A Ride Downtown on the Blackline Shuttle Is a Black Tie Affair

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The Blackline bus at Belmont/Sheridan. Photo: John Greenfield

This morning, Steven Vance and I checked out upscale public transportation, catching a lift on the Blackline commuter shuttle during its first day of operations.

The company’s new Belmont Express service is billed as a more reliable and comfortable alternative to the CTA’s #135 Clarendon/LaSalle Express bus. The Blackline takes a similar route downtown from Belmont/Sheridan to three Loop destinations, but with fewer stops and tightly scheduled pickup times, plus features like reserved seats and free Wi-Fi. These perks come at a premium price of about $4.60 per ride with a weekly morning pass, more than twice the cost of CTA bus fare.

For now, Blackline is offering only morning service, leaving Lakeview at 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. In the near future, the company plans to add evening pickups from downtown, plus new lines departing from Belmont/Clark and Wicker Park. When we showed up for the 8:30 run, the bus was standing in a loading zone at the southwest corner of Belmont/Sheridan, sporting a large, black bowtie on its grille, reminiscent of the pink mustaches that adorn the fronts of Lyft ride-share vehicles.

Proprietor Joey Hawilo, 29, originally from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, welcomed us aboard and offered us complimentary breakfast bars. Aside from Blackline staff and reporters, there were five passengers along for the ride. We departed at 8:30 sharp and made our way onto Lake Shore Drive. As we cruised along in the moderate rush hour traffic, we enjoyed better views of Lake Michigan and Belmont Harbor than one might get on a crowded CTA bus.

Hawilo, who has worked at various Internet startups but is new to the transportation industry, told me how he got the idea for the new service. “I had moved to Lincoln Park, and I thought that it was really inefficient that I was getting in an Uber or a cab once or twice a week,” he said “The CTA is great, in that it runs frequently, but when I’d go to get a bus at rush hour, it would often be really busy. Chiberia made it worse, waiting for the bus in zero-degree weather.”

He pondered the question of how to best meet transportation needs during peak demand hours. “We wanted to create a service that is cheaper than cabs or ride-share, and helps get people out of their cars.” He noted that Chicago’s Loop-centric orientation is well-suited to the Blackline model. “I thought, why can’t we aggregate demand from the neighborhoods and offer to point-to-point service, rather than having a spread-out route that stops at every block?”

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The bus features leather upholstered seats and overhead luggage racks. Photo: John Greenfield

Although independent shuttles like Blackline could hurt the CTA if they lure away too many riders, which could resulting in service cuts and/or fare hikes, Hawilo said his goal is to fill in gaps in the current service. “I don’t think I’m a CTA competitor,” he said. “I’m competing with private cars. Just look out the window – how many people are in single-rider vehicles? We can get 40 people out of their cars, and we can tailor our service to fit demand.”

Hawilo said he has not been in communication with the CTA, he has no licenses or permits from the city to run the service, and he has not checked in with the buildings whose loading zones the buses use. He added that he has gotten requests from other building managers who want Blackline stops for their tenants.

We arrived at the first stop at Randolph/Stetson at 8:46, a few minutes ahead of schedule. As we rolled west into the Loop, David Hill, who works in finance at an office near LaSalle and Madison, told me he decided to try Blackline because he wanted a reliable, eco-friendly way to get to work.

Hill lives near Belmont/Sheridan and heard about the service from staffers who handed him a flyer at the #135 stop. “This is a nice alternative,” he said. “I still like the CTA, but at rush hour it can be a challenge to find a seat. Many times I stand in awful weather and watch full buses go by, because I’m at the last stop before Lake Shore Drive.”

At 8:51, we arrived at Clark/Washington, where most of the occupants exited, and then reached the final stop at Monroe/Franklin at 8:55, five minutes early. The bus briefly stood in the buffered bike lane to let out the remaining riders – Hawilo told me this was because a cab was standing in the adjacent loading zone.

While it would be a shame if the Blackline reduces CTA ridership, the service is an undeniably pleasant, civilized way to get work. It’s certainly a more affordable and environmentally friendly option than taking a cab or ride-share vehicle downtown, let alone driving solo. It will be interesting to see if the shuttle can garner a sizable ridership and expand to include new routes.

Added 5/26/14: Hawilo requested that we include the following clarification. “We use fully licensed buses and professional chauffeur licensed drivers,” he said. “We looked at licensing with our lawyers, and won’t need vehicle licenses until we operate our own vehicles. Until then, it’s no different than how Uber works, with livery vehicles and taxis.”

  • Alex_H

    Great summary. Looking forward to hearing more as the service develops.

  • ohsweetnothing

    So long as the buses are loading or unloading, there’s nothing wrong with them using a loading zone. They don’t belong to the business that pays for them, they’re just designated public loading zones.

    So why do businesses have to pay for loading zones that are still allowed for public use? Beats me. Maybe that should be a Streetsblog post for the future.

