The Clipper Card Disaster

Why the new Clipper Card system is actually making the SF Municipal Railway worse

by: Eric Jaye

San Francisco Clipper Card Disaster The Clipper Card sounds like a great idea – until you use it.

The goal of the Clipper Card system is to create a single pass you can use on just about any Bay Area transit system. The cards are designed so you can load with a Fast Pass, BART discount tickets, CalTrain passes or any combination of transit payments.

But like so many ideas proposed for improving transit in San Francisco, riders are now being bedeviled with the a series of snafus that are making mass transit even less reliable.

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Finding a Clipper Card

One of the biggest problems is that Clipper Cards are simply hard to come by – with a clunky online ordering system that feels like it was coded 20 years ago.

Ordering the cards can take weeks. For example, if you are using Commuter Check or another payment plan, you need to order or reload your card up to two weeks before you need it.

Offline options are limited. The very few machines available that sell and reload the Clipper Cards already have long lines and those machines are few and far between. The transit kiosks, like the ones in the downtown MUNI Metro stations, inexplicably won’t sell all of the Clipper Card products. For example, they won’t sell a MUNI Fast Pass and they won’t sell a BART high value ticket. If you ask why not, you get a shrug.

Many stations have no machines at all. Ask a station agent about how to get a Clipper Card and you will be lucky if all you get is a shrug. As the old paper cards are phased out – these lines for Clipper Cards are only getting longer.

Faulty Clipper Cards and Readers

The cards themselves frequently don’t read coming in and out of stations or when boarding buses and streetcars – slowing down the system. The informal process many drivers used of allowing riders to board from the back of the bus if they flashed a Fast Pass now seems to be going away – since the driver can’t tell if a Clipper Card has enough money loaded to pay a fare.

The gates installed, and then reinstalled, in the MUNI Metro stations are almost a civic embarrassment. They allow fare evaders to board simply by waving a hand over a sensor just inside the system. And the gates open so slowly I frequently have seen riders run right into them.

Clipper Card Confusion

There is widespread confusion about how the Clipper Cards work. For example, some drivers give paper transfers when you use a card, some don’t, although Clipper says the transfer is calculated automatically and the card keeps track of your 90-minute transfer window. The information on the roll out was minimal – and most of it did not make it down to the operator and station level where MUNI workers seem just as confused as everyone else.

Clipper Card Scams

Soon after the Clipper Cards rolled out, press and bloggers began to note that riders could carry a “negative balance” on their card – meaning you could buy a $2.00 card, take a $10.00 BART ride and then still exit with an $8.00 negative balance. While it would be great if the honor system worked, it seems to be falling short. The MTC is now implementing a $5.00 minimum, which won’t fully solve the problem and will create a new issue of gouging people who just need the card for one ride costing less than that minimum.

Why is the Clipper Card So Bad?

Here’s a technology that should be making our lives and commutes easier. But so far at least, things are much worse. Why?

Watching MUNI over the years you see that it is full of great people, almost always working very hard, but almost always failing at one important task – customer service.

From the top management on down, they treat customers like an annoyance. When it comes to Clipper – which is fundamentally a new customer service – this anti-customer attitude is fully revealed.

Take a quick read of Will Resisman’s great story in the Examiner recently to get a sense of how MUNI feels about customers. They blame everyone and everything but themselves for MUNI’s dismal ontime performance.

Clipper Card is a system that could have shown how new technology can make transit faster and easier. Instead it is making MUNI slower and even more frustrating to use. The anti-customer attitude shows through as MUNI rolls out a new fare system that makes paying for transit much harder.

A company that was thinking about customers wouldn’t implement a new payment system that made it objectively more difficult to buy a product. But that is exactly what the Municipal Railway is doing.

Will it work eventually? The sad truth is that we shouldn’t count on it. Perhaps there will be incremental improvements.

But on issues like the slow gates, the two-week wait for passes and numerous other annoyances, the attitude from MUNI and Clipper is fundamentally – get used to it.

Eric Jaye rides BART to work most days and MUNI a couple of times per week. He is the proprietor of Storefront Political Media and is working on Phil Ting’s campaign for mayor.

mhearts2002's picture

Clipper Cards

My partner, son and I have been using Clipper Cards and the pre-cursor on BART and MUNI for years.  It works on CalTrain too.  We have them linked to a credit card which auto-loads $25 at a time.  They work great, and I never had to add money to the card.  Not sure what all the complaining is about.

mm378's picture

Clipper Overcharges

I, too, was thrilled with the idea of a single card that could be used on CalTrain, BART and MUNI.  But ClipperCard was withdrawing cash from my account any time I used MUNI, despite the fact that I had purchased a monthly MUNI pass.  It's been a full year since this problem occurred, and ten months since I first contacted Clipper about the errenous charges.  They still have not refunded my money!

clipperhater's picture

Serious problems with Clipper

Like most people, I appreciate the convenience of one card for everything--but not if it costs me $150.  I ended up paying a $150 fine because the Clipper machines don't have a big enough display for a clear readout.
Also, why do Walgreeen's stores only allow you to use actual cash to add value to the card?  Doesn't that seem to go against the idea of convenience that the card is supposed to bring?  How about people who have employer-sponsored programs?  Walgreen's doen't accept those cards for payment.  If you have one, you're out of luck.  You have to go to a BART station.
If Clipper cards are so good, and are the only way to buy multiple-use cards for CalTrain, why are there no Clipper reload machines at the main CalTrain station in San Francisco?
Anybody who forces us to use technology when it hurts so many people sholud be locked away, and forced to listen to hours of the complaints of people who got hurt by Clipper.

