"Akit is the man. He knows Clipper." (spenta)
"It’s a fantastic blog for any San Franciscan."
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"Everyone's favorite volunteer public policy consultant..." (Eve Batey, SF Appeal)
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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)

Friday, September 30, 2011

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Closes Road Without Advance Notice - Forces Commuters to take 20 BLOCK Detour

It's that time again, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is back in Golden Gate Park for a three day stint. Sure, they are better than the super loud and costly Outside Lands festival, but they really made a lot of us regular commuters going north from the Sunset to Richmond district confused and for me, a little angry.

This is my normal commute: Northbound Sunset, left turn to westbound MLK drive, right turn to northbound Chain of Lakes.

Here's the situation:

I was just driving on northbound Sunset Boulevard going towards MLK drive (the first road upon entering the borders of Golden Gate Park). There's a metal barricade blocking drivers from making a left turn, and two signs on the barricade saying "exit" and "one way, right turn only."

The incredibly stupid detour forced people to make a right to eastbound MLK drive, encounter HEAVY TRAFFIC, and go all the way to the next park road exit at 25th Avenue (Sunset district side). This meant a 10 block detour, then driving another ten blocks west just to get around the stupid road closure.

View Larger Map

If they removed the left turn blockage, it only takes two minutes to get to Chain of Lakes & JFK drive. Now it takes at least 10 minutes just to go around the mess, and that doesn't include the traffic and all the cars parked along the park roads (and the roads can be narrow!).

This road closure info is NOT posted anywhere at these places, so therefore, I blame them for failure to provide advance notice to us residents who depends on westbound MLK drive to get to/from work and home.
  1. SFMTA's website just says park roads may be closed. No specifics.
  2. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass's website has NOTHING. They don't even answer their community hotline phones, they just let it go to voicemail.

The detour:
Take the right lane upon approach to Sunset and Irving, and make the slight right turn to approach Lincoln. Left on westbound Lincoln and turn right onto 41st Avenue.

The hell with it, just take Great Highway.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Muni Pays 10 Minutes to Operators Just to Submit Their Unused Transfer Books (An E-Mail from an Anonymous Operator)

Muni Transfer and Muni to BART Coupon

I just got an e-mail from an anonymous Muni operator on an interesting fact about their pay (edited to protect privacy):

Did you know that MUNI pays its drivers 10 minutes of time to turn in their transfer books? [Personal information omitted], one of the little things I learned:

When a driver finishes his run and returns his/her bus to the yard, MUNI pays each driver 10 minutes of worktime to turn the transfer book to the manager inside. The old policy was that the driver simply handed over unused books to the yardmaster as he entered the yard. And MTA wonders why it can't pay its bills!

The veteran operator who explained this to me laughed about it as he explained how stupid it was to pay drivers to prevent transfer theft as though there's an epidemic of drivers selling unused transfers.

Multiply ten minutes of work time at a minimum of approx $28 dollars per hour, by all the drivers in the system, every single day, and it must add up to a pretty penny.

Akit's Opinion
Wow, kinda freaky. They get paid just to turn-in their transfer books? So if they just take a minute to drop it off with the yard supervisor, they get paid 10 minutes worth of time? If you crunched in the numbers, it would be $4.67 for 10 minutes (at $28/hour), times say 300 operators, that's $1,400 a day or $511,000 in a year!

I could understand the idea to prevent selling the books to citizens so they can sell transfers for a buck, but I'm just amused this is another oddball policy in the Muni operators' contract.

The long term solution planned by the MTC that might kill the 10 minute pay rule is if transfers are only issued on Clipper cards; if that happens, let's see if the operators union will be protesting that it's unfair.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Update: Golden Gate Ferry Makes Changes after Akit's Report

Golden Gate Blue Gold Clipper

In a previous blog entry in July, I mentioned that Blue & Gold Fleet passengers boarding the ferry at Sausalito was paying for the wrong boat. This was due to a change in Golden Gate Ferry's policies where the trip from Sausalito to San Francisco (Ferry Building) changed from pay on board the boat (give ticket upon exit), to a prepaid system. This caused confusion as Blue & Gold's policy is to pay on the boat and surrender the ticket upon exiting. Due to all the confusion in policies, there were people paying Golden Gate, tagged their paper Clipper card upon entry, and boarded the Blue & Gold boat not realizing they'll have to pay an extra $10.50 to the cashier on the boat because they paid for the wrong one.

Just a couple of days ago, I took the Golden Gate's Sausalito ferry for a nice day trip and I noticed some drastic changes at the Sausalito dock:
  1. The Clipper card readers at the dock's gate is now locked-out unless if a Golden Gate employee tags a special Clipper card to activate the readers. This means that if a Blue & Gold passenger accidentally buys a Golden Gate ticket, at least their ticket will still have a ride stored on it for a future trip.
  2. The huge time table at the dock clearly tells passengers how to pay for their ferry ride back to San Francisco.
  3. Golden Gate Ferry honors the Blue & Gold Fleet's paper vouchers to those who rented a bicycle from one of the vendors around Fisherman's Wharf.
Still, they can make one improvement that's good for everyone: The automated machines at the Sausalito dock should ask passengers what ferry they plan to take to make sure people don't buy the wrong ticket. It's an improvement in the right direction, but I feel that both ferry companies can always strive to do better.

