Friday, January 07, 2011

Clipper, Caltrain, and VTA

At yesterday's Caltrain JPB meeting, staff announced that Caltrain will stop selling paper 8 ride tickets at the end of this month and paper monthly passes at the end of February. Caltrain delayed the mandatory transition for monthly passes because VTA has yet to accept Clipper but is expected to do sometime next month.

For VTA, only monthly passes and e-cash for one way fares will be offered on Clipper. Day passes and annual passes will not be available for now. The only realistic solution for day passes on Clipper is the implementation of a daily fare cap. Otherwise all other alternatives are inconvenient (either putting cash at the farebox to activate day pass on Clipper, which is a process already implemented on LA's bus system, or use Clipper e-cash to buy a paper day pass).

The current transfer policies with Santa Cruz Metro and MST, which are outside MTC's jurisdiction, present a problem with the mandatory Clipper transition for Caltrain and VTA. On Highway 17 Express, the cost of a day pass is $4.00 with a VTA day pass or a Caltrain monthly pass. Also, riders with a VTA express monthly pass or a Caltrain monthly pass with 3 zones or more can ride MST free. Highway 17 Express and the MST 55 line are partially funded by VTA.

Currently the other agencies cannot read Clipper cards for valid passes and honor the transfer discounts. Until something's changed, a transition to Clipper only tickets would mean a de facto fare increase (and a substantial one) for people who rely on these inter-agency transfers.

Is it feasible to stop the mandatory transition? At this point MTC does not have a plan to transition all bus agencies to Clipper within its jurisdiction. There's no Clipper version of BART Plus ticket (which can be used as a bus pass with a number of local transit agencies, except AC Transit) available, even through BART and Muni fully accept Clipper. On one hand, it is possible that sales of paper passes be continued on a limited basis for those who intend to transfer to H17 or MST. On the other hand, people who bought passes on Clipper but suddenly want to ride H17 or MST would find themselves having to pay more.

Besides H17 and MST, VTA also has transfer policies with AC Transit and SamTrans. Under the existing policies, VTA and AC Transit honor each others monthly passes at shared transfer points (including DB bus for local credit). Between SamTrans and VTA, either passes (also include VTA's day pass) are valid anywhere in Menlo Park and Palo Alto. With Clipper, transfers to VTA will be free within 2 hours after boarding another agency's bus with Clipper (no e-cash deducted).


Jarrett Mullen said...

Instead of dealing with the complexities of loading day passes onto Clipper, VTA should just have 1-day fare maximums. For example, if a rider spends the equivalent of a day pass in one-way fares, the system should not charge that rider any more fares during that day. This way, riders with Clipper would never have to deal with day pass purchasing anxiety and will always pay the lowest fare. It would be a great incentive for riders to adopt Clipper!

arcady said...

For the Highway 17 and MST transfers, I think it would be feasible to get the mobile readers for all the bus drivers just on those buses, and have them give out paper day passes or transfers to riders boarding with a valid Caltrain or VTA pass on the Clipper card. In the long run, it would be nice to include MST and SCMTD in the Clipper program, but I fear that will prove impossible due to the fundamental architecture of the Clipper system.
Which brings me to my second point: the basic architecture chosen for Clipper was wrong, and this makes things much harder than they need to be. In an area of very decentralized transit planning and operations, Clipper is a centralized system under the MTC, which doesn't seem to have the expertise to manage its development or ongoing operations. From my understanding of how things work, all the Clipper readers are controlled by the MTC and programmed with knowledge of how much to subtract for a single fare, what passes to accept, and what agency to credit the fares to. All the money from the Walgreens and Add-Value Machines also goes to the MTC, which then parcels it out to the transit agencies based on data collected from the readers. The set of fare products available is controlled by the MTC, and all money goes through the MTC.
It would probably have made more sense to design the system as a federation of the transit agencies, with each agency upgrading its own vending machines to collect money and program Clipper cards, and each agency controlling its own Clipper readers and programming them to accept whatever fares and passes they see fit. The central authority would be responsible for setting technical standards (choosing the card, for example, and allocating bits on the card for passes), and possibly acting as a clearing house for moving money between agencies, but even that might be done directly between the agencies. This system would mean that VTA could, for example, buy electronic fareboxes that let you deposit $6, tap your card, and get a day pass, which I don't think is possible with the current design of the system.

arcady said...

Update: the official start date for Clipper on VTA is now February 16th. Caltrain will have paper monthly passes in February, with the March one being the first Clipper-only one. Let's hope there aren't any more delays.

Anonymous said...

TO Jarret. VTA is planning just what you suggest however the clipper software to do this still needs to be developed. It is called the day pass accumulator.