Check out the recent transit-related posts on the Active Trans blog, Write of Way. 

 

Sorting out the pros and cons of CTA’s new Ventra Card

Sorting out the pros and cons of CTA’s new Ventra Card

If you read Wednesday’s Tribune headline, "CTA's Ventra debit option rife with fees," you might wonder why CTA is sticking transit riders with a bunch of new fees. Read beyond the headline, and you’ll find that’s a bit overstated.

Let’s start with this: The new Ventra card will be very similar to the current Chicago Card as a touch-and-go, reloadable transit fare card for CTA and PACE. There are two big changes coming that we know of.

  1. People with state-of-the-art credit cards will be able to use those to pay transit fares and won’t need a Ventra card. Fewer cards in your wallet and streamlined payment — nice!
  2. You will have the OPTION to use the Ventra card as a debit card to buy things like food, clothes, etc. from retailers. In short, Ventra gives you a transit account and an optional debit account for other purchases. This is what the Tribune story focuses on, and we can thank them for alerting us to these fees, which will help people decide whether to opt for the debit feature.

As with any debit card you would get from a bank or Master Card, you'll pay various fees — fees that are often lost in the fine print until you get your bill — to use and manage the debit function. So, if you don’t want to deal with the fees or just don’t need another debit/credit card, then don’t activate the debit function on the Ventra card. Let’s hope this is clear and people don’t accidentally register for the debit feature.

At the same time, I fear some people might read the news articles and think all these new fees apply to paying for transit with Ventra, which they don’t. So how does Ventra compare to the Chicago Card in that respect? Lose your card, pay $5 for replacement — same as the Chicago Card.

There are some new transit account fees we don’t like, including the “dormancy” fee of $5/month that would be assessed for accounts that are inactive 18 months or more. And we hear employers will be charged $1.50 per month for making pre-tax transit benefit payments on behalf of their employees. Currently, RTA charges 50 cents per month and the CTA/Chicago Card nothing. This fee increase makes the transit benefit less attractive for employers to participate in.

There is much discussion about what Ventra means for “unbanked,” low income people. CTA says it gives them access to financial instruments they don’t currently have or that they have to pay more for at currency exchanges. Others worry that low income people will sign up for the Ventra debit card feature, not understanding that they have to pay the fees.

That’s a fair concern. We also worry about low income people paying the escalated $3 fare for single use cards rather than getting the Ventra card, which requires going through the registration process and making a minimum $5 purchase.

Ideally, everyone will switch to touch-and-go Ventra cards and personal credit cards (which means faster loading of buses and trains), avoid the single use cards, and knowingly decide whether to opt into the debit feature. CTA needs to step up the outreach to make this happen.

This blog post was updated March 28, 2013 to clarify that the $1.50/month charge for transit-benefit administration is paid by employers — not customers. 

Comments for CTA public hearing on Ventra fare policy

Comments for CTA public hearing on Ventra fare policy

Last night CTA heald a public hearing explaining the proposed fare policy for the new Ventra system.  Here are the comments Riders for Better Transit made to the CTA board:

We believe, on behalf of the riders we represent, that the proposed Ventra policy offers great convenience to CTA riders by allowing us the option of using credit cards or a Ventra card. This will make it easier for occasional riders and tourists to navigate our system and offer similar conveniences to regular CTA users that the Chicago Card currently provides.

The largest convenience of a new fare collection system, however, will not be realized until CTA, Pace and Metra use the same system and transfers can be made easily across the entire Chicago region. We support anything that can be done to speed up the implementation of a truly universal fare system.

Additionally, we recognize that CTA has gone to great lengths to make Ventra as accessible as possible for unbanked riders by preserving the option of a single-use ticket and by making Ventra cards widely available. Our biggest concern is for any low income riders who may struggle to meet the initial $5 cost of purchasing a reusable Ventra card. For those who may struggle to make that up-front cost, purchasing a single use card for $3 subjects them unjustly to a higher fare.

