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Finally Some Relief for Memphis Bus Riders

The shameful state of Memphis’s bus system is one of the more outrageous stories in American transit.

Buses in Memphis are in such bad shape, there have been a number of fires. But help is on the way. Photo via Memphis Bus Riders Union

Buses in Memphis are in such bad shape, they’ve been known to catch fire. But help is on the way. Photo via Memphis Bus Riders Union

When we checked in with the advocates at the Memphis Bus Riders Union in March, they told us the local transit agency, MATA, was running buses so poorly maintained that they were known to catch fire. In the midst of this crisis, local business leaders had marshaled enough cash to restore the city’s historic trolley system, which mostly serves tourists. Meanwhile, MATA was struggling just to maintain bare-bones operations, with a 17 percent service cut looming.

The current condition of buses is so poor, riders can’t even be assured a bus will arrive no matter how long they wait, said Bennett Foster of the Bus Riders Union.

“Some routes are not being served throughout the day due to a lack of buses,” Foster told Streetsblog. “When a bus breaks down they don’t have another bus to send out. There are people in the city every day who experience just no buses running.”

But the advocacy of the Bus Riders Union is getting results. Mayor Jim Strickland has allocated an additional $7.5 million from the city budget toward the transit system this year. About $5 million of that will be reserved for replacing buses — an absolute necessity.

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Eyes on the Street: CTA Tests Prepaid Boarding on the Loop Link BRT System

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Customers swiped their card at a portable Ventra reader before entering the waiting area. Photo: John Greenfield

Besides being the day Chicago was ranked the top biking city by bicycling magazine, September 19, 2016, may also go down in history as the day the Loop Link bus rapid transit system started getting faster. While the corridor, which debuted last December, seems to have been resulting in modest timesaving gains for bus riders, it’s been missing a key element of robust BRT: prepaid boarding. Today the CTA launched a test of this feature at the Madison/Dearborn station, the busiest of the Loop Link stops, and it appears to be working well.

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The pilot only runs during the evening rush. Photo: John Greenfield

In June the CTA launched a six-month test of prepaid boarding for westbound #77 Belmont Avenue buses departing from the Belmont station of the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch during evening rush hours. Riders pay their fares at a portable Ventra card reader, staffed by a customer assistant, and waiting in a fenced-off bullpen until the westbound bus shows up.

The system at Madison/Dearborn was simpler to set up, since the raised station was already surrounded by railings, except for the side of the platform the bus pulls up to and the entrances to the ramps on the east and west sides of the facility. For the downtown prepaid boarding pilot, which will run for from 3:00-6:30 p.m. on weekdays, for a three-month period, CTA staffers are stationed at each side of the shelter with Ventra readers.

During the pilot hours, customers may only pay their fares with Ventra card or ticket, or personal credit or debit card, not cash. The CTA is encouraging customers at Madison/Dearborn who need to add transit value or unlimited ride passes to their Ventra account to do so at the Ventra machine inside the Walgreens directly behind the platform. Other options for adding value include ‘L’ stations and the Ventra app.

As you can see by comparing the two videos below (the first one was shot a few days after the December launch), prepaid boarding significantly shortens the bus “dwell” time at the station. With onboard fare payment, it took about 30 seconds for 11 passengers to get on the bus, but with today it took only about 15 seconds for ten customers to board – a roughly 50-percent timesavings.

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The Wait Is Almost Over: The Loop Link Prepaid Boarding Pilot Starts Monday

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The three-month prepaid boarding pilot will take place at the Madison/Dearborn station, which has a Walgreens with a Ventra machine right behind it. Photo: Google Street View

Since it launched last December, the Loop Link bus rapid transit system’s timesaving benefits have been modest, but they’re about to improve. The CTA just announced that this Monday, September 19, it’s starting a three-month test of prepaid boarding — in which customers pay their fare before the bus arrives — at the BRT system’s Madison/Dearborn station.

For several months after the December launch, the CTA required bus drivers to creep towards the raised stations at 3 mph in order to avoid striking waiting customers with side-view mirrors or crashing into the platforms. In recent months the transit agency lifted that overly cautious requirement.

