Ever since the One-Day Weekend Day Pass came out last year, I’ve found myself unintentionally becoming something of a “Metra Donor”. When I ride Metra on a Saturday, one of two things inevitably occurs:
- I think to myself, “I have no plans on riding Metra tomorrow, might as well save three bucks and get the $7 One-Day Pass,” and while I’m on the train I get a text from someone making plans the following day, which means I’ll have to buy a second $7 One-Day Pass for Sunday too, or
- I think to myself, “There’s a good chance I’ll be back out tomorrow, might as well buy the $10 Two-Day Weekend Pass now,” and then I end up staying in on Sunday.
When Scenario 1 happens, I end up giving Metra an extra $4; when Scenario 2 happens, I end up giving Metra an extra $3. It’s always important to check your privilege, and in this case I’m well aware that my “donations” to our commuter railroad are part of my privilege: most of my time on Metra these days involves going somewhere to spend discretionary income, so being out an extra $3 or $4 a few times a month isn’t going to keep me up at night.
Regardless though, that is a privilege I have, and importantly it’s a privilege a lot of my less fortunate fellow suburbanites can’t enjoy. As such, I feel responsible to use the small internet soapbox I’ve built for myself over the years to speak out against an inequitable part of Metra’s fare policies: Ventra app-exclusive discounts, an inequity that unfortunately will grow when the new otherwise-awesome $6 Three-Zone Day Pass goes into place on February 1.
Over the last few years — predating the pandemic — Metra has been encouraging riders to switch to using the Ventra app for paying fares whenever possible. To be clear, there are plenty of reasons to do so, both for riders and for Metra. For riders, using the Ventra app is the only way that stored value on a Ventra card can be used to purchase Metra fares (which appears to be basically a loophole to satisfy legislation that the three service boards of the RTA use a unified fare product, although with a near-total lack of integrated transfer fares and the inability for staff to accept a Ventra card as fare media onboard trains or from a ticket agent may satisfy the letter of the law but most certainly not the spirit), and the Ventra app allows riders (with smartphones and bank accounts) to purchase Metra’s full suite of fare products wherever they are, whenever they like. For Metra, stronger Ventra app use means less transaction time for conductors, less cash exchanged, less need for ticket agents, better data about purchases and ticket usage, avoiding the (mostly imagined) potential fare evasion of riders sharing hard-copy tickets, and more. For years, Metra’s only truly integrated fare products — LinkUp (good for transfers to/from Pace full-time and to/from the CTA during rush hour only) and PlusBus (Pace only) — have been Ventra app-exclusive, and also behind an even larger functional paywall since only monthly passholders are eligible to purchase LinkUp and PlusBus passes.
Metra has been quite successful in nudging riders towards using the app, even without financial incentives. Some of the fare mode shift undoubtedly can be attributed to the pandemic, which makes a touch-free fare payment method very attractive in the age of social distancing. Ventra made up 70% of ticket sales in November 2021, before slipping slightly to about two-thirds in December.
Metra’s second foray into app-exclusive tickets started back in early 2020 with the launch of the Round Trip Plus fare product, which took almost two years to launch and landed mostly with a thud since it came out almost immediately before the world stopped with the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite being a Ventra app-exclusive, Round Trip Plus represented Metra’s first official intra-agency transfer ticket: for the price of a normal round-trip ticket (technically two one-way tickets; Metra does not sell round trip tickets) a rider had unlimited rides between the two fare zones listed on the digital ticket regardless of line traveled, which means downtown transfers — which are still technically not permitted under Metra’s current fare policy (see page 8) — were available for the first time on weekdays without requiring a second full fare. (Weekend transfers have been permitted for decades using Weekend Pass fare products.)
As part of Metra’s recovery plans, the agency rolled out a new $10 Day Pass during the pandemic. The $10 Day Pass was an instant game-changer, allowing riders to have the same flexibility and mobility of the $10 Weekend Pass on any given weekday as well. Importantly, the Day Pass was also available as a cash fare product, both at ticket agents and from conductors onboard trains. The $10 Day Pass is functionally a huge handout to the furthest-out suburbanites: Zone A-B riders are still better off using normal fare products, while a Zone J rider saves $9 per round-trip. By December 2021, 21% of Metra’s ridership were using $10 Day Passes, second only to 10-Ride Passes (31%) in terms of fare products used. (This is also indicative of a gap in knowledge for riders: there is financially no reason anyone who lives in Zone C or further should buy 10-Rides in the age of the Day Pass, and the math for Monthly Passes is also dubious for many, if not most riders.)
