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CTA: We Can’t Reduces Fees That Social Service Providers Pay on Ventra

Ventra press event

A CTA bus doubles as an info display during the 2013 Ventra rollout. The switch to Ventra created problems for social service providers, but the CTA says it’s working on fixing one of them.

The Chicago Transit Authority said that it’s working to address some of the new burdens that the switch to Ventra has created for social service providers, as described in a study from the Chicago Jobs Council, which I reported about on Monday.

The study was based on a survey of 53 organizations that provide transit fare assistance to their clients, who may be job seekers, homeless individuals, or young people. The problems include the 50-cent surcharge on single-ride Ventra tickets, which has resulted in these organizations collectively paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

Another issue is the need to mail in forms and checks in order to buy Ventra cards in bulk. The study also found that a majority of the organizations waited a long time to receive their bulk orders, and unpredictable delivery delays forced them to scramble to find alternative ways to buy tickets.

According to the report, in 2013 the CTA told the Chicago Jobs Council that online ordering would be available in 2014. Last February, the CTA estimated online ordering would be available by the end of this year. The CTA said in a statement yesterday “work is already underway with our vendor to make online credit card purchases and delivery tracking available.”

Pauline Sylvain-Lewis of the North Lawndale Employment Network said she tries to plan ahead for the long wait by ordering two months worth of tickets at a time. That can be an issue, she said, because the nonprofit’s cash flow doesn’t allow for spending large sums of money on a monthly basis, and the purchase price can be so large that it requires approval from the board. If a delivery is late, staff members go to train stations and use the organization’s bank cards, or even their own bank cards, to buy tickets.

The CTA said that they weren’t aware of any bulk card orders taking two months two arrive, adding that “99.7% of all bulk orders CTA receives are delivered within 11-14 business days and more than 88% of all bulk orders are delivered within seven to 10 business days – or faster.”

Read more…


Study: Ventra Fees Cost Social Service Providers 140,000 Bus Rides Per Year

Ventra Vending Machine Preview Event

A CTA staffer demonstrates how a Ventra machine works. Ventra replaced simpler and cheaper ways for social service organizations to procure transit cards for their clients. Photo: CTA

Ever since the Chicago Transit Authority and Pace switched from magnetic stripe fare cards to the Ventra smart card system in 2013, social service providers across Chicago have been spending more money on paying for their clients’ transit rides, and giving out fewer rides. A new report from the Chicago Jobs Council details the burdens that Ventra fare policies and ticket ordering delays place on social service organization staff members and money dedicated to helping clients. The jobs council works to change laws and policies to increase access to jobs for marginalized workers.

The report says that for the organizations to provide fares to their clients they have to spend more time and money. The money they spend on the new Ventra fee could otherwise be spent on  hundreds of thousands in additional rides for job seekers. It starts with the cost of a new card. Ventra cards cost $5.

While the CTA refunds the $5 as credit for future rides if the account is registered, staff must spend time managing that registration process, and checking often to see how much value each card has left. In addition, it’s possible for clients to run up a negative balance on their card that, to continue using the card, the organization has to pay off.

The report said that the plastic multi-ride cards “do not make sense for programs that serve highly transient populations” because they represent a “financial liability if they are lost or used to accrue a large negative balance.” Ventra also doesn’t offer a way to register or manage many cards. “Overwhelmingly,” the report said, “providers rely on single-use paper tickets to provide transit assistance.”

Anyone can run a negative balance because bus fare readers sometimes let people on even if they have less than $2.00 on their Ventra account. The CTA assumes you’ll eventually put more money on the account to reach a positive balance.

If an organization doesn’t want to wait long for a bulk order, which has to be mailed in, or pay off negative balances, then they’re out there at CTA stations buying single-use tickets for $3.00, and racking up hundreds of dollars in “limited-use media” (disposable) fees, at a cost of 50 cents per ticket. That’s the fee CTA charges to print a one-time use ticket and encourage using the hard plastic Ventra card.

The report surveyed 53 organizations which provide job training, shelter for the homeless, and youth services and found they’re spending $280,000 annually in fees – the equivalent of 140,000 additional bus rides. Read more…


Buy Metra Tickets and Reload a Ventra Account With Upcoming App

Ventra app

The upcoming Ventra app will work on both Android and iPhones, and will offer, for the first time since at least 1996, the opportunity to buy Metra tickets on board without a surcharge.

Imagine this scenario: You’re running late to catch Metra’s UP-North Line to Rogers Park and, because the trains run so infrequently, you really need to make this run. You don’t have a 10-ride ticket in your wallet, the line for a ticket agent is too long, there are no vending machines at Ogilvie Transportation Center, and the conductors will charge you a $3 surcharge (soon to be $5) if you buy a ticket from them.

