Eyes on the Street: CTA Tests Prepaid Boarding on the Loop Link BRT System

Customers swiped their card at a portable Ventra reader before entering the waiting area. Photo: John Greenfield

Besides being the day Chicago was ranked the top biking city by bicycling magazine, September 19, 2016, may also go down in history as the day the Loop Link bus rapid transit system started getting faster. While the corridor, which debuted last December, seems to have been resulting in modest timesaving gains for bus riders, it’s been missing a key element of robust BRT: prepaid boarding. Today the CTA launched a test of this feature at the Madison/Dearborn station, the busiest of the Loop Link stops, and it appears to be working well.

The pilot only runs during the evening rush. Photo: John Greenfield

In June the CTA launched a six-month test of prepaid boarding for westbound #77 Belmont Avenue buses departing from the Belmont station of the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch during evening rush hours. Riders pay their fares at a portable Ventra card reader, staffed by a customer assistant, and waiting in a fenced-off bullpen until the westbound bus shows up.

The system at Madison/Dearborn was simpler to set up, since the raised station was already surrounded by railings, except for the side of the platform the bus pulls up to and the entrances to the ramps on the east and west sides of the facility. For the downtown prepaid boarding pilot, which will run for from 3:00-6:30 p.m. on weekdays, for a three-month period, CTA staffers are stationed at each side of the shelter with Ventra readers.

During the pilot hours, customers may only pay their fares with Ventra card or ticket, or personal credit or debit card, not cash. The CTA is encouraging customers at Madison/Dearborn who need to add transit value or unlimited ride passes to their Ventra account to do so at the Ventra machine inside the Walgreens directly behind the platform. Other options for adding value include ‘L’ stations and the Ventra app.

As you can see by comparing the two videos below (the first one was shot a few days after the December launch), prepaid boarding significantly shortens the bus “dwell” time at the station. With onboard fare payment, it took about 30 seconds for 11 passengers to get on the bus, but with today it took only about 15 seconds for ten customers to board – a roughly 50-percent timesavings.

The system didn’t work perfectly today. The CTA employees regularly had to call after customers who walked past them to tell them to swipe their cards. In one case, while a man was asking a customer assistant for transit directions, a woman unwittingly walked past her without paying, and the CA didn’t notice until a supervisor pointed it out.

Customers were not being directed to board through both doors of the bus, as is being done on Belmont. However, a CTA staffer said this may be done at Madison/Dearborn in the near future, if sufficient staff is available to direct some riders to the rear door of the bus.

And, presumably the transit agency doesn’t plan to have two staffers at each of the eight Loop Link stations in the long run, and prepaid boarding will be implemented 24/7, not just during the evening rush, so they’re going to have to figure out how to automate the system. But prepaid boarding seems to be off to a good start so far – hopefully it won’t be long until all of the BRT stops have this important feature.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Some advanced countries like Peru and Indonesia have specialized machines that scan passenger tickets before they get on the bus without need for human intervention. Maybe America can learn from them.

  • I’m confused. I understand its a pilot program and has a CTA employee now. But if put into practice would there always be a CTA employee during pre-pay? Or will they install a kiosk?
    It looks like the time-savings are about 1-2 seconds per passenger, I know the seconds add up though.
    I saw a video of BRT in Bogota Colombia, the buses pulled into more “securable” stations in the middle of busy streets.


  • Isolated, building-like stations have been explicitly ruled out for Loop Link stops, because the surrounding business owners don’t want their storefronts visually blocked.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Totally insane. They screwed up the system which was the best way for customers to get to their stores.

  • Many businesses in Chicago refuse to believe that public transit is a major source of customer trips. They prefer to see it as an obstacle to business success that eats up streetside real estate that should be free parking, and a cause of congestion that obstructs their customers.

  • kastigar

    Can you still mount a bike on the front of the bus after pre-pay?

  • Anne A

    Similarly, many businesses don’t believe that they can serve more customers arriving by bike than by car.

