CTA Will Begin Off-Board Fare Collection Pilot, But Not on the Loop Link

Photo: Cragin Spring
Starting Monday, the CTA will test collecting fares on the sidewalk for the westbound 77-Belmont at the Blue Line station, so boarding the bus takes less time during rush hour. Photo: Cragin Spring

The Chicago Transit Authority plans to test off-board fare collection – where riders pay on the sidewalk before boarding the bus – in an unexpected location. Previously, the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation announced they would pilot prepaid fare collection at the Dearborn/Madison station on Loop Link. Instead, the first off-board fare collection will be tested in Avondale on the northwest side.

Flyers posted yesterday at the Belmont Blue Line station, on buses, and shared on Twitter, told riders that the Chicago Transit Authority is going to test a new boarding procedure for the westbound 77 Belmont bus at the station.

Starting Monday, June 6, riders heading west during the 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. rush hour from the subway station will pay and enter a “paid area” before waiting and boarding the next bus. The CTA will set up a mobile fare collector at the entrance to a designated and sheltered “paid area.”

In other U.S. cities with off-board fare collection for buses, there is no “paid waiting area.” To ride a Select Bus Service route in New York City, riders exchange their fare for a receipt at a special vending machine. If a fare inspector comes, you must show the receipt.

Muni, the bus and light rail operator in San Francisco, implemented all-door boarding in 2012, which requires those who enter the rear door to tap a Ventra-like card at a card reader in the back of the bus, or have a valid pass. Fare inspectors may ask you to show the pass, a transfer receipt, or check your card to see that you checked in to the bus.

The pilot will last for six months. The CTA said in a statement that “prepaid boarding is expected to provide customers with faster boarding and reduce bus delays that occur from the high volume of customers.”

Many outbound Blue Line riders who get off at the Belmont station transfer to the Belmont bus, and after each train stops, a crowd of people walk up to the westbound or eastbound waiting areas at the same time and form long queues.

CTA’s press release also said “current boarding times during evening peak periods can take as long as 5 minutes due to heavy ridership” and since buses come every four to five minutes during rush hour, the slow boarding process sometimes results in bus bunching and trip delays. 

CTA will install a new vending machine on the sidewalk so riders can add value or passes to their Ventra cards, or buy a new Ventra card. People who would have paid with cash onboard the bus can ask a CTA customer assistant for a special paper ticket. Spokeswoman Tammy Chase said riders can take the paper ticket to the vending machine, load $2 onto it, and reload it at any ‘L’ station.

Normally, paying cash at a vending machine costs $3, which prints a chip-enabled paper Ventra ticket that has enough fare for a bus ride and two transfers, or a train ride and one transfer, as well as a 50 cents fee. This fee-free ticket, Chase said, ensures that cash-paying customers are also able to take part in the pilot.

This is a good start, but the CTA should increase the sample size for testing. Testing on Loop Link, where multiple bus routes converge onto dedicated bus lanes, should have begun soon after the stations opened in December. CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey said that they are “continuing to work closely with CTA to implement a prepaid boarding pilot on Loop Link this year.”

Updated to add comparison to NYC and SF, and why CTA will give cash-paying customers a fee-free Ventra ticket. 

  • FlamingoFresh

    I like the concept of trying to expedite the boarding process by collecting the fare beforehand. I hope this works (in some form) so that users can experience even shorter travel times. I assume this pilot program in Avondale will be used to observe any early on unforeseen kinks that can be mitigated with minimal effort and then they expand the pilot to the Loop Link hoping to avoid those initial problems.

  • Cameron Puetz

    I think this is a good location for a test. It’s enough traffic to really test the system and find the problems, but a relatively easy place to start, so the problems should be easier to fix quickly. The El station gives them room to try different staging set ups, and since it’s a single bus route there’s less potential for problems to cascade. With the failed Ventra rollout still fresh in people’s minds I understand the CTA’s caution making any fare collection changes.

  • Off-Board fare collection is where Metra-style ticket verification will really come in handy.

  • This is a weird set up. I updated the text to describe how two other cities in the United States handle off-board fare collection (San Francisco has a kind of hybrid, by allowing people to board through any door).

    CTA is essentially setting up a turnstile system for a single bus route. On the Loop Link, however, there are multiple bus routes, and many more stations – this might make a test between the Belmont and Loop Link routes have few similarities.

    Will CTA implement a “turnstile system” on Loop Link, or will they have people work as fare inspectors and randomly check fares?

  • Toronto used paid/free transfer waiting areas at subway/bus transfers. That seems to be the closest comparison.

