October 8, 2010

Clipper Card Woes

From KALW @ SFgate.com comes a report about the uneven transition from paper passes to the new Clipper Card.

The Clipper Card is the Bay Area's attempt at an all-in-one transit pass solution. The sales pitch writes itself: why have different paper passes for each transit system when you could have 1 card for all of them? No more transfers, no more quarters for Muni, etc. Convenience, ease of use, automatic transfers.

If only it were that simple. I've been following the issues, now it's time to sum them:

  • Presently, Clipper cards are free when you add $2. In the future, a card will cost a flat $5. 
This is baseless supposition here, but I suspect the extra expense comes from the administrative overhead/electronic wiring system required to coordinate fees and transfers so that 1 card can work between BART, Caltrains, Muni, AC Transit, Golden Gate Ferries and Transit. More agencies are lined up for the future. New card-tappable readers need to be added at all entry and egress points. My point of reference is Boston, where the MBTA handles everything for the entire Boston metro area, and then some. This and the established infrastructure might explain why their bus drivers give out Charlie Cards like candy.

  • The new Clipper-compatible Muni faregates have, for now, an operationsfail.

  • Topping up.
Not all BART stations have kiosks yet. Not all Muni stations have them either. I'm unclear whether you would be able to top-up while boarding Muni from a street stop. Downtown SF Muni stations have Clipper kiosks, and I know that SF Walgreens locations sell Clipper Cards and can add value. And you can do it online, though I have heard that it takes 1-2 days for the monies to be applied to the card.

What if you don't have internet access? What if the clerks at Walgreens don't speak Cantonese, let alone Spanish? What if you didn't even know your paper monthly pass would no longer be accepted?

  • Lackluster communications roll-out = disadvantages for young, old, poor, and non-English speakers
Watching the SFMTA's outreach has driven home two points: a) mobility and transportation are universal needs, and b) mobility and transportation are therefore social justice issues. It seems that point has not been taken quite seriously enough. Streetsblog has noted the lack of outreach to community groups, especially Chinatown residents.
According to the Chinatown Community Development Center, there has been little direct outreach to the Chinatown community about the Clipper timeline and almost none of that has been in Chinese.
(MTA Rep) Goodwin admitted the Clipper customer service center didn't have a regular Chinese speaker, and said when a caller spoke Cantonese or Mandarin, they had to utilize an AT&T translation service.
Another concern raised by CCDC was the digital divide for seniors who don't have access to computers and the current lack of physical Clipper vending machines in Chinatown. Even when the Powell Street Muni Metro Station vending machines come online this month, the walk for many Chinatown seniors there would be over a mile, something Chan said was unreasonable.
And now comes the news from KALW that the youth passes needed to get to and from school are Clipper or ... Clipper. AC Transit stopped accepting the old paper passes in August. Right before the school year. In retrospect, that might not have been the best idea. The article does an excellent job detailing the logistical challenges faced by administrators and teachers in low-income, high ESL schools.
KIRK: Lots of Oakland does not pay attention to print media. So if it's not happening on TV and it's not being bombarded on billboards and things like that, they're not getting the message. There are also a lot of people who have very low incomes and rely on something like a student bus pass to get around. So they need it, but they don't get the word until they need it.
With 20/20 hindsight, the SFMTA should have invested more time in coordinated communication. It's hard to believe they did not flood different neighborhoods with pictograph-laden pamphlets in Cantonese and Mandarin, Mam, Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Urdu and Hindi, Thai, etc, etc. Corner stores, anywhere people previously bought passes. Bus stops. And phasing out the old youth passes right before the school year? What a trick! Installing kiosks takes time and money before a convenient network of places to top up is established--totally. But communication got lost in the mix. The young, the old, the poor get inconvenienced ... the usual suspects, sadly.

The Bay Area needs Clipper, nonetheless--it's a big step overall toward better transit, and better inter-agency coordination. I hope these are just one-time transition issues.

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