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31st Street Bus Reboot Launches Tuesday But Will It Get Good Ridership?

The route for the 31st Street pilot. Map: CTA

Thanks to years of lobbying by South Side community members and organizations, the CTA’s #31 31st Street bus will ride again for the first time in almost two decades next Tuesday, albeit on a trial basis. The big question is, with a limited route, frequency, and service hours planned, will the line garner enough ridership to convince the agency to make the service permanent?

The six-month bus pilot will operate between the Ashland Orange Line station and Lake Meadows Shopping Center at 33rd Street and King Drive. The route will also connect with the Sox-35th Red Line and 35th-Bronzeville-IIT Green Line stations. For the line to be reinstated permanently, the CTA wants to see 830 average weekday rides during this period. The cost for the pilot is $251,000.

The South Side bus advocates, including members of the Bridgeport Alliance, Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, and the Coalition for a Better Chinese-American Community, pushed for the #31 service in partnership with North Side residents who were calling for the restoration of the full #11 Lincoln Avenue route. This collaboration was dubbed the Crosstown Bus Coalition.

The #11 pilot launched in June with a target of 1,500 average weekday rides. The bus service has been advertised by local organizations with promotions like the 11 on 11 Beer Explorers Passport.

For both pilots, service is only available from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays. While the Lincoln buses run every 16 to 22 minutes, the 31st Street buses will arrive only every half hour. The CTA is quick to point out that the #31 pilot’s service will be twice as frequent as it was when the line was shut down in the Nineties. But with buses coming only once an hour, it’s no wonder very few people rode the old 31st Street service, especially in the days before Bus Tracker.

“CTA has worked closely with the community in developing the [#31] pilot, including determining the locations of the 50 bus stops along the route,” said a statement the agency released today. “The hours of service are intended to serve the kind of trips the community desired, such as service to schools, multiple shopping centers and entertainment, including U.S. Cellular Field.”

But community members have also pointed out that the limited hours aren’t useful for getting to 9-to-5 jobs, early-morning medical appointments, and many college classes. They also noted that the stop closest to the 31st Beach is a 15-minute walk from 31st Street Beach and Harbor, but that’s a moot point because the pilot isn’t launching until after beach season. Therefore, they say, the timing of the pilot could affect ridership.

This lot at the former Michael Reese provides 250 free spots for 31st Street Beach patrons, but the park district plans to spend $1.6 million to enlarge a lot closer to the harbor.

The #35 31st/35th route was expanded in 2013 to include summer weekend service to the beach. While beach service isn’t planned for the #31, the city is planning to spend $1.6 million, more than six times the cost of the bus pilot, to expand a parking lot near the beach by about two acres, adding more than 250 spaces. Residents say that, although 250 free spaces are available for beach users at the former Michael Reese Hospital site, 31st and Cottage Grove, a ten-minute walk from the beach, the lot is being enlarged to accommodate boaters who want more convenient car access.

“During the pilot, CTA will collect ridership data and feedback solicited from riders and the community to analyze the effectiveness of the service,” the agency stated. “At the conclusion of the pilot, CTA will determine whether to [discontinue the new service], extend it or make the service permanent.”

Earlier this month Debbie Liu from the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community told me the South Side groups planned to meet with CTA officials in August to ask them to extend the route, hours, and days of the week of the #31 pilot. Today Liu said that meeting never happened, but they plan to keep campaigning for better #31 service.

"We are putting pressure on [11th Ward Alderman Patrick Thompson] to be open and transparent and accountable," Liu said via email. "We plan to meet with Thompson to discuss the future of the route and the mechanism(s) for feedback of the route and I am hopeful that CTA will be looped in."

Liu added that the transit advocates will be holding a press conference on the day of the launch and have invited the alderman. They're also holding a bus launch party that Friday at the First Lutheran Church of the Trinity parking lot, 643 West 31st. "TBA on the post-launch week events and promotions since we just found out recently that it will begin Septembers 6 from neighbors who saw signs," Liu wrote.

While the bus boosters are clearly disappointed with the limited scope of the pilot, they plan to do their best to maximize ridership during the next six months. “During the pilot, please encourage your friends, colleagues, family, clients to take this route as we need to meet a target of 830 daily riders to ensure the route's success,” Liu wrote in a mass email on Monday. “We understand that the route and schedule is not ideal but please provide feedback to us and to CTA so we can all better serve the neighborhood.”

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