  • You need a picture showing the set up – I am at this stop almost every day, and it is infuriating in its self-inflicted misery. To wit – people queue for the buses in a single file line that wraps around the station in multiple directions. Your image hints at that, but it’s often much, much worse, it’s as far from orderly in the larger sense as I can imagine, as the queue blocks the sidewalk for pedestrians and also the exit from the subway itself.

    What the station desperately needs is a second ADA-accessible entrance and to get rid of the pointless system of having the westbound Belmont bus pull into the station in the first place. Oh, and actually ticket the private drivers who use it as a valet loading zone as well.

  • david vartanoff

    One hopes this is well implemented, because dwell at bus stops while riders one by one pay fares is a huge waste of travel time. Rear door card readers as SF Muni has deployed would be useful outside rush hour at minimal cost.

  • In a perfect world…the westbound right-turn lane in front of the clothing store across the street would be removed, and a staircase would be built to access the mezzanine.

    I always thought it was orderly. It at least appears that way! But yeah, a winding queue can block a lot.

  • Do you have a photo?

  • Precisely – Chicago has (surprise!) prioritized motorists getting to the expressway 5 seconds faster over pedestrian life and limb.

    And I guess I can’t say the queue isn’t orderly, it’s simply the wrong kind of order. At every bus stop outside of Belmont & Logan, people board using the zipper method, which does a much better job of keeping sidewalk space free for passersby.

  • This photo demonstrates the concept reasonably well. Fare control is in the surface building. Pedestrians and non-transit vehicles are prohibited from the bus loop (do not enter and no walking signs shown).


    The design was from the days of fare tokens, where to ensure a free transfer between the subway and feeder buses, a shared fare control area was required.

  • what_eva

    That the right turn lane could be removed and the right through lane turned into a right turn lane. There’s a pinch down to a single westbound lane just west of Kimball already.

    Another thought would be to put it on the opposite corner by the gas station and have the bus stop be far side. I guess I don’t have a good picture in my head where the station is underground to know what’s feasible.

  • what_eva

    Metra doesn’t do ticket verification, they do ticket collection. A conductor checks every single person. Not feasible on the L. Fare inspection is the way to go but CTA won’t consider it at all.

  • I’m thinking of a system where the driver verifies passengers via the Ventra app using something Metra-like (touch the screen, the colors change so you’re not defrauding the CTA).

    The fallback is some sort of a paper receipt for people without smartphones.

    Either should be faster than cash fares or contactless card, but probably not as fast as fare inspection.

  • what_eva

    I don’t think CTA has ever stated they’re considering fare inspectors. I’ve read their Loop Link press to indicate a turnstile system. That would make the Belmont test similar, since it doesn’t matter what bus you get on once you’ve paid to get into the station.

    The problem many have pointed out is how do you stop people from simply walking around the fare gate and hopping onto the platform? It happens on the L already, but it’s much riskier/scarier to go on tracks to a higher platform, vs walking in the street a few yards or just jaywalking to the station.

  • what_eva

    That’s not going to be all that much faster than Ventra when it’s working well (tap with positive response within a second or so) and puts a much greater burden on the driver.

  • What’s the zipper method?

  • The pedestrian version of this:


    This has been standard CTA boarding etiquette my whole life, bus and train.

  • Unsurprisingly, a complete disaster. This probably actually violates fire codes in terms of keeping their only exit unobstructed. Oy vey!

  • ardecila

    Are you saying the pilot has started already? The press release said it’s not supposed to start until Monday…

    I honestly like the bus turnaround, it offers the potential for a much more gracious transfer from bus to train like the Toronto example. It needs to be much better integrated with the intersection design and signal timing, though.

    A frontage road along the Kennedy between Belmont and Kimball would eliminate most of the problems with turning movements at this intersection… or shift them to Belmont/Kedzie instead, which is still a boon for CTA users.

  • Hmm, I thought I heard people and a conductor discussing it in real time, but perhaps they were just gawking at the signs. Really, it doesn’t matter as the problem is pre-existing and has nothing to do with boarding times, the problem is physics and the fact that CTA wants to keep squeezing more round prgs into square holes. it is a disaster exiting that station and formalizing the cause is a step in the wrong direction.

    A frontage road doesn’t address the problem with the bus wreaking havoc on 4 different directions of traffic. It first stops up a lane of Belmont to make the turn, then often blocks the eastbound lanes trying to execute the turn, then blocks Kimball northbound as it tries to get 3 lanes over to turn back west, and often jams up southbound Kimball trying to make that tight turn. It ia beyond ridiculous – Kimball backs up 2 blocks on the weeks to the south, and frustrated drivers routinely blow down out alley and/or blow stop signs on Barry.