We encourage the CTA to be transparent about the impact they expect the single ride fare to have on unbanked and low income populations. We also encourage the CTA to work to accommodate low income populations who will struggle with this up front cost. For example, the Chicago Card policy is that the card is free for first time users but a $5 replacement fee is charged for subsequent cards. Perhaps lower income riders can be accommodated through a similar enrollment or card give-away program.

Active Transportation Alliance would be happy to help make sure the new Ventra cards get into the hands of this vulnerable population.

Central Loop BRT designs unveiled

Central Loop BRT designs unveiled

We were so busy preparing for last week’s Transit Summit that we didn’t get a chance to share with you CDOT’s recently-unveiled designs for central Loop BRT and the Union Station Transit Center!

Riders for Better Transit has closely followed this project as part of our effort to bring Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to Chicago. The project includes plans to provide an east-west BRT route through the loop, connecting Union Station and Ogilvie Station with destinations such as Navy Pier. It also includes plans for the Union Station Transit Center, the new off-street transportation center just south of Union Station, which will provide key connections with other modes of transport to the BRT system.

Check out these renderings of the eastbound Washington Ave. and westbound Madison Ave. routes. Notice they include dedicated lanes for the bus and for bikes, as well as a station where riders waiting for the bus can stand.

Ron Burke, executive director of Active Trans, voiced our support by saying, "By making the cross-Loop trip fast and reliable, transit becomes an even better option for Chicagoans traveling through downtown. BRT is an incredible opportunity to provide the kind of transportation options that Chicagoans need.”

The Metropolitan Planning Council, which we have partnered with on our outreach efforts for Bus Rapid Transit in Chicago, expressed support for this project in this op-ed that appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business.

This is an exciting announcement for BRT in Chicago! Next in the works is the plan for Bus Rapid Transit on the Western/Ashland corridor. We’re still awaiting the announcement of a locally preferred alternative, which should happen this spring! Sign on here to show your support for BRT on Western and Ashland Ave.!

Summit explores key topics in local public transportation

Summit explores key topics in local public transportation

Thanks to all of you who joined us on Monday for the Riders for Better Transit Summit: Building a 21st Century Transit System. The event was a huge success! We had over 120 attendees, including elected officials, local transit agencies, transportation professionals and, of course, our members!

In case you missed it, the event featured 11 great presenters who spoke about why transit is important, the kind of difficulties it’s facing in our region today and how we can look at transit governance and transit funding for solutions to move transit forward.

Carol Coletta, urban policy expert and commentator, started the event off with an important question: What kind of transit will we leave to our children? Active Trans Executive Director Ron Burke also helped set the stage for discussion by laying out some of the problems that transit in our region is facing, and Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology gave us a vision for the future of transit in our region.

The event featured two panels, one on transportation governance and one on transportation funding. Steve Schlickman, executive director of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center facilitated the panel on transit governance where John Gates, board chairman of the RTA, Frank Beal of Metropolis Strategies and Dan Cronin, chairman of DuPage County, weighed in on the strengths and weaknesses of the RTA.

The topic is a timely one since Metropolis Strategies has announced their support for state legislation that would drastically change the RTA by combining its functions with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. The panelists discussed this option as well as what responsibilities the RTA has to growing suburban areas like DuPage County, which contributes significantly to the funding for our system and is interested in more transit.

In our second panel, Jacky Grimshaw, also of CNT, lead a discussion about where we can look for new sources of funding for transit. With many transit agencies facing a shortage of funds, and less and less help coming from the federal government for new transit projects, it’s clear that transit in the Chicago region needs new investment.

Randy Blankenhorn of CMAP, Peter Skosey from MPC and Transportation for America’s Georgia Gann shared new ideas about where to look for this much needed revenue. Some of the ideas included revisiting the current gas tax and exploring congestion mitigation pricing, as well as ideas like expanding the sales tax base to services.

