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Modernization of Clipper card won’t include high-tech features already used in other cities

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Tech capital of the world falls flat when it comes to transit fare payment method

Entrance gates to Powell Street BART Station where Clipper cards are used to enter and exit.
Photo by Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock

This is the first of a series about Clipper 2.0. Tuesday’s story will cover the perception that the contract is biased to favor Clipper’s current contractor. On Wednesday, the region’s failure to streamline transit fares will be discussed.

The Bay Area’s Clipper card system, a reloadable transit fare payment method that can be used on numerous Bay Area transit agencies, will soon get an overhaul if officials approve a $461 million contract Wednesday. But when the new version launches in 2020, known as Clipper 2.0, it will likely serve as an example of local government failing to live up to the region’s reputation as the tech capital of the world.

Today, Bay Area transit riders use Clipper to pay for half of all transit trips in the region, roughly 800,000 rides each weekday. Launched as TransLink in 2006, some of its original software dates to the 1990s. The software and equipment upgrade will cost $165 million while an additional $293 million is budgeted, mostly to operate and maintain for ten years.

However, critics say that Clipper’s upgrade will struggle to compete with private companies, like Uber and Lyft, that are racing to become people’s first choice for getting around the region. Both companies offer well-designed apps that continually add new features and refine the user experience. Transit advocates warn that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission [MTC], the agency that runs the Clipper program, has not prioritized good design and demanded burdensome requirements that will make future updates to the system difficult to implement and unnecessarily costly.

“It’s a reason why public transit is losing market share to competitors,” said Adina Levin of Seamless Bay Area, a grassroots transit advocacy group.

Adidas sneakers.
In Berlin, Adidas created limited-edition sneakers that come with a one-year transit pass embedded in the tongue of one of the shoes. (Jumping up to the validator is not required.) The city’s fare payment system allows people with wearable devices to walk onto to trains and buses without tapping at all.
Photo courtesy of Adidas

Among the changes coming to Clipper 2.0, users will see just one new feature: a new mobile app. The system will offer no other high-tech features that have been in use for years in other metropolitan areas around the world.

In London, for example, anyone can hop onto the Tube without a special transit card. At the turnstile, riders pay their fare with Apple Pay, Google Pay, or any credit card with a tap-to-pay chip. Over in Japan, dozens of rail, subway, bus, and taxi operators accept the Pasmo transit card, which people can also use for purchases at convenience stores, vending machines, and restaurants. And in Berlin, riders with wearable passes embedded in sneakers can walk onto to trains and buses without tapping at all.

But the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation MTC says these features aren’t important.

“Most of the people don’t even understand or care about all the kinds of things that people are talking about relative to this, that, and the other bell and whistle,” said Andrew Fremier, Deputy Executive Director for Operations at MTC. “Most of the people going through the transit system are happy with the Clipper card and it’s functionality today.”

But that runs counter to a trend in transportation known as Mobility as a Service [MAAS]. The idea is to give riders a single app that allows people to plan trips with public transit or private services like bike share, scooters or ride sharing services.

If MTC could make Clipper the dominant transportation app in the region, the agency could cut traffic congestion and pollution by working with ride sharing companies to reduce the number of cars in highly congested areas. But the the new Clipper system may struggle to keep up with Uber and Lyft, which are moving fast to become the first app people open when they want to go someplace in the region.

Public transit riders wait in line to buy Clipper cards.
Photo by Brock Keeling

Uber now owns a bike share service (Jump) and a car share service (Getaround); is building electric scooters; and will soon offer transit tickets in New York, L.A., and Boston. Lyft recently acquired Motivate, the company that operates San Francisco’s bike sharing program; launched its own electric scooter program; and shows its users mass transit options in 25 cities.

Although the new Clipper system could eventually add new payment options and MAAS features, transit advocates say the MTC’s insistence on carrying over thousands of complicated requirements from the 1.0 system will make each new 2.0 feature costly and difficult to implement. The transit agency has also failed to understand a critical aspect needed to get people to use to any consumer-facing tech product: design.

For years, transit advocates, including SPUR, an urban planning think tank, have politely suggested and explicitly urged MTC to use a process known as human-centered design to guide the development of the new Clipper system, a process firms like IDEO and Frog Design pioneered in the Bay Area. Human-centered design helped develop the computer mouse, a toothbrush that’s easier to grip, and a thermometer that takes your temperature with a quick touch to the ear. (Disclosure: The author occasionally does freelance work for SPUR).

Compare Lyft’s easy-to-understand scooter functionality on the left to the Muni Mobile App on the right. To buy a Muni ticket, you must wade through a confusing process, including the step pictured above. Although you cannot “Select Fare” until after you “Select Rider,” both are displayed. A better-designed app would eliminate this step and take users directly to the Select Rider option.
Left photo courtesy of Lyft; right image courtesy of Muni Mobile App

In transportation, Uber, Lyft, and Chariot, have entire teams dedicated to user experience design. They work with real people to understand how they set up their accounts, plan a trip, or add a tip. The designers identify when things go wrong, iterate with design tweaks, and repeat the process until the the product is a joy to use.

“There is absolutely no one in Bay Area public transit, whether it be at MTC or whether it be any of the agencies, whose job title is user experience professional,” said Levin.

The Muni Mobile app is a product without carefully considered design. Buying your first ticket requires a clunky 21-step process. After you complete certain steps, it’s not always clear how to proceed to the next. And the app doesn’t take advantage of basic features in the operating system, like auto-filling your e-mail address or accepting Apple Pay.

In the several years since MTC started looking into upgrading Clipper, transit advocates and potential contractors have warned the MTC to hold off on this half-a-billion-dollar project until the project is streamlined and human-centered-design is prioritized. But the agency remains committed to the project.

“I think people should give us a little bit of time to see how it works out and then call us on whether or not we are correct,” said Fremier. “But I think we’re headed down a very good path.”

Earlier this month the Clipper Executive Board voted unanimously to send the existing contract to the full MTC board, who are expected to approve it Wednesday morning.