CTA Ventra card: Anatomy of a botched rollout

Tuesday, July 1, marks the day when only Ventra cards will be accepted for fare payments on the CTA – except buses, where cash payments still will be allowed.

The Ventra snowman - From Instagram by @workforcheap

The Ventra snowman – From Instagram by @workforcheap

It has taken almost a year to roll out this new RFID contactless payment system. And quite a botched rollout it has been. Let’s review what happened – relive those painful waits for cards that never came in the mail, the difficult activation process, the endless time spent on hold with customer service reps.

Late July 2013: The CTA releases the Ventra card rollout schedule. It started with college students getting U-Pass Ventra cards starting Aug. 5, and then Chicago Public School student getting their in late August. It seemed like an orderly rollout schedule with monthly deadline and milestones through December. In retrospect, it was way too ambitious.

Late August: Reports surfaced of Ventra card cash-loading issues. Money put on the card online wasn’t showing up on the cards themselves. The CTA said, “The Ventra team has resolved those issues quickly—in many cases that same day—to make sure that impact on customers is minimal.” I was being optimistic about the rollout, writing: “I think we all have to remember this is a new system, and there will be problems. Be sure and report those problems right away to get them fixed.” Little did I know how many problems there would be.

Early September: The Ventra card transition began in earnest on Sept. 9, when you could get a card online, by phone, at CTA rail station and at many retail stores.

Mid-September: The first real problems began to surface, as riders reported having trouble activating their new cards online. In that same post I offered tips on how to do it right, and that post became one of my most searched and popular posts about Ventra cards. Another popular post from Oct. 1 was CTA Ventra card vents: The good, the bad and the downright ugly.

A favorite Halloween costume.

A favorite Halloween costume.

Early October: While problems with activation and actually getting the cards mounted, an Oct. 7 deadline for no more CTA magnetic strip card sales or Chicago Card reloads loomed. But by Oct. 9, in the face of a mountain of customer complaints, the CTA relented and allowed strip card sales and Chicago Card reloads. The transit agency dramatically increased phone customer service agents, but said it was sticking with its next Nov. 15 and Dec. 15 transition deadlines. People complained about not getting their cards in the mail. Meanwhile, one person got more than 200 cards in his mailbox.

Early November: On Nov. 3, the rail union asked the CTA to delay the Nov. 15 Ventra deadline. And on Nov. 5 the CTA did just that. CTA President Forrest Claypool put the blame squarely on Cubic Transportation, the firm that got almost $500 million to build and administer the Ventra fare payment system. The CTA also said it would not begin paying Cubic until it met various performance standards. And the CTA refused to say how long the transition would be put off.

December: The CTA starts tracking Cubic/Ventra performance on various metrics, such as timing of card taps and customers call hold times. That’s what the CTA should have done from the beginning.

January: CTA Ventra card readers are enhanced to speed boarding, help riders “hit the mark.” And Cubic met all the CTA standards for performance.

February: Cubic Transportation Systems has done a good enough job up to now on CTA Ventra performance metrics to start receiving payments for its fare collection system.

A Ventra doubter.

A Ventra doubter.

March: The CTA finally announces its newest Ventra transition plan – only Ventra cards would be accepted on July 1.

April: CTA tries to ease the way for riders with balances on various cards by holding “balance transfer events.”

May: The first deadline of the new transition period arrives May 1: CTA customers are no longer be able to buy magnetic stripe fare cards. And Customers are no longer be able to autoload/reload Chicago Card/Chicago Card Plus.

June: And on June 1, it started to get real as you could no longer use your Chicago Card/Plus, nor could you load magnetic stripe cards. About 92 percent of all CTA rides were taken with Ventra cards by June 1.

July 1: The transition deadline is here. Riders can no longer use magnetic stripe cards. Ventra fare card machines do sell $3 disposable fare cards that include two transfers within two hours.

And so it is done. It took almost a year, but the CTA is finally all Ventra, all the time. This transition contains great lessons learned for any other transit system looking to move to these contactless fare card.
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  • Along with the Healthcare website, this rollout should be used in all software project management courses as a case study in how *not* to implement a large system.

    There should have been no surprises here. Proper beta testing (using a small sample set) would have clearly showed that the system wasn't ready for prime time. Instead of holding off the cut-over to allow sufficient time to correct, and re-test the issues, they stuck to the published go-live date, and well, the rest is history.