Thank you to all of our speakers for sharing your expertise with us! And thank those of you who attended for your positive feedback. Check out what others are saying about the event in this story on DNAinfo.com.   

Interested in some of the information presented at the summit? The slides from the event can be found here.

How can Chicagoland fund world-class transit? Learn more Feb. 25

How can Chicagoland fund world-class transit? Learn more Feb. 25

It’s no secret that money for transit is tight. We see evidence of funding challenges in our region's deteriorating train tracks and stations and in the limited transit service in many city and suburban communities.

It’s clear that to achieve a world-class transit system that can accommodate growing ridership and a growing economy, we need ambitious plans -- but ambitious plans will require better funding. At our upcoming summit on Feb. 25, civic leaders will present ideas on how we can better invest in making Chicagoland transit truly world class. Read the full summit program (and be sure to register by Feb. 20).

The Funding Matters panel will feature Randy Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for PlanningKevin DeGood, deputy policy director of Transportation for America; and Peter Skosey, vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council. It will be moderated by Jacky Grimshaw, vice president of policy at the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

In 2013, the Regional Transportation Authority budget anticipates that it will cost $2.729 billion to operate the transit services of CTA, Metra and Pace for the year. In addition to those operating costs, capital investment is needed to maintain and grow the system.

But with funding from federal, state and local sources falling short of even maintaining a state of good repair and operating robust service, how can we aspire to a 21st Century transit system without better funding? CTA, for example, explains that even if its entire capital backlog was funded and the system was already in a state of good repair, its funding would fall far short of what's needed to maintain that condition.

CTA would need $844 million annually just to keep the system in a state of good repair, but the average capital funding level over the next 5 years is only $559 million. How can we not only get the system in a state of good repair and close that $285 million gap to keep it that way, but also fund much-needed improvements and expansions in transit service?

In 2010, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning published the Go To 2040 regional plan with wide support across the Chicago region, outlining several funding options that have yet to be implemented. Last year, Congress passed MAP 21, a new federal transportation bill that includes tools to finance public transportation projects. Additionally, civic leaders are suggesting we explore other innovative funding techniques such as public private partnerships, value capture and changes in our gas or sales tax structure. How much promise do these funding options hold and how do we move them forward?

Join Riders for Better Transit on Feb. 25 for a summit on Building a 21st Century Transit System: a discussion of public transportation’s future, funding and governance in Chicagoland.

REGISTER BY FEB. 20!
February 25, 2013
8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
UBS Tower Conference Center, 1 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago, IL
Registration: $25, or $15 for Active Transportation Alliance members/donors. Includes continental breakfast with coffee.
Visit www.activetrans.org/TransitSummit2013 for the full program and to register!
AICP CM credits pending

 Also featuring:

  • Governance Matters, moderated by Steve Schlickman, executive director of the UIC Urban Transportation Center and former executive director of the RTA; featuring panelists Frank Beal, executive director of Metropolis StrategiesDan Cronin, chairman of DuPage County; and John Gates, chairman of the RTA.
  • Presentations by noted urban policy expert and commentator Carol Coletta and Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

 

What works and what doesn't work with Chicagoland transit governance? Learn more Feb. 25

What works and what doesn't work with Chicagoland transit governance? Learn more Feb. 25

You may have been following the hearty civic conversation in the news about what’s working and what’s not working with Chicagoland’s transit governance and the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). At our upcoming summit on Feb. 25 (register today!), you’ll have a chance to hear civic leaders discuss their diverse perspectives in person.

The Governance Matters panel will be moderated by Steve Schlickman, executive director of the UIC Urban Transportation Center and former executive director of the RTA. Panelists will include Frank Beal, executive director of Metropolis Strategies; Dan Cronin, chairman of DuPage County; and John Gates, chairman of the RTA.

The RTA is responsible for financial and budget oversight of CTA, Metra and Pace, and regional transit planning issues. It’s a daunting task negotiating between agencies and municipalities with various interests, while overseeing more than $42 billion in assets and more than two million daily transit rides.