On a final note, I found out the transfer policy for Golden Gate & Muni passengers has changed. The new benefit, it allows Muni pass users to save 50 cents on their boat ride.

The old policy (which is similar to BART-Muni transfer):
  1. Using a Clipper card, you exit Golden Gate Ferry and board Muni and receive a 50 cent discount if used within 90 minutes. No credit/discount for Muni pass users.
  2. For the return trip to Golden Gate within 24 hours, tagging the same Clipper card on Muni receives a 50 cent discount on the Muni ride. No credit/discount for Muni pass users.
The new policy:
  1. Using a Clipper card, you exit Golden Gate Ferry and ride Muni to receive a 50 cent discount within 90 minutes. (same policy as #1 above). There's no credit/discount for Muni pass users.
  2. For the return trip to Golden Gate, you don't get the discount for Muni, but by taking Muni, your card gets encoded and you get a 50 cent discount on the ferry boat ride. This means no more 24-hour limit rule (especially great for commuters that doesn't ride on weekends). This even works if you have a Muni pass, you still save 50 cents on the ferry boat ride.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Lost Your Clipper Card? How to Get a Replacement Fast

Nat Ford, CEO SFMTA (Parody 2)

One of the cool quirks of the Clipper card is if you ever lose your card, you can get a replacement card with your balance restored, as long as you meet some very basic criteria.

With paper passes and BART tickets, if you lose it, it's highly unlikely you'll ever see it again.

In order to get a replacement Clipper card with your e-cash balance, ride books, and/or passes restored, you need to have one of the following:
  1. Clipper card registered under your name.
  2. Clipper card enrolled with autoload (your name is automatically registered).
If you are not participating in autoload AND you didn't register your card (anonymous card), you can stop reading this blog entry because do not have the right to have the balance restored.

What you need to do first...
Inform Clipper about a lost or stolen card so that you get protected from any unauthorized usage of the card, and puts card readers on alert to rewrite the missing card as invalid. You can give them a call or login to your account online; the other option is to fax the form.

Fastest Method to Get a Replacement Card
If you want to get a card replaced immediately, go to the Clipper customer service center at either the Embarcadero BART station or the Bay Crossings booth at the Ferry Building. If you filed a report online or by phone, a card will be ready for you the next day. But typically, if you lost your card, just walk up to them and they should be able to do it on the spot (without first calling, going online, or faxing). UPDATE: A recent comment said that you must report it lost first; going to the counter without a lost card on file will not get a card issued immediately. Can Clipper please verify this?

Not Willing to Go to Downtown SF?
You will need to inform Clipper that you want your replacement card to be sent in the mail. It can take up to five days for a new card to be mailed. They won't reimburse you for the days you lost your balance or days you can't use your pass.

Got a Youth Card with your Picture on it?
If so, you have a card issued by AC Transit and you are eligible to purchase AC Transit youth 31 day passes; other youth cards (without the photo) can't buy the 31 day pass, but are still eligible for the youth cash fare. To get a replacement, call Clipper; the downtown service centers cannot issue new cards because they don't have the machinery to add a photo.

Replacement Fees
  • Clipper does charge a $5 replacement fee for a new card if you want the balance restored and you don't have autoload.
  • If you have autoload, the card's balance will be restored for no charge.
  • If your card has less than $5 balance, your card won't be restored because there's no point of paying a $5 replacement fee. Just get a new card at a local vendor.
Akit's Opinion
Having the option to restore your products is a good idea and at least is better than the old days when forking $50+ a month for a paper pass and losing it meant buying another. Losing a card sucks and it comes with a $5 fee, so always remember to keep your card in a secure location and don't drop it down onto the BART tracks.

On a final note...
Congratulations to CLAYCORD and the Richmond SF Blog for winning the Most Valuable Blogger awards for Local Affairs!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Clipper Card's Next Stop: East Bay Commuter Ferry Boats

AT&T Park - Ferry Boat waiting for dock space

My prediction came true just yesterday when the MTC released word about their next steps to extend Clipper. Clipper will now expand to the WETA (Water Emergency Transportation Authority) ferry boat services by installing the technology at their five ferry boat terminals/docks for the routes they operate.

The five terminals are:
  1. Oakland - Jack London Square
  2. Alameda
  3. Harbor Bay
  4. San Francisco's Ferry Building
  5. San Francisco's Pier 41
The ferry services:
  1. Oakland/Alameda Ferry
  2. Harbor Bay Ferry
  3. Oakland/South SF Ferry (new service in 2012)
WETA is going to pay $625K and with the new South San Francisco ferry service coming soon, that made the MTC's Operations Committee jump them forward to be first in line for Clipper installation. It may be possible that Clipper could also be done on the Vallejo BayLink ferry, but at this point WETA is not under control of that service until negotiations are completed.

When this project is completed, Clipper will be on nearly all commuter ferry boat services; Golden Gate Ferry, which is not under WETA, has been a member and participant in the Clipper consortium ever since the pilot program a decade ago.

