What’s a Clipper Card? Are the transit commuters giving it a thumbs up or a thumbs down?

Launched in 2010, Clipper card is a reloadable contactless smart card utilized for electronic transit fare payment. It was initially introduced in 2002 by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) as a pilot program. It was rebranded in its current form on 16th June 2010.

Clipper was developed by Australian-based ERG Group and Motorola under the ERG-Motorola alliance in April, 1999. Since the launch of Clipper, Cubic Transportation Systems has taken over administration of distribution, customer service and financial settlement of the program.

Clipper card uses a NXP semiconductors MIFARE DESFire integrated circuit to manufacture the card. The card operates on the 13.56 MHz range which comes under the Near Field Communication (NFC) Category. Since the card uses NFC Technology, any NFC enabled android cellphone can read the serial number, travel history and current balance on the card. However, data cannot be written on the card without the proper encryption key, thereby preventing unauthorized access to funds on the card.

Here’s a video on how Clipper Card works and what are the commuters saying about their experience:

Source: BARTable

Clipper is functional in 8 of the largest Bay area transit agencies –

  • AC Transit

  • Bay area rapid Transit

  • Caltrain

  • Golden Gate Transit and Golden Gate ferry

  • SamTrans

  • San Francisco Municipal Railway

  • Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority

  • San Francisco Bay Ferry

These agencies differ in various aspects. That includes the payment duration, whether tagged during entering and/or exiting, minimum balance required to enter, etc.

Different sources exist for loading of funds. Some of them include telephone & online loading. The funds are available for use after 3 days. Instant fund loading is possible at sources like Clipper-add value machines, Clipper service centers, BART ticket vending machines and few other selected retail outlets. An important feature introduced recently is the automatic loading of funds to make sure that the clipper card never runs out of value. With ‘Autoload,’ Clipper will automatically add value to the customer’s card whenever his balance falls below $10 for transit and below $40 for parking.

Some concerns however may need to be addressed:

  • It takes time for any value added service to show on the card which sometimes becomes inconvenient unless balances are watched very carefully. Reload value takes more time than other smart cards (like an ORCA Card).

  • Experience as perceived by the users’ is not positive. System is complex and unfriendly according to users.

  • Users not tagging off the clipper card appropriately could lose money. Eg. If the passenger does not tag off, fare from the boarding point to Santa Rosa or San Francisco, whichever is larger will be charged.

A number of other smart cards that are used for public transportation and other electronic purse applications. Most prominent of these smart cards are the Oyster card of London, Octopus card of Hong Kong, Suica and Pasmo Card of Japan, ETC card of Nigeria, LisboaViva Card of Lisbon. Lets Talk Payments article on Oyster card can be Read Here.

LTP View: The Clipper card’s feature that is special discounts/concessions offered to categories like youth, senior, customer with disability etc. is unique within the field of smartcards used in transit. However the longer duration required to reload value on Clipper Card could be a disadvantage. Clipper Card may also need to develop a more user friendly approach for its customers.

We at LTP are eager to find out at as to what it will take Clipper and other smart cards to go completely mobile?