In 2008, the Illinois General Assembly passed reforms to the agency, including increasing funding, granting new oversight authority and changing the composition of the board -- yet Chicagoland transit continues to face significant challenges.

Metropolis Strategies, which helped draft the 2008 reform legislation, has recently suggested additional reforms, including the possibility of merging the RTA with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin, who voted for the 2008 RTA sales tax increase and reforms as a member of the Illinois State Senate, has also raised questions about how sales tax revenues are allocated to the transit agencies.

Should Chicagoland be considering additional reforms? Does the RTA need wholesale change? What’s working and not working in transit governance and what are potential strategies for improving it?

We're currently developing questions for the panelists. What would you ask them? Email Brenna Conway at brenna@activetrans.org.

Join Riders for Better Transit on Feb. 25 for a summit on Building a 21st Century Transit System: a discussion of public transportation’s future, funding and governance in Chicagoland.

REGISTER TODAY!
February 25, 2013
8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
UBS Tower Conference Center, 1 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago, IL
Registration: $25, or $15 for Active Transportation Alliance members/donors. Includes continental breakfast with coffee.

Visit www.activetrans.org/TransitSummit2013 for summit information! AICP CM credits pending

The conference will also feature:
• Funding Matters, a panel exploring transit funding moderated by Jacky Grimshaw, vice president of policy at the Center for Neighborhood Technology; with panelists Randy Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning; Kevin DeGood, deputy policy director of Transportation for America; and Peter Skosey, vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council.

• Presentations by noted urban policy expert and commentator Carol Coletta and Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

City leaning toward best Bus Rapid Transit design for livable streets, transit and economic development

City leaning toward best Bus Rapid Transit design for livable streets, transit and economic development

Riders for Better Transit has been advocating for bold Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plans on Western and Ashland for more than a year now, reaching out to aldermen, community groups and transit riders as the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation considered various potential plans for BRT.

More than 1,300 people have signed our petition supporting BRT, and back in October, we encouraged you to attend public meetings and support our preferred design for rethinking Western and Ashland: bus-only lanes in the center of the street instead of a car travel lane, maintaining wide sidewalks and on-street parking (see graphic below).

We're excited to see WBEZ is now reporting that the city is leaning toward our preferred design! We believe this design can best acheive the goals of making our streets more livable while significantly improving transportation options and spurring neighborhood economic activity. Other design options on the table include curb-aligned bus-only lanes, and removing a lane of parking and medians instead of a car travel lane. Here's an explanation of our preference:

  • Bus-only lanes in the center of the street provide better transit than curbside lanes. Placing bus lanes in the center of the street helps to reduce conflicts with existing local bus routes, cars parking and turning, and other vehicles that may end up obstructing a lane near the curb. It significantly reduces the chances that the bus lane will be blocked and therefore makes everyone’s transit trip both faster and more reliable.
  • Wide sidewalks and on-street parking should be maintained. The new bus lanes could be created by taking a combination of car travel lanes, parking lanes, and/or sidewalk and median space. Rather than narrowing sidewalks or removing parking, Active Trans supports reprioritizing how we use the existing traffic lanes. Placing bus lanes in current car travel lanes preserves quality public space on our sidewalks that growing business districts can use for sidewalk seating. Replacing parking lanes with bus lanes would create six lanes of fast-moving traffic where there’s now only four. This will feel significantly less comfortable for people walking, especially if cars or buses are speeding by right against the sidewalk. On-street parking not only provides access to local businesses, but also provides a barrier between pedestrians and traffic that can make a street feel safer. Active Trans believes replacing car lanes will have a minimal impact on car travel speeds, and considering Chicago’s notorious congestion problem, it is essential that we provide better public transit options.

