The Chicago Transit Authority rolled out it’s new Ventra Card last October, becoming the first transit agency in the US to offer a fare payment card that can hold both passes and cash value, and that can be used as a debit card for non-transit transactions.

With Chicago’s transition to contactless open payment technology, CTA becomes the second US transit agency to allow open payment, joining the Utah Transit Authority in accepting payment from private debit and credit cards that have contactless technology, when boarding a bus or paying at a train turnstile.

For either Ventra or your private card, you would need to set up separate transit and debit accounts on the card, but once the transit account is set up, your private contactless card can hold passes, just like Ventra.

The transition has not been without hiccups. CTA has been holding off payments to the vendor, Cubic, Inc., until Cubic meets its contractual performance requirements. Cubic has been meeting the requirements in January, and will start receiving its contractual payments upon two consecutive months of meeting the performance standards.

Just three months after rollout, over 75% of rides are being paid for with Ventra. Here are some possible reasons why:

· The cash bus fare is $2.25. The electronic bus fare is $2. For reduced-fare riders, the fare is $1.10 cash or $1 electronically.
· There is a $5 fee to get the Ventra card, but it comes with $5 cash value loaded once you register the card within 90 days.
· CTA has 1-, 3-, 7-, and 30-day passes, all available through electronic media.
· Ventra can be used to pay for multiple riders.

CTA also offers Ventra Tickets, for single rides and 1-day passes.

36 Replies to “Chicago Transit Bridges Gap Between Contactless Transit Passes and Private Cards”

  1. I’d be happy if we could just use ORCA and get day, weekend, and week passes. Also we should jack up cash fares and add tap on off to our multizone vehicles.

    1. By “tap on off” I presume you mean the tap-on and tap-off sounds should be distinct, which has obvious advantages for blind riders, and everyone else who isn’t staring at the screen or can’t read it in 0.5 seconds.

    2. I think he means tap off on buses, to charge one or two zones depending on where you tap off. That would of course require rear-door ORCA readers. Which then comes down to, what services should Metro and ST delete to find money for the readers?

  2. Nit: Ventra doesn’t represent Chicago’s transition to contactless technology — the previous Chicago Card was NFC but without open payments. When I lived there (last in ’09), by just my personal observation, Chicago Card adoption wasn’t great — magnetic-strip farecards were still popular, as was cash payment on buses.

    With this open payment scheme, will an NFC card that doesn’t have a transit account set up interfere with tapping an NFC card that does? If people can’t hold their whole wallets against the reader that’s going to slow down boarding… ideally people would develop efficient arrangements, but then ideally cash payers would have their fares ready before boarding.

    1. The collision is coming anyway as all credit cards and debit cards become radio-enabled. I’ll have to find a strong enough foil cover for my cards, and that raises the question of how well they’ll fit in my wallet with their covers. Or maybe I’ll leave them at home except when I plan to charge something.

    2. Yes, it does interfere. There have been many complaints from people who tap their wallet or purse that one of their contactless credit cards was charged instead of their Ventra card, because to the reader they’re all the same.

      Also, while ORCA stores your pass/cash value on the card, this is impossible with an open fare system. So while the turnstiles at L stations can instantly debit your “Transit Account,” buses simply store the transaction for reconciliation later. This can result in the balance on your account going negative, which confuses people. The public education on the complexities of the system has been less than stellar.

      When I was in Chicago over the holidays I asked a bunch of people what they thought of Ventra, and none of them felt being able to use a bankcard as their transit pass was worth the switch. Several of them wondered if there was a kickback involved (this is Chicago, after all).

      1. Yeah, Chicago Card was pretty nice and not that old, even. Ventra was probably cheaper for the city because of the bank card tie-ins.

        I have no idea whether current NFC bank cards interfere with ORCA. If so I’ll have to rearrange my wallet next time cards are issued and open a flap to pay, oh well… but if they interfere with ORCA they probably interfere with C2G, so people that use that will need at least three flaps on their wallets to keep things straight. I only have two. I have a C2G membership but I don’t usually carry the card with me because of the ORCA interference. So yeah.

