From the day BART’s tracks first powered on in 1972, the public rapid transit system has been synonymous with its magnetically striped cards, available in sky blue, pea green or pale red.
That familiar pneumatic chink as you insert the card into the terminal gate is as much a part of the BART experience as the stainless steel cars or the roar of the rails inside the cabin while traversing the Transbay Tube.
For children, seniors and purchasers of the high-value monthly paper tickets, Jan. 1, 2012, will be the day to begin forming new memories. On that date, paper is out, and the plastic Clipper Card is in.
Over the course of December — the extra effort started in November — BART and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) are pushing a public awareness campaign to alert riders that the agency is transitioning to the reloadable plastic Clipper card after the end of the year.
From then on, the monthly green tickets for seniors and red tickets for disabled and youth riders will only be sold in a limited number of retail locations, and none of those are in the Mission District.
The My Transit Plus machines at the Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell and Civic Center stations will become the only option for buying these tickets in San Francisco. Otherwise, the Customer Services Center at Lake Merritt will have red and green tickets for purchase in-person or by mail. The full-fare paper tickets — the familiar blues — will be available at BART ticket machines indefinitely, according to the commission.
Although this move has generated some controversy, riders who qualified for the three paper tickets will still receive their discounts through Clipper youth and senior cards. According to Clipper’s website, these cards are specially encoded to automatically calculate the discounted cash or monthly pass fare each time you use them.
The Clipper card was introduced by the MTC in June 2010 as a method of seamlessly connecting all eight transportation systems in the Bay Area. Since then, each agency has steadily transitioned to Clipper. BART started its transition away from discounted paper tickets in August 2011, according to BART Communications Officer James Allison.
MTC chair Adrienne Tissier said in a press release that the Clipper card’s autoload feature makes travel easier. With autoload, customers set up their cards so that when the balance falls below $10, the card will be recharged with a new amount.
Allison agreed that autoload will ease BART travel. “No longer will [BART riders] have to worry about having a number of tickets with a remaining value of 20 cents or so,” he wrote via e-mail.
Clipper also eliminates some of the quirks associated with the paper tickets, according to Allison — chief among them the threat of magnets. Magnetic purse enclosures can damage the magnetic strips on the paper tickets, he wrote.
Clipper cards can also be used to pay for parking at the BART station lots, Allison said. According to the Clipper website, to use this feature you must first sign up for an EZ Rider account through BART’s website.
Data collected by the MTC shows that Clipper is quickly catching on with metro transit riders. The number of active Clipper cards in circulation among all participating agencies grew at the rate of more than 7,000 per week this fall.
According to the commission, as of November, 42 percent of all BART trips were paid for with Clipper cards. The number of Clipper boardings on BART averages 157,000 per day — the second highest, behind MUNI at 335,000 weekday boardings.
For students and seniors who want to make the switch to Clipper, BART is conducting a series of in-person sign-up events at BART stations in November and December, along with participating ticket retailers and senior centers. Riders who visit one of these events can pick up a free adult, senior or youth Clipper card in person, as opposed to ordering one from the Clipper website, where it costs $5.
Applications for the discounted cards can only be submitted in person. Students and seniors making the switch must do so either at one of these events or at a participating Clipper customer service center.
San Franciscans can sign up for Clipper cards at the Clipper kiosk at the Embarcadero BART station, the Ferry Building, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s customer service center at 11 South Van Ness, and the SFMTA’s Presidio sales kiosk.
Akit, from the blog Akit’s Complaint Department, who has written extensively about Clipper, thinks people who believe Clipper makes transit easier are due for a reality check.
In a post on Nov. 18, Akit reported, among other issues, a problem with autoload. Because the feature requires Clipper users to register a personal debit/credit card, they must keep track of their BART spending or risk having the card blocked for insufficient funds.
“If for some reason your card gets blocked (even by accident), your card is unusable for a number of days until the system can resolve it,” he wrote.
Akit recommended that BART, Clipper and the MTC allow passengers to purchase the special cards without the autoload commitment at any Clipper ticketing machine (including Muni metro’s machines), BART ticketing machine or Clipper card vendor.
Allison offers one more advantage for the seniors, youth and disabled who must make the switch by Dec. 31: Once a customer sets up a Clipper account, they no longer have to make special trips to buy more tickets.
The next sign-up event in San Francisco will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 27, from noon to 6 p.m. at the Clipper customer service kiosk at the Embarcadero BART station. Similar events will be held until Jan. 6, 2012.