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.”