Fare Policy vs Ticketing Technology: San Francisco Edition

Many, many times, I’ve asked a transit agency’s leaders about their fare policy, and been told instead about their ticketing technology.  “Are you thinking about fare structure?” I ask.   “Yes, we’re on it!”  they say. “We’re working on this fabulous smartcard!”  Don’t trust a fare expert who can’t distinguish the policy decisions that set fares and the technologies that implement them.

Arielle Fleisher of SPUR has a good piece on fare policy in the Bay Area, which will be useful to anyone in multi-agency regions in North America.[1] Describing Clipper, the smartcard shared by almost all of the region’s 27 transit agencies, Fleisher writes:

There is no denying that the Clipper card is a magical piece of plastic. Since its debut in 2010, Clipper has made it much easier for people to switch between different transit systems and travel throughout the region. But if you look under Clipper’s hood, it quickly becomes apparent that the card’s magic masks a complex web of transit farclipperLogoLarge.pnges, passes and policies that ultimately limit its effectiveness. Put simply, a close look reveals that the Bay Area has a fare policy problem.

Back in the 80s and 90s, when I worked in the Bay Area, there was no “hood” to look under or “mask” to hide behind.  The mess was in everyone’s faces.  The many transit agencies required their own paper tickets or passes, and your only hope of moving freely across agency boundaries was to carry numerous rolls of quarters.

As the Bay Area considers the next generation of Clipper, Fleisher rightly warns of the risk that the region’s leaders will focus on making the technology cool rather than making the fares logical.  She enumerates five problems a multi-agency fare policy should solve:

  1. Disparate fares make using transit confusing.
  2. Separate fares for different agencies are a problem when one agency substitutes its service for another’s, as happens during disruptions.
  3. There isn’t a single pass that employers can purchase for their staffs.
  4. The system penalizes trips that happen to require multiple operating agencies.  (And note that some agencies still charge for connecting between services of the same agency!)
  5. The system makes it hard to do coherent discounting for low-income persons.

To which I can only say, yes!  And yes, we were yelling about all this 30 years ago.  The smartcard “solved” this problem only for relatively fortunate people.  If you don’t have to think about what you’re spending, you can just buy a Clipper card and wave it everywhere.  So there’s a risk of elite projection, in that many decision makers, who tend to have above average incomes, no longer experience the problem in their daily lives, the way everyone did back in the pre-Clipper days.

Still, the fare problem in a multi-agency region is genuinely hard.  If it weren’t, we’d have solved it long ago, because technology was never the real barrier.   Consolidating all the agencies into one isn’t the answer.  The point is to have clear boundaries and clear relationships across those boundaries.   But as long as there are multiple agencies, each agency has its own budget to balance.  Introducing new inter-agency fares costs money for each agency, as more fares have to be shared with other agencies that were part of each person’s trip.  Unless there is some new funding, the money has to come from raising the base fare, which is one of the most unpopular things a transit agency can do.  Integrated fares, when they happen, will be a cost item. They always are.

And as I can’t emphasize too strongly, every time you tell a transit agency to use its limited funds to do something other than run service, you’re telling them to cut service.

Even if you don’t live in the Bay Area, Fleisher’s article is a good read.  Chapter 11 of my book Human Transit also explores fare issues.  And if you’re interested in the dynamics of how a big North American metro deals with having 27 transit agencies, and why that might not be a bad thing, there’s my article on seamlessness, itself a response to an excellent SPUR paper on the subject.  (And again: if you want to see how influential, respected, and popular a local policy institute can be, you should learn about SPUR!)



[1]  The transit agency structure that I describe here is mostly a North American concept.  Elsewhere, the problems described here arise between operating companies (publicly or privately owned) that have the right to set fares and keep fare revenue while also getting subsidy from a government transport authority — a so-called “net cost” contract.”  The new best practice is “gross cost” contracts, where the government keeps the fare revenue.  This lets the government authority control the fare policy decision, because only its own revenue is at stake.  (It also lets the government design a coherent network.)

