The Unspoken Threats To Cycling That Lie Behind CTA Fare Hikes

Background Reading


The CTA was accused of putting the profits of its corporate partners ahead of the needs of poor people during a hearing Monday night on a new fare-payment system set to debut this summer.

— Jon Hilkevitch, Tribune reporter

You would think that cyclists would rejoice that CTA fare hikes were being raised. Why? Because using the same logic when deciding to raise parking rates or limit parking access, the story goes that “disgruntled riders are sure to come to cycling as an alternative”. But I personally doubt that anything approaching a groundswell for cycling is imminent. Instead the 500 pound gorilla in the room is the anger that will eventually be directed at bicycle infrastructure increases once the general public realizes that other modes of transportation are increasingly expensive and yet cyclists are getting shiny new toys (in the form of pretty green bicycle lanes). How is this possible if government is having to cut back and the agencies that supply basic services are having to raise rates and generally make their transportation lives a living hell?

CTA board Chairman Terry Peterson, who was present, said the CTA will offer extensive marketing and follow-through. There will be opportunities to make changes if necessary, he added.

“This should be the system going forward,” Peterson said, assuring the angry crowd that the intent is not to hurt the poor or anybody else. “If it’s not working, you have an opportunity to go back and revisit it.”

Ventra, which is derived from the Latin word ventus, meaning “wind,” is the primary tool the CTA has selected for the Windy City to transition to a new fare-payment system that public transit riders will use on the CTA and the Pace suburban bus service starting this summer, officials have said.

The Metra commuter rail agency is not participating in the pilot project, which is intended as a step toward creating a universal fare card that would allow transit riders to transfer seamlessly between buses and trains, regardless of the specific agency providing the service. State legislation signed into law in 2011 requires the CTA, Metra and Pace to agree on a single shared fare card by 2015.

Under the Ventra program, all current CTA and Pace fare cards, including the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus, will be eliminated sometime in 2014, officials said.

The new system will allow riders to pay single fares using the contactless Ventra cards, which can be automatically replenished by linking them to personal bank accounts or reloading them with money at kiosks, and to purchase multiple-day passes just as the existing CTA Chicago Cards are used.

The Ventra cards will be linked to up to two individual accounts — one for transit fares and the other for nontransit retail purchases. CTA officials and their private partners in the Ventra investment hope the combined, all-uses card will become the top card in the wallets and purses of Chicago-area commuters.

Yet there is no requirement to obtain a Ventra card. Transit riders can choose to pay their CTA and Pace fares using personal credit or debit cards, as well as cash, officials said.

In addition, customers can opt to purchase a contactless disposable ticket usable for a single ride or as a one-day pass. A prepaid three-day, five-day and seven-day pass will be offered too.

CTA is making a transition. It is going from a system which largely requires hiring people to take fares and service machines that read magnetic stripes to one which is being operated by the banks that collect the fares from the Ventra cards. It makes sense if you think about it. Why should the CTA act as a collection agency when its primary skill is in transport? Credit and debit cards long ago took the burden of collecting payments from customers out of the hands of merchants and placed it where it belongs onto the shoulders of the banks that service customers who purchase things.

But still there is a rankling question. How can the city afford these new lanes and claim that hiring new police is too expensive and dealing with unfunded pensions from municipal employees is bankrupting the system? Eventually someone is going to ask that question and wonder just what sort of “pull” we cyclists have. The primary answer is that cyclists vote.

But beyond the simple vote cyclists represent a chance for the city to reverse white flight to the suburbs with new high tech jobs and job holders who favor cycling as a transportation form. But that one fact is what makes me wonder if cyclists are not overly impressed with themselves. There are only so many jobs of that sort currently available in the city and places which are likely sources of new jobs (that could be relocated here) are going to fight to keep them where there are right now.

From that perspective cyclists are just fine. People are going to struggle to keep them in place. But what about growing the cycling movement? That is a bigger nut to crack.