Akit's Opinion
Going with WETA is a very good choice and would be my prime choice for next installation. Their funding dedication towards installation is a big push, and since MTC and Cubic doesn't have enough Clipper readers to install on huge bus fleets, they can take advantage of the ones they have in stock to be at the WETA ferry docks (compare 100 card readers for buses vs. ten card readers for all WETA ferry terminals).

By completing WETA, it will now be available on almost all publicly owned commuter ferry services. But it still leaves out these commuter ferry services:
  • Vallejo is left out until negotiations are completed.
  • Commuter services for the Tiburon and Sausalito ferries by Blue & Gold Fleet are private operations. It is unclear if they will join the Clipper consortium because Clipper is a public program with only public agencies participating, and how will the MTC work out a public-private partnership, especially if tax dollars will pay for private operations or not.
By having Clipper on more ferry routes, it leaves open questions about add value machines and the transfer of "legacy" products to Clipper. Clipper's add value machines are very expensive, unless if they use the old ones they yanked out of all the Muni metro stations (this was prior to the new Muni metro gates and ticketing machines), but I know for sure that some of those ones from Muni are going to three Caltrain stations.

Clipper is more than likely to carry over the legacy paper fare products the agencies are currently using, such as multi ride tickets, passes, and inter-agency transfer agreements (e.g. free ride on Muni), but with Clipper's system so complex with so many operating rules, a simplified fare structure like Golden Gate's automatic discount for e-cash Clipper users would work best.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Countering Against the Bay Citizen's Anti Clipper Card Article

Contrary to popular belief in a Bay Citizen/NY Times Local article, there's a lot of people who are not having problems with their Clipper card on public transit.

Everyone knows that if 99%+ is having no problems, there's always that 1% or less that will have problems, and some of that group will whine and scream like uncontrollable children that poisons the huge majority experiencing no or very minor issues (e.g. self service bill feeder not functioning) and that the problems are worse than it should be.

From reading the Bay Citizen article, I feel it's one sided and only targets certain isolated incidents. In the beginning of the article, it mentions about a single BART gate that would read the card, but the gates wouldn't open for people. That's just an isolated incident because it doesn't happen anywhere else on the BART system based on my own experience, it's likely a malfunctioning gate that refuses to open.

There's other things I want to dispute about the article:
There's a mention that there was 38,000 calls to the "customer service hotline" during the month of August. Well, does that mean 38,000 calls to speaking to a customer service agent, or does that also include calls for people using the automated system to find out their card's balance? Let's also remember that there's been a huge campaign push by Muni and AC Transit to get students on Clipper cards due to a mandatory switch from paper passes to Clipper cards, and parents wants to call to find out how do to it; students during August went back to school and the need to get their specialized Clipper card to get to school. When Caltrain switched to Clipper only, they had a high number of calls to customer service, but that has died down as people understood how it worked and investment in a PR campaign at Caltrain stations, even though the use of monthly passes and 8-rides is stirred with complexity.

500K transactions daily: Author points out it is not 500K passengers. No shit, Sherlock. "Transactions" means how many Clipper cards was scanned in one day. If you asked Clipper how many passes was sold, they'd be able to give you a rough number of regular passengers using transit on a normal weekday (not including e-cash passengers). If you know that around 35% of BART passengers uses Clipper, do some math: Ask BART how many passengers on a weekday, and use a calculator. Also, since nearly all Golden Gate passengers uses Clipper due to the automatic discount for all card users, that wouldn't be so bad to find the round figure.

Caltrain is mentioned about when there's an incident holding up passengers on the trains, but noting that passengers have four hours and can't tag-off in time is just isolated incidents that can be resolved by just asking for a proper credit from Clipper. Clipper had to set a four hour limit from the tag-in at a Caltrain reader, which is FAIR for a passenger to complete a one way journey.

There's a mention about Muni's alleged electrical irregularities causing Clipper readers to crash. The author says it happens "regularly," but I don't see it that often happening, and especially that Clipper readers also have a backup battery for power problems or bus engine shut downs. I live near a major bus line terminus where drivers are required to shut down their gas engine, but the Clipper readers run normally without depending on the engine. Muni had common problems in the past with the historic streetcar fleet as the electricity was sometimes inadequate (ever seen the lightbulbs flash when crossing a wire junction?), but was able to resolve it with a software update. It's very RARE for the readers to fail for that particular reason. Muni rules state if a reader is broken, operators are required to report it immediately and rides are free (equivalent to a broken cash fare box).

Is there any proof that Clipper cards are to blame for the drop in on-time service for Muni? A different cause could be a change in ridership due to the rising gas prices and with the economy tanking, and students returning to school. It could also be the upset Muni operator's union who had their ass kicked by Proposition G by pissing off the public by unofficially slowing the system down.

Lastly, some passenger accuses Clipper for losing $80 for a card that "failed to work." Okay, so, what's the full story on that and why is it failing? Just saying you can't resolve the lost $80 doesn't mean there's something Clipper is always to blame.

