CTA to dump fare cards, move to credit cards, other fare modes

So long CTA-issued transit and smart cards. Hello contact-less credit cards, debit cards and prepaid cards for fare payments.

new fare cards.jpg

Starting this month the CTA will look at all the options to put itself out of the business of providing fare payment cards. That includes “considering possible procedures, management and cost of the program,” according to a CTA press release. “After reviewing these proposals and developing a final plan, the second phase will give companies the opportunity to submit proposals for the actual implementation of the program.”

The idea is to partner with a bank issuing a credit or debit card to push the cost of producing the card onto the card issuer.

“The farecard would be a smart card containing a computer chip that
allows customers to pay a fare and also serves as a standard credit or
debit card tied to a customer’s bank or credit card account. A prepaid
card could provide the option for customers who choose not to have the
card tied to a bank account.”

The New York City Transit System piloted such a program in 2007 with Citi and MasterCard on its Lexington Line. Later this year they will expand it to include rail, bus and heavy rail, affecting 1.5 million daily rides.

The official quote from CTA board chairwoman Carole Brown:

“With this new system, customers would benefit from the faster boarding
times and ease of use as nearly all fare transactions would be

(CTA graphics)


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  • Now...I'm all about change, but this sounds like it is going to get a little complicated. What about tourists, and people new to Chicago? Or am I just taking this in the wrong way?

  • When my credit cards were recently renewed, they advertised Blink credit card technology which sounds like the cards could be waved at a reader like a CTA Chicago Card. I wonder if they could use those without even a special arrangement?

  • What about people with lousy/nonexistent credit?

  • There's a pre-pay option for those who can't or don't want to obtain the credit/debit cards. I do wonder how CTA will handle occasional riders, whether tourists or locals who don't ride often. Will CTA take cash from these riders? If so the fare equipment will still have to be in place on buses and how will riders board the train without a card?

  • Absolutely not. I don't want my movements tracked. There is enough surveillance already. Besides, when I did have a Smart Card, I got charged double and triple many times for one ride. This is a terrible idea (as bad as the "pay with your fingerprint" at the grocery store idea, which failed). No no no. I'll walk first.

  • I'd like to buy everyone a round of fares. Put it on my card!

  • I think the "blink" and the prepay option will take care of questions like the tourist and no credit ones. Just as you can go to Jewel and Dominick's and buy all sorts of gift cards, you should be able to buy one with the CTA chip there.

    In fact, the chip may become fairly universal, as the RTA has said that the other service boards should also be required to use this technology.

    And while occasional riders probably won't buy Chicago Cards, there is very little burden on them getting the credit card or or the prepaid cards, which can be used for other things than the CTA.

  • I like the idea, but they will need to make purchasing these pre-paid cards a little easier for tourists and occasional riders. Perhaps setting up machines at hotels, Union Station, Michigan Avenue, and McCormick Place would help.

    I do like the idea of going cash-less though.

  • I believe the whole point is to get the CTA out of the Transit Card and Chicago Card business. The CTA does not intend to be issuing any cards, whether good on the CTA or at a merchant.

    More than likely, you would have to purchase something like the Westfield Visa or Discover gift card (good at any merchant, and with the chip, on the CTA). It would depend on what bank gets the CTA contract, and maybe you already bank there.

    As far as going cashless, if the bank that gets the contract has adequate distribution of the cards, I see that being no more onerous than having gone to exact fare 40 years ago. People then complained about "what if I don't have exact change," but somehow got over it.

  • I guess the question that begs to be asked is how would this affect those who participate in commuter benefits programs through their employment? As far as I know, those cards are not attached to any bank account.

  • In reply to TEKKY:

    Actually, a couple of years ago the benefits management company used by my employer forced all users of the commuter benefits program here to get debit cards used only for the sake of recharging our Chicago Cards. We're paid twice a month, so $42 (or whatever) is deducted from each paycheck and direct-deposited to the account tied to the card. So benefits management companies have been headed this way for some time.

    It doesn't really matter to me whether I have an RFID-equipped Chicago Card or an RFID-equipped debit card that the CTA recognizes as a monthly pass. And when the pass readers have screwed up and double-charged me or inadvertently switched me to pay-per-use after transfers in rapid succession, CTA customer service has always quickly confirmed the issue and resolved the situation as soon as I emailed them. I don't have much sympathy for resistance to change and I have even less for the tinfoil hatters worried about being "tracked."

  • In reply to BobS:

    I'm not sure what you mean by tracking. If you mean the online log of your CTA travels, I'm with you.

    But there is real concern about "tracking" the cards themselves. The information on them can be read at a much greater distance than you would guess. With I-PASS or Walmart's proposed use of RFID to replace bar codes that is actually the point. But extending reading-at-a-distance to bank cards is something that careful thought has to be put into and it's not obvious that it has.

    The first round of these cards found that hackers can pretty easily get personal information that has been stored without encryption.

    If someone read my Chicago Card I couldn't care less. The most they could do with it would be to defraud the CTA of a few rides.

    If they read my credit/debit card on the other hand...

  • In reply to poreef:

    Here is a brief intro to the issue.


    Keep in mind that not all "encyrption" is the same. There was a big scandal a while back where a bunch of MIT kids broke the CharlieCard and its fare payment system, the MBTA equivalent of the Chicago card. I don't think it had anything to do with RFID, just a bad encryption scheme in the system.

