The ‘L’, CTA busses, Pace busses,Metra commuter trains, Divvy bikes: getting around Chicago using public transit usually includes a mix of and potentially all of these options. In our interconnected world wherein the ubiquitous smart phone and high-tech communications and payment technologies allow us a number of conveniences like we’ve never seen before. Ventra is a perfect example of this: the much touted new payment system for the CTA and Pace (which still has not expanded to Metra) remains oddly archaic. Although it offers some high-tech potentially for greatness it could be utilized as a tool to not only make Chicago more interconnect, but also provide insight into other means of improving the transit landscape in the region. I think it is easy to forget that it isn’t these high-tech tools alone that are innovative, but how we use them that makes the difference.
The idea of pushing simple, but modern amenities on Ventra was well explained by RedEye CTA columnist Tracy Swartz earlier this week (link). As she points out, the basic functions of Ventra are now working fine although there were certainly glitches while rolling out the system. Additionally, there are clearly missing pieces to the puzzle: there is no Ventra app, debit and credit card users cannot register their cards online to add passes (as of now, if they don’t add a pass at a CTA/Ventra fare machine they will always pay full fare). That’s not to mention one single important factor missing in Ventra: you cannot use it on Metra!
As Chicago Ideas Week roles out we should certainly be thinking about the improvements Swartz mentioned to make Ventra a better fare system, but here are some proposals that while not necessarily high-tech include improving Ventra or were inspired by thinking about the city’s year-old fare payment system:
1) Include Divvy: Not all of us have bikes, and even those of us who do have bikes don’t always have them around when we want to use them. In a truly intermodal city, moving between bikes, cars, trains, cabs, and pedestrian areas should be seamless. Divvy, Chicago’s bike-share system, is just one step close to making such transitions possible. The kicker: moving from one form of transit in Chicago to another consistently requires a new set of fares, different payment systems, and predictably unpredictable rates. An easy solution to make this easier is to include Divvy usage in Ventra passes.
At the moment, rates for Divvy could remain as they are separate from fares for CTA, Metra, and Pace for riders who only plan on using Divvy. The way inclusion of Divvy could work would be to include two CTA/Pace pass options. One option would be with and one without Divvy usage. This should apply one-day, three-day, week, and month passes. To get Divvy use as part of your transit pass you would pay slightly more per pass. Much like you swipe your Ventra card at entrance turnstiles for the ‘L’ and busses you would swipe a reader at Divvy stations to rent a bike. With passes that allow you to use Divvy you would be allowed to rent bikes for an unlimited number of 30 minute periods each. To prevent abuse of the system and overtime charges such passes could only be purchased with credit or debit cards. Any overages on Divvy use would then be charged to that card.
This would certainly help make Divvy more affordable. Although a $7 day pass allows for unlimited 30 minute rides, that cost only makes sense if you plan on using Divvy multiple times a day as a means to save money. For people who might need to make only one or two trips on Divvy over longer periods of time, being able to use it in conjunction with their Ventra cards would add a welcome increase in mobility. Indeed, it may increase the use of Divvy by residents and create a virtuous cycle of making transit and bike use more reasonable.
2) Adopt the A’dam method (and it doesn’t have to do with bikes):
This is a step, again taken from the Dutch, that could change how we use transit in Chicago and operateVentra. The check-in, check-out method requires riders to swipe their card when they enter and exit a mode of transit. While this might not be the best way to do things on the CTA or Pace, it is way of integrating Ventra onto Metra. When riders exit and swipe to check-out the appropriate amount of money is deducted from Ventra based on the zone they checked-in. Turnstiles would prevents riders from never checking in or out and stealing rides. In addition to this, passes could be added that allow riders unlimited rides within a certain period of time on CTA, Pace, and Metra within certain zone limits. This could then be layered with Divvy by offering use of Divvy with each pass option.
3) Fix Fares Zones: Reforming the archaic fare zones that exist in Chicago is necessary to help make these other suggestions work well. Although open fare payment options are proposed for Ventra, which would ease the inconsistencies between fares on each transit method in Chicago. Fares don’t make much sense across transit modes in the region and create unequal transit opportunities across the city.
There should be one rail fare zone that includes all of the Chicago and the suburbs that have ‘L’ stops or are conveniently close to suburbs with them. Within this zone (Zone 1), prices for CTA ‘L’ and Metra trips would be equal as would CTA bus and Pace bus trips. Transfers would be the same as well within this zone.
This makes fares more consistent, equitable, and predictable. The inconsistent and inequitable prices paid currently are well visualized in the map above. Looking at this one can see how a ride on the ‘L’ can get you many of the same places as Metra within Cook County, but for a fraction of the price and with more frequent service.
Take a trip on the Purple Line Express from the Loop to Davis Street in Evanston for example. On the ‘L’, that trip will cost you $2.25 and take 47 minutes. A trip on Metra has time savings of 10 minutes on the Union Pacific North, but that costs $4.25 however. The same thing happens on the South Side. Metra riders pay significantly more for a one way ticket along routes that run as far south and parallel to the Red Line. End this by making fares zones that facilitate and encourage intermodal and intersystem transfers.
It would also make the system significantly more in tune with other major cities that have subways and commuter rails systems. As the transit and fare zone maps of Berlin and Madrid above show the central city and bulk of the metro systems stay within one fare zone and it is more or less the outlying regions served mostly by commuter rail that fall into continued zones.
Innovation isn’t always restricted to high-tech solutions and we can’t necessarily think that it will come packaged as a silver bullet. But looking at what is available in Chicago, what happens in other cities, and thinking about what will make transit more convenient should be included in our sense of innovation. Now that Ventra has been in use for a year it allows us to look at what is working and what could be done differently. Yes, an app is necessary, it should have been developed from the start. The same goes for actual open fare payment systems. But, an examination of Ventra allows for broader thinking on how to improve fare collections, intermodal transfers, and intermodal cooperation as a whole and think outside the box on innovations within our transit systems.