I will mention one thing that most would agree upon:
If you have the option to not use Clipper's Autoload program, DON'T USE THE PROGRAM. The biggest complaints I hear is their credit card is rejected and blocked; sometimes on a weekly basis. I don't know what to say is the cause of all the rejections, but the easiest way to avoid this is to not link your credit card to your Clipper account. Just spend five to ten minutes every week or two and load Clipper e-cash or buy your passes at an in-person vendor, self service machine, or a transit agency's ticket sales booth. I never had my Clipper card blocked because I don't use Autoload; I remind myself on a monthly basis to visit a Walgreens or drop by a metro station to buy my monthly Muni pass. Read more about why I don't recommend Autoload.

On a final note, why isn't Clipper or the MTC doing some better PR? They rarely put out press releases or talk to the public while other agencies like SFMTA/Muni has full-time staff dedicated to giving information to the general public and the press.

I enjoy blogging about Clipper as a hobby to the point where people trust me for info and advice more than Clipper itself. The Bay Citizen should have interviewed me for a perspective, but my bets are the author wanted to make it an anti Clipper article and not take the opinions and views of someone who knows the program better and writes more about it than any blog or newspaper in the Bay Area.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Muni's All Door Boarding - Good Idea!

Clipper Monster Reader FAIL

Muni finally considers legalizing rear door boarding for buses. Gees Muni, it took all these years to think of that? It took them long enough to get Muni tickets for fare evasion and other minor crimes to be decriminalized because it hogged-up the local Superior Court's time to face a judge.

The SFMTA Board did make some good and bad arguments going with the all door boarding tactic:
  1. Speed up boarding times, therefore reducing bus idling.
  2. Faster boarding also means quicker buses (average speed of Muni is 8 MPH).
  3. With more passengers using Clipper, utilize the back door Clipper readers.
  4. Increased cost to have more fare inspectors checking more than just the metro system.
  5. Alleged discrimination by minorities and the poor because of past allegations by members of the public that the fare inspectors are targeting them.
  6. Belief that going all door boarding will be a transit system where people can ride for free all they want.
If Akit Ran Muni...
It's very beneficial to have all door boarding on the most heavily used lines. The heavy lines I would suggest Muni should allow all door boarding would at least be the 38-Geary, 38L-Geary Limited, 8X-Bayshore Express, 30-Stockton, 45-Union-Stockton, 14-Mission, 49-Van Ness-Mission, and 47-Van Ness.

It seems relatively pointless and wasteful to enforce it on the smaller lines like the "community service" routes like the 17 and 36, and other routes with not much heavy usage like the 2-Clement and 18-46th Avenue. If Muni keeps regular boarding procedures for the lesser used lines, this means less cost to the agency for fare inspector teams so they can target the heavy lines.

One line I would definitely not allow Muni to do all door boarding would be the F-Market. Tourists don't know about all door boarding and would think boarding the back door would be a free ride on Muni. Most of the tourists I notice pays cash for their rides. Muni would better benefit with investing in ticketing machines at major stops to help facilitate faster boarding through the front door. Muni also doesn't have Clipper card readers on the back doors of Milan trams, and that would mean thousands in installation costs extra. Plus, because the cars are quite old, people could accidentally damage the rear doors by holding or forcing them open.

Akit's Opinions on Other Topics within the Issue
As for so called discrimination claims by people targeted by fare inspectors, I think that's a bunch of junk. Everyone pays to ride, no matter what ethnicity or how much income you have. As Muni says, "pay your fare share." If Muni goes with all door boarding and their fare inspection teams will target lines with heavy fare evasion, it's not because of ethnicity, it's because Muni wants to change the attitudes of people to not steal from the taxpayers.

The SFMTA Board wants to consider making Muni a cashless system. This almost sounds impossible to do with hundreds upon hundreds of bus stops and would therefore hurt people who rarely ride Muni and tourists. They would have to spend millions installing pre-pay ticking machines if they want the entire system to have no cash accepted onboard vehicles. I think this is a foolish idea because you shoo tourist dollars away from a cheap $2 ride to go anywhere in the city. If Muni wants to go with a better method, remove the driver element from the fareboxes and put in self service machines in each bus where passengers can pay cash to the machine and get a transfer that spits out from the machine. By doing it this way, people can line-up inside the bus while the bus is in motion to pay the fare.

Answer to Why Clipper Cards are Still Free (No $5 Acquisition Fee)

Ever since Clipper started in mid June 2010, the cards have been distributed for free to the public to use. Over the past year, Clipper had to change the rules as local news media told the public how to abuse Clipper's negative balance policy (read my reaction to it) with just a brand new card with $2 on it. Clipper decided to raise the minimum new card balance requirement to $5, but never pursued a $5 card acquisition fee.

It wasn't until the new Muni gates came in and I learned that the card acquisition fee would be waived until June 30, 2011. This meant the end of free cards. Now that it is September, the MTC, nor Clipper has taken any action to tacking on the $5 fee, and now I found out why.

If you don't want to read all the material, go to the "Quick Summary" section near the bottom of this blog post.

