We Took The New Ventra App Out For A Slightly Bumpy Test Run

By Justin Freeman in News on Nov 20, 2015 2:58PM

It's been a long time coming but it's finally here.

After a few delays and a prolonged development cycle, Thursday the CTA finally released their much anticipated Ventra app for iPhone and Android devices. We took it for a test run.

Our testing got off to an ominous start when I opened the App Store. We searched for "Ventra CTA" and the first result was an app named Ventra Fails. In fairness, this will probably change as more people download Ventra's app and it rises to the top of the search results, but it was still kind of a humorous way to kick things off.

Once you launch the app and log in to your account, you are taken to the main screen that lists all of your important information. The amount of money currently on your Ventra card is listed in a clean and crisp bold font, centered at the top of the screen. Next to it is a toggle switch where you can turn autoload on and off. Directly beneath your current amount of money is a button to add an exact amount of additional money to your card. It's all rather intuitive so far. However, beyond this part of the dashboard is where things begin to get tricky.

You can't use your phone as a Ventra card replacement. It's not optimal, but the CTA has correctly figured out that not everybody has a phone with NFC capabilities, which would be necessary to allow that. NFC, or near field communications, is an emerging technology that enables payments and other forms of data transactions to occur by tapping your phone on a specific device. For what it's worth, the CTA seems aware of this shortcoming and appears to be working on including support for it for a potential future update.

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Image via Ventra
The app does present ability to purchase CTA and Pace passes.
But we were slightly confused—if you can't use your phone as a bus pass, what is the point of buying a pass on the app? What happens if you buy one? Do they send you a pass in the mail? Do they simply add the pass to your Ventra card? Do you show the bus driver some sort of pass on your phone and that person does ... something?

In the app, the wording was unclear so we bought a single day pass in the app to find out. We bought the single day pass from the app and it appeared "in queue." We had no idea what that meant or how to access it until we went to the website where it says, "Passes 'in queue' are available for use and are activated automatically as you ride." Right on. That makes a lot of sense, we just wish that was made clearer in the app. So we waved our Ventra card over the reader on the bus and that activated the day pass.

Next, we tested the Ventra app's bus tracker. Opening it reveals a setup similar to several of the other bus tracker apps out there. You can search for nearby stops or exact stops. You can also look up Metra train and Pace Bus schedules, which is a nice addition. It's pretty much everything you imagine a functional bus tracker app would be. Not much in terms of flash, which is fine. It got us where we needed to go, which is what ultimately matters.

The final thing we test was taking Metra using the app. We took the bus downtown to Ogilvie with the plan of riding the train to Clybourn. In the app, you can buy electronic Metra tickets. You select which Metra line, you select the departing station and the destination station. You then follow the prompts to pay for your ticket and it appears in app. It's a somewhat simple affair.

We got seated on the train and opened the ticket in the app, and an animation of a train riding through a silhouette of downtown Chicago greeted us. Once opened, the ticket lasts for about 15 minutes before it expires. As the train took off, the conductor approached us and looked visibly confused. He looked quizzically at the phone and says this is the first one of these he's seen. He tapped my phone's screen a few times, shrugged his shoulders and walked away. We asked him what he did. He explained that he tapped on the animation and that did ... something. It was becoming clear that the conductors aren't quite sure what to do to with Metra's new electronic tickets.

We then asked him if he needed to scan the small barcode that was on the phone's screen. He thought hard about it for a moment and responded "No." He then paused to seemingly reflect on his options before continuing, "No. I think we're ok. Yeah. Yeah. I think we're ok." We assume that Metra will fine tune the electronic ticket process as they become more common, but hey, we used our phones to buy a Metra ride.

Ventra's new app may have some slight flaws, but it's a much-overdue step in the right direction.