Ventra Will Be Anything But a Smooth “Retail Experience”

Editor’s note: Streetsblog accepts guest posts with viewpoints different than our own. Lynn Stevens is an urban planner, blogger at Peopling Places, and long-time neighborhood booster for Logan Square where she’s been an active participant in Bike/Walk Logan Square, the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival, the Logan Square Corridor Development Initiative, and the (now defunct) Zoning Advisory Committee.

Different ways to pay on CTA and Pace
Different ways to pay on CTA and Pace.

Man walks into a coffee shop, orders a cup of coffee, reaches in his pocket for cash.

Barista: “That’ll be $3.00.”

Man: “I thought coffee was $2.25.”

Barista: “It is, but we charge you 25¢ for the cream.”

Man: “But I don’t want cream.”

Barista: “We charge you for it whether you want it or not. And 50¢ for the limited use cup.”

Man: “That’s outrageous! That’s false advertising.”

Barista: “There is a way around it.”

Man: “Oh, okay. How?”

Barista: “You can buy our coffee card.”

Man: “Ok, let me do that.”

Barista: “That’ll be $5.00.”

Man: “What?! Now you’re going to charge me $5.00 for a cup of coffee?!”

Barista: “Well, after you buy your card, you can go online or call the 800 number and give them your name, address, phone number, date of birth, Social Security number… Ha ha. Just kidding about that last one! But you register the card and then you can immediately use the $5.00 value. It’s designed to save patrons time and money, and provides a unique opportunity to combine your coffee account with a debit card for other retail purchases.”

Man: “But I still only want a $2.25 cup of coffee.”

Barista: “You can use the balance on your card next time you come in.”

Man: “But it’ll be two years before I’m back in Chicago.”

Barista: “Oh,” said quietly and with disappointment.

Man: “What?”

Barista: “If you haven’t used the card in 18 months, we charge you $5.00 a month to make sure you don’t lose the $3.75 balance on your card.”

Man sighs with exasperation.

Barista: “Unless,” said with some hope.

Man: “What?”

Barista: “You could use a debit or credit card.”

Man: “Why didn’t you tell me that in the first place? I just want a $2.25 cup of coffee…black…today.

After man swipes his credit card (without an RFID chip), the machine prompts him to verify the amount of $3.00.

Man: “What?!!!!!”

After reading his recent article on Ventra, I joked with Steven Vance that even he must acknowledge that he covered many points in order to make it “clear” that the Ventra card was “simple,” and that he updated the post to make it even more “clear.” Clear and simple it is not.

While previously a 5-day-a-week Chicago Transit Authority train rider, a recipient of the employer-provided benefit, a Chicago Card Plus user, and someone who’s been riding the CTA long enough to remember using tokens, for the past several years I have been an infrequent rider with no RTA benefit for whom the Chicago Card Plus no longer had value. I add money to the same magnetic stripe fare card as needed, I still mostly ride the train, and I live close enough to a train station to add money to my fare card even if it’s a bus I need to take.

If the CTA actually set out to “mirror the retail experience,” as was quoted in the article, there wouldn’t be so many confused people. I don’t know about you, but the above scenario isn’t the kind of retail experience I’m used to, nor one I’m willing to accept.

If Ventra did “mirror the retail experience,” there wouldn’t be such confusion. People are used to using credit cards and cash to make purchases. They’re not used to paying 33% premiums to use cash. Only recently can retailers charge/pass along the actual premium they incur for using credit/debit cards, for example.

They’re not used to having to buy a debit (Ventra) card, and they’re certainly not used to paying a monthly fee for not using a debit (Ventra) card. This inconvenience non-use fee can be circumvented by reporting a lost card and getting a new one only when you’re ready to use it again, so it doesn’t make much sense except as a gotcha fee.

Since it costs RTA $2.60 to buy a blank Ventra card, retrofit it with a photo ID, process and mail it, why will the CTA charge its customers $5 for a card with no photo that is purchased on-site rather than mailed? And why $5? The least CTA could do would be to make it evenly divisible by a fare, e.g. $2.25 or $4.50. Sorry, but leaving 50¢ on my card is not going to induce me to spend $1.75 more to take a ride I don’t need to take. But whether it’s a 50¢ balance or a full fare, either way CTA takes more money from me. Gotcha.