Unauthorized vehicles in the red bus-only lanes – especially private shuttle buses – certainly aren’t helping Loop Link speeds. The #NotaCTABus social media campaign has raised awareness of the problem, so hopefully we’ll see some action from the city to address the issue in the near future.

But this latest announcement is the next step towards Loop Link reaching its full potential. Having passengers pay their fares before boarding the bus eliminates the delay caused by a line of riders having to swipe their Ventra card (perhaps multiple times) or put cash in the fare box while the bus waits.

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A sign at Madison/Dearborn notifying customers of the upcoming pilot. Photo: Kevin Zolkiewicz

Prepaid boarding is one of the key timesaving elements of BRT, and originally it was anticipated that Loop Link would launch with this feature at all eight stations. But in 2014, before construction on the corridor began, the city revealed that it planned to initially implement prepaid boarding only at Madison/Dearborn.

And in fall 2015, the city announced that prepaid boarding wouldn’t even be in place at that station in time for the system’s December debut. Instead, the CTA planned to pilot it at Madison/Dearborn sometime this summer. Monday is a couple of days before the fall equinox, so they’re the agency is just barely keeping its promise.

Meanwhile, in June the CTA launched a six-month test of prepaid boarding for westbound #77 Belmont Avenue buses departing from the Belmont station of the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch, only during evening rush hours. Riders pay their fares at a portable Ventra card reader, staffed by a customer assistant, and waiting in a fenced-off bullpen until the westbound bus shows up.

At that point, since everyone has paid the fare already, passengers can quickly board through both the front and rear bus doors. Customers I interviewed said they were pleased with the timesaving effect of the new style of boarding.

Some BRT systems in other cities, such as Mexico City, have turnstiles with fare card readers and enclosed platform stations where you wait until a bus shows up, similar to how payment on a subway works. New York’s Select bus routes feature kiosks where you buy a paper ticket while waiting for the bus, which you must present when the occasional onboard inspection occurs or else face a stiff fine.

Since the primitive, labor-intensive system at Belmont seems to be reasonably effective, the CTA is trying it at Madison/Dearborn from 3:00-6:30 p.m. on weekdays, for a three-month test period.

“By allowing CTA bus customers to pay fares in advance much like they do to ride the “L”, we will be able to determine how much more quickly customers are able to board buses and how bus service reliability is improved,” said CTA President Dorval Carter in a statement.

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No, Uber’s Not Going to Replace Buses, But It Can Complement Them

Not a day goes by without a raft of stories about “new mobility” providers — ride-hailing companies like Uber or car-share services like Car2Go that have tapped into recent technological advances to provide new ways to get around.

ansas City is using the private vanpool service Bridj to link two neighborhoods with weak transit connections. Image: Bridj

Kansas City teamed up with the private vanpool service Bridj to link two neighborhoods that the bus network didn’t connect well. Image: Bridj

In a new report, “Private Mobility, Public Interest” [PDF], TransitCenter deflates some of the hype surrounding these services while laying out several opportunities for productive collaboration between public transit agencies and private mobility providers.

Despite what you may have read, none of these services will replace transit — at least not buses and trains that move large numbers of people. But that doesn’t mean they can’t help transit agencies improve service, diversify their offerings, and operate more effectively.

Based on interviews with more than a hundred people working on mobility in the public and private sectors, TransitCenter’s report examines the opportunities for transit agencies to team up with mobility companies. If transit agencies keep the core values of providing “equitable, efficient, affordable, and sustainable transportation” in mind, TransitCenter writes, they can forge new partnerships that yield broad public benefits.

Here are some of the most fertile areas for collaboration.

Convenient, Cost-Effective Paratransit

Paratransit for riders with disabilities is usually among the most expensive types of service for transit agencies to provide. This can strain budgets and drain resources from other transit services. If agencies can provide paratransit at lower costs per trip, they can free up resources to run more bus or train service.

Both Boston and Washington have started to experiment with contracting paratransit to taxi and ride-hailing companies that can not only operate the service more cost-effectively, but also offer riders more convenience.

