The Clipper Card: Tragicomic Fare (Actually it’s pathetic)

If you want regional transportation planning reports in pretty formats, MTC is the go-to agency. If you want transportation funding wheeling and dealing, they’re the tops. But MTC, to put it mildly now, does not excel at operations. (I speak from experience, having worked for them while the rears of my ears were slowing drying.)

The Clipper Card is a prime example.

Smartcards are debit cards which you load up with money and use to pay for transit fares, by deducting the fare each time. They’ve have been around for a couple of decades. Several cities, like Singapore, have them, but the one I’m most familiar with is the Octopus card in Hong Kong, launched in 1997. Initially its convenience was as a single ‘ticket’ in riding with different transportation operators: buses, MTR, trams, ferries, etc. Now it’s used for other things as well, like buying snacks at convenience stores and bakeries. It’s simple: you add money, your money is deducted at each transaction, and when you run low, you add money. You don’t have to fumble for change, the transaction is fast and easy. For men, it’s a godsend, because most of them don’t use wallets with a coin section!

Having such a smartcard would be useful for the Bay Area, given its bountiful array of transit agencies, each with their own fare structure. And indeed, the genesis of such a smartcard for the Bay Area started ages ago in the early 1990’s. When I was working at MTC, its working title then was the Transtar project. When it was launched publicly as Translink in 2007 (almost 20 years later!), there were only two transit agencies that accepted it, of which only AC Transit was a major agency. Since then, other big transit agencies have started to use it, including BART and SF Muni (2009), Caltrain and SamTrans (2010) and, pretty soon VTA.

MTC decided to rebrand Translink as Clipper last year. (This after all the Translink-branding work that had been done for about ten years before it had really gone into wide public use. After the installation of Translink card readers on all Caltrain platforms a couple of years before they were operational for Caltrain.) Why MTC thought that was a good idea, I have no clue. Perhaps they needed to throw more money at their marketing consultant. Perhaps they were so embarrassed at how the implementation of Translink had been such a long-dragging boondoggle, they figured a name change would be a slate-cleaner* for the public, who might be deluded into thinking that it was a new product that was launched so quickly without needing to spend much time in development. Thus it should also come as no surprise that it made sense for them to name it after a transportation mode that was considered cutting edge . . . two centuries ago.

[*After all, other major corporations have done the same. Phillip Morris is now Altria. GMAC Bank is now Ally Bank.]

There have been a constant stream of glitches that have delayed each agency’s rollout of Clipper. But as more people start to, or are forced to use Clipper (most agencies are discontinuing paper monthly passes, selling them only through Clipper instead), there’s also been corresponding growth in the volume of customer complaints, at which the Clipper operations contractor has failed miserably in handling. (How could they have not seen it coming? Don’t they know how to read tea leaves? Ba-da bing!

Whatever the marketing/branding woes for the Bay Area’s transit smartcard, I was planning to get a Clipper card anyway, as soon as Caltrain was in their system.

Using the ticket vending machine on the Caltrain platform at my station can be dicey: things can often go wrong very easily and make you miss the train. The credit card reader won’t work. Or it’s being finicky about accepting the bills crumpled from your jeans pocket. Or if you’re paying cash, and it doesn’t have enough money to give you change, it won’t sell you the ticket! Then there’s the usual tourists taking forever to figure out the user interface (which really could be improved on.) Having a Clipper card to tag on/off bypasses that hassle.

So far I’m an occasional user. I usually have a cash balance on it, which can be used on any transit system, anytime. That’s what I use for paying Caltrain fares. Plus I have a BART high value discount ‘credit’ on it, because that never expires. The cash balance is separate from the BART HVD balance. (If I had a monthly pass for another transit system, say SF Muni, that would also be tracked separately on the Clipper card.)

I’m really not a nit-picky person. But I have quite a few pet peeves so far. The Clipper user interface is very convoluted: nothing is straightforward. It seems like the coding has been patched on in odd bits and pieces, so that on the whole, the software has the architectural flavor of Dwinelle Hall (all who have ever been undergrads at Cal groan together now.) Going down the list of problems . . .

