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. [Tired of Clipper Card disasters? Sign up for the Reset SF Newsletter to learn more.]

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.