The New Ventra App Will Make Metra Easier to Ride For Millions of People

Update Nov. 18: The Ventra app is available half a day early. Download for Android and iOS

The Ventra app will be released this month, making it more convenient to pay your Metra fare, whether you’re an occasional rider or a daily commuter. The best thing about the app is that it allows you to buy tickets and passes via your smartphone. That means no waiting in line at a ticket booth, using an ill-designed ticket vending machine, or paying a surcharge on board. That’s a big plus if you’re rushing to catch a train and don’t have time to buy a ticket at the station.

Why am I so confident that the Ventra App will be convenient to use? I’m part of the app’s beta testing group, and I recently used the app during a Metra excursion to the South Deering neighborhood for a fried fish snack at Calumet Fisheries. Aside from some visual quirks that I find very annoying, including flashing screens and unpolished buttons and dialog boxes, I found that the app performs all functions flawlessly.

You’ll be able to use the Ventra app to start, stop, and change auto-load preferences on your account, setting how much money you want drawn from your credit or debit card when it dips below $10. The Ventra app also has a built-in transit tracker. It shows the nearest Metra and ‘L’ stations, as well as bus stops, plus the predicted time the train or bus will show up or, in the case of Metra, the scheduled departure time.

The Ventra app's Transit Tracker for Metra shows upcoming trains in a similar appearance as CTA's train tracker platform displays.
The Ventra app’s Transit Tracker for Metra shows upcoming trains in a similar manner as CTA’s Train Tracker platform displays

While you can currently use wallet-enabled smartphones and watches to buy groceries at many supermarket chains, nothing is changing for those who use those devices to board CTA and Pace. They’ll still have to load transit value and passes onto your iPhone 6 or Nexus at vending machines.

However, a “virtual Ventra card” will be an option in a future version of the app, according to CTA spokesperson Tammy Chase, giving riders the ability to manage the smartphone wallet completely through the app. She added that door-to-door trip planning and other enhancements are also in the works, but a release date hasn’t been set for these features.

Regardless, I have high hopes for what the Ventra App can do for the local transit network. Millions of people have Ventra cards (there are over four million accounts) and smartphones, and many of them are CTA and Pace riders who may not use Metra often. By providing a fast, convenient new payment option, the app may encourage more of these people to ride Metra, more frequently.

For my my trip on Sunday, I purchased two one-way tickets for the trip to 93rd Street/South Chicago Metra Electric District station, which is a ten-minute walk from the fish shack, for $7. I could have bought an unlimited weekend pass for $8, but I wasn’t planning on doing any other trips that day.

However, it occurred to me that this situation is an opportunity for Metra to “upsell” customers as a strategy to increase farebox revenue. When the price of a roundtrip fare is just under the price of a weekend pass, the app could recommend purchasing the weekend pass, noting that the pass includes free rides for kids under 12.

If I had opted for the weekend pass, I could have made an additional stop on the way home to pick up cupcakes at Give Me Some Sugah bakery near the Bryn Mawr station in South Shore neighborhood without having to buy a new ticket. During the weekend, the Metra Electric line is the only one where it’s possible to make a quick stopover, because it operates with near rapid-transit-like frequency on Saturdays.

On the other hand, if a roundtrip ticket is more expensive than the weekend pass, then Ventra app should only offer the latter option. That would save the rider money, just as a Metra conductor would would recommend buying the the pass rather than the regular ticket in that situation. This would also mimic the London Underground’s policy of never charging you more than a day pass for the single ride journeys you take that day.

The app is a major boon to smartphone users who ride or would ride Metra trains within Chicago and to the suburbs, but it’s not a universal solution as Metra has no plans to accept Ventra cards on board.

Ventra has started promoting the forthcoming app on social media, with a link to this marketing page. Once the app is available on the Android and iOS app stores, we’ll announce it on Streetsblog Chicago’s Twitter feed and Facebook page.

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  • As a user experience, how do you prove to the conductor you’ve paid? Do you just show them your phone screen?

    Does it work if you don’t have data signal at the time you want to prove it to the conductor? My app-bearing platforms (nexus 7 tablet, iPod touch) do not have cellular data, and I rarely have wifi when I’m out and about and moving. It’s amazing how many apps just completely puke and fail to load if you try to open them without a data connection active at the time.

    For testing purposes you can put your phone in airplane mode and then try to use the app.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Every other railroad ticket app I’ve used (Amtrak, SNCF, and Deutsche Bahn) works fine to display tickets offline, so the common practice is for this to not be an issue. That said this is Ventra, so even if it works perfectly everywhere else, don’t hold your breath.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Do you know if the Ventra app will allow you to use funds from any of the various pools that Ventra stores money in, including your Transit Benefits value from a payroll deduction program?