    Potentially (AHEM), contracting with VISA (etc.) might be better than whatever cousin of Daley got the Chicago Card contract because they've got pros working on the problem.

  • In reply to TEKKY:

    I love this idea. If you don't like the credit card tie, then using the prepaid cards solves this problem easily. Cash fare should still be allowed at an additional cost (say 25%) and while it gets phased in, buses drivers could sell prepaid cards on the bus (at a smaller additional expense, say 10%, with a minimum balance of $10-$20). This would encourage people to adopt the new system and penalize those who don't.

  • In reply to TEKKY:

    Actually, none of these details have been worked out yet, according to the CTA's own website, where it says: "The first phase of the procurement process will examine the CTA's options for developing the card

  • In reply to TEKKY:

    Confused as to what this actually means for the ChicagoCard. I just got mine in the mail yesterday!

  • In reply to TEKKY:

    See above, Shari. No one yet knows how existing cards will factor in to this plan, because the first step is studying the issue and developing a strategy. And it's probably several years from implementation, so nothing will be happening right away.

  • In reply to Joe001:

    Hmmm, okay. Thanks!

  • In reply to Joe001:

    SUICA is still in use, but Japan's trains are being supplanted by P A S M O. It's a credit | debit card which also has non-transit uses.
    More significantly, P A S M O has attracted the JR to be included.
    I submit that there should be a bonus for people to convert to the new payment instruments.

  • In reply to Joe001:

    As long as the CTA keeps charging me with "passbacks" every time a surly driver makes me swipe my card two or three times, I don't think I'll be using a credit card, thanks.

  • In reply to TEKKY:

    This new system will cause so many problems. I see it. But there is good to it. Less transitCard litter.

  • In reply to TEKKY:

    What happens to those of us who use the transit benefit through work?

  • In reply to TEKKY:

    Cheryl, it's too early to say. They are just starting to figure out the details, which is the "Phase 1" they are talking about. This is a long way from being implemented.

  • In reply to TEKKY:

    This sounds just like the parking meter mess. Watch out for the fairs to go up.

  • In reply to TEKKY:

    Here goes another complaint. The card reader at either Quincy or 54/Cermack don't wor properly. I called CTA Chicago Card today to ask for an accounting of trips and fares. Whe I questioned the accounting I was given you would think I had slapped the CSR in the mouth. These card steal money...I want my money so I can continue to ride the glorius CTA.

  • In reply to TEKKY:

    I also see today that there will be new spending for CTA & RTA to improve service. When you think about improvement please think about us older workers that don't ride for free and are still working. Put more elevators at the stations in the loop. I had a heart attack in November 2008. When I came back in March I realized ther was no elevator at Quincy so I have to walk down to Washington or climb the steps at Quincy. Help us out here.

  • In reply to Moshucat:

    In the early 1980s, The Loop Elevated was determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. An agreement with the US Department of the Interior and the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office protected the Loop Elevated structure but only required the restoration of one station, Quincy.
    Thus it is extremely unlikly that Quincy will ever get an elevator.

  • In reply to TEKKY:

    Moshucat, you can call back and ask to speak with a supervisor if you believe you were overcharged.

  • I do agree that moving payment equipment, cards, tokens, whatever out of the agency hands is better and it will provide better accounting at the RTA level since we appear to be able to get more "transparency' from private firms than our own government despite actions this week over in Springfield. We can't give up the power to control fees though (ala Chicago parking meter business) - just look for a partner with experience in this sort of transaction - look at the global players too bc transit is second to the car in this nation.

    We are becoming more and more cashless anyway (Internet payments, I-Pass, Gift Cards, etc.) It will make fares easier to change (ok not a good thing but inevitable that costs change for any service) and gives the CTA flexibility if they want to move to the pay by zone system that other mass transit uses (Metra uses it). Either a Visa logo card is issued and it can be used for other purchases or you have to build up another logo-ed system like SUICA in Japan or I-Pass for the Tollway. Maybe I-Pass could issue a touch card or a 'token' for consumers and we would swipe that once to get into the subway/El and swipe again to get out and it would charge the amount based on distance moved on the system (same thing could be done for Metra today as a pilot). For bus folks, everyone pays a flat rate when they leave and we look at new bus equipment with two sets of rear doors to speed up entrance (though this has somewhat of the honor system implied but the majority of people in the world are honest so it's a good risk). For ADA riders, they would still need help by the driver in the front but at least the front of the bus could be clearer for ADA, elderly, pregnant passengers instead of sardine city while the rear of the bus is free swim. Maybe our drivers can comment on whether pay when you leave is practical in Chicago. Visitors would buy a pass on sale at airports, interstate bus stations, train stations, hotels where they would sell daily, 3 day, 5 day, 7 day passes at a discount (customer would show airline/train ticket or hotel would know who their guests are). For the fee of the token, there could be a fee associated for that and it is returned when the token is returned at the end of a visitor's trip or they could keep it as a way to remember their trip or use it next time they visit.

  • I like this concept too. I believe the CTA would be better off keeping their card and working to get merchants to accept it. If restaurants, shops, vending machines etc. all accepted the Chicago Card, that would be fantastic. It works in other markets.

    Also the "blink" credit cards represent a theft risk, your credit card can be stolen by someone with an RFID scanner without them ever coming into contact with the person or card.

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