Clipper cards: Is resistance futile? (update)

I had planned on getting my August fastpass on a Clipper card
Photo by Steve Rhodes

Update (2:21 p.m. Thursday): A rep from Clipper has dropped by to reply to some of your comments. Read them all here.

Original post: An interesting conversation started on the Muni Diaries Twitter feed yesterday morning. It concerned the usefulness/headache-causing effects of Clipper. Here are the highlights, in chronological order:

Lol at people who still are resisting#Clipper — if you have a monthly pass its really not that different, maybe even better? — @DevonEleven

@DevonEleven Muni monthly pass doesnt cause the scanner on train to screech incessently if s’one else tries to scan @ same time — @SaraMurphy

@DevonEleven i KNOW! #Clipper is so much more useful. — @firstwavedown

@SaraMurphy true, but I honestly do find a reloadable card more convenient — @DevonEleven

@SaraMurphy &it seems to be a better way of tracking line usage which gives me hope for more frequent/plentiful busses/trains @DevonEleven

@DevonEleven if you don’t have a monthly pass Muni’s even worse… some of us lost our comm checks with the downturn #clipper@noelleaharrison

That last comment is a sad one. But the rest of the conversation makes us wonder: If you’re a monthly pass-holder who hasn’t made the switch yet, why not? And if you have already got a Clipper card, how are you liking it?

PS: If it’s simply aesthetics that explain your aversion to Clipper, fear not. We’re selling card holders that look like the old paper Fast Passes in our Etsy store.


  • citi-zen

    I haven’t had any issues, and I like that I only have to carry one card to use multiple transit options. However, now that Clipper is charging $2 to load my muni pass onto clipper (and no one is taking responsiblity) I’m feeling taken advantage of!

    • For more the $2 surcharge issue, see SF Appeal’s report.

      • citi-zen

        I’ve read the report on the Appeal (Thanks Melissa1) but still can’t get a straight answer on who is actually charging/ pocketing the $2/ transaction. Seems a bit excessive, and a pain to go around it… so I guess I’ll pay it. But my company, the flex spending people & clipper are all pointing at someone else. Where is this $2 x how many direct loads of clipper cards going?

        • Clipper does not authorize the $2 monthly fee for customers who get transit benefits loaded directly onto their Clipper cards.

          The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which runs the Clipper program, has demanded that the Clipper contractor Cubic Transportation Systems and Commuter Check’s parent company, Edenred USA immediately discontinue the $2 customer service fee.

          Stay tuned for more on this issue. You can check for updates on our website, “Like” us on Facebook (Bay Area Clipper) or follow us on Twitter (@BayAreaClipper).

        • citi-zen

          Clipper card people… I just checked your website today, and there is NO info that I can find on this bogus $2/month rip off of your customers. Perhaps you should check your website before advertising info that isn’t posted? What is the real deal with this charge to the customers who have no options except to use Clipper?

  • I think my frustrations with Clipper have been well documented on this site. I would love to love Clipper more. I really think an ‘all-in-one’ re-loadable card solution is key for the massive amount of transit options we have here in the Bay, however Clipper is just not it yet. Here are some new issues i’ve ran into recently in my ongoing war with clipper customer support:

    You cannot, currently, have two payment instruments as the payment source for two different autoload features (ie fast pass vs clipper cash) on the same account. Now for some reason this used to work, but it broke recently, and my account got messed up when we lost a card and had it replaced in the mail. This poses a problem for those who use transit benefits (‘commuter checks’) as you would want that as the payment source for the fastpass, but would want a different source for clipper cash.

  • Gary

    I generally like Clipper, and certainly think resistance is futile. That said, the system is unreliable (it was a nightmare to replace my broken TransLink card); lame-o-rebranded (who is this \TransLink Service Center\ billing to my credit card? I kind of want to report them to my issuer as an unknown merchant); and they can’t get simple things right like the Sunday ride discounts promised this past December.

    What I liked about the paper Fast Pass or transfer/fare receipt/PoP is there was never a gray area about getting a ticket for PoP violation because the reader didn’t work or because I can’t get anywhere near a reader boarding a crowded inbound N at Church/Duboce. Paper transfers also made it possible to tell when your free ride period ended. I pity the person who gets fare inspected with a Clipper Card 91 minutes after the last tagged in.