Riders with an iPhone or Android smartphone will no longer experience that stressful situation after Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority, and Pace co-launch the Ventra app this year. For the first time in the last 20 years (at least) riders will be able to pay for their trip on board with a credit card as well as without a surcharge. Being able to buy Metra tickets electronically on the train is a significant new convenience for daily and casual riders that makes up for the limited and slow options off the train.

Last week, representatives from Metra and the CTA demonstrated core features of the app, which is still in development. In light of the Ventra card’s extremely glitchy launch, I hesitate to say it, but my impression was that the new app worked quite well. During the demonstration, Tony Coppoletta, the CTA’s external electronic communications manager and who is involved in the app’s development, noted that “the plumbing is all there, and we’re putting on finishing touches”. The app works but there are still bugs to squash.

All three agencies understand that a successful app debut is important because of the botched Ventra launch two years ago. They’re using an app developer, GlobeSherpa, that has created successful ticketing systems for other transit agencies, and they’re taking testing seriously. So far, over 1,000 people have applied to test the app before the it goes public, and CTA spokesperson Catherine Hosinski said they’ve started “reviewing the responses to make our initial selection.”

The Ventra app has an array of features that can be used with and without creating an account, and certain functions even work without a cellular or wifi connection. For riders who log in to their Ventra account through the app, they’ll be able to access their account balance, buy CTA and Metra passes, load value from a bank card, turn autoload on and off, and buy and use Metra tickets and passes. Additionally, the Ventra app provides travel info from the CTA and Pace bus trackers, and CTA and Metra train trackers.

Essentially, Coppoletta said, “This puts a Ventra vending machine in your pocket.” Even when riders are not signed into a Ventra account, they’ll be able look up travel info and check an unregistered Ventra card’s balance. They’ll also be able to buy and use Metra tickets and passes by typing in a credit or debit card number. However these tickets purchased via an unregistered account won’t be replaceable if the phone is lost or stolen. The system should work well for visitors want to purchase a Metra ticket with a credit card, but don’t own a Ventra card. Read more…


New Ventra App Takes Small Step Towards Transit Fare Integration

CTA and Globe Sherpa provided this image showing a potential app design.

CTA and Globe Sherpa showed off one potential app design.

The forthcoming smartphone ticket app for Metra will also make it possible for Chicago Transit Authority and Pace customers to manage their Ventra transit accounts on their phones, the CTA announced last week. Even though the three agencies will spend $2.5 million on the app (plus nearly $16,000 in monthly fees), the Ventra app won’t at first offer customers many more functions than the existing Ventra website.

CTA communications manager Tony Coppoletta pointed out to Streetsblog that the 80 percent of CTA customers who have smartphones could use the app to skip the lines at station vending machines or at Ventra retailers, and have easier on-the-go access to their Ventra accounts. Bus passengers, who currently have to go out of their way to reload their Ventra accounts, may find the app particularly useful.

As we’ve reported before, the app will also help occasional Metra riders by finally making it possible to instantly purchase Metra tickets from anywhere. For example, an individual who loads $130 every month in pre-tax transit benefits into into a Ventra account could purchase a $100 monthly CTA/Pace pass, and still have $30 each month to spend on Metra tickets.

Yet many transit riders won’t benefit from the app. The 20 percent of CTA riders who don’t have smartphones, and others who don’t use bank cards, add up to hundreds of thousands who won’t be able to use the app. Many more CTA riders automatically deposit funds into their Ventra accounts, using Ventra’s auto-load function or pre-tax transit benefits. Similarly, any Metra riders who don’t have smartphones will still have to buy their tickets by mail or in person.

Two more crucial technologies that would further simplify transit payments are still set for the indefinite future. Read more…


Metra Says It Already Welcomes Ventra (No, Not Really)

Next stop, a far away land.

Metra says it accepts Ventra (through its rarely used debit function), but paper tickets still rule. Photo: Clint McMahon

Even though Metra never plans to accept Ventra transit cards for payment aboard its trains, the commuter railroad now claims that it has accepted Ventra all along – and thus already fulfilled a state mandate to adopt Ventra by 2015. Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis told Streetsblog that “we can already accept” Ventra cards, but only in the most obtuse possible sense: as a MasterCard debit card, presented in person to a cashier.

By that definition, Metra complied with the law and accepted Ventra even before Ventra existed, since Metra first installed credit and debit card readers in 2010. Or, by a similar token, Metra customers can already “use Ventra” for fares aboard Metra trains – by using their debit cards to withdraw cash from an ATM beforehand.

