CTA bus and train riders still coming to grips with Ventra could be paying fares in the not-too-distant future using smartphones and other mobile devices, at least those that can "tap" to transfer information, the transit agency has told Getting Around.
The CTA and its fare-collection contractor, Cubic Transportation Systems Inc., are testing the smartphone payment method, one that has been a goal the transit agency set long before it hired Cubic in 2011 to develop and manage the Ventra fare-payment system. Ventra allows riders on the CTA and Pace to use personal credit and debit cards that have contactless technology, as well as Ventra cards or cash to pay fares on buses and at rail stations.
On the CTA and Pace, Ventra will eventually allow riders to load fare value onto payment-enabled mobile devices.
The stumbling block is that only a small number of smartphones, tablets and other portable devices sold in the U.S. market now feature the technology that is compatible with Ventra readers that the CTA and Pace use. The iPhone 5 is among the devices that doesn't.
That technology is called near field communication, or NFC. Devices that have it can transfer information from one to another by being close together, or "tapping," according to experts.
"CTA and Cubic are testing the limited number of NFC-enabled devices currently on the market with the goal of having the system used for both buses and trains," CTA spokesman Brian Steele said. "So far we haven't run into any problems, but we are still testing."
An announcement could come later this year, Steele said.
A different kind of mobile payment technology can already be found at commuter rail agencies in California, Texas and Massachusetts, which allow their customers to use smartphones to show proof of payment when conductors walk through cars to collect fares. An image on the screen, ranging from a bar code to a color scheme that is valid for a particular day, provides confirmation that a ticket or a pass was purchased, officials said.
"Smartphone ticketing is going to be the way to go in the future," said Martin Schroeder, chief technology officer at the American Public Transportation Association, which is the trade group representing U.S. transit agencies. "It can replace the ticket vending machine, right there in your hands, without riders having to wait in line, and it also provides flexibility in selecting payment methods."
Since 2012, Amtrak has offered an electronic-ticketing program on its national network that lets passengers use smartphones to present their e-tickets to conductors. The conductors use iPhones with an optical reader attachment to scan the quick response code, or QR code, displayed on the customers' smartphone screens.
Benefits include being able to skip the line at ticket counters and go directly to the departure gate, said Matt Hardison, Amtrak's chief marketing and sales officer. Passengers without smartphones can print their tickets at home or at Amtrak e-ticket kiosks. The paper tickets also contain the QR code.
"Using the phone is so much easier than carrying around a paper ticket," Amtrak passenger Alex Navarro said Friday as he pulled up his ticket on his email while riding a train from Chicago to St. Louis to visit friends.
"To be honest, you don't always equate Amtrak with efficiency, but this is great," said Navarro, 24, who lives in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood.
Erick Newsome, a veteran Amtrak conductor, said employees were a bit apprehensive about the new system at first, "but as it progressed and all the bugs were removed, we wouldn't trade it for the world."
Metra, which is not participating in Ventra yet, is planning to conduct a smartphone-ticketing pilot project starting about June, officials said.
"We have been looking at the mobile-ticketing programs at a variety of commuter railroads," including in the regions around Dallas, Boston, Philadelphia and south Florida, as well as some prototypes that are not yet in use, said Metra spokesman Michael Gillis.
State legislation requires the CTA, Metra and Pace to adopt a single, shared fare-payment method by 2015.
In the meantime, the CTA still allows magnetic-stripe transit cards and the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus, but they will be eliminated. The phase-out of those cards, originally scheduled to have been completed in mid-December, has been delayed until further notice due to glitches with Ventra since the $454 million system was introduced in late summer, transit officials have said.
CTA officials said the QR code system that Amtrak uses would not work on the CTA, partly for technological reasons but also because of the CTA's gated entries at rail stations and its large passenger volumes.
The CTA fare system is fully electronic and does not include verification of payment by agency personnel. Also, lining up a QR code on a screen with an optical reader can take a couple of seconds. The Ventra readers are supposed to scan cards in a half-second or less, although the system has initially failed to meet that standard.
With the relatively small number of NFC-enabled smartphones and other mobile devices available in the U.S., no widespread interface currently exists to tap or swipe the majority of devices in use on the gated systems operated by transit agencies, said Schroeder, the technology expert at the American Public Transportation Association.
NFC is growing in the U.S. but not very quickly, Schroeder said.
How soon the transformation occurs will depend on the handset manufacturers who will put NFC in the phones, and on merchants, whose stores are outfitted with bar code readers, he said. Retailers are not sure there is enough value to them to invest in NFC. And the banking industry is promoting the bank cards as the way to go for transit, because those smartcards already exist and can interface with transit, he said.
But pointing to trends in Asia and Europe, Schroeder said "mobile phones are the ultimate application for transit."
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