Did the CTA Set up the Lincoln and 31st Street Bus Reboots to Fail?

Waiting for the #11 Lincoln bus in Lincoln Square. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new 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 on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

Community activists who lobbied for years for the restoration of the Lincoln Avenue and 31st Street bus routes rejoiced last November after CTA president Dorval Carter Jr. made a surprise announcement that the routes would be coming back on a trial basis in 2016. The CTA board voted earlier this month to relaunch each of the bus routes as a six-month-long test to determine whether there’s enough ridership to bring back the lines permanently. But transit advocates say the way the agency devised the program’s bus schedules ensures the pilots will fail.

While the restored #11 Lincoln line will debut on June 20, the #31 bus won’t return until September. South-side activists say that will undermine the pilot because summer ridership towards 31st Street Beach won’t be counted. Worse, residents say, both bus lines will run only on weekdays between 10 AM and 7 PM, so they’ll be useless for morning rush-hour commutes. And while the Lincoln buses will run every 16 to 22 minutes, 31st Street buses will arrive only every half hour.

“It looks like it’s set up to fail,” Tom Gaulke, pastor of First Lutheran Church of the a and member of the Bridgeport Alliance, a social justice organization, told DNAinfo last week in regards to the #31 bus. “It feels like a bit of a slap in the face.” Commenters on social media were also dismissive of the limited Lincoln bus schedule. “No availability on the weekend or morning hours for commuting doesn’t appear to make this a true ‘test’ of whether there is demand for the #11 bus,” north-side resident Brendan Carter wrote on Facebook.

The CTA says, on the contrary, that the schedules were actually devised to make sure the pilots succeed.

So how did it come to this?

Ameya Pawar testifies at a CTA budget hearing. Photo: John Greenfield

Back in 1997 the CTA, citing low ridership, cut the #31, and residents have been trying to bring it back ever since. In October 2011 the Bridgeport Alliance and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization joined forces to lobby for restored service, which led to the CTA’s addition of a section of 31st Street in Little Village to the existing 35th Street bus route in 2012. But advocates continued to push for full reinstatement of the #31.

The #11 route was shortened during a round of CTA bus cuts in 2012 that eliminated the portion between the Brown Line’s Western station and the Fullerton el stop while preserving the stretch between Howard Street and the Western station. At the time the CTA recommended commuters take the train, which generally parallels Lincoln, as an alternative to the bus, but the el stations are as far as a half mile from Lincoln.

Alderman Ameya Pawar of the 47th Ward spearheaded an effort to win back full service along Lincoln. He was joined by other local elected officials, chambers of commerce, and residents—especially seniors. The retirees showed up in droves to CTA hearings wearing yellow bring back the #11 bus T-shirts to testify about how the service had formerly functioned as a lifeline, transporting them to grocery stores and medical appointments.

Since north-siders are often viewed as squeaky wheels who get more than their fair share of resources, Pawar realized he’d had better luck achieving his goal if he joined forces with south-side advocates to lobby for an equitable restoration of bus service. (Lincoln Park alderman Michele Smith and Bridgeport alderman Patrick D. Thompson, who also advocated for restoring bus service, didn’t respond to interview requests.)

In April 2015, Pawar reached out to the Bridgeport Alliance, as well as to south-side groups Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, to form the Crosstown Bus Coalition. Last fall, the partnership proved its mettle when the CTA’s Carter agreed to restore the routes to test their viability.

Read the rest of the article on the Chicago Reader website.

  • urbanleftbehind

    Could it also be that there might be remnants of old-style NIMBYism along 31st Street once you get into Bridgeport? There could also be an old guard that doesnt want people from east of IIT to have access to the neighborhood.

  • Chicagoan

    Are you suggesting a conspiracy harkening back to the days of Old Bridgeport, specifically the Hamburg Athletic Club and da mare’s (Richard J. Daley, that is) association with it?

    Well, this is Chicago…

  • planetshwoop

    In non-related biking news, Lincoln has the concrete protected walkways in front of the Apollo Theater, which was done in the bike lane.Not sure what they’re building there.

  • The “tennis courts housing” is being demolished and a new TOD residence is being built.

    Here’s the project:

  • Let me say this again! I am with Jarrett Walker on this. You must frame the question realistically. If you don’t then you are going to get misunderstandings. That is what is happening here, either because the CTA does not know any better or because the CTA is being disingenuous.

    But that does not excuse Streetsblog from not framing the issue in real terms. I am looking at you Mr. Greenfield.

