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.

The report said that some organizations have waited up to two months to receive their bulk orders. Before Ventra, the CTA sold one-day and multi-day passes at its headquarters and retail stores including Walgreens, with no fee. To order these same tickets in bulk, bypassing the vending machine queue, one must use a printed form, purchase a minimum of 10 tickets, and pay a 50 cents fee for every ticket but the one-day pass.

Pauline Sylvain-Lewis, the director of the Center for Working Families at the North Lawndale Employment Network, said the Ventra issues mostly affect her organization, but that “it affects the client in terms of waiting time.” Because of the variation in waiting time to receive the disposable tickets, sometimes her planning ahead wasn’t good enough. Two to three weeks after mailing in the check, Sylvain-Lewis said, the tickets still didn’t arrive. “So then our client was waiting for us,” she said, “and we had to go to the train station to get the card for them.”

The CTA only accepts checks for bulk orders but takes credit cards for every other kind of ticket sale, including at vending machines and for employer-administered accounts. Even at vending machines, staffers can only buy eight tickets per transaction, and credit cards are blocked after seven transactions, the report said. The report said the CTA missed several deadlines in launching online bulk ordering.

The Chicago Jobs Council recommends that Ventra make several changes to reduce costs and administrative burdens. The first being to waive the 50 cents fee for “social service providers who receive funding from city and county agencies.” Other recommendations include making bulk orders available online, payable by credit card, and delivered within two weeks with a tracking number. The report also suggests giving service providers the option to disable the negative balance function on cards, which would using cards slightly more preferable.

Sylvain-Lewis said they’ve applied to get a Ventra value-adding device, so they can add cash value or passes to their cards directly that NLEN will purchase. At that point the organization will hold classes to teach clients how to register their cards and reclaim the $5 card purchase fee. “The ability to replace a [registered] card is the positive thing about Ventra,” she said. The classes to promote and teach Ventra card registration are not something every organization would be equipped for because they would need a computer classroom.

“I think ultimately it’s going to go good, but I don’t think CTA and Ventra spent enough time researching and speaking to non-profits to roll the (Ventra) plan out,” Sylvain-Lewis said, adding, “I think there should have been more conversations with the people who buy CTA fares about the impact of switching to Ventra.”

The CTA hadn’t responded to a request for comment by publication.

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  • Chicagoan

    My wife used to work at a non-profit in Humboldt Park and they had to deal with this quite often.

    Nice post, Steven!

  • N S K R D

    One quibble: CTA did not switch from magnetic stripe cards to Ventra. It switched from the contactless smart card “Chicago Card”. It was easier to understand and use, and it provided much faster boarding than Ventra.

  • Deni

    The magnetic stripe cards were still in use at the time of the change, even though many people used the Chicago Cards. Riders were not forced to switch to the Chicago Card and I believe the magnetic stripe cards were still more widely used than the Chicago Cards at the time of the switch to Ventra (I could be wrong about that).

    But yes, the Chicago Cards worked much better than Ventra, in my experience.

  • Deni

    I concur with the “nice post Steven” comment. One of the things overlooked in the change to the awful Ventra cards has been the cost to these types of organizations. My wife does medical research with human volunteers and one of the things they have always offered is transit cards for getting to and from the clinic, I know it has been a huge headache for them to deal with the change.

  • BlueFairlane

    I moved to the city many years before the Ventra switch, and I never had a Chicago Card. I was using the magnetic stripes until the last possible minute before CTA forced me to spend five bucks I never got back on a Ventra card.

  • JacobEPeters

    Magnetic stripe disposable cards were definitely were more widely used at the time of launch than the Chicago Card. Additionally, the Chicago Card technology needed to be replaced because the tech it relied on was no longer being produced & was not “future compatible”.

    I had to answer these questions & dispel these myths on a regular basis when I worked for the CTA helping riders troubleshoot the issues that arose from how the technology provider handled the many facets of the transition.

    As part of our feedback from outreach to social service agencies, we stressed that there needed to be specific processes set up to allow the upgrade in technology to pay off in improved efficiency for not for profits. It is really disheartening that there doesn’t seem to have been any progress in the years since we gave that feedback.

  • JacobEPeters

    Why did you never get the five bucks back? As long as you registered it came back to the card as transit value.

  • ardecila

    The CTA probably should do more to help charitable organizations, I agree with that.

