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Metra Boarding

Marisa Paulson/MEDILL

Metra riders board a UP-NW train at the Jefferson Park Transit Center. Metra hasn't been as quick to embrace new technologies, and may be one of the reasons Chicago doesn't have a single transit card for Metra, CTA and Pace yet, according to Ian Savage of Northwestern University's Transportation Center.

Single transit card for CTA, Metra, Pace closer to becoming reality

by Marisa Paulson
Feb 22, 2012

Related Links

One fare card for CTA, Metra and Pace? All talk

Timeline for exploring a single card

Technical Work: late February/early March

Surveys: April/May
Preliminary Model: October
User Manual and Training: January-March 2013

Final Report: April 2013

Those commuters who use a combination of Chicago’s transit agencies—CTA, Metra and Pace—soon will only have to carry one single “open payment” smart card, or maybe even just their smartphone, instead of juggling cards, passes and stickers to transfer.

That day is a few years away, but the Regional Transportation Authority voted Wednesday to develop and implement a regional fare model that brings them much closer to that goal of seamless transfers.

One expert endorsed the move on Wednesday.

“Hopefully, they have enough time to think about it, meet, agree and do it. It can be only beneficial for riders of all service boards,” said Paul Metaxatos, associate director for research programs and research assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Transportation Center.

Last July, Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation giving the RTA until 2015 to develop a fare card usable on all three transit systems. In response, RTA sought bids in the fall and selected the TransSystems Corporation team, the lowest bidder, to consult on a regional fare model. The team’s sub-consultants that will take care of 27 percent of the project are Cambridge Systematics Inc., CR Market Surveys Inc. and cmQue Inc.

The total cost of the 15-month contract that began Wednesday is $416,165, but 80 percent will be provided by the Illinois Department of Transportation through a Unified Work Program grant.

Since RTA is grappling with very different fare models—for example, Metra fares are distance-based while CTA and Pace fares are fixed—months of surveys and analysis are required to determine ridership and revenue impacts.

“It’s a complicated issue, obviously, because the fare systems for the three agencies are different,” Metaxatos said. “They have to agree how the revenue will be shared and develop an instrument that will accommodate their agreement.”

The regional fare model will be built in modular fashion, with stand-alone CTA, Metra, Pace and interagency modules, which will allow each service board to use its stand-alone module for internal budgeting and planning.

While this is an exciting move for Chicago commuters, the city is frankly a little late to the universal fare card party.

Hong Kong has the “Octopus” card, which was introduced in 1997 and can be used on the city’s railways, buses, taxis, trams and ferries, as well as for parking and many convenience and retail stores.

Paris’ “Navigo” card was introduced in 2001 and can be used across several transit agencies on the city’s metro, buses, trains and even rental bikes.

And London’s “Oyster” card was issued in 2003 and the 43 million cards that have been issued are good for journeys on the Tube, bus, tram, Docklands Light Railway, London Overground and most National Rail services. More than 80 percent of all public transit trips in London are made using an Oyster card, according to a Transport for London release last year.

But regional fare cards aren’t only found across the pond: Washington, D.C.’s SmarTrip, first sold in 1999, was the first contact-less smart card for public transit in the U.S. While they could only be used on the Metrorail system at first, they soon were be able to be used on Metrobuses, as well as buses and vans across several transit agencies and some parking garages.

The San Franciso Bay Area’s “Clipper” card – formerly known as TransLink – was tested in 2002 and introduced in its current form in 2010. It can be used for seven transit agencies in the Bay Area. By the end of last year, 1 million Clipper cards had been issued, according to San Francisco’s RTA equivalent, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Ian Savage, associate chair of Northwestern University’s economics department, has studied urban transit for decades, often focusing on revenues, costs and optimal fares.

Savage, who is affiliated with the university's Transportation Center, said that a single transit card has been a goal ever since the RTA was established back in 1974.

“Here we are, 30 or 40 years on, and you still can’t even link up in any effective way from CTA train to Metra to bus on a common card,” Savage said. “It’s kind of an embarrassment that we don’t yet have this. I think there have been some technological issues, but issues that are not insurmountable.”

Savage said that Metra may be to blame for the years of inaction on a single transit card.

CTA introduced the smart Chicago Cards in 2002, followed by the Chicago Card Plus in 2004. Savage said the cards grew out of RTA initiatives. Metra didn’t even accept credit card payments at stations until 2010.

“Metra has clearly been a sticking point here,” Savage said. “I’m in favor of the distance-based fares, but I think Metra has been a very conservative agency as far as fare technology is concerned.”

Savage said he just hopes that RTA and its service boards can move fast enough. He said that credit card companies are examining small payments, which would allow public transit riders to pay their fare with the same card they already use for larger purchases.

“In some ways, they could see an effective credit card company doing this for them,” Savage said. “The more that they dally, the more likely they may get taken over by technology.”