipper card, which I am actively using today.

Surely the growth of Clipper has had their successes:
  1. Full transition of passes for agencies like Muni and Caltrain.
  2. Addition of the two remaining major transit agencies: VTA and Samtrans.
  3. New Muni metro gates with full Clipper integration.
  4. Full use of Clipper ticketing for all Golden Gate Ferry terminals.
  5. All BART ticketing machines able to add e-cash.
  6. New customer service centers at Embarcadero station and the Bay Crossings store at SF Ferry Building.
  7. Saving Mother Nature with less printing of paper passes, and littering of paper transfers on the city streets.
  8. Showing its true worth when hundreds of thousands of Giants fans converged on downtown for the World Series parade.
And their challenges...
  1. Caltrain's complicated Clipper policies.
  2. Delayed activation of Clipper on Samtrans.
  3. People having a hard time with the switchover (it took 30 minutes to explain to my Mom about the switch of the "M" pass).
  4. Proper training for Cable Car conductors.
  5. Simultaneous failure of Muni's Clipper readers.
  6. Card readers going on meltdown mode by beeping like crazy.
  7. The big local media kicking Clipper in the shin a few too many times.
  8. Annoying $2 fee for those using third-party commuter benefit programs.

What is really cool about how Clipper is doing these days is while many bicker and whine the program sucks or have problems, many just don't say anything because it works fine. I see that to be a normal pattern anywhere you are: 99% are satisfied, and there will be those few who makes such a fuss that it's a bigger problem than it really is. I encounter that at work all the time, we have 3,000+ clients, and there are always a few that will boil the staff's blood.

When Clipper was rolled out and certain passes became mandatory, lots of people initially argued that their card can't be read and received the dreaded "three beeps of death." People eventually learned that the cards are not meant to be swiped or quickly touched; these days, I find it extremely rare there are scanning problems because many knows how do it correctly after trying it out several times (practice makes perfect!).

But there are those days when I wonder about some people who have received citations from Muni fare inspectors when the passenger obeyed the policies correctly about proper use of Clipper. Sometimes I learn of a few people who got tickets for fare evasion when the rules clearly states that a broken card reader is the equivalent of a broken fare box, therefore the passenger should not pay in cash for the ride.

Also, I have sympathy for those who accidentally forgets to tag-off for Caltrain, therefore being charged maximum fare, and those who gets accidentally double-charged or overcharged. It's not a comfy feeling when your money gets involved in problems and can ruin your day.

Nearly Ten Years Ago

I've been a part of Clipper/TransLink since 2002 when I volunteered to take the plastic card and try it out around the Bay Area. Nearly ten years later, we come to this point where the program has expanded to be possibly the largest such universal transit fare card program in the nation, or at least what they said in 1999 when it was dreamed-up. Even then, I wonder how Clipper compares to other giant universal fare card programs, such as Orca in the Seattle/Puget Sound region, and the SmarTrip card in the Washington D.C. area.

Out of the nearly ten years since I started using Clipper/TransLink, I've hit a few bumps in the road, from having Muni passes not expire for six months (this was way back during trial testing), a Muni driver threatening to throw my card out the window because the monthly sticker issued to me by Muni was an alleged fake, broken readers here and there, fare inspectors not carrying proper equipment, a BART station agent cussing me out, and some others I just can't recall.

But even after all those hassles, there's been some great positive experiences. I go out on public transit more often on weekends, especially getting the steep discounts on Golden Gate Ferry for the great views and having a nice lunch in Sausalito. The card has made it much easier for me to travel from Daly City BART to AT&T Park (via Muni) without carrying multiple fare media around and worrying if the magnetic stripe will be erased.

Still Dreaming...
People want more out of Clipper, and I absolutely agree! The Metro rail and bus system in Washington D.C. gives out more discounts and benefits for their SmarTrip card users vs. what Clipper and our area transit agencies offers. For example: D.C. gives an extra hour longer on transfers.

Here's a list of items I wish Clipper could do to benefit us transit riders and the public:
  1. Offer BART high value discount tickets without signing-up for autoload.
  2. Make the program rules less complex, and especially for Caltrain passengers.
  3. Extend transfers with an extra 30 minutes.
  4. Automatic earning of passes for spending a minimum e-cash amount within a certain time period (a.k.a. pass accumulator).
  5. Regional transit pass, similar to BART Plus.
  6. Special tourist cards, with value automatically added for a round-trip ride on BART and a cash value or daily passes for Muni.
  7. Ability to add Clipper value at all Caltrain stations.
  8. Ability to buy more than just e-cash at BART ticketing machines.
  9. Extend abilities beyond transit to include paying for parking meters and lots. In Hong Kong, they use the Octopus card to do attendance at schools.
  10. Offer various types of Clipper cards, such as small ones on key chains, and sticker tags to be placed on cell phones.
  11. Eliminate the Muni 10-ride book (there's no discount for buying rides in bulk).
For now, enjoy this great Wednesday. Coming up next time at Akit's Complaint Department: updates from the MTC's Operations Committee.


Brandon said...

Im still confused about the Walgreens thing. Do I go to the regular register to add a transit voucher to it? And what about the HVD im already getting for BART? Its a little whacky. Seems like I have to add the vouchers and then drop HVD for awhile to spend the voucher money, then add HVD back. I dont live or work in the city so I cant just drop by the window at the Embarcadero.

Akit said...

HVDs only work if you link a credit card and enable autoload on Clipper's website. HVDs can't be purchased at BART ticketing machines, Muni ticketing machines, Walgreens, or anywhere else.

A simple way to get HVDs and your transit benefits is to use a debit card issued by the benefits agency, such as Commuter Check and WageWorks.

Anonymous said...

One thing you forgot is:

When someone rides Muni at night using Clipper, offer the all night transfer instead of just 90 minutes.

On BART, one should be able to load the Red Child Discount ticket assuming they are not older than 12 and one should be able to load the Green Senior Discount ticket assuming they have the senior clipper card. Not sure how it's handled now for people under 12 or seniors with the appropriate clipper cards, do they give a cash discount or do they charge the adult fare? Perhaps just giving the equivalent discount would work too for cash fares.

Akit said...

Anonymous: I can't cover everything about Clipper. I try my best to.

As for youth & seniors, they don't need to "upload" any BART tickets to their Clipper card account. The discount is automatic by utilizing their e-cash purse.

Anonymous said...

Too bad not everyone has Commuter Benefits Debit cards. They really need to come up with an alternative for HVD tickets on BART!