RTA Downplays Effect of Service Cuts and Fare Hikes on Stagnant Ridership

RTA ridership grew just 1.9 percent from 2008 to 2012, with the increase driven by CTA rail ridership. Image: RTA

In a new report [PDF], the Regional Transportation Authority blames weak ridership growth from 2008 to 2012 primarily on economic factors, glossing over the impact of fare hikes and service cuts.

During the period covered by the report, CTA ridership grew 3.7 percent, while Metra ridership and Pace ridership each shrank by 6.3 percent. With every CTA rail line experiencing growth, canceling out the commuter rail and bus declines, overall RTA ridership increased 1.9 percent. Still, CTA’s ridership growth lagged behind rapid transit systems in New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia, but not DC, according to the American Public Transit Association [2008, 2012]. Metra’s ridership change, meanwhile, was worse than other big-city commuter rail systems except for Boston and the Long Island Rail Road, according to APTA.

While admitting that “the recession negatively impact[ed] transit operations” and “forced Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace to consider fare increases and service cuts,” the RTA report largely skirts the issue of how shrinking service and rising fares affected ridership, focusing mainly on other factors.

The service boards did more more than “consider” fare increases and service cuts. CTA and Pace raised fares in 2009, and Metra raised them three times, in 2008, 2010, and then again, significantly, in 2012. And in 2010, CTA and Pace cut service, including nine of CTA’s express bus routes. These fare increases and service cuts, combined with small job losses, contributed to a decrease in ridership across all three agencies in 2009 and 2010. The RTA report does point the finger at Metra’s 25 percent fare increase in 2012 and the state eliminating the Seniors Ride Free program in late 2011, as well as disruptions caused by the NATO summit in May 2012.

The report goes on to list several other reasons why Metra ridership decreased 1.7 percent in 2012 – like extreme summer heat, changes in the Chicago festival calendar, and Wacker Drive construction limiting access to West Loop terminals. But how much of an impact did these factors really have? Would Metra ridership have year-over-year growth, like CTA rail, if not for these reasons?

Only four Metra routes had ridership increases in 2008-2012.
Only four Metra routes had ridership increases in 2008-2012. Image: RTA

The RTA argues that economic factors explain declines in ridership in 2009 and 2010, as well as rebounding ridership in 2011 and 2012. This may be true, but the report is rife with data that are either irrelevant, inconsistent, or unconvincing. It tries to make a point by showing regional unemployment for an area larger than what RTA service covers, for instance. Graphs and charts that purport to show a link between the strength of the economy and transit use don’t align with actual ridership patterns. In other words, the RTA fails to connect the dots.

The relationship between fares, service levels, and ridership, meanwhile, is well known. For every increase in fare, the corresponding decrease in ridership can be predicted. But for some reason, RTA’s report refrains from making a strong case that service changes and fares have affected ridership.

Much more useful information came out of the Metropolitan Planning Council’s research showing that decreased spending on Chicagoland transit over the past 20 years has hindered economic growth. The MPC report, for instance, showed that Metra is overly focused on work commutes (peak hour) to downtown, which are a falling portion of regional trips.

The RTA’s focus on economic factors might have made sense if service and fares had held steady. But with service reduced left and right while fares jump every year or two, these factors deserve a closer look. In future reports the RTA shouldn’t shy away from studying how service provision and fares change ridership. Without that kind of analysis, how will Chicago ever muster the will to enact policies that strengthen transit and grow ridership?

  • Roody Poo

    What about changing demographics?

  • Anne A

    Quality of service (on-time performance, crowded conditions, overall reliability) has made a big difference in how much our household has used Metra since 2008. Quality of service has declined noticeably on the Rock Island (our regular line) over time time period, especially in the last 2 years. Fare increases have had less of an impact on us, but a significant impact on some families we know.

    Bike access on the Rock Island has been impacted by the decreasing number of open ADA cars on off-peak runs. Except for last summer, when the red line was under construction, many of us needing to take bikes on the train have gone to the red line instead of Metra, because we knew that available space would not be an issue.

