Transit Passes on Google Wallet Are a Disaster

Expanding public transit in the United States is crucial, and integrating technology into existing public transit systems is important, too. Over the past couple of years, many of America’s public transit systems have been implementing digital wallets—namely Apple’s and Google’s—by permitting riders to use virtual transit passes rather than physical plastic or paper ones. That seems like a great idea: it cuts down on waste, you don’t have to worry about losing or forgetting a physical card, and they should be easy to manage right in the wallet app. Unfortunately, the implementations so far are terrible, and I’m switching back to plastic.

My experience is with Clipper, the close-to-universal public transit pass for the San Francisco Bay Area. I read about Clipper adding the ability to use your phone as your card, and it sounded cool. It was easy set up a new card on my phone. The app offered me the option of transferring my existing (plastic) Clipper card to Google Pay or to setting up a new digital card. If you choose to transfer your existing card, it will be permanently disabled, and you’re left with only the digital version. I’d read about some kinks during the roll out of the digital passes, so I set up new card. I’m very glad I did.

There’s a fundamental problem with Google’s implementation of digital transit passes that makes them unusable: they’re stored locally on a single device and can’t be recovered if that device is lost, stolen, or has its data wiped.1 Even uninistalling the Wallet app (or simply resetting its data storage, a common troubleshooting trick) means your transit passes are gone forever. An article on the Android enthusiast blog Android Police explains:

Adding transit passes to Google Pay only adds them to that device—they’re kept locally in the Google Pay app. Uninstalling or even clearing app data is enough to lose your tickets, and there’s no way to restore access other than purchasing a new pass and hoping your transit agency gives you a refund on the lost one.

I wasn’t aware of this, and nothing in the setup process warns you. Shortly after setting up my Clipper card in Google Wallet, I got a new phone. After backing up my critical files and data, I wiped the old phone so I could mail it in for a trade-in credit. When I tried to set up my Clipper card on the new phone, it indicated that I’d have to remove my Clipper card from my Google Wallet on the old phone before I could set it up on the new phone. I didn’t have the old phone any more, and, even if I did, its data had been wiped, so that wasn’t possible.

The Clipper website was no help. Their mobile app was slightly better: it at least indicated that the card was active on my old phone. But it didn’t offer any way to transfer it or remove it. I emailed Clipper’s customer support, but, citing “security reasons,” they declined to provide any assistance over email. I called Clipper customer support and was told that they couldn’t restore my balance, but they could transfer it to a new card for a $5 fee, and I’d receive the card in the mail in 7-10 business days. Alternatively, I could go to one of Clipper’s customer service centers, do the transfer for a $3 fee, and get the new card on the spot.

I went in person to the Clipper customer service center located in the Embarcadero BART/Muni station. I explained my problem, and a very helpful Clipper employee took the number for my inaccessible digital card and handed me a new plastic card with the balance of my digital card. For some reason, he couldn’t transfer the balance to my existing plastic card. He even waived the $3 fee. Without prompting, he told me that there seem to be a lot of problems with the digital passes, almost two years after their rollout:

Honestly, the Clipper cards on Apple phones have tons of issues. You should stick to the plastic.

—Representative at the Clipper customer service center

I have an Android phone, but apparently there are problems with Apple Wallet, too.

So now I have two plastic Clipper cards. It’s not a big deal, but it’s annoying. They’re supposed to reduce waste, but resulted in me doubling the amount of plastic Clipper cards I carry. They’re supposed to be more convenient, but I had to email and call customer support before going in person to a Clipper office to resolve my issue. They’re supposed to protect against loss and theft, but I managed to “lose” my digital Clipper card within a few months. I’ve had my plastic Clipper card for over a decade. Unfortunately, digital transit passes just aren’t ready for prime time yet.

  1. Ostensibly this is an anti-fraud measure, to prevent people from doing something like buying an unlimited weekly or monthly transit pass and then sharing it with all their friends. But there must be a way to ensure a pass is only being used on a single device and let you remove it from that device and transfer it to a new one, even if you don’t have the old device anymore. ↩︎