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    Let's not forget the part where the CTA refused to call the 33% fare increase for one-ride buyers a fare increase. Sorry, CTA, when the fare goes from $2.25 to $3, that's a fare increase, no matter how you try to slice it.

  • In reply to Joseph Finn:

    Or that, even though this was supposed to be an open fare system, a bank card was charged the cash fare, not a fare based on tracking its number, and to avoid it, one had to read all sorts of small print on the TVM about registering your bank card and establishing transit value on it. If your local currency exchange did something like that, the stepdaughter Attorney General would have charged them with violating the Deceptive Business Practices Act.

    Other than someone intending to take a single L ride (thus being charged $2.25 instead of the $3 your mentioned), I wonder who would now use a bank card.

    And CTA knew that the $3.00 ticket was a fare increase, because they held a hearing on it, as mandated by federal law.

  • In reply to jack:

    In fairness to the CTA, "registering" your personal contactless card just means adding value to it as one normally would to a regular card at the vending machine. Nothing more, no personal info needed, no website, none of that.

    That's not to say I agree with this per se - it's bitten me in the ass when I forgot my wallet one day and had to pay for a ride home and a full-fare transfer using Google Wallet.

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    My biggest question is HOW Ventra accounts can go negative and get suspended? Why not stop letting people ride when their account doesn't have the sufficient fare amount? I've asked @VentraChicago this question many times (not a single customer service rep can give me an answer, nor can they refer to me to someone else who can) and all I get is radio silence. It is VERY frustrating.

    When our accounts go negative - just this morning, mine was -$4.25 - they get suspended, meaning we have to pay the fee before we're allowed to add a new pass on the card. If you try to add a pass on a suspended card/account because you don't realize that the account is negative, you get insufficient fare notification the next time you try to ride, despite the fact you have a new pass loaded on the card and your bank account has been debited.

    The whole thing might not be as painful and frustrating if Ventra would respond to our questions. And why don't the systems tell us when our passes are expiring (or better yet, stop giving rides when there is insufficient fare), instead of continuing to charge accounts until they're negative and get suspended?

  • In reply to holliecats:

    Yup. That's one reason I keep a small amount (i.e. $5.00) in the account, in addition to the monthly pass. It occurs when the card registers a double tap, and the 2nd tap is charged for a ride. Of course, as you note, the system should not allow one to pass if there isn't sufficient funds.

  • In reply to holliecats:

    It's a very good question. I had the same thing happen back when I initially transitioned. Seems like an easy software fix.

  • In reply to holliecats:

    Unlike the old transit cards or Chicago Cards (but similar to the Chicago Card Plus), your account balance is not recorded on the Ventra Card itself. Think about it: You can add money to your account online -- how would this transaction get recorded on your card?

    In the olden days when you put your transit card into the farebox, your remaining balance was on the magnetic stripe and the farebox would update the balance with the new value. The farebox could immediately tell whether or not you had any money left.

    With Ventra, your account balance is kept on Ventra's servers somewhere on the internet (in the "cloud"). The Ventra card readers have wireless data (exactly the same technology as your smart phone) to communicate with the Ventra server and tell the server each time you use the card so a fare can be deducted from your account.

    If you've used a smart phone you know that this technology is not flawless. Sometimes you are in areas where there is poor reception, sometimes the net is congested and response time is very slow, sometimes it's flakey for unexplainable reasons. Buses travel all over the city and run into these problems.

    If the Ventra reader had to wait for the server to check the balance each time and respond back, it could take hours to board the bus. If the bus was stopped at a spot with bad reception, you might never be able to let people board. So Ventra uses a secret algorithm to let people through without verifying their balance. They don't want to discuss this because people would quickly learn how to abuse this (even more than they do now). Some cards are checked, others aren't. I can't tell you how they decide.

    But the Ventra reader does record the transaction whether it is checked or not. And when it gets the opportunity, it transmits it to the servers. When they detect a card being abused, they put it on the "blacklist." Updates to the blacklist are continually transmitted to all the Ventra card readers in the system. When a rider attempts to use a card on the blacklist, the card is rejected. That is also why when you add value to a card, sometimes it takes a while for your card to work again -- the message removing your card from the blacklist may not have gone out yet (the system is backlogged) or an individual card reader may not have received the message due to poor reception or other problems.

