Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Experiences with Clipper

While I was away in Japan, Caltrain and the other Bay-Area transit agencies teamed up to introduce the Translink Clipper payment system. I was excited at the prospect of an easy-to-use IC-card payment system like the Suica system I enjoyed using in Tokyo, and I was tired of having to buy new 8-ride tickets every few days, so I got a Clipper card and tried it out.

The card is easy enough to use, but the experience refilling my balance on the card has been less than stellar. I'm not about to tie my Clipper card to my credit card account, effectively turning it into a backdoor for a thief to clean me out (the "autoload" feature they push on their website). I was hoping to be able to refill it manually using an automated machine, just like I always did with my Suica card.

It turns out that there are a whopping 7 "Add Value" machines in the entire Bay Area: two in San Rafael, one in Sausalito, one in Oakland, two in downtown San Francisco, and one on the freaking Golden Gate Bridge (I guess for the toll-booth workers?). Fortunately, for those of us whose commute doesn't include one of those 7 locations, you can also add to your Clipper card balance at most Walgreens locations.

And here is where my experience with Clipper takes a nose-dive. First, not all Walgreens locations are equipped to add money to your Clipper card balance. There is, however, a map of the locations on the Clipper website. Unfortunately for me, the Walgreens one block from my office in San Mateo is not on the list and, when asked in person, I received the same look one would expect had I asked them if sold live Jabberwockies.

So, each time I need to refill the balance on my card, I hop in the car and drive two miles to the Walgreens nearest my home. Two miles isn't particularly far, but it does feel a little odd to have to drive somewhere so I can pay for public transportation. Anyway, I only have to do it once every couple of weeks, so it isn't a big deal; just a minor annoyance.

What is more annoying about the experience is that apparently only managers have the specialized training necessary to work the Clipper card "add value" device they keep behind the counter. So the poor checkout clerk has to page for the manager who, after finishing his dooby, mosies up to the front counter and fumbles with the machine until (hopefully) it actually has the balance on it I paid for. This past time, my wife and I had to repeatedly tell other customers that they might want to get in the other line because we were going to be a while. Ten minutes in fact.

The good news is that, with the name change from Translink to Clipper, it looks like they have added an option to refill your card balance online. I'm planning on trying that the next time I need to update my balance. I might miss the biweekly visit to the bloodshot-eyed Walgreens manager, though.

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