Metra still doesn’t accept credit, debit, or Ventra cards on board trains, and has no plans to. And only customers who start their Metra trip at one of its 140 staffed locations, and only when an agent is working, can buy their tickets with a bank card. Almost all of these stations are staffed for only one shift, so customers won’t be able to use bank cards after 2 PM. Over 100 Metra stations, including nearly every station in Chicago outside downtown, never have agents on duty.

Of course, what almost all of Ventra’s 1.5 million users understand to be “Ventra” refers not to the card’s optional prepaid MasterCard debit account (which most users haven’t even activated), but rather its transit fare account. The transit account is what customers reload at 2,000 Ventra vending locations, and where their pre-tax transit benefits are deposited. But even though most Ventra customers can’t use their cards at most Metra points of sale, Metra still claims that it “can already accept” Ventra.
Read more…


CTA Should Take Cue from London With Automatic Day Passes

Calling at all stops to London King's Cross. | London's Calling for Flickr Friday | Explored

The Oyster card caps daily fares on all Greater London Area transit, without the need to purchase a daily pass beforehand. Photo: Paul Kitchener

Transport for London, that city’s regional transit operator and planning agency, has had a “daily cap” on bus, tram, and train fares since 2005. The fare system stops charging pay-as-you-go riders for trips once they spend a certain amount, which depends on which services you use and zones you visit. This means that you’ll never spend more on transit in one day than a daily pass would have cost (sometimes even less), which gives everyone the value of a day pass without making people buy those passes in advance.

The Ventra card and Transport for London’s Oyster card were both created and installed by Cubic Transportation Systems, so it’s possible that daily capping can be implemented in Chicago.

One-day transit passes encourage more transit use, since they lower the cost of each additional ride, and give the pass holder the freedom to travel as much they want in a day. They’re especially good at encouraging people to ride off-peak, like midday or in the evening, since these additional trips are “free.” By making the purchase of a daily pass automatic, a daily cap benefits riders — both residents and tourists — who either are used to paying for transit as they go, aren’t sure if the one-day pass is a good buy, or who want to budget their travel costs.

For Chicago tourists, a $10 day pass is an excellent value for a busy day of sightseeing — say, getting from a bed & breakfast in Logan Square to downtown, ferrying themselves among museums up and down Michigan Avenue, stopping in Chinatown for dinner, and then taking the Blue Line back home. For locals, a day pass is a great buy if one needs to hit up several shops across the city on their day off, take the bus for lunchtime errands, or have an evening out that traverses several neighborhoods. But instead of making customers choose beforehand whether a daily pass or pay-as-you-go would make sense for the day, a daily cap automatically chooses the best value for the rider.

Daily capping could even work on Metra trains and CTA + Metra journeys: Oyster works on buses, the Underground rapid transit, the Overground regional rail service, and local commuter trains. At the end of the day, the fare software sums your journeys’ costs, applies the cap if you reached it, and distributes revenues among the various transit systems you used. CTA could still sell one-day passes, for people who don’t want to load more than $10 at a time onto their Ventra card.

Once CTA and Pace finish rollout on July 1 this year, by no longer accepting fare media that aren’t Ventra, they should begin a conversation with Cubic to start a daily capping pilot project.


Ventra Balance Transfer Events Exclude Chicago Card Plus

The Ventra mailer. An email with additional, necessary instructions comes separately.

I recently attended a Ventra balance transfer event at Marquette Park. At these community events, CTA staffers are on hand to read the balance on residents’ existing farecards and transfer it to a Ventra card. It was an enlightening experience – but not in a good way. Critical bits of info about the transition process are missing or easy-to-miss on the CTA and Ventra web sites, and the opportunities to use existing fare media continue to dwindle. Yesterday was the last day to buy new reloadable magnetic stripe cards.

Balance transfer events [PDF] are only for plain Chicago Cards (CC) or reloadable magnetic stripe cards, not for Chicago Card Plus (CC+). One of the first steps is scanning your old card on a reader like the ones you see in ‘L’ stations to confirm your current balance. An event staffer records the balance on a form, then sends you to another station to transfer the balance to your new Ventra account. If you haven’t already registered your Ventra card online, the CTA will ask you to complete a registration form first and they’ll register you online. I saw a few cases where cards were unreadable. The guy said “Sorry, if we can’t confirm a balance, we can’t transfer it.”

