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Officials fail to simplify convoluted transit fares before costly Clipper upgrade

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But there’s still time

Photos by Andy Bosselman

This is the third in a series about Clipper 2.0. Monday’s story covered the many tech features that will not be included in the system. Tuesday looked at a perceived bias in awarding the contract to the incumbent vendor.

Before transportation officials started planning the $461 million upgrade to Clipper, which was approved Wednesday, transit advocates repeatedly argued that the region must first streamline the jumble of some 19,000 transit fares, passes, discounts, transfer policies—and their many permutations—all of which cram onto every one of today’s Clipper cards.

But from BART and Muni to ferries and the new SMART train, the transit agencies that are a part of Clipper each set their own fares. The result is a hodgepodge of policies so confusing and costly that many riders choose to hop in a car instead of riding transit. It also makes Clipper the most technically challenging transit card in North America, which was a factor that deterred potential vendors from competing with Cubic, the company that currently operates Clipper and won another ten-year contract.

“The only opportunity to deliver [the Clipper 2 upgrade] would entail Scheidt and Bachmann including an overly expensive development cost as part of its response,” wrote Matthias Augustyniak, managing director of Scheidt and Bachman, in a letter to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission [MTC] that the agency provided to Curbed SF.

The firm installs systems like Clipper routinely and believes that its standard product could work for the Bay Area, too. But the firm declined to bid, citing MTC’s demanding requirements, including working with the 22 agencies that are a part of Clipper.

If you imagine a rider who commutes between UC Berkeley and Stanford, a single trip would require two transfers and transit fares that would roughly add up to $400 a month. But decades before Clipper, when purchasing physical tickets was necessary, advocates were already pushing to streamline fares.

“We were yelling about all this 30 years ago,” wrote Jarrett Walker, a noted transit planner and author who has worked in the Bay Area. “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.”

But many people do have to think about what they spend, especially those who travel across county lines, which make up one-third of all trips in the region and often require costly transfers.

Elsewhere in the world, many regions have simplified fares, offering examples to the Bay Area. In Seattle, employers can buy a single-transit pass that allows employees to commute using any of the region’s seven transit agencies. In Portland, Oregon, after you spend a certain amount each day or month, you are no longer charged, effectively giving riders a transit pass only when they need it. Sydney, Australia, charges fares based on the distance traveled. And in Spain, more than 100 agencies standardized fares across the country.

But in other countries, national and regional policy often forces urban regions to coordinate transit, including fare policies. Although the Bay Area’s MTC has some authority, the agencies it oversees have more independence.

“We don’t have any ability to tell transit operators how to simplify their system,” says Andrew Fremier, deputy executive director for operations at MTC. “We encourage. We talk about ways that that can happen. But ultimately [the 22 transit agencies] are the decision makers into their business rules and we don’t have purview in it.”

But Adina Levin, of Seamless Bay Area, a grassroots transit advocacy group, thinks MTC could do more.

“Here in the Bay Area, we have some learned helplessness about how difficult it is to get the pieces of our transportation system working together,” she says.

Levin and Arielle Fleisher, senior transportation policy associates at SPUR, the urban and regional planning think tank, believe it’s still possible to streamline fare policy before bringing it into the new Clipper system. (Disclosure: The author does occasional freelance work for SPUR.)

“MTC and Cubic know the parts that most need to be streamlined,” says Fleisher. “We have two years. We should make use of every day.”

For the long-term, she suggests looking to Toronto, where the city developed a 10-to-15-year plan to harmonize fares across the region’s 10 transit agencies.

In the Bay Area, transit agencies fear that a more straightforward system would reduce fare revenue. But MTC says it could create a regional pool of money to make up for the losses.

“Our role is to get the transit agencies to the table to find ways to bring some regional money to the system,” says Fremier. He mentioned the state’s new gas tax as a potential source of funds (which voters could kill in November). But for now, there are no plans for MTC to lead the way.

From Sydney’s distance-based fares to a Portland-style policy that limits how much riders spend per day, MTC should commission a study that would recommend the best options for fare streamlining, say SPUR and Seamless Bay Area. From there, the region could move forward with a plan to get the process moving finally. But without stronger incentives from the state and federal government, local agencies may not have much motivation to participate.

“This is hard, this is really hard,” says Fleisher. “Transit in the Bay Area is not for the faint of heart.”