Cycling Is Essentially A ‘Short Distance’ Transportation Option

Setting aside all the New York Times hoopla over bicycle commuters wearing über-expensive high tech clothing while traveling some 40 miles each way, your garden variety cyclists are ‘putzers‘. They are likely to be traveling 5 miles or less back and forth to work. And even then this is generally during the warmer months (a.k.a. the cycling season). Anything more in terms of distance will generally that the rider have access to a shower room to freshen up. And that makes the cycling option more onerous.

Bicycles are not seen as vehicles yet by the general public. There really is no expectation that there is a total cost of ownership (TCO) that includes things like maintenance and upgrades. Most folks are riding bikes they have had since their youth and expect to continue using that same bike for he foreseeable future.

But for cycling to be popular and a short term transportation option you really have to think cities. Suburban areas are far too spread out for cycling to be much of an option when doing shopping or running errands. There are some towns which have a downtown shopping district where restaurants and commuter-friendly services prevail. But everything else is generally located in a strip mall a few miles away from home and accessible only from some very busy multilane roadways which are not very conducive to trundling babies or young kids along with.

So if you are looking for increased ridership in a metropolitan area then think urban neighborhoods like Wicker Park which are vibrant and very dense. Cities are going to have to rethink their strategies for servicing cyclists beyond the current bike corral mentality. It will take some doing to convince shop keepers that displacing automobile parking with metal racks really brings in more business. In fact it would seem more likely that there will be friction between shop owners which develops over the costs of these racks.

If my business chooses to buy (or lease) one of these racks then the folks who tie up to them had better darn well be doing business with me. If however enterprising cyclists realize that they can lock up their bikes (for free) at a rack up the street from their favorite vinyl shop and then afterwards grab a bite to eat at the local vegan restaurant before returning to retrieve their bikes, shop owners are going to being considering ways to make these corrals pay for themselves. In short the ‘free ride‘ that most cyclists have come to expect for everything related to their travel might soon be over.

Low-Income Users Are A Prime Source Of New Ridership

Poor people more than most are candidates for inexpensive bikes that can get them from their dwellings into other areas of the city for things like grocery shopping. We have lots and lots of ‘food deserts‘ in urban areas. Getting something other than fast food is nearly impossible. But cycling is hardly a welcomed tradition in these areas. Mass transit is a longstanding tradition with the poor. But the increased expense of that mode of travel is hurting the working poor.

There is also the fact that the hipster community is not very much in tune with that of the working poor. Hipsters are generally more liberal in their politics but that approach to people of color is not much different than that of their parents. This is especially true when they are accosted in young thugs in areas in the city through which they have to pass. Since urban cyclists are often doing high tech kinds of jobs they may be traveling early and or late to and from their places of employment. That means that being alone presents a ‘safety challenge‘.

Owning an operating a bicycle is not totally without its costs. And since costs like these are often paid in chunks poor folks are unlikely to see this as a suitable transportation alternative. So once again it remains to be seen where the numbers of folks who are needed to justify the increased cycling infrastructure are to come. Unless you are willing to admit that gentrification is part of the equation then the mathematics of increased ridership stalls out at levels slightly above where they are today.

Multi-Modal Transit Riders Are The Key

Commuter with Brompton

Commuter with Brompton

Riders equipped with bikes that allow them to leave home to reach the commuter railway station and then head into the central city are also prime candidates for using those bikes to reach their offices upon departing the station. That to me means folding bikes. It also means very small compact folding bikes (e.g. Brompton) that are light in weight and easy to fold.

Bikes like these are very easy to house at offices. Using parking stations like the Brompton Dock it means that these bikes can either be rented or simply stored for use in daily commuting and visiting eateries during the noon hour as well. In fact with a bike like this a daily suburban commuter can justify heading a few miles across town to a pub or restaurant to engage with his fellow office workers before taking the train home later that night. It’s a win-win.

It also means that people who understand mass transit and cycling are suddenly the allies of hipsters who are still trying to discover how very dumb-ass they can be while riding brakeless fixed gear bikes in Rush Hour traffic.