    The reduced number of open cars on off-peak Rock Island runs has been a major factor in boarding-related delays, which can be as long as 20-25 minutes on a pleasant summer weekend. To spend all that time waiting on a delayed train and then be unable to board due to crowded conditions is a lose-lose proposition. Unless things improve, I’ll be riding CTA a lot more this summer, especially when I have my bike along for the ride.

  • Rich K

    Ridership is affected by fare prices, but not by very much if riders perceive good value (price elasticity of demand is important here). Total RTA ridership was likely affected somewhat by fare increases since 2008, but probably not by very much because, on an economic basis, CTA, Pace, and Metra are still providing good value for the price. CTA, Pace and Metra fares are still very competitive with the total costs of other modes and in comparison to other major U.S. transit agencies. Until the 2012 increase, Metra’s fare prices were far below that of their commuter rail peers, and are still the cheapest of the six major commuter rail systems (on the basis of price per passenger mile, Metra’s fares are still priced 50% less than Metro-North or LIRR). CTA, Pace and Metra had little choice but raise fares and/or reduce service because their total labor costs rise every year while RTA sales tax revenue flatlined. How else would the books have been balanced? As for the link to the economy, the unemployment rate in the Chicago region has been higher (and employment weaker) than the other major metros since 2008, and this has translated to lower RTA transit ridership growth compared to the others (as well as weak/flat RTA sales tax revenues). Less jobs leads to lower ridership and weak sales tax revenue, a double challenge to the RTA system.

  • Christine Price

    I don’t ride the CTA much, because woo biking and woo Divvy when I for some reason don’t have my bike, but another reason I avoid it is the $3 fee for a one-use ticket. An extra seventy-five cents doesn’t sound like much, but it is a 33% increase.

    And yes, I own a Ventra pass, but I often don’t have it with me.

    It also frustrates me that if I have friends visit me in the city who want to get multi-day passes, they have to pay Ventra’s $5 fee just to have a loadable plastic card. I’m all for getting money out tourists so it doesn’t come out of my pockets… but not when those tourists are my friends and family. It may be hypocritical, I don’t care.

  • Not mentioned at all.

  • “Until the 2012 increase, Metra’s fare prices were far below that of their commuter rail peers, and are still the cheapest of the six major commuter rail systems…”

    I can’t choose between Metra or its peers. The choice is between Metra and driving.

    “RTA sales tax revenue flatlined”

    I don’t think this is correct. The report shows a decrease in sales tax revenues from 2008 to 2009, but increases from 2009-2010, 2010-2011, and 2011-2012 (with 2010, 2011, 2012 exceeding 2008 and 2009 levels). See chart below.

    Jobs in RTA’s service area only decreased by 30,000 people. That’s the number of people riding the Ashland bus each day and seems like a very small job loss.

  • The RTA didn’t want to provide me with more details on the specific service cuts and I needed to publish before I could ask the service boards individually.

  • JacobEPeters

    Have you checked to see in any of your friends have contactless bank cards? Because passes can be loaded directly onto those. In fact, that is all that I use, just loading fares onto my bank cards at Ventra vending machines. Also, consider what my parents do, having 3 Ventra cards, one of which is kept for visitors from out of town. Then you can register the card to yourself and lend them out to friends when they visit. You don’t even have to use real information to get your card registered, merely info that you’ll remember in case you need to verify your identity in the future when a card is lost or stolen.

    As for the not having your Ventra card on you, why not travel everywhere with your card, like you travel everywhere with your Divvy fob?

  • Fred

    The guest card idea doesn’t work if your guests are flying in and taking the el to/from the airport. Do you mail it to them ahead of time then have them mail it back when they get home?

  • JacobEPeters

    These are internal arguments RTA & MPC should be using in lobbying for an end to the 45/55 transport funding split despite there being a 75/25 population split.

  • Christine Price

    Huh, good to know about the contactless bank card. I was under the impression that they could only handle full fares (and no transfers). I know I don’t have one, but maybe someone else in the world does.