    I'm not defending the system or saying that any of this is reasonable. You asked how it works and I'm just telling you.

  • In reply to HMPT:

    Sorry, I'm not buying it. I get on the #66 bus at Larrabee, and the readers are always rejecting cards due to poor reception in the area. If the reader didn't have to get a positive ack from the server, the cards would simply be waived through each time. You'd never see a rejected card unless they're simply randomly picked cards to reject.

    Also, my 2 double taps were at L stations. The stations have nearly flawless wireless reception. Both double taps were permitted on the first tap.

  • In reply to SpinyNorman:

    I had a couple of double taps as well up at Morse. I realized that *in my specific case* I was tapping as the person in front of me was going through the turnstile, and that it wasn't crediting a second person to go through.

    It seems like they've tweaked this lately. I notice that the orange light on the top (indicating that a tap won't be accepted) stays illuminated until the turnstile is rotated fully.

  • I rode two 22 Clark buses today.
    Three out of four people had to tap multiple times.
    I'll bet that Cubic never sells another system like this to another agency, anywhere!
    Only the CTA will be stuck with it & in a few years, they'll have to change yet again, that time, back to a standard RFID Card or phone payments.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    In fact, the Tarzhay mess, and Kevin Zolkiewicz get us back to a point you made a couple of years ago, which then I didn't fully comprehend, but now may come true.

    As I remember your point, it was that this was not the European chip card. At the time I thought it did not matter, but after Target it does.

    Kevin Z. pointed out that merchants are already in the process of installing card readers at checkout stands that have a slot at the bottom for the European cards, as well as the swipe on the side.. I don't know how it solves the problem, but I see that my local Target has also replaced its readers with those.

    Another thing that was debated here is who would have to pay if the technology adopted by Cubic became obsolete, but this indicates that it soon will. I sure hope that since CTA is paying $450 million for a monthly service, that cost will be on Cubic, but considering how badly it fouled up this transition, one can assume that it will foul up the next one.

  • In reply to jack:

    I think the Chip and PIN cards are considered more secure due to their 2-factor authorization.

  • In reply to chris:

    As I said, I don't know. However, since Kevin Z said they have to stay in the slot until the transaction is authorized (similar to the chip cards in touch screen voting machines), that's sure not going to speed up boarding or going through the turnstile (or using a credit card at the gas pump).

  • In reply to chris:

    Since you piqued my curiosity, here is an explanation of the chip and PIN card, and how the PIN provides the second factor of authentication.

    However, it isn't clear how this prevents the Target hack (unless what's encoded in the chip or the PIN couldn't be scraped off the reader), but more pertinent to the CTA situation is the point I made above that instead of just waving the RFID card, one would have to insert it and keep it inserted while entering the PIN.

    Also, I figure that the real reason near field smart phones are not accepted is that there would have to be an app with a transit wallet on it, instead of the year-old demonstration that the Ventra system could recognize a Google Wallet, but that would be charged the same as a bank card--cash fares.

    But clearly, the current system would be less open if, for instance, Chase replaced its Blink cards with the chip and PIN ones.

  • In reply to jack:

    There are dual-interface EMV cards that do both contact (chip) and contactless (RFID).


  • In reply to csyria:

    There are dual-interface EMV cards, but the contactless interface is different that the American interface. The American contactless interface (which Ventra implements) basically broadcasts the credit card information to the reader in clear text. The EMV contactless interface exchanges encrypted messages with the card reader.

    Chase was the only bank really trying to push contactless cards in the United States. Yes, other banks experimented and rolled out limited lines of cards. Chase has officially announced that they are giving up on contactless cards and will be replacing them as they expire with EMV cards that do not have a contactless interface.

    This leaves the CTA sitting with obsolescent technology.

    One of the reasons we needed Ventra so badly was that the chips in the old Chicago Cards were no longer being manufactured. Will the contactless chips used in Ventra Cards continue to be manufactured now that the banks are no longer demanding them? Only time will tell.

    It could be a good excuse to spend another half billion on a new system.

  • In reply to Hal4:

    Digital Transactions: Chase to Discontinue Its Blink Contactless Card


    Chicago Tribune: Chase replaces more MasterCards, discontinues Blink.


  • In reply to Hal4:

    Thanks for confirming my prediction.

