CTA Ridership Report: Train Use Hits Record Levels, Bus Ridership Still Falling

A crowded Brown Line train at the Belmont station. Photo: John Greenfield

Today the CTA released some generally good news about ridership, heralding 2015 as the highest-ever recorded year for rail use. Meanwhile there was only a minor dip in bus ridership compared to last year, which means a three-year decline in bus use is leveling off.

The total number of rail and bus rides in 2015 was 516 million, up 1.6 percent from 514.5 million last year. This was the eighth year in a row that there were more than half a billion total rides.

As usual, in 2015 bus rides made up the majority of the ridership, with 274.3 million rides, down 0.6 percent from 276 million in 2014. That’s a much smaller decline from the previous year compared to the 8 percent drop that occurred in 2014, and the 3 percent dip that happened in 2013.

The transit agency blamed some of the bus ridership decline on the cold, snowy weather the city experienced in February of 2015, as well as downtown construction for projects like the Loop Link bus rapid transit system and the Washington-Wabash ‘L’ station. However, bus ridership increased on several routes, including ones in Evanston, near Midway Airport, and on the Far South Side.

In 2015 rail ridership hit 241.7 million, a 1.6 percent increase from the previous year’s record of 238 million rides. The CTA noted that this happened in spite of the shutdown of the Yellow Line for several months dues to an embankment collapse caused by a nearby construction project.

Thanks in part to the opening of the Cermak/McCormick Place station in February 2015, the Green Line South saw the highest ridership bump, with an 11.2 percent increase. The new stop had more than 390,000 station entries last year.

Other lines that had high ridership growth included the Blue Line O’Hare branch, which rose 5.3 percent; the Blue Line subway, which increased 4.6 percent, and the Red Line subway, which increased 4.3 percent from the previous year. These ridership increases reflect recent housing trends, as many newcomers are moving to the Milwaukee Avenue and North Red Line corridors, and a high percentage of the recent arrivals are transit commuters.

The CTA credited the general rise in transit ridership to the more than $5 billion in projects that have been completed, are underway, or are planned to improve service. Some recent ones include the launching of Loop Link (although its performance has been unimpressive so far), the new Ventra app, the return of express bus service on Ashland and Western, the addition of 4G wireless to all of the CTA’s subways, and work to rebuild the 95th Street and Wilson Red Line stations.

The transit agency said the migration of customers from bus to rail reflects a national trend. Riders prefer transit modes that aren’t impacted by traffic jams, and they appreciate weather-protected stations.

The continuing growth in Chicago rail ridership and the decline in bus use seems to be an argument for two hotly contested project. The Belmont flyover, which would unclog the junction of Red, Purple, and Brown tracks north of Belmont Avenue, would allow for the CTA to provide eight more Red Line trains, carrying, 7,200 more riders, per hour during peak times. And the Ashland Avenue bus rapid transit project would nearly double bus speeds, while providing customers with ‘L’ station-like bus platforms.

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  • tooter turtle

    I often have the choice of taking the El or a bus, and I almost always choose the El. Why? Trains run more frequently and are much faster. Until/unless that situation changes, I’d expect this trend to continue.

  • http://www.transitchicago.com/ridership/

    These numbers seem to be “actual” rather than “adjusted”. 514.5 is adjusted. No total 2015 numbers on the website yet. If you add December 2014 numbers to the November 2015 numbers you can get the 514.5 number. A quick look has not shown me where the Trib got its number. Maybe a press release from the CTA?

    People (including commenters) here know this stuff better than I, but I assume a lot of bus fluctuations result from cuts in service that take out entire routes. I assume also the economic ups and downs get strongly reflected in the numbers.

    Graphs. I love graphs. The graphs were done in previous years, yes? Where’s our Chicago transit wiki when we need it? Or am I so out of it that I don’t even know that it’s done and out there?

    Edit Tried pasting the numbers but no formatting.

  • Lets try this:

    year bus paratransit rail total
    1988 430089500 435400 174436000 604960900
    1989 420572700 924800 168658800 590156300
    1990 421183734 930802 165732575 587847111
    1991 392088602 949460 147608116 540646178
    1992 370335119 1011669 137372830 508719618
    1993 326655953 1167904 135369734 463193591
    1994 331520700 1209900 143579100 476309700
    1995 306075585 1270274 135461619 442807478
    1996 302115116 1244209 142040486 445399811
    1997 287628293 1235085 151010374 439873752
    1998 290530719 1209756 153572705 445313180
    1999 299058490 1199772 166477141 466735403
    2000 302089554 1246516 176250504 479586574
    2001 301690748 1437883 181692315 484820946
    2002 303295027 1530391 180399630 485225048
    2003 291804434 1803397 181135094 474742925
    2004 294030775 2203730 178716456 474950961
    2005 303244197 2401397 186759524 492405118
    2006 298433228 1200685 195169310 494803223
    2007 309271311 0 190272997 499544308
    2008 328199225 0 198137245 526336470
    2009 318672798 0 202569038 521241836
    2010 306023976 0 210849081 516873057
    2011 310373063 0 221587190 531960253
    2012 314423578 0 231154339 545577917
    2013 300116357 0 229116047 529232404
    2014 276116759 0 238100054 514216813

  • You got that right. In fact frequency turns out to be more important than speed. Speed is good, though.

