On Aug 3rd 2010, I obtained two free Clipper cards from the local Walgreens store on my way back home from work. I added $20 to one of them to try it out. The Clipper card is a simple debit card that combines the payment and pass systems of all the transit systems in San Francisco and surrounding areas into one easy-to-use plastic card. This service is quite similar to the Oyster card used for transport in London, UK.
The key advantages of the clipper card are:
- You just need one card for almost all forms of public transit. The clipper card covers the Muni buses, the Muni metro, the BART subway, Caltrain, and the Golden Gate ferry. You can also use it on the AC transit, but I've never taken that before.
- The clipper card looks and feels like a proper credit card. This makes it a LOT harder to lose or tear unlike the paper passes/tickets issued by individual transit companies like the BART.
- The clipper card is RFID-equipped which means I don't have to take it out of my wallet/purse to tag it. I just scan my entire wallet. This makes the card even harder to lose/tear since I rarely see or touch the card.
- I can view all my trips online and download/document my transit activity.
- I can load funds into my account online. This is a big win for me.
- I can configure the system to auto load funds to my account whenever it goes below $10. I just configured this yesterday. Let's see how it works! Now I don't have to ever worry about having money to take the transit.
- I don't have to carry cash/change around all the time. This way you won't lose your change on the Muni if you only have a $5 bill for a $2 ticket.
- The easier the authorities make it to spend, the more likely people are
to spend. When people got credit cards, it made them spend more since
spending was now so much easier with a card. No need to carry around cash, no
need to count cash, and no need to count change.
Similarly, if people spend more on public transit, they're less likely to take their cars around for everything which has its own set of benefits. Also, the individual transit companies benefit from the increased revenue which they hopefully re-invest into more lines, especially on evenings and weekends.
I like the clipper card a lot since it's a great technical solution to a real-world problem. In fact, the solution is not just technical in nature, but socio-technical. The adoption of the clipper card by transit users involves training people and bus drivers on how to use it, providing customer support in non-English languages, and managing staffing to deal with complaints if any.
The main disadvantages of the clipper card are:
- If you forget to tag off your Clipper card on your way out of the
Caltrain station, you could end up losing a lot of money. This is because the
Caltrain does not have turnstiles on exit, and so the system has to charge
you the maximum amount possible and then refund you the part that you didn't
travel on depending on how many zones you actually traveled. This loss is
highest if you start your journey from either Zone 1 (very likely for me) or
Zone 6 (not so likely for me).
To help me remember to tag off, I look up the caltrain schedule beforehand or during transit in the Caltrain on my iPhone, and find out the arrival time of the train. I then set myself an alarm on my phone to go off at that time plus one minute. Caltrains usually arrive on time, so this solution works pretty well.
- You tend to spend more if it becomes easier to spend, much like a credit card.
- You lose out on "accidental exercise" since it's so easy to take public transit now. You should really be walking short distances instead of taking the Muni/BART for just 1 or 2 stops.
Some suggestions for improving the overall clipper experience:
- Have a "remember me on this computer" checkbox on the login screen that makes you have to login only every 7 days. This checkbox should be unchecked by default.
- The "transaction history" page should show the transactions as a HTML table right on the page, with an option to export to CSV and PDF. Right now, it only display as PDF which is annoying.
- When showing card activity as HTML, it should show ALL items but with pagination limiting the page to about 20 or 30 lines per page. Right now, I can't see transaction history beyond the last 60 days which is bad if I want to do some processing and analysis on my travel patterns.
The Clipper card is a great service for people like me who do not own cars and therefore take public transit quite a bit. Order your card online now.