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Despite Pleas From Bus Advocates, the CTA Is Killing the 31st Street Pilot

The #31 stops at 31st and Halsted. Photo: John Greenfield

Bad news for Bridgeport and Armour Square seniors, Illinois Institute of Technology students, and other near-south-side straphangers: The CTA has decided to pull the plug on the 31st Street bus pilot. However, Third Ward alderman Pat Dowell, who recently lobbied for axing the route, should be pleased by the transit agency’s decision.

The #31 bus was originally canceled in 1997 due to low ridership, but in recent years community organizations like the Bridgeport Alliance and the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community petitioned the CTA to bring it back. In fall 2016 the agency launched a test of the route, but the new service only ran on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a mere two runs an hour in each direction. Some residents argued that the pilot was designed to fail, and ridership was, in fact, underwhelming, with an average of only 298 trips taken per weekday last month, far short of the CTA’s target of 830.

Still, when I rode the bus last week, senior citizens and IIT students told me they rely on the service for shopping, getting to medical appointments, and commuting to campus. As such, arguably the bus line should have been maintained as a “coverage route” to serve the carless people who depend on it, even if it wasn’t garnering enough ridership to pay for itself.

Dowell didn’t feel that way though. In July she wrote the CTA board asking it to end the pilot, arguing that money should instead be invested in boosting service on the more popular 35th Street route. The alderman also made the rather nonsensical claim that the small number of #31 buses, rather than the many single-occupant vehicles on 31st, “cause major congestion.”

Last Friday after work, CTA vice president for service planning Mike Connelly broke the news to the bus advocates with an email notifying them that the #31 service will be kyboshed as of Monday, September 3. “Despite our efforts to provide and promote the service, the anticipated ridership never occurred and no additional financial support was secured,” Connelly explained. The transit agency had reached out to IIT and Mercy Hospital about sponsoring the service, to no avail. He said the CTA would start spreading the word about the service cut this week with notices at bus stops, and aboard buses, as well as through digital media.

Tom Gaulke of the Bridgeport Alliance posted on Facebook this morning that he was “incredibly dismayed” by the news. “From the start of the proposed pilot, we knew the route ran not often enough, not on weekends, and was not the ‘