  • duppie

    As a beta tester since mid August, I can assure you that you can as long as your company provides you with a debit card. You can even split payments between milt ple cards

  • duppie

    Yes to all your questions. The downside is that your ticket is tied to your device, not you account. It is quite cumbersome to move between devices and cannot be done on the fly..
    And yea, I did put my phone in airplane mode…

  • duppie

    Overall a very enjoyable app that is very useful if you take Metra. The main downside is the transit tracker for Metra. Works of scheduled arrivals, not actuals, and trains disappear of the list as soon as the scheduled time has passed. That tracker is completely vusleas for me.

  • Cameron Puetz

    My company loads payroll deductions directly into my Ventra account. These funds show up in my account as “Transit Benefits value” this is separate from the “Transit value” where funds I load using cash at a Ventra machine are stored. Typically when I tap my card at a CTA turnstile the fare is deducted from my “Transit Benefits value” although sometimes it’s randomly deducted from my “Transit value” instead. Do you know if these stored values can be used for in app purchases of Metra tickets?

  • Kevin M

    Steven, what’s the minimum iOS version that will be necessary to run this app?

  • duppie

    You can use value stored on your Ventra card to pay for Metra tickets and passes. Not sure about the nuance between transit benefit value and transit value.

  • That’s good feedback, which I’ll share via the beta testing group.

  • @duppie:disqus is correct.

  • @duppie:disqus is correct.

    The tickets work offline very well. I had bought my ticket outside on the sidewalk in the video because I wasn’t sure if I would have a data connection in the Millennium Station, underground. And there was more light.

  • So far my feedback has been about the visuals as the functions all work well.

    I also really like the push notifications. When my balance drops below $10 I get a notification saying that the auto-occurred. I think there might be a second notification that the balance was low but I can’t remember because they might be combined seeing as the two transactions happen almost simultaneously.

  • I’m curious about this myself. I have my transit benefit deducted from payroll in the form of a monthly CTA pass. It doesn’t seem like that will seamlessly apply to Metra unless I add additional transit value, correct?

  • duppie

    I already did. Repeatedly.
    But it looks like it got fixed in the latest release. I used that version for the first time this morning and it showed my delayed train correctly.

    I’d say this app is ready to go!

  • I experienced a bug trying to show my Metra ticket offline while I was on the train. I then installed the latest version (it had come out the night before) and the bug was resolved.

  • I believe that’s correct. How is that monthly pass given to you? What are the other options your transit benefit can be given to you?

  • PIPoodle

    You spelled “promoting” wrong, “promotiing”.

  • duppie

    I think there are 4 basic ways: an amount deposited onto you RTA debit card or your Ventracard, or a specific product on the CTA (typically a monthly pass) applied to your Ventra card, or a monthly paper Metra ticket

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    I can confirm you can use value loaded directly on the card by your employer.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    Noticed I didn’t reply to you directly, so here it is again… I can confirm you can use value loaded directly on the card by your employer through that program.

  • Manny

    How many years and dollars for a crippled useless app? And how many more years and dollars until they make it into something useful for most public transport riders?

  • carfreecommuter

    Is there any chance that there will be a “low value” warning? That was the best thing about the Chicago Card. Maybe the app could send you a message if your stored value is below $5

  • Yes. The app will ask you to enable notifications and send you notifications for low balance and credit/debit card expiration dates.

  • iOS 7.1 is the minimum version.

  • What’s crippled and useless about it?

  • BlueFairlane

    I suspect Manny is, like me, one of the 30% of the American public that doesn’t have a smart phone. Manny and I differ, though, in that I get that I’m in an increasingly shrinking minority, and that a thing’s usefulness isn’t determined by whether I use it.

    I don’t specifically remember having done so, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d expressed a sentiment similar to Manny’s in the past. But I think enough people are on the phones now to make the app a good investment. Just as long as they don’t make access app-only and still take money, I’m cool.

  • Manny

    Ha ha – true.

  • Manny

    Sorry i thought you were talking about Khloe’s vag. Also the app doesn’t do any of the features promised years ago. Waste of dollars.

  • What features are those?

  • Manny

    Try Google.

  • If you’re not interested in actually talking to any of us, why do you post here?

    Scribbling nasty words on the wall in your own poop is something most people grow out of by the time they’re old enough to learn to type.

  • Manny

    Sorry …….

  • Steven, your trip to the Southeast Side via the MED and the Ventra App was a glimpse of the future. I won’t push it too much, but it occurs to me that (as you stated about MED headway frequencies) with a few cheap upgrades in the operating formats and physical infrastructure, you would not need to use the Metra part of the App at all on the (in-city) MED routes. Nor would you need on-board fare collection (and those labor costs).

    BUT of course, we ALL know the “NE Illinois Politics” involved, so I will just keep Tilting at my silly Windmills… Next at the RTA/CTA Budget Hearing on December 3rd: http://rtachicago.com/about-us/media/press-release-archives/2015-press-releases/1190/rta-proposed-budget-public-hearing Please attend if you can!

  • Ciskander

    Ventra used tickets might be used as new ones.By clicking a used one, it just turns to yellow.A bug to be solved

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