Will Blackline Buses Be a Threat or a Complement to the CTA?

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Rendering of comfortable-looking seats on a Blackline bus.

A new bus company called Blackline will offer upscale, express commuter service that will compete with the CTA. It remains to be seen whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing for local transit.

As reported in Crain’s Friday, Blackline will be running “luxury buses” between Belmont/Sheridan in Lakeview and three stops in the Loop, with two inbound trips per morning and two outbound trips per evening, starting May 19. The route, called the Belmont Express, includes stops at Randolph/Stetson, Washington/Clark, and Monroe/Franklin, largely paralleling the CTA’s #135 Clarendon/LaSalle Express. However, Blackline touts its service as “better, faster, cleaner, and actually pleasant.”

A trip from Belmont/Sheridan to Randolph/Stetson via the #135, plus a short walk, would take 20 minutes, according to Google Maps. While the same trip via Blackline would also take 20 minutes, according to the timetable on the website, they claim the buses would leave at the scheduled time, so riders wouldn’t have to wait for a bus. Moreover, the Belmont Express would only make three stops in the Loop, fewer than the #135, so a Blackline trip to Monroe/Franklin is scheduled to take 30 minutes, while the same trip by CTA would take 33 minutes.

Perhaps more importantly, all Blackline seats are reserved and must be purchased in advance online, so there’s no risk of having to stand for the ride or getting passed up by a full bus. The black, armchair-like seats look comfy, and free wi-fi is available.

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Hopefully Blackline drivers won’t make a habit of blocking bike lanes, like this one at Franklin/Monroe. Photo: Blackline

That extra convenience and comfort comes at a price. While Crain’s reported that a weekly Blackline pass costs only $23, compared to $20 for five roundtrip CTA bus rides using a farecard, the rate listed on the Blackline website is actually $22.95 for a weekly morning membership, so it’s more than twice the cost of the CTA. However, it’s very possible that lakefront high-rise dwellers will gladly shell out $4.60 per ride for the extra perks.

The Blackline’s somewhat shadowy website, which contains no information about who’s running the service, says Clark Street Bullet and Bucktown Bullet routes are also in the works. The Clark route would run between Belmont/Clark, Diversey/Clark, and Fullerton/Clark, and the same three Loop stops as the Belmont service. The Bucktown route would visit North/Ashland, North/Damen/Milwaukee, Damen/Division, plus the three Loop stops. Of course, there’s a Blue Line station right at North/Damen/Milwaukee, and it’s probably faster to hop an ‘L’ downtown from there, rather than catch even an express bus.

On the other hand, Blackline service could get speedier as it becomes more popular. “As more people join, Blackline groups passengers by pickup and drop off location to reduce the number of stops per route needed, resulting in faster routes,” the website says.

More reliable and comfortable bus service is certainly appealing, but if Blackline buses lure too many customers from CTA routes, it could lead to service cuts and/or higher fares for folks who can’t afford premium rates. The transit agency could make its service more competitive with Blackline by increasing the frequency of bus service on its parallel routes, which would reduce wait times and crowding, and eliminating some of the downtown stops.

Hopefully, most of the high-rollers who choose to spend the extra money for Blackline service will be people who would otherwise drive downtown. If the new service results in fewer cars on the road, rather than fewer riders on CTA buses, that will be a win for everybody.