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Transit Stories: Clipper’s Troublesome Secret


Clipper, the commuter card for the San Francisco Bay Area, bills itself as a convenient way to pay fares and store transit passes for the Bay Area’s myriad of transit agencies. Despite all the discounts one can claim for using the transit card, there are hidden loopholes in the system that cost commuters more than what they actually get.

I have been traveling between my home in Novato and my internship job at UC Berkeley for over a month, and it has been brought to my attention the overcharges I get for using the Clipper Card in the first place. What do I mean? Let me show you: (for the full fare matrices, click here)

For travel between Marin County and the East Bay: (Adult fare)
– Using cash: $4.25
Allows a rider to get a free transfer to travel to anywhere within Marin County (westbound) or to transfer to an East Bay bus for a fare credit (eastbound) for four hours from issuance of transfer
– Using Clipper: $3.40 
Amounts to 20% discount of regular cash fare, allows a rider to travel to anywhere within Marin County (westbound) or to transfer to AC Transit (for a full credit) or BART (separate discount) for four hours from first “tag”. (Tag in this case means aiming the card for the “Clipper reader machine” on board Golden Gate Transit buses)

For travel within Marin County: (Adult fare)
– Using cash: $2.00
Allows a rider to get a free transfer to travel to anywhere within Marin County for three hours from issuance of transfer
– Using Clipper: $1.80
Amounts to 20% discount of regular cash fare, allows a rider to travel anywhere within Marin County (except for round-trips on the first bus) for three hours from first “tag”.

Now, here’s the dilemma I’m facing: supposedly I travel between El Cerrito or Richmond (both in the East Bay) and Novato (in Marin County):


Note: Marin County is covered under three fare zones, namely Zone 2 (Mill Valley, Sausalito, Tiburon), Zone 3 (San Rafael and the Ross Valley), and Zone 4 (Novato). Sonoma County, on the other hand, is covered under two fare zones, Zones 5 and 6, and Richmond and El Cerrito in the East Bay has its own fare zone separate from Marin County, Sonoma County, and San Francisco.

As you see, I would travel between the “Richmond-San Rafael Bridge Service” (called Zone 7 internally) and Zone 4 (Novato), in which I would pass by Zone 3 (San Rafael) to transfer between buses. The main problem comes when I transfer between a bus originating in Novato (I would typically use Routes 49, 70, or 71)  and the Richmond Bridge-bound bus (Routes 40 or 42), in which it is particularly more profound on the westbound trip where I get to see how much I’m being charged for the entire trip from the East Bay to Novato. And, as I saw my recent bill, I noticed a strange trend on how much Clipper charges me for every trip I take going to and from the East Bay: (click on image to see details)


What you’ll notice are red and blue boxes, indicating whether or not I have been overcharged by using my Clipper card. In that part of my bill, dated from last week, you would notice that in three of the four one-way trips are indicated by red boxes, meaning that I have been overcharged by $1.80. The other box, bordered in blue, shows the correct fare that I should receive every time I travel to or from the East Bay, which is $3.40. In all the red boxes, take a look at how much Clipper deducted from my card ($3.40 + $1.80): the result is $5.20, $0.95 more than the regular cash fare! Simple math indeed, but the amount taken away adds up: for that part of the bill, I lost $5.40 from being overcharged that week alone.

What does that mean for commuters you and me? It means that Clipper’s troublesome secret is clear, especially for travelers using Golden Gate Transit to travel between the East Bay and Marin County: Clipper has been overcharging hundreds of passengers by a simple $1.80 local fare that many don’t know how much they actually pay in the first place. It may be simple math for many, but for regular commuters like me who use the Clipper Card frequently, it means that the money I add to pay for my commutes has been going down the drain much quicker than before.
Supposedly, my two-way trip on Golden Gate between the East Bay and Marin County should only amount to $6.80; with the $1.80 overcharge, the total commute bill for that part of the trip alone is $10.40, $1.90 more than a round-trip fare using cash ($8.50). From the time I noted my overcharged commutes, I have been asking drivers returning to San Rafael on Routes 40 and 42 to give me a paper transfer so that I can avoid the overcharge of $1.80 from riding a local bus (which is supposedly included in the Clipper card calculation as one continuous trip, or in that case, similar to the amounts indicated in the blue box above).

Apparently, I called the Clipper Card customer service line to ask for an explanation about what came about in the $1.80 overcharge. One of their customer service representatives told me that I boarded (and disembarked) for a Zone 10 (see the bill); I told the representative that it was false because there is no such thing as Zone 10 (cf. fare map above), in which Zone 10 has been renumbered as Zone 7. Plus, he told me that problematic machines are not at fault that cause riders being overcharged later on (which I know is not true): when a Clipper Card reader breaks down mid-route for any reason, and that Golden Gate Transit riders are required to “tag on” (when boarding) and “tag off” (when disembarking) their cards, the result is that riders who fail to tag off from a bus are being charged the highest possible discounted fare for the trip (in which today, it costs $8.20 — the fare covering between Santa Rosa and San Francisco).

So technically, I find Clipper and Golden Gate Transit at fault with three issues:

– Fare overcharge, in which Clipper is addressing my situation by giving back the money I’ve been overcharged to be used as “credit” for my future rides;
– Zoning issues, in which Clipper and Golden Gate Transit should address the situation by redrawing the zones Golden Gate Transit has (using Google Earth or ArcGIS) so that riders may be charged with the correct fares; and
– Machine problems, in which Golden Gate Transit should address defective machines as soon as possible because the current set-up requires passengers to tag their cards when boarding and disembarking from a bus, and that passengers failing to tag off will charge them way more than the original discounted fare ($8.20 versus $3.40 for East Bay to Marin, for example).

I think that Clipper is a great product to have if you’re a frequent commuter (I mean, I find it working very well on AC Transit, BART, and San Francisco Muni), but I think that its current flaws cost many of its users more money than they actually pay for in the first place as agreed upon by Clipper and participating transit agencies. I believe that fixing the problem by rezoning is one way to solve the problem; how to refund the money taken out from fare overcharges, though, is a different situation that needs to be done on a case-to-case basis. If there are similar stories that you’ve got from this experience, or you know that you’ve been overcharged by Clipper, message me here or call the Clipper Card hotline at 1-877-878-8883

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