Are you a consumer
or a citizen?
Editor's note: Stepheneven provides an on-the ground perspective on Chicago’s recent hand-over of its entire public transit system (the CTA and Pace) to a privatized system named Ventra that increased rates, promising Chicagoans increased affordability and convenience in interoperable use and payment through its pre-paid Ventra Card.
Smaller, more immediate issues aside, the transition of Chicago’s CTA fare collection routine from in an in house system to private contractor carries with it far wider implications than just extra fees and general transportation hassles. It further signals the paradigm shift from hard fought for public services, systems, and organizations to privately funded, controlled and, in some cases, owned entities.
The financial sector put a massive hurt on local and federal government back in 2008. Budgets are stretched and exceeded, services and even schools are being de-funded and shut down, while privately funded replacement “charter” schools and services have entered the scene hailed as saviors. We have a mayor (and the one before him) who seems entranced by the sight and smell of money, big loads of cash. Our mayor (along with his predecessor) is not loyal to the people of this great city. He is quite the character in the public spotlight, but when it all boils down in the gritty world of back door deals and crony politics, he has sold out working Chicagoans at every turn. But who’s really to care? It’s not very cool to be politically aware right now, let alone active. And I honestly feel that very few people in our society actually consider themselves to be citizens, with a personal duty to uphold certain standards in our society that benefit our actual living environment, our culture.
Everyone nowadays seems to be more along the lines of something like… passionate consumers (if I may). We are consumed with consuming. We are blinded by the stupefying bliss that comes with copious consumption and luxury. Or something like that. Really though, when I think about it, most of my friends are not this way. At least, not truly, that is. All consumer bullshit aside, all of the people I know and meet are amazingly smart, inspiring human beings. Yet it is still very rare to find someone who takes being a citizen seriously or talks openly and debates issues regarding our shared spaces and wellbeing. And I find that to be telling, telling about the isolation that is a part of the air that surrounds us, and about the environment we exist in.
Many discredit any argument or complaints regarding Ventra by pointing out that most people can easily avoid the “pitfalls” of the system and that, overall, it is more convenient than the previous system. This line of thought may be partially true and no doubt has been influenced by the colorful marketing campaign that put hundreds of Ventra ads in front of the public months before the big roll out, citing the system as easy to use, and a new way to pay.
I’ve been skeptical from the start perhaps because I just couldn’t see how one could really improve the existing fare system (besides maybe a website overhaul) at least in anyway that might actually benefit CTA riders. And as it turns out, a more fitting slogan might have been “a complicated, complex way to allow more of your cash to be siphoned off by a private, third party bank in order to generate more profit.”
In truth, all skepticism aside, I’ve personally had issues with the system from the start.
Upon signing up for Ventra services on their website, I initially received 2 Ventra cards. Then a few days later after calling and chatting with a customer rep as to which card had the $20 I pre-paid when I signed up for it, I felt I finally had a grasp on the system and was eager to get out there and use my “new way to pay.” (It turns out there was a 3rd card in the mail and THAT card had the 20 bucks on it). Both cards failed multiple times at every turnstile I encountered (and still do, in fact). In the first two instances, I was left with no other recourse than to purchase a single ride ticket, at the $3 Ventra rate, in order to get to my location at least partially on time.
Now any new system is going to have it’s flaws no doubt, but this was the crucial point at which things were supposed to get better right? This was a new way to pay! This was ease of use and modern convenience for all of us 40-hour-a-week hustlers! Why couldn’t I get through this f’n turnstile! I need to get to work! And suddenly, there I am: a newly minted Ventra customer, down on the street.
Like most who had used Ventra, I was angry, confused and I wanted my money back!
From that moment on, I have heard the complaints and the complaints about the complaints, and what I can tell you and feel wholeheartedly myself is that … these are real and completely valid complaints.
These (myself included) are hardworking people who without any say in the matter have been forced to deal with a second-rate fare system in order to get to their jobs. These are citizens who have once again been sold out to private interests who don’t even have the decency to implement a system that properly serves it’s customers.
Chicago officials have allowed these third parties to get in between CTA riders and their fare cards, complicating and confusing, riddling their policies with punitive fees and charges.
They’ve done it again, albeit on perhaps a relatively small level. Yet with each small take over by the private sector of the public realms that we (should) hold so dear, we lose more than just our much-needed cash. We surrender our dignity and our right as citizens to a say (or at least proper representation) on the matter.
Ventra and the companies and banks behind it would not be here in Chicago if they did not smell the opportunity to take profits where profits had not been taken before. They have found their niche in the wallets and bank accounts of working class Chicagoans. And it was our own, elected city government that allowed them to set up camp.
I feel it is crucial for folks to take on different perspectives when thinking about privatization and the future of our society. We need to take back the responsibility of being a citizenry, or these things will continue to occur in other areas of our lives, areas perhaps more sensitive and crucial than fare collection at a CTA turnstile. Because the truth is, we are citizens of this city, state and country, not just consumers or customers to be manipulated and stolen from.
I feel the resistance to Ventra and the privatized model it portrays is largely driven by the need for human dignity and fairness to those that make up society at large, and therefore I support it wholeheartedly.
Ventra is a perpetual smack in the face from the political and business elite to the people of one of the hardest working cities on earth. And it shouldn’t be taken lightly. As citizens, will we continue to turn the other cheek, or will we learn to take back control over our public systems and services? Will we become and remain mindless consumers, concerned only with ease of use and wooed by flashy marketing campaigns? Or are we citizens of this city who defend dignity and respect for all people, all the while remaining connected to (y)our communities and committed to the betterment of our society for ALL who live here?
That is the bigger question in this matter, and I believe the answer lies in each of us as a civic responsibility just waiting to be discovered and set forward with purpose.
We need a new perspective towards the actions of those in power, and their effect on OUR society… a shift back to our initial creed of a government that is truly ”of the people, by the people”, and in turn, one that remains constantly committed towards the benefit and wellness for all of it’s citizens in matters both large and small.