29 Responses to Fare Policy vs Ticketing Technology: San Francisco Edition

  1. Ken September 6, 2017 at 7:34 pm #

    One of the arguments against distance-based or time-of-day fares was that they were complicated for the riders and Operators. Smart cards are a way to overcome that complexity, but most systems with smart cards seem to be going to a flat fare. This discourages short distance, off-peak trips which are the cheapest to serve and usually have the least benefit to the consumer. Peak-hour, long distance fares, which are the most expensive for transit agencies to produce and have the greatest value to consumers, are therefore more heavily subsidized. Price should be determined by cost to produce the product and the product’s value to the consumer. It would also be good if agencies moving to smart cards equipped all doors of their buses with readers to enable faster passenger boarding and alighting- the cost would probably be more then offset by operating cost savings due to faster cycle times.

    • Dave September 8, 2017 at 10:08 am #

      Time-of-day fares distort behavior, especially right around the cutoff time. You see people waiting just outside the faregates of train systems that employ time-of-day fares, and the steeper the penalty for riding during peak, the more overcrowded the first couple trips after the cutoff time become… to the point where those trips end up just as crowded as they might have been during the peak. They also create problems with late trips… think of a bus that only comes once an hour passing by a stop. If it normally passes by at 3:58pm, but sometimes comes by up to 5 minutes later at 4:03pm, and the time-of-day fare increase happens at 4pm… the person boarding at that stop will never know how much the trip costs and/or will always be arguing with the operator over how he/she was ripped off due to no fault of his/her own.

      Distance-based fares has similar behavior distorting effects as discussed above: the station or stop *just* inside the fare change boundary will see additional boardings as people try to avoid the higher fare. They also create problems when the system is disrupted in some way: if your stop is out-of-service for whatever reason, should you have to pay more to get off at a further stop or be refunded the difference (and how can the authority tell which people deserve the refund vs which are just gaming the system on those days)?

      Distance-based fares can also be discriminatory against people taking short trips, and here’s why: almost no system that charges by distance does so for the entire calculation of the fare. Usually there’s a minimum fare – even if you go only 1 stop, you’ll pay a minimum, say, $2 for the trip, same as somebody going 5 stops – and there’s a maximum fare. Political pressure usually means that the maximum fare isn’t proportional to the minimum fare or the “distance” matrix overall. So take a system where the first mile is $2, then each mile after that is 25 cents, with a max fare of $7. The person who goes:
      – Only a half mile pays $2 (a $4.000 per mile effective fare)
      – 2 miles pays $2.25 (a $1.125 per mile effective fare)
      – 11 miles pays $4.50 (a $0.409 per mile effective fare)
      – 20 miles pays $6.75 (a $0.321 per mile effective fare)
      – 30 miles pays $7 (a $0.233 per mile effective fare)
      As you can see, the people traveling shorter distances end up paying way more per mile for their trip than the people riding farther, because politicians will not allow the fare to creep all the way down to $0.01 for the short distance riders or rise high enough to cover the long distance riders. (After all, that person going 30 miles would have to pay $120 to be paying the same as the person going only a half mile and $33.75 to be paying the same as the person going 2 miles if everyone was paying the same effective distance-based fare… and very few transit systems allow fares to go over $20-30 for a single one-way trip.)

      • Pavel October 20, 2017 at 11:54 am #

        The boundary effects of the peak/off-peak transition that you mention are easily mitigated by a continuous transition between fares. Same goes for distance-based fares, they just have to be sufficiently fine grained. In Amsterdam for instance distance-based fares change every 65 meters – this is how far you can travel for 1€cent. Moreover, regardless of minimal and maximal fares distance-based fares obviously reflect the cost of a trip more faithfully than flat fares. Finally, at least minimal fares are easily justified: there is also a cost to boarding and exiting vehicles, not only riding them. This cost is mostly due to dwelling time at stops, but also capital cost and maintenance of the said stops.

