Ventra is Coming Soon, and So is Being Taken For a Ride on Public Transit in Chicago

I used to collect stamps as a child, which is not a hobby for kids these days (how often do you get letters with exciting stamps?) With my dad active in export and import of process control equipment, he brought home a steady supply of exciting envelopes with international stamps, or so it seemed.

Additionally, I received “collector” packs of stamps from all over the world every now and then. Sometimes they were colorful triangular stamps from exotic island countries or other places that I later learned made a good deal of money by coming up with fancy postal stamp designs that were designed from the beginning to be sold to foreign collectors. In essence, they were printing money, a nice racket if you can get away with it.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in cohorts with the Chicago Transit Authority and the willing support of Cubic Transportation Systems, is now engaged in forcing Ventra transit cards on anyone who travels by train or bus in the Chicago area. Here’s what the new card looks like:

Coming soon

It replaces the soon-to-be former CTA card:

old faithful

The CTA card was a perfectly functional magnetic strip card that you got in vending machines, loaded up with a bit of money, and swiped as you went through the turnstiles to get on the train or bus.

The “new and improved” Ventra card kills off the CTA cards and forces transit riders to shell out $5 for the new piece of plastic and then load it up with funds. A benefit with the new card is a “tap and go” near field approach to paying for your ride, presumable speeding up the people flow. The CTA swipe system has an awkward process where you have to stop and “punch” your ticket vertically before going through. It really slows things down, especially since the electronic readers are incapable of reading the CTA cards unless they are inserted in the correct direction.

From spending years in Japan I can attest that the Japanese had this sorted out when I arrived there in 1990 – and probably much earlier than that. There you get your ticket at a vending machine with a map indicating fares (tied to riding distance – as well as the multiple privately owned transit systems) and the stiles have vacuum suction built in to suck in the ticket, read it regardless of which way it was inserted, and then spit it out on the other side of the stiles, ready for you to pick up.  As a result, riders can walk at a rapid clip through the turnstiles and pick up their tickets on the fly. And the line flies!

Why in the world people around the globe don't go to the market leaders (the Japanese), and studiously copy their system instead of coming up with a bitter homebrew, I don’t know. The Italian subways and streetcars had an awkward system, similar to Chicago’s, when I was there this summer. There you bought your ticket, walked through the gates, and were then supposed to punch the ticket manually before stepping on a train.

Interestingly, Cubic Transportation Systems has a 12-year contract worth $465 million to provide Ventra. Somehow it’s paid on the back end, with no money out of the Chicago coffers up front. Shifting the payment burden to non-Chicagoans is clever. Taking $5 from everyone going through Chicago on a business or personal trip definitely adds up. Like triangular stamps that you’re forced to buy, it’s a nice racket indeed.

Oddly, these cards have an additional MasterCard debit card “feature” – really? Who would buy a Ventra card and put $100 on it (likely from a credit card), only to use it as a debit card? That makes no sense. You can even set the Ventra card to auto-refill from your bank account. In this case, if your card is stolen, the new owner doesn't have to get embarrassed if the card were to run low. I wonder if this isn’t just a Chicago plan to create an Electronic Benefits Card (a.k.a. food stamps) that “blends.” Since everyone has a VENTRA card, there’s no stigma (heaven forbid).

Regardless, the system is being implemented with some difficulty (maybe it’s the same contractor that did a certain healthcare enrollment system?), and the CTA has now been forced to extend the CTA card program for a little longer. What is it with Chicagoans and the use of technology?

I’ve saved the most sinister aspect for last: the $5 you paid for the piece of plastic (which has a production and distribution cost of about $1.80) can be refunded if you register the card. The rub is that this “guides” you to activate the MasterCard feature, which in turn requires you to make deposits on the card every now and then or monthly service fees will start to kick in. Clever. No wonder Cubic agreed to roll out this solution without upfront payment. Also, CTA wants your personal info when you register the card, probably with a straight feed to the NSA database. Yet another nail in the privacy coffin, but I digress.

So, next time you go to Chicago, be ready to donate $5 to the friends of the mayor.  Sounds like Chicago.

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Voices (3)

  1. Nathan:

    We get it, you don’t like liberals. You could have made this post about the issues with Ventra, but you turned it into an attack on Rahm Emanuel and the “Chicago way”

  2. Rick Zack:

    Check this out: I could comment more- they’re jackin anyone that comes close.

  3. Jami McConnell:

    Get your facts straight. The Debit Card is 100% optional and if we had responsible media in Chicago they would stop trying to making the Ventra System seem to be public enemy #1 and help Chicagoans work through some of the transitional bumps and move into the new technology that will help speed up transit lines and make it easy to manage their transit accounts.

    You get your $5 back in transit for registeri our account like I did, not signing up for the debit card. But I am sure you knew that, but it makes a great story to lie and make it sound like everyone is out to get your hard earned money.

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