I was told at the event that the Ventra card the agency mails to you is linked to your CC+ account for the purpose of balance transfer. The CTA has no process in place for doing a balance transfer from CC+ in any other way. Balance transfer is supposed to happen automatically from CC+ to Ventra after you log in to the Ventra site to confirm your account details and make a phone call to activate the card.  The agency won’t let you circumvent the process by buying a Ventra card from a machine or store, then transferring the balance at one of their events. If you have a CC+ balance and you never get your Ventra card in the mail, it looks like you’re out of luck for transferring that balance under current procedures.

What if your CC+ card runs out of money before your Ventra card comes in the mail and is activated and balance transferred, or if your new card doesn’t arrive before the system stops accepting CC+? You may have to buy another Ventra card elsewhere.

Except for a few employees at the event, no one seemed aware of how to distinguish a Chicago Card (two-tone blue, says “Chicago Card”) from a Chicago Card Plus (yellow and blue, says “Chicago Card Plus”) or was aware that they couldn’t scan CC+. It took several conversations with staffers for me to find someone who was aware of the difference. She appeared to be a supervisor.

I suggested to her that the online information should boldly emphasize that CC+ is excluded from these events. It is in the info about balance transfer events, but I missed it. Therefore, this turned out to be a wasted trip, except as a learning experience about the Ventra transition. A guy in line with me also missed the info and wasted a trip all the way from west-suburban Westchester. Employees working there should all understand the visual and functional differences between CC and CC+.

A few days ago I bought a Ventra card from a machine as a backup in case I didn’t get the one the CTA mailed soon enough to have it working before my CC+ either runs out of money or stops being accepted by the system. I’ll either cancel it later or keep it as a spare for guests. Guess what I found in my mailbox when I got home from today’s event!

After doing a bit of searching, I found the email with the user name and temporary password for my Ventra account. I was able to log in, change the password and confirm account details without any difficulty.

The card itself had a sticker on the front giving a toll-free number to call to activate the card and start the process of transferring the balance from CC+ to Ventra. I went through several phone menus and finished the call in less than five minutes. A few hours later, I logged into the account and found that the balance had been transferred. After reading comments on Ventra’s Facebook posts about lost emails, balances that didn’t transfer and other problems, I felt lucky by comparison.

I’d be curious to hear about your experiences with the Ventra transition. Below are upcoming balance transfer events this week.

Monday, October 07, 2013
4pm – 7pm
Transit Center
154th St & Park Ave.
Harvey, IL 60426

Portage Park
Tuesday, October 08, 2013
4100 N. Long Ave.
Chicago, IL 60641

Garfield Park
Wednesday, October 09, 2013
100 N. Central Park Ave.
Chicago, IL 60624


Emanuel: Transit “a Core Piece of Our Economic Strategy”


Emanuel with an image of the Morgan Street Green Line station. Photo: John Greenfield

In his keynote address for the American Public Transportation Association’s annual meeting yesterday at the Hilton, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said that quality transit is a cornerstone of his economic development policy.

CTA President Forrest Claypool warmed up the crowd before the mayor arrived. Speaking on the eve on the federal government shutdown, Claypool noted that better public transportation used to be a goal that Republicans and Democrats worked towards together. “Transit has always been one of those areas where previously there seemed to be bipartisan consensus because there was a fundamental understanding of Economics 101 which seems to now have disappeared,” Claypool said. “Back in 2006, [House Speaker Dennis] Hastert, Mayor Emanuel, Congressman [Bill] Lipinski and others worked together to find funding to rebuild the Brown Line.”

Fortunately, the federal government, the state and the city worked together to rebuild the Brown Line and now it’s one of the fastest growing lines in the city, Clypool said. “There’s also been a remarkable impact on economic development along that rebuilt corridor,” he said. “Something like a quarter of all building permits since 2007 have been within half a mile of the Brown Line. That’s a remarkable example of the impact of economic development: if you build it, they will come.”

After a few minutes, Emanuel took the stage to the strains of “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” and a standing ovation. The mayor began by mentioning he took the CTA downtown that morning, as he often does, although his late arrival, as well as a Blue Line crash that morning in Forest Park, which injured 33 people, didn’t reflect particularly well on the system.

“I see public transportation as a core piece of our economic strategy as a city,” he said.  “We have a three-part strategy. One is modernizing our airport. Two is modernizing our public transportation system. Third is, obviously, modernizing our roads, but also our bike network.”

Emanuel noted that the CTA is adding or rebuilding six new stations throughout the city, and 100 stations have either been refurbished or rebuilt during his administration. “Today we announced a new station at Washington-Wabash, which I call The Gateway,” he said. “It’s the first new downtown station since the Harold Washington Library stop, so for two decades, and it’s the first megastation in the city.” He added that a new Green Line station is also planned on Cermak near McCormick Place, and the Wilson, Loyola, Clark/Division and 95th Street stops are being rebuilt.

