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Transportation Mon Nov 11 2013
Since I last wrote about Ventra back in February, a lot has happened...mostly at the local commuter's expense.
During the past several months, CTA riders have dealt with a botched transition from city-issued magnetic strip passes and Chicago Cards (and ticket packs and cards for Pace riders), to an outsourced fare collection system based around a hybrid transit/prepaid debit card. This has been overseen by Cubic Transportation Systems, a subsidiary of a defense contractor and wireless data technology firm.
While Mayor Rahm Emanuel has both downplayed the problems and acknowledged the complaints, several alderman have called for an official hearing to demand explanations. Meanwhile, the CTA has announced a delay in the deadlines for fully transitioning to Ventra and proclaimed their refusal to pay Cubic until the issues are addressed.
In the face of public scrutiny, Cubic has ensured that these problems will be solved (though its boss "can't guess" when). However, what Cubic isn't telling Chicagoans is that the company has experienced all of Ventra's problems before... in the other smart card systems it has built for cities across the world.
Cubic Transportation Systems
Though several private companies are involved with the financial backend of Ventra, the actual system is the brainchild of San Diego-based Cubic. Ranked as the number 43 manufacturer in the 2013 IndustryWeek 50 Best U.S. Manufacturers, and operating in 60 countries worldwide, Ventra is the company's third foray into Chicago public transit after implementing the magnetic-stripe transit cards in 1997 and Chicago Card in 2003.
Image courtesy of CTAChicago Ventra
Problems with Ventra so far have included hidden extra fees, a confusing registration process, issues with uploading funds to the card, double or triple-charged cards, money being deducted from debit cards touching the Ventra card, faulty card readers, and a subpar customer service department for an overwhelmingly agitated customer base. Meanwhile, suburban Pace bus riders will only be given until December 31 to transfer their old account balances to Ventra... by mail-in request.
Launched in 2003, Transport of London's Oyster is one of the largest transit fare collection systems Cubic has ever been involved in. Serving as an all-purpose transit fare smart card for bus, Tube, tram, London Overground and most National Rail services in London, the Oyster readers have faced several high-profile glitches over the years.
In 2010, the Oyster contract shifted from a consortium of companies called Transys to Cubic and Oyster cards with new chips were introduced after instructions on how to crack the original chip circulated online. That same year, Oyster cards overcharged customers by £60 million, in part due to customers forgetting steps in their distance-based payment system (ie: touching readers at the start and end of journeys). This confusion led to fines and court summons against customers who believed they had correctly paid, who in turn successfully appealed the charges.
In what may be alarming to privacy advocates, a freedom of information act request revealed that London police frequently requested access to TfL's Oyster database for personal information including travel dates, locations, and times.
In 2007, Cubic partnered with Barclays to launch the OnePulse -- a 3-in-1 Oyster, credit, and pre-paid debit card. While this Ventra predecessor didn't experience the same widespread glitches and high-profile errors, it also never replaced the stand-alone Oyster cards as the sole fare payment method, as Ventra is poised to in Chicago.
When Cubic implemented a contactless bank card "Wave and Pay" system on buses late last year, riders reported that if their Oyster and bank cards were touching each other when swiping the card reader, they would be charged on the wrong card, or simply double charged.
Although TfL has offered refunds for customers who experience this Meanwhile, there were £53 million worth of unclaimed refunds from dormant Oyster cards (i.e. unused in the last 12 months) as of April 2013, and no easy way to reclaim the funds.*
This past May, London Mayor Boris Johnson announced his intention to phase out Oyster in favor of Wave and Pay, despite TfL claiming otherwise. Wave and Pay system tests are underway in the Tube this month, so Oyster's eventual fate remains to be seen.
As recently as last Tuesday, scams involving Oyster card vendors taking money from customers, then voiding transactions to keep the cash have been reported.
Similarly, Brisbane police were reported in April 2010 to have applied to TransLink for records on the movements of go card-using commuters, on the grounds of tracking criminal suspects or possible witnesses.
Los Angeles County TAP
Back in 2008, Los Angeles County and Cubic unveiled the TAP (Transit Access Pass) card to unify payments among over a dozen regional transit systems.
Though TAP is seen as only one of many issues with the LA transit system, there have been several problems with the TAP's fare collection functionality, including transit reader glitches, glitches with loading money and day passes into the cards, built-in TAP card expiration dates leading to difficulties with transferring old balances to new cards, hassles for senior citizen and disabled customer registration, confusion between the various transit system operators, particularly among L.A. Metro bus drivers, and concerns that the new system will cost more money than it takes in.
Repeated customer complaints led to a less complicated set of instructions for purchasing rides earlier this year. In spite of these issues and nearly-consistent one-star reviews on Yelp, Cubic still got a six-year, $545 million contract extension.
Miami-Dade County Easy Card
Launched in October 2009, Cubic's Easy Card unified several transit systems in the greater Miami-Dade County area, after a soft launch test period conducted two months prior. While no major widespread errors like the ones with Ventra have emerged, Easy Card earned the nickname "Easy Fraud" in 2010 after reports of individuals buying and reselling Easy Cards with stolen credit cards emerged. This incident forced Cubic to implement zip code verification on all future purchases.