  2. Chris September 6, 2017 at 11:10 pm #

    Re your note on net vs gross contracts: In Germany fares are generally set by the coordinating government authority “Verkehrsverbünde”, but not all contracts with the providers are gross contracts. Sometimes they are net contracts or contracts where the providers take some but not all of the revenue. Those still require the provider to accept the fares set by the authority, but the providers are also allowed to own fares in addition. That usually leads to some interesting offpeak of weekend discounts when they try to fill the trains they already have to contractually run with additional passengers.

  3. Mike Robinson September 7, 2017 at 12:10 am #

    There are also lots of fare policy conundrums and anomalies in London with the Oyster card. Transport for London control the buses, underground, some train services (and and a cable car…) and there are different fare policies for these. Underground and trains are based upon a zonal system while buses are a flat rate. There are season tickets, pay as you go, capping of charges, discounted prices for children and the elderly, deciding if a change between should be treated as one journey or two..

    Then there are other companies operating regional train services and riverboat services and Oyster is accepted for journeys within London and some journeys outside London.

    Then there is the introduction of new payment technology in the form of contactless credit cards which have different features from TfL proprietary Oyster cards.

    As you say, it is an inherently complex issue!

  4. Matthew L. September 7, 2017 at 6:01 am #

    I think there’s a tendency to assume that a technologically advanced fare payment system is a sign of an advanced transit system. But the most advanced transit system I’ve ever used – Berlin – is still run almost entirely with paper tickets. Punch your ticket at the start of your trip, present it if inspected. If you’re using a BC ticket inside Zone A, or an AB ticket in Zone C, or your ticket has expired, or you forgot to punch your ticket, you get a fine upon inspection, but there’s no technology to stop you from doing any of those things (whether by malice or by accident).

    Of course, even though they don’t have to employ advanced technology, they did have to make some *organizational* decisions that are pretty advanced for American transit systems:

    1. Full proof of payment, rather than having the driver (or a station faregate) refuse entry to passengers with insufficient fare. This requires staffing up fare inspection teams and distributing them well. It also requires “accepting” a certain amount of fare evasion, which tends to make non-transit-riding Americans incredulous.

    Realistically, though, faregates can be hopped and drivers telling you to pay your fare can be ignored or attacked. By contrast, everything I heard about Berlin’s inspection teams was that they were stealthy, merciless, and impossible to outrun. (So when I got on an S-Bahn train and forgot to punch my ticket, I hopped off at the next station and punched it to make 100% sure I wouldn’t get fined.) Having proof of payment, besides being more efficient, is also better for driver safety and probably results in less actual fare evasion.

    2. Developing an easy-to-understand zone system, so that you can generally trust passengers to punch the right kind of ticket. Berlin had three zones: A, B, and C. Tickets were AB, BC, or ABC. The most complicated part was the “extension ticket” for traveling to Zone C if you had a Zone AB period pass.

    3. Having the VBB distribute fare revenue between the operating agencies based on surveys and APC data, rather than 100% counts of the actual usage of each fare type. (I suspect this would be one of the most difficult organizational changes to effect in American transit systems.)

    4. Making it easy to buy tickets at stores, so you’re usually just hopping on and punching a ticket (or just hopping on).

    The result of making these decisions, though, is a system with extremely efficient boarding and low technology costs. Proof of payment is also extremely *friendly* to additional technology if they want it. They have already introduced a mobile payment app, and the rules for customers are exactly the same as a paper ticket.

    • Max Wyss September 7, 2017 at 9:55 am #

      It could just be my observation, but it looks as if the mainly Germanic countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) have Tarifverbünde with simple proof of payment (aka paper tickets), and work very efficient. In order to keep things simple, they have zone fares. This simpicity may also be a reason to keep fare evasion relatively low, on a level where reducing it would cause over-proportionally high cost.