If a paper ticket is embedded with an RFID chip that a machine will read, why must it be loaded with a transfer whether a customer wants one or not? Why can’t it be used until it is worn out so customers only pay 50¢ each time they need a new paper ticket? (With the magnetic stripe cards, CTA could have implemented such a “deposit” type system, like the MTA in NYC, so that customers kept their cards for re-use therefore substantially reducing the 35 million cards printed annually.)

If rather than the “retail experience” motivation, the motivation is the law mandating a regional fare payment/sharing system by 2015, Ventra is still missing a substantial piece of the puzzle with no buy-in from Metra. The law mandates the direction CTA is going, but might it have been possible to add features to the 11-year-old Chicago Card and 9-year-old Chicago Card Plus for all this for a better transition and/or until all agencies are on board?

My conclusion is that the motivation is, as with so many other Chicago initiatives, all about revenue. CTA hopes that people will come to use their transit-debit card as they might use any other bank card so that CTA will benefit from the fees. This is the same reason retailers got into the credit card business: because it’s a money-maker. CTA hopes that people who don’t have bank accounts and access to bank cards will use the Ventra debit card with all its associated fees. [Streetsblog learned today that CTA will earn $500,000 annually from non-fare Ventra transactions, including advertising and use of the Ventra prepaid debit card.]

So far Ventra’s looking like a failure of execution before it’s even started. When the Chicago Card/Plus was introduced, a “carrot” of a fare bonus was offered to encourage adoption of the new fare system. This time around CTA chose to use a “stick” of higher fares for those who can least afford the penalties. I find the advantages CTA is touting as hollow, predatory and patronizing. I anticipate longer lines at rail stations in order to load Ventra cards, and at grocery stores when the months change for those bus riders who use 30-day passes.

I acknowledge that others have different experiences using CTA and that there are Ventra card advantages for some that don’t benefit me, like being able to purchase special passes at train stations, as well as some that could benefit me, like the ability to reload the card with a credit card at train and retail stations. I’m not opposed to taking advantage of technological advancements, but technology will continue to change and at a faster and faster pace. The next change might be in 5 years. I’m not clear how spending $454 million (or $508 million) to save $50 million over 10 years makes sense. Perhaps CTA means versus spending $500 million over 10 years without the change? However, the next change in technology might be here well before those 10 years pass.


  • Contactless fare payment is great mainly because it helps speed trips for bus passengers, who won’t have to wait nearly as long while other passengers are paying their fares. If adoption is widespread, the bus network should see significant, systemwide performance gains. That’s what makes something like this worth the money.

    It’s also another reason why it’s unfortunate that CTA has larded this important new technology with pointless features like the optional pre-paid debit card, which has nothing to do with the experience of riding transit.

  • Greg

    The charge for non-use is the one that makes the least amount of sense to me. Is this for the supposed load on the database, or just a way to soak out-of-towners? In contrast to this, I bought an Oyster card to use in London in 2007 and it still had a couple of pounds on it when I used it again last fall.

  • BlueFairlane

    Hear! Hear!

    My preferred method of paying for CTA mirrors yours. My use is sporadic enough that it never justified going to the effort of getting a Chicago Card (and no employer ever offered me a benefit), and I often don’t ride often enough to get my money’s worth when buying the various passes, so I just keep the little plastic cards and reload them over the course of their life span. I never saw this as CTA gouging me (though sometimes I’d misplace a card with two or three bucks on it, that was my fault, not some pointless fee.) It was a simple system that required absolutely no thought or planning. Nothing asked me to register anywhere, I was never required to log into anything, and it was impossible for somebody with some electronic card-moocher gizmo or a hacker someplace or a computer screw-up of the nature you hear about every six months or so from I-pass to steal my money. This system is what mirrors the retail experience, at least in my world. I would pay the amount required for a service, and that service would be provided for me.

    I really only see three advantages for the people of Chicago for the Venti Mocha System: 1.) It allows the technorati to point to something they think is cool even as they ignore the inevitable glitches, 2.) It allows the possibility of some increase in efficiency in boarding buses, which will add up to something less than 3 minutes for a half-hour ride, convincing the technorati they’ve saved something, and 3.) It helps us delay a fare hike a year or two by funneling money into the CTA coffers in the form of hidden fees from the poor. And while a half-mil annually isn’t something to sneeze at, I’m more than a little troubled at the skeevy way they’re doing it, and I’m sure based on 10 years of living in this city that there’s still some hidden second shoe waiting to fall I haven’t heard about yet. I honestly haven’t figured out how I’m going to respond to this thing, but I’m more than a little tempted to cough up the extra money it’d take to drive.