However, as recently as last week, a 22-year-old man has stood trial over exploiting a glitch allowing him (and members of a WSVN Channel 7 News team) to load money onto Easy Cards for free.
San Francisco Bay Area Clipper
The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) made nationwide news recently for its union strikes and safety concerns after the death of two workers. However, it also serves as the home of one of Cubic's most problematic smart card fare payment systems to date.
Launched in June 2010, the Clipper Card was implemented by the regional Metropolitan Transit Commission to unify BART with the CalTrain light rail, San Francisco Muni, and several other transit systems across the nine county San Francisco Bay Area. So far, the Clipper Card has caused numerous problems, including familiar-sounding issues like faulty Clipper cards and readers and a confusing registration process.
In August 2010, a glitch prevented Clipper customers who received their cards through their employers' pre-tax payroll deductions from getting their monthly passes loaded onto their cards. Clipper has had repeated problems with tracking free and discounted transfers between its transit systems. In other cases, Clipper cards allowed users to skip paying for rides by letting their cash-bought cards charge a negative balance -- a problem that wasn't fixed until last month.
To make matters worse, one German PhD student even found a way to hack into and clone Clipper and similar card technologies, pressuring Cubic into fixing the technology and issuing newer cards.
Problems with Clipper have been extensive to the point where MTC representatives had to publicly downplay the issues in the New York Times, as Cubic disclosed it received 38,000 customer service phone calls in August 2011 alone.
Regardless, Clipper will stay in place, as the Bay Area's smorgasbord of transit lines continue to expand.
All in the past?
By now, you'd think Cubic would have its hands full solving the problems with Ventra while maintaining its other, less-than-perfect fare collection systems.
As it turns out, Cubic has been busy simultaneously rolling out two other major systems this year -- with curiously mixed results.
Vancouver (and San Diego) Compass
In January 2011, Vancouver's TransLink public transit system (no relation to Brisbane) granted Cubic a $220 million contract for "a smart card fare payment and revenue management system." The centerpiece of this system is the Compass Card. Like Ventra's temporarily waived $5 fee, Compass requires a $6 purchase of a reloadable card, and replaces a previous system that allowed for purchasing multiple rides at a discount. This has already impacted Vancouver social service providers' ability to provide transit assistance, and placed a burden on those in poverty to access work, housing, or services.
Meanwhile, September beta testing of the Compass cards revealed problems with card readers on buses, and cash paying riders have complained that they won't be able to use their bus transfers to board the train anymore. Furthermore, ways to scam the TransLink's zone-based payment system have already been found, raising the question of whether the $194 million system is worth the cost.
Vancouver's Compass card is not to be confused with Cubic's version for its hometown of San Diego. First conceived in 2002, the system didn't roll out until 2009 and also faced its fair share of glitches.
Serving as Cubic's other Australasian case study on its website, Sydney's Opal card system bears similarities to Ventra. Like in Chicago, the card is a partnership between Cubic and other backend financial groups, and has only begun to roll out over the past few months.
Unlike Ventra, it's a relatively complicated distance-based, pay-as-you-go system, with some generous discounts, depending on the time and day of travel.
While some complain that this disincentivizes only using one mode of transportation per journey, others complain that fares have risen overall, along with fines for forgetting to tap cards when leaving.
Compared to other Cubic systems, Opal's press consensus seems to indicate a comparatively glitch-free rollout, though Sydney officials have been careful to roll out beta tests on multiple transportation options (including ferries), over a longer period of time than Chicago's seemingly sudden rollout of Ventra card registrations.
It's clear there are some striking parallels between problems faced with Ventra, compared to Cubic's other transit systems across the world.
In Cubic's defense, some of the previously-cataloged issues are regional transit system-specific, and don't necessarily apply to Chicago.
Furthermore, not every Cubic system has necessarily been glitch-prone. In the case of the Northeastern Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO) Speedline, a year long test with a Cubic-based open fare, reloadable prepaid card similar to Ventra proved technically successful... but last October, it was deemed too expensive to implement.
At the same time, comparing Ventra to these other Cubic-fare collection systems begs the question of why the problems with double-charging and faulty card readers that have appeared in previous systems in the past several years are still present in the technology behind Ventra?
Another question is why a smart card system merging so few independently-operated transit systems is having so many problems up front? While the coordination problems with multi-transit systems in London, LA, or the Bay Area are somewhat understandable, Ventra is only integrating two systems (the CTA and Pace) for now, and not even adding Metra-compatibility until next August. Given that Vancouver and Sydney's Cubic smart cards have had less overall problems than Ventra in a roughly-overlapping timeframe of their testing-to-implementation period (despite those cards covering more regional transit systems) Chicago's own Ventra rollout looks drastically amateurish and embarrassing by comparison.
With Cubic claiming responsibility for 7 billion rides a year, it would be wise for aldermen, reporters, and Chicago commuters alike to look beyond the current red flags with Ventra, and into the numerous previous mistakes Cubic has made worldwide.
And while they're at it, they should ask why Cubic is still making those mistakes at our expense.
*As originally written, the Wave and Pay problems with double-charging on London buses were implied to be directly linked to the £53 million worth of unclaimed refunds available to Oyster account holders. To clarify, these are two separate issues with two different Cubic-based fare payment technologies that are currently available to London bus commuters.