Is Clipper Ready for San Francisco?

One of Muni's many Clipper ads reminds patrons to make the switch.

One of Muni's many Clipper ads reminds patrons to make the switch.

En Español

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

19 Comments

  1. Regarding that Muni Diaries video of the reader beeping like crazy. Clipper informed me on my blog the issue is because if someone tags more than one RFID card at the reader at the same time (say a Clipper card & a MasterCard paypass), it causes it to malfunction. But, they are supposed to update the readers, but not sure if they did it or not.

    I’m a little afraid if this mass transition of 40,000 “A” passholders will work or not. This would be the largest transition ever for Clipper.

  2. Erik

    The biggest problem with making it work is that they have taken an object (the thin plastic card) which people have spent the last two decades learning to swipe quickly and smoothly though the machine that reads it and turned it into something that only works if you hold it still against the machine for a few seconds. Their industrial designers earn an “F-” for this project.

    They card shape itself is pretty much a requirement at this point, so they either need to make the readers work with a quick swipe or else somehow come up with a reader that somehow forces you to hold the card still for the second or two that it takes to work.

    BART’s EZRider card that they had for a while when they were trying to avoid making things convenient for their users worked just fine with a quick swipe; the only reason Clipper doesn’t is laziness on the part of the engineers.

    The other thing that would speed up the transition is to charge extra for cash. Make the cash fare $3 while keeping the electronic fare at $2.

  3. Helpful Hint

    Just a reminder to everyone that if a Clipper card reader is malfunctioning, the driver is required to let you on for free. http://www.munidiaries.com/2010/07/02/a-clipper-card-conundrum/

  4. I tried to register my card online last night. But guess what? Their site was down. No “be back later” message or anything — it was just dead.

    I went to @BayAreaClipper on Twitter to complain, bu they had posted a message about “scheduled maintenance.” In other words they pulled their entire site down to do maintenance.

    In other words, Twitter is more reliable than Clipper. FAIL.

  5. jashsf

    i think i’ve tagged mine 100 times and had maybe 1 problem. i got free ride out of it.

  6. Paul

    I got a clipper card, heard about the problems where the fast pass would just stop working mid-month so I continue to use the paper pass. I don’t need the headache when the paper pass just works.

  7. Louie

    Hong Kong has the Octopus Card, London has the Oyster Card, and Singapore has TransitLink. I’ve used a stored-value card for these transit systems and they’re fantastic. I don’t know why Muni is having difficulties implementing or why San Franciscans are having trouble with this technology. If these other cities can pull it off, I don’t see why we can’t.

    I found the Hong Kong Oyster card to be really great since you could use it at all different kinds of stores for small purchases. It may take some time to get the infrastructure in place, but I really think this is the future. I’ve only had problems on a cable car, but otherwise, it’s worked fine.

  8. Avatar of J.J. Barrow J.J. Barrow Post author

    @Helpful Hint: Thanks! It is true that Muni drivers are required to give Clipper users a free ride if the card reader doesn’t work, i.e. if you see a “DC Not Responding” error message.

    Unfortunately — as I found out the other day — not all Clipper-using transit agencies have this rule.

    On Golden Gate Transit, when a Clipper card reader malfunctions, the driver may hold you responsible for paying a discounted fare.

  9. RobT

    A major problem with Clipper is the user interface of the whole thing. As an engineer, Clipper is a great idea, but horrible interface. When designing things, sometimes engineers get into this bubble mentality and think something is easy to use because they designed it and know how to work it. Find a typical user, and it can be quite the opposite. The fact that so many people are hesitant to use Clipper or having problems with Clipper is not the fault of the user. Rather, the engineers have not done something correctly, or have made it too difficult to use.

    It is not intuitive to have to hold the Clipper card on the reader for several seconds. Clipper is not Internet where usually 3 to 5 seconds for a reaction is not atypical. Look at Oyster and Octopus card videos on Youtube and you’ll notice those users may have to slow their pace a bit, but unlike Clipper it doesn’t require them to full stop and wait. The fact that Muni, MTC, and bloggers like Akit have to repeatedly emphasize that the cards are not meant to be swiped, but rather they need to be held steady for a second or two, is a huge failure on the part of Translink. This is *not* user error. This is a design error because they did not design the card to accommodate the way people will use the card. Designing the devices in such a way that users need a user manual is definitely not the way to go. (A sign, poster, sticker, or Muni-Clipper Ambassador counts as a user manual if they have to tell users to hold the card steady for several seconds.)

