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Passback headaches on Chicago Card Plus

Yesterday I wrote about the CTA's continuing problems with the Chicago Card.

But there's more. A few people have written to me about problems with their 30-day pass Chicago Card Plus suddenly converting to pay-per-use without knowing why. And it happened to me too, but I know why. Well, I know why but it contradicts CTA policy.

I took my in-laws to a Cubs game last month and used my 30-day pass Chicago Card Plus to pay for their rides as well. I was told because I did that, my card converted to a pay-per-use card. Huh? The CTA's Web site says this:

"If using a 30-Day Pass, up to seven customers can board the same bus route or pass through the same rail station turnstile using one card within up to an 18-minute period. The first customer's fare is recorded as an unlimited ride using a 30-Day Pass. Each passback ride will be considered Pay-Per-Use. The appropriate fare (full fare or transfer) is recorded to the card owner's account and charged to their credit card. The charge will include all passback charges, plus $10, which will be immediately available for future fare payment. The additional $10 is charged to ensure that you are able to continue using the passback feature if you choose."

That paragraph mentions nothing about the card converting to pay-per-use. So which is it, CTA?

For me, I had to go online and switch my card back to 30-day pass, and the CTA still has $9 of mine from my credit card. And they will probably have it for a long time because my employer automatically deducts the $75 per month for my 30-day pass.

Actually, I'm OK with the CTA having the money. The Web page clearly says they will do it and they did. What I'm not OK with is the CTA converting me to pay-per-use and making me change back to the 30-day pass. Especially when the Web page says nothing about that.

Hey Ron, please fix that, OK? Thank you.


Interesting that I see this article. My folks live in the suburbs and are coming over tomorrow to visit. They haven't been downtown in awhile so we are thinking of taking the "L" in and browsing Michigan Ave. I was thinking of buying passes for them when my fiancee suggested we just get them through with our Chicago Card Plus. I'll have to see how they charge me for the extra fares. Not sure if mine is considered a 30-day pass or not...

I put $60 a month on my pay per use card, and I often use it to pass back to my friends, family , etc. It works fine, unless I just came home from work. Then, the first time I use the card (within the next two hours), it will use the transfer that is still on the card. Great. Then, when I pass it back to the next person to use it will say "No transfers remaining". You would think it would just charge another fare on the card, but nope - you can't charge another fare on the card for 15 minutes supposedly, but I have never waited long enough to find out.

Simple case of lazy programming.

How can you not be sure if your card is a 30-day pass or not? Do you pay 75 bucks a month for unlimited rides?

Your answer to that question will be revealing.

I think I've mentioned this issue in comments here a couple of times. In my case, I had no idea that I could bring people along on a pay-per-use basis; I'd get on, say, a southbound Clark bus at Bryn Mawr and the driver wouldn't warn me he was ending his run at Foster, so I'd be stuck.

I had no idea that I could switch the card back on the Web site -- thanks for that info, but frankly I'd rather email Customer Service and let them know about the issue. The times this has happened, they've always patched things up just fine. Unfortunately, in the three or so years it's happened to me, they don't seem to have realized the deeper problem...

Hey Church: The CTA lets you manage all aspects of your Chicago Card Plus online. I can switch it back and forth between pay per use and monthly pass ($75 unlimited rides) at the site. IT shows you how much is left on the card and even has the Big Brother factor of exactly where you went. (I can just see Big Brother Patriot Act folks using that info!)

But you only get unlimited rides for one person.

Wait, am I understanding you right? You expect 8 people to ride on one fare because you have a 30 day pass? And your getting upset and think CTA ought to fix this? You are ripping of the CTA if you think you can slide 8 people thru on your 30 day pass for one fare. the 30 day pass entitles one person to board one bus with 2 transfers at a time. not 8 or more people! Please tell me I am misunderstanding you.

Pookie, no one is ripping off the CTA. The CTA charges the credit card that is attached to the card. Or at least it should, instead of converting the 30-day pass to pay-per-ride. That's what I'm suggesting they do. Sorry if I was not clear on that point.

