First of all, to address the original topic, I think that Ventra is 100% compatible with Metra's zone fare system. It could be a big improvement, actually. I'm a former UP North Line metra commuter and a current CTA brown/purple commuter so I understand how their fares are collected in practice. The way that Ventra works with Metra and actually decreases their costs and improves their productivity (assuming they are competent and not corrupt and ineffectual, which is a big assumption), is that each conductor would be given a mobile cellular-internet enabled Ventra card reader. If they were really smart they'd use an off-the-shelf smartphone like an iPhone or Android as the base and then build their own Ventra card reader peripheral. The conductors would use this to confirm riders' monthly passes (which is how the vast majority of commuters pay their fare). They could also input onto the touch screen to program in fares to add to riders' Ventra cards when they purchase fares aboard. The conductor would specify that they are either collecting the passenger's cash or they could even slide credit cards using a smartphone card reader peripheral like Square.
Secondly to address discussion of of the CTA's fare system...
Tadman wrote:At CTA it could be as simple as charging $2 extra for everyone boarding 5+miles from downtown. I say $2 because there's no way to discriminate between long-distance and short-distance riders on the return leg from downtown, and most passengers ride RT.
Then you are penalizing people who ride outside of the line of demarcation. Tap in/tap out gives a more accurate report of usage ... and allows people to be charged accordingly. While I would not want a complicated system the desire to move to a reusable farecard instead of a one ride ticket makes it easier to have tap in/tap out pricing such as WMATA. One could even have flexible zones where "five miles" costs the same wherever the travel occurs instead of charging for two zones of travel simply because a patron travels between two neighboring stations on the opposite side of a fixed line.
The boundaries are always going to be arbitrary. Even if you moved from fixed zone to your idea for flexible zones, it would still be arbitrary that the worker who lives 4.0 miles from the office pays $2 more than the person who lives 3.9 miles away (for example). You could also make sign-in/sign-out fares much more granular, so that the person who travels 3.9 miles pays a few cents more than the person who travels 3.8 miles but a few cents less than the person who travels 4.0 miles, but then you're also making the fares less predictable and you're adding the bottleneck of having to scan your card at a terminal on the way out of the station, not just on the way in.
In Chicago, forget flat fare vs zone vs distance. No matter what your perspective on that issue, the clear fact is that the CTA is grossly undercharging for transport. $2 to $2.25 is way too cheap for all but the shortest rides during the slowest periods. The fact that people can ride from Skokie to the loop for $2.25, most of the way on an express service that skipping tens of stops and thousands of people waiting for trains, is plain stupid. A monthly loop parking space is $275+. Its not like these people are all going to switch to cars if you increase fares. I predict that we are going to see a fare hike soon, though. They signaled it when they increased the monthly passes to $100 a few months ago. Even if you commute back and forth every day, the $100 monthly pass currently does not make sense vs $2.25 el fare. Seriously, (21 days)x(2 ways)x($2.25)=$94.50. So I am sure that a fare hike to ~$2.75 is already in the works.
My favorite fare systems as a rider and as an armchair designer are the kinds where there are no barriers (turnstiles, gates, etc) between the public and the transport, you just get on and are responsible for holding proof of a valid fare. This is arguably the cheapest fare system to regulate since those card scanners and turnstiles are surprisingly expensive to operate, it doesn't create the bottlenecks that turnstiles can during periods of heavy utilization, and its more compatible with bus and tram transport where there isn't as much infrastructure at each stop. The fact that riders have to scan their CTA cards as they board buses is an unbelievable waste of time. Everyone should be able to walk on as quickly as possible so that the bus can keep moving. I don't see that happening in Chicago any time soon though. Politicians would be too worried about the political fallout when the "urban poor" try to walk on without paying and then get hit with $100+ fines. Better to have physical gates to save them from themselves, the Chicago politicians would reason