Photo by Lydia Chávez

Christina Ochoa uses her smartphone to order take-out, pay bills, and for commuting to her job in the Mission District. She believes that adding a transit application to this list could improve her daily life.

“I’m in the service industry, and when I get off work late, I want to get home quickly,” said Ochoa. She usually orders a ride through Uber or Lyft, two mobile car-sharing services. “All I have to do is hop in when the car arrives and I’m on my way.”

But using ride share services frequently can be pricey, and if the convenience of  paying for a ride through an app were extended to public transportation, Ochoa would likely opt for the bus. 

Last Monday, such an app finally became an option for Ochoa and other tech-savvy commuters in San Francisco.

MuniMobile, the city’s first transit app that allows Android and Iphone users to purchase Muni and cable car tickets for single ride fares and multi-day passes online, was launched by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency on November 16.

“The app is expected to ease commute times and reduce fare collection costs while cutting down lines at ticketing machines,” said SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose. The agency “stepped into tech”  to meet the growing expectation of commuters in the digital age, like Ochoa. 

The young woman described navigating the Muni system as stressful. During commuter hours, riders often form long lines at the front of buses to purchase paper tickets that she never seems to be able to hold on to. 

“I never have quarters on me, and to take Muni you need exact change. The last thing I want to do is dig through my wallet – it makes me feel vulnerable and it’s irritating,” said Ochoa, adding that Flashing her wallet in public while fumbling for change makes her uncomfortable.

MuniMobile is targeting riders who rely heavily on mobile technology, explained Mac Brown, director of communications at GlobeSherpa, the Portland-based startup that developed the app. The company has equipped transit systems in Chicago, Los Angeles and Portland with mobile ticketing services.

The partnership between the public sector and tech, said Brown, stems largely from a growing public demand.

“For riders, convenience, speed, and access to information are the greatest benefits of using MuniMobile,” said Brown. SFMTA hopes that widespread usage of the app, which cost $95,000, will reduce operational costs such as fare collection and ticket machine maintenance.

“Technology-wise, the app is headed in the right direction of having a device that allows people to reduce any friction in their lives,” said Jennifer Ng, who works in mobile design and user experience research. “Its different from other apps because it is enhancing a public service transit, healthcare, government and education are traditionally lacking in terms of tech innovation.”

Because the app is brand new, some confusion remains on both sides of the transit system.

“It seems pretty straightforward a valid ticket is a valid ticket,” said Tim Ghigliazza, a bus driver on the 14 Rapid bus line that runs through the Mission District.  

Ghigliazza said that he and other drivers were briefed on the app. Still, he admits that he is unsure of how he is expected to enforce payment.

“From my understanding, its based on an honor system riders can enter through the rear of the bus and are only accountable to Muni inspectors,” said Ghigliazza.  He wonders if riders who are not required to show their mobile passes to drivers when boarding will try to cheat the system.

Brown explained that developers addressed this concern by  installing “moving parts” animations, changing background colors and a timestamp that prevent riders from taking screenshots   into the app, minimizing the possibility for abuse.

“Riders should purchase and activate their tickets before or while on the boarding platform,” said Brown.  “Inspector personnel have been trained in verifying these tickets.”

App Not a Replacement, but Alternative to Clipper Card

Ghigliazza remains optimistic. “If we don’t have to deal with transfers, its easier for us bus drivers too. We might actually be ‘rapid’ one of these days,” he said. “It definitely cuts down on  people scrambling for change but the Clipper card is efficient in that way too.”

Under Muni’s Clipper program, riders are currently able to purchase a reusable card that allows them access to San Francisco’s buses, Muni trains, cable cars, and the Bart system. The clipper card can be reloaded on a monthly basis, online or in a store that offers the service such as Walgreens. Riders must tap the card against a card reader when entering a Muni bus, light-rail or Bart train.

The Clipper system is currently not a feature of MuniMobile, but that could change in the future.

“I think it’s silly Clipper already works, so what’s the point of the app?” asked Laurie Kindell, a Mission resident. “If they offered all the functions of the clipper card on the app, I might be interested in downloading it.”

A beta tester for MuniMobile, who wished to remain anonymous, echoed this sentiment.

“I think any app that isn’t a Clipper card replacement is short-sighted,” said the member of a 300-person test group reviewed the app last month. “It only provides standard fare Muni tickets or day passes. I would still need to maintain a Clipper card for use on BART, Caltrain, ferries, cable cars and everything else.”

Bridging the Digital Divide

After hearing about the app, some Mission commuters expressed concern about being excluded from the transit authority’s technological endeavors.

“It sounds good if you have a cell phone  some people in this community don’t,” said 65-year-old Sam Tierra. 

Tierra pointed out that many senior citizens use public transportation, and that the transition from paper to mobile ticketing may be overwhelming to those that are not “app literate.”

“It separates the people that are less tech savvy and those that are poor,” said Tierra. He also criticized the app for not offering other language options such as Spanish and Cantonese.

Paul Rose, the SFMTA’s spokesperson, said that incorporating language features into the app is the agency’s next step.  “We want to thoroughly test the English version first before we move into translations.”

“Cash ticketing is not going away,” said Brown. “It’s simply another way to purchase and another way to ride for people who do have access to this technology.”

But GlobeSherpa’s vision for the future of transit goes beyond this function. Creating partnerships between public and private transit providers, such as Lyft and Uber, and providing access to different transportation services, all in one app    could be a goal in the near future.

“We are trying to remove borders,” said Brown. “If a commuter can use one app to get where he/she needs to go regardless of transportation mode, then we are providing a great service.”

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