    The only thing unclear in the reference is what Chase will be doing with its Visa debit cards, but one would assume that they are phasing out the Blink card there, too.

    Anyway, it reinforces that the fraud of "Ventra is an open system because it takes bank cards" is going to close.

    Also, I wonder if the Chase decision was motivated in part by that it was the first recipient of a complaint when Cubic charged a Chase card instead of a Ventra card when riders were waving their wallets over the reader.

  • In reply to Hal4:

    Thankfully, the readers inside the devices appear to be ISO 14443 standard devices (as evidenced by the fact that they responded to both a MIFARE DESFire and a MIFARE Plus card from another transit agency - with an error, but the cards were detected. Additionally, the Ventra Tickets are already MIFARE Ultralight). They may have to switch the physical fare media to a different chip and modify the software, but the underlying technology shouldn't go extinct anytime soon, and certainly not over the length of the contract.

  • "... except buses, where cash payments still will be allowed ..."

    And, in a large number of cases, at least a few of those paying with cash will take forever and a day to fish their $2.25 out of the depths of their bags/pockets/wallets.

    I realize that the whole idea of putting a bunch of cash aside in a Ventra card is unrealistic for many, but couldn't the fare be a nice round $2? $3? (Yeah, yeah ... I know $0.25 x MANY is lots of money ... just complaining.)

  • In reply to Blue:

    Which point up what I said a while back, when the 3 "reasons" for converting to Ventra were published, that "not needing to handle cash" was a lie.

  • In reply to jack:

    Yeah, I hoped they would eliminate it. But they should at least be handling less cash now.

  • In reply to chris:

    The only way is if Cubic clean the cash out the TVMs. which I doubt.

    Chicago Card Plus users had similar ways to charge their bank accounts, and the old TVMs took credit cards.

    And, as I noted then, CTA let a contract for money courier services. The only thing CTA eliminated was their own cash trucks.

  • In reply to jack:

    Very, very few TVMs took credit cards, and worse, they were split between "pass only" vending machines and machines that were capable of reloading magstripe cards.

    Additionally, god forbid you let your linked credit card expire on a CC+. My experience was that got deactivated (so declined at the turnstile with a cryptic error code), and then it took a good two or three days to start working again after I logged in on the website and fixed it.

  • Of course, implied by the first Sept. post is that the constant line at that time was that this was all the customers' fault. That story changed somewhat, didn't it?

  • The Ventra concept is fine, but the name is stupid.

  • As someone who gives advice on TripAdvisor, one of the problems that I see with Ventra is that visitors are forced to purchase a Ventra card in order to get a 3-day pass. The only "disposable" tickets offered are the 1-day pass (which is a rip-off and visitors know it) and the single ride ticket. The cost of the 3-day pass is effectively $25 and in addition it is not possible to have more than one pass active on a card at one time so a couple needs to purchase two Ventra cards that they will most likely just throw away once they are done with their visit.

  • In reply to eBob:

    I guess that's just another tourist tax like the $5 fare at O'Hare.

    They could theoretically buy the card, then go off and use their smart phone or voice phone to register the card and come back to buy the 3-day pass. (Yes, you can apply the Transit Value in your account towards the purchase price of a pass.) But realistically no one is going to do that, especially given how long the lines at the machines get at O'Hare.

    I wish there was a charity that could collect the unregistered Ventra Cards (or cards with some unneeded value left on them). A lot of good could be done if they somehow publicized "Leaving town? Mail your unused Ventra cards to ...." A lot more good could be done if they put in a collection box at the station, but the CTA would never stand for that.

  • Rode the 22 north from Devon around 7AM.
    It was a 4000 artic & the Ventra reader read "Not In Use". The driver hit a button that caused a beep for every passenger that boarded.
    He said that Cubic has to pay for us.
    Is that true?
    He also said it was that way since the Loop.
    At least I got a free ride out of the deal.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    Getting that "free" ride on the bus can actually cost you more money if you are transferring to the train.

    If you ride bus->train->bus the cost of the trip with transfers is $2.25, If you get a :"free" ride on the first bus, then the remaining train->bus ride is $2.50.

    It's only a quarter, but it still ticks me off that I have to pay extra if the Ventra reader on the first bus is broken.

  • In reply to Hal4:

    Nope, just buses today. No trains.

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