    I’m so out of the habit of using Ventra, that I end up putting it in my pocket afterwards, and then it ends up on my vanity table, or I might just not have my full wallet on me, or something. I always have my keys, so I always have my Divvy fob.

  • JacobEPeters

    there is a $5 fee regardless of if you use a single use card or reload your Ventra card, so it’s a wash. There should be a kiosk at O’Hare where you can register for a card and get a pass loaded on without having to get a reimbursement. I had a friend buy a Ventra Card with $23 loaded on, then register the card by phone, then walk up to the Ventra machine and use his $28 of transit value to buy a 7 day pass. Arduous, but in the past he would’ve had to walk to a CVS, Walgreens or Currency Exchange & he wouldn’t have had the ability to add another pass on before he visited next time.

    Both the $.75 and $5 charges are for the cost of production & ease of use. We had far too long where free cards were thrown away, and purchased without a second thought, causing the transit agency (& in turn users and tax payers) to subsidize that wasteful use pattern.

  • Rich K

    On a per mile basis, at less than 25 cents per mile, Metra is still much cheaper than solo driving (typically 40-80 cents per mile, depending on one’s vehicle), and even more so when there is a parking cost. There is much to criticize about Metra, especially concerning reliability and off-peak frequencies, but its fare price is very reasonable compared to the cost of alternatives and its peers.

    Total private sector jobs in the six RTA counties, as measured by the Illinois Dept. of Employment Security, were nearly 5 percent less in 2012 than they were in 2008 (3,421,997 vs. 3,261,293), and were down 4.8 percent in Cook County alone (but down only 2.3% in Chicago). Employment in central Chicago is forecast to be reasonably healthy in the coming years; outer Chicago and suburban Cook are in a long-term employment decline/ stagnation trend. Employment geography changes have consequences for ridership and the fit of the transit system.

    I should have said total RTA tax and state funding fell then rose. The RTA sales tax plus state funding were about the same in 2008 and 2011 and have risen since. It is important to note that the increase in the RTA sales tax in 2008 kept CTA solvent. In any case, RTA has a funding problem because its fare revenues are not keeping up with costs (see the chart below) and capital investment needs, and tax revenues are not projected to grow fast enough. Whatever one might think about the correctness of fare prices, RTA has an operational funding challenge that has to be addressed with some combination of fares, tax revenues, and cost reductions.

  • Rich K

    RTA costs vs fares.

  • What do you about frequent and index fare increases? The benefit of frequent fare increases is to avoid the cliff dive in ridership after fares are raised, say 25 percent.

  • Rich K

    Metra’s ridership didn’t dive after the 2012 increase — it actually rose in 2012 vs 2011 by 1.9 million rides (more than two percent), while fare revenues increased by $57 million. The big ridership drop occurred in 2009 vs 2008 by about 5 million trips, which probably is directly related to employment losses in the Loop and the recession in general. In any case, fare increases are very politically difficult to undertake, so are typically done only when there’s a financial emergency. Ideally fare increases should be indexed somehow so that they are routine, gradual and transparent (and Ventra would make this easier administratively). That said, the whole governance and financial structure for the region’s transit system probably has to undergo major reforms before we could get to indexed fares, perhaps take pricing power away from the individual service boards (which are terribly parochial and far too political) and codify it in legislation.

  • WalkThruWater

    “The choice is between Metra and driving.”
    For most in the burbs, the choice is more drive TO Metra or drive directly to where they want to go. Metra does not own or administer parking at their stations.
    That is mostly done by the municipality the station is in and permit prices can be costly, change drastically and have long waiting lists. If you can find parking near your destination that is cheaper and/or easier than parking at your station and ticket then you will probably drive. Didn’t see anything about that in the report.

  • Long Island Rail Road is four words, not three. The MTA in New York maintains the historical version of the name as the official one, and that name splits railroad into two words. Also, yes, RTA is totally disingenuous here.

  • Roland Solinski

    What are you arguing? Are you saying that the suburban agencies need greater funding to boost their ridership performance, or that CTA needs to continue its funding dominance because it already has the strongest ridership?

