Unified Fare Payment and Chicago Bike Share

March 15, 2013 at 2:01 pm

There hasn’t been a lot of recent news about the bike share system coming to Chicago (hopefully) this spring. As Twitter user @JustinHaugens points out, Alta Bike Share (a consulting firm) only recently posted management positions for Chicago (here’s one).

At this point, we really have no idea what the stations will look like, but we can look to Capital Bikeshare in DC and Nice Ride in Minneapolis to get an idea, since Alta played a role in both systems’ development.

Capital Bikeshare station. Credit: Bike Arlington.

We also don’t know what the “key” will look like, but here’s another idea:

Capital Bikeshare key used to unlock bicycles. Credit: Mr. T in DC

Ideally, the “key” used to unlock a bike at a station should not be a unique, distinct key, but instead should be integrated with the rest of Chicago’s transportation payment methods.

It’s a bit of a stretch to believe this would have happened initially, especially since not every transportation option in Chicago currently has the same payment system. But this is exactly how it should be. Everyone in the Chicago region should be able to use one card to pay for all public transportation in the region: Metra, Pace, CTA, and, soon, bike share.

I’m not in the position to suggest who exactly should oversee such a payment system or ensure that payment makes its way to the correct transportation entity, but the point is that it should exist in the future. So many American cities have disconnected transportation payment mechanisms. New York in particular is pretty awful at this: On a recent trip visiting a friend in Jersey City, a trip to Manhattan requires taking the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail ($2.25 per ride), then a PATH train ($2.25), and, depending on the destination, a ride on the Subway ($2.25). All require different farecards. Indeed, New York and New Jersey are different states, but we should expect more cooperation among transportation networks in the country’s largest metropolitan region. This is not unique, either; many cities across the country require different fare payments on their different transportation systems.

We’ll go across the Atlantic to—you guessed it—Paris, where transportation in the region (Ile-de-France) is spread across different brands, service levels, and government entities but is unified by one payment mechanism, including the bike share system, Vélib. The Syndicat des transports d’Île-de-France (STIF), or “Transport Organization Authority”, oversees the transportation in the region (similar to RTA in Chicagoland). You can get a ride from the suburbs on a regional Transilien or RER train to central Paris, where you can transfer to the Metro, and finally grab a bike from a Vélib station, all using just one card: The Navigo pass.

Wireless Vélib card used to unlock bike at staion.

You can, of course, still buy paper tickets (which are still unified across modes) for the Metro, RER, or Transilien, or get a Vélib card if you don’t use public transportation often. Paying the fare doesn’t get one a ride on Vélib, though: a separate annual subscription is still required, it’s just loaded onto the same card. In the future, you’ll likely be able to use your phone to do the same thing.

It should be noted that Paris is perhaps unique in integrating all modes, for even London’s Cycle Hire has not integrated its payment system with the Oyster card. If you’re aware of other cities that do integrate their bike share systems with their public transportation payment systems, let me know in the comments.

If CDOT were to talk with CTA and find a way to integrate the future bike share system with the forthcoming Ventra card, it could reduce a significant barrier to using the bike share system. If we assume the Chicago system will be similar to Minneapolis and DC, it means having to register online to receive a key or pay-per-day at a kiosk. By offering an option to pay an extra few dollars per month or year on the unlimited Ventra card in order to use bike share, a new connection could be made between CTA and a user’s final destination, and increase use of the bike share system. When the day comes where Metra integrates Ventra, it could create even more options. Could we see the day where denser suburbs, like Evanston and Oak Park, have their own bike share systems that also integrate with Ventra?

Aside from the payment mechanism, how the bikes are released is also important – if it is to be like Nice Ride, where the key is inserted into a slot to release the bike, it means there is no immediate possibility to implement wireless cards at the stations to release a bike. If wireless cards were implemented instead, we could see people unlocking bikes using smartphones, RFID-enabled credit cards, Ventra, or the bike share’s own card. It could even go so far as to wireless hotel keys being linked to the system – 24-hour memberships paid by hotels to help their guests get around, or single-use cards being issued for certain events.

Without a doubt, Alta has looked around the world at the best practices for bike share and has created some amazing systems. The fragmented organization of our city governments has also ensured that many of our transportation systems are inefficient. Smart transportation networks bridge the gap between these inefficiencies and create systems that are easy to navigate. A major part of this is ensuring that people can use the different systems with a common payment system. Hopefully, we will see more of this in the future.

EDIT: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Alta manages Nice Ride in Minneapolis. Alta merely provided assistance in station location and site design guidelines.