Chicago: the winds of change bring contactless to Illinois

elevated tracks of the chicago transit authority.

Image by clarkmaxwell via Flickr

The windy city has been a fan of contactless for some time, having embraced the technology in its mass transit sector.

Like many major cities, contactless technology is in use with Chicago’s three transport authorities: Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) and Pace, and the three authorities are working to deliver a universal fare system.

The city has also shown an appetite for fare systems that enable travellers to use contactless credit, debit and prepaid cards to pay for their fares, with both RTA and CTA making announcements in this area.  In addition to being used for transit, the cards may also be used for everyday transactions such as purchases at retail outlets. In the case of RTA, the contactless credit card system has been expanded to NFC-compliant phones. Customers can make payments at fast food chain Jack in the Box using their NFC handsets and can additionally use their phone with smart posters to find the nearest restaurant and check the menu.

In a move that widens use of contactless technology, the CTA has also teamed up with I-GO Car Sharing to offer a single card that can be used for public transportation and to unlock their reserved I-GO car. And, in a move that helps create the contactless habit with younger people some high schools in the city have issued combined school ID and Chicago transit reduced fare cards.

Moving transport on to two wheels, the Chicago B-cycle scheme also uses contactless technology. This bicycle sharing program enables Chicago residents to rent bikes by the hour at six locations throughout the city using a contactless membership card or credit card. Initially, 100 bikes have been stocked at the six locations, but eventually the program may move downtown and into the city’s other neighborhoods. Partners involved in the scheme include Trek Bikes, Humana Health Care, Crispin Porter +Bogusky.

Contactless is also proving its worth in the leisure industry. Almost 30 of Chicago’s top tourist attractions including the Jon Hancock Observatory and the Museum of Science can be accessed by the Custom Chicago Explorer Pass, a contactless smart card programme launched by Smart Destinations. The program could be replicated in other US cities such as Las Vegas, New York and Boston.

And sports clubs have backed the technology. The United Center, home of the Chicago Blackhawks and Bulls now accepts MasterCard PayPass at in-stadium concession stands for purchases up to US$25. Previous to this rollout, the technology had been trialed at the city’s Soldier Field, US Cellular Field and Wrigley Field.

Contactless payments schemes have also been building pace. The Chicago Bears Debit card from Chase offers contactless functionality. And HSBC Credit Card Services has made moves into this market. It launched a mobile phone payments pilot in partnership with MasterCard in 2007. The six-month pilot saw more than 200 HSBC employees in New York, Chicago and several other large US cities use a Nokia 3220 handset to make payments  with all merchants that accepted PayPass internationally.

Discover Financial Services has also backed the technology. In 2007 around 50 users were given Motorola SLVR L7 NFC handsets, which also contained an mWallet application from Motorola. During the trial of Discover’s employees, users could make payments at locations near the company’s Head Office in Chicago. An additional 950 participants were given a handset with a wallet application, but no contactless functionality. All participants could view their card balances, recent transactions and cash-back bonus amounts on the handset.

In April 2009 Discover held a pilot of passive stickers in Chicago and Salt Lake City. Around 700 participants could attach passive stickers to their handsets and use them to pay for goods from more than 40 vending machines, in the cafeteria and two convenience stores at Discover’s Chicago campus as well as at an estimated 60,000 locations that accept Discover’s Zip offering across the US. Findings from the trial made interesting reading, revealing that 32% of participants placed the sticker on their company ID badge, 44% placed it on their cellphone or PDA, 13% put it on their wallet and 11% chose a different place. This was in marked contrast to the firm’s pre-trial expectations that 80-90% of participants would place the sticker on their handset or PDA.

Click here for the League Table on Chicago

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