Read more…


The Challenge of Making Divvy Accessible to People Without Bank Accounts

Divvy on launch day: yellow light, wait

Currently, to unlock 300 bike-share stations, you need a credit card.

To use Divvy you must have a debit or credit card. Currently, there’s no way around that, so even though an annual Divvy pass is a bargain at $75, the system is unavailable for many Chicagoans. A significant share of city households — 12.7 percent — don’t have bank accounts, according to graduate research by Michael Carney at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. That translates to at least 135,000 people and perhaps more than twice that number, Carney’s demographic research indicates.

The Chicago Department of Transportation has set out to make Divvy more accessible to “unbanked” residents. CDOT’s strategy is to partner with organizations that can take on the liability of the membership and replacement bike costs, and to promote Bank On Chicago, a program run by the city treasurer in which banks reduce the barriers to opening a checking account.

CDOT Deputy Commissioner Scott Kubly says the agency has “talked to a few nonprofits and talked to a few churches” but that interest has been light so far. Making Divvy accessible to unbanked Chicagoans, he said, has been the department’s biggest challenge in rolling out the bike-share system. (The second biggest challenge: siting stations.)

One issue the organizations have had with the proposed arrangement, Kubly said, is the perceived risk involved. “I think it’s a question from shared liability standpoint, I think there’s some concern about that,” he said. “I think there’s a desire to see how it rolls out a little further.” Kubly pointed out that the department can focus more intently on the issue after the rollout of the first 300 stations this year.

After interning at CDOT in 2012 and helping to site bike-share stations, Carney looked into how other bike-share programs in the United States were engaging unbanked residents as part of his graduate studies. Carney reviewed the efforts of seven current and planned bike-share programs across the continent and produced a report [PDF] including strategies that CDOT has adopted.

Here’s how Carney summarized the three major recommendations to Streetsblog:

Read more…


Getting to Work With Ventra: An Uneventful Experience

Ventra press event

A Ventra single-ride ticket gets the "go" message.

The multi-week Ventra rollout ramps up this week as thousands of college students have received their U-PASS-enabled Ventra cards. The same card will be with them through their entire enrollment at 41 participating colleges. Outside the semester, though, students can load cash or passes onto the Ventra card to give them transit access when U-PASS is disabled. I sent my roommate on a mission Thursday to test loading cash onto a Ventra card, given to me by the Chicago Transit Authority, and use it to get to work downtown from Logan Square.

Brian* approached the Ventra vending machine and immediately accidentally mistook the cash receptor as a place to insert the Ventra card, not remembering that Ventra cards work without contact. That’s when a CTA customer assistant stepped over to take over operating the machine.

“The process of adding value was pretty simple,” he said. You can start the process of adding value to your “transit purse” by tapping your card on the target pad. Brian explained, “Once the machine read the card and the CTA worker pressed the ‘Add Transit value/pass’ button, the screen showed the $1 value on the card, and she pressed another button to ‘add value with cash’.” He fed the cash, “the value was added, I selected the option to get a receipt, and I was done.”

You can also add value with a credit or debit card, and you’ll be able to add value on the Ventra website with a credit or debit card. The Ventra machine cannot add value to your “retail purse,” for use at places where you see the MasterCard logo.

Ventra vending machine

Press "C" to start adding value to an existing Ventra card.

The Ventra card readers are on top of the turnstiles, next the slot where you dip magnetic stripe transit cards, which will be phased out in December. Brian’s experience with Ventra concluded with the reader giving him a green arrow pointing to the turnstile, showing “go” on the color screen, and giving “a pleasing ‘bong’ sound.”

Brian had the same issue with the vending machine I had. He wrote:

One thing that really surprised me was the old-style interface of the Ventra machine. I expected a touchscreen but they are like the ATM machines where you get options on the sides of the screen and you have to press the buttons adjacent to the option you want on the screen. The problem is if you are over 4-feet tall the buttons and the screen options don’t line up. I had to crouch to make sure I was pressing the right button and even the CTA worker hit the wrong button one time because it did not line up with the screen.

A worker for Cubic Transportation Systems, the company contracted to install and operate Ventra, explained to me during a press event that the machine is designed this way to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Chicago Card/Plus holders should be receiving their cards (if not already) and can use their card immediately after activating it. CTA has also started removing Express and Visitor Pass vending machines.

* Name changed