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.

  • i <3 keto

    So the Jeffrey express has shown no proof that improved technology has increased ridership, since the article also mentions the improving ecomony

  • Coolebra

    What it does prove is that under-design is virtually wasted design.

    If we’re going to build world class transit, we need to build world class transit – not a watered-down stand-alone line that slogs through mixed traffic for much of its route, occasionally availing itself of TSP benefits.

    Let’s not build the best we can get away with, let’s build the best.

    No qualifiers.

    World class transit.

    A network of excellence, not a patchwork of mediocrity.

    If we could get a couple of true – you know it when you see it – BRT facilities built, then we could have a real discussion on the merits of such investment. Until then, all we have is a case study focused on a political process that cultivates sub-optimal outcomes, not a case study examining the ridership benefits of investing in transit excellence.

    No matter the marketing scheme, bus service will always be sub-optimal if we don’t concede dedicated ROW for its use.

    Support an improved Transit Future: http://transitfuture.org/

  • That’s not shown at all. We can talk in two years when there’s enough ridership data (and other data, like average trip time).

    It just got the Transit Signal Priority THIS YEAR so there’s no way we’ll understand the effects of this until *more data*.

  • Thrown Roe

    It’s weird that we aren’t mentioning the “De-Crowding Plan” service cuts of late 2012 as an obvious reason for ridership decline in 2013. You massively chop bus service, and there are fewer people left riding it.

  • CL

    Even the bus-only lanes have very limited hours. 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. in the evenings, I believe, and it only applies to the northbound lane in the morning and the southbound lane in the evening. So the bus isn’t really moving quickly most of the time.

  • ThisManIsRight

    I doubt we’d ever seen it because I don’t think the CTA would release line-specific data & stop-specific data, but it’d be pretty fascinating to map out the YOY % change in ridership overlaid on top of the chicago grid map. *especially* if you could get as granular as down to specific sections of each bus line. Ex: we’d be able to color code each street line w/ the ridership numbers either by volume (or % change) to look at hotspots, areas of substantial decline, etc. I suppose the data only tracks onboards by stop, so the application of this to a map showing the progression of the line gets a little tricky.

  • Coolebra

    Under-design = under-perform.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    TSP… haven’t identified funds for installation.

    Well, that just means this is many years down the road. Because between the time it takes to actually make the request (especially if state or federal funds are involved) and that request gets budgeted and that request gets spent can be nothing short of forever. Is the city going to pay for this alone? Well there are many many priorities that quickly get shifted to the top of the pile. If the pols don’t fund CDOT with the money because the budget says spend it on schools, or spend it on affordable housing, or spend it on fire and police, well there you go.

  • John

    I think bus ridership may be down for the last two years because Divvy trips have replaced short bus trips. Would be interesting to look route-by-route for Divvy zone vs. not Divvy zone.

  • i <3 keto

    Sure it is. There’s no proof that the technology is affecting ridership. You didn’t distinguish between that and changing economic situations. Try running a regression model before making such claims.

  • Ryan Lakes

    Another way to speed bus speeds that I heard from a CTA employee was moving from stops at every 1/8 mile to stops at every 1/4 mile, which is from what I hear actually more common. Frequent stops are convenient for getting more closely to and from your destination, but I wonder how bus users would feel about the trade off.