BART High Value Discount ticket (credit). From the Clipper horse’s mouth, I mean website

1) “Buying a BART high value discount ticket. As with paper tickets, you’ll pay $45 for a $48 High Value Discount ticket or $60 for a $64 High Value Discount ticket.” – OK.

2) “High Value Discount tickets are only available at “ – That’s a lie. You can still buy them as paper tickets at select BART stations (with staffed ticket sales booths), and at retail outlets. See BART’s own website.

3) “To get High Value Discount tickets, you must set up Autoload. This means your Clipper card will automatically reload another High Value Discount ticket and charge your designated credit card or bank account when your ticket balance falls below $10.” – This is a rip-off because the highest one way fare right now is $7.05. Having to reload when you still have a balance of $10 is unfair on principle. Of course, one can get around this by canceling the ‘auto reload’ after the HVD gets loaded on. Still, that’s a pain to have to manually log on to change that.

4) “If you have a negative amount of cash on your card, you will not be able to enter the BART system, even if you have a valid Fast Pass or BART HVD ticket on your Clipper card.” – What the ef? If I have a paper ticket version of the BART HVD ticket, I cans till use it to get on BART, irrespective if I have no dimes, quarter, nickels, or greenbacks on me. So if my Clipper card has a BART HVD loaded on it, it should get me onto BART, even if my cash balance is negative. This should be an easy software fix. (Especially since apparently, I should always have a minimum of $10 of BART credit on it from the HVD with ‘mandatory’ reload.)

5) I also learnt from experience: if the amount of BART HVD credit you have on your clipper card is less than the fare of your ride, it will charge your entire fare from your cash balance. It’s not smart enough to charge your remaining BART credit and then make up the difference from your cash balance. In real life, what you’d do is go to the Add Value machine to pay up the difference in fare on your paper ticket, if your paper ticket had insufficient value for your fare.

6) Checking my balance. You can log onto your clipper card account online to check your balance by clicking on “Check card value”. In my case, it only shows the balance on my BART HVD. If I want to find out the balance of my cash on my clipper card, I have to click on a separate link “Check card activity.” Nowhere in the FAQs do they tell you this. The first time I checked my balance online I freaked out, because I had just added cash to the account, and when it didn’t show up, I thought I’d been ripped off.

7) And even when you learn #6 above by trial-and-error/dumb luck to “check card activity”, the report shows up as a pdf that you have download to view. That’s an extra click. Why can’t it simply show up as another window? Lazy coding.

8 ) Adding value to your clipper card online with a credit card when the system is down: The website doesn’t have a status banner on the home page telling you the system is down. I logged on to add value, going all the way through to entering my credit card number, only to end up with an error message that said, “Internal error. Please call customer service. Do not attempt transaction again, as it may result in your credit card being charged twice.” So I called thinking, what a bother, I’d have give all the information over the phone, but at least I could get the transaction done. No such luck. “Oh, our system is down.” Any idea when it’ll be back up? “No.” Can I give you my info over the phone? “No, I can’t process it either.” How can I find out when the system is back on to do my credit card transaction? “You’d have to go all the way through entering your credit card info, and see if there’s the same error message or not afterwards.”
Farmers in Africa can conduct banking transactions on their mobile phones with more convenience and fluidity than this.

9) Not being able to select the type of cash fare for Caltrain. With Caltrain’s own ticket machines, you can buy a one-way ticket, or a day pass (which is essentially double the price of a one way ticket) based on the number of zones you’re traveling. The one way ticket is only good for 4 hours; but the day pass is good for the entire calendar day, unlimited travel within those zones, which would allow you to hop on and off, making intermediate stops. Unfortunately, there isn’t an option to select day pass vs. ‘one-way’ on the Clipper card readers, so I’d have to plan ahead and buy a ticket from the regular machine on the platform.

