Tagfare media

Whatever happened to the CTA express bus boarding lane?

While the Chicago Transit Authority investigates the use of alternative payment methods (like with a bank card or your cellphone), there are some things they can do now to improve the customer experience for the long term. The CTA is also investigating getting rid of traditional fare media entirely. My suggestions are congruent with that goal, although I do not support eliminating transit cards and cash payments, and I believe they can be implemented quickly using existing technology. Without a deeper knowledge of the limitations of the devices, software, and vendors CTA currently uses for fare handling, I present you three suggestions for speeding up the CTA:

1. Expand fare types on its RFID cards

Allow multi-day passes to be loaded onto Chicago Card (CC) and Chicago Card Plus (CCP). Go online and apply a 7-day pass to your card for the same price as it would cost at Walgreens. And since your CCP is already registered in your name, if you lose the card, you don’t lose the value of the multi-day pass. CC customers should register their card to protect its stored value.

I write this now because a friend just told me she lost her 7-day pass. That’s $23 down the drain. But if she lost her more durable CC/CCP she could pay $5 and receive the benefit of having her remaining days restored to the card (remaining days would be calculated based on the time she reported it lost).

Having the touchpad located here on the buses was supposed to reduce congestion in the doorway. But it appears to not have worked as the CTA moved the touchpads on all buses to the normal fare collection device, near the driver (in 2010). Photo taken in 2005 by Christopher.

2. Change U-PASS fare media

Switch U-PASS to be an RFID card like the CC and CCP. This will make it cheaper to replace lost or stolen U-PASSes (students must pay $35 to have it replaced while CC and CCP customers only pay $5), while also speeding up boarding time and decreasing overall travel time. I’ve written about switching the U-PASS media before.

I believe suggestions 1 and 2 can be done within a year and that it will provide immediate benefits, possibly more than those provided by the existing old CC/CCP program. Those cards have been available for almost 7 years now and a minority of repeat CTA customers use them.

3. Integrate

This almost goes without saying…fare media should be integrated with Pace*, Metra, and even taxis. CTA has already taken the wonderful step of integrating the CCP with I-GO car sharing.

Essentially, the existing RFID card program (that’s CC and CCP) should be more like the ORCA card in Seattle (ORCA stands for One Regional Card for All). The ORCA card allows multi-day passes (including a monthly or 30-day pass), youth discounts, senior discounts, disabled discounts, and low-income traveler discounts. It can be used on ferries, trains, and buses. And like the CC/CCP “pay as you go” method, the ORCA can hold “cash” to be used for transfers between agencies or paying for a companion (they call it e-purse).

Click through to read why Oran Viriyincy has four ORCA cards.

The public is nothing short of great ideas for the Chicago Transit Authority. Now if only there was a way where we could present our ideas or have them vetted by listening managers.

*The Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus can be used on Pace buses.

The magic of the RFID card: Applications in transit

The Chicago Transit Authority should convert the U-Pass program from using magnetic stripe fare media to an RFID, or proximity, card.

Several times on weekdays on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, a crowd of up to thirty students waits for the 8/Halsted bus after a class period ends. A very high percentage of the students will use a U-Pass to pay for the bus fare. All U-Pass users have to dip their cards. According to the Transportation Research Board’s Transit Capacity and Service Manual, each passenger with a dip card will take 4.2 seconds to pay their fare whilst users paying with contactless cards will take 3.0 seconds each to pay their fares.

Converting the U-Pass student fare program to use the same contactless fare collection as the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus will improve the Chicago Transit Authority’s quality of service on all bus routes, especially those routes used heavily by program participants.

Contactless fare collection technology (also known as Radio Frequency Identification, RFID, or proximity cards) gives customers additional options to pay and manage their transit fares. It keeps prepaid fares secure against theft and loss. The customer can easily switch payment methods – between a credit/debit card online and debit card/cash at vending locations – and fare types – pay-per-use or 30-day unlimited use. What is most important is how contactless fare collection speeds boarding onto buses and passing through turnstiles at rail stations. This aspect of the technology most discernibly improves the CTA’s quality of service. Taking into consideration all these benefits, contactless cards provide the greatest passenger convenience for fare payment.

Quality of service is the customer’s perception or assessment of performance. The first percept would be the increased boarding speed at key bus stops. The improvements, visible to the boarding passengers and which positively affect the route, cascade from there: increased boarding speed reduces dwell time, which can help keep buses operating on their posted schedule and shrink the rate of bus bunching. The performance gains are measurable – there would be a half-minute decrease in dwell time at UIC bus stops, amongst other gains.

Contactless fare cards are more durable than the U-Pass, which is surprisingly less durable than the CTA’s paper Transit Cards. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the U-Pass card material is more prone to cracking and tearing than the Transit Card material. Currently, UIC students who require a replacement card must pay a $35 fee – an exorbitant amount that does little to deter the anger or frustration of those students who use their cards daily.

A secondary benefit in convenience for the student, the participating colleges, and the CTA, is that producing the U-Pass as a contactless farecard could be permanent: students would keep the same fare media through their entire tenure at the school. Each and every semester, the schools and CTA would spend less labor hours for temporary U-Pass farecard printing and distribution. Alternatively, the U-Pass program could be applied to the existing Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus system, similar to how London Oyster cardholders can add 7-day, monthly and annual passes, giving transit passengers more options than 30-day unlimited use or pay-per-use. During the semester and the U-Pass activity period, no fare would be deducted from the student’s contactless farecard. When the semester is over or the U-Pass activity period is complete, the contactless farecard would automatically switch to the user-defined fare choice and payment plan.

Converting existing fare programs to work like the CTA’s Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus would be a prudent and appropriate step for the CTA to take to improve the quality of service for U-Pass eligible students and the bus system alike.

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