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CTA: We Can’t Reduces Fees That Social Service Providers Pay on Ventra

Ventra press event

A CTA bus doubles as an info display during the 2013 Ventra rollout. The switch to Ventra created problems for social service providers, but the CTA says it’s working on fixing one of them.

The Chicago Transit Authority said that it’s working to address some of the new burdens that the switch to Ventra has created for social service providers, as described in a study from the Chicago Jobs Council, which I reported about on Monday.

The study was based on a survey of 53 organizations that provide transit fare assistance to their clients, who may be job seekers, homeless individuals, or young people. The problems include the 50-cent surcharge on single-ride Ventra tickets, which has resulted in these organizations collectively paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

Another issue is the need to mail in forms and checks in order to buy Ventra cards in bulk. The study also found that a majority of the organizations waited a long time to receive their bulk orders, and unpredictable delivery delays forced them to scramble to find alternative ways to buy tickets.

According to the report, in 2013 the CTA told the Chicago Jobs Council that online ordering would be available in 2014. Last February, the CTA estimated online ordering would be available by the end of this year. The CTA said in a statement yesterday “work is already underway with our vendor to make online credit card purchases and delivery tracking available.”

Pauline Sylvain-Lewis of the North Lawndale Employment Network said she tries to plan ahead for the long wait by ordering two months worth of tickets at a time. That can be an issue, she said, because the nonprofit’s cash flow doesn’t allow for spending large sums of money on a monthly basis, and the purchase price can be so large that it requires approval from the board. If a delivery is late, staff members go to train stations and use the organization’s bank cards, or even their own bank cards, to buy tickets.

The CTA said that they weren’t aware of any bulk card orders taking two months two arrive, adding that “99.7% of all bulk orders CTA receives are delivered within 11-14 business days and more than 88% of all bulk orders are delivered within seven to 10 business days – or faster.”

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Study: Ventra Fees Cost Social Service Providers 140,000 Bus Rides Per Year

Ventra Vending Machine Preview Event

A CTA staffer demonstrates how a Ventra machine works. Ventra replaced simpler and cheaper ways for social service organizations to procure transit cards for their clients. Photo: CTA

Ever since the Chicago Transit Authority and Pace switched from magnetic stripe fare cards to the Ventra smart card system in 2013, social service providers across Chicago have been spending more money on paying for their clients’ transit rides, and giving out fewer rides. A new report from the Chicago Jobs Council details the burdens that Ventra fare policies and ticket ordering delays place on social service organization staff members and money dedicated to helping clients. The jobs council works to change laws and policies to increase access to jobs for marginalized workers.

The report says that for the organizations to provide fares to their clients they have to spend more time and money. The money they spend on the new Ventra fee could otherwise be spent on  hundreds of thousands in additional rides for job seekers. It starts with the cost of a new card. Ventra cards cost $5.

While the CTA refunds the $5 as credit for future rides if the account is registered, staff must spend time managing that registration process, and checking often to see how much value each card has left. In addition, it’s possible for clients to run up a negative balance on their card that, to continue using the card, the organization has to pay off.

The report said that the plastic multi-ride cards “do not make sense for programs that serve highly transient populations” because they represent a “financial liability if they are lost or used to accrue a large negative balance.” Ventra also doesn’t offer a way to register or manage many cards. “Overwhelmingly,” the report said, “providers rely on single-use paper tickets to provide transit assistance.”

Anyone can run a negative balance because bus fare readers sometimes let people on even if they have less than $2.00 on their Ventra account. The CTA assumes you’ll eventually put more money on the account to reach a positive balance.

If an organization doesn’t want to wait long for a bulk order, which has to be mailed in, or pay off negative balances, then they’re out there at CTA stations buying single-use tickets for $3.00, and racking up hundreds of dollars in “limited-use media” (disposable) fees, at a cost of 50 cents per ticket. That’s the fee CTA charges to print a one-time use ticket and encourage using the hard plastic Ventra card.

The report surveyed 53 organizations which provide job training, shelter for the homeless, and youth services and found they’re spending $280,000 annually in fees – the equivalent of 140,000 additional bus rides. Read more…

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CNT’s “AllTransit” Tool Can Help Legislators Understand Transit Needs

Highballing Kedzie

Metra stops only a few times each day at the Kedzie station in East Garfield Park (near Inspiration Kitchens), but AllTransit considers transit frequency when calculating a place’s transit quality. Photo: Jonathan Lee

A new tool shows just how much advantage residents in some Illinois cities might have over others accessing jobs with low-cost transit, and just how much difference state legislators could make if they chose to fund more transit. AllTransit, an analysis tool from the Center for Neighborhood Technology and TransitCenter (a Streetsblog Chicago funder), shows information about access to transit that residents and job seekers have in any part of the United States, using data about transit service, demographic information, and job locations.