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The 31st Street Bus Rides Again – Now Can Residents Keep It Rolling?

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Tuesday’s Launch. Photo: Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community

On Tuesday, almost 20 years after the CTA axed the 31st Street bus route, the line began running again on a pilot basis. A little after 10 a.m., the first run of the resurrected route rolled out of the Ashland Orange Line station, cheered on by residents, community activists, and politicians.

The question is, with a limited route, frequency, and service hours, and weekday-only operation, will the route garner the 830 average daily trips the CTA wants to see during the six-month test in order to make the bus line permanent? Locals are determined to make it happen.

Groups like the Bridgeport AllianceCoalition for a Better Chinese American Community, and the Crosstown Bus Coalition lobbied the transit agency to restore the service, in conjunction with Northsiders’ efforts to bring back the full #11 Lincoln Avenue bus route. The #11 relaunched in June for a six-month pilot with buses running every 16-22 minutes between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays, and a target of 1,500 average daily trips.

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The maiden voyage of the #31 bus. Photo: Tom Gaulke

The #31 pilot features the same limited service hours, but the South Side buses are only running every half hour. The CTA has noted that this is twice the frequency that existed when the 31st Street line was canceled. But residents have also pointed out that the new service doesn’t provide access to 31st Street Beach and the Lakefront Trail but instead stops more than a half mile west at the Lake Meadows Shopping Center.

Regardless, at Tuesday’s launch community activists celebrated their successful campaign to bring back the bus. “We’ve been working on this for several years,” First Lutheran Church of the Trinity pastor Tom Gaulke, a member of the Bridgeport Alliance, told DNAinfo. “For a while I thought we weren’t going to get it, but it turns out that the persistence of grass roots organizing and a collaboration across communities, across racial and economic lines, across ethnic lines, actually does pay off sometimes.”

A press release from the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community notes that the Near South Side’s changing demographics means there’s more demand for the bus than there was back in the Nineties. “The neighborhoods along 31st Street have changed significantly in the past twenty years, with more diverse residents, particularly new immigrants who are low-­income with limited English proficiency,” it stated. “Without many east­-west public transit options between Cermak/Archer and 35th, many struggle[d] to access the increasing number of churches, parks, senior centers, businesses, schools and tutoring centers along 31st Street.”

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Improvements to South Side Bus and Rail Service Kick Off This Weekend

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Map of the new transit service. Click to Enlarge. Image: CTA

The announcement that, starting Labor Day weekend, six bus lines on the South Sides will offer more frequent and/or extended service, appears to be good news for transit riders in underserved neighborhoods. The service improvements will be paid for out of the CTAs operating budget.

Mayor Rahm Emauel and CTA president Dorval Carter, Jr. heralded the new bus service at the CTA’s 95th Street Red Line Station. While these improvements are much needed in South Side communities with limited transit service, the initiative is also part of Emanuel’s campaign to improve his standing with African-American voters in the wake of the LaQuan McDonald police shooting scandal.

Streetsblog’s Steven Vance also floated the idea that, since some of these service improvements will occur in parts of town that would be served by the Red Line extension, the initiative may also be a strategy to reduce demand for that project, which would cost more than $2 billion.

“This increase in bus service will mean greater access to jobs, education and opportunities for residents of the South Side,” said Emanuel in a statement. “By providing improved and more frequent service, we help customers get to their destinations more conveniently and create a positive impact on the surrounding regional economy.”

According to the CTA, the first recent improvements to bus service on the South Side began on June 20, when service on the #26 South Shore Express was extended into the weekday morning and evening hours.

The following improvements will go into effect this Sunday, September 4.

  • A new #95 95th bus line will combine the former #95E 93rd/95th and #95W West 95th routes to create a continuous route between 92nd/Buffalo on the east to 87th/Damen on the west. This will make the 95th Street bus the furthest-south east-west route to cover the entire city – currently it’s the #87 8th bus. More frequent service will be provided west of 95th/State on weekdays and weekends.
  • #4 Cottage Grove: Some trips will be extended south of 95th to 115th Street/Cottage Grove to provide connections to 95th Street retail for residents along Cottage Grove.
  • #71 71st/South Shore: The route will offer more frequent bus service south of 73rd/South Shore to 112th/Torrence on weekdays and weekends

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31st Street Bus Reboot Launches Tuesday But Will It Get Good Ridership?

