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Friday, April 4, 2014

End of the Clipper Card in 2019? It's Not a Joke

BART Gate & Clipper Card

I got a little clue that the MTC wants to move to the next generation of Clipper card when I read a tweet from the folks from VTA.  I decided to dig around the meeting agenda documents available online to the public from the MTC website.

So it's actually true, the contact for Cubic, parent operator of the Clipper Card program, is going to expire in November 2019, that's roughly five years and seven months away.  At this time, committees of the MTC are in regular discussions about the next generation of fare payment technology for the Bay Area, and while there's no definite answer, there's some hints on what is going to happen after late 2019:

The setup currently used for the Clipper Card/TransLink system is from the late 90s and within the next five years, the equipment will be reaching the end of its life.  The equipment being used right now originally came from ERG, an Australian company originally contracted to do the TransLink/Clipper system; but Cubic purchased ERG and since the network was already established, Cubic had to work with old equipment that's not their own to make it work (it's like trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole, it won't fit unless you shave the edges down to make it fit).

The MTC admits that trying to integrate the next generation system into the existing infrastructure would be too expensive and risky.  This would mean the next generation fare system may have to start from absolute scratch; this is one of the reasons why they are planning so far in advance for this.

The MTC also mentioned during their planning timeline to learn the lessons from the past to make sure it's a much smoother process.  I remember being part of the TransLink pilot program with very few transit agencies participating and limited usage, and it took many years to finally get all major transit agencies to join and be fully integrated.

Lastly, this second generation of fare payment may also bring in new technologies to improve the customer experience.  We all know about the headaches and limitations of Clipper, including the 3-5 day wait when buying online.  New technologies may allow us to pay for rides with a smartphone or even with credit cards with RFID chips installed.

To read the full MTC documents about the planned project, visit: http://apps.mtc.ca.gov/meeting_packet_documents/agenda_2196/Agenda_Item_3.pdf and start on page 14.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why the SFPD are Doing Muni Fare Inspections Improperly and Citing Innocent People

This morning, I was reading an article written by Jessica Kwong for the SF Examiner about a Muni passenger who was written a ticket by a San Francisco Police Department officer for not paying their Muni fare with their Clipper card.

The article stated the passenger boarded the F-Market streetcar and used his Clipper card to tag at the entry.  Ten minutes later, a SFPD officer asked for proof of payment from the passenger and tagged the passenger's Clipper card at the vehicle's card reader to verify.  The card was rejected and the passenger was issued a $200+ citation for fare evasion.  However, the passenger retrieved his Clipper card records from the Clipper Card website and it showed he did pay the fare.  The passenger intends to contest the citation in court next week.

The news reporter also got statements from SFPD officials and SFMTA/Muni basically stating that a police officer tagging a customer's card on a vehicle card reader is sufficient enough and there's no problems with it.

However, with my expertise on writing about the Clipper Card for numerous years, there's some serious flaws with having police officers and fare inspectors to verify a passenger's card use by tagging a card reader.  Here's why:
  1. When a passenger boards a Muni vehicle and tags their Clipper card upon entry, the card reader will immediately verify the transaction with a green light and single beep.  The screen will also show the type of transaction completed ($2 fare deducted, transfer being used, or valid pass).
  2. Once the card is tagged, it cannot be tagged again on the same vehicle reader; this rule is called "passback."  This is a standard rule used on all electronic transit fare cards to prevent a passenger from using the card for valid entry, and "passing back" the card to their friend or family member to tag the card again so they can score a free ride.
  3. The "passback" is removed after a certain set amount of time for those who ride the same bus again for a return trip (for example, if I board a 6-Parnassus bus at 1PM, have lunch, and board same exact bus at 2:15PM, the passback is eliminated and tagging my card won't result in a rejection).
  4. When a passenger transfers to another vehicle, the card is perfectly okay to tag and get the green light to enter.  This is because they are boarding a new vehicle, even if they tag card on bus #1 at 1PM, and board/tag bus #2 at 1:10PM.
PROPER FARE INSPECTION: When a police officer or fare inspector uses a handheld card reader that is issued by Clipper, it will read the card and verify if the card was tagged or not by showing a "YES" or "NO" on the screen, followed a confirmation sound of "ding" or "buzz."  If it says no, inspectors can immediately review the card use history clicking on a few screens on their reader to check if there's a valid pass and the last several times the card was used.  If it all checks-out fine after the secondary card history check, all is well; but if it shows passenger failed to pay, a ticket is issued.

IMPROPER FARE INSPECTION: If a police officer or fare inspector verifies use by tagging the card to a Clipper card reader, it will either give a single beep/green light confirmation or red light/error confirmation.  The single beep/green is because the "passback" was eliminated after the set window ended, but a red/error sound means the "PASSBACK" IS STILL ACTIVE.  Cops and fare inspectors SHOULD NOT use this method of inspection because if they get the red light, and are ignorant to realize "passback" is active, the passenger gets a citation and have to waste their time at a court hearing to fight the charge.

As for the statement from SFMTA's Paul Rose saying there's "no concerns" about law enforcement officers verifying via the vehicle's card readers, he is half-correct and half-wrong.  Here's why:
  1. Correct statement: This can only happen in the Muni metro.  Only if a passenger tags their card upon entry to a subway station's fare gate, and a police officer verifies by tagging the card on a train's card reader, it will give the green light.  The rules state when a Muni passenger tags their card upon entry via a faregate, it is not necessary to tag their card on the vehicle card reader when they board the train; but if a passenger tags their card in the vehicle (after tagging card to enter the metro station) and a police officer checks the card, say 10 minutes after on the vehicle card reader, it will result in a red light/denied message and is subject to a ticket, even though they have tagged their card lawfully at a Muni fare gate.
  2. Incorrect statement: There is a serious concern if a police officer verifies a passenger's Clipper card at the vehicle card reader because the "passback" may still be active on the card.  Reason for this explained earlier in this blog entry.

Akit's Opinions:
In summary, if we assume the passenger does have proof from the Clipper Card website saying he did tag his Clipper card and was cited by a police officer, he should be found not guilty or have his case dismissed on the grounds that the officer improperly issued the ticket.

Due to the poor judgment of the police and SFMTA, and improper procedures to verify Clipper card use, strict policies needs to be written-up to prevent this from happening again.

Fare inspections SHOULD NEVER be verifying card use by using a vehicle's card reader because of the "passback" policy.  ALWAYS use the handheld card reader.