[Somewhat] Harmonized Fare Payment Comes to Chicago

September 27, 2012 at 5:39 pm

If you’ve ever taken public transportation in Chicago, you may know that there are several ways to pay your fare – cash on buses, buy a farecard at a station, buy a pass at a store like Walgreen’s, or you may have seen or used a contactless Chicago Card. Today, the CTA announced a new way to pay your fare on both CTA trains and buses as well as Pace suburban buses: Ventra.

In case you didn’t know, the RTA (agency covering the CTA, Pace, and Metra) is required by the State of Illinois to have in place a single payment system for the CTA, Pace, and Metra by 2015. Today’s announcement means that this goal is 2/3 done.

Credit card with RFID chip

Credit card with RFID chip

The new Ventra farecard will also double as a prepaid debit card, which I am not too thrilled about personally, but you may form your own opinion. I don’t understand why a farecard can’t just be a farecard. Passengers will also have the opportunity to pay fares using a credit or debit card with a microchip inside. Many cards already have these chips, or you can ask your bank/credit card company to issue you a new card with this technology. I find this to be an excellent idea, and the CTA will be the first transit agency in America to have such a system. This could really speed up boarding on buses, especially for tourists. An advertising campaign will have to be in place to increase awareness of this function, however.

The lack of Metra is a serious issue, however. We’re more than halfway through 2012 and Metra has to be a part of a single fare payment system by 2015. If history is any indicator, the State will extend the deadline. I suppose if you keep lowering the bar, you’ll never have to fail. Some of the difficulties with Metra are well-known; Metra operates on a zone-based fare structure whereas Pace and the CTA have a single, unified fare (to a degree: CTA bus fare is $2.00 but $2.25 if you pay cash, and all rail fares are $2.25), exempt from the distance-based zones that Metra uses to assess fares. But anyone who has studied or visited other cities that operate zone-based transit systems knows it is not impossible to automatically collect fares.

Take Amsterdam, for example. If you’re visiting, you’ll probably purchase a temporary pass or a stored-value card. If you’re a resident or you frequent Amsterdam, you might have a more permanent and durable plastic card. Both cards have an RFID chip in them. When you ride the tram or the bus, you scan your card when boarding. And when alighting, you scan your card again. The cost of your journey is dependent on how far you traveled and is deducted when you leave the bus/tram/train. If you forget to scan your card when alighting, you’re charged . Visitors with daily unlimited passes don’t have to “check out,” as its called, because they have an unlimited pass.

OV-Chipkaart system in Amsterdam

OV-Chipkaart system in Amsterdam

The system is definitely slightly more complicated and hard to anticipate if you don’t know the distance of your route, and I don’t think that it is a great idea for all transit purposes. While it makes sense for networks like Metra that go long distances, it might be a social justice issue in cities like Chicago where the wealthier tend to live closer to work (downtown) while the poorer tend to live farther away from their place of work, thus causing a reverse correlation between the price-of-journey and income.

I feel that some of the issue with Metra not being a part of the CTA’s Ventra payment system is because Metra’s entire fare structure is antiquated as it is (Metra only recently began accepting credit cards at stations) and requires conductors to manually inspect each passenger’s ticket. Turnstiles are implausible due to the design of most Metra stations. A solution to this problem would be similar to how transit in Amsterdam is payed for: Passengers tap their card when boarding the train and tap it again when alighting. One issue I could think of is fare evasion or cheating the fare – either not paying, or “checking out” of the train before you actually get off, thereby paying a lower fare. Currently, Metra has conductors that roam the trains checking for passes or collecting payments. These conductors also leave the train at each stop and check for passengers on the platform. I assume they also use this opportunity to see who is boarding the train so they can go collect the fares from those passengers. With a system such as the one I propose, the conductors could also check that everyone boarding and leaving the train are tapping their cards. Conductors could also conduct random fare checks on passengers between stations to ensure that everyone is “checked in.” Those without these cards could purchase them from automated machines or attendants at stations or from a machine or conductor on the train.

My proposal is simple and without lots of technical detail, but it’s just a proposed solution to Metra’s fare problem. With a system like this, seamless transfers could be made between all three transit modes in the Chicago region. You could store money on each card and use it on all three networks, or have a monthly pass on one mode (CTA) and some stored money for those occasional Metra trips (and vice versa).

One more aspect that surprises me is that there is no announcement regarding the future Chicago bicycle-sharing network and the Ventra farecard. Any city that wishes to include all of its transit modes would include its bicycle-sharing network, even if it is in the future. I will be very disappointed if Chicago’s bicycle-sharing network membership card is not the Ventra card itself.

Time will tell if and when Metra is added to the Ventra card system and what method Metra uses to upgrade its fare payment infrastructure. For now, the Ventra payment system is a good start.