    • Gary,

      Clipper recently opened two walk-up customer service centers in San Francisco that can replace a damaged or defective Clipper card immediately (you have to bring the card with you to the Customer Service Center.

      The customer service centers are at the Bay Crossings store in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and on the mezzanine level at the Embarcadero BART/Muni station.

  • MK

    When Clipper doesn’t have issues it works fine, but when my high value BART auto load went from $62 after one use to negative $6 and you have to try to get an answer out of the (while nice) relatively useless in the solution department customer service people, then you will be unhappy. Especially when it is raining, you don’t have any cash and your Clipper card won’t let you get on BART.

  • Jayrot

    I commute on the Cable Car, and those hand held scanner things for Clipper work correctly like 1 in every 10 time. Flashing a Fast Pass is much better.

    Granted, I have a Clipper too for the BART portion of my commute.

  • JFBF

    Conceptually Clipper seems like a great idea… but as others have mentioned, there seem to be a lot of bugs. The cable car issues makes me crazy – I use commuter checks for e-cash, and the clipper e-cash doesn’t work on the cable car, and as far as I can tell, there are no plans to fix that. That drives me nuts: I still have to have cash with me for the overpriced cable car (I love them, but I’m just trying to get home) and I don’t get to take advantage of the commuter check discount. Also, it seems like the readers on the bus are broken 1/4-1/8 of the time, so muni just loses money (from e-cash riders, anyway) and isn’t muni kind of broke? It also seems like the drivers are more checked out, and don’t care whether you tag or not- so people don’t, and I’ve never once seen a fare inspector on the above ground buses.

    • JFBF,

      It sounds like you take Muni and the cable car alot, so it might save you money to purchase a Muni monthly pass (the “A” pass lets you ride all Muni vehicles and BART within San Francisco and the “M” pass is good only Muni vehicles).

      Muni cable cars will be getting handheld card readers that can deduct cash fares from Clipper cards. I don’t know when the cable car operators will begin carrying them, but they are coming.

      • JFBF

        Believe me, I analyzed the cost of the muni pass vs. e-cash. I used to get a pass, but the prices just went up and up… and sometimes the cable car is just too crowded, and of course for the CA line, there’s the 1, one block over, that’s $3 cheaper.
        So no, it wouldn’t save me money at this point to get a pass. I mostly got it for the convenience, and was willing to pay for the convenience up to a point – but the cost of the pass got too high. I don’t take muni – in any form – every day.
        I look forward to when the cable cars get the cash readers. In my research I never found any indication that there were even plans to get that.

  • Sad that Clipper does not work on cable cars but otherwise I use it for muni, BART, and CalTrain. Love it. Also love auto reload.

    • If you have a Muni monthly pass on your Clipper card, you can use it to ride Muni’s cable cars.

      As I mention above, the cable car operators will be getting handheld card readers that can deduct a cash fare from the Clipper card’s cash balance. I don’t know when the operators will begin carrying them, but they are coming.

  • I haven’t had a major issue in quite a long time. Last time I had a problem was with a Cable Car conductor, but it seems his reader had a malfunction after he tried two people’s card after mine.

    I stick to a few basic guidelines:
    –No autoload and monthly commuter benefit automatic loading of e-cash/passes to my Clipper card.
    –Only add e-cash and my monthly Muni passes at in-person vendors or vending machines.
    –Utilize the flexibility of my transit benefits with my benefit debit card.

  • AmpRacl

    Generally speaking, I think the Clipper system is a good idea, but still needs more work. After the last time my card stopped working (and it took nearly a month of paying out-of-pocket before my replacment arrived), I’m a bit less than enthusiastic.

    And then from Muni’s perspective, its probably no better. At a fair guess, I’d say about 1 in 3 buses that I take have a working card reader.

    • I’m sorry that it took so long for your replacement card to get to you. We’ve now opened two walk-up customer service centers in San Francisco to help customers replace defective and damaged cards immediately. The locations are at the Bay Crossings store in the San Francisco Ferry Building and on the mezzanine level of the Embarcadero BART/Muni station (it’s a kiosk). If you should encounter the same issue again, please visit one of those locations to get a replacement card immediately.