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The route for the 31st Street pilot. Map: CTA

Thanks to years of lobbying by South Side community members and organizations, the CTA’s #31 31st Street bus will ride again for the first time in almost two decades next Tuesday, albeit on a trial basis. The big question is, with a limited route, frequency, and service hours planned, will the line garner enough ridership to convince the agency to make the service permanent?

The six-month bus pilot will operate between the Ashland Orange Line station and Lake Meadows Shopping Center at 33rd Street and King Drive. The route will also connect with the Sox-35th Red Line and 35th-Bronzeville-IIT Green Line stations. For the line to be reinstated permanently, the CTA wants to see 830 average weekday rides during this period. The cost for the pilot is $251,000.

The South Side bus advocates, including members of the Bridgeport Alliance, Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, and the Coalition for a Better Chinese-American Community, pushed for the #31 service in partnership with North Side residents who were calling for the restoration of the full #11 Lincoln Avenue route. This collaboration was dubbed the Crosstown Bus Coalition.

The #11 pilot launched in June with a target of 1,500 average weekday rides. The bus service has been advertised by local organizations with promotions like the 11 on 11 Beer Explorers Passport.

For both pilots, service is only available from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays. While the Lincoln buses run every 16 to 22 minutes, the 31st Street buses will arrive only every half hour. The CTA is quick to point out that the #31 pilot’s service will be twice as frequent as it was when the line was shut down in the Nineties. But with buses coming only once an hour, it’s no wonder very few people rode the old 31st Street service, especially in the days before Bus Tracker.

“CTA has worked closely with the community in developing the [#31] pilot, including determining the locations of the 50 bus stops along the route,” said a statement the agency released today. “The hours of service are intended to serve the kind of trips the community desired, such as service to schools, multiple shopping centers and entertainment, including U.S. Cellular Field.”

But community members have also pointed out that the limited hours aren’t useful for getting to 9-to-5 jobs, early-morning medical appointments, and many college classes. They also noted that the stop closest to the 31st Beach is a 15-minute walk from 31st Street Beach and Harbor, but that’s a moot point because the pilot isn’t launching until after beach season. Therefore, they say, the timing of the pilot could affect ridership.

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Union Station Transit Center Will Open Sunday, Easing Train/Bus Transfers

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For starters, the new transit center has a sign with a very cool font. Photo: John Greenfield

This afternoon officials cut the ribbon on the Union Station Transit Center, a new facility across the street from the Amtrak and Metra hub that will make it easier to make transfers and will better organize West Loop traffic. The transit center opens to the public this Sunday. It’s the latest step in the development of the Loop Link bus rapid transit route, which debuted on Washington and Madison Streets last December.

The USTC is located just south of the train station, at Jackson Boulevard and Canal Street, on land formerly occupied by a surface parking lot, which the city acquired by eminent domain. The following bus routes will use the transit center:

The transit center itself consists of bus boarding areas with weather protection, seats, Ventra machines, and bus tracker displays. Like much of the transit infrastructure the city builds nowadays (see the Loop Link stations and the upcoming Washington-Wabash ‘L’ station), the skeletal forms of the USTC shelters seem inspired by the work of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

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There’s a large gap between the backglass of the shelters and the canopies, which will be aggravating during heavy rain or snow. Photo: John Greenfield

And, annoyingly, like the Loop Link shelters, the backs of the USTC shelters stop several feet before the canopies. That means, as with the Loop Link facilities, they will provide less weather protection than a standard CTA bus shelter and the seats will get wet in heavy rain. It would be great if the city could figure out way to deter long-term loitering in facilities like these while still allowing the shelters to serve their intended purpose – keeping commuters dry while they wait for buses.

On the plus side, the USTC will allow for relatively seamless transitions between CTA buses and Amtrak and Metra trains. Instead of having to cross a street to get to Union Station, riders can takes a new staircase or elevator to and from the bus station. Unfortunately, unlike many CTA stations, there’s no escalator option.