  5. Brendan Dawe September 7, 2017 at 9:18 am #

    Surely there’s a business case for fair integration though? While I understand that it is going to bring costs to agencies, doesn’t having an easier to use system also bring more paying customers (and could this extra customers be coming at perhaps off-peak times disproportionately?) How should that play into an agency’s calculation about fare-integration?

  6. Mike September 7, 2017 at 12:40 pm #

    I worry that one of the other things we lose with the high tech smart card type system is the advance buy in from a transit user who bought an annual or monthly season ticket usually priced to give a bit of a discount on a 5 day a week work commute but then had the privilege of further unlimited transit usage at any other time. Surely this type of incentive ticketing should continue to be marketed to encourage increased transit use and offer value to those of lesser incomes who can’t just wave a smart card without thinking about the cost?

    • Justin September 7, 2017 at 5:54 pm #

      Most smartcards already give you the option of buying a yearly or monthly pass.

    • Sailor Boy September 16, 2017 at 10:45 pm #

      That is a fare policy decision not a technology decision.

  7. Robert Wightman September 7, 2017 at 2:07 pm #

    This is a problem that we are having in Ontario, especially in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area, with the Province forcing all the local systems to adopt their Presto system. Local agencies think that the province is trying to force a single fare structure on everyone. Whether this is good or bad is one argument but if it forces the local agencies to pay a higher subsidy for cross border rides it becomes a problem.

    The Province through GO transit subsidizes all local transit agencies that provide a local service to GO train stations, all agencies except the TTC where passengers pay full fare except for one useless situation.

    A lot of the outer suburban riders complain about having to pay a full fare on their agency and another full fare on the TTC. Toronto riders and politicians believe that the province is going to force a lower fare for this onto the TTC with the city of Toronto having to pick up the extra subsidy for this. Technology is wonderful, sometimes, but it doesn’t make up for a rational fare policy.

  8. Eric Goodman September 7, 2017 at 4:14 pm #

    The Seattle region is grappling with this in discussions about the next generation ORCA system. There is a proposal out for comment now, so if you’re from here and care… speak up!
    ORCA (One Regional Card for All) covers several agencies with different fare policies. It includes pass products at different values depending on what fare a rider needs for their regular trips and has an e-purse for payment of individual fares or overage beyond the pass value. It also grants free transfers for 2 hours which means agencies have to think about revenue sharing. The transfer part works very well; except for those who can’t complete a journey in 2 hours. The agency I work for eliminated transfers except when using the ORCA card and we have the highest adoption rate in the region. Of course the policy penalizes those who still pay with cash. I’m intrigued by the notion of an entirely PoP system. We have a route that operates that way and compliance is a perennial issue.
    The new ORCA product, for reasons I don’t understand yet, is already impinging on policy, specifically about local use of peak express routes. So some routes headed to the regional CBD have a portion that runs on local streets before entering the highway. Other routes travel from the outer reaches of the county and make a final stop at the main P&R where there are connections to many local routes operating in the denser part of our area and to other commuter services with different downtown routing or alternate destination (UW). Making that stop opens options for people farther out and provides more capacity for people closer in. We currently allow local riders to board these trips at the lower fare for a local trip instead of paying the full commuter fare that’s twice as much. If they are only using the local portion of the route then they have to notify the driver, who pushes a button to change the fare charged. Perhaps clumsy, but it works great.
    The proposal is to charge one fare associated with each route (with the normal assortment of age discounts). Each route would have one fare and that would be it. If it’s a commuter route, you would pay the commuter fare. Local route, local fare. Where it gets really tricky is that north county routes are more expensive than south county routes to downtown, so if that north county route stops in south county, will anyone get on when it costs more than the bus right before or after it? This isn’t completely unprecedented because regional express service is priced differently than peak commuter service right now. At first, it seems like a ridership and efficiency killer that will lead to redundant service offerings, longer wait times and less options to get places… but maybe there is a plus side? We’ve already heard some backlash but the impacted group of riders is fairly small. I wasn’t involved in the discussions that got to this point, so don’t understand the official rationale. Wondering if other places have encountered something similar? Or if someone in those discussions cares to comment…

  9. Steve Yaffe September 7, 2017 at 5:44 pm #

    I see the industry slowly moving towards one mobility payment platform – transit, bikeshare, carshare, the hound, Amtrak and (why not?) also taxi perhaps including (with safeguards) its mutated forms. On the front end could be a smartcard, a cell phone, a fob, whatever (leery of an embedded chip though). The work though would be on the back end, not in real time. Much more security doing the transaction in a secure batch environment.

