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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.

Finally...
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.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Clipper should allow BART riders to purchase HVDs with cash or a commuter check, as my employer doesn't provide debit cards (and I don't want to set up AutoLoad.) :(

Armando Fox said...

Bay Citizen, Express, Bay Guardian, etc. are certainly not newspapers, barely tabloids, yet the tone of their articles suggests they think they are.

I don't go to those papers for any actual information.

Your blog is much more useful and if SFMTA was smart they'd send some PR your way. Sure, not everything you say about Clipper is positive, but at least you're honest and your posts are well informed and a service to Clipper users.

I agree - the 1% of complainers get way too much publicity. I'd ignore it.

Akit said...

Anonymous: I love the idea. My initial suggestion was to get the BART ticketing machines to also sell HVDs.

Armando: Thanks for the compliments.

Larry Rosenstein said...

In a month of use, my Clipper card has worked fine and I haven't lost any money as people quoted in the article said. The Clipper web site sucks, however, and seems like something that was just hacked together:

- The card value page doesn't show how much cash is left on a BART HVD ticket. The only way I found to do that it to look at the ride history. (This is how I found out that you can only access your ride history twice in one day.)

- I signed up for Clipper Direct, which requires turning off Autoload. Despite getting an email saying it had been done, my HVD ticket was reloaded twice. The Edit Autoload link on the web site gave an error. (Actually, having an Edit Autoload link was a step forward, based on what's described here: http://www.pberg.com/blog/2011/05/10/clipper-card-website-and-autoload-fail/ .)

- I tried using the online contact form to resolve this, but it didn't work. (Another error.) Conventional email did work, but the response was to download a form, and fax it to Clipper. Calling customer support was a relatively good experience, but I didn't end the call with the feeling that the problem was fixed. I ended up getting a second card to finish the month, with the hope that it would be fixed once the payroll deduction started, which it was.

- If you disable Autoload on a BART HVD ticket, and take a trip that's more than the ticket balance, the payment is taken from your overall cash balance rather than using up the ticket first. I was able to find a BART trip that used up my HVD ticket, but some people might be stuck with an unusable balance on their ticket. (Given the difficulty in finding out how much money is on a HVD ticket, this probably would go unnoticed.)

- At the start of the month, one of our HR people spent ~2 hours talking to Clipper to resolve problems other employees were having.

Given how long Clipper has been out, there's no excuse for the basic web site problems I've experienced. A lot of the other problems would go away if, as Akit has suggested, the transit agencies got rid of all the special tickets. For that I would blame the agencies for not putting more effort into improving the customer experience.

For example, Caltrain riders should not be overcharged if there's a long delay and they shouldn't have to request a refund themselves. Caltrain could expand the tag out time in those cases, or just charge everyone affected the minimum fare. While it's not necessarily a Clipper problem per se, all the agencies have an interest in seeing Clipper succeed.

Clipper encourages riders to use Autoload (there are lots of ads in the BART stations), and the basic feature should at least work. And they should have figured out a solution for the credit card problem by now. Anyone who signs up for Autoload is a long-term Clipper user and has provided a lot of identification, so Clipper should cut those people some slack. (Especially given the other issues with negative card balances.) And there's no reason to completely disable a card if it has a cash balance on it.

murphstahoe said...

Akit - BART should ditch the HVD on Clipper just like the 8 rides should be ditched by Caltrain...

Anonymous said...

I am a senior who wished to purchase a new Fast Pass, pushed the wrong button adding cash instead of buying a Fast Pass. I mmediately talked with the Clipper counter at the Embarcadero station who said they could not help me but I should call the number on the Clipper card. I called. They said they could not transfer my cash payment to now purchase a Fast Pass. They would refund the cash I put on the Clipper card but it would cost me $5.00 for the refund.

I did not want a refund. I wanted a Fast Pass. So if you make a mistake at a Clipper auto station, it will cost you money.

Anonymous said...

Clipper just added $18 to my count after a $20 auto charge. When I called about this they told me it was a "missing $2 transaction". Even if this were true, which it is not, you don't take $20 and add $18. It looks false as a three dollar bill.

The agent offered that I could use the reimbursement form which only costs $5. Clearly they aren't interested in resolving this issue. I know it's only $2. But after getting charged $12.75 for a $4.75 train ride because I forgot to tag off, it makes you wonder how many other people are getting nickle and dimed to death by this "convenience".

Andrew said...

How is it possible to use a Clipper-owned Add Value Machine at SF CalTrain to add $20 to your Clipper card only to have $70 (SEVENTY!) deducted from your credit card?