    But the structure of the Ventra deal essentially allows CTA to keep base fares lower by shifting the cost of fare collection and money handling to Cubic, which is then funded by fees.

    Without the Ventra deal, it’s likely that fares would be at least somewhat higher to cover the CTA’s overhead of fare collection. Higher fares would also reduce the number of free rides that charities can afford to give out, while also burdening low-income folks generally. At least under the current system, charities can avoid most fees with single-use tickets if they plan carefully.

  • Jeremy

    Similar reasons were given for why the city needed to lease out the parking meters. Cubic would not have bid on the contract if it wasn’t making a lot of money on the deal. Instead of that money going to the CTA, it is now going to a corporation that isn’t even based in Chicago.

  • BlueFairlane

    Oh, that was a personal choice. The annoyance of registering the thing exceeded the annoyance of losing five bucks, so I chose the lesser of two grumbles.

  • Chicagoan

    The CTA didn’t force you to spend five bucks you never got back, you didn’t register your card.

    I know we love crapping on the CTA, but the Ventra card is free if you register the thing.

    I really like Ventra and I really like the Ventra app.

  • Chicagoan

    Do people in London hate their Oyster cards like most Chicagoans hate their Ventra cards?

    Both are made by Cubic Transportation Systems.

  • BlueFairlane

    I get a kick out of how quickly some people take offense at my resistance to bureaucratic hoops I feel are unnecessary.

    I don’t believe I crapped on the CTA, though I’m sure they value your strong defense.

  • kclo3

    As far as newer, complex open payment systems go, Cubic has generally done a worse job in North America (Vancouver Compass, Ventra) than elsewhere (Oyster, Sydney Opal). Generally, it’s the know-how and push for innovation from the host agency that determines the overall outcome when working with contractors, as they will only do as much as the technical specifications demand.

  • I disagree. The Chicago Card/Plus were a separate product from the magnetic stripe fare cards and Ventra combined the two kinds of products into a new one.

    The social service providers, when CTA offered magnetic stripe fare cards, paid $0 in fees and could obtain the cards in bulk on the same day (at the headquarters or retail stores).

  • The Ventra card was also free for anyone in the first year or so of Ventra.

    The only place that charges this much or more for a card is where I’m staying currently. The Dutch transit card costs 7.50€ unless you buy a subscription product, at which point it’s free. I bought an annual subscription to the national bike-share for 10€ and I didn’t have to pay for the card.

    Oddly, Chicago is the only place that doesn’t have reusable disposable tickets. Sevilla, Spain, charges 1€ for its paper chip ticket but you can reload it many times before it disintegrates.

  • Thanks!

  • Not every transit agency charges for a paper chip ticket but disallows reloading it like the CTA does. They could change that policy.

    Even if they “plan carefully” they are still devoting an inordinate amount of new/extra time administering transit benefits to their clients now than before.

  • I believe the Smart Chicago Collaborative would pay for transit fare to attend one of their Civic User Testing Group meetings, where people would come and be part of a focus group to test the quality of an app or service created here. I believe they stopped doing that because of the fees (they still pay attendees $20 with a prepaid debit card).

  • I would argue that the software and business rules set up in London (Oyster) are superior to Chicago (Ventra).

    One benefit Oyster offers: Daily cap. This means that if you take so many trips in a day that buying a 1-day pass would have made it cheaper for you, the system will buy you that 1-day pass and apply it retroactively. So you’re guaranteed to never pay more than a 1-day pass for the pay-per-ride trips you take.

    If you read to the end you’ll see that basically the daily cap is better (and easier to mentally process) than buying day passes (you don’t have to worry about zones).

  • Anne A

    I didn’t think that registering it was any significant hassle. I bought one for my dad and registered that as well. No big deal.

  • N S K R D

    Sure, it’s true that the mag stripe cards were in use til the onset of Ventra. I forgot about it because the RTA employee benefit program used by my employer moved to the Chicago Card years before, and I do not recall observing much mag stripe card use myself on my routes. It sounds like it was still prevalent though.

  • Anne A

    On many south side bus route, the mag stripe card was the main method of payment. I saw lots of people using it on the 95th St. bus. Hardly anyone was using Chicago Card there.

  • BlueFairlane

    It’s probably not that big a hassle. It’s probably about five bucks’ worth of hassle, I figure. But I also feel a little skeevy about the Big Data aspect of it, and I’d rather avoid that issue as much as possible.