    By moving the math to the back end, one can apply incentives for frequent use in a day – eliminate transfer charges between bus routes, do discounts for transfers between modes, email coupons for ubiquitous coffee purveyor chains… lots of opportunity to incent a car-free lifestyle.

  10. Ron September 7, 2017 at 9:47 pm #

    Fare complexity is a problem in the other side of California as well. Most transit agencies in L.A. County are now on TAP (a smart card similar to Clipper), but each has its own fare policy, with additional provisions for inter-agency transfers. Here’s an example from a comment I posted a few years ago on Metro’s blog (slightly edited for the benefit of readers not familiar with the L.A. area).

    “The logic for optimizing the fare is rather complex, especially if you take into account inter-agency transfers. Here’s a reasonable scenario for a one-way trip from Long Beach to LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on Wilshire Blvd]: start on a Long Beach Transit bus, then transfer to the Blue Line [Metro light rail], then Purple Line [Metro subway] to Wilshire/Western [end of the line], and finally 20/720 [Metro bus] to complete the trip. How should I pay? Well, the LBT bus is $1.25, [Metro one-way trip is $1.75 with unlimited transfers within 2 hours,] and an inter-agency transfer is 50c. The time between tapping at the Blue Line and getting on the 20/720 should normally be less than 2 hours, but with a small delay it can easily become more. If it is less than 2 hours then I should not get the inter-agency transfer, since the entire Metro segment will be covered by a single one-way trip. If more than 2 hours will pass then I should get the inter-agency transfer, so that my Metro clock would only start when I transfer to the Purple Line. And when do I need to make the decision on whether to get an inter-agency transfer? When boarding the LBT bus at the beginning of my trip!”

    Both Metro and Long Beach Transit are on TAP (LBT joined in early 2014, just a few months before the posting above), but inter-agency transfers are still not implemented on TAP; my guess is that the complicated fare logic is one of the reasons. In the above comment I also described how TAP would need to be programmed for efficient use of inter-agency transfers.

    “When I board the LBT bus, TAP should deduct a $1.25 fare. When I tap into the Blue Line it should deduct a 50c inter-agency transfer. When I transfer to the Purple Line it should cancel the inter-agency transfer, and deduct a 1-way trip starting with the Blue Line tap. And when boarding the 20/720 it should look at the time that has elapsed since the tap into the Blue Line: if it’s less than 2 hours then no fare should be charged, otherwise it should reinstate the inter-agency transfer, and restart the 1-way trip at the time of the Purple Line transfer. Basically, with each tap it should look at all the trips for the day (including non-Metro trips), and then figure out the optimal way to have paid for them.”

    Now such programming is possible, and the above example does not seem too hard (London’s Oyster card performs much more complex calculations). But with more than 20 transit agencies in L.A. county on TAP, each with its own fare system and multiple inter-agency agreements, this is a complicated (and expensive) programming task.

    Original post: http://thesource.metro.net/2014/09/15/reminder-new-metro-fares-take-effect-on-monday-sept-15/

  11. asdf2 September 10, 2017 at 10:21 pm #

    I have had several bad experiences with fare policies over the years at numerous cities. Some examples:

    Washington D.C. – fare penalty for transferring between train and bus; on weekends, when parking is free, it is actually cheaper to drive to the train station than to ride the bus.