CNT project manager Linda Young told me those Springfield legislators can use the tool to understand the quality of transit their constituents have access to. They can also compare their districts to those of their fellow elected officials. For example, Illinois state representative Mike Quigley would see that AllTransit gives his 5th district the highest score in Illinois, and, unexpectedly, the 22nd district, covering East St. Louis, Illinois, and parts south, represented by Mike Bost, is second. The 9th district covering northern Chicago, Evanston, and parts of northwest Cook County, and represented by Jan Schakowsky, comes in third.

While aldermen may also find it useful to see the plethora or lack of transit options their constituents have, the info isn’t broken down by Chicago wards. However, it is possible to search by ZIP code.

Young added that elected officials might also be interested to see how many jobs people who live in designated affordable housing can they get to within 30 minutes. “We see more and more that people are wanting to live in areas where there’s mixed uses and transit access,” she said.

Business owners can also benefit from AllTransit info since it can them how many people can access their business within a certain amount of time. If you look at the Inspiration Kitchens restaurant in East Garfield Park at 3504 West Lake, AllTransit reports that there are 438,632 “customer households” within a 30-minute transit commute.

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CTA Reports Huge Ridership Gains on Blue Line, Losses on South Side

The most ridership growth on the CTA has been on the Blue Line, in the central business district, and on the north side of Chicago. Map design adapted from an earlier version by Yonah Freemark.

The most ridership growth on the CTA has been on the Blue Line, in the central business district, and on the north side of Chicago. Map design adapted from an earlier version by Yonah Freemark.

New ridership numbers for the Chicago Transit Authority’s ‘L’ stations show some interesting changes over the past 17 years. The increases in ridership at some stations have been obvious, but the decreases at other stations are a little surprising.

Last year the CTA’s ‘L’ had its highest-ever total recorded ridership. From November 1998 to November 2015, the earliest and latest years for which complete weekday ridership data is available on the Regional Transit Authority’s Mapping and Statistics data warehouse, known as RTAMS, ‘L’ ridership increased by 43 percent.

Sixty-eight of the 145 CTA stops saw an increase in ridership between 1998 and 2015, and 12 stations saw a drop in ridership. The latter included five Red and Green Line stations on Chicago’s South Side, including the Red Line’s 95th/Dan Ryan stop; the Blue Line’s Racine station by UIC and Cumberland stop on the Northwest Side; plus suburban Yellow and Purple Line stations in Skokie, Evanston, and Wilmette.

Nearly all downtown stations have gained more than 2,000 riders per day since 1998, which can largely be credited to the recent development boom – only LaSalle/Van Buren lost riders, at seven percent. The Blue Line stations south of Belmont saw similar increases. Most Green Line stations on the Lake Street branch to Oak Park saw increases of more than 200 riders per day.

The 95th/Dan Ryan Red Line station has seen a 14 percent drop in riders since 1998, or about 2,700 fewer people per day. Despite that, it’s still the ninth busiest station in the system. The stop is currently undergoing a $280 million renovation, which will make it easier and quicker to make transfers between the train and the many CTA and Pace bus routes that serve the station. That, and the more pleasant station environment, will likely boost ridership.

The Green and Pink Line’s Morgan station, which opened in 2013 in the burgeoning Fulton Market District, already has nearly as many riders as the nearby Grand/Milwaukee Blue Line stop. That station reopened in 1999 after being closed for many years. It currently ranks 88th out of the 145 stations for ridership, and Morgan ranks 90th.

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RTA: Pace and Metra Operate Efficiently But Collect Little Rider Revenue

Pace 6330 Oak Park-Stanley

Pace’s large service area and decreased ridership affects its service level financial solvency. Photo: mbernero/Flickr.

The Regional Transportation Authority’s newest report, issued last week, compares the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace, to their respective peers around the country. The report found that the CTA is efficient, relative to rapid transit systems in Atlanta, New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

The RTA also compared Metra, using 2014 performance figures, to New Jersey Transit, commuter rail in Philadelphia, commuter rail in Boston, and the Long Island Railroad and Metro North Railroad in greater New York City. RTA spokesperson Susan Massel said they excluded BART in San Francisco because it’s not in the top 10 largest metropolitan areas and “for each mode we chose only 5 peers, so we picked the five that were most comparable.”