    There is certainly a modest benefit for the westbound riders, but it’s at the expense of everyone else in the neighborhood, pedestrians and cyclists moreso than anyone. That is not all right. This station is one of the busiest in Chicago – it warrants a second entrance.

  • I don’t understand why it hasn’t occurred to highway departments to “force” a zipper merge. It would be done by not closing one lane or the other but “closing” both lanes and moving traffic into a single “new” lane that straddles the two half and half. They then announce the zipper. Cars then begin to align themselves for the zipper and then do it when the white middle line disappears. Then after the zipper the now single lane is moved left or right as needed.

    I suppose anxious stupid drivers would then form a single line down the mid-lane stripe.

  • My solution for off board fare collection is to take two, more or less standard, L turnstiles and form them into a 90 degree V in front of where the bus door will be. The open end of the V is closest to the door and riders enter through the legs of the V. No one goes through either turnstile until the bus arrives. When they do then they Zipper onto the bus after paying alternately at one of either of the two turnstiles. (See Carter Obrien this thread for Zipper description).

    Here’s why I think that is all that is needed. First reason is that a fixed Ventra reader like in the L stations reads cards two to three times faster than an on-bus reader. Two readers going at once can likely process people faster than they can get into one door.

    Both the driver and the people around the turnstiles can discourage cheaters.

  • Like so:

  • Yes, but they have cameras to penalize anyone walking up the bus ramp at, say, Young and Eglinton. None of our bus/train transfer spots are anywhere near closed off enough to enforce that.

  • This is what happens after toll plazas — no lane markers at all, then a center one in a big multilane expanse, then a few more gradually added. It can be a massive shitshow, especially if there was a big stop-and-go wait into the toll plaza and, therefore, a decompression-caused big open space afterwards. People deciding wherever they’re driving is a lane and refusing to yield to anyone else even when they’re inches off your fender.

    Also, around here, the norm is that anyone going down to the end of the lane and trying to zipper-merge is a horrible selfish cheater, and nobody lets them in.

  • Yeah, I think I noticed the wide open space past the toll that slowly turned into lanes last time I was out that way.

    As for the long empty lane zipper, well that is why I think DOTs should force a center merge before telling anyone which lane is going away. Drivers in both lanes now think the others are wrong.

    I’m living with two interesting merge situations now. The permanent one is Wacker drive north onto LSD just north of the bridge. Psychologically it is really interesting. The entrance lane goes from officially two lanes to one before the merge with LSD from the left. Amazingly it all tends to work out. Cars coming off the LSD bridge tend to watch out and let you in. Partly it is because the lanes are all curving left and the LSD lane is above and coming down with the better sight lines. But when it gets congested the trick when merging up is to hug the left retaining wall. Since you have no where to go leftwise the LSD drivers are pretty much stuck letting you in at the very end.

    Where it gets fun is when the two merging lanes don’t merge with each other fist but carry themselves right up into the LSD lane and a forced three way merge happens. It’s fun to take the middle position and not merge (either left or right depending) until there is no longer an option but to merge.

    My other big merge currently is on the westbound lower Wacker where they are building the River Walk. There I have discovered an interesting quirk in how merging is thought of generally by drivers. It goes like this:

    I, of course, wait again until there is no choice but to merge. I ride right up to the cones. It is an into the left lane merge. Until I merge I stay as far to the right as possible. What most people do who know they need to merge left is to begin to get closer and closer to the cars on the left. That, of course, is a somewhat threatening move. And people react defensively to it by closing up the space between them and the next car, taking away your Zipper space. But when I do the opposite, create more space between me and the cars in the lane to be merged into, I often find that they begin to fall back as if to signal their generosity to let me in. Sometimes they fall back so far that two of us in my lane zipper in instead of just one, me.

  • I can’t imagine any outcome from center merges on, say, the Kennedy except catastrophic high-speed crashes several times a month.

    This is something no driver expects to happen, and another car coming unexpectedly into its lane (and let’s face it, a minority of Chicago drivers bother to turn-signal a merge at all) leads to loud honking and sudden braking, neither of which will end well at 75mph on a fairly full highway.

    Even copious signs leading up to it and possibly very-painted pavement wouldn’t, I think, do much for driver training about this new custom.

  • what_eva

    There’s already a center merge on the Kennedy at the Edens junction where it goes from 6 lanes (3 each Kennedy and Edens) to 5 lanes.

  • Yeah, and it causes a permanent standing wave of congestion, even when the highways are relatively lightly populated.

  • what_eva

    you said “catastrophic high-speed crashes several times a month”, that’s quite a bit worse than “permanent standing wave of congestion”, wouldn’t you say?


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