  • On the west side, Chicago Card was far in the minority (a quarter or less of the uses I happened to see).

    And very, very commonly, a 3-day or 1-day or 5-day pass was left on a turnstile — if its user didn’t need to make any more trips that day, but knew there was still time or value left on it, they’d donate it to the populace at large.

    Also a lot of people taking mag-stripe refillable cards they’d found somewhere and running them through the balance-check swipe to see if they could get a ride out of them.

  • There is zero reason for Cubic not to (and much goodwill to be won) waive the per-card fees in bulk purchases by social service agencies and other nonprofits. Say, prefilled cards with what amounts to two fares on them, shrink-wrapped in sets of 50, for their face value or a few dollars more than that.

  • Computer access and an email address are far from universally simple to access, and many, MANY people in Chicago do not have credit cards, either, which makes many Ventra features deeply annoying.

  • You probably have a computer and internet access in your home (or your pocket).

  • They could easily have kept the user-data side of it and re-associated individual Chicago Card accounts with new Ventra-card identifying data. If they’d cared about user experience at all.

    Also, the Chicago Card was much easier to manage, especially if you have multiple in your family unit with a single person paying for them.

  • JacobEPeters

    That is essentially what happened for Chicago Cards, an account was created to mirror the Chicago Card, but the handling of the transition by Cubic was complicated & confusing. I helped hundreds of people navigate the website at events (hundreds others hadn’t even tried, just showed up angry because they had heard it was hard) & set up 99% of people in a matter of minutes on mobile devices with a hotspot I brought.

    The Chicago Card and Ventra are a difference of scale, if as many people were using the Chicago Card as are using Ventra the management would become equally onerous. Scaling up proved to be where the faults in Cubic’s implementation came in.

    I have my own opinions on how it could have been done differently, but Chicago Card had a similar error rate over a much smaller sample size, & everyone making it out to be perfect is as frustrating as seeing Ventra not live up to the potential that it offers.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The total cost of the base fare plus fees is what matters to the end user. Keeping the base fate artificially low and making up the revenue with fees isn’t actually keeping costs down. This is the same business modal that people complain about with airline ticket pricing. In this case the low base fare plus higher fees modal is shifting costs to lower income riders who are less able to structure their purchases to avoid fees.

  • Anne A

    Point taken. I do have easy internet access. I was thinking of the registration process itself, not getting online to do it.

    With that issue in the mix, I guess the question is, which is more signifcant: getting the $5 back and having your fare value be insured, or going to the public library (or whatever location works) for internet access to register? Your mileage may vary….

  • I’d be happy if the Ventra cards would just WORK when you swipe them. I never had one single problem with the Chicago Card Plus. It is now the norm that I have to swipe my Ventra card two or three times for it to read, and I am far from being in the minority (and I ride a half dozen different bus lines every week). In a systems sense, this isn’t a huge issue on the train as the train runs independent of any individual rider, but these little delays absolutely delay buses.

  • JacobEPeters

    I had plenty of times I had to multiple tap with the Chicago Card (I had to put in my mag stripe cards multiple times too on occasion). That being said for Ventra when I hold the card down on the reader until it says go, I very rarely have an issue. I see the most issued when people hold their card away from the reader, or tap just a corner, or tap & pull away quickly.

    For buses we just need to eliminate on board fare collection at busy stops & install actual bus stations, no matter the fare medium, on board collection delays service. We should be avoiding it whenever possible.

  • I’ll happily change my tune if you can show some actual data supporting Ventra vs. Chicago Card, but I suspect it doesn’t exist. And I see (or rather, hear) the problems with Ventra cards not functioning every day. I’d agree that perhaps some people aren’t holding the cards as long as they should, but that doesn’t really explain why my card (and others I’ve seen) routinely doesn’t work once or twice but then works the second or third time.

    If an education campaign is needed, that would be on the CTA. Admitting there’s a problem is the first step to finding a solution, and there is most definitely a problem.

  • JacobEPeters

    I was just giving my advice based on what I saw when I was part of a short lived education campaign. The Chicago Card error rates were just something that I experienced.

    There are always problems to address (heck Ventra was an attempt to address existing problems with dozens of different fare cards), and I wish some of the education campaigns we suggested were implemented. However, the structural issues w/ social service agencies & the inability to transfer to Metra are much bigger problems to rectify if we’re talking about getting more people on public transit.

