Friday, May 30, 2014
Recent reports from Bay Area news outlets have shined a spotlight on apparent problems with the contactless fare readers in San Francisco buses. The reports said several thousand transit riders have been fined since the summer of 2013 for not paying for rides when the problem may rest with the readers themselves.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in charge of managing San Francisco's mass transit infrastructure said problems with the fare readers are minimal and that a small percentage of riders who lodge complaints actually prove their cases.
Bay Area mass transit riders use the prepaid Clipper card to pay electronically for fares on Muni buses, as well as trains, street cars and ferries. The near field communication (NFC) -enabled chips embedded in the cards allow the cards to be tapped on readers to initiate fare payments. Fares are $2 per ride, but fines for skirting paying the fare is $103 per violation.
Reportedly, about 55,000 riders have been cited for not paying fares since July 2013; of that number, 8,700 Muni riders have complained that faulty scanners were responsible for the lack of payment. But only a fraction of that number, roughly 175 of the riders, succeeded in appealing their costly citations.
"Only 2 percent of the citations were overturned last year, and 1 percent the year before," said Paul Rose, spokesman for the SFMTA. "So based on transaction histories and other factors that go into the appeals process, most of the time our staff is getting it right."
Rose said fare inspectors deployed throughout the mass transit system randomly check riders to ascertain if they had paid their fares. The inspectors employ NFC-based handheld devices that communicate with the Clipper cards to access fare transaction histories. If payments were not received for current rides, inspectors issue citations.
However, riders have alleged that the lack of payment recognition is the fault of the readers that did not register payments when Clipper cards were tapped. It is the SFMTA's policy to not issue citations if lack of fare payment rests with the readers.
"It's a matter of doing all that we can to make our enforcement fair, while effective," Rose said. "We lose an estimated 20 million dollars a year in fare evasion. So we're taking into account the concerns and feedback of the customers and, ultimately, not holding the customer accountable if the reader is not working that day."
Rose noted that a total of 2,500 readers are installed in the SFMTA's mass transit vehicles, but only 3 percent of the readers are not working on any given day. The readers malfunction through wear and tear, as 700,000 riders take Bay Area mass transit every day, he added.
Rose said Clipper cardholders need more education about holding the card against the reader long enough for the reader to beep, which confirms that a payment was made.
The hardware that facilitates the Clipper card program is installed and maintained by San Diego-based Cubic Transportation Systems. Cubic came under fire in late 2013 for customer service issues that surfaced in another of its implementations, the Ventra open payments system implemented for Chicago's mass transit network. But Rose said the SFMTA has no issues with Cubic.
"We implemented this program in 2010," he stated. "It's worked to improve service on Muni and moving toward a smart card that allows passengers to use it no matter what transportation network they're using that day. And it's allowed us to consolidate our fare media into one card."
The SFMTA also introduced "all door boarding" by installing readers at both the front and rear doors of buses that has resulted in faster boarding, Rose noted. "Overall the Clipper technology has improved service on Muni," he said. "It's allowed for an easier transaction, faster boarding coupled with all-door boarding, and allowed for more convenience for riders that not only use Muni but other transportation networks across the Bay Area."
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