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A Wish List for Better Walking and Biking in the Black Metropolis

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Ronnie Harris outside the locked gate that blocks pedestrian and bike access on 29th east of Michigan. Photo: John Greenfield

[Last year the Chicago Reader launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

As we stood astride bicycles in the shadow of Alison Saar’s Monument to the Great Northern Migration last week, Bronzeville-based transportation advocate Ronnie Matthew Harris, 47, told me that community organizing is in his blood.

“Both sides of my family immigrated from the Deep South as part of the Great Migration, and landed here in the great mecca of Bronzeville,” Harris said, gazing at the 15-foot-tall bronze sculpture. “And as long as there has been a historic Bronzeville, you could find an organizer by the name of Harris.” His paternal grandfather and father were labor leaders, he explained, and his mother’s job at a local church involved many aspects of community development. “So it’s the family business.”

Harris is also passionate about improving conditions in the neighborhood—sometimes referred to as the Black Metropolis—where he was born and raised. As the leader of Go Bronzeville, a group that promotes sustainable transportation options in the community, he’d offered to take me on a neighborhood tour highlighting pedestrian and bike access issues he wants to fix.

“Data shows that a community that walks, bikes, and uses public transportation is a community that is healthier, safer, and more economically viable,” he said. “Go Bronzeville wants to respond to some of the inequity in public policy and urban planning that sometimes contributes to disparities in health and wealth.”

Go Bronzeville started as an initiative of the Chicago Department of Transportation, along with similar programs in Pilsen, Garfield Park, Albany Park, and Edgewater. The programs educate residents on how sustainable transportation can help them save time and money and improve their health. After the program ended, Harris got CDOT’s blessing to continue running Go Bronzeville on a mostly volunteer basis. Nowadays the group hosts neighborhood bike rides, mans tables at community events, and, via a city contract, promotes the Divvy for Everyone program, which offers $5 bike-share memberships to low-income Chicagoans.

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City Hopes to Use State Law Allowing Transit TIFs to Rebuild CTA Red Line

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Mayor Emanuel will introduce an ordinance that would create a kind of TIF district around the CTA Red Line on the North Side so the CTA can use property tax revenue to rebuild tracks and stations. Photo: David Wilson

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office has started crafting an ordinance that would activate a state law allowing the city to create “transit TIF districts” – officially called Transit Facility Improvement Areas – around four transit projects, according to the Chicago Tribune. Boundaries could be drawn up to a half mile around Chicago’s Union Station (to fund the improvements recommended in its master plan), the CTA’s North Side Main Line, the CTA’s Red Line extension to 130th, and the CTA’s Blue Line Congress branch modernization and possible extension.

The cost for RPM Phase I is $2.1 billion and the CTA is set to receive $1.1 billion in federal grants. Phase I includes rebuilding the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr stations and all tracks within a mile of the stations. CTA spokesperson Tammy Chase said, “specifically, about $956 million of federal Core Capacity funding and a $125 million CMAQ grant.” In order to get these funds, she said, the CTA needs to provide a local match of $881 million. The Red Line transit TIF district is projected to generate $622 million to pay back a low-interest “TIFIA” federal loan. The CTA would fund the remaining $219 million from its own bonds.

Transit TIFs would work much like existing tax-increment financing districts, in which the property taxes assessed on any incremental increase in property values since the TIF district’s inception are earmarked for improvements within the district. In the transit TIF districts, loans taken out to pay for public transportation infrastructure would be repaid via the future increase in property values and tax revenue brought about by the better transit service – a form of value capture.

The city’s existing TIF program is highly controversial because, unlike other city expenditures, the mayor gets to decide how the money is spent without needing approval from City Council. Critics also point out that the program diverts money from schools, parks, and other taxing bodies.

However, the transit TIF program would be designed so that the Chicago Public Schools would receive the same portion of property taxes it would if the Transit Facility Improvement Area didn’t exist. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the official regional planning organization, created the following charts to illustrate how that would work.

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