A CTA trains passes through the Tower 18 junction near the Clark/Lake station. (Heather Charles / Chicago…)
It's time for change, Chicago. Or rather, it's time for Ventra.
Change, tokens, magnetic stripe cards, Chicago Cards—the CTA's been there, done that over the past 50 years. Now Ventra is set to completely replace magnetic stripe and Chicago Cards likely sometime soon (though cash still will be accepted on buses).
Fare payment system changes are rare, and the transition to Ventra hasn't been smooth. Ventra was supposed to replace Chicago Cards and magnetic stripe cards last year, but the CTA relaxed those deadlines so glitches could be fixed. The CTA reported this month that Ventra is meeting its performance goals, but no date has been set for full transition.
Riders have complained about difficulties in transferring Chicago Card Plus balances and long customer service waits.
Elizabeth Lindau of Uptown reported having problems transferring her balance from her Chicago Card Plus to her Ventra. In the meantime, she used magnetic stripe cards while she waited for her money to appear on her Ventra.
"The Chicago Card Plus seemed to always work, and there were no problems," said Lindau, 38. "You should be pay for your fare without tons of hassle."
For longtime CTA riders, it may be hard to part with the fare payment methods they've used for years. The CTA introduced the disposable magnetic stripe cards in 1997, while the Chicago Card system began in 2000. Chicago Card Plus, which allowed riders to automically replenish their balance, began in 2004.
Before riders began transitioning to Ventra in August, 75 percent of CTA rides were paid for with magnetic stripe cards (including senior cards and university passes); 19 percent of rides stemmed from Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus; and 6 percent of rides were paid for with cash on buses.
Colleen Curry of North Park said she was looking forward to Ventra because Washington, D.C., has a similar smart card, which she said works well when she's used it. Curry said she's run into a few snags with Ventra customer service but has adapted.
"The sign-in system online, that works really well. I don't have any problems," Curry said. "It's easy to look up your payment history."
Bill Vandervoort, a train enthusiast who has run the CTA history site chicagorailfan.com since 1996, said CTA riders are not known for accepting change easily.
"There has been a resistance toward change even if the changes make sense," Vandervoort said. "Sometimes people are nostalgic about tokens."
Vandervoort, who grew up in Chicago, said he's paid for fares with cash, disposable cards and tokens (which were discontinued in 1999 after more than 70 years in various forms).
He said he recently transitioned to Ventra from Chicago Card Plus but prefers his old Chicago Card Plus because he didn't have to take that card out of his wallet to tap, as Ventra readers can also scan certain bank cards.
"I liked it better, but I am willing to adapt to change," Vandervoort said.
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