Almost 2,000 CTA Bus Riders Have Provided Input on How to Improve Service

During rush hours there are often long lines at 'L' stations to board buses. Prepaid boarding could shorten travel times. Photo: John Greenfield
During rush hours there are often long lines at 'L' stations to board buses. Prepaid boarding could shorten travel times. Photo: John Greenfield

Last fall TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation dedicated to improving urban mobility, awarded the Active Transportation Alliance one of 16 grants distributed nationwide to promote better bus and rail service. Active Trans has been using their $150,000 in funding for a project called Speeding Up Chicago’s Buses, which involves working with the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation to eliminate some of the roadblocks to faster service and higher ridership. Active Trans has hit the ground running by getting input from almost 2,000 local straphangers about the improvements they want to see made to local bus service, and the group will be using this feedback to push for positive change.

Why is it so important to speed up the buses? While ‘L’ ridership hit record levels in 2015, the latest year the CTA has released data for, bus use dropped for the third year in a row, falling by 0.6 percent from 2014 levels to 274.3 rides. “Our goal with this project is to shine a light on the issues and challenges the CTA is facing with its bus network, which is often overlooked in favor of rail,” said Active Trans governmental relations director Kyle Whitehead. “But lower-to-middle-income communities are often dependent on bus service. The trend of dropping bus ridership is alarming, and the potential for increasing rail service is limited due to cost concerns. So making low-cost, near-term improvements to bus service would benefit existing riders and attract more ridership.”

The first phase of the project is focused on collecting data and input. Working with the CTA and CDOT, Active Trans identified the following routes for potential improvements:

#4 Cottage Grove
#8 Halsted
#53 Pulaski
#66 Chicago
#79 79th
#80 Irving Park

In March they launched an online survey, available in English and Spanish, asking CTA customers about their experience riding these lines. The survey will continue until the end of April.

Whitehead and Active Trans interns have also been doing in-person canvassing at popular bus stops along these routes, often key transfer spots like ‘L’ stations. They’ve also focused on locations where there are bottleneck issues, such as stops with boarding delays that could be addressed by having customers pay their fare before boarding the bus. (The CTA has already been testing prepaid boarding at bus stops by the Belmont Blue Line station and at the Madison Avenue and Dearborn Street stop along the Loop Link route.) Recently they’ve buttonholed riders at the 79th Red Line station and the Irving Park Blue Line stop, plus the North/Pulaski bus stop and several Pulaski stops further south.

An Active Trans staffer interviews a CTA customer about bus service on Pulaski. Photo: CTA
An Active Trans staffer interviews a CTA customer about bus service on Pulaski. Photo: Active Trans

The online and in-person questionnaire asks which of the six featured bus routes the respondent rides most frequently, how often they ride, how they would rate their ridership experience, and what kind of commutes they make by bus, such as trips to work, school, shopping, medical appointments, entertainment, and social visits.

Then CTA customers are asked to rate the importance of various aspects of the ridership experience, from “not important at all” to “extremely important.” These include how long the wait is for a bus; how fast the trip is; whether the stop has a bench, shelter, or electronic display with bus arrival info; how long the trip actually takes compared to how long they expect it to take; how easy, safe, and pleasant it is to walk to and from the bus stop; and whether or not they could sit comfortably aboard the bus.

In addition, Active Trans has identified at least one community organization along each route that is interested in collecting input on ways the routs could be improved.

Using this input, along with input from other advocates and experts from inside and outside Chicago, plus data analysis and input from the CTA and CDOT, Active Trans will prepare a report with analysis and recommendations for improving service. “These will be our advocacy recommendations moving forward,” Whitehead said.

In addition to prepaid potential improvements to these routes include all-door boarding and level boarding (which is more-or-less provided by the raised Loop Link stations), transit signal prioritization (which is currently being implemented on Western and Ashland), and bus-only lanes. “The dedicated lanes wouldn’t necessarily be for the entire route, but they’d be especially useful in slow zones, where delays can have a ripple effect in terms of bus bunching and reliability along the whole route,” Whitehead said.

Once Active Trans has narrowed down the types of improvements that are most important to CTA customers, their goal will be to be to build political will for these changes by educating the public and the media about the potential benefits, and lobbying lawmakers to throw their support behind these initiatives. These relatively inexpensive, commonsense solutions could go a long way towards improving Chicago’s transportation network, so hopefully local leaders will get on board with the plan.

  • what_eva

    CTA needs to educate drivers on ways to react to bunching that aren’t just “let’s all stupidly sit in line and stay bunched”. While there are no magic bullets, it’s so rare that I actually see buses leapfrogging or doing anything else that would help. Another no brainer would be to have more buses go express when bunches exist at a major transfer point like an L station. ie, the first bus skips all stops for at least a mile, taking those going longer distances and the second one does local, or when there are 3-4-5 bus bunches, break it up so the buses get spread back out.

  • Pete and Repete were riding a bus. Pete got off and who was left?

    I’m sorry but there must some other reason the CTA is doig this rather than for the answers. At least some jobs are being created even if make work jobs.

    As I read the article I saw that the CTA already, as I assumed, had all the right answers. Priority signals, prepay boarding, bottle neck bus lanes and even heaven forbid BRT.

    What do people want? They know that too. Frequent and fast and close enough service.