The Title VI Draft Document
The MTC published their findings as they are required to do so under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make sure they are not discriminating against people protected under it while the Clipper card program is in use and transitioning passes and tickets to the blue card. If you don't know what could happen if Title VI is not done, just look at BART's AirBART people mover project, they lost millions in federal dollars by not doing an analysis and now will have to absorb that cost themselves.

While this is only a draft to be reviewed by the Operations Committee this Friday, it does give insight into why the $5 fee has continued to be waived after their established deadline of June 30, 2011. Read the document here (PDF file).

A little history...
Back in 2006, TransLink (this was prior to Clipper) was in full operation on AC Transit and Golden Gate Transit & Ferry. The new dark green card had an acquisition fee of $5 for any passenger interested in a card. The fee was used to offset the cost of acquiring the card from the manufacturer and defeated the purpose of abusing the card's negative balance policy of $5. The card was issued for free to those signing-up for autoload or had it connected to a pre-tax commuter benefit program (since the card was linked to someone's name, they knew who owed a debt to TransLink). They also set aside a quarter of a million cards for transit agencies to give out as free promotional items.

In April 2010 (just two months prior to changing name to Clipper), the MTC and members of the TransLink consortium agreed to a three month free period for people to obtain cards (no $5 acquisition fee), and also agreed to waive the fee permanently for all seniors and youth transit passengers.

In August 2010 (a month after changing to Clipper), the MTC agreed upon giving out Clipper cards with no $5 acquisition fee until the end of the fiscal year (June 30, 2011) to promote people to switch, and especially their plans to have all transit passes go Clipper only would cause possible hardship to passengers not willing to fork $5 for a card.

Sometime in June or July 2011, the MTC was going to reinstate the fee, but had to hold back because of Title VI. The MTC feels that reinstating the $5 acquisition fee "could present a barrier to acquiring Clipper cards for persons protected by Title VI, and the reviews recommend eliminating the fee permanently." (Page 16 0f 30 of the draft document).

The MTC argues the $5 fee is necessary to address these six objectives for the program (directly quoted from the document, page 16 of 30):
  1. Cover the cost of the cards;
  2. Discourage fraudulent abuse of the negative balance feature;
  3. Discourage the casual disposing or loss of cards;
  4. Discourage hoarding of cards;
  5. Minimize potential barriers to adoption of Clipper; and
  6. Continue to support/encourage customer adoption of the Clipper card.
But they also had to take these two points into consideration as well in deliberating of reinstating the $5 fee:
  1. Since the Clipper card is reusable and will last at least three years with good care, a regular transit rider would use it enough times to justify most of its cost (compare a transit agency's cost of purchasing from a company that produces its monthly passes vs. how much it costs for the MTC to obtain a card that costs more than one paper pass, but can last years).
  2. For business reasons, having the card fee would help people to retain their cards, offset the cost of procuring them, and stops the abuse of the negative balance feature.
The MTC also noted that the Clipper program has some substantial benefits in the interest of the public that a $5 would just be a barrier to deny people. Some of them include automatic e-transfers, riding multiple agencies with one card, universal cash fund, multiple passes, etc.

Waiving the $5 fee did come with some harsh realities...
1: Hoarding the cards was a problem because the cards was initially free with no minimum purchase required to obtain one. Managers at Walgreens locations said people asking for free cards with no initial value loaded was taking away their staff's time. The MTC instated a $2 minimum e-cash load for every new card obtained by the customer. Hoarding also became a problem with abusing the negative balance feature, as noted below.

2: Abusing the negative balance feature came at a heavy cost when the news media told people now to abuse the negative balance feature at the expense of taxpayers. People could obtain a new card with just $2 of e-cash and ride any transit agency that cost more than the value on the card's chip and just throw it away. The MTC debated on what to do, including eliminating the negative balance policy, but instead decided to raise the e-cash minimum to $5. Deciding to raise it to $5 was a good idea as the abuse started to go down.

The MTC's plan...
The proposal is to change the acquisition fee to $3 ($2 less than originally proposed) and a $2 minimum load requirement ($3 less than what is current). This means a minimum of $5 will need to be handed over by the customer to obtain a card and get a starting e-cash balance.

The commission believes this is an appropriate adjustment that's right in the middle: The card's not free, nor will it have a big impact to those covered under Title VI. The MTC wants to make people change their minds about Clipper by not making the cards something easily disposable, but make it worth of some kind of value (the $3 acquisition fee). Clipper has already given away 1.1 million cards for free, by treating it as a throw away product, it's not sustainable and costly to taxpayers. The new fee and minimum balance would support the operational needs.

In order to comply with Title VI, the MTC will have to go out into the communities and conduct research to see if the $3 fee is feasible. After compiling the feedback, the MTC will make the final call on the fee.

Quick Summary
For those of you not wanting to read all the details, here's just a quick one you can read:
  1. The $5 acquisition fee for Clipper has been waived for a long time.
  2. MTC wants to activate the fee because of people abusing the Clipper cards (e.g. negative balance benefit).
  3. The $5 fee and an existing $5 minimum e-cash balance (total of $10) may be a negative impact on certain people covered under federal law.
  4. Continuing to give it for free will be very costly to taxpayers.
  5. MTC takes the middle ground, wants to charge $3 for new card, plus a $2 minimum e-cash purchase (total of $5). Helps to cover the cost of procuring the cards and any other operational costs.
  6. MTC can't take action until they do community outreach.