I don't know about other people, but that $50 literally means tightening my belt this week. Clipper says they "may" fix it in three to five days. A friend told me to be grateful that I used a card, because he used cash at an Add Value Machine, didn't get the added value, and his complaint was ignored (!?!?)

This is not human error and this is not rocket science. If the machine says it's going to take $20, and actually loads $20 on your Clipper card, it should only charge your credit card $20.

I thought I was safe if I never did Autoload. I was wrong.

tek_chem said...

My personal issue with Clipper-Caltrain is the draconian solution for verifying payment and passes on Caltrain. My issue would be alleviated with a "simple" infrastructure change (similar to BART and other "subway" services) where riders must essentially swipe a value-card/ticket in order to be given physical access to the train platforms (and to leave the train platforms). I understand that this takes money and resources to implement, but...

This is showcased by the situation for auto-loading caltrain monthly pass holders (on a clipper card) requiring them to physically tag on/off once at the beginning of the ride month. In and of itself, it's an annoyance and ideally something that in a perfect world we'd all remember to do. But it's not a daily-habit, so it's simple to forget that there's a magical day-change to the 1st of the month with which we need to tag our clipper card again to activate a pass that you've already paid for.

But the issue is confounded by Caltrain conductors that intentionally check clipper cards on the first day of the month (as a daily rider and an on-going auto-loading monthly pass-holder, I probably get checked MAX 2 times a week, but for sure, in addition to that, they're religious about checking on the 1st day of the month to catch a lot of legit-paying riders who simply forgot to tag on to activate their pass). What happens is that anyone with an "auto-loading" pass who does not remember to tag on (which "activates" their auto-loading pass--why one must "activate" an auto-loading pass in principle, I don't understand), are almost always given citations for failure to show proof-of-payment.

My complaint is that Clipper-Caltrain uses such a lame system for verifying payment. If riders were forced to be corralled through a turnstyle/gate that opened only upon proof of payment, all of these silly exploitations of riders already on the train (who cannot do anything if they forgot to tag on) subjected to clipper-caltrain's lame implementation of clipper-payment system could be alleviated.

I'm not trying to ride for free. I pay every month in advance of the next ride-month over $170/mo for my pass. But since I forgot to tag on one month, coincidentally on the same morning where conductors were checking passes, I was issued a failure-to-show-payment citation.

Personally, I don't understand why I must now, since I received such a citation, be required to show up to court, bring evidence of payment to show to a judge, just to dismiss my citation since there was payment to my account when the payment-verification infrastructure is so poorly configured. That's right--to contest a citation you must show up to court; there is no ability to contest via mail. Why is the system not configured to recognize that a payment has been received for my pass since I have an auto-loading pass that I'm charged for 10 days prior to the 1st of the month? As soon as I have paid for the pass, why must it also then be activated? Shouldn't it be recognized as soon as Clipper acknowledges payment? If the clipper system knows I have an auto-loading pass, since they have already charged me for a pass 10-days prior to its active date, how hard is it to design a data system that pre-loads info for auto-loading users into the hand-held checking units that conductors are forced to use?

It's a poor system set up to exploit the legit users as opposed to designing a robust solution for the CONVENIENCE of all users. I'm happy to pay every month to use commuter services, but when I'm subjected to the poor design of proof-of-payment services used by the commuter services, that's where I have a problem with it.

I fully acknowledge that a simple combative answer to my qualms would simply be "you moron, how hard is it to remember to tag on once a month?" But why not just design a system that is convenient and encourages users, not discourages them?

Anonymous said...

The transit is not not allowing pickup of new cards if you have Clipper Direct (they have to mail them which means 1-2 business days for mailing and 2-4 business days to receive), but they will allow other Clipper holders to pick their up right away. This is another way they are extracting money. Whether it's Direct or not, it is money paid for fare and should be ours to use. If they have folks to staff and serve other buyers, there should no difference for those of us that have auto load each month, typically for unlimited travel. If 100 people lose those a month (generic number for example)and each person pay $2 each way for fare use...for 3 days that's $4800 the transit is getting unfairly and, in my opinion, should be illegally as they serve other users on different plans with no issues so it seems to target the many of us who buy the monthly plans. PLUS a $5 card replacement fee, although I don't know how much that is profit.

ahlam reiley said...

Clipper only works if you can do an autoload and set it and forget it, but for those of us who every $count and need to shift their budget accordingly it is a horrible failure, the fact that you need to wait 5 days for any transaction to work while your car is blocked is outrageous on this day and age of digital transactions. Clipper is just like tax the rich get a discount and the poor get to pay full price. It is unfortunate!