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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…

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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…

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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.

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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.

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

Portage Park
Tuesday, October 08, 2013
5pm-8:30pm
4100 N. Long Ave.
Chicago, IL 60641

Garfield Park
Wednesday, October 09, 2013
6pm-8:30pm
100 N. Central Park Ave.
Chicago, IL 60624

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

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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…

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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…

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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

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Metra Headaches Continue While Quinn Forms Committee to Reform Transit

Governor Pat Quinn delivers remarks highlighting the installation of automated external defibrillator (AED) devices on Metra rail cars.

Governor Quinn, center, and now-resigned board chairman Brad O'Hallaoran (gold tie) at Metra's Millennium Station in December. Photo: Quinn's office.

A fifth Metra board member gave up his post Thursday after the Chicago Tribune wrote that Stanley Rakestraw no longer lived in suburban Cook County  – as required – and the person who appointed him, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, asked him to tender resignation. Board members are resigning after allegations of double dipping (for being on two governmental boards simultaneously), patronage hiring and promoting, and for giving former Metra CEO Alex Clifford a severance package potentially worth over $700,000 in exchange for keeping quiet. The full amount would be available to Clifford if he fails to find a new job.

Meanwhile, Governor Pat Quinn today created the “Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force, an “independent panel of transit, finance and good government leaders who will issue recommendations to reform the mass transit system in northeastern Illinois”. The panel’s aim is to investigate fraud and waste and it seems the task force will spend more time investigating the Regional Transportation Authority, which has oversight of Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace – the three “service boards.”

Members of the “blue-ribbon” panel include Carole Brown, former chairperson of the Chicago Transit Authority board, Patrick Fitzgerald, former U.S. Attorney for this region, and Kathryn Tholin, CEO of Center for Neighborhood Technology. The task force will have co-chairs: George Ranney, CEO of Metropolis Strategies, who has proposed merging the Regional Transportation Authority into the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning; and Ann Schneider, secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation. Two union leaders, an advocate for people with disabilities, and a former CTA bus driver will join the panel.

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RTA's CEO Joe Costello speaks at an event to promote transit. Photo: RTA.

Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business says the panel has a tough road ahead and doubts “how much it will actually achieve.” He writes:

For instance, Mr. Ranney, president and CEO of Metropolis Strategies, a civic group, and Ms. Brown long have been gunning to dismantle the Regional Transportation Authority, which arguably has been ineffective in regulating Metra, Pace and the CTA and which City Hall argues sucks up money that could go directly to CTA operations. Mr. Ranney has proposed merging RTA into the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Hinz reports that Joe Costello, head of the RTA, “would like his agency empowered, rather than merged away.” DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin, whose own appointee to the Metra board – Paul Darley – resigned last month, is concerned about Metra being affected by the “Chicago machine.”

Ventra press event

Metra will not be joining the Ventra ticketing system.

Transitized author Shaun Jacobsen wrote of his three “wish list” ideas on how to make the RTA more effective from a passenger perspective. The first, he said, should be “seamless ticketing.” He notes that this is required by law for all three service boards by 2015, yet only CTA and Pace have a solution. Jacobsen also posted that CTA president Forrest Claypool doesn’t want his agency to be included in RTA’s structural changes, “because unlike scandal-scarred Metra, the CTA is ‘accountable to the voters,’ who know ‘the buck stops’ with the mayor,” the Sun-Times reported.

The Chicago Tribune editorial board suggested today that everyone else should resign, without which “lofty paeans to restoring faith in Metra will mean nothing.” The editorial proposes a test for whatever reforms the panel outlines: “Would this oversight structure encourage the hiring of top administrators who will run safe, efficient transit operations…transit bosses who won’t play by the rules of Illinois politics?”

Chicagoland deserves a world-class transit system, but Metra drags down the region while CTA charges ahead. Will there be Illinois politics as usual, or can Quinn’s panel come up with reform ideas that the state legislature can act upon? I’m curious to see if the panel recommends that voters should elect the service board members and if this affects next year’s gubernatorial election.

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For Some College Students, Ventra Rollout Begins Today

Ventra press event

Reese stands in front of a Ventra vending machine at Clinton/Lake.

The Chicago Transit Authority’s revenue director, Eric Reese, hosted a gaggle of reporters on Friday to show off the Ventra “outreach bus” and demonstrate, for the first time, a Ventra vending machine. Ventra is set to replace the current fare media for CTA and the Pace suburban bus system, including all passes, Chicago Card/Plus, and reduced fare cards. The new technology will enable faster boarding — speeding up buses especially — and lower the CTA’s costs.

