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CTA Bus Ridership Bouncing Back; Faster Service Would Spur Greater Gains

The CTA forecasts a slight rise in bus ridership next year, after years of sharp declines. Image: Chicago Tribune

In its proposed budget for 2015, the Chicago Transit Authority didn't take much of a leap of faith when forecasting continued growth in the record crowds boarding its trains. However, CTA also optimistically forecasts that a multi-year slide in bus ridership, which accounts for 57.6 percent of the system's total ridership, will end -- and that instead bus ridership will "stabilize" with a 0.4 percent rebound.

CTA spokesperson Tammy Chase said that bus ridership has "fluctuated in the past five years," and that some of the key factors that depressed ridership, like fare hikes and unemployment, are starting to wear off. In the long run, she said, "bus ridership is flat," and "these trends mirror what's been seen nationally among major U.S. transit agencies."

Chase said that bus ridership grew from 2006 to 2008, then fell in 2009 and 2010 because of service cuts, a poor economy, and fare hikes -- fares went up 25 cents, and discounts for Chicago Card users were eliminated.

Ridership rebounded in 2011 and 2012 as gas prices and employment both rose, Chase said. But even as the city's economy continued its rebound in 2013 and 2014, bus ridership slid as CTA significantly raised pass prices. She said this would prove to have only a short-term impact, and that passes "were deeply discounted, compared with peer transit agencies."

Other factors that Chase cited as potentially contributing to the recent slump in ridership include population shifting toward rail stations, service changes associated with the Red Line South reconstruction in summer 2013, a shortened school year in 2013, and last winter's polar vortex. Essentially, she said, bus ridership should stabilize given "an absence of what brought prior decreases."

The CTA projects that rail ridership this year will match 2012's record ridership, which was the highest seen in 50 years. Chase said that the CTA's ridership forecasts consider unemployment figures, economic growth, prices for gas and downtown parking, and infrastructure improvements.

Over the past five years, the CTA has made major improvements to its rail system, especially on the busy Red Line. It also plans to spend nearly $1 billion more to rebuild large parts of the Red Line, including hundreds of millions more upgrading, replacing, and building new rail stations.

Improvements to bus routes have been more incremental, like more and bigger buses to ease overcrowding at peak hours, and any improvements to bus reliability or speed can be swamped by traffic. Chase says that "the average bus trip is taking longer," since an improving economy has brought with it thicker congestion.

To keep buses moving, the CTA, along with the Chicago Department of Transportation, are testing some new-to-Chicago technologies. However, it will be a while until these improvements will show up in citywide ridership figures.

Two years ago, CDOT built bus lanes on Jeffery Boulevard through South Shore, from 67th to 83rd streets, for the new J14 Jeffery Jump service. This year, CDOT finally implemented transit signal priority along Jeffery, which allows buses to automatically communicate with six traffic signals (between 73rd and 84th streets) and either have lights stay green or turn green earlier.

The J14 experienced a 6.6 percent growth in ridership between 2012 and 2013 (compared to its predecessor, the 14-Jeffery Express) but so far this year has suffered a drop of 9.7 percent [PDF] from the same period last year.

That improvement only benefits one route, though. Rolling out TSP in more places will take extensive engineering and funding. Chase said the CTA has received about $2 million from the Regional Transportation Authority to begin engineering for TSP on the 9-Ashland and 49-Western routes, which would also require upgraded traffic signals along two long, crosstown routes. The signal upgrades on Ashland would happen south of the proposed BRT service, only overlapping between Cermak Road and 31st Street, but continuing south to 95th Street. Western's upgrades would occur between Howard Street and 79th Street. CDOT could implement the changes once engineering is complete, but hasn't yet identified funds for installation.

CDOT re-timed some traffic signals this summer along the 66-Chicago route across the Near North Side, from the Chicago-Franklin 'L' station to Navy Pier, to speed bus movements, where CTA is also considering consolidating bus stops.

There are other ways that CTA and CDOT could improve bus speeds in the near term. Several more routes will benefit from faster and more reliable travel times in 2015 thanks to the Central Loop BRT project, which will be CTA's first foray into another proven strategy for keeping buses on schedule: Getting people on and off the bus quickly.

San Francisco's transit buses allow people to board at all doors, and  Vancouver permits all-door boarding on some routes. CTA could also take a page from New York City's Select Bus Service, which requires riders to pay before boarding via a kiosk.

CDOT could also add bus lanes, whether at peak hours or all day, on wide streets like Chicago Avenue, where bunching complaints arise frequently. Or CDOT could bring back the red-tinted bus lanes on Jackson and Adams, and back them up with police or camera enforcement.

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