Muni is at the helm, but the wind isn’t at its back.
Clipper will someday be the number-one way to pay for San Francisco public transit. But the blue card with white sails — essentially a transportation debit card — is causing confusion among Muni operators and passengers, and the infrastructure to support the card is flawed, some say.
Formerly known as TransLink but now named after a speedy type of ship, Clipper was created to solve two of the well-known inefficiencies of mass transit: the need to carry exact change and to manage multiple forms of payment and discounts for different transit systems.
Instead, this one card can be used to pay for rides on Muni, BART, AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit and Caltrain.
“Within the next few months, customers must have a Clipper card,” Muni’s website explains. Discount passes must be loaded on the card, because Muni is phasing out all paper discount passes, except the Lifeline “L” pass, until further notice.
By November, both the Regional Transit Connection sticker and the Muni and BART adult “A” fast pass discounts will only be available on the Clipper card. By February 2011, all senior and youth passes will transition to Clipper-only, followed by Muni’s adult “M” fast pass in April.
But the transition has some customers unnerved.
“They say they’re putting the passes on in November…but I don’t get how it’s going to work,” said Emerita Blanco, a caregiver who rides the 49 line. She’s convinced Muni will somehow cost her more using the card.
Jason Schlachet, a local photographer who’s frequently tweeted about Clipper problems, has a card but doesn’t want to sign up for the “autoload” feature — which automatically deducts funds from a bank account or credit card — until service improves.
“I want Clipper to work because I think it’s a great idea, but despite having ‘launched,’ it still feels like a joke in the Mission,” said Schlachet in an e-mail to Mission Loc@l.
“The last two times I went to [the 23rd Street] Walgreens, their machine was not working. Which meant I had to either find another location or just buy a ride downtown to get to a real Clipper machine.”
Neither of the two BART stations in the Mission have Clipper “add value” machines that allow payment in cash or by credit card.
Bus drivers see problems with Clipper as well.
“They ‘tag’ it,” said one Mission route Muni driver of passengers who pretend to pay their fare with Clipper by ignoring the card reader’s error beeps after they pass their card over the sensor. “But the system is not collecting the money.”
To board a bus or train, Clippers users “tag,” or hold their card close to, a card reader. When the reader emits a single beep, the fare has been paid and the cardholder may proceed.
However, a confusingly similar three-beep sequence — especially hard to distinguish on noisy buses that drown out the sound — means the card was not read or is out of funds.
Not surprisingly, drivers said that Clipper will have no effect on one of Muni’s biggest problems, fare evasion.
Even if the card becomes the major form of fare payment, evaders will still “be getting on through the rear doors,” one driver said.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which needs to raise revenues 20 percent by 2012 according to its annual report, recently instituted a $75 fine for Muni fare evasion.
If offenders get caught, that is.
Drivers often aren’t sure whether they should hold riders accountable for non-payment when they blame it on the Clipper.
“People say, ‘I just put money on this card, and it still says low funds,'” said driver Dorian Maxwell at the San Francisco Municipal Transit agency’s last board meeting. There can be a delay before funds loaded on Clipper are available for fare payment, Maxwell said.
“We just drive the buses,” another driver said, adding that troubleshooting Clipper errors “is not our job.”
When in doubt, operators said, they tend to blame the card rather than punish a cardholder who may be innocent. More than one Muni driver described Clipper as a “control mechanism” and a drain on people’s bank accounts.
A video recently featured on Muni Diaries shows a Clipper card reader malfunctioning, beeping continuously.
But at least one driver was in favor of the card, despite some issues with the readers.
“You may have one working, or two working,” said Shawn Coleman, a 49-line driver who’s driven buses for 15 years. He said he usually manages to get all three card readers on his bus working by constantly resetting them.
“Other than that, it’s all right. It’s faster to load [passengers].”
“It’d be much better if they did away with this fare box,” Coleman gestured toward Muni’s most common method of fare collection. “We wouldn’t have to worry about [paper] transfers. All we’d have to do is just drive.”
“It will get rid of some transfers,” Maxwell had acknowledged at the agency meeting. “But tourists [who won't have Clipper cards] will still need transfers.”
On Muni buses, Clipper cardholders can board multiple buses within 90 minutes and have transfer discounts automatically applied to their fare.
Although the switch from paper passes to Clipper is rapidly approaching, Muni admits it is not close to its goal.
“Muni is not achieving a high rate of Clipper [usage],” said Nathaniel Ford, the Municipal Transportation Agency’s CEO, at the recent meeting. There are up to 150,000 metro boardings per day, but only about 60,000 Clipper transactions, Ford said.
A poll of 563 Muni riders conducted between August and September of this year found that people who do not use Clipper consciously choose not to.
Of riders who don’t use Clipper, “74 percent said they are aware of the card,” according to the transportation agency’s report.
Passengers are not the only ones who aren’t prepared for Clipper. Muni is still adjusting its infrastructure to accommodate the card.
Ford said that while replacing Muni’s “woefully out-of-date” metro fare gates to integrate Clipper technology, problems arose with the new gates’ sensors. A fix should be implemented in the next month or two.
Until then, the gates won’t always behave properly — like much associated with Clipper at the moment.
For a limited time, the Clipper card (usually $5) can be obtained for free at clippercard.com