On my first trip to Washington D.C. in August of 1990 I rode their Metro subway system. Even back then you could buy a card you’d swipe that would deduct the appropriate fare from your balance. It was quick and convenient because riders didn’t need to buy tickets each trip. Daily riders could buy a monthly pass, but for less frequent riders this was wonderful.
Fast forward to today and technology has come a long way. Metro Saint Louis has been installing new equipment to prepare for a smart card system here.
Introducing Ventra, a convenient new payment system for the CTA and Pace that allows customers to pay for train and bus rides with the same payment methods they use for everyday purchases. Customers can easily manage their accounts online and choose from several different contactless payment methods:
- Ventra Card: a transit + optional Debit MasterCard® that can be used for transit and everyday purchases
- Ventra Tickets: single-ride and One-day passes
- Personal, contactless, bank-issued credit and debit cards can be used for transit
- Eventually, compatible smartphones
With Ventra, travel throughout the Chicago area is more convenient and efficient than ever before.
We didn’t buy them in advance, I just went in to the CVS* two blocks from our hotel. Each card cost $5 but after registering by phone or online that becomes transit credit. When purchased I added $5 to each. Spent $10/card for $10 of transit credit per card.
I loved being able to check my balance online and see a history of the bus routes we rode. Like St. Louis, a one ride trip is $2, but their transfer is just 25¢ compared to $1 here. But pricing is getting off the subject…
We didn’t see anyone paying cash or swiping older reader cards, making boardings very quick. Here many customers, myself included, pay with cash. The Ventra system launched in Chicago last year, more on that shortly.
I’ve been wanting to try a smart card system for a while now but it wasn’t until we were on our last bus ride to Union Station that I felt like I got the hang of just how to tap the card in front of the sensor to get it to register. Previous rides I thought I had it but the driver would tell me to try again. Part of my problem was trouble seeing the screen from a seated position in my wheelchair. We both had trouble at first, but imagine every rider having trouble. The Ventra launch didn’t go smoothly:
Compared to other smart transit systems, Ventra is logging a fairly negative public review. Unlike Ventra, Boston’s contactless electronic CharlieCard system faced no huge bouts of complaints upon implementation in late 2006 and early 2007. In fact, despite minor problems, customers lauded the system. (Chicago’s New Smart Cards Make Commuting Even Harder – Mashable, December 2013)
This fall, you see, after a series of delays, the city brought online a new fare payment system called “Ventra” in which customers tap “smart cards” against electronic readers at bus entrances and train station turnstiles. Only it turns out these cards are not so smart. Half the time, tap after tap after tap, the damned things don’t work, and the bus driver just exasperatedly waves you through. Although it hasn’t been as much fun for the passengers who exited the bus through the front door and discovered that, if their purses or backpacks brushed too close to the reader, they were charged twice. (Chicago’s ‘Smart Card’ Debacle and Privatisatiom – The Nation, December 2013)
Pace, suburban Chicago’s bus system which is separate from the CTA is now online with Ventra. Metra, the commuter rail system will be next. Once Metra is accepting the Ventra card, commuters using the three separate transit systems in the greater Chicago area can finally pay using the same card, rather than manage separate forms of payment for each.
In St. Louis, Metro is working with Madison County Transit on the smart card system for our region. Hopefully they’ve learned from the mistakes made in Chicago. I don’t know if the cards used in St. Louis can do double duty as pre-paid debit cards. In Chicago’s system you can also use a contactless credit/debit card. I’ve never been offered such a card before, but I think they’ll become more common in a few years.
Each smart card has an embedded computer chip that can hold passes and cash value. Unlike most credit cards, smart cards are not magnetic and do not require “swiping.” Equipped with antennae, the cards allow contactless communication so customers can simply wave or tap the card on the validator or farebox. Validators at MetroLink stations will respond with a green light and fareboxes on board MetroBus will beep to indicate the fare is accepted and has been deducted from the card. (Metro)
— Steve Patterson
* Full disclosure: I’m a own a few shares of CVS