  • Anonymous

    I had posted in Steven’s last thread asking about security, and a case occurred to me the other night.

    So, I don’t have to make it a debit card, I understand that. But let’s say I’ve got a Ventra set up as purely a transit card. And let’s say I’ve got it auto-recharging, exactly the same way the ChicagoCard works.

    How difficult will it be to add the MasterCard? Say someone digtitally pickpockets me on the L. They then reproduce the card. How much social engineering will be necessary for them to call Ventra and say “Oh, you’ve got my bank info, let’s just make this a MasterCard now, charge it up.”

    Because without a huge firewall, that seems to me to be a risk, and it’s a risk that’s being taken so the CTA can get more money in fees. Not a valid trade to me, that’s for sure.

  • Anchorage

    “And why $5? The least CTA could do would be to make it evenly divisible by a fare, e.g. $2.25 or $4.50.”

    I’m sure you realize that a “fare” can range anywhere from $1.75 to $5.25.
    Yes, if all you ever ride is a one-way trip with no transfer on the ‘L’ then it is $2.25.
    If you take a Pace bus it is $1.75. If you take a CTA bus with no transfer, it is $2.00. If you take an L train plus a bus transfer, it is $2.50; going the opposite way (a bus followed by a train), it is $2.25, If you board at O’Hare it is $5. If you board at O’Hare and transfer to a bus, it is $5.25.

    No way you are going to make everybody happy with this. If you made it some odd amount like $4.50, somebody is going to be whining “why do I have to carry around four singles and two quarters?” If all you ever pay are $2.25 fares, then put $6.75 into the machine instead of $5 and you’ll have enough for three fares.

  • Anchorage

    Yes, you will have to go through the one-time hassle of buying a Ventra card. The physical process of buying the card will be identical to the physical process of buying one of those “little plastic cards” (I assume you mean Transit Cards): You put money into a machine and press “buy card” and a card pops out.

    Then, if you want your $5 fee back, you will have to phone or go online to register. No question this is a new hassle. Thankfully it only has to be done one time, though. And if you really hate doing it, you can skip this step and let the CTA keep your $5.

    From this point forward, if you don’t want to use any of the new features, everything works exactly like it did with the little plastic card. Instead of reloading the little plastic card everyday, reload the Ventra card everyday. Or if you just stuck a $10 bill in the machine when the balance on your little plastic card ran low, stick a $10 bill in the machine when the balance on your Ventra card runs low.

    If you don’t need any of the new features of the Ventra card, everything will work exactly the same as it does with your little plastic card, except the card will be sturdier and you might want to go through the one-time hassle of registering.

    Now, the real question to me is: Was this all worth spending half a billion dollars to install? I know the state legislature decided to micromanage transit fare collection and impose an unfunded mandate on the CTA, but was it really necessary to spend that much to fulfill the requirements?

  • Well, anyone with good social engineering skills can steal your identity from a credit card now. But like the Chicago Card Plus, and unlike a credit card, the non-debit Ventra card won’t have any identifying information on it. So, even if whomever you called would let you upgrade to a debit card without verifying your identity, the card itself doesn’t magically change. A new debit card would need to be mailed out, to the original cardholder’s address. Therefore, I don’t think your scenario is realistic.

  • You say that, “I often don’t ride often enough to get my money’s worth when buying the
    various passes, so I just keep the little plastic cards and reload them
    over the course of their life span.”

    Then you’re missing out on savings now. If you had a Chicago Card or Chicago Card Plus, you would already be saving money, regardless of how frequently you use it. And you would get the same savings from the Ventra card.

    Also, I’m not sure what “computer screw-up” affecting the I-Pass you’re referencing, but nobody has stolen anything from the Chicago Card Plus system. And I have no reason to believe that my information is at any more risk on the CTA’s website or servers than on the sites of dozens of other vendors with whom I’ve done online transactions. And I’m not a “technorati.” It’s not that it’s “cool” to handle transactions online, it’s simply that this is how things are done here in the 21st Century.

    Finally, from my experience, the delays in bus boarding from people fumbling around with cash or their paper transit cards adds up to a lot more than three minutes for a half-hour ride.

  • The O’Hare fare is delayed until July and may change before then.

