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Metra's New Universal App Is Great—If You Have A Smartphone

By Jim Bochnowski in News on Jul 21, 2015 8:30PM

Photo Credit: Mark Sliozis

Metra's universal ticketing app will be a great way for riders to switch seamlessly between buying tickets on CTA, Pace or Metra—but only if they have a smartphone. That could leave some populations, namely the poor and elderly, out in the cold.

Metra's mobile app seeks to create a unified system that will work for all CTA, Pace and Metra transit, as required by a 2011 law. Specifically, the text of the law requires a system that "must allow consumers to use contactless credit cards, debit cards and prepaid cards to pay for all fixed-route public transportation services." At the time of the signing, then-Gov. Pat Quinn said:

"Millions of Illinoisans use buses and trains every day to get to work and school, or to enjoy everything the Chicago area has to offer. These improvements will make public transit a more robust and convenient travel option, boosting economic development and increasing access to schools and universities throughout the region."

But there's some concern that the app will not meet the requirements of the law precisely because of its focus on smartphone users. A recent Pew study found that only 64 percent of Americans own a smartphone, and that gulf is heightened in low-income households, who are even more reliant on public transportation to get to work every day.

Community groups are intending to raise their concerns at a Metra meeting tomorrow, the Chicago Tribune reports. Linda Thisted, an activist with the Coalition for Equitable Community Development, summed up the problem as: "My phone is not good enough, nor it is smart enough."

State Representatives Barbara Flynn Currie and Christian Mitchell, who represent Chicago's South Side, made their concerns known in a letter to Metra in May:

"Although installing contactless credit/debit card readers at all Metra ticket terminals may technically satisfy the legislation by allowing the purchase of paper Metra tickets with such cards, it does not satisfy its intent. Many of our constituents on the Southeast Side of Chicago who ride the Metra Electric fall into these two categories."

But Metra claim that the free app is necessary to "modernize Metra's antiquated paper ticket fare-collection system." Michael Gillis, a spokesman for Metra, told the Tribune that this move is "just the next step with our regional partners to implement more fare payment options."

While they're at it maybe they can upgrade their facilities so it's easier to use those smartphones on the train?