      In the coming weeks/months, we will be watching activity at the San Francisco locations in an effort to determine whether they adequately meet customer demand for in-person customer services and use that information to inform decisions about additional locations.

  • Daishin

    The Clipper system is working well for me…but MUNI is still the same old crappy MUNI. Some things never change.

  • kthnxbye

    1. The readers are way, way too loud.
    2. Too many malfunctions.
    3. It doesn’t autoload.
    4. Paper passes are easier.

  • kthnxbye

    (I meant to say, I have heard it takes some time for the money to show up on your card, not autoload.)

  • sally

    Caltrain needs more Clipper card readers. Some platforms only have 1 reader. If 20 or 40 people get off the train and try to card out, some of them can easily miss their connection. This is especially a problem at the Millbrae station where people transfer from Caltrain to BART.

  • John

    Take a crowded J at Church & Duboce. with my fastpass, I can just get on. All the clipper card suckers have to fight through 5-10 feet of pissed off patrons to tag their card on the other side door. This week I thought there was going to be a fight on the train.

    I’m wondering why anyone would go through the inconvenience; this week I almost feel its a safety issue when you’re stuck with pissed off people in the market tunnel.

    • I hear you, John. But when I board an F-Market, the exact opposite happens: Those of us with cards board easily while those with passes or transfers or who need to pay hold things up in a long queue.

      • John

        That’s good to hear; I understand I might have a limited use case (which i’m fine with, as long as they keep the paper fast pass around).

      • SFJack

        OK my partner rides the NJudah and only tags his card inbound once a month to get the fast pass loaded. He has been checked by fare inspectors who have no problem with this. I guess they see he has a valid fast pass on his card. So my question is, why do we need to use the scanners on the street car if we have a paid fast pass on the card? Shouldn’t only pay per ride riders have to scan? I dont get it.

        • eileen W

          Right now, my old fashioned paper pass feels like a VIP card: I can just walk right onto the N judah, or just show the driver my card who never looks anymore anyways, and just walk right in.

          Meanwhile, you all with the clipper cards need to hoist yourself up stairs while attempting to hold a card steady against a machine. If you succeed you are rewarded with a harsh eardrum-breaking sound. If you slip a little bit you get the three less harsh beeps. But in that case, the driver and riders will tell you in an annoyed voice what you did wrong, you’ll try it again, extending your arm back to the machine while more people are piling up waiting for their turn. Because you can’t reach and hold it steady the three beeps happen again, and now the clog of people are starting to get angry. (I see this…every day.)

          To answer the above poster, believe clipper card requires the tag on to every ride for homeland security purposes. If you buy your card with a credit card, you can be tracked around the city. That’s not my biggest complaint.

          My biggest complaint is that, I used to be able to study aboard busses. Now, I wear earplugs, and instead find myself counting clipper card beeps. I’ve watched babies thrust their heads backwards with each clipper card beep.

          Drivers probably will become desensitized to these additional loud beeps. But in becoming desensitized, they will also lose some ability to automatically react in an appropriate manner to a sound indicating a real emergency. And, whether they know it or not, on some psychological level they will be affected by the assault of sound.

          I plan on becoming an activist for Muni in June when my courses are over, and will look forward to meeting others with similar concerns!

  • Lori

    I ride the California cable car line daily; the conductors already have hand-held card readers. (Although now we’re riding a bus as that line is down for repairs.)

    • JFBF

      My experience has been that the conductors have hand held card readers that work if you have a monthly pass loaded; they do not work if you have e-cash loaded. If that’s the case, you still have to pay cash. If you don’t take the cable car (or muni) every day, it doesn’t make sense to have a pass.

  • I hate the noise the Clipper card reader makes. I’m holding on to my fast pass until the last possible second, hoping that all the Clipper issues will work themselves out… Magically.
    In theory I am all for Clipper… I’ve used the Charlie Card in Boston and it works wonderfully, hopefully Clipper can match its ease of use.

  • Drunkalina

    I’m happy with the Clipper card overall. As an occasional Muni rider, it saves me from having to have $2 in change or loose bills to get on the bus. I really like the auto-reload of $$ when your account gets too low.

    They need to improve the reliability of the card readers though. I’ve gotten on the bus several times and the Clipper reader has been out-of-order.