In January 2021, Metra loudly celebrated the launch of a new $7 One-Day Weekend Pass, but quietly mentioned that, as part of the new fare product, the long-standing $10 Two-Day Weekend Pass would now only be available as a Ventra app-exclusive. While the net benefit for most riders is a $3 savings since most Weekend Pass holders only travel one day on the weekend, for non-app riders who pay cash, this new policy effectively resulted in a 40% increase in weekend fares (two $7 One-Day Passes vs. one $10 Two-Day Pass).
We’re now on the verge of Metra doubling down on their inequitable app-exclusive fare policy: effective February 1, Day Passes are becoming app-exclusives, including the new $6 Three-Zone Pass, which will overwhelmingly benefit Metra riders who live in the city of Chicago and inner-tier suburbs. This will, in no uncertain terms, increase costs for riders who don’t use the Ventra app, a demographic that skews towards lower-income riders throughout our region.
If you’re reading this, there’s an overwhelmingly good chance that you’re reading this on a smartphone right now (or you’re reading this on a desktop as part of a PDF that got emailed to you as part of a bundle of news clips). It’s easy to take smartphones for granted, especially after QR codes made perhaps the most surprising resurgence of the 21st Century. To be clear, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the Ventra app: glitches still happen from time to time, but by and large it’s an easy, reliable platform for the large majority of riders who have smartphones.
However, a “large majority” doesn’t — or rather, shouldn’t — mean much for a public transit agency that represents the only public transit provider for dozens of municipalities throughout northeastern Illinois, and the most-used public transit provider in dozens more. (Pace does a good job in many suburbs, but there’s a lot of holes in the collar counties that are only served by Metra.) In the interest of checking privilege, as mentioned earlier, it’s important to note that smartphones, while common, still aren’t universal: Pew Research estimates that 15% of Americans still don’t have a smartphone. In our region — where we can assume that 77% of the region’s 9,618,502 residents are adults, that means there are about 1,110,937 of our neighbors who are adults without smartphones. That’s greater than the entire population of DuPage and Kendall Counties combined. Breaking down Pew’s crosstabs makes the issue even more significant in terms of equity and likely transit-dependent populations:
- The proportion of adults without smartphones jumps up to 25% for adults without a high school diploma/GED.
- 26% for adults making less than $30,000 annually do not have smartphones.
- The largest proportion is seniors: for the 65+ age group, a whopping 39% of seniors don’t use smartphones.
There’s also an important subgroup not included in this data: people who use smartphones, but have no interest in using them to pay for Metra fares, for whatever reason. Infrequent riders may not see the value in downloading the Ventra app, registering an account, and entering their credit card information into an app they may only use a handful of times a year (or less, if they’re just passing through the Chicago region). Smartphones — especially older smartphones — can also be unreliable in terms of signal strength or battery life. Smartphones also require active data packages, which some budget-conscious riders might not want to deal with just to ride a train.
This also doesn’t account for disabled riders who may not be physically able to use a smartphone app, or the unbanked, people without easy access to credit or debit cards and are restricted to cash transactions by necessity. Morning Consult estimates that 10% of Americans are totally unbanked, and while it’s possible to use Ventra without a credit/debit card, the process is arduous: Ventra vending machines generally don’t exist in the suburbs (except at Pace’s busiest stations, such as Elgin or the Northwest Transportation Center in Schaumburg), and retail locations to add transit value are typically far from Metra stations. Metra is currently procuring systemwide ticket vending machines (TVMs) of their own, but the roll out is expected to take some time, and in typical Metra fashion Ventra integration is explicitly an afterthought:
The first phase will consist of 225 machines to replace the 45 existing ticket vending machines (at downtown stations and the busiest Metra Electric Line stations) and existing point-of-sale credit card readers at 58 manned stations, and 75 machines to pilot a proof-of-payment system. The second phase will add 350 more machines so that all 242 Metra stations would have at least one vending machine.
The weather-hardened, fully ADA-accessible vending machines will accept cash or credit and could eventually accept Ventra cards. They will sell any Metra ticket, printing them at the time of purchase to save on costs, and will be available 24 hours a day. Currently, most stations do not have agents, and most of the staffed stations have agents only in the morning hours.
Metra expects the first-phase machines to be installed starting in the middle of 2022 and finishing about a year later. Phase Two deployment will depend on when the option is exercised.[emphasis added]
It’s understandable why Metra wants to shift more fare transactions to the Ventra app, but that shift shouldn’t come at the expense of riders who can’t easily adopt the app. Moreover, if the new TVMs that are coming online later this year will truly be able to “sell any Metra ticket”, forcing more fare products to be app-exclusive for only perhaps a year or two is most certainly an unnecessary burden and expense on Metra’s lowest-income riders.
To quantify the differences in best available cash fare and best available Ventra app fare, here’s a spreadsheet showing cost differences based on number of round-trips in a month and zone pairs. This spreadsheet does not account for weekend trips, which are generally cheaper; also note that most months have only 20-23 weekdays.