  • Roland Solinski

    Even if Metra administered the parking, it wouldn’t solve the problem. Station parking is in high demand yet land is limited at most stations and there’s precious little funding for parking structures. In a few cases, Metra has responded to this by adding infill stations specifically for drivers (Route 59, Pingree Road).

    The solution here is not to increase parking supply but to encourage development near train stations and build the infrastructure so riders can walk, bike, or a take a bus to Metra. I do like Palatine, where officials consolidated a large parking lot into a compact garage and encouraged dense development on the remaining land.

  • Anne A

    Arlington Heights has also helped to encourage Metra use, by increasing housing density in its downtown area and adding a second parking garage close to the downtown station – which is heavily used.

  • Anne A

    Between the 1/3 fare increase and loss of the 10-ride discount, a lot of folks I know are riding Metra less often.

    Smaller, more frequent fare increases would seem to make more sense, both to help with operating costs and lessen the sticker shock to passengers.

  • JacobEPeters

    in order to get transfers, you just have to load money onto your card at Ventra Vending Machines. You can also load passes onto them, there just isn’t a registration process, which means if you lose the card you can’t get your money transferred to a new card like you can with the regular Ventra card.

  • JacobEPeters

    the 45/55 funding is Chicagoland (including suburbs) vs downstate. It is a matter of more money going to RTA for replacing equipment, expanding infrastructure, etc for all transit systems in Northeastern Illinois. This includes CTA, Metra, and Pace. We need to upgrade our transit services to match changing commuting patterns, and provide reliable alternatives to the increasing gridlock across the region.

  • neroden

    Looking at those stats, there was a boom on the far South Side of Chicago (ME-BI & ME-SC). Despite which, Metra still treats these “in-city” lines like the proverbial red-headed stepchild.

  • neroden

    Now they’re just encouraging riders to get taxis.

    There should never be a fee for fare media. Ever. It’s a whacked-out stupid thing to do, and is extremely hostile to tourists.

  • neroden

    Metra really needs to “think like the CTA” — frequent service on short headways, “rapid transit” style service, on the inner lines.

    The “Grey Line” committee has been promoting this for, oh, decades now, but seems to be unable to make any headway (ha ha) into the Metra mentality.

  • JacobEPeters

    how is a $5 refundable fee going to encourage someone to take a $40 taxi? Disposing of cards is a wasteful action, choosing to do so should not be a free, because it burdens the public agency rather than the individual creating the waste.

  • Roland Solinski

    Of course. Arlington Heights is a messier example, though, and a poor one to use in front of suburban residents who are scared of highrises.

  • Roland Solinski

    These branches are among Metra’s lowest-ridership lines (1st and 3rd-lowest, respectively). They’re starting from a small base already, and 2008 is an especially poor baseline because of the recession. I definitely wouldn’t call their performance a “boom”; it’s a tiny blip in Metra’s overall ridership picture.

    ME-Blue Island gets about 800-900 daily riders. BNSF gets 60000.

  • WalkThruWater

    I’m not talking about increasing parking supply but pointing out that the report left out a massive cost that would discourage people from taking Metra and should be looked into. I’m all for more density but that is a long term solution. For the people tied to their home now or for the reverse commuter a good option would be to increase Pace connectivity and coverage. I know too many people who had to buy a car to get to their suburban jobs or turn down jobs in the burbs because of lack of transit options and schedules.

  • FG

    Mainly because it’s a silly plan. The money spent on infrastructure alone on it could be used to run more frequent trains on the existing infrastructure (i.e. using money spent on unnecessary construction to simply pay staff and other additional overhead costs) for like ten years.

  • FG

    I think a lot of the decrease on MED is the poor economy, the pull of blue collar jobs further south into the suburbs and black flight from the city and perhaps a bit of rider theft from the Jeffrey Jump.

  • Thanks – I’ve corrected that part.

    Another problem with the report? It came out over a year after the last run of 2012. Why so long?


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