    I also think that once the system moves to either cash or all Clipper, it will be easier to focus on fare evasion (so even those who board the back of the bus must tag their card as proof of payment). I imagine that having a transit officer just sitting and observing rear-boarding once this all passes are Clipper only, will be able to address this issue. Either you beep or your don’t.

    One thing that I have seen in other cities is that they require anyone who rides transit to get one of their transit cards. Might be interesting to see if we can go the all electronic route and offer recharging stations around the city.

  • david vartanoff

    reporting from the AC side of the Bay, the card actually tags correctly about 1 in 3 trys. Way slower than waving a flash pass. Few of us would hire a worker who performed at that level. The 72-96 hour float between supposed loading by Clipper customer (dis)service and having the reader acknowledge has led me to physically buying the monthly at a retail store.

  • Alex

    TransClipper is a great idea, but a piss poor implementation. How seriously do you think they’ll address any of your concerns when they felt like it was appropriate to spend millions rebranding it instead of addressing any actual problems?

    Fundamentally the technology blows. The readers are TOO SLOW and TOO UNRELIABLE. Charlie, the Oyster, the Octopus… they all work. TransClipper doesn’t. Hell, even EZ-Rider worked quickly and reliably. TransClipper mostly works for me, but not quickly. When there are POP cops out, the TransClipper users slow them down significantly. More recently I watched all the readers on a (running) bus reboot a few times. That’s pretty unacceptable IMO.

    It’s disappointing to see contractors reinvent the wheel so needlessly like they have with TransClipper. Other municipalities have used the same technology with great success. WTF TransClipper… What the F.

    OTOH, I really like TransClipper for making fare evasion quite easy. The readers are so slow that the POP cops avoided using them until they were forced to. Allowing an unregistered card to go negative? Nice! Two for one (well two rides for $2.25) on MUNI is way better than paying full fare. LOL.

  • sally

    How about tweaking the software so you don’t have to card off Caltrain if you immediately card on to BART (or Muni)? That would be a great help. Thanks.

  • jason

    I had a clipper card, loaded $20 online and it worked great. The I tried to put another $20 on it, but the credit never showed, even though they charged my CC again.

    Called up, got told to get a bank statement, then a better bank statement (since it didn’t have a logo) and a while of waiting and talking, finally hung up on after faxing the second statement.
    total time: ~2hours, no resolution

    Called visa, issued a chargeback
    total time: ~10 minutes, $20 credited to my account pending investigation (which went in my favor).

    i’m very sad that paper fast passes are going away but luckily just got a job that I can get to w/o muni.

  • mlis

    Caltrain needs Clipper addfare stations. In fact, everywhere should have Clipper addfare stations!

  • tara

    First off, thank you for responding to comments, Bay Area Clipper. I think this will answer a lot of questions for everyone.

    I’d just like to note how my Clipper card (acquired in July 2010) almost always works right away on buses. Unless I tag too quickly after someone else, that is. But BART turnstiles are the bane of this card’s existence, judging by how many angry beeps I’ve gotten on them. Happens to me half the time, I’d say.

    • I experienced something similar on BART yesterday. Thought I had tagged in at Embarcardero. But I should’ve known better. The “OK” screen was completely off, and the turnstiles were stuck open. I tried tagging anyway. Left my card there a few seconds, and got nothing. Took the card off, and touched again. Swore I heard a beep, though still nothing on the screen. When I got to 16th, “See agent.” I was curious what it would say. Turns out I didn’t tag in at Embarcadero after all.

      I wonder about the technology behind the BART readers. Are they made by a different manufacturer than bus readers? And as one of the commenters above has said, all readers seem, well, a bit inadequate. Readers in other cities’ transit systems seem way more robust.

  • JFBF

    It’s funny – when I tag off of BART, I’d say I get a \see agent\ warning 1/4 or 1/5 times. Each time there’s no reason I can think of – I didn’t have trouble tagging in to get through the turnstiles at my point of origin.
    Each time I get that warning, I step out of line, get in line at a different turnstile (usually right next to it) tag again, and successfully get through.
    I have no idea why it doesn’t work the first time, but I’ve never actually had to go SEE an agent.
    (I’ve also never checked to be sure it’d debiting me correctly in those cases, either.)

