In Chicago, a sophisticated new rail fare system that doesn't work
A CTA bus in Chicago, Illinois. (taken on December 19, 2012)
Maybe you've heard this one: Government attempts major upgrades to a service that people depend on -- and everyone's required to join. But the online sign-up process is buggy, and there are other rude surprises.
You haven't heard this particular one, unless you live in Chicago, where a public transportation mess has been on the front page.
About two weeks ago, Bob Fioretti got a "courtesy call" about his payment card for the Chicago Transit Authority's new farebox system. He hadn't activated it -- had he gotten an email with his temporary password?
No, he hadn't.
Fioretti knew his old card was going to expire in a few weeks.
"I said, 'I'd better get this card activated one way or another.'"
But that email never showed up, and the website for the new fare system, which is called "Ventra," was a mess. He called the help line.
"It ring ring rings, and then I was put on hold for about 45 minutes," he says.
Eventually he hung up. He called a couple more times over the next few days. Same result. Here's where some Chicagoans might call their alderman. Except, Fioretti is an alderman.
The Ventra system opened for business in early September, and the old payment system was scheduled to shut down starting in mid-November.
Two months in, the cards don't always work. When they do, riders complain they’re sometimes double-charged. And then there’s the help line.
Last week, the transit union head demanded that the CTA hold off on the transition, until the kinks got worked out. He said his members were already getting cussed out by enough angry riders.
Yesterday, CTA President Forrest Claypool issued a simple apology: "The bottom line is that too many of our customers are confused and frustrated, and that’s our fault."
He also said that, yes, they’ll wait to shut down the old payment system until the new one is fixed. Including the help line. And the contractor behind the system won’t get a nickel till it happens.
Did the city just pick the wrong contractor? Cubic Transportation Systems has some pretty good credits: New York City. Washington D.C. London.
Joseph Schwieterman, who teaches transit and urban policy at DePaul University in Chicago, thinks part of the problem may be Ventra’s all-or-nothing setup.
"In a lot of cities, the stakes are less," he says. "In D.C., you can always buy a paper card and the smart card's a bonus."
The bigger mistake may have been trying to go too fast.
"This could have been a year rollout," Schwieterman says. "'Everybody relax. You got time to hear from your friends how it works.'"
Instead, CTA tried to force everyone to be an early adopter. Which doesn’t describe your average Chicago strap-hanger.
"Their whole rhythm's thrown out of whack and they say "WHY?" Schweiterman says.
Plus, having a smartcard system isn’t new here.
"We’ve had a card for a while. It’s called the Chicago Card."
The new card will offer more features. But the old one actually works today.
Meanwhile, Bob Fioretti says he still hasn’t gotten an email with his password. But in Chicago fashion, he knows a guy: The chairman of the city council’s transportation committee. Fioretti expects to start holding hearings later this month.