Like the CTA’s ‘L’ system, Metra also ran an efficient service compared to its peers. The commuter rail agency ranked first or second in three operating costs metrics. Metra, however, spent a larger portion of its budget on vehicle operations than the average of the five others, and spends slightly less than average on maintenance.

Metra didn’t fare well on having good maintenance. It ranks fifth for having young vehicles in its fleet, and ranked fourth and below average for the average number of miles a vehicle traveled before breaking down. The RTA mentioned that Metra has finished bringing in new cars on the Metra Electric district line and has a plan to purchase new cars – instead of buying rider-friendly trains, they’re locking in an old design another 30 years – for its other lines. The breakdown rate was high in 2014, the report said, because of the polar vortex issues that shut down lines on a couple days in January.

Metra managed to rank worse on service level solvency. They collect far less in ticket revenue per passenger than their peers, suggesting that Metra is undercharging. Since 2014, Metra’s new administration – including a new board, board chair, and CEO – announced that fares would go up in 2015 and that they would raise fares on an annual basis.

Metra also competes with personal vehicles. Driving into downtown Chicago is cheaper than driving into Manhattan because there are no tolls within 20 miles of the Loop, and parking is relatively affordable. Low fares are good for riders, and may be commensurate with transit’s lower mode share here than in the East Coast cities, but they may also signal that growth in demand for transit in the Chicago region is slow or non-existent.

It’s better for riders and for the administration when fares are raised on a slow-but-steady basis, as opposed to significant increases every now and then. This allows Metra to better predict how much revenue it will raise and use that to strategize and plan for the long term, something they haven’t done in a while. This change also gave them the confidence to sell debt, for the first time, to help pay for those new (but old-fashioned) train cars.

Charts from the RTA's report show how Metra compares to five other commuter rail agencies in collecting revenues from riders.

Charts from the RTA’s report show how Metra compares to five other commuter rail agencies in collecting revenues from riders.

The Regional Transportation Authority also reviewed the performance of Pace suburban bus. They also liked at Pace’s vanpool and paratransit for seniors and people with disabilities, but those aren’t discussed here. Pace’s suburban bus operations seemed to largely mirror Metra’s commuter rail performance: they’re successful at keeping operating costs down, but they spend, on average, a larger portion of their budget on vehicle operations than their peers, and a smaller portion on maintenance.

Additionally, Pace’s fleet had a middle-of-the-road average vehicle age and a reasonably good average distance between bus breakdowns, relative to similar services in Orange County, California; Detroit; San Mateo County, California; New Yorks Nassau Inter-County Express; and San Francisco.

Again, like Metra, Pace’s suburban bus operations collects much less in ticket revenue per passenger than its peers. The RTA partly blames the free rides program, saying one in six trips is a free ride.

Comparing ridership, Pace ranks low because it has a larger geographic coverage area, serving the lowest population density area among its five peers. The report said, “lower population densities require Pace to operate approximately twice as much service to achieve similar ridership levels as the top performer” on the two ridership metrics. That’s on top of a 3.1 percent ridership decrease from 2013 to 2014, “following three years of consecutive growth.”

The report doesn’t discuss what kinds of population growth or declines each transit agency’s service area – here and in the peer cities – saw. Nor do they look into the land use changes or policies that affect each region’s potential to, ultimately, grow transit ridership. Other organizations have found that the Chicago region is still developing outside of the built up area, growing at a slower rate, and growing away from existing transit lines, all affecting transit usage and agency efficiencies.

These additions would give the metrics a stronger context, and help us assess whether the policies of the RTA, its three transit agencies, and state funding – or the lack thereof – are successful in growing ridership.

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RTA Report: CTA Runs an Efficient Transit System Compared to Peer Agencies

500th 5000-series CTA Railcar

The CTA has the youngest rapid transit train fleet in the country. Photo: CTA

This week, rapid transit headaches in Washington, D.C. and the Bay Area highlighted the need for better maintenance of U.S. public transportation infrastructure. However, a new report from Chicagoland’s Regional Transportation Authority suggests that the CTA is in a little better shape than its peers.

On Wednesday, the D.C. Metro system was completely shut down for 24 hours — with only one day’s notice — so that faulty electrical cables could be replaced.

That evening, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system experienced major delays. In an unusual move, a BART spokesman used Twitter to candidly discuss the difficulties of maintaining the system without proper investment.

