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Nightline: Clipper Card and Crazy Commutes

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The Clipper Card is meant to help passengers shy away from grabbing cash from their wallets or show a (sometimes torn-up) paper transfer to use public transit. But, is it really worth the cost when the system hiccups?

I wrote on my earlier blog about what happened on an inbound bus on Golden Gate Transit: I boarded the bus when the Clipper card reader worked just fine. As the bus went close to its final stops before heading express on the freeway, the machine suddenly read “DC Not Responding”. I told myself, “oh, oh… how will I tag out properly when it persists when I get off the bus? I will end up paying more for my commute today than the usual!”

Another time, in a Muni bus (and this has happened many times already), as I board a 28 (Nineteenth Avenue) inbound bus, the machine read, again, “DC Not Responding”. Then I asked the driver “Clipper not working?” The Asian driver replied “No, get in”, then I moved inside the bus, making it a free ride for me that day. Interesting, isn’t it? Not only I saved a Muni fare ($2.00), but I also saved time from trying to put my card properly at the “Clipper icon” where I tag my card!

But, this had to be the worst: I boarded a Muni Metro “M” (Ocean View) inbound train for Downtown, when I saw about 3 of the 6 readers showing “DC Not Responding” or “Out of Service”. I hesitantly asked where a functioning card reader was on the train since I don’t want to ride on a train without tagging my card. The deal with Muni is that fare evaders are both a nuisance and common in the transit agency, resulting in millions of dollars of fare losses from their deceiving acts of riding the bus at the rear door without paying or showing any transfer ticket or (the now obsolete) Fast Pass card. With that scenario, fare checkers (as many as three) would board any train or bus anytime of the day, checking on all passengers to see if they’ve paid their fare, either by showing a transfer ticket (good for 90 minutes, but some hand out transfers good for 3 hours!), showing a valid Fast Pass, or by inserting the Clipper (formerly TransLink) Card onto a card reader verifying if the card has been tagged, along with the transfer time expiration shown. I’ve even passed by them at least three times: twice before I got out of the Muni Metro Downtown (at Montgomery Street and Powell), and once on board the train! Whew, it could be a headache, but thank them for doing a great job skimming through the fare evaders.


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It’s easy to see why many people use–and abuse–the Clipper Card system. First of all, when it was introduced, Muni allowed card holders to have a minimum balance of $2 to ride the system (the adult fare for Muni stands at $2, youth/seniors at $0.75). Fair thought, isn’t it? But, when Muni and BART discovered that even though that a card’s balance can go negative (thanks to a computer flaw), passengers can still ride the system! That was a serious flaw that has been discussed in several newscasts in the Bay Area, and along with that, the Clipper Card has been used several times to evade the system by hopping onto a bus or train and not tag the card (Muni requires passengers to tag their cards only once), which is pretty similar to what other fare evaders do, another reason that Muni has been losing transit revenue from not paying the proper fare or tagging the card. (See the news article here)

If that’s not enough, digest this one: in February this year, a computer glitch has caused about 150 riders to be overcharged, totaling up to $14,000. While the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has compensated those passengers for unusually high fare payments, it shows another issue: the technology itself still needs to be modernized–to catch up at least–to keep up with the increasing number of vehicles and stations that will handle the Clipper Card since the MTC relaunched it from TransLink in 2009. (See the news article here)

And, if those are not enough, here’s another story that you might want to hear: despite the amount of resources available for use in the Bay Area’s larger communities, there is still a gap among users who have been accustomed to using transit passes or paying cash to ride transit with those who have been using Clipper (and TransLink). This is especially true in San Francisco, where a large Asian population (many of whom having English as a second language) face language issues on the advantages of using the card, as well as the capability to travel beyond the City with seven agencies (along with Muni) using the system along with the traditional cash method, and it can hopefully allow them to save money while continuing to use transit on a regular basis (See the news article here)


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Lately, an interesting thought has come along with Clipper, not with the cards themselves, but with the card reader machines: in some Muni Metro trains, the “deafening” buzzing sound that means “Tag Card Again” or “Card Error” has been heard too often, too long. And it has been brought to concern by some passengers who think that it has disturbed them too much by the continuous sound that was supposedly caused by multiple tagging-ins by passengers. When it was discovered though, the problem was–surprise–another computer glitch, in which those machines had a patch installed to end the buzzing sounds. (See the news article here)

The Clipper Card is an especially useful commuter card since it allows passengers to travel throughout the Bay Area, from Santa Rosa to San Jose, Daly City to Dublin, with ease and simplicity, lessening the need to find cash or using a paper transfer to use public transportation. But, it still has a long way to go to breaking the barriers among passengers, fixing all the computer glitches, and proposing better guidelines and fare structures, all of which are aimed to providing Bay Area commuters a smoother, faster, cheaper way to travel.


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