    Car congestion has ruined many city arterial streets that buses depend upon. That is, of course, why BRT is so important. Bigger streets (more lanes) just throw the baby (urban living) out with the bathwater (car congestion). People who oppose BRT want to have their cake (exciting city living) and eat it too (fast car driving). Cities are designed to bring people close together. More and bigger streets and roads push people apart. I am talking literally here, but it has the same meaning figuratively. There is a place for people who oppose BRT. It’s called the sub-urbs. Get it sub-urban as in less dense, less urban.

  • buddah

    It no wonder rail transit is ahead, it has efficient and dependable times and quick speeds. I know chicago is trying for this bus rapid line however the best option IMHO would be for chicago to bring back light rail( street cars) let them have there own lane for frequent fast service where space permits and then across streets where needed, perfect from one end of chicago to the other north/south streets would be, Western, pulaski , & Cicero.

  • 49western

    I would have thought the Green-Cermak-McCormick gains would have been at the expense of the Red-Cermak-Chinatown, but it seems the red line station only lost 0.8% ridership on the year. In total: 1.433 million on red vs. 0.360 million on green (1.444 and 0.000 last year).

  • david vartanoff

    No, some of us who don’t support BRT don’t even drive. I just think the way the Ashland plan has been laid out is not worth the cost. Installing Transit Signal Priority for the entire route, and selected queue jumps would achieve a speed up of.the restored 9X . They could paint lanes as on Jeffery CTA can make the 9X POP without spending millions–a couple fare inspectors randomly checking is sufficient. With those changes they will have most of the functionality w/o the cutesy platforms, custom buses or disruption during construction, and fewer FTA $$.

    At Jeff specifically, I was raised in a suburb, but once I discovered how neat city life was (at my grandfather’s house in South Shore) I have never been willing to live anywhere but a large city. My house is a comfortable 10 minute walk to a subway station, a faster/shorter walk to an express bus.

  • JacobEPeters

    More than TSP is needed to speed up Ashland buses. Dedicated lanes & prepayment are the only ways to allow for meaningful capacity increases.

  • david vartanoff

    I wrote “CTA can make the 9X POP without spending millions–a couple fare inspectors randomly checking is sufficient.” Requiring all riders to use Ventra or equal and having card readers at each door, covers that issue without having to plant card readers and TVMs at each stop. the painted lanes can be dedicated some or many hours of the day. . The point is most of these “enhancements” can be phased in starting as soon as CTA wants to do the work. From my perspective bundling it all to become an FTA bankrolled Major Project is a mix of desire for ribbon cuttings and pass through of funds to favored contractor/political contributors.

  • I agree with the idea of phasing it in could work. Especially if the CTA at critical bottle-necks commandeered some dedicated bus laneage. I had experience on Ashland as a driver many years ago and the six-way corners of Lincoln-Belmont and Fullerton-Clybourn in the morning rush could be backed up solid for two to three blocks. It could take 5 full minutes to get past those corners.

    Remove the parking there (yes there will be screaming) and put in dedicated lanes for the buses to bypass the congestion would yield quite a bit of time savings. Even a single block of dedicated laneage ahead of the bottleneck would help.

    But here’s the thing. BRT is already incredibly cheap compared to subway and elevated rail. The money to build real BRT is not wasted as it helps the local economy. It would like be federal money returned to us from the federal taxes we pay already much of which gets wasted on the military. But that’s another story.

    Chicago is falling behind in terms of rapid transit. There has bee nothing new since the Orange Line. The other thing is that BRT done right can become a slippery slope to light rail or tramway.

  • david vartanoff

    First, you are spot on about the five sided money BBQ.
    Wasting FTA funding on bells and whistle which don’t really improve transit merely changes which political contributors get their patronage. The totally unneeded F35 project could pay for finishing the SAS in NY AND a full length Ashland/Paulina elevated/subway as well as numerous other actually useful projects.
    Yes, some parking will have to go; but those traveling longer distances will benefit.
    All of the US is falling behind in domestic infrastructure–particularly in transit. As to BRT “done right” I view it as a port excuse for real rapid transit. There are a few places where it is useful, but mostly it is lipstick on a pig where the pols are unwilling/unable to do what is truly needed or want a “marquee project” .
    I hope the “Loop Link” will succeed,but so far reports have not been encouraging. The side mirror excuse for creeping along reminds me how rarely a bus pulls up to the curb at a regular stop.