    Per Jarrett Walker there are two ways of judging the “success” of transit routes based on the objective of the route. Which means there are two kids of routes: ridership routes and coverage routes. A ridership route is placed where it will generate a lot of ridership. A coverage route is placed where people want or need access to transit. Therefore you judge a ridership route on the number of riders but you judge a coverage route on anything else you want.

    So John, what do you think the Lincoln route is. Is it designed to generate the maximum possible ridership or is it intended to serve some population that needs or deserves it? Is it meant to be a ridership or a coverage route?

    Yes the CTA may be doing a bait and switch here, designing a coverage route and demanding that it be judged as a ridership route. But that does not excuse your approach to covering the story. You should have transcended the CTA’s either ignorant presentation or deceitful ploy.

    In my view Lincoln is a coverage route. It is there for the elderly who cannot get to the Brown Line and there for some businesses that want to encourage some occasional shoppers. All the other bus lines around Lincoln combined with the Brown Line serve the ridership portion of the area.

    Therefore since it is a coverage route it need not be judged by the number of riders it attracts but rather it need be judged on the reasons for its coverage creation. Is there a better place for coverage budgeted dollars to be spent that serves more or more needy elders or local businesses.

    John, please accept this as friendly criticism. I respect your work and there is no reason to expect that you have seen the several comments I have made on this exact issue elsewhere.

  • I’m pretty sure the users want coverage, but CTA is going to call it a failure if it doesn’t meet ridership/farebox goals.

    In general,the CTA commonly closes down coverage routes because of pushes for funding/economics.

  • Yes I get that this may be a ploy the CTA uses either on purpose or because it does not know any better. I myself belive that it (as an institution) does not know any better.

    Again Jarrett Walker recommends that an agency very purposely split its budgeted dollars between coverage and ridership uses. Then within those two budgets routes can be debated on their own merits. Jarrett also suggests that there be an open (or openish) process for setting the percentage split between the two budget goals.

    The CTA could move of lot of its headaches off of its shoulders and onto the aldermen’s shoulders if it were to do this. It could also more easily explain things like why there is little to no rush hour service, for instance.

  • Chicagoan

    I’m seeing that the “Lincoln Centre” condominiums had but 30 units (and tennis courts ugh), the new development will have 225 units, with 200 covered parking spots (50 for businesses, 150 for residents).

    This increase in density is exactly what Lincoln Park needs!


  • I want to live in a world where Jarrett Walker gets to set Chicago’s transit policy.

    Unfortunately, I live in the world where people expect the CTA to mostly fund itself out of farebox revenue, so there are limits to what they CAN do that are even more stringent than whatever they might WANT to do, absent that pressure.

    Any bus route or train crosses many, many wards, which means complete deadlock if NIMBYs get salty at meetings and their aldercritter backs them. Putting ANYTHING down to Ward-level control is a recipe for dysfunction, especially with the current squiggly garbage gerrymandered map.

    Have you seen how many wards there are on Lawrence between Cicero and, say, Damen? That whole business strip needs central coordination of strategy to build density and keep storefronts full. Not happening, though.

  • This is Lawrence. This is what the Lawrence bus alone has to deal with, aldermanically. They’re lucky their ridership is high enough that most of those aldermen would scream if it were removed — the red and brown line stations alone generate enough passengers to turn as many busses as they can run into sardine cans several times a day.

    But imagine the coverage routes: the necessary ways for people who live too far from other transit to access the whole network. If they don’t cram full like the Lawrence bus does, the pressure builds and builds from the funders behind the CTA to cut it.

    Right now, state and county government treats the CTA as an organism that needs to get its profit in money, when any rational transit system takes its profit in MOBILITY. Transit is like sewer pipes, essential infrastructure that enables exponential improvements in economics system-wide.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    By “fail” I mean that the bus pilots may not hit their CTA-designated ridership targets, and thus may not be made permanent.

  • I understand you conclusion and I agree. My concern is that you did not raise the bar for others to understand what is going on. We have a very good approach for measuring the success of a bus route. You did not articulate that approach in your article and conclusion. You provided your readers with fish without teaching them how to fish.

    Also as a representative of the transit aware community you missed an opportunity to either educate the CTA (as an institution) or call them out for intentional obfuscation.

    Likewise you missed the opportunity to educate the larger less transit aware community to an important transit distinction. Only ridership routes are to be judged by ridership goals. Coverage routes have other standards for judgement.