    The Ventra card can be purchased with cash or debit/credit. With debit/credit, the exact change issue is no longer.

  • Good question. Maybe there’s a PIN or security code that is on the Ventra account that you make when you register it after purchasing a Ventra Card.

  • The #1 benefit of the Chicago Card/Plus for someone who uses transit sporadically is that it speeds boarding, for the cardholder and for everyone else.

  • I haven’t figured that one out yet.

  • I was going to disagree with you about micromanaging fare collection via legislation and I made sure to re-read what it says. It does say exactly that the RTA must develop a regional fare payment system that accepts contactless credit, debit, and prepaid cards, with the deadline being January 1, 2015.

    I think this was the right thing to do, though, even if it was only necessary to get Metra to stop dragging its butt through this mud we call technology. They still aren’t on board with Ventra or anything like it. They thing they’re testing (or at least said last year they would test) – barcodes on smartphones – wouldn’t satisfy the contactless card requirement of the legislation.

  • Lynn Stevens

    On the train, Chicago Card/Plus does not save any money. That’s why I stopped using mine.

  • Anchorage

    Riders who use full-fare Transit Cards are paying the $5 O’Hare fare today. The delay applied only to riders using Chicago Card or Chicago Card Plus.

    So many comments I’ve read on this and other boards indicate that people are afraid to use their credit/debit cards with the CTA. I am just going with that regardless of my own personal payment preference.

  • Lynn Stevens

    Fair enough re: various fares, but at least charge what it costs, which is somewhere south of $2.60, nothing more.

  • Anchorage

    Keep in mind that the current Transit Card expires 15 months after it is issued (not after it was last used). At 15 months and 1 day, you lose everything that’s left on the card.

    The Ventra card will start to charge a $5 fee 18 months after its last use of any kind (not after its issue date). That’s an improvement.

    The Chicago Card, however, expires 4 years after issuance. So the Ventra card will not be an improvement if you don’t use it at least once every 18 months. Hint: You can keep it active by going online and adding $.05 (or whatever the minimum purchase is) to it periodically.

    I realize that just because it is an improvement over the Transit Card doesn’t mean it is justifiable.

  • Lynn Stevens

    I haven’t had any computer screw-ups with the Chicago Card Plus, but I definitely have with the I-Pass. It took hours and hours of my time to fix it. It remains to be seen how this new vendor can manage.

  • You get a discount from the cash rate every time the Chicago Card Plus debits your credit card. That discount applies whether you ride the train or the bus.

  • Quinn Yost

    How would 815 ILCS 505/2SS apply to the transit cards? By my reading, the transit cards would be functionally equivalent to a gift card and aren’t an excluded category.

  • Anchorage

    No, sorry Dan. It used to be that you got a $2 bonus every time you added $20 to your Chicago Card or Chicago Card Plus. That bonus was discontinued on Jan 1, 2009. The only current discounts you get are that bus fare is $2.25 if paid in cash, but $2 if paid by Transit Card, Chicago Card, or Chicago Card Plus. Train station turnstiles do not accept cash. The fare of $2.25 is deducted from your TC, CC, or CCP when entering a train station.

    Of course, if you use a rewards credit card to fund your CCP account, you get whatever reward your credit card issuer gives you. But you get no discount from the CTA.

  • ian

    Passengers already have the option to buy contactless cards (Chicago Card) or pay with cash. Why is Ventra going to change anything?

  • Anchorage

    “For purposes of this Act, the term “gift certificate” does not include any of the following:

    (iii) any gift certificate usable with multiple sellers of goods or services.”

    The Transit Card is usable with both Pace and CTA. The debit card portion of the Ventra card is usable at any seller that accepts Mastercard.

  • Cubic, which manufacturers the Chicago Card/Plus, and is the vendor for Ventra, ceased production of that card, for Chicago and for Washington, D.C. and possibly for any other city that uses the same contactless card specification. This is one reason something new is needed.

    And Ventra is not simply a replacement for Chicago Card/Plus, which was optional and had low use (even though it was free for the longest time). Ventra is basically Chicago Card/Plus for EVERYONE.

  • The discount used to be $1 per $10 loaded, then CTA switched to $2 per $20 loaded. Then discontinued it.

  • Ah, thanks, I stand corrected. I think I knew that they discontinued the discount, but I guess I forgot. Although I never saw a need to drop the CCP when the discount ended.