  • Loop Link is a success when you identify it correctly. It is not BRT and should never have been called that. I call it a Bus Priority Transitway. It is too short and slow to call it BRT. And there was no reason to call it BRT. Doing so just spoils a good concept for people who are unsophisticated. A classic lose-lose. Both BRT and the Loop Link are great things in their own rights. No need to confuse people.

    But as a test track for BRT features the Loop Link is a great success already. And there is yet more to test.

    But we take what we can get and in any negotiation one should begin by asking for the sky. Perhaps the CTA should have told people that they needed to build a new Ashland Subway. “What! You want X billion $ for an Ashland subway. That’s nuts. Hell you could get a full blown BRT for one tenth the price.”

  • I see BRT as a slippery slope to tram and light rail. You are right though that the key is the dedicated lane, whether you are talking rail or bus. A line with dedicated lanes and battery-electric tram like buses would be 90% as good as rail for one third (or better) the cost.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Even as a warm-up to robust BRT, I think it’s too early to call Loop Link a success. If the CTA can double the Loop bus speeds, as was the stated goal, that will be an achievement. But, so far, they don’t seem to be consistently reaching that target. Let’s see how things progress over the next month or two.

  • neroden

    The artificial and unnecessary 3 mph SPEED LIMIT approaching the stations is deliberately crippling Loop Link. When are they going to get rid of that?!?!

    Even if they only raise the approach speed to 6 mph it would be a vast, obvious improvement. And even if they hit someone who’s standing where they shouldn’t, 6 mph probably won’t kill anyone.

  • The CTA is learning by doing a lot of important things with the Loop Link. That learning in and of itself is a great success. Learning that Chicago drivers stay out of the red is a success. Learning that you need to keep cars that are waiting to turn right out of the bus lane while waiting would count as success. Even learning that, oops, we need to notice things like mirrors counts as a success.

    And in the future learning what will or won’t work for prepay and what does or does not work for signal priority will be a success.

    John, lets face it, saving two or three minutes crossing the loop is not high on bus riders agenda. Now granted the appearance of faster buses might be worth something. Gunning your bus up to 6 or 10 miles an hour only to stop two block later will not gain you much time. But yes it will appear faster. And yes appearance is important.

    I have to think smoothness of operation and an increase of consistency also count as important to bus riders.

    The CTA’s goal of calling it BRT was just as wrong as saying a goal was the doubling bus speeds across the loop. It raised unnecessary expectations. DId they need to over-hype things to get funding or other approvals? I don’t know but I kinda doubt it. Remember the CTA has been experimenting with improving bus transit across the loop for a long time. The last experiment failed so badly that they undid it. But as a learning experience it was such a success that they felt confident enough this time around to pour concrete and erect steel and glass rail shelters.

    Lets be honest, the Loop Link is not BRT in and of itself. It is, though, a great test bed for testing BRT features in live situations.

    What sold me on the Loop Link being a success was when a regular rider during week two or three told a reporter that he was pleasantly noticing the differences from the old days. Granted that might have been a single fan serendipitously interviewed. So with that in mind, when you do your next ride be sure to seek out riders who have ridden the route for years, at least three, and ask their feelings and impressions. And if possible get some driver interviews.

    And here is another thing that rings success for me. When I drove by it, I thought it really added to the liveliness of the street. It even livened up a big section of The Loop itself. It looks cool. It makes Chicago look cool. The vibrant colors, the steel and glass, the people calmly waiting, it all rang success to me.

    Of course as we say on the internet, imho.

  • I knew a guy killed by a bus at 2mph. In my humble opinion, I regret that the CTA raised expectations so much. They should have simply said that their goal was to improve efficiencies of bus operations across the loop. And that the best way to do it was primarily to reduce interactions with cars. Then they go on to say that while they are at it they will experiment with various features usually only found on real BRT routes.

    If they had approached the roll out that way, then no one would have even noticed the 3mph stuff. We would be noticing the increased smoothness of bus operations across the loop and declared success. Then instead of calling short-comings failings people would be calling them opportunities for improvement.

  • Adam WickPark2020

    I see troubles ahead, especially on the Blue Line. I get on at Division in the morning and the cars are just about at or over capacity. With the explosion of transit orientated development near Milwaukee and Division and further North along the Milwaukee corridor, I don’t see how the CTA can handle all the additional riders.. Perhaps have some trains stop only at busy stations?


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