  • Matt

    One idea I don’t mentioned is to consolidate stops, as there really doesn’t need to be a stop every block in most cases. For instance, on the #74 there’s a stop at Spaulding that is 360′ or a 1 minute walk (according to Google Maps) from Kimball. Stopping there could be the difference between a westbound bus catching the light or not at Kimball. On the #73 I used to watch the bus take about 5 minutes to go from Campbell to Western when the bus was in plain site with minimal traffic in front of it. Stopping at Campbell gave enough time for cars to pass and build up at Milwaukee that it could take an extra cycle (sometimes multiple) for the bus just to get to Milwaukee. Then, enough people get on at Milwaukee that it catches the light again, only to go 310′ to Western and stop again for a light cycle or two.

    I’d say that strategically consolidating/eliminating superfluous stops would go a long way to making buses quite a bit more reliable. It’s not traffic that kills their pace, but the frequency that they stop in said traffic allowing cars to continually pass them.

  • Matt

    I think the biggest issue with that would be how to handle passengers already on the express bus who would need to depart and get on a different bus. This works on trains because the passengers are in the station when they get off, and don’t need to pay again. On buses, it’s a whole different story. Obviously, if people use their Ventra cards it wouldn’t be all that difficult to sort out, but there are still so many people that pay with cash that would make it a bit more difficult to handle.

    I’d rather see one of the two buses (hopefully the emptier one) wait at a major stop for a few minutes to gather more riders while the front bus breaks away from it a little and gives them a better spacing.

  • Great insight. Usually the idea is framed as eliminate every other stop rather than search for strategic stops to eliminate as you suggest. I suppose if they interview you they will get it. But really I have to imagine they have several bus drivers who could or have told them something similar. In any case a prime example of where a strategic bus lane and/or signal priority would help as well.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Ironically enough, decades before GPS this is exactly what the buses used to do. I still quite vividly recall being shooed off of an #8 Halsted just south of Division, circa maybe 1986. That was quite startling, but it made perfect sense.

  • Carter O’Brien

    CTA bus drivers need to take some responsibility for the behavior of the passengers. Specifically the ones who are catcalling the female riders, I can’t tell you how many women I know have told me they won’t take the CTA due to the piggish behavior of men, and the CTA is ultimately responsible. The sign “if you see something, say something” sends a mixed message when the driver is RIGHT THERE and doing nothing regarding what is happening on *their* bus. In the old days, the drivers stopped the bus, gave the stink eye and threatened to remove people from the bus who did that, and then followed through if the behavior did not stop.

  • Carter O’Brien

    “Why is it so important to speed up the buses? While ‘L’ ridership hit record levels in 2015, the latest year the CTA has released data for, bus use dropped for the third year in a row, falling by 0.6 percent from 2014 levels to 274.3 rides.”

    How are they going to factor in how the City as a whole has dropped in population? Given that areas in close proximity to the L on the North Side have seen a lot of development, I imagine the decline in populations further out from the CBD hub may be even more pronounced.

    Chicago peaked at 3.6 million people… there’s a lot of room to grow, but absent the industries that used to be walking distance from neighborhoods, we really do need a circle line to make moving around on the City’s periphery more efficient for CTA users.

  • Carter O’Brien

    They could at least eliminate stops when there are two on the same block. This is more often than you’d think…

  • I suppose you mean because one street has the stop on the far side while the next has it on the near side.

    That made me think of the situation at 6-way corners. There I sometimes wish it stopped both on the far and the near sides. Especially if I’m trying to make a connection with another bus.

  • Carter O’Brien

    There are arguments for having stops on the front end of an intersection (easier for people) as opposed to across the street (better for traffic flow as the bus doesn’t gum up the turn lane). But having stops on each side of an intersection would really slow down the buses. My anecdotal sense of how the two stops on a block situation has happened is politically connected developers have been able to get stops in front of their properties.

  • SuperChief49

    Is this serious? Although we are in the 21st century, apparently the CTA lacks the IT prowess to competently schedule buses. Whether rush hour or not, the #146 tends to run as a conga line of multiple buses; than a lag of up to 25 minutes. When supervisors were utilized at locations en route, such bus congestion was prevented.

    Instead of eliminating the route supervisors, the CTA kept the ticket booth agents on the ‘L’ and subway, despite their positions eliminated in early 2000s from making change, as so much change fell through the cracks. So today, we have ticket agents at every station, some stations having 2 or more (Clark/Lake, just doing nothing but jaw-boning to the people emptying the trash, or working their cell phones. At least when the conductors were eliminated, many were re-trianed to be motormen. What happened here?

    The CTA needs to address another issue that pushes people away from using their system:
    1) When politely asking somebody to lower the volume of their music or phone call, typically they shoot back with, “this is a public area, and I can do what I want!” At a minimum, signage inside the trains/buses should clearly point out that contradiction, including the statutes and laws to be charged for disturbing the peace.
    2) Panhandlers going from car-to-car on subway/’L’ requesting money.
    3) How often are the elevators power hosed to eliminate the extreme urine smell?
    4) Mothers getting on buses with golf carts in lieu of baby carriages. What happened to the restrictions re size and rush hour?
    5) Stop training new drivers when people are trying to get to work in the morning; pathetic to watch them unadvised by the supervisor to pass another bus on Marine Drive.
    6) Lack of a singular, correct arrival indication of buses, between shelter signage, apps, and building lobby apps.
    7) Other than City Hall cheering about its “Loop Link” concept, why do the buses southbound on State not stop at Madison where the Loop Link is located; nor at Adams to catch the other westbound buses? Just prevent right turns on those streets that would otherwise delay the bus routes.
    8) Build a streetcar line from the commuter depots (Union/Ogilvie) to Willis, LaSalle financial districts, City Hall, Michigan Avenue, Northwestern, Navy Pier (how many hotels would be served?).