Tuesday, April 28, 2009

CTA's Chicago Card - An Embarassing Failure

Apparently Ron Huberman, Chicago Transit Authority's previous president, decided nothing more could be done to fix the CTA and moved on to bigger and better things, like screwing up the Chicago Public Schools. His short tenure at CTA certainly didn't help the situation with the CTA fare structure or electronic fare media, rather he made it worse. He left the CTA with a complete disaster in it's Chicago Card and Chicago Card program. Many people complain about the system and the various problems with paying fares. The Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus programs are now complete failures in just about every way, but they didn't start that way.

When the Chicago Card, a smart card system, was first introduced, back in 2002, the idea was to speed fare payment and reduce the need for people to use cash while traveling with the CTA (The CTA would also be able to reduce frequency it collected cash from buses and stations, and reduce maintenance on those systems). I had just moved to Chicago at the time and immediately signed up for a Chicago Card Plus, which would be linked to my credit card. Periodically, the Chicago Card would be reloaded by charging my credit card automatically. When paying on the bus or train you would simply touch the card to the reader and your fare would be paid. You didn't even have to take the card out of your wallet or pocket. This system was a very good way to pay fares. They even made some incentives to get people to use the card. Every $20 that was reloaded on the card would earn you a 10% bonus. So you would get $22 worth of fare for the price of $20. When boarding the CTA the card would significantly speed the fare paying process, especially useful on buses. Finally any fares on the card would be protected in case the card was lost or stolen.

In 2006, the CTA made a major change to the fare structure which allowed people paying by Chicago Card or Chicago Card Plus to pay $0.25 less than the regular fare. This was another significant incentive to get people to switch to the card, and in theory made more people start using the card. During much of this time the $5 fee to obtain a card was waived. Why would you continue to pay cash or use the magnetic cards when the Chicago Card was cheaper. For daily commuters, a no brainer right?

Well in 2008 the CTA again raised fares, this time they eliminated the financial advantages to paying with a Chicago Card. Chicago Card users would now pay the same price as magnetic card users, though fares paid with cash on buses would still cost $0.25 more. With this fare structure there is absolutely no reason for a person to get a Chicago Card except for the advantage of having your fare protected. Are protected fares really worth the hassle? I ride a south bound bus from the loop most evenings on my way home. I would estimate 80% of the riders still pay with the magnetic cards or with cash. It frustrates me to no end having to wait behind a line of people slowing taking their time to fish out their cards and insert them into the fare machine. What about the "go-lane" the CTA said would be in effect on buses and even advertises on the buses to this day? Bus drives still routinely make people re-swipe their Chicago Cards when they try to skirt past a person paying with magnetic card or cash because the system can't display two fares at once, even though the fare is still recorded from the Chicago Card. So again, no time savings due to stupid bus drivers.

What was once a good idea now suffers from poor implementation and bureaucracy. The CTA could have continued to offer incentives to get most people to switch to the cards but instead they are right back to where they started in 1998, with the majority of people paying with magnetic cards and slowing everyone else down. You want to know why you have no money CTA? It is because you fail at even the most basic attempts to make things better. I won't even talk about the ctabustracker.com, and it's failure to prevent bus bunching, or the fancy bus shelters that do nothing to shelter you, but give JC Decaux some nice advertising revenue, but those are for different posts.

I was motivated to write this post primarily because of my recent MAJOR problem with my Chicago Card Plus. On 4/17/09 I discovered that someone had stolen my credit card number and used it to get themselves a free ipod or something through an affiliate marketing scheme. (Why would I want diet pills, collagen pills and ANOTHER Netflix subscription on top of the one I already have? - but again, for another post). I had to cancel that credit card and get a new one that Chase took their sweet time to send to me. Meanwhile, on 4/21/09 CTA tries to charge the cancelled credit card because I had reached $0 on my Chicago Card, it was declined of course and they sent me an email saying so. That same day I switched the card# on the CTA account to my backup credit card. My credit card was promptly charged, and they sent me another email on 4/22/09 saying it was "re-activated" and "should be available for use within 3 business days." Great I thought, perhaps they will update the system and it will be ready to use again before the 3 days end. I was actually able to use it on the bus on 4/22/09, but on 4/23/09 it did not work, and I was forced to pay cash (luckily I anticipated this and brought exact change with me.) No bohter I thought, the system will update again overnight and tomorrow it should be working.

I figured if it took them an extra day to de-activate the card, it would take them only one day to re-activate the card. After all, computer systems these days are pretty quick about updating changes. It was not to be. I tried using the card on Friday, but it was again declined and I again paid with cash. Would it work on Saturday? Nope - this time I had a magnetic card to use. Ok - so now Monday rolls around. It has been 3 business days by now and the Chicago Card should be working right? WRONG! Still not working, I again pay with magnetic card. I am getting pissed now. The system should have had more than enough time to update by now. I try again on Tuesday morning, guess what....still not working. Now I am motivated enough to call CTA and get this thing fixed. It is a pain to keep having to refill the magnetic card at the train station.

Today is 4/28/09 and I call CTA. After 15 minutes figuring out their phone menu and hold music the phone representative, who seems thrilled (not) to talk with me checks my account, and asks when was the last time I tried to use my card? I said this morning, yesterday morning, etc... She said, oh well you kept using it so the system never unlocked it and now a manager/supervisor/someone has to unlock it. I told her the email was definitely not clear that you couldn't use the card for 3 days or face it being locked - and rather it said the opposite that it would be working WITHIN 3 days, meaning that it might be 1 day, 2 days etc.... How could I possibly know exactly when it would start working without testing?!?!? Then she went on to say that she turned the card back on, but it wouldn't start working again for ANOTHER 3 business days!!!! Not until Monday 5/4/09. But she assured me it would be working on Mondya. As you can see - this whole thing is totally ridiculous. No computer system on this planet should work this way, especially not a system that serves the public.

I hear people tell stories about transit systems in other cities, and other countries and I have to think that Chicago's is the absolute worst - at least the CTA. Metra is another story, their trains seem to usually arrive on time, are generally clean and typically travel quickly. Perhaps I won't mind commuting on Metra if/when I eventually move to the burbs. CTA has so many problems and I can't see how it can ever justify fare increases. As nice as it may seem on the exterior it really is a steaming pile of garbage, but what isn't these days.