Not Surprising: With Weekday-Only Service and No A.M. Rush Hours, Lincoln Bus Pilot Fails

Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

It was a major victory in late 2015 when transit advocates won tests of restored CTA bus service on Lincoln Avenue and 31st Street. So now that the transit agency has announced that they plan to discontinue the Lincoln pilot at the end of the month due to low ridership, it feels like a major defeat. But it doesn’t come as a big surprise due to the anemic hours of the test service, weekdays only from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., which isn’t practical for 9-to-5 workers or weekend shoppers.

The CTA hoped to see 1,500 riders a day on the restored section of the #11 Lincoln bus between Western and Fullerton, but it has only been averaging 500 since the pilot launched last year. This stretch of the route was eliminated in 2012 as part of a round of bus cuts as part of the transit authority’s so-called “de-crowding plan,” which included adding additional ‘L’ service. At the time officials said bus riders could instead ride the Brown Line, which roughly parallels Lincoln, but stations are located as much as a half mile from the avenue.

“We were running nearly empty buses, and we can’t justify it anymore,” CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said, according to the Chicago Tribune’s Mary Wisniewski. The Lincoln pilot, which started in June 2016, will have wound up costing the transit agency $932,000 by the time the service is canceled on September 1. Chase added that the agency projects adding weekend and morning rush hour service would cost and extra $248,000 a year but would only increase ridership by 500 people a day.

The campaign to reboot bus service on Lincoln and 31st, which united North Side and South Side advocates, was spearheaded by 47th Ward alderman Ameya Pawar, who’s currently running for Illinois governor. Pawar’s chief of staff Jim Poole said the alderman isn’t going to try to contest the CTA’s plans. “Ultimately it’s their decision. “We’re not happy about it but we gave it our best effort… We disagreed with them about the [hours] of the route but they felt that they needed proof of concept before expanding the service, so it is what it.”

Pawar testifies at a CTA budget hearing in 2014. Photo: John Greenfield
Pawar testifies at a CTA budget hearing in 2014. Photo: John Greenfield

Poole noted that falling bus ridership is a citywide issue for the CTA, partly due to competition with ride-share. He added that many of the 500 average daily riders on the Lincoln Pilot are seniors, so the ward is looking into other options for accommodating these trips, such as paratransit or ride-share vouchers.

Pawar’s office as well as local merchant associations, including the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce heavily marketed the Lincoln service to residents. For example, the 11 on 11 Passport program offered prizes to residents who got their passport stamped at five out of eleven taverns along the bus route.

Lakeview chamber director Lee Crandell said his organization and neighboring chambers lobbied for extending the pilot hours, met with the CTA several times, and sent a joint letter to the agency’s board. “We appreciate that the CTA gave the #11 bus another try with the pilot, but we’re disappointed that it had to come to an end this way,” he said. “Lincoln Avenue is witnessing a renaissance, with a surge in new businesses and economic growth, from the Children’s Memorial Hospital redevelopment in Lincoln Park to transit-oriented development projects in Lakeview and Lincoln Square. It’s a shame that a lack of bus service may hinder the ability of many Chicagoans to access the economic opportunity in this corridor.”

On the bright side, the 31st Street pilot, which launched last September, is going relatively well. In July the CTA board voted to extend the test by through March 2018 because the route has averaged about 75 percent of its more modest ridership goal of 830 customers a day.

  • planetshwoop

    I don’t know why it was so empty — there is certainly plenty to criticize about how the pilot was run — but man was it empty. Lincoln was my go-to route on a bicycle and at 9mph, I was typically a lot faster than the bus during the evening rush. (I feel like Milwaukee one would play hop-scotch more, meaning the bus was going faster.)

  • david vartanoff

    Yup. Engineered to fail, experiment succeeded.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    I question whether they would of gotten the 1500 riders even with better hours.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    As stated, the CTA projects that they wouldn’t have. That begs the question, why was the ridership goal set almost twice as high as the 31st Street pilot? A big part of the answer is frequency: the Lincoln buses run every 16 to 22 minutes, while the 31st Street buses arrive only every half hour. That raises the question, would it make more sense to run the Lincoln buses less frequently and have a lower ridership goal?

  • Keith Davis

    Destroy a service that has been there for decades, put it back on a limited schedule (when most people in the service area are at work elsewhere), run the trial for a short time, and then get a failure. Big surprise? I think the first and last points are particularly important- it would take some time to rebuild the custom of using the bus. Hard to believe that along a stretch from Western brown line to Fullerton that a viable service could not have been built up. But you would have to look at it as an investment over time, not a tepid trial designed to fail.