Ventra to roll into Chicago

Greetings everyone!

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, the Chicago CTA will be introducing a radically new method of transit fare payment. This new payment system is called Ventra, which will heavily emphasize the use of contactless payment cards to speed up boarding of buses and trains, help improve efficiency throughout the entire CTA system, and modernize fare payment for the 21st Century.

What is this all about?

Ventra is part of an effort by the City of Chicago to provide an open fare/payment structure for its transit system, the first of it’s kind in the nation. Why is this being done? Beacuase nowadays, more and more people are utilizing contactless methods of payment when going about making everyday purchases. This includes contactless credit and debit cards (which are equipped with RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification, chips), as well as smartphone apps that allow people to make purchases without having to make a single card swipe. For a while now, the major credit card companies have had contactless payment systems and cards to allow people to simply hover their card over the contactless interface that is equipped on credit card terminals to make a purchase at various businesses. One example of this is Express Pay, provided by American Express. Yes, I did mention smartphones. Many people now use smartphones to make purchases as well, including the use of QR readers, so that they don’t have to dig out their wallets for change or even their credit or debit card. Instead, people simply take a photo of a special code box that contains (a lot of) data and vola! Purchase made! In addition, many major banks are adopting contactless methods as well, including various smartphone apps, to make life easier.

How will Ventra work?

Ventra will allow transit customers to simply tap a card over a special reader that will automatically deduct the respective fare payment and quickly board the bus or train, thus speeding up the boarding process and improving system-wide efficiency. This system will work in one of a few ways, according to the Ventra website:

  • Ventra Card: This will be a universal transit card that takes the form of a prepaid debit card. Instead of using the traditional mag-stripe card, which many transit agencies have embraced, the Ventra Card will allow transit customers to simply tap their card and board. The fare will automatically deduct from the customer’s balance each time the card is used, similar to that of existing mag-swipe cards that are linked to established accounts. When purchasing a Ventra Card, the customer will be able to register for an account and deposit money into the account for use throughout the CTA system, as well as the Pace Bus System. The Ventra Card will eventually replace the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus transit cards that are currently in use, which operate similarly to the New York City MTA MetroCard.
    • Optional Prepaid Debit Feature: Since the Ventra Card takes the form of a prepaid debit card, transit customers have the option to use the Ventra Card beyond transit fare payment. Customers can use the card just as they would any debit card and make a purchase at various participating merchants.
  • Ventra Ticket: The Ventra Ticket will serve as a single-use or 1-day transit pass, and will eventually replace all existing mag-stripe fare cards.
  • Linking your Ventra account to an existing contactless credit or debit card: For those not wishing to purchase a Ventra Card, but do have a contactless credit or debit card, one can easily link their credit or debit account to his or her Ventra account and use their debit or credit card to pay for fares.
  • Smartphones: Although this feature will not be available right away, plans are in the works to create smartphone apps to allow transit customers to automatically pay for fares using their smartphones. This could come in the form of QR readers set up at fare boxes and turnstiles, but no further details are provided at this time.

Will cash still be accepted?

Yes, the Chicago CTA will continue accepting cash as fare payment. I really don’t see the use of cash going away anytime soon because not everyone is ready to adopt the latest technologies needed to support contactless payment. In fact, many merchants I’ve been to still use traditional credit card terminals that are not equipped with contactless interfaces. Some smaller businesses I’ve been to, in fact, still don’t accept credit cards. So it will be a LONG while before cash is phased out as a method of payment.

How do I learn more about Ventra?

Simply visit the Ventra website. You’ll find a wealth of info about how the Ventra system works and how it can make your life easier. If you run a business in the Chicago area and want to learn more about accepting Ventra cards, there’s info on the website for that too!

Will other cities adopt an open fare structure like Chicago?

According to this article, the answer is yes. It notes that Philadelphia, PA (SEPTA) has also jumped onboard, and Washington, D.C. is also considering a similar system, and a smaller pilot project is currently underway at the New York City MTA. Meanwhile, much of Europe is seemingly on a “wait and see” approach when it comes to implementing an open fare structure. This report indicates the benefits of open fare structure systems, but cautions that there are many hurdles to be cleared.

With that said, cities and transit districts in the US and throughout the world that have not yet considered adopting an open fare structure should be taking notes once Ventra is fully implemented. Even with the rough economic climate that we face right now, I think it is almost inevitable that mag-stripe cards will eventually be phased out from most transit districts in favor of contactless methods. I strongly believe that such a massive transition will greatly improve efficiency throughout all transit districts that choose to embrace this next generation in fare payment.

What is the Tampa Bay area doing to improve transit fare structures?

Right now, all of the major transit districts (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, and Sarasota counties) heavily rely on mag-stripe cards as fare payment, as well as cash. There has been some recent discussion to eventually create a modern and universal method of payment, including acceptance of contactless payment, as existing fareboxes are quickly becoming obsolete. HART specifically has noted this in a blog post it published in October, 2012, however everything will depend on funding, which none of the above agencies have at this time. If sales another tax referendum for Hillsborough County was allowed to go through for 2014 and pass, it could lead the way for such an improvement. Pinellas is currently on track for their referendum for 2014, and in the last few days, interest has sparked to get the discussion flowing in Hillsborough once again in order to make the 2014 vote a regional vote for transit improvements.

Have a great week!

HARTride 2012

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