staylucid's picture

Facts in this article are inaccurate

"One of the biggest problems is that Clipper Cards are simply hard to come by."
"Offline options are limited."
FALSE.  The Clipper Card is actually available immediately at 396 walk-in locations in the Bay Area, including common places like Walgreens.  Here is a map with a full list of retail locations where you can get a Clipper card:
"If you are using Commuter Check or another payment plan, you need to order or reload your card up to two weeks before you need it."
FALSE.  I use Commuter Checks and can load them onto a new or existing Clipper card immediately at Walgreens, and the balance is functional as soon as the transaction is complete.
"The cards themselves frequently don’t read coming in and out of stations or when boarding buses and streetcars – slowing down the system."
QUESTONABLE.  As an everyday BART & Muni commuter, I experienced more frequent hastle with the old paper cards becoming demagnetized simply from rubbing too much in my pocket or accidentally touching a mobile phone.  Yes, there are still occasional problems with the Clipper scanning system, but the overall increased speed of getting commuters through the gates seems to vastly make up for this.  I don't see any proof that it's causing more backups than the archaic paper card system.
"Some drivers give paper transfers when you use a card, some don’t, although Clipper says the transfer is calculated automatically and the card keeps track of your 90-minute transfer window."
QUESTIONABLE.  I have never been given a paper transfer when using my Clipper card, nor have I ever seen anyone handed one.  This may have been a result of early initial confusion, which is bound to happen with any rollout of new technology.  To claim this is a common problem is just not accurate.
Clipper card scams:
It's true that there is a loophole that will allow some people to scam the system for long rides (although these are uncommon routes).  The system is not perfect and will be adjusted over time, and BART's president has even said he wants to move toward eliminating the negative-balance feature.  However, as with some of the other issues you mention, I don't see any proof that this is causing the Clipper system to be more detrimental to commuters and taxpayers than the previous system.
The paper card system also had an easy, well-known scam involving scissors and scotch tape.  I don't see how it's any worse-off now.
In light of these issues, I think the tone of this article is overly pessimistic toward a change in technology; these kinds of transitions never work perfectly on the first try.

I'm happy with Clipper

While I think everyone here is raising legitimate complaints about the Clipper program, I'd be careful not to wallow too much in negativity, as it has the counterproductive effect of making people fatalistic about transit improvement.
To me, implementing Clipper was a huge step in the right direction, simplifying access to the myriad transit services offered in the city. I definitely am more willing to use MUNI rail, for example, without having to stress about getting a ticket, and when I took a class in Hayward it was nice being able to swipe my Clipper card on the buses there.
I have my card set to be auto-replenished, and it's been working great for me. Although sometimes the card doesn't work at a BART turnstyle, I've always just been able to use the next one over. And in the rare occasions where the bus sensors aren't working, I just get to ride for free--so no complaints there.
The program still has flaws, to be sure--there shouldn't be a delay in re-upping the card, machines should be made more available, etc. But these are problems that can actually be fixed. So let's focus on further improving this moderately successful program, rather than dubbing it a "disaster" and launching into yet another tiresome MUNI-bashing pity party.

biggeek's picture

I tried getting a Clipper Card today...

And every machine would not accept bills.

Why the 72 hour delay when paying online?

It's absurd in this day and age that you have to wait up to 72 hours after paying by credit card online for the amount to show up on your Clipper Card. And when you're checking you're balance online, it seems that the system is updated once, sometime at night, so you always see yesterday's balance. In this tech savvy city, we have a right to expect better.

Eric Jaye's picture

Some good news

Press release from MUNI Today - good news that they are trying to make it just a little easier for seniors and youth to find a place to buy Clipper Cards:




SFMTA Continues Senior and Youth Clipper Card Sign-up and How-to Events at Powell Muni Metro Station


SAN FRANCISCO—The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which operates the Municipal Railway (Muni), today announced that  the agency will continue Senior and Youth Clipper sign-up and how-to events through March 31.


The Senior and Youth Clipper card events will be held at the Powell Street Muni Metro Station from 4 to 7 p.m., Monday, March 28, through Thursday, March 31.


“We want to make the transition to the Clipper card as convenient as possible for our customers,” said Nathaniel P. Ford Sr., Executive Director/CEO. “We will continue to reach out to the community and work with our City partners to help our customers make the switch.”


At these events, seniors (65+) and youths (5 to 17) may sign up for Senior or Youth Clipper cards by completing an application and showing proof of age.   Seniors will receive their card on-site. In the past, seniors applying for a Senior Clipper card had to wait up to 10 days to receive the card by mail. Youths will continue receive their cards by mail. 


SFMTA Clipper Ambassadors will be on hand to show customers how to use the Muni Ticket Vending Machines to load passes and cash value on their card as well as how to use the Clipper card to enter the Muni fare gates.


Senior and youth customers must show one of the following to validate identification and proof of age:

·        Birth certificate

·        State-Issued Driver’s License

·        State-Issued Identification Card

·        Passport

·        San Francisco City ID Card

·        Matricula Consular/Consular Identification Card

·        Alien Registration/Permanent Resident Card

·        School Identification Card


Seniors must apply in person, a parent or guardian may apply for youth.


For more information on the Clipper card, please visit  Muni customers can learn more about using the Clipper card on Muni and the transition to Clipper by



Paid for by Phil Ting for Assembly 2012. FPPC ID# 1343137