  • Cool that he pointed out the space-saving effects of the buses if they could get people out of their own cars. As long as they don’t contribute too much to the existing bus congestion downtown, which is a constant pain on bike. The east-west protected lanes can’t come soon enough.

  • mcshea7

    Small but important note: In your opening line you referred to Blackline as “upscale public transportation” – the Blackline is private, not public transportation.

  • One reason is because business owners tend to use them as reserved parking spots for their own vehicles.

  • What’s the importance of that distinction here?

  • ohsweetnothing

    Yeah, I like that it’s a public loading zone. I’m wondering aloud if the businesses should be paying for the zone (which would lend itself to the sense of entitlement you mention).
    Maybe the real user of the zone, the loader/unloader, pays…like a commercial parking meter??

  • Fred

    Legally there is a difference between loading zones and standing zones. Loading zones are supposed to only be used by permitted commercial vehicles while loading or unloading. Standing zones are for temporary parking with blinkers on. In practice they are both treated as standing zones, but the city could decide to enforce loading zones if they wanted. To great backlash, I would bet.

  • JacobEPeters

    It might be in that a publicly coordinated transportation provided by private operators has been shown to be more efficient than private operators who are not coordinating with each other. If there were many services similar to Blackline this could become a problem, but if they coordinated with each other, and with the CTA, then it would actually operate as part of a public transportation network, rather than another layer of transportation occupying congested streets. I’m thinking of the chaos of developing cities where a lack of coordination among private operators leads to a system which the public cannot easily utilize or navigate.

  • Jason Marshall

    I am in non-passionate support for this business. I tend to agree with the owner that this is more of an expansion of the pie than it is taking slices away from CTA. If providing attractive alternatives to driving is the goal than we need more options public or private (Divvy, water-taxi, pedicab, whatever).

    I am kind of baffled on how they expect to generate enough money with this to make the venture worth pursuing. It sounds like the owner has an entrepreneurial background so I assume that he knows the numbers that he needs to hit but I’m scratching my head here.

    We can only speculate about the costs of running this operation but we have a good idea for the potential revenue. ~ $5.00 per person per ride (rounding up a bit). So in a perfect scenario every seat would be sold and $200 would be generated for each trip to and from the loop. It is my assumption that there wouldn’t be enough ‘reverse commute’ demand to justify running this service so the vans will have to dead-head back to the origin-point for the next hour’s pick-up.

    With 2 inbound commutes in the morning and 2 outbound commutes in the evening the maximum daily take would be $800 (per vehicle). Maybe they could run a third morning pick-up and a third nightly one but after a point rush hour will be over and the demand won’t be there.

    Now think of all the costs:
    Purchasing / Leasing the van/fleet of vans
    Fuel
    Insurance
    Drivers
    Legal
    Marketing
    Fleet Maintenance
    Vehicle storage
    Transaction processing costs
    and let’s not forget taxes
    Rham Emanuel’s cut (fees)
    The dozens of little things I am forgetting

    And of course I’m sure they aspire to add additional vehicles but only a handful of these are fixed costs that could be spread across multiple vehicles. There isn’t a significant variable cost of adding additional riders but adding additional vehicles to the fleet adds significant cost.

    At best this seems like the kind of business that could maybe support an owner operator but what happens when they are sick or want a day off?

  • Fred

    This is similar to the water taxis. I sometimes take the morning commuter service from Montgomery Ward Park in River North to their stop near Jackson and the river and there are usually only a handful of people on it. 6-10 people at $2 can’t possibly be covering the cost of 2 employees and a boat. I wonder how they are doing it.

  • David Altenburg

    Nice assessment. I suspect there are other possible paths to revenue. Once they have the fleet of buses, then renting them out on weekends (or even during the day for tours) seems like a possibility. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of upsell, deal to the commuters. (e.g., partner with some boutique donut shop, and for an added fee, customers can have a donut waiting for them when they board the bus). Not to mention the potential for advertising. I assume that a captive audience of downtown workers with enough disposable income to pay 2x CTA costs has got to be a lucrative demographic, some way or other.

  • Cameron Puetz

    These look like the limo buses commonly rented by wedding parties, corporate outings, and the like. There isn’t a lot of demand for those types of charters at 8 am on a weekday, so this could be an opportunity for a charter operator to contact to do the actual driving and get more use out of their fleet.

  • A little off topic, but I hope that the Central Loop BRT will make obsolete those enormous private buses that shuttle workers from East Randolph to the train stations. Those shuttle drivers are the worst offenders in terms of buzzing by frighteningly close and fast while I’m on my bike commuting on Madison and Washington. Hopefully Blackline drivers will be instructed to be respectful of all other road users.

  • Yes! When I would red line + divvy to work, I’d bike on Van Buren, which is the worst — it seems like all of the shuttle drivers use it, and they’re awful, including blocking crosswalks at union station. The whole situation is a mess, really. Hopefully central loop BRT will be another step in a change that repurposes some loop streets away from all-cars, all the time (the first step being Dearborn)

  • Zmapper

    No, it is public transportation. The word public refers to the service being open to all, or to the general public.