What about bikes? We support CDOT's Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 (PDF), which includes a network of 650 miles of innovative new bike facilities, like protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways. The bike network plan factors in the potential BRT plans, providing good parallel and cross-routes, as well as segments of bike lanes on Western where it's a boulevard. The center-aligned option removing a car travel lane would also create a more livable street and better environment for biking compared to the current four-lane speedway. 

Feb. 25 Riders for Better Transit Summit: Building a 21st Century Transit System

Feb. 25 Riders for Better Transit Summit: Building a 21st Century Transit System

What is Chicagoland's vision for better transit in the years to come, and how will we get there?

Join Riders for Better Transit for a summit on Building a 21st Century Transit System: a discussion of public transportation’s future, funding and governance in Chicagoland. 

February 25, 2013
8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m.
UBS Tower Conference Center, 1 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago, IL
Registration: $25, or $15 for Active Transportation Alliance members/donors. Includes continental breakfast with coffee.

Click here to REGISTER NOW!

We’re bringing together civic and public sector leaders in transportation to help answer tough questions about the challenges of providing a world-class transit system, including:

Governance Matters: Chicagoland transit service is managed by four different agencies with 47 board members appointed by elected officials in different levels of government. What’s working, what isn’t, and how can we improve the system? Find out in this panel moderated by Steve Schlickman, executive director of the UIC Urban Transportation Center, and featuring panelists Frank Beal, executive director of Metropolis Strategies; Dan Cronin, chairman of DuPage County; and John Gates, chairman of the RTA.

Funding Matters: Creating a world-class transit system will require increasing investment in transit, but where will the money come from? Learn about the barriers and the options for funding in this panel moderated by Jon Hilkevitch of the Chicago Tribune, and featuring panelists Randy Blankenhorn, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning; Kevin DeGood, deputy policy director of Transportation for America; and Peter Skosey, vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Also featuring: Presentations by noted urban policy expert and commentator Carol Coletta and Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Visit www.activetrans.org/TransitSummit2013 for the latest summit information!

Seeing the world as a straphanger

Seeing the world as a straphanger

While researching his new book, Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, travel writer Taras Grescoe visited cities all over the world to deliver the story on the world's great transit systems.

On a journey that takes him to New York, Moscow, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Bogotá, Phoenix, Portland, Vancouver, and Philadelphia, Grescoe goes beneath the streets to see subway tunnels being dug, he boards state-of-the-art streetcars and he hops on high-speed trains — along the way uncovering ideas that will help undo the damage a century of car-centric planning has done to our cities.

The book provides a history of each city's mass transit, and describes how each is meeting (or not meeting) its goal of moving people quickly, conveniently and affordably.

Active Trans volunteer contributor Jason Phillip recently had a chat with Grescoe about the book and how some lessons he learned could be applied to the Chicago region.

Jason Phillip: You've traveled the world investigating transportation systems in dozens of cities. What are you most excited about in terms of new thinking about transit and new ways of getting ourselves around—especially those ideas with practical implications for U.S. cities?

Taras Grescoe: The latest additions to major metropolitan transit systems in European cities, including London, Paris, and Madrid, include serious subway/metro systems for the suburbs—not just commuter trains taking people from home to work, but metros for the outskirts. That’s going to make those suburbs denser and more walkable.

We need to find a transit solution for the North American suburbs—metros are incredibly expensive to build and operate, so a bus rapid transit system might be a smarter way to go.

Can you talk about what makes for a successful bus rapid transit system? After your travels in Bogotá, Colombia, do you have any words of advice as BRT is introduced in Chicago?

I generally dislike the experience of riding most buses, but only because they become second-class vehicles on our roads, inevitably the slowest thing in traffic. In true bus rapid transit systems, they are often the fastest things on the road—and often much faster than cars in really crowded developing world metropolises. The best advice to a city regarding BRT is not to implement it in a half-hearted way.

Dario Hidalgo, who helped set up Bogotá’s BRT, makes the case that a BRT system that doesn’t include pre-payment, separated rights-of-way, real stations (preferably with platform doors and level boarding), strong GPS-supported dispatching, and good branding isn’t a true BRT system. If you introduce BRT with only some of these features, it’s likely to fail—and tarnish the whole idea in the eyes of the public.