    I’ll maintain, though, that the CCP still saves me money over repeatedly buying paper cards and either losing or forgetting them.

    But the main advantage is convenience. I don’t have to worry about having cash to board the bus or train, or even to recharge the card. It just all happens automagically. So much so that I forget whether I’m getting a discount or not, apparently.

    Of course, being able to pay for transit directly with a chipped credit card, in any city in the world, would be the most convenient option of all. That’s the direction things are going, and if Ventra facilitates that, all the better.

  • Quinn Yost

    I was looking at them as RTA rather than individual entities. And only looking at the transit portion, not the activated debit side.

  • So the one thing that many people are forgetting is that there is a third option. If you have a credit/debit card today that has the contactless feature, you can use that to board the bus or train with no fee, no penalty, nothing. In the coffee shop, I suspect this isn’t the first cup of coffee that Man has bought in his life. How did he buy all the other cups of coffee he has drunk in the past? If Man doesn’t want to get a Ventra card he can look inside his wallet, see which of his existing cards already have the wave/volume symbol on it and tap that. Voila, coffee at $2.25.

    Use of one’s existing contactless card is a very easy solution for infrequent users. I know most (if not all) Chase cards come like this automatically.

  • Anchorage

    Yes, all Chase cards come with an RFID chip. Chase has been one of the leading advocates of RFID cards.

    Currently, none of my personal BofA, Citi, or Cap One cards have them. Maybe when they expire the replacements will have the chips, I don’t know. I had a PNC card that had an RFID chip, but then PNC sent out a letter saying they were dropping out of the program and future cards would not have them. I closed the account (for other reasons), so I don’t know if they followed through.

    Note also that in any case, this would apply only to US-issued cards. Foreign cards do not have an RFID chip compatible with the US system. They use what is called a PIN and Chip system (with which US cards are not compatible). (Don’t worry, the magnetic stripes are compatible although some travelers have reported hassles at European train station ticket machines, for example, that are set up for PIN and Chip only.)

    I mention this because foreign travelers often seem more anxious to take public transit around the city than American tourists are. I am still not sure what kind of advice I will be giving them about paying for transit under the new regime.

  • Lynn Stevens

    That’s why I made a point to note in my analogy that the coffee-drinker didn’t have a RFID chipped card. I suspect :) he likewise bought his previous cups of coffee with a debit/credit card like many of us have — with no RFID chip. My most recent card acquired from a major issuer does not have an RFID chip, and CTA acknowledges it is ahead of the curve on this.

    Related, I have heard from a few that they are concerned about safety using a debit card for daily fares.

  • Lynn Stevens

    I don’t see a monthly $5 fee after 18 months as an improvement. If you only have a short balance on your card, $5/mo is onerous rather than beneficial. The Ventra system does seem to benefit those who use it regularly while penalizing infrequent users, which includes tourists who I think we want to encourage to use public transit.

    Sure there’s a work around, but if you’re not using the card frequently I think you’re less likely to be keeping track of your balance and taking the additional steps to add activity to the card.

  • Lynn Stevens

    I didn’t know Cubic was also in D.C. That worries me a bit as they’re having some issues there:

  • Anonymous

    Has that been made public? I don’t remember reading anywhere that there were two different cards. I had always seen that you could just have it with or without debit.

    Point is, with ChicagoCard, the only use was to steal fares. We’re now trusting a bank not to allow our cards to be used for more than just transit. I can see why the CTA might want the income, but I’m not sure that it really helps anyone else.

  • Shane MacPhee

    it’s not RFID. It’s NFC. And only chase credit cards come with it, my chase debit card does not.

  • jim

    My work colleagues had to buy 6 fare tickets with 10 bucks on each one. So out of ohare it was 5 bucks. We were in city the next day and tried to use remaining 5 dollars on card for a bus ride. We were told money on them expired. There is a 24 hour window the money can be on the card. It is stealing, plain and simple.

  • Erika

    it is RFID, my chase debit card has it, and i was just charged today.


Logan Square NIMBYs Don’t Understand the Value of Housing Density

There must be something in the water along Milwaukee Avenue, since lately Logan Square NIMBYs have been giving their Jefferson Park counterparts a run for their money. Exhibit A is an unintentionally hilarious flyer protesting plans for transit-oriented development in Logan, circulated by the local group Save Our Boulevards. As reported by DNAinfo, the handout, […]