    Compared to BART EZ-rider, one Clipper user takes as long as 2 to 3 EZ-Rider users to pass through the gate. Do you still blame the user here for being impatient or fault the system? We might be talking about a second here or two here, but that is enough time for the user to think that the system is not working and remove the card before the transaction is complete. Yes, they are different systems and they work differently, as I’m told, but it sure doesn’t give EZ-Rider users an incentive to change to Clipper.

  10. Alan

    Clipper is a further example of the gross
    incompetence of Muni management.
    Inappropriate technology, poorly implemented
    is Muni’s standard mode of “operation”.
    The first order of business for Muni is
    to serve the ridership, not the local
    golf club or the vendor of the
    inappropriate technology.

  11. Alan

    The Muni fleet is literally falling apart. There is hardly a single Muni bus or train
    with a functioning climate control system.
    The ancient buses rattle so much that they
    cause ACTIONABLE physical harm to passengers.
    No other major transit system in the Bay Area has such decrepit buses and trains as Muni.
    The ‘F’ line is a hideous joke. Commuters
    don’t love it, tourists don’t love it.
    FIRE ALL THE MUNI TOP MANAGEMENT.
    LET YOUR SUPE KNOW, MAKE MUNI RESPONSIVE
    TO RIDERSHIP NEEDS OR GET VOTED OUT!

  12. Al

    I’ve been using the Clipper Card on BART, and didn’t have much of a problem. It does take a half second to trigger, but it’s convenient that you can use it without removing it from your wallet. Intuitive or not, anything that people do twice a day will quickly become second nature.

    Ultimately fare collection relies on enforcement. There was a step in that direction a few months ago, but it was shut down because, apparently, people complained that the fare checkers would be confused with immigration officials, which seems pretty ridiculous. Until enforcement is the norm, though, fare collection efforts will be doomed to failure.

  13. krankykard

    Did you know that if you have cash on your clipper card, and you take muni to bart, and then take muni at the other end of your bart trip, you have to pay for another muni fare? in other words, taking BART cancels your 90 minute transfer on clipper. If you are planning on a trip like this, make sure to get a paper transfer! I think that this situation is a lot like Clipper STEALING the transfer you already paid for.

  14. RobT

    The implementation of TransClipper on Muni may not have been Muni’s choice. The Transclipper adoption may have been forced by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission which oversees transportation planning in the SF Bay Area.

    Most of Muni’s current bus fleet is less than 10 years old. Public transit buses typically have a service life of about 20 years.

  15. Jeff

    Let’s focus on concrete issues! The biggie is that fare updating could be better:
    * Online updates can get take days to load onto cards.
    * Online site downtime problems.
    * Malfunctioning add value machines.
    Problems with readers:
    * Concurrent reads cause non-stop beeping?!
    * Readers not reading quickly enough (for some).
    Other issues? I mean, real issues, not vague “MUNI IS TEH SUX” crap?

    I’m with jashsf– I’ve had no issues in months.

  16. randolph mortimer

    i’ve had many issues with some gates not reading the cards, sometimes they do nothing, sometimes they show SEE AGENT, but then when i try the card on the next gate over it works fine.

    i also was surprised to find that my BART autoload credit on the card couldn’t be used on MUNI and i had to add additional $ but that was most likely my own misunderstanding. terrible design anyways, even if i can see the rationale behind it because of the bonus bart bucks when you do autoload.

  17. Juliet

    Just got the Clipper Card this month with a $70 fast pass.
    I was skeptical but I really like it–
    very easy to use, better than the paper fast pass.

  18. RobT

    I’ve had interesting run ins with fare inspectors in the past. I boarded at Church and debarced at Powell. I walked up from the subway level and found two fare inspectors in front of me. The handheld reader told me my transfer is no good and were working up to cite me for it. I managed to convince them that I had a valid transfer and to scan it on the gate and only then did they let me go.

    I could really see this type of incident as something that deters non-English speakers from adopting Clipper. With a paper fare media, there is no argument whether it is valid or not just by looking at it. However, TransClipper does not convey such information to the user and different can readers give different results.

    It used to be that the Metro gates always gave 120 minute transfers. TransClipper transfers have always been strictly 90 minutes, sometimes less if the clock on the reader is wrong. Combine this with the reduction of service over the past year, why were transfers not extended out to the full 120 minutes since they are supposed to be valid for 90 to 120 minutes. AC Transit has extended the transfers from 90 to 120 minutes for Transclipper users.

  19. Joel

    Clipper is a great concept that is overdue, but the slow reading of the card by the readers is definitely annoying. Those who have used Bart EZrider or the Washington DC metro and probably countless other similar cards know that these cards can be designed to be read much more quickly, resulting in fewer errors by people not leaving it on the reader long enough, and quicker passage onto the bus or through the gate.

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