For many — but not all — Metra “power users” who make 20+ round-trips per month, there’s no difference between cash fares and the Ventra app, since Monthly Passes are still the best fare option. However, the $10 Day Pass and the forthcoming new $6 Three-Zone Day Pass upend the math for most riders, with substantial savings of up to $120.75 per month — if you use the Ventra app. Riders without smartphone access have to pay full price, which results in what we’re calling a “Metra markup”, just to be able to pay cash for their trip. It’s also worth noting that some of these estimates may be undercounting the #MetraMarkups, since they require an extra one-way trip to a staffed station for riders who board from unstaffed stations to purchase the tickets.
If you do have access to the Ventra app, here’s a cheat sheet detailing what kind of fare media you should invest in for any given month:
In case you prefer narratives to spreadsheets, here are four examples of the new #MetraMarkups we’ll see later this year as a result of this new policy change. While these examples are all fictional, they’re also each plausible and represent reasonable examples of real-world trips and financial decisions.
Anna lives in Zion and works “traditional hours” (Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm) at a light industrial company in Ravenswood. Despite the long journey, she is fortunate to have a single-seat commute to her job, which doesn’t allow her to work remotely. Anna is a single mom and shares a smartphone data plan with her teenage daughter, although “sharing” is a strong term: her daughter routinely uses most of the cellular data, and as such Anna keeps her smartphone data off as much as possible. Since fewer than 10% of Metra cars have wifi, she doesn’t use the Ventra app since she’s worried about additional data charges on her smartphone.
Since both Zion and Ravenswood are unstaffed and her daily commute doesn’t involve going downtown, once a month Anna has to wake up early and drive down to Waukegan to buy her monthly Metra ticket from the station agent there. Every month, she has to explain to the agent that yes, she needs a Zone I-B ticket, not a Zone H-A monthly ticket, even though they’re the same price.
- Commuting days, March 2022: 23
- Best Fare Product: 23 $10 Day Passes on the Ventra app, $230
- Anna’s Best Cash Fare Product: Zone B-I Monthly Pass, $239.25
- #MetraMarkup: $9.25 (4%)
This also doesn’t take into account any opportunity costs: for a single mother, there’s plenty of additional utility in paying $10 per day rather than a lump sum $239.25 at the beginning of each month, which also tends to be when rent or mortgage payments are due. The Day Pass products should be seen as a step towards fare capping, and it’s extremely unfortunate that cash riders will no longer be eligible for these discounted tickets. March is also a “best-case” scenario, with 23 working days: in February, for instance, Anna may only have 19 working days (20 weekdays, with one day off for Presidents Day); in that case, her best cash option is still the $239.25 Monthly Pass, but the app would allow for 19 $10 Day Passes ($190) for a #MetraMarkup of $49.25, or 26%.
Bill is semi-retired and lives out in Belvidere, way down Interstate 90 near Rockford. Bill’s looking forward to going downtown for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade for the first time since 2019, and he planned ahead by getting a hotel room downtown. Not wanting to deal with traffic or parking costs, Bill drives to Elgin to park overnight and take the Milwaukee West down on Saturday morning and will return Sunday morning.
Bill’s son runs a website devoted to helping infrequent transit riders navigate Metra for social outings throughout Chicagoland, and his son strongly encourages him to use the Ventra app to buy a $10 Two-Day Weekend Pass for his trip. Bill has a smartphone, but he doesn’t want to download an app just for Metra since he only rides maybe twice a year, plus even with his “cheaters” (dollar store reading glasses) it’s a hassle for him to add a credit card to his Ventra account via his smartphone.
Since Elgin has a Ventra vending machine at the Pace terminal across the street from the Milwaukee West station, Bill runs over there and adds $10 to his Ventra card, which he only uses for St. Patrick’s Day and once or twice a year when he parks at Cumberland to take the CTA to a Sox game. The conductor laughs at Bill when he tries to use the Ventra card to pay for his Metra fare and instead charges him $7 cash for a One-Day Weekend Pass instead, telling Bill to buy another $7 One-Day Weekend Pass at Union Station tomorrow morning for his ride home.
- Commuting Days, March 2022: 0 (one round-trip over a weekend)
- Best Fare Product: $10 Two-Day Weekend Pass on the Ventra app, $10
- Bill’s Best Cash Fare Product: Two $7 One-Day Weekend Passes, $14
- #MetraMarkup: $4 (40%)
Carlos lives in Chicago’s Mont Clare neighborhood and works at O’Hare Airport. He works day shift (Monday-Friday) at a logistics company near the south edge of the airport and transfers to Pace Route 332 at Bensenville. Carlos has a six-year-old Android that can’t hold a charge for the full length of his shift and while he appreciates that Metra has been adding power outlets to their coaches, since he’s on reverse-commute trains there’s no guarantee that one of the two cars that are open on his train has somewhere to plug in his phone on his way home from work. Because of this, he doesn’t use the Ventra app.