  • Let’s not overlook the “Ventra will also function as a pre-paid debit card” fiasco. It was just another privatization scheme that saved money but resulted in a crappier product, nothing more, nothing less. Delaying the bus every day is a very large problem from where I stand. It gets to bus bunching, dissatisfied riders standing in the rain/freezing conditions waiting to board, etc. And I have very thick skin in this regard – I remember having to wait for bus drivers to count change dropped in those giant clear repositories.

    While I am sure you are completely correct regarding challenges with social service agencies and Metra, my wife works for CPS and was handed the Ventra rollout in the schools to manage. I can tell you first hand problems with Ventra are by no means limited to structural issues in the public sector. Terrible customer service resulting in bungled and delayed deliveries of the cards (meaning CPS had to spend extra), etc. were the norm.

  • JacobEPeters

    The pre-paid debit card could have been eliminated if the law requiring the development of Ventra had used better wording that’s for sure. It doesn’t help that Chase has been eliminating the technology that allowed visitors to use their existing bank card as a ventra card for loading 3 day & week passes (although the CTA did an atrocious job advertising this option).

    Ventra is still faster than the previous mag stripe cards that were used by a majority of CTA users (especially if you add in people who would didn’t have enough on their card so they would swipe the card & then have to put in change to complete their fare), but the best way to improve it would be to reduce on board fare collection. Because it is, and always will be the main non traffic related cause of bus bunching.

    What you describe with CPS is exactly what I was trying to get at. The problem is with how the private customer service is serving what should be a more holistic system. CPS for example should be given machines for reloading fares, and a steady shipment of cards. Cubic should be monitoring reduced fare use, not creating bottlenecks for supply to meet demand. It is supposed to be a freaking open system, but we have hemmed it in so much that it isn’t realizing its potential…sounds sadly familiar. I just count my blessings when I compare it to the long list of crap fare collection systems everywhere else in the country.

  • So was the Chicago Card Plus different? I can’t recall, I just know it worked flawlessly.

    Either way, I hear you in that even on its worst day Ventra is still by and large functional – it’s sort of similar to how a glitch with bar codes is easy to complain about, but remember life before bar codes? It could take an hour to check out of the Jewel.

    Oh, and Chase is possibly the root of all evil…

  • JacobEPeters

    CC/CC+ used a technology that was phased out of use in the late 2000s & the CTA contractor had basically stockpiled the remaining parts to keep the system running. For most it worked flawlessly, but it had a very limited scope of what it could do. Which meant it wasn’t possible to build the new “universal fare system” off of that.

    The sad thing is that for all the wide applications that are possible for the technology Ventra uses we are using a tiny little slice of what is possible. I mean for example, you could have your transit balance available for loading a Divvy day pass or yearly pass. Then use your Ventra card as your fob, you can see the slots on Divvy docks that could allow this. This use would require registering your Ventra card w/ a credit card in case of replacing the Divvy bike. Or registered through a social service agency with which you were provided the Ventra Card as part of a suite of social services.

    That is just one of many applications where we’re not realising those “bar code” like efficiencies.

    I agree regarding Chase, originally you were supposed to be able to register your Chase Card as a Ventra Card & then transfer your balances from your old fare card. This just vanished one day from literature about Ventra. If you had been able to register your bank card then we never would have had the issues of people accidentally tapping their credit card & their Ventra card, because only one would be activated as a transit card.

    It’s all a matter of promising the farm & only delivering the barn, you’re still getting something significant, but expectations were raised too high.

  • Deni

    I’m definitely not down with having to choose between sharing your personal information (registering the card) or losing $5 because you value your privacy. No way do I register my cards, letting some company know my daily movements.

    Another thing stupid about Ventra is not having your balance display when you use your card, like it was with the Chicago Cards, and pretty much most other transit systems. Another way they try to get people to hook it to a credit card, so they don’t get surprised by no fare left. It’s hard to track when you have to go to a vending machine to check.

  • dave1305

    Or at your library.

  • dave1305

    You can give any address and make a new email on yahoo or the like. You only need the street address if you don’t have a card or loose it.

  • Libraries are surprisingly hard to access if you have the kind of hardships that are already preventing you from having internet access at home (or on your phone). Hours are short and weird, they’re not evenly distributed or necessarily easy to get to, etc.