    New York – had one experience where fare penalties for transferring between commuter rail and subway, multiplied by 4 people * 2 directions made it actually cheaper to drive and pay for parking and bridge tolls than to ride the transit system (at least on a Sunday, paying New Jersey gas prices, and parking at the Mets stadium, rather than in Manhattan)

    London – The machines that refill Oyster cards take the bad combination of requiring exact change, requiring 5-pound increments, and accepting only coins. If you don’t have the correct domination, the only way to ride is to wait in a long line for the human attendant.

    Seattle – Thanks to an accident of technology, paper transfers are valid much longer than electronic smart card transfers, thereby making it actually cheaper for some people to actually leave their smart code at home and pay their fare in cash. (At least those that don’t need to transfer between different agencies, since only one agency gives or accepts the paper transfers; the savings from cash arises from reusing the paper transfer for the return trip after the electronic transfer would have expired).

    San Diego – The only to get a transfer without a smart card is to buy a daypass up-front. Unfortunately, the number of places that sell the smart cards is very limited, and even staying at a hotel right next to a major transit center, I was unable to get one. Thanks to fare penalties for transfers (and rounding up the fare of each segment from $2.25 to $3 when I ran out of quarters), the cost for riding UberPool back to the airport came out to within pennies of riding the bus (and significantly faster).

    San Francisco – Had one of those experiences of having to fumble around with the CalTrain ticket machine at Milbrae Station right as the train was approaching. Just a few more seconds of delay, I would have had to choose between riding the train without paying (and risking the fine), waiting 45 minutes at the station for the next train (one of those deserted suburban stations with nothing around), or chasing after the train in an Uber. This was caused by the combination of my BART train connection being late, and not having a convenient (or obvious enough to find as a tourist) spot to buy a Clipper Card.

    Vancouver, B.C. – Was with a group of 6 trying to pay a bus fare from White Rock to the nearest SkyTrain station. Bus fare was $5.25 (Canadian)/person, and each individual had to pay separately, and on top of that, the fare machines only took coins, which meant that $5 bills had to be changed for $1 and $2 coins. The local businesses all looked down upon making change for bus riders who weren’t interested in their merchandise, and we ended up needing to wait in long lines at a local bank. All in all, the entire process of going from our ATM cards to coins which were actually suitable for riding the bus took 30-45 minutes. (And, of course, the place to buy the Compass Card was the SkyTrain station we couldn’t get to until AFTER we had already gotten off the bus).

    Boston – forced to pay the “paper ticket” surcharge for the commuter rail because the station attendant was out of Charlie Cards (and of course, the automated machines won’t give you a new Charlie Card; they will only add value to a card you already have).

  12. david vartanoff September 11, 2017 at 9:42 pm #

    Thanks, Jarrett, for highlighting a serious defect in public transit policy. The SF case is particularly galling to me as I face surcharges for using the subway (BART) to save time over parallel bus routes. BTW there was a multi-agency pass/ticket 30 years ago called BART Plus which was a 2 week ticket functioning as a local pass on multiple Bay Area bus agencies, so Clipper is just a plastic card upgrade from a paper mag stripe ticket. However, neither that ticket, nor the current stored value plastic card have ever addressed the basic issue of fare integration on a rider friendly basis.

    As Arielle Fleisher notes, there had been a plan to integrate fares in the SF Bay Area, but the history is that the various agencies were unwilling to chance losing fare revenue in return for encouraging ridership. It is worth remembering thatwhen the New York City bus and subway systems went to the Metrocard high value discount and multiple pass offerings, off peak ridership increased. This is clear evidence that the previous “double fare” for those needing a bus to/from the subway acted as a ride suppression policy.

    The elephant in the room is BART which vacuums up a far greater share of the total transit funding than it would merit on ridership alone. For example, BART charges SF Muni for each Muni+ BART pass usage yet most of these rides occur in times and directions where there is unused capacity–any time outside of rush hour within SF and during rush hour, rides opposite to the SF-East Bay commuters. Exacerbating the arbitrariness of BART’s “distance based” fares is the actual calculation which uses different mileage rates based on distance. (That is a 30 mile trip is billed at half the rate per mile of a ten mile trip while the operating costs, wear and tear on the railcars and the track/power/control systems hardware is the same per mile.)

    lipper 2 must include greater fare integration and rider friendly features to be worth even considering.