My annoyance with passbacks is the same as the second commenter above. We often have friends from out of town come up on the weekends, and we usually offer to pay for their fare on one of our Chicago Cards, because it's just less hassle. But if the card has been used recently for just one person, you can't add riders, because yeah, "no transfers remaining". Okay, so what. Charge the $2!

(If you can't charge the card again for 15 minutes, well... that'd also screw you if you needed to transfer to another bus or train within that time, wouldn't it? I'm amazed this has never bitten me in the ass.)

I've never had my card switch over to pay-per-use before, though. Does it only happen if you do a certain number of passbacks at a time (I think that the extra $10 isn't charged unless you bring three people on with you, which I've never done).

"If using a 30-Day Pass, up to seven customers can board the same bus route or pass through the same rail station turnstile using one card within up to an 18-minute period."

So that explains that, then. 18 minutes for the SAME turnstile. In any case, annoying! Anyone ever passback to someone on a bus and have both yourself and the driver fail to notice that the card didn't charge the second time (they've got to hit a button or somesuch between uses)? You're doomed if you try to transfer with your friend afterwards... It's happened to me once or twice. Make sure you hear those three beeps!

My wife and I use the Chicago Card Plus and have them set up for monthly passes through our employers. For visiting friends and family, we obtained two standard Chicago Cards and have them set as pay per use.

...oops, pressed enter before I was finished...

When someone comes in and they insist on using their own $ to pay for the CTA, this works to their advantage because they get the 10% kicker on the Chicago Cards.

Be forewarned I think there's Red Line construction this weekend, possibly re-routed to the L tracks. So if that was part of your Michigan Ave plans with the family, plan accordingly.

I don't know if I'd call it a "simple" case of lazy programing. You're talking about a fairly complex policy that needs to first be reduced to a decision tree that everyone can agree with before anyone even resembling a programer touches it.

And the whole basic system isn't something that was built from the ground up just for the circumstances that exist in Chicago on the CTA today. It's customizations made to a program that's designed to be flexible enough to be implimated in any city in the world, under any set of reasonable policies.

The breakdown most likely has more to do with miscommunications among the people setting the policies, people wording the policies for customers to read, and people reducing those policies to a series of decisions that are possible within the structure of a huge database application.

The whole idea that a single card can be used for multiple people would be simple if there were no such thing as transfers. Transfers alone make things confusing. Tossing in the idea that one user may be on some kind of unlimited plan, while additional users may be on some pay-as-you-go plan makes for some extreme complexity. Toss in some goofy policy limitations, and doesn't surprise me at all that it's mucked-up.

Essentially, trying to track three different things (usage by the unlimited rider, new fares by pay-as-they-go riders, and transfers by pay-as-they-go riders) all using the same card simultaneously is not a "simple" thing. But ironically, calling it "a simple case of lazy programing" is simply lazy finger pointing. Even a bad bureaucrat puts more effort into their finger pointing.

Of course whatever the policy stated to the customers should match whatever the card actually does. The question now becomes which is easier: Coming up with a decision tree that can be programed into the technology at a reasonable cost, or convincing some policy wonks that they need a policy that is technically easier to impliment. Unfortunately, this will likely go a third way: Allow the mismatch between policy and implimentation to continue, and deal with the resulting problems after they happen.

Simple? Hardly. It's complex far beyond it's importance. And fixing it is likely to be more expensive than a lazy observer is inclined to believe.

At this point, if Huberman really want to fix the issue, without wasting money, he'll step in and over-ride the policy wonks, and change the policy to match the technical implimentation even if there are people who disagree with the way it actually works. This just isn't a big enough issue to spend a lot of cash to fix.

I'm glad I didn't know all this and just keep using my Pay-per-use Chicago Plus Card for visitors that ride with me. Everything's been working peachy, except for once. A westbound Belmont driver somehow didn't get the 2nd person registered for the ride, even though we were the only 2 boarding and the only people on the bus at Sheridan and Diversey.

The customer service agent at the Belmont Red/Brown stop was NOT pleasant and told me I was ILLEGALLY trying to use my card for 2 people, even though I been doing so and have been charged accordingly for the last 2 years.

I agree - lazy programming, for not matching the policy. And for the wish list, a customer service agent override that will charge an additional fare on the same card for an additional person when mistakes like the above occur.

