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Contactless Transit Smart Cards

February 24, 2014 Featured, Public Transit, Travel 5 Comments

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.

On our recent trip to Chicago we each bought a new “Ventra” card to ride Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses:

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.

My online Ventra statement
My online Ventra statement

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


Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. JZ71 says:

    One of my favorite quotes from Cal Marsella, former General Manager of Denver’s RTD, is that “We want to be on the leading edge of technology, not the bleeding edge.” With any new system, there always seems to be the promise and the reality – when any new “smart” card system is rolled out, there inevitably seem to be “challenges”. I’m glad that you all had a great experience with Chicago’s, and I look forward to a relatively smooth roll-out here.

    One point you touched on, briefly, and will hopefully be addressed with our fare structure, here, is the cost of a transfer. Coming from Denver, where transfers are free (you only pay the fare difference if you’re switching to a more-expensive route), I see the cost of a transfer as a big disincentive to encouraging more transit ridership (although I also understand why there is a charge – fare evasion, using a discarded transfer, one with time left on it, to get a free ride).

    Most transit riders simply want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. In a perfect world, every trip would be a direct, single-seat trip, with no transfers required. Guess what? We don’t live in a perfect world! Many trips, even relatively short ones, require transfers. If it takes 2 or 3 vehicles to go X number of miles, it’s not my fault, why should I be penalized? Especially when other riders can ride further, sometimes much further, on a single vehicle, for a lower total fare, to get to their destinations! By going to smart cards, and eliminating the (need for?) paper transfers, hopefully we can significantly reduce or completely eliminate its cost.

    • This post isn’t about fares, I’ll have one next week. But Denver’s system is a zoned system, whereas Chicago & St. Louis aren’t.

      • JZ71 says:

        Um, no, just for their light rail system. Bus fares are based on level of service – local, express or regional, but we’ll save the analysis for next week . . . .

  2. RyleyinSTL says:

    Great! Glad to hear STL will be using a NFC system rather than magnetic. No need to even take the card out of your wallet. Being able to use chipped debit/credit cards would be an added value, but being as the USA seems to show little to no interest in that (has been the standard literally elsewhere else for years), I’d imagine we won’t see it locally for a while.

    I’ve also had experience with payment via text message. Folks in Helsinki would jump on the tram, shoot a message to a quick-code, and the response back was your proof of fair. The benefit being you don’t need to carry a card with a balance if using transit infrequently (plus, no card to lose).

    • Also worth noting that a smartcard system significantly cuts down on panhandling at transit locations. As more people purchase passes or pre-pay specific amounts, there’s less “actual” currency necessary for riders. Those who “just need $1 for the bus” or want to sell you an old pass suddenly can’t. For riders, this increases the sense of safety and quality of life a transit system can/should have.


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