No stations near Carlos have station agents, which means once a month Carlos has to make a special trip downtown to buy a Zone B-D Monthly Pass. This costs him an extra $8.50 (two $4.25 one-way cash fares) because the conductors don’t always let him use his Zone B-D Monthly Pass for a Zone A-B trip and doesn’t want to deal with the hassle even though his Monthly Pass should cover three-zone trips. Since Carlos doesn’t buy his Monthly Pass in the Ventra app, he’s not eligible for the discounted PlusBus transfer ticket.
- Commuting Days, March 2022: 23
- Best Fare Product: Zone B-D Monthly Ticket ($159.50) + Pace PlusBus ($30), only available on the Ventra app = $189.50
- Carlos’s Best Cash Fare Product: Zone B-D Monthly Ticket ($159.50) + round-trip to CUS ($8.50) + Pace 30-Day Pass ($60) = $228
- #MetraMarkup: $38.50 (20%)
Doris lives in western Berwyn and works in the dorms at UIC. She generally commutes on a CTA/Pace 30-Day Pass, taking the 302 to the 157, but about twice a week she likes to treat herself and take Metra from Halsted Street to Harlem Avenue now that more BNSF trains stop at Halsted. Due to a vision impairment, Doris doesn’t use a smartphone. She buys paper 10-Ride tickets, which requires her to make an extra trip to Union Station once a month.
- Commuting Days, March 2022: 10
- Best Fare Product: 10 $6 Three-Zone Day Passes, $60
- Doris’s Best Cash Fare Product: 2 Zone A-B 10-Rides, $81
- #MetraMarkup: $21 (35%)
There is an important outlier to discuss in this conversation: the math doesn’t change at all for Rock Island and Metra Electric riders currently partaking in the South Cook Fair Transit Pilot. The discounted fares on these two lines make one-way fares more competitive than Day Pass products, so there’s parity between cash and Ventra app fare products in the pilot area. Maintaining fare parity between cash and cashless transactions is a major benefit for these riders, and riders on other lines should not be penalized for their methods of payment. If Metra wants to incentivize riders to spur more ridership, any financial incentive should be based on frequency of use rather than method of payment.
It’s also worth noting that there are some potentially very easy solutions to this problem. First and foremost, Metra could simply keep selling paper Day Passes onboard the train, as they’ve done for about a year and a half now. This wouldn’t be an open-ended program, as the new TVMs are on the horizon, and given that Metra’s more optimistic outlook for ridership recovery still only results in 50% of pre-pandemic ridership levels by the end of FY 2022, there’s plenty of time to transition to TVMs before conductors get overloaded with additional cash transactions.
Another potential solution could be a ticket buy-back program: riders who pay for a one-way ticket in cash onboard a train can take their ticket stub, present it to a station agent once they get downtown, and be able to pay the difference for a Day Pass. For instance, if someone pays $6.75 for a one-way Zone A-E ticket, they could present the ticket stub and pay an additional $3.25 for a full Day Pass ticket. Likewise, Saturday One-Day Weekend Pass holders could return on Sunday and turn in their ticket for a $3 Sunday One-Day Weekend Pass, which provides parity with the $10 Two-Day Weekend Pass on the Ventra app without requiring any new fare media. Both of these would help meet Metra’s objective of simplifying cash transactions onboard while not penalizing cash riders.
Of course, these solutions wouldn’t solve the “issue” of having paper “free ride” tickets out there that could nefariously be used by the infamous “fare evaders” that may (or may not) plague the commuter railroad. However, it’s important to recognize that no transit system that charges fares will ever catch 100% of fare evasion, and at some point compromises must be made. Despite the perpetual campaign to fight fare “evasion” on Metra, the Active Transportation Alliance points out that Metra police only made 43 fare evasion arrests between 2016 and 2018, which strongly suggests that actual fare evasion is not a major cause of revenue loss. The question we must ask is if tilting at the fare evasion windmills is worth charging cash riders who don’t or won’t use smartphones significantly more in fares than wealthier riders who do use smartphones, and there’s no equitable way to answer that in the affirmative.
As our region continues to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, we have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — or rather, we have the duty and responsibility — to rebuild and restructure our legacy systems to better serve historically-overlooked populations, to better serve everyone in Chicagoland rather than just a special subset of travelers that historically commuted in a particular pattern. Fare policies that unfairly penalize lower-income populations while offering discounts to wealthier riders should be reimagined to at least treat non-smartphone users equitably with smartphone users.
Metra’s new fare policies go into effect on February 1. This Wednesday, January 19, 2022, is the next Metra board meeting. Members of the public can submit comments to Metra by Tuesday, January 18, and the comments will be read into the record during the board meeting. More information can be found here.