  13. mrsman September 12, 2017 at 7:55 pm #

    I just wanted to highlight the good and the bad about transfer policy in the Washington DC area.

    The good, bus to bus transfers: The DC area is comprised of DC, 2 counties in MD (Montgomery, Prince George’s), 2 counties in VA (Arlington, Fairfax), and 2 independent cities in VA (Alexandria, City of Fairfax). WMATA (or Metro) runs Metrorail and Metrobus, which runs through parts of all of the above jurisdictions. In addition, each jurisdiction runs their own bus line. Some jurisdiction bus lines are small with only a few lines and Metrobus is the primary bus service (eg DC, PG). Others run quite a robust system without involving Metrobus and use Metrobus as a regional provider (eg Fairfax County, Montgomery).

    For the most part, each bus agency has a similar fare structure. Most local buses have a $2 base fare, independent of who runs the bus. If you pay your bus fare with a SmarTrip card, you may make unlimited bus connections, including round trips, within two hours. This applies to transfers within the same agency as well as transfers to other jurisdictional buses. So I could start with a Montgomery Ride-on bus, transfer to Metrobus, and then transfer to Fairfax (County) Connector on one fare if I use the smart card and I board my final bus within 2 hours of when I board the first bus. Given what I know about other areas, it is nothing short of amazing that there is such regional cooperation for buses here, even across state (or DC) lines.

    Some agencies have express buses along freeways for premium fare. Since the base fare is more than $2, a transfer from an express bus to a local bus is free, and a transfer from a local bus to an express bus is charged the difference between the express and local fares. The airport bus services have special policies.

    The bad. Bus/Rail transfers. OTOH, as others have alluded, the transfer policy between bus to rail is not very encouraging. Metrorail has distance based fares and is generally quite expensive for any trip that is more than 3 miles. There is a small rail/bus transfer discount of 50 cents for those who use SmarTrip. So if I ride the train, when I transfer to a bus, I will only be charged $1.50 (or an express bus at 50 cents less than the base fare). If I start on the bus, I pay full fare for the bus, but my distance based rail fare is reduced by 50 cents once it is calculated when I reach my destination station. While it is nice to have some discount, given the fares that exist, it is quite small. To add insult to injury, the agency slowly raises fares from time to time telling us that the fare is not so bad, it is only 10 cents more. But because they raise the fare on both buses and trains meanwhile not adjusting the 50 cent transfer discount, it means that combined bus/train users get an increase of 20 cents.

    IMO, I would prefer a slight increase in the fares if it meant that bus/rail transfers could either be free or substantially reduced. The fare of the first vehicle should be subtracted from the fare of the second vehicle, but never more than zero – similar to the way the transferring works between express buses and regular busses. So if I start on a bus and pay $2, my rail fare should be discounted by $2. And if I start on rail and pay full fare for rail, the bus part of my journey should be free. Each agency should keep the part of the fare that they collect. So if above my rail journey would be $5 each way – my trip with the bus/rail would also be $5 each way. When I start with the bus, $2 goes to the bus co. and $3 goes to the train and on the return trip, $5 goes to the train.

  14. Sailor Boy September 16, 2017 at 10:48 pm #

    Great post, this is something that is really easy for transit agencies to neglect, and it seems that even your commenters are struggling to make the distinction correctly!

  15. bullet force games September 19, 2017 at 5:51 pm #

    Sure, the Clipper card is a magical piece of plastic

  16. aelar September 26, 2017 at 7:56 am #

    I’m one of the rare middle-class-but-transit-dependent users in the South Bay, but I’m in a weird situation where I don’t buy monthly passes due to fare policy for my particular agency, VTA. VTA will be changing fares and transfer policy soon due to Jarred’s redesign of our system, which will only add weight to my decision to go cash-on-Clipper rather than pass-on-Clipper. I’m not sure how raw fare users stack up versus pass users, as far as which are better for the agencies.

