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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, July 18

Gapers Block

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I confess that I am a railfan. Ever since moving to Chicago, I've taken on an unhealthy fixation with the El: its history, its operations, and its signage (more than anything). When the CTA announced the Chicago Card™ a few months ago, I was pleased at the concept. After all, if I ever lost my simple Transit Card... it was gone forever. With the Chicago Card, I could at least get my money back.

A good man.

Fig 1. Made by a woman: it has all the qualities a good man should have.

Sadly, the Chicago Card seemed to offer little advantage over the Transit Card that was wearing a hole in my wallet. I convinced myself at one point that I was going to get it, that the $5 was worth it. But let's be honest, here. I don't keep enough of a balance on my Transit Card to justify getting a semi-permanent card. If only I could do something more with the Chicago Card, other than pick locks and open closed doors...

A bad man.

Fig 2. Made by a man: How men see women.

With that in mind, I started working on a concept for a better Chicago Card. I took to heart the work of 37signals' 37Better series -- improvements on existing designs. Pressed for a name, I called it the Better Chicago Card. Check it out here: (opens in new window).


This is a demo. It does nothing.

But the concept is close to how I envision the Chicago Card working in a near-perfect world. Let's say that it's late Sunday night, and I realize that I have about twenty cents on my card. I take the bus in the morning, so I can't recharge my card there. That means, right now, I have to get to an El station and recharge there... assuming I have cash, of course, since the machine doesn't accept anything but cash.

But with the Better Chicago Card (BCC, for those "in the know"), I can check out everything online. I log in, and boom, I see the balance ($41.60, not $0.20 thankfully), my recent trips, and can recharge online.


Glad you asked.

The "Recent Trips" tab shows, obviously, your recent trips. All of this information is already out there, somewhere; since you're using a Chicago Card, and it's linked to one person, there's no reason that the CTA couldn't share this information with the person using the card. As a bonus this would verify that yes, you really did take the Red Line at 2:35pm on June 1st. Should you spot a trip that doesn't appear to be yours, just contact the CTA online and you're set.

The "Special Offers" tab is, in marketing-ese, the "value added proposition" of this package. Let's say I get on the El every day at the Montrose Brown Line stop. There are a number of coffee shops and cafes right by the entrance. I find that, in my Special Offers, there are in fact special offers based on the bus and El routes I've been taking. So I download and print out a coupon for the coffee shop under the tracks, stop there the next day, and enjoy a discounted coffee (or beverage of my choice). Naturally, I can stop receiving special offers or bring them back later.

Under "Recharge" is the handy magic: one can recharge a Chicago Card online. Yes, no fumbling at the machine, no making sure you have cash, none of that. With the BCC, only credit and debit cards are accepted, but there's no reason it couldn't snag money out of your checking account. The recharge process is a one-pager, designed to be easy. As a bonus, there's an "Instant Recharge" feature.

With Instant Recharge, you can set up an automatic payment schedule to make the process even more painless. For instance, if I want my card to have $20 on it the Monday after I get paid, every time I get paid, it can. If I want $100 plunked on my card on the 15th of every month, I can. And if I'm not sure what I need, I can ask BCC to help me decide - and it will, after a few short questions on my riding habits. Coupled with my trip history, this will help me pick the Instant Recharge amount that's right for me.

Finally, the "At Your Service" tab features the usual customer service/FAQ goodies one would expect.


The trip history is perhaps the most powerful information that the CTA has on any individual rider. It details if a train or bus is on time, where the rider boarded, where she was going, and how long some trips took. It also allows the CTA to target special announcements to the people who need them most. I'm sure you've seen those "special alerts" posted on platforms and buses, but like me you've ignored them. Or they might've been covered with graffiti-du-jour. No more! Via the BCC, the CTA can see that you travel the Brown Line and tell you about station closures, delays, or improvements.


As I said, it was in my head the moment the Chicago Card was announced. I feel that if the CTA were to implement even just the online recharge features in my BCC concept, the value of the Chicago Card would increase dramatically.

I want to believe.


About the Author(s)

Paul McAleer is on the other line at

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