A BART rider enters the turnstiles at Powell Street BART with a Clipper Card on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. The agency is moving toward eliminating paper tickets and requiring all riders to use Clipper cards. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Paper or plastic? BART will soon offer no choice.

Four more San Francisco stations will stop selling paper tickets this month

The number of BART travelers using Clipper to pay their fare has declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the agency is still moving forward with an accelerated transition to a card-only payment system, ending the use of paper tickets at four additional San Francisco stations by the end of July.

Before COVID-19, 91% of BART riders used Clipper to pay their fare, according to BART spokesperson Alicia Trost, but data from June shows a slight downturn, with 87% of riders paying electronically.

Though a BART fare is 50-cents cheaper per trip with Clipper, an analysis from BART’s Office of Civil Rights last year about who continues to use paper tickets found that group to be disproportionately low-income and more likely to be young, more likely to be Black or brown and less likely to own a smartphone.

Trost said these populations can be “hard to reach” but that staff has hosted several in-station outreach events, worked directly with community-based organizations and provided 26,000 free Clipper cards to mitigate any harm from the transition to Clipper-only, and the agency is committed to working with other transit providers to offer relief for low-income riders.

Civic Center, 16th Mission, 24th Mission and Glen Park stations are all due to stop selling the paper tickets by month’s end. Though these stations will no longer issue paper tickets, they’ll accept them if riders have acquired them elsewhere.

BART previously stopped selling paper tickets at 19th Street Station in August of last year, followed by the Embarcadero, Powell and Downtown Berkeley stations.

The agency plans to phase out the paper magnetic stripe payment by the end of 2020. Moving customers over to the card will help reduce fare gate maintenance, lower fares for users, allow customers to add value digitally and contribute to a regional effort to increase integration among the multiple transit agencies that service the Bay Area and also accept Clipper, according to Trost.

Devastated by a roughly 89% decrease in ridership caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the agency is looking for ways to instill trust in customers that they can safely return to transit.

Touchless transit is part of BART’s 15-Step Plan to encourage riders to return to the rail and assure them safe conditions. It also includes extensive cleaning protocols, readily available masks and sanitizer, steps to allow social distance between passengers and a combination of outreach and enforcement to ensure compliance.

“Clipper reduces the number of touchpoints a customer has. Many industries are encouraging contactless payments as part of their response efforts, and transit is no different,” Trost said of efforts to speed up the conversion.

Park-and-ride users would occasionally buy paper tickets to pay for parking, according to Trost, but BART has expedited the rollout of its parking payment app to eliminate that touchpoint.

As the pipeline between San Francisco and cities in the East Bay, BART ordinarily shuttles tens of thousands of commuters daily. It boasted a staggering 410,774 exits — the metric used to measure ridership which counts the number of tickets or cards swiped through fare gates at the conclusion of a trip — from its network of stations on an average weekday last fiscal year.

Fears of contracting COVID-19, which is believed to thrive in enclosed, crowded spaces like a rush hour rail car, coupled with a strict shelter-in-place order across the Bay Area, have hollowed out ridership on public transportation in recent months.

Trost says ridership bottomed out at 24,000 in April, and has slowly ticked back up to roughly 47,000 on weekdays, but there’s no way to know if people will return to their daily commute until employers re-open offices.

Some, including BART Board Member Janice Li, who represents San Francisco’s West Side, have previously called for increased outreach and education to the populations who rely on paper ticketing and have encouraged the agency to better understand why they continue to opt for paper over plastic.

Such questions might resurface as the scope of COVID-19’s financial impact continues to grow, though Trost said widespread support for Clipper-only fares tends to result once people understand the discounts, accessibility to other transit systems and convenience associated with the cards.

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