    Being on a non-pass basis discourages me from utilizing the bus system for trips, in favor of walking, catching a ride, or just not making that trip at all. But it also frees me to utilize other agencies (in my case, usually just Caltrain, though BART is coming closer to my area, and every once in a while I’m near another bus agency) with less friction because I’m already used to paying cash.

    I’m cash-on-Clipper rather than pass-on-Clipper because I telecommute some of the time, and use an employer shuttle for part of my comute otherwise, and I live in a very richly walkable area (one of only a bare handful in the South Bay) so I don’t need to catch the bus for basics of food, shopping, or entertainment. Commute costs and weekend adventures/running errands, generally end up totally less than the $70 monthly VTA pass. Most months, I load $70 in cash on my card (pre-tax via an employer transit program, one of the many ways that transit is easier for middle class users than it is on the working class and poor), and don’t run out. The extra I can use for occasional train rides or visits on other transit lines. With the change to having Clipper Cards do automatic transfers within two hours, even with the fare increase, I’ll probably go through less money than I do now, at least compared to the increase in the monthly pass price.

    My biggest problem with Clipper Cards is that major transit centers don’t have a way to refill them, let alone acquire them. There is an option to refill online, but I’ve never done it for a variety of reasons but definitely one of them being that it takes time for the money to appear in your account, so it’s no use for last minute “out of money” situations.And cash users cannot get day passes either. Having to find one of the stores that refills them isn’t -hard- but they are not evenly distributed around the region, and it requires a special trip just to get to one. For me, luckily, only about a 10 minute walk, but totally out of my normal way, and enough of a hassle that I put it off until I suddenly realize I will have enough to get to work, but not get home, and borrow my husband’s card to get through my day.

    If they would just install refill machines at major transit centers, and make online loading instant, I’d have no excuses for my occasional hassle, but it would leave new users and tourists still scrambling with the cash only system.

    (Side note, getting the kids fare card for my child is an entirely new level of pain though: the transit agency made us come in to their office with her birth certificate to get it, that is only open during normal business hours, and when she immediately misplaced it, we would have had to make that special trip again for only a .25 discount, and haven’t bothered yet.)

    However, I was recently in San Diego for just a day, and was rather surprised and impressed by their system, as a tourist. I was able to download a CompassCard app before our trip, and pre-buy three day passes. A couple weeks later when we actually made our trip, I was able to activate the passes, and get rides for all three of us using my tablet (I don’t have a smart phone, but the system worked with just a tablet, I just needed wifi long enough to activate the passes at the beginning of the day.)

    The passes work by showing a moving train screen to the driver, (app had an interesting ‘tap to change the lighting’ feature, which apparently is a security measure to prevent fare evaders from just using a video to fake having passes) and I could toggle the app to show how many passes I had activated. it was clever, and once set up, easy enough to use. And I was able to talk a friend I was traveling with through the process of setting up the app and getting daypasses for them too really quickly.

    It might be too slow for a really high utilization system, but the app is certainly usable for normal folks, not just tourists, and I suspect that it is the future of fare paying, technologically speaking. But as this blog post points out, the technology is not the real problem to be solved for inter-agency users.

  17. david vartanoff October 2, 2017 at 7:33 pm #

    Thank you aelar for reminding us that Clipper TVMs don’t offer most of the various passes etc that are supposedly available. As to online, my experience was a 96 hour gap between my purchase (meaning my credit card was billed) and the card actually working on an AC Transit bus. FAIL. For most of my usage my local Walgreens suffices,but that merely indicates that I, too, use e-cash for many agencies. In theory, MTC and the various transit providers are drawing up better specs for “clipper2”. I am not optimistic.

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