Yesterday the RTA released its 2014 Sub-Regional Regional Peer Review performance report, which compares the CTA, Metra, and Pace, to transit systems in D.C., Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City. The study found that “overall, the Chicago transit agencies performed well in 2014 in comparison to their peers.”

The RTA compared the three local transit agencies to their counterparts in five other cities. The report covers a range of performance measures: ones that affect passenger comfort and trip reliability, as well as the amount of investment in transit each region is making.

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Will CMAP Stop Prioritizing Increasing Road Capacity in Next Regional Plan?

Cumberland at I-90 West HDR

The GO TO 2040 regional plan says we should encourage transit use, but CMAP’s policy would allow road binging projects if they cost a minimum of $100 million, while applying a $250 million threshold on other project types. Photo: David Grant

This is the second post in a two-part series on the upcoming ON TO 2050 regional plan. The first discussed public outreach goals for the new plan, and this one critiques its predecessor, GO TO 2040.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has launched the process to create the successor to the regional comprehensive plan, GO TO 2040. The new plan, called ON TO 2050, will illustrate with ideas, strategies, predictions, and research, what the region will be like in 2050, and how communities can get there.

GO TO 2040 is a good plan: it envisions a growing region, with an aim for sustainable, compact development in already developed areas, plus big gains in transit ridership, and bicycling and walking. What it did poorly is connect the dots between those goals and how municipalities, including Chicago, in the seven-county region can achieve them. Here are some of the praiseworthy aspects of GO TO 2040, as well as some of plan’s shortcomings.

“Parking pricing” is a strategy in GO TO 2040 to maximize the use of existing resources and reduce car dependence in a neighborhood. Liz Schuh, a principal policy analyst at CMAP and ON TO 2050 co-manager, said in a phone interview, “There hasn’t been much progress.” That doesn’t mean they haven’t made inroads.

In 2013, CMAP and Metropolitan Planning Council staff thoroughly analyzed the so-called parking crunch in the area administered by the Wicker Park-Bucktown Special Service Area, a business improvement district. They found that there’s plenty of unused, on-street parking, even during busy shopping or nightlife times, if only people were willing to walk an extra block or two to their destinations.

They recommended, among other ideas, testing congestion pricing in the area, with meter prices going up during high-demand periods, and falling during off-peak periods, in an effort to ensure that there’s almost always a space for the person willing to pay for it, which could reducing the amount of driving people do while searching for a spot.

Another area where GO TO 2040 has fallen short is detailing how to reach certain goals, like doubling transit ridership from 2 million daily rides to 4 million daily rides by the year 2040. The plan also recommends increasing the the proportion of residents who can walk to transit from home and work. The plan doesn’t say how the region can achieve these goals within the next couple of decades, beyond recommending that more transit service be provided and that new development should focus on existing developed areas, which would limit suburban sprawl. Sprawl persists.

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CMAP Launches Input Process for ON TO 2050, Chicago’s Next Regional Plan

Jane Grover speaks about ON TO 2050

Jane Grover, a former Evanston alder, is coordinating the community outreach for CMAP’s ON TO 2050 planning process.

This is part one of a two-part series about ON TO 2050, the new comprehensive regional plan for Chicagoland.

The official planning agency for the Chicagoland region is looking for your big ideas on what the region should look like – and how it could get there – in 2050. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning is drawing up a new plan to succeed the GO TO 2040 plan, which was released in 2010 after being unanimously approved by 284 municipalities. The next plan, called ON TO 2050, will be released in late 2018 or early 2019.

The federal government requires every urbanized area of 50,000 or more inhabitants to create a regional plan. At its core, the purpose of Chicago’s regional plan is to serve as a guide for how to generate and spend public transportation funds.

For example, since Chicagoland is a non-attainment region for air quality goals, CMAP can only spend federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program funds on projects if CMAP’s analysis finds that they would reduce air pollution. While CMAP has approved many CMAQ grants for sustainable transportation projects, unfortunately they’ve also awarded these funds to intersection widening projects, since these are believed to reduce idling and emissions.

This time around, though, CMAP wants to tweak the planning process. First, they want more community input. Local TV personality Geoffrey Baer, who has made documentaries the Chicago River and the city’s boulevard system, recently previewed the planning process on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight program two weeks ago. “This is the start of a process,” he said. “CMAP doesn’t have all the answers, and they don’t even have the questions.”