Akit's Opinion
I'm no fan of giving out plastic Clipper cards for free. The negative balance policy and abusing it is the worst problem of all as that encourages people to buy multiple cards with the minimum value and forces us taxpayers to pay more. Plus, issuing over a million cards when a portion gets thrown away after one use is not very sustainable.

Sure, I understand that Title VI is important and charging a high fee to obtain a card would not be feasible. I initially suggested the acquisition fee should be the highest one-way transit fare for whichever agency is participating in the program, but Title VI would kick that straight in the ass.

The mentality of people needs to change by making people value their cards and should keep them. Even at SF State, students, faculty, and staff value their campus ID because the fee is $22 to obtain a replacement, and the card is used in so many ways, from borrowing library books to accessing the campus swimming pool. Clipper can't charge a high fee for obtaining the cards, so they are going with something in the middle, $3 card fee and $2 minimum e-cash load.

The $3 card acquisition fee will cover the procurement of the cards valued at $2.22 a card, but will only cover 78 cents of $1.31 for the distribution of them (as per MTC documents, page 17 of 30). This means by taking the middle ground, they will recover most of the cost of the card, but a small amount will be paid by us taxpayers. Even then, the little remaining cost can be written off if a passenger uses it for the multi-year life expectancy of the card when compared to cost a transit agency must pay to procure and distribute monthly passes and paper transfers in a same time period.

Even then, I still believe people will continue to abuse the negative balance policy because they'll feel that while there is a $3 acquisition fee and just $2 in e-cash, as long as the passenger takes a one-way trip that costs more than $5, the card is just another one in the trash.

If the MTC wants to take true action, yes, enforce the $3 acquisition fee with a minimum balance to meet Title VI, but only allow people who register their card with Clipper to be allowed to have the negative balance. This keeps track of who abuses their card privileges and makes people become responsible for paying that negative balance, or if it gets too high with multiple cards, the MTC can act like FasTrak abusers, making them go through collections. For BART, it's easy to stop the negative balance policy by modifying their exitfare machines to force those passengers to pay-up the difference before being allowed to exit the system.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Big Fact: Clipper Loses Nearly $700,000 a Year Because of Negative Balance Feature

Muni New Faregates - Civic Center Station Secondary Gates

$700,000, what can you do with that kind of money? Who is responsible for this huge money waste? You can blame the MTC for the idea, but also members of the general public who enjoys "saving money" at the expense of honest taxpayers who doesn't cheat Clipper.

Here's the whole situation: Clipper cards have a negative balance policy where passengers can allow their card funds to go into the red, but the card won't be usable until the funds are replenished. This was to benefit passengers taking long distances but accidentally ran short in their e-cash purse. This got exploited by people when they realized that they could buy a Clipper card with a very minimal value of e-cash and use the card just once for a ride valued at more than the e-cash balance, and just throw the card away.

This problem went into high gear when news media outlets started telling people how to cheat Clipper. My argument on a previous entry on my blog is the media has the right to free speech and press, but should have suppressed it on moral grounds noting that doing so will cost every taxpayer more money to cover the abuse. Only one news station at least said live on air that the people at the station had a debate if it should be aired or not on moral grounds, but tagged along with other news agencies to spread the word.

The MTC had to do something to stop the widespread abuse costing them a lot of money, and they decided to raise the minimum e-cash value from $2 to $5 for new cards. That did reduce the abuse, but still, abuse is rampant as seen below...

How did I find out? Here's what you need to know:
In a recent draft report for the Operations Committee, it states:
"...approximately 8,000 additional cards with new negative balances each month, and the aggregate negative balance amount increases at a rate of roughly $30,000 per month." (Page 18 of 30, paragraph two of the draft report).

Note: This calculation was provided AFTER the minimum e-cash was raised to $5.
If you like cracking numbers...
  1. $3.75 average negative balance per card.
  2. $360,000 of transit fares a year due to exploiting Clipper.
  3. 96,000 cards per year in the trash.
  4. $3.53 per card's procurement and distribution costs.
  5. $338,880 worth of cards thrown in the garbage (procurement/distribution cost multiplied by 96,000 cards)
GRAND TOTAL: $698,880 of taxpayer money wasted per year due to cheaters.
Or basically $700K.

Now that I've crunched the numbers, will the MTC and Clipper finally find a solution to stop the negative balance policy? There's plenty of ways to stop the abuse:
  1. For BART, exitfare machines are modified to force Clipper users to pay the difference before being allowed to exit.
  2. For Golden Gate Ferry, no boarding the ferry unless there's an equal or higher amount balance on card. Anyway, there's add value machines just feet away from the ferry terminal gates at all three locations.
  3. All card users who wants to use the benefit must register their card with Clipper.
  4. Reduce the negative balance to $5.
  5. Restrict a card going to the red once or twice in a month. People should learn a lesson.
  6. Add a card acquisition fee. No more free handouts of cards.
  7. Or just no negative balance allowed. This might complicate things for tag-on and tag-off agencies like BART, Caltrain, and Golden Gate Transit, but they'll find a solution.