Truc got herself a Clipper Card last year before I did, because she buys her monthly Caltrain pass through her commuter checks program at work. She had a nightmare of a time, being given endless run-arounds from the Clipper folks in trying to trouble shoot and get it to work. Finally she was told she was supposed to have a minimum of $2.50 cash value on her card, in order for her monthly pass to work. And no, they didn’t know why it had to be that way in order for it to work. It seemed pretty arbitrary. $2.50? Why not just $5, and take it from the ‘deposit’ on the card itself?
“And why didn’t anyone tell me this when I first got the card and set it up for my Caltrain monthly pass!” You’d think this would be critical information to send to users getting their card for the first time. (Maybe I’ll have her guest blog her experience.) Bottom line of the story: Clipper finally sent out a mass email this week, several months after the incident, explaining that there had to be at least $1.25 cash value on your Clipper card in order for you Caltrain monthly pass to work.

From: Clipper Customer Service
Subject: Critical Tips for Using Clipper on Caltrain
Date: Monday, February 7, 2011, 12:21 PM

Thank you for using your Clipper card on Caltrain. Following are tips to make it easier to use your card on Caltrain:

* Don’t forget to tag off. Cash and 8-ride customers must tag on and tag off for every trip. Monthly Pass holders only tag on and off the first time they use the Monthly Pass.

* All Caltrain riders – even Monthly Pass or 8-ride users – must have $1.25 in cash value on their cards at all times. If you don’t have $1.25 in cash on your card, it will not work on Caltrain, even if you have a Monthly Pass or 8-ride. 

* If you don’t tag off within 4 hours of tagging on, you will be charged the $12.50 maximum fare. If that causes you to have a negative balance, you won’t be able to use your card until you bring the balance up to $1.25.

· Remember to tag and hold. To tag, hold your card flat against the Clipper logo on the reader until you hear a beep and see a green or yellow light.

· If you have a Monthly Pass or 8-ride with only $1.25 on your card, you’ll always get a yellow light and “Low Balance” message when you tag on. Clipper temporarily charges the maximum fare when you tag on, but then credits it back to you when you tag off. 

Please remember these tips to make your Caltrain travel experience as enjoyable and convenient as possible.


Clipper Card Customer Service

Unfortunately, they didn’t explain why there needs to be a $1.25 cash value on the clipper card. I dug deep into bowels of Caltrain’s website. There’s an explanation, but it still doesn’t quite spell it out fully.

“Why do I have to have a minimum of $1.25 in cash on my Clipper card, even if I have a pass?”
Clipper is a tag‐on and tag‐off system on Caltrain; the two tags determine the zones and thus the price of the ride. When a person tags on, the Clipper system looks first for cash value to pay for the ride ‐‐a maximum fare of $11.25 on Caltrain. If a person has a Caltrain Monthly Pass or an 8‐ride Ticket and tags off within the correct zones, the system recognizes the pass and the cash value is refunded on the Clipper card.

If the customer rides past his zone, however, it’s treated as a zone‐to‐zone ride, not the pass plus the extra zones. The system deducts the full cost of the ride. The same is true if he fails to tag off.”

I think what they need to explain is that the minimum adult fare on Caltrain is $2.50. But they’re giving regular adults a ‘break’, by requiring less than the minimum adult fare equivalent in cash on the card. The minimum discount fare is $1.25, and that applies to seniors, disable, youth and Medicare users. However, there’s separate types of clipper cards for seniors, youth and disabled users.
This is something software should be able to handle. Again, if you have a Caltrain monthly pass or a 8-ride ticket loaded on you clipper card, the Caltrain card reader should be able to recognize that, and not look for cash value on the card. Because even if you ride beyond your monthly pass or 8-ticket zone coverage. . . .

According to the Clipper website FAQs

“What happens if my card’s cash value falls below zero?
Don’t worry! You won’t get stuck just because you don’t have enough value on your card. If a ride costs more than the remaining cash value on your Clipper card, Clipper will allow you to complete your trip even if paying the fare causes your card balance to fall below zero. Value must be added before the card can be used again. The negative value is deducted from your card balance after the new value is added. To ensure your card is always ready to use, keep sufficient value on your card at all times.”

Yeah, right!

I haven’t even mentioned how easily Clipper cards enable fare evasion. I don’t condone such behavior, so you’ll have to google it on your own.


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