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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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