Last Wednesday CMAP hosted a launch event for the community input process at their office in the Sears Tower. “We want to reach into communities that aren’t typically represented, and translate the planning process to make sense to those who are affected by it,” said plan outreach coordinator Jane Grover, a former Evanston alder, during the presentation. “We want to find a good way to bring planning to life, and make it a reality.” Grover said she wants to involve high school students and chambers of commerce.

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Metra To Study Changes to Make its Fare Structure More “Creative”

tickets, tickets.

Metra wants a consultant to study how it might changes its fare structure. Photo: Jessica Davidson

Metra, the regional commuter train operator, is seeking a consultant to develop “creative recommendations” on how to change its fare structure. The consultant would be in charge of finding the pros and cons of the current fare structure, comparing it to Metra’s commuter rail peers around the country, and building a model that allows Metra to test how different fare policies would affect ridership and revenue. The Request for Proposals is due at the end of the month.

There are some drawbacks to Metra’s current fare policy. Trips that have a nearly equivalent route via the Chicago Transit Authority ‘L’ and bus cost over $1 more, which in some cases means people are opting to take a slower but cheaper trip via CTA. There’s also no transfer discount except for those who buy $55 Link-Up passes to be used on CTA in combination with a monthly Metra pass during rush hours only.

Recently Metra raised the fares for trips within and between Zones A and B at a higher percentage than other zones, partly because of the need to stick to $0.25 increments. A coalition of South Side community organizations has asked transit agencies and legislators to study transfer discounts, and integrating fares with CTA and Pace because they say the Metra Electric line is hampered by a fare structure more appropriate for suburban lines. The Kenwood, Hyde Park, South Shore, and South Chicago neighborhoods are entirely within Zones A and B.

Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis said the RFP offers room for a unique fare policy, and that any recommended changes would “reflect our efforts to modernize operations and increase ridership. We want to see creative and innovative fare structure scenarios that can bring some excitement to our product.”

Changing the fares, or allowing new kinds of fares – like transfer discounts – could have positive ramifications for the nine million people who live in the region. People would have new transit travel options if transferring between a Metra train and a CTA or Pace bus didn’t require two full fares.

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Metra Buying Old Trains, Squandering Opportunity to Change Ancient Service

Imagine riding in a roomy, airy, well-lit Metra train. Then forget it because Metra is buying more of the same. By JHarrelson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15115233

Imagine riding in a roomy, airy, well-lit Metra train. Then forget it because Metra is buying more of the same.
Photo: JHarrelson/Wikipedia

Metra wants to lock in its 66-year-old train car design for another 30 years. The agency, which hasn’t yet adopted a strategic plan that it started writing four years ago, seems to adhere to a policy of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” The problem is that they don’t realize that things are indeed broken.

Metra issued an RFP last week for a manufacturer to build new gallery cars. The document doesn’t make any room for a more rider-friendly design. The RFP seems pointless, even, because it would be easier to ask potential manufacturers, “how much would it cost to build copies of what we already have?”

The gallery car is characterized by its two-level design, the second level being split with a center open space so ticket collectors can stand on the first level and collect tickets on the second. This allows ticket collectors to make one pass through the car to collect all tickets. However, due to short distances between some stations, ticket collectors often leave the cabin to step onto the platform and then return to collecting.

The gallery car’s disadvantages are numerous, however. Passengers must climb five steps through a single door and then choose a half of the car, entering through a small door into a narrow corridor, where they don’t know if there’s seating or not. Stairways to ascend to the second level are tight and people can only move in one direction at a time. The second level has a partial floor – reducing seating – and a low ceiling. Wheelchair lifts are necessary because of the high-floors and are only installed on some cars.

Back in the 1950s, Metra’s predecessors started using, in earnest, the rail car design Metra still uses. In two years, when Metra buys new cars and puts them into operation, they’ll essentially be the same as cars built in the 1950s. Metra is committing to purchasing 10 cars with an option for 367 if they can obtain funding.

Some of today’s gallery cars were built in the mid-1990s and they’ll last for at least 30 years with proper maintenance and refurbishing. In fact, an Illinois Railway Museum magazine [PDF] in 1998 said that Car 700 was built in 1950 and still in service that year.

Metra’s ticket collecting mode has been outdated for a while, and the successful and wide adoption of the new Ventra app makes it even more so. Riders made 1 million Metra trips using tickets purchased in the Ventra app in the two months following its November launch. Most Metra riders use a monthly pass that is verified with a spot inspection. Tickets purchased through the Ventra app – likely going to be the dominant way to buy tickets because of its convenience – are verified the same way, with a glance.

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