  • SFNanny

    I ride muni with an infant, a toddler and a diaper bag. I hang my pass on my bag so I can have both hands free to navigate safely with kids. The clipper card is going to be a pain in the ass while I’m trying to juggle the kids, and grab a seat before the driver takes off, and we all lurch backwards into people laps, as the toddler tries to cling onto me without bashing into random strangers.

  • Vincent

    For me, I’ve had a Translink card since the PILOT program and also both a TransLink and Clipper card since mid-2010. JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. was giving the 10% cashback for anyone charging directly from the transit agency with their Chase Debit/Credit cards, Clipper or taxi’s from September-November 2010 so it made it worthwhile to load a Muni “M” Pass for me and a Muni Senior/RTC Disabled Monthly pass for her during those months as we loaded the cards at Muni Metro Machines. The problems are as follows and this is even following the advice here and at

    1) For Muni Metro, it takes multiple attempts before the tagging would give the authorization beep.

    2) There are times when there are fare inspectors and sometimes they can’t read the card or something and for people like my mom who can’t speak, read or write english, it can be difficult as she doesn’t know how to tell the fare inspectors to check history of the card so I always had my mom keep the receipt from the purchase with her and the fare inspectors are idiots because for the November Muni pass for example, my mom showed the fare inspector the receipt which was dated October 26, 2010 and the fare inspector said it was no good because it was last months. These guys needs to be better trained as you can buy the next months passes beginning on the 16th of the prior month which means that October 26, 2010 loading can only load a November 2010 pass and not a October 2010 pass.

    3) The issue with Cable Cars is the the conductors would require you to take out your card and hand it to them before they put it on their scanner. This actually creates a burden on my badgeholder which is on a lanyard as all they have to do is put their scanner over the card like the fare inspectors do when I am holding the clippercard for their scanning convenience but they still want me to hand them the card.

    As the 10% cash back incentive from JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. ended in November 2010, I went back with paper passes for myself and my mom for December 2010 until the passes are no longer available because with my credit cards for example, I get 5% cash back from grocery stores, drug stores so buying the passes from Safeway would make me pay only 95% of price and they only handle paper passes, no clipper yet. While Walgreens is a drugstore, the problem is while Walgreens accepts credit cards for purchases, they only accept cash for transit passes which I thought was against the credit card companies rules since when they display their logos, they need to accept it but I don’t know if loading clipper at Walgreens, is it cash only or would they accept credit cards as well. Even if there wasn’t the 5% cash back, I still can get 3% cash back with my other credit card by buying at a hardware store such as Cole Hardware which only sells paper passes but no clipper and in that case, I actually get 3% cash back from the credit card company plus another 5% from Cole Hardware in their Frequent Shopper program as long as I make a $5 purchase in addition to the Muni passes so that’s making it 8% cheaper or 92% of face value. I’m in San Francisco and hope someone at Clipper will answer my concerns.

  • Jeremy

    I love that the circle is complete. First, Clipper won’t cost a thing to existing fast pass holders. Then, oh wait there’s a 2 dollar fee if you happen to want the same hands off service you came to expect in loading or issuing your fast pass. And now, the coup de grace for those of us who don’t feel like walking 3 plus miles to work everyday … a rate hike on MUNI. Of 2 dollars. On monthly pass holders. Wait … this is progress?

    resistance is futile.

  • Ex East coast rider

    Clipper card machines installed at major downtown stations this past year have PUSH BUTTON technology.

    Meanwhile, Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit have TOUCH SCREEN machines for buying passes. Touch Screen technology we can hardly even consider innovative, it’s a standard: it’s user-friendly, fast, and adaptable.

    To me, this push button decision speaks volumes to the technological regression which has been a hallmark of this Clipper transportation system.

    Along with this push button decion, what other other tech innovation opportunities have we missed the boat (train and bus) on?

    One other tech opportunity: installing chips into cards for people with sight or hearing disabilities: so that they alone get additional signals they need to know their card has been processed – rather than the current card which assumes we are all hard of hearing, and thereby elicits an ear-shattering beep at each clipper card procedure.

    I’d suggest that a real Silicon Valley technology rep is elected to Muni’s advisory board, as well as a noise pollution expert. I can’t pretend to know the inner workings of Muni but just giving my wish list.

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