Sunday, January 15, 2006

CTA has got to start selling Chicago Cards at stations

I'm all for modernization of transit system, and moving people away from cash fares is a great step.

The CTA has introduced a Chicago Card, which is a smarter version of the 'regular' transit card. Only users of the Chicago Card avoided a fare hike this month of about 15% -- everyone else pays $2 per ride, while Chicago Card users pay $1.75.

But the CTA's Chicago Card program has a major flaw: you can't buy them at transit stations.

You can buy them online here.

Or you can buy them at currency exchanges (when they aren't out of stock, as they have been for most of January, triggering a lawsuit against the CTA), for a service fee.

But you can't buy them at CTA stations. Even though there are usually CTA personnel at the stations. And even though there are machines that will take money and spit out a regular card, for whatever reason, you can't buy a Chicago Card.

That's absurd, in my view.

If we want most commuters, not to mention tourists, to use the Chicago Card, then they must be available where most people that want to use public transit will go -- the stations themselves.

I have no idea why CTA personnel who staff stations can't sell the cards. I also have no idea why the machines that dispense the 'regular' cards can't also dispense a Chicago Card.

But these policies ought to be changed.


CF said...

I'm a big supporter of, and an expert on, public transportation. I probably use it more than any of you pot-smoking liberal Wal-Mart-hating eco-commies. The reason why you can't get a Chicago card at a station is two-fold: (1) CTA employees at L stations don't do actual work. This is unskilled government patronage labor in its highest form. To buy a card from them, you would have to give them money. That is not an option for obvious reasons. Every station would have to be turned into a cash-checking structure, with security cameras, bullet-proof glass, lockboxes, Spanish-speakers, etc. The machines cannot be reprogrammed to sell Chicago cards because of reason #2...(2) you must give the government personal information about yourself to get a Chicago card, including a credit card so that the card can automatically access your finances to add more money when the card gets low. The Chicago card is only 2-3 seconds faster at the gate than the old cards dispensed from an L station machine. But the old cards cannot track your movements or get an extra $5 "service fee" out of you. I know this sounds like right wing paranoia, but I'm happy to hear any other reason why we need Chicago cards. Also, the checks I get from my employer to purchase L cards with pre-tax dollars cannot yet be cashed for Chicago cards. So I'm currenly losing the tax benefit by having to pay $.25 more per ride.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger said...

I finally agree with you on this one, Chris. I'm not a fan of registering for a card (though I did), and I think it's ridiculous that the people who are sitting in a booth all day reading their newspaper can't sell a freaking card. But the Chicago Card Plus has the tracking information. The Chicago Card does not do that. So the machines could sell the Chicago Card, but not the Chicago Card Plus.

Levois said...

It looks like by the end of 2006 MARTA will have a better smart fare card system than the CTA.

payton said...

The machines can't be reprogrammed to dispense Chicago cards for the same reason why Coke machines can't just start selling candy bars: they just are't physically capable of dispensing completely different stuff. Washington has installed some MetroTrip card (=Chicago Card) vending machines; we'll see if those make their way to Chicago.

Also, getting your employer to switch from Transit Checks to Chicago Card Plus is easy. Indeed, processing transit benefit for people with CC+ is faster and easier than processing Transit Checks.

CTA prefers customers with Chicago Cards because they do board faster (those few seconds add up when you're talking about hundreds of passengers along a bus run; between stoplights and boarding, buses spend as much time stopped as going), because they don't pay in small and expensive to process increments, because the fare processing requires no breakable moving parts, and because postpaid customers typically use more services than prepaid customers. (Same reason why postpaid [billed] mobile phone plans are cheaper than prepaid plans.) The ridership tracking is a bonus, which might allow CTA to better tailor services to meet actual rider demand.