Do you think international travel is necessary for people to understand the different ways that urban transit systems can operate?

It really does help to see how transportation works in different places. I think if it hadn’t been for my travels, I wouldn’t have picked up a deep understanding of the relationship between urban structure and density and the kinds of transport systems that fit best with them.

With that said, you can do a lot of travel on the Internet these days: Almost every major transit system can be seen in action on YouTube, for example, and with Google maps you can see how stations and routes fit into cities.

What do you think Americans would find most surprising about the history of urban transportation in their own country?

I think everybody who lives in North America, which is now so car dependent, has to be reminded how this continent was built by trains, and how its cities grew with rail transit. By the 1920s, virtually every town and city with a population of over 10,000 had its own streetcar system. The network of streetcars and interurbans was eventually so dense that you could hop interlinked streetcars from Waterville, Maine to Sheboygan, Wisconsin—a journey of 1,000 miles, exclusively by electric trolley.

Los Angeles, which everybody thinks is the quintessential automobile metropolis, owes its dispersed urban form to the Pacific Electric network. That’s why I think a transit and walkability revival is going to be most successful in those pre-WWII neighborhoods that were originally built for streetcars and buses (rather than the off-ramp-dependent post-war subdivisions).

What would it take to bring intercity passenger rail service in the U.S. up to par (or at least not embarrassing levels) compared with Europe? Is this is a more desirable goal than improving transit within cities?

    Taras Grescoe; photo by Erin Churchill

The two go hand-in-hand. You can’t expect people to reduce car dependency if they can’t do some intercity travel without a car—preferably by rail. I think the U.S. needs to focus its energy on seriously improving and upgrading passenger rail service and speeds between major population centers that are currently linked by plane. That means fast rail up and down the west and east coasts (and linking to Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal!) and the major cities of the Midwest.

Most people won’t consider a seven- or eight-hour train trip if they can do the same thing by plane in under two. But four or five hours is the sweet spot—because with fast rail, you travel from downtown-to-downtown, and eliminate all the hassles of plane travel.

Can you describe why reducing people's dependence on automobiles can raise their quality of life, even if they don't expect it will?

For many people, losing the use of a car can feel like a loss of independence (or even a regression to childhood!). In many parts of North America, it actually is: The logic of sprawl means that navigating much of suburbia without an automobile is a painful and frustrating experience.

But in cities that have functional public transport, and have bikeable and walkable neighborhoods, getting by without a car can actually bring about positive changes in your life. The health benefits are the obvious benefits: Every transit trip begins and ends with a walk (a study of streetcar users in Charlotte, North Carolina, found that after only half a year they weighed 6.5 pounds less than drivers).

I know that commuting by bike year-round has seriously improved my attitude during the long winter months where I live, in snowy Montreal. There is a more subtle case to be made that, while urban highways and people zipping around in cars tend to foster alienation, bike paths, sidewalks, and public transport (bus stops, subway platforms, the vehicles themselves) add to public space—the kind of space where happy, coherent communities get built.

This article was provided by volunteer contributor Jason Phillip. Phillip is a freelance editor and writer who lives in Chicago.

Transit station design survey: Your input needed!

Transit station design survey: Your input needed!

Help design new transit stations in Chicago! What features do you notice are missing as you wait for the train or bus, or what do you appreciate the most?

Take this three-minute survey by Jan. 31 to share what station elements are important to you and to enter a raffle for a free copy of the book Carless in Chicago.

CTA will be building new transit stations for proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects on Western and Ashland Avenues, and in the Loop. Your input will be used as part of a Chicago Architecture Foundation design competition to help shape Chicago’s new BRT stations!

Take the survey today.

(Photo: Bus Rapid Transit station in Curitiba, Brazil. Credit: Sasha Aickin via Flickr)

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