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

  • Anne A

    I expect to be getting my Ventra card soon, as a replacement for my Chicago Card Plus. Hopefully the experience will be smooth and easy.

    I appreciate the fact that my friends in wheelchairs can use Ventra, ATM and other machines designed for ADA accessibility. However, as someone over 6′ tall, I find many such machines frustrating to use, because it’s often difficult to clearly and accurately read the screens without crouching down. Once in a while, I encounter a machine that’s so well designed that it works well for people of just about any height. I really appreciate those and hope that the Ventra folks can improve this part of the user experience in the future.

  • Steven

    Boston’s Charlie Card machines are touchscreens, so I’m not sure what ADA issue Cubic is referencing.

  • Do those machines also have touch screens?

  • Anonymous

    I miss tokens.

  • bartm

    Are you asking whether the machines that “are touchscreens” also have “touch screens”? Is there a difference between touchscreens and touch screens?

  • bartm

    I would just like to get the word out that while you can use “touchless” (NFC) credit/debit cards and Google Wallet equipped phones directly at the card readers without registering starting 9/9, if you choose to do so you will NOT get any transfers. You will be charged a full fare each time you tap your card or phone,

    To get a transfer, you must register your card or phone first. This creates a Ventra Account. You must then deposit sufficient funds (“transit value”) into your Ventra Account in advance to pay for your fare AND the transfer. And if you are a little short, you will not be able to throw money into a bus fare box to make up the difference.

    Be warned.

  • KevinG

    I suspect (without knowing) that the Cubis employee was referring to the height of the screen which causes the buttons to not line up for taller people.

    My understanding of the ADA (again, could be wrong) is that the buttons need to be there as an option, but a touch screen in addition to the buttons would work as well. It’s possible the lack of touch screen is for cost saving or reliability reasons.

  • He was answering my question directly about touch screens. We didn’t discuss the machines that are available that offer touch screens and buttons.

    I believe that a large majority of Ventra customers will, within 3 years, use online methods to add value, or use in-store methods at one of the 2,000 plus pads around the city installed in stores.

  • I’m asking if the Charlie Card vending machines also have a screen that responds to touch in addition to having buttons.

  • There’s a time machine out in Union, Illinois.

  • Anonymous

    I’d appreciate some clarification about using an NFC phone. I was told by Ventra customer support that NFC phones are not yet supported. Are you saying I can activate my phone at a Ventra machine, and then register it later online? Can I add passes to that account?

  • bartm

    Ventra tweeted that NFC phones will be supported starting 9/9. I have not seen this confirmed elsewhere. If you haven’t asked recently, ask again and please let us know what they say.

    I am not 100% sure of the sequence, but my impression is that you should register it first, add value, and then use it.

    Yes, you will be able to add passes once you have registered it. In effect, your phone will work as sort of a user-provided Ventra Card. It will be used to access your Ventra Account much like an ATM card is used to access your checking account.

    If you choose not to pre-register it and add passes or cash (“transit value”) to a Ventra Account, you can still use it to access your Google Wallet, but you won’t be able to add passes or get any transfers.

  • Kelly Pierce

    I am so sick of
    people, like the Cubic representative, blaming The ADA for poor interface
    design. The ADA requires in section 707 ATM
    and fare machines to be able to be used by blind people so controls are not
    activated just by touching them.
    Specifically, Section 707.3 Operable Parts calls
    for “Operable parts shall comply with 309. Unless a clear or correct key is
    provided, each operable part shall be able to be differentiated by sound or
    touch, without activation.” In the ATM
    space, all the manufacturers have interpreted this to mean that the audio
    interface is mapped to the numeric keypad.
    For example, ATMs at Chase and Bank of America are touch screen, fully
    ADA compliant, and have talking functionality.
    Cubic is apparently working hard to downshift the public’s expectations
    for their mediocre interface and deflect responsibility.

  • Jason

    It’s a vending machine to reload a fare card. Let it go. Cubic is a business that was awarded a contract to operate the system with no start up cost for the CTA. Is it perfect? No. Is it better than the current vending machines? Yes. If you don’t like the buttons on the physical machine that you will rarely use for 30 seconds at a time to load money, use the website to load it.

  • duece19

    This is a very, very bad idea. One of the great thing about the magnetic cards is that you could tell EXACTLY when they expire. Not with this dumb card that’s coming out. There they go again, fixing something that wasn’t broke.


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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 […]