  • The CTA has an inadequate budget. It must prioritize. It lives in a political sea and must be accountable to politicians who in theory are accountable to citizens.

    An approach that has worked well in Jarrett Walker’s experience that gets the CTA off of the hooks of politicians and citizens is to divide the competing needs and desires of both, is to divide it budget into two parts: one part for ridership and one part for coverage. Then create a process, agreeable to politicians and/or citizens, for setting the percentages for each. For the CTA it might look like 80/20. Whereas for PACE it might look like 60/40.

    Then the agency does what it can within its respective two budgets. A ridership route is not reaching it target? Fine then find a better route. People complain about the empty coverage. Fine, then ask them where in the coverage budget to cut to stretch it thinner.

    You throw the choices back into the laps of the community.
    “coverage routes: the necessary ways for people who live too far from
    other transit to access the whole network. If they don’t cram full like
    the Lawrence bus ”

    That’s the point. Coverage routes can be run with empty buses. The goal is coverage not ridership. Of course if the only place left to spend coverage dollars has no riders at all then likely your coverage percentage is way too high and needs to be put back in the ridership column.
    “Transit is like sewer pipes, essential infrastructure that enables exponential improvements in economics system-wide.”

    Totally agree with that statement!

  • Walker is not setting policy. He is asking an agency to come up with a percentage division for budgeting where to spend the available dollars. He encourages the agency to go to the community for help in setting the percentages. But that is up to them.

    Once that is done then it’s all math. For ridership you put your dollars where they make the best return. For coverage you often put the dollars where the wheel squeaks loudest. In the process you change the dynamic from the community complaining to/fighting the agency to the community complaining or fighting among themselves.

    Lawrence need to eliminate all on-street parking and move it to the alleys and empty lots. Then take the two empty lanes and run a BRT down the middle. IMHO.

    Lawrence is a ridership route par excellence. Time to “man-up.” And then as I say, BRT is a slippery slope to rail.

  • david vartanoff

    Well said, Jeff. The problem at bottom is that CTA simply never has enough stable funding to do what the transit ridership needs. Not very different from other large urban transit systems. The suburbanites resist spending tax money on the inner city and by teaming up with the rural representatives arrange to ration funding.

  • The problem I am addressing is not an “at bottom” problem. What I am addressing is a problem no matter how much or how little money the CTA has for a budget. You can double or triple the CTA budget and the problems associated with differences between coverage routes and ridership routes would still be present.

    The CTA needs to be clear and upfront about how it prioritizes that money. And when it comes to divvying up a too small pool of money it would be doubly wise for it to push as much of the decision making as possible into the community. It needs to present clear choices for citizens and/or their representatives to make.

    The CTA needs to say: We only have so much money, What percent do you want us to spend on Coverage and what percent do you want us to spend on Ridership.

    Then when a ridership route needs changing they show citizens the numbers and say, see this route is not performing ridership wise.

    But when a coverage route needs changing they would not cite ridership numbers to defend the change they would cite other coverage needs and reasons that are greater. And if it is all subjective, then you create a vote to decide.

    John so far is missing this opportunity to present the concept of Coverage and Ridership Routes to a larger audience.

  • david vartanoff

    Jeff, I agree CTA needs to learn the concept and publicly label the routes so as to make clear the divergent standards by which to judge their effectiveness. That said, they still are cash poor.

  • Yes, they are cash poor. No disagreement there!

  • The CTA’s response is too ridiculous. Do they think we were born yesterday? Spokeswoman Catherine Kosinski said the September launch will maximize ridership because that’s when children return to school. But the bus doesn’t start running until 10 a.m., so kids can’t take it to get to school. And if it started in Spring, it would run in September anyway…. She says it won’t benefit from 31st Street Beach ridership because it doesn’t go to the beach. So why does the 31st Street bus stop a half mile short of 31st Street Beach, which thousands of people are trying to access every day? Maybe the 55 Garfield, which currently runs from Midway Airport to the Museum of Science and Industry, should just run from a half mile short of Midway to a half mile short of MSI. See how that works out. The bus also starts at 31st and Archer, which leaves out numerous destinations further west that people want to access, including the McKinley Park Target store and a commercial center at 31st and Cicero that has a Walmart Superstore, a Sam’s Club, a Target, a Home Depot and numerous smaller businesses.

    Either the people who design routes for CTA have never taken the bus, or this bus route was set up to fail.