How smart payments make Chicago’s transit systems work as one

Thu, 2016-12-15 12:19 -- SCC Partner

For commuters, what really matters is getting to their destination in a timely manner. One way to deliver for them: Make it very easy to use mass transit.

In Chicago, smart payments are becoming a key way of delivering that. As you’ll read below, commuting there was harder than it needed to be. The area was served by three transit operators, each with their own payment systems.

Today, a unified payment system brings the three together. That unification was mandated by the state, but the operators did more than simply unify their payment systems. They used that requirement as an opportunity to serve riders like never before.

Travelers no longer have to track down a vending machine. They can manage an entire trip through their smartphones or tablets — and with some devices, can even board by just tapping their phone.

Sound like a system your commuters would like? Read on to see how Cubic Transportation Systems developed it. — Kevin Ebi


By Cubic Transportation Systems

For years, Chicago-area commuters relied on their Chicago Card smart cards and magnetic-strip transit cards to move around the third-largest metropolitan area in the U.S. via the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and suburban bus operator Pace, two of the region’s three main public transit operators.  To ride Metra, the region’s commuter rail system, riders used a separate, traditional “proof-of-payment” system with paper tickets that were visually inspected on board by conductors. 

When a new Illinois state law required the three agencies to adopt a universal fare system by 2015, the CTA partnered with Cubic Transportation Systems to simplify and modernize fare payment systems in Chicago.

CTA and Pace in 2013 launched Ventra, the open standards account-based fare payment system developed by Cubic.  A game changer for commuters, Ventra supported both agency-issued smart cards as well as open payments.  With Ventra, transit customers can now use Ventra fare cards to load transit value or unlimited-ride passes for use on CTA and Pace. Travelers can also utilize a “pay as you go” option, enabling them to use the contactless bankcards they already owned or mobile wallets such as Apple Pay and Samsung Pay.

As an account-based system, Ventra offers Chicagoland commuters the ability to fund and manage their account online through a dedicated website, where they can easily view transit balances as well as add transit value and purchase passes.  In fact, the system was so well-received that in 2015, the CTA and Cubic were recognized with the “Best New Innovative Practice-Partnership Deployment” by ITS America.

The implementation of the Ventra fare card system was just the first step in Chicago’s journey towards more convenient, modern commuting. In November 2015, two years after the Ventra system’s launch, CTA, Pace, Metra and Cubic introduced the Ventra app — a free, first-of-its-kind, regional transit application for fare purchases to ride on all three transit systems.

The app gives CTA, Metra and Pace customers a one-stop shop for all of their travel needs, offering Metra mobile tickets, allowing on-the-go account management including real-time account alerts, the ability to see purchase and travel history and real-time transit tracker information for all three transit systems. By simply using their smartphone or tablet, travelers are able to immediately add transit value or passes — a particular benefit to the region’s bus customers, who may not have easy access to Ventra vending machines located at rail stations.

An instant hit with customers, the Ventra app captured the Innovation Award from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) this year. Immediately after the launch, it became the second-most popular app on the North American iTunes app store. The app was downloaded more than one million times in less than a year from its launch and Chicago-area transit commuters have used the app to purchase more than $110 million in fares.

In the future, the app will allow users to load a virtual Ventra card onto NFC-enabled mobile phones, essentially turning any compatible smartphone into a fare device and feature a door-to-door trip planning application. These new features will widen the definition of smart travel in Chicago and make the app even more useful to transit commuters.   

Perhaps the most useful aspect of Ventra is the flexibility of the system, which is guaranteed through a combination of the account-based Ventra backend and the Ventra app. This makes fare collection infinitely scalable and means the system — and the app — can be easily adapted to other regions in the country.  Award winning and easy-to-use, Ventra will ensure that a truly integrated, intelligent and more efficient public transport service becomes a reality in the U.S.