  • JacobEPeters

    I didn’t see any customers using the back doors for boarding, even though this would seemingly be allowed at prepaid bus stations. Is this just a matter of improving customer education? We could turn that 15 second dwell into 10 seconds or less.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Sure. Might slow down the boarding process a bit, but it’s allowed.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It’s not clear how PPB would be done in the long run, but it seems unlikely that would have staff at all the Loop Link bus stops 24/7. Situation is complicated by the fact that, unlike NYC’s Select service, which uses ticket kiosks, Loop Link buses are only running on the corridor for a small portion of their total route.

  • BlueFairlane

    I question whether you really could, as you wind up with congestion of people trying to get on vs. people trying to get off. That’s bad enough on el cars, which have wider doors. I think we’re better off if we can maintain a front-to-back flow with an “in” door and and “out” door.

  • JacobEPeters

    I have rarely been on a bus in which people actually respected the exit through the rear of the bus suggestion. In fact you can see it in the 2nd video, no one alighted from the rear doors but 2 passengers used the front door for alighting. There isn’t much of an “in” door & “out” door system to maintain.

  • BlueFairlane

    And you have to admit, the lack of respect for that system slows buses down. You don’t solve that problem by turning both doors two-way.

  • JacobEPeters

    You don’t design a system while ignoring how humans will use the system, because that’s not design. Both doors turning 2-way would allow more opportunities to board the bus, given that the “alight only at the rear” system is not practical in the face of wheelchairs, and seating for seniors being reserved at the front of the bus.

    I think that 2 way doors offers much more flexibility than disallowing rear boarding.

  • rohmen

    I’d imagine it depends heavily on what bus line you’re on. Not sure how busy the loop link routes are, but on the packed Division and Chicago lines in the morning, people use the rear doors pretty heavily to exit since the front doors are blocked with loading passengers.

  • JacobEPeters

    When I used to take the Chicago bus this was often the case, but still 4 passengers who were stubborn about alighting at the front would mean the back doors were still clear before boarding finished at the front doors. Allowing boarding at all doors just improves the potential usage of throughput capacity, instead of requiring a bottleneck at one door even if another is clear.

    Prepaid boarding is just as important for its ability to reduce the bottleneck of 1 door boarding as for its ability to eliminate the bottleneck of on board fare collection. At least from my experiences on full BRT systems around the world.

  • Jacob Wilson

    What IS it about ‘business’ people that makes them so backwards in this respect? I feel like this is a stereotype that just proves true far too often.

  • Bernard Finucane

    And by listening to amateurs, Chicago bought itself the slowest bus rapid transit system in the world! Woohoo!

  • rohmen

    The line most of them used in the Loop is that it would detract from visibility of the storefronts from people driving by on the street and pedestrians walking on the other side. If you can’t see the Walgreens, you’re not going to remember you need to pop in really quick and pick up a pack of gum, etc.

    Just as misguided, really, but not sure street parking factored in much as to concerns in the Loop since it’s so limited in the first place.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I wonder if the back door boarding might also help with the related issue of passengers who camp out in the space created by the rear exit.

    I understand sometimes buses (and trains) get so crowded people are desperate for anywhere they can physically fit, but more often than not I
    think this is just a problem with bad/unclear etiquette. I’m not sure the current IMO inadequate signage directing passengers to exit at the back qualifies as a “system” whatsoever.

    On a slightly related note, I am ecstatic about the CTA’s recent addition of permanent (and prominent) wall signage in at least one Loop subway stop directing people not to stand on the left side of the escalator. Progress!

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I hear you, but the leading experts on BRT, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, also consulted on Loop Link. An ITDP staffer discusses Loop Link’s growing pains: http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/loop-link-brt-slow-speeds-improvements/Content?oid=20783705

  • david vartanoff

    San Francisco Muni implemented all door boarding by putting “clipper” card readers at each door several years ago. Riders enter/exit at closest door,buses have shorter dwell.


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

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 […]