    Dictionary.com:http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/public+transportation?s=t

    “any form of transportation that charge set fares, run fixed routes, and are >>available to the public<< such as buses, subways, ferries, and trains"

  • mcshea7

    Zmapper might be correct, and my point off the dictionary; however I
    stand by my point because there is a difference between public transit
    and private transit. I’m referring to the ownership of the company, not
    the intended narrow and specific services being available to the
    “public.” I agree with Jacob, in that the private decision making is
    limited and the coordination between publicly owned and operated mass
    transit (CTA) and private entities can be a problem…though I think
    we’re a long way from that. (Though that was part of Chicago’s mass
    transit history when the only mass transit was privately owned by dozens
    of operators).

    I think the importance of the distinction is in the funding and the services provided. I think most on this board believe that public transit is an inherent good and a
    valuable service that extends beyond the simple need of a specific
    market – think the cost of serving the physically challenged or poor,
    elderly (reduced fair) or neighborhoods with low ridership. The cost of
    that service is eased by the distributed nature of a public system.
    Whereas private ownership, out of necessity, must be more…particular
    about their market and necessarily eliminate “extra” costs with poor
    return because their only funding is fare based.

    I think the John did a very good job making that distinction in the article, but for the first line.

  • Mcass777

    John, why do you have an issue with riders leaving CTA? Would you rather them be in their car?

  • The water taxis have ads on their sides, don’t they? That’s another revenue stream (that’s independent of how many riders they have, and directly scales with how many boats the put through downtown waterways).

  • Fred

    I don’t believe they do…

  • I didn’t know this until just now but the ordinance 9-64-160 allows a commercial vehicle to use the loading zone for up to 30 minutes.

    (Passenger vehicles can be issued a permit for $125, valid for six months, that allows their use of the loading zone.)

  • Jason Marshall

    If $200/hour is the maximum revenue generated per vehicle is that going to be enough to charter one of these things with a driver (and have both companies take profits)? I don’t know the answer to this.

  • Jason Marshall

    I agree – additional revenue streams will be necessary.

  • Jason Marshall

    So are private schools public schools?

  • Cameron Puetz

    They’re normally around $500 for a half day to hire one for an event. So a dependable, off peak run could have some takers at that price.

    http://www.busrates.com/buses/BusResults/?t=all&s=Illinois&c=Chicago

  • Jason Marshall

    Interesting. If this is the strategy it becomes more like an Uber model where the company is more of a ride broker who contracts the work to owner/operators. One major difference though. This is much riskier in that if only 5 passengers buy tickets this company is still on the hook to provide transportation for them at a huge loss.

  • I wrote in my previous post on the subject, “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.”

  • Fred

    Taken to the extreme, you get public housing. If you take away all the have’s and leave only the have not’s, you end up with Cabrini Green.

    No one even knows if Blackline is a viable business model, so worrying about gloom and doom is a bit reactionary at this point.

  • trufe

    sure like when L lines were in competition – it resulted in non-optimal station and line placement for the city at large.

    but at this stage of its development, it seems like the blackline deal is actually finding and attempting to resolve an inefficiency in the existing, coordinated public transportation system.

    i think it is great – maybe it fails, but i like any kind of transit innovation. who knows, it could be the precursor to a similar CTA service 10 years down the road

  • Mcass777

    But why run cover for CTA if an other entity may be able to offer a better level of service? Is the CTA unable to keep up?

  • CTA and Blackline are not trying to deliver the same actual service. Blackline is delivering a luxury express experience to a very, very small selection of Chicagoans. CTA is providing the same baseline ACCESS to service to a VERY wide population, over an enormous area, with incredibly limited resources.

  • And even Cabrini Green didn’t use to be Cabrini Green. When it was first built, it was majority-white and largely veteran’s families. Gradually, however, white flight to affordable-but-no-blacks-allowed housing options siphoned off anyone who had any real resources or ability to move, leaving only those who couldn’t.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Blackline line would have to draw lots of customers away to even get the relevant CTA routes down to crush loading. With the shear number of commuters on these corridors I don’t think there’s much risk of ridership collapsing on the CTA.

  • Alicia

    Yes, if you’re British.

  • 2Fast2Furious

    this is America FYI.

  • neroden

    And the British “public schools” were called that because anyone could apply to get in.

    Prior to that, there were (quite a lot of) schools where you literally had to be born to the right parents to get in. This is now very uncommon, though there are still a few in the UK.

    There’s still a surprising amount of private transportation which are private in this sense — where you have to belong to a particular club or work for a particular company to use their private bus. This is why this distinction is still useful.

  • mike

    the original transit lines built in this city were all private entities. We do know if this is a viable business model. it is not.

  • John

    Is it even legal to operate a private bus service without some kind of a business or livery license?

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