Akit's Opinions
In my opinion, people who abuse and exploit Clipper's negative balance policy are scumbags; actually, worse than scum, to a level that I'm not going to describe. This feature was for the common good for everyone, and now is costing us taxpayers nearly $700,000 a year.

That $700K could help Clipper do a lot, from purchasing new machines for the public to use, paying a contractor to add additional features to BART ticketing machines, getting the smaller transit agencies up and running, or having Clipper representatives at major transit hubs and stations for a year.

Coming up tomorrow at Akit's Complaint Department: Why didn't Clipper enforce a $5 card acquisition fee starting on July 1, 2011?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Clipper to Expand to Smaller Agencies & 500K Transactions in One Day

The MTC's Operations Committee will be meeting on Friday, September 9th and will be talking about the Clipper card program. They didn't have a meeting in early August, therefore I'll be covering a lot of info provided in the publicly available documents posted on their website.

Based on their July 8th meeting minutes, here's some key points:
  1. Members of the MTC did a field trip to tour Clipper related facilities, including the new customer service locations, the Golden Gate Ferry's self-service machines, and a Muni yard where vehicles can get their updates.
  2. TransLink became Clipper in June 2010 and the program processed 2 million transactions a month. This has ballooned to 12.5 million transactions a month after just a year.
  3. Clipper intends to retrofit existing ticketing machines to also issue new Clipper cards. While the minutes didn't mention what agency that would be, it's likely going to be BART.
  4. Clipper wants to expand to the smaller agencies of the Bay Area, which are not part of the Clipper consortium at this time.
In item three to be discussed at the meeting, here's the highlights:
  1. On August 18th, Clipper hit an all time high with 502,000 transactions in just one day. But the average covering late July to late August was only 488,000 per day. In a recent video, the MTC admits their estimates was to reach 500K transactions sometime after Labor Day, not two weeks earlier.
  2. Muni has completed their mandatory transition of youth passes to Clipper only. For August, 7,345 was sold.
  3. Cable Car conductors now have the ability to deduct e-cash payment for rides, and update transactions when passengers purchases their Clipper media online, phone, or participates in autoload.
In item five of the meeting, here's highlights:
  1. The MTC was forced to do a Title VI assessment to see if the use of Clipper and pass transitions is negatively impacting minorities and the less fortunate.
  2. To make sure they are not discriminating, they have done some big projects, such as added multilingual services to customer phone centers, outreach by tabling, pamphlets in Chinese and Spanish, reviewed the authorized vendors and expanded as necessary to provide additional coverage, and continuing to waive the $5 card fee.
  3. It's a long multi page analysis I won't cover too much in detail, but it shows the deficiencies of the program and what MTC and Clipper will do to mitigate it.

Big news: Clipper wants to expand to the smaller transit agencies (Phase III)
In item three of the agenda, the report shows their plans to expand Clipper. Interestingly, all these smaller transit agencies combined only accounts for just 5% of the entire Bay Area's public transit usage.

Clipper is using the lessons they learned from the past several years of expanding the program to the big transit agencies as there was some huge problems back then: Significant increased cost, unique transfer policies for each agency, the transfer of "legacy" passes and tickets (this means, the rules of the paper passes is the same as Clipper), and other huge complications.

The goal of making the smaller agencies participate is to simplify the program. They will do it in these phases:
  1. The transit agencies will be divided into sectors, each covering the area they operate. There will be one just for the ferries, 101 corridor, East Bay, and Napa/Solano counties. It's like consolidation, but the transit agencies won't become one agency. By making it into sectors, when installation happens, the equipment will be installed at the same time for the whole sector, not just one agency, and a year later, another one.
  2. Clipper wants to standardize the fare structure, thereby making fares simple (local and express), the end of zones, simplified transfer policies, monthly passes (no more day and weekly passes) and many other ideas. The goal is to make it simple enough to understand how it works, reduce the operating costs of Clipper, and reduce the number of phone calls of confused patrons to Clipper customer service. Caltrain's rules are so complicated because they allowed "legacy" passes and 8-rides to work on Clipper, when a simpler structure such as an automatic 15% discount would have worked better.
  3. The MTC rated each sector to see how efficiently they can install the equipment and get it running. One problem they have is they don't have enough equipment to install on all the buses, thereby they will need to order new ones. They also looked at cost as doing such a project can be high. WETA (the folks who runs most of the ferries) agreed to pay for the project to get the ferry boats to accept Clipper, and they are recommended to be the first to get installation. As for the remaining three sectors, the MTC has a tough choice to decide what sector will go next. Some of the agencies have fareboxes that can accept RFID cards, thereby just a hardware and software upgrade reduces costs instead of ordering new Clipper equipment. Certain sectors are picked based on how often transit is used.
  4. It is highly likely the MTC will approve the ferry services to get Clipper first. If they don't install the equipment by January 2012, it will have a negative impact on the new Oakland/South SF service. Ferries will be the easiest to install because the equipment is installed at terminals, which means around two card readers per terminal.