        I don’t know much about NFC tags and readers technically; specifically I don’t know whether this problem can be solved just with smarter readers, or if a whole new protocol needs to be developed and new tags issued to everyone. This problem will have to be resolved eventually, as asking end-users to choose between the growing number of NFC cards they carry will quickly result in payment delays everywhere. I think I’d prefer a form factor other than the credit card, myself — obviously I need a bank/credit card in that form for situations where no NFC is available, but I think I’d rather have NFC stuff on my keychain. Again, my knowledge of NFC cards fails me, but I imagine most of an ORCA or C2G card is dead weight and I could modify either into a nice keychain-carryable object with basic hand tools.

      2. (A cursory web search indicates there’s an antenna loop around the edge of the ORCA card, so modifying its shape would take more effort. Maybe an interesting project for one of my extra ORCA cards. For me, I think it’s still the case that I only would want one NFC in my wallet. ORCA, C2G, bank, and credit card are four… and many people have more credit card and bank accounts than I do. ORCA seems unlikely to change, but C2G is a business, they should offer a keychain option… banks and credit card companies already do, so hopefully they’ll offer chipless full-size cards for people trying to keep their wallets simple.)

      3. Here’s an idea: An RFID-blocking wallet with a pocket outside the cage for the card you use the most.

      4. @Jamie: That would be OK, sort of, but I really think the problem of handling conflicting contactless cards is a problem that will grow over time. I keep a smaller wallet than most people I know, and I have 9 cards in there — 7 or 8 could plausibly adopt NFC in the next decade. Two of them only work through NFC. We need readers and cards smart enough to decide what’s relevant in what situation.

      5. The bank-card tie-ins for Ventra were loaded with, well, outright fraud scams of the sort we expect from big banks.

        Contactless cards are a mistake largely because they’re too expensive per card for the transit agency — they need to be throwaway, like magnetic-stripe cards. So far they’ve mostly been financial schemes.

        Cash is king.

      6. Yeah, phone payments are great if I want to unlock my phone and fiddle with an app instead of just whipping my wallet out of my pocket and tapping. Also if I want to be dependent on my phone’s battery to pay for the bus and demonstrate POP to fare inspectors.

        SRSLY, though, transit payments don’t have to be hard. There are places that have universal POP and off-board payment at the most important stops, and don’t use contactless technology at all. All it takes is thoughtful design. In the US transit payment by cash is mostly thoughtlessly designed, so we’ve turned to NFC technology to improve it. But of course the NFC system lacks thoughtful design, so we have more problems.

      7. The cheapest and easiest way to solve the Car2Go/Orca interference problem is to wrap the Car2Go card with aluminum foil and only unwrap it when you actually want to use it.

        Only keeping one card in your wallet is problematic because you can’t always anticipate when you will need a service like Car2Go before you leave the house.

      8. ” In the US transit payment by cash is mostly thoughtlessly designed, ”

        In the US *cash* is thoughtlessly designed.

        In Canada they switched away from dollar bills to dollar coins in 1987 and from two-dollar bills to two-dollar coins in 1996. Britain switched from pound notes to pound coins in 1983 and started issuing regular two-pound coins in 1997.

        Most European countries, similarly, use coins for values below roughly $5. After that, the bills are *different sizes* for different denominations, making them easy for the blind to tell apart.

        Also, in most countries, smaller coins are worth less money. (I know the whole history of why it’s the way it is in the US, but it should have been fixed in the 1970s after the coins stopped being made of precious metals.)

        It would be lovely if the US could catch up with the rest of the world in our coin and currency design.

    3. “Nit: Ventra doesn’t represent Chicago’s transition to contactless technology — the previous Chicago Card was NFC but without open payments.”

      Thanks! Corrected.

  3. Don’t most modern credit cards have near field chips built in? My Chase card does (if you look on the back it has the symbol for PayPass). So these are all contactless.

      1. Not true. I have a Chip and Pin card from Andrews FCU that defaults to Chip and Sig if the reading machine supports it.