Ventra machines won’t be accessible to the general public until September 9, but U-Pass holders can use the turnstile Ventra card readers starting today, and students at at least one local college can take advantage. Westwood College starts classes on Wednesday, so they will have active Ventra cards earlier than students at colleges with a later start to the school year.

Ventra press event

The Ventra card reader works just like Chicago Card/Plus readers, but the device gives much better visual feedback, clearly telling riders whether the card was accepted. More images.

Ventra vending machines will eventually replace all transit card vending machines and express vending machines. They operate much like ATMs, with instructions in English, Spanish, and Polish. At the press event Friday, I asked why touch screens weren’t used and an employee of Cubic, the contractor that developed Ventra, explained that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires physical buttons and Braille. (Touch screen transit vending machines are ubiquitous in Europe and riders who can’t operate them see a ticket agent.)

Ventra press event

One of the two Ventra outreach buses outside CTA headquarters.

DNAInfo implied today that Ventra and Divvy will be “connected,” but the fact is there are no plans to link Divvy membership to Ventra, only that cardholders can use the “retail purse” on their account to pay for anything that accepts MasterCard, “including Divvy,” Reese said.

The Ventra outreach buses are converted CTA buses that will be stationed around town to get the word out about the new fare card. The schedule is now online; outreach buses will be visiting Garfield Park and Bridgeport tomorrow.

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CTA: Poor People Will Register Ventra Cards, Won’t Get Debit Card Hard Sell

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This bus ad promotes Ventra's value protection feature for lost or stolen cards. Photo: John Greenfield

A recent discussion of Ventra, the new fare payment system for the CTA and Pace, with CTA spokesman Brian Steele, has allayed some, if not all, of my concerns about the impact on low-income Chicagoans. The cost of a single-ride ticket will rise from $2.25 to $3. This price hike can be avoided by purchasing a reusable Ventra card for $5, which is refunded as a transit credit when you register the card. However, registering the card requires access to a phone, the Internet, or the CTA headquarters, which might be a barrier for very low-income individuals.

And if you purchase the card just before getting on the train, you need $7.25 in hand to pay for the card and the fare, unless you’re fortunate enough to be at a station with a payphone you can use for calling the toll-free registration number. That’s highly unlikely in a city where public phones are rare as hen’s teeth. It’s possible that some people might instead opt to repeatedly pay the $3 single-ride fare.

The Tribune recently reported that a study conducted for the CTA found that low-income people who buy a Ventra card are unlikely to register it, which would mean missing out on the $5 fare credit, as well as the ability to get a refund if the card is lost or stolen. However, when I asked CTA President Forest Claypool about this at a recent, unrelated press conference, he said the study found no such thing.

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A Ventra farecard machine. Photo: John Kim, Chicago Tribune

Another concern I had was that there’s no way for most people to buy a reusable Ventra card that doesn’t have the option of being activated as a prepaid Debit MasterCard, and the logo is printed on the corner of every card. The debit card has a number of associated user fees, which many low-income people can ill afford. It appeared that the registration process might be used to market the debit card to a captive audience, but Steele argued that’s not the case. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

John Greenfield: I got the information about the internal study, which found low-income people are unlikely to register their Ventra cards, from a Tribune article. If not’s the case, what did the study find?

Brian Steele: You have to read the study, it’s a lengthy study, and somewhere on page 15 or 16 it talks about the assumptions that were made for the study. We had to come up with assumptions to estimate the number of people who may or may not register. We made two assumptions. The worst-case scenario: not a single person registers a Ventra card. Then we made another assumption that, I think it was, 89 percent registered and 11 percent wouldn’t. These are assumptions. They are not saying that 11 percent or ten percent or whatever the number may be will fail to register for the card. We believe, and our education and outreach efforts are designed to help make sure that this occurs, that people will register the Ventra card.

People who buy the single-ride ticket for $3 will be doing so because they choose to use that fare payment option. They have other options that will not cost them anything beyond their initial card purchase.

JG: Except that to purchase a single ride on the CTA you have to have $7.25 in your hand, correct? Because you need to buy the $5 card and then you need to load it with $2.25, so that’s not an insignificant amount of money for a very poor person. They might opt to just spend the $3 at one time, rather than invest that $7.25.

BS: That initial purchase is a one-time purchase, so that one time they have to spend more than they currently do so. When you buy a card, you’re not buying just a blank piece of plastic. You’re obviously buying fare value. The first time you purchase a card for $5 you register it with a quick phone call, or online, or however you choose to do it, and that $5 is applied.

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