I'm one of the people who has been writing to Kevin about this problem. I have never used my Chicago Card Plus to pay for someone else's ride ever. It's just randomly switching me to pay-per-ride for all I can tell. And I'm not getting the emails that I'm supposed to be getting either, telling me they're switching me. I finallly got them to fix it last week after 6 weeks of phoning and emailing them. Then I got a phone call Friday from the CTA telling me I did something to make it switch but they were going to take care of it. I have no idea how they can blame this on me, but they are.

I'm just going to log in at least once a week to see it if stays fixed.

"Then I got a phone call Friday from the CTA telling me I did something to make it switch but they were going to take care of it."

I'm just stabbing in the dark on this, but I wonder if by some chance a duplicate card of yours is floating out there in the hands of someone else?

At any rate, the obvious question to ask now is, "What exactly was it that I did to make it switch." If they can't answer that question, then they shouldn't be saying something like that.

On the other hand, asking if there's anything out of the ordinary that you did, or asking about what things you've done is acceptable. They have to investigate, and asking you about things you've done would be part of that. But investigation is different than blaming.

If anything, your issues are proof that this is not a "simple" thing, and it's not just some "lazy" programer who didn't do his job. Anyone who has any idea what goes into making these things work is more likely to be amazed at how they work right as often as they do, and not be so lazy in their thoughts to think that when things don't work, it's just one lazy guy's fault. That's as bad as taking the lazy way out, and just blaming the customer without any investigation.

Rusty, at first I thought my card was getting read through my microfiber purse because the problem started when I bought that. I've put the card into my wallet and have been exiting out the back door so I'm not walking past the reader when I exit. I told the CTA this and they seemed to think that was possible. So Friday, when it happened again, I realized that couldn't possibly be the problem because I don't work on Fridays and I didn't use the card. I told them this, but the 'customer service' rep seemed to think it's my fault anyway.

My sincere apologies to Rusty or anyone else about using the word "lazy" in my post, it seemed to be the "word of the day" on this thread. I did not realize this word would be so offensive nor push anyone's buttons. (In retospect, I should have picked up on the underlying tone sooner)

As much as I wish threads here or anywhere else not become personal attacks, the only person I can rein in is myself. I'll be more careful next time and simply agree or disagree, or better yet, stay neutral and keep it light.

Cheryl, microfiber makes static the way the way Kellogg's makes Corn Flakes. And static can shoot down any electronic chip faster than... well, one stupid metaphor in this post is enough, but really fast. Unless you keep your CC+ card in a Faraday cage, it might well have been zapped.

I wasn't so much offended by the use of "lazy". "Simple" is what bothered me.

Many of our greatest advances in history were a result of laziness. Laziness is why we have machines that do things we could do manually. It's why we have computers in the first place. Laziness is a virtue.

Taking the position that a very complex problem is really a "simple" problem, and that the only reason the problem wasn't solved was because someone was too lazy to perform a "simple" task is a different thing.

What offends me is when people who haven't a clue about how complex a problem is decide that it was a "simple" problem, but the people involved were just lazy.

Just a note, but the policy on mid trip passbacks does match the technical implementation. It's just not a very well known/publicized policy.

From the Chicago Card FAQ:
There is one circumstance where a Chicago Card Plus cannot be used to pay for up to seven customers: If six or fewer customers begin their trip while using one card, and they attempt to transfer to another bus or rail line with customers who were not present at the origin of the trip, the card will not be accepted for fare payment of the additional customers.

Cheryl, microfiber makes static the way the way Kellogg's makes Corn Flakes...

Yeah I know Bob, that's what made me think maybe it was reading it again on the Go-Lane buses as I was exiting. But there's no way it could have 'read' it Friday, when it was sitting at home no where near a card reader and it switched again.

I could literally scream right now...I've been using the machines that allow you to add value from your account...and now my account reads -$433.94...I cannot talk to anyone at CTA that gives a damn or who can help! I cannot buy food for my family nor can I buy diapers for my child because my account is negative!! Does anyone have any suggestions that would help me?? I know there are others who have experienced this problem, considering that its existed since April...yet there have been NO notifications on these machines whatsoever!

I'm so pissed!

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