Akit's Opinion
Reaching a goal of 500K is outstanding, but a lot of the credit goes to the mandatory transition from paper passes to Clipper only in just the past twelve months. Muni has been a big player in this as they have the highest number of transactions per day, and the integration of all passes (except Lifeline) is likely the largest contributor.

The Title VI report is huge, but when reading it, you'll understand why there's a lot of improvements needed by the folks at Clipper to assure that everyone gets fair access to the program, no matter your income, ethnicity, and language barriers.

Lastly, the expansion to the smaller agencies is going to be the final part to completing the Clipper network. They know, they don't want to screw-up like they did when the major agencies joined the consortium, that's why there's the idea of expanding by sectors, and using a better assessment of what they have available to make the transition easier.

One big criticism will be if the transit agencies will cooperate with changing their fare structures, passes, transfer agreements, and others. Although all the small agencies combined makes just 5% of all public transit usage in the Bay Area, transferring all the "legacy" fare products, passes, and transfer agreements will make Clipper even more complicated. By going with a streamlined and standard policies for all the small agencies, it will make it much easier to run Clipper at a lower cost, and better for the passengers. But simplifying could hurt the transit agencies financially, especially if they operate by a zone system, have complicated pass rules, and transfer policies with fellow agencies.

Clipper has thousands of fare structures, thousands of pass rules, and thousands of transfer policies, to which makes the transferring of all those legacy media to Clipper a huge laughing joke. Standardizing is the first step to making Clipper more customer friendly, and possibly a future unlimited use monthly pass valid on all Bay Area agencies.

Think about this, how many of you ride Caltrain and hate the fact that the old paper pass and 8-ride rules still apply to Clipper? Why just 8-rides instead of making it ten? Why tag-on and off? Why not just have a streamlined fare and pass structure? If you use AC Transit, why a 31-day pass when Muni and Samtrans uses a monthly pass? Complicated rules = complications with Clipper and headaches for passengers.

Clipper has learned their lesson and wants to make the system more simple for everyone to use. But they are only targeting the transit agencies remaining to participate. Why not also target the big transit agencies in the Bay Area to help simplify?

Friday, September 2, 2011

No Need to Scan Your Clipper Card Bare Naked

With a lot of people using their Clipper cards, especially on Muni, people are getting the hang of properly tagging their card (not swiping it!) and many are getting used to finding their local vendor to handle purchasing their monthly passes.

While I haven't heard many complaints as of late, I have noticed a more casual observation when people use it to board buses, trains, and enter the metro stations.

Did you know you do not need to tag your Clipper card bare?

Unlike the paper fast pass which must be visually shown to an operator or inserted into a fare gate, there's no need to take it out of your wallet or even keep it in a clear plastic sleeve anymore. As long as you place your wallet, purse, backpack, or any other place holding your blue Clipper card and it's not too far away from the surface of your personal item, the scanner will be able to read through the surfaces to identify your card and handle your transaction.

Even for me, I place my card behind five plastic cards and a small wad of cash, and it still reads perfectly on all card readers, including BART and Muni's fare gates.

But... there are some things that could go wrong:
  • Clipper cards cannot read if the card is scanned while you have: Tin foil (tin foil helmets, the government can't read my thoughts), RFID shielded wallet or product, or if you have another contactless card nearby. Not all contactless cards operate on the same radio frequency as a Clipper card, so you may not have to be concerned, but it's all trial and error.
  • Always remember, one card at a time (especially true if you travel as a group or bringing your kids along). You can't stack two Clipper cards on top of each other, scan them, and expect two confirmations.
  • Sometimes, pulling out your wallet to scan your card is not the best idea as it may be a risk to get robbed or tell a pickpocket where your wallet is located. One option is to buy a super cheap wallet at some discount store and use that as your Clipper card holder, and stow it away in a coat pocket.

I recommend not pulling your Clipper card out and tagging it 'bare' because I feel you put your card at an increased risk of causing damage to the internal data chip and antenna that communicates with Clipper card equipment. As I mentioned before, bending the Clipper card can damage it and render it useless, and nobody wants to hassle getting a replacement. There's a lot of ways you can inadvertently bend your Clipper card and damage it when done 'bare,' from slapping it hard to a card reader to constantly inserting and removing it from your wallet when boarding buses.

By keeping the card in a place where it won't be removed as often, such as a wallet or pass holder, you reduce the risk of damaging the card because you just hold your wallet, purse, etc. to the scanner to read it. For me, by sandwiching my Clipper card between my employee ID and health care plan membership card, there's very little risk of damaging the Clipper card because it makes it nearly impossible to inadvertently bend the card. If you plan to use a dummy wallet to not let criminals find out where you hide your wallet, find some useless plastic cards in your home, like a grocery store card or a gift card with no value.

Normally when I travel, I use this device from Identity Stronghold (see photo) which makes it easy to use my Clipper card by attaching it to my belt and it has a reel to extend it a few feet. It makes it easy to see for fare inspectors, and it's also RFID shielded when kept in the closed position; when I need to scan the card, I squeeze the tabs on the top of the card to expose it just momentarily while it's being scanned.