  4. Chicago has decided to go with the “soak the tourists” pricing scheme. Tourists will pay cash because it is cheaper and simpler than the overpriced $5 Ventra card — the $5 gets refunded if you’re local but not if you’re not.

    “Cash can be used to purchase single ride, paper tickets or 1-day unlimited-ride paper tickets at rail stations only.”

    This will continue *forever*, by the way.

    This is why contactless cards are a false direction. When tokens were introduced in a subway system, *everyone* switched to tokens. When mag-stripe cards were introduced in a subway system, *everyone* switched to mag-stripe cards.

    That will never, ever happen with contactless cards because large, important markets such as visitors to town cannot reasonably use them. This is because there is no disposable variant.

    1. Anyway, why did people think contactless cards were a good idea at all?

      Advantages of contactless cards over mag-stripe cards:

      Advantages of mag-stripe cards over contactless cards:
      cheap to manufacture
      easy to recycle
      potentially compatible with all credit cards and debit cards

      1. Oh, sorry, further advantages of mag-stripe cards over contactless cards:
        More secure, less prone to data copying
        Less likely to double-charge

      2. Advantages of contactless cards over mag-stripe cards:
        Faster to swipe
        Harder to fumble
        Easier to swipe (no need to ensure it’s facing the right direction)
        Harder to damage

        The disadvantages you list are definitely real, but let’s not pretend there’re no advantages.

      3. William’s point is certainly correct. If you’ve rode the train much in Chicago, NYC, or the Bay Area you’ve certainly seen lines at turnstiles held up by one guy struggling with a mag-stripe card.

      4. William, While that is certainly theoretically correct, in practice, at least with Ventra in Chicago, It is a mess. The cards don’t read every time you tap (and by tap I mean hold the card over the reader for a second or two). I actually had my old stripe-Upass down to a science, where I could put it in in-stride and walk through the turnstile unimpeded.

        Plus, the city has absolutely failed to educate people on how to use the ventra card, so people try to tap and snatch constantly, and wonder why it doesn’t read. And sometimes even when you do hold it there long enough it just fails to read….

        I love the idea behind ventra, but after 7 months of it being around, They’ve done a horrendous job of implementing it honestly. Horrendous.

      5. Nathaniel, you’ve got it backward on the security issues. Contactless credit cards use dynamic authentication, which makes them much harder to defraud.

      6. Bluntly wrong, Brent. Anything over the air is easier to rip off than anything not over the air, period. “Dynamic authentication” is nice, as a defense against the most simplistic of tactics, but not what anyone would call *secure*.

      7. New York turnstyles used to have a message (and maybe still do), “Keep swiping the card again at this turnstyle until it goes through. Do not go to another turnstyle or you will be charged twice.” Magnetic readers wear out easily and then don’t read the card properly or at all, and I think New York also had data-network congestion or something too.

        In Chicago I never got a Chicago card because they weren’t available at the machines — you had to go to some retailer for them. Likewise in the Bay Area, you couldn’t get a Clipper card at a machine, they were clearly targeted to locals only.

        On BART I once had a reader not recognize my ticket. I went to the booth and it worked in the agent’s reader, so they gave me a replacement ticket.

    2. @Nathaniel,

      Most foreign tourists going to Chicago will have contactless cards that should be compatible with CTA’s hardware, so no reason to buy a Ventra card. Americans won’t be so lucky, since we’ve fallen behind the rest of the world.

      1. Double-charges are likely, and the foreign tourists’ disputes with their credit card companies will leave them soured about this.

      2. Yeah, it was common for a group of visitors to buy a single mag-stripe card and pass it back at the turnstiles.

        Because of this, Ventra, unlike ORCA, supports pass-back (up to 7 times). As a result, it’s possible to be charged multiple times if you bring your card close to the reader more than once.

  5. “The way this is heading is to not have any cards at all.”

    Here’s where a smart watch could conceivably be useful: nothing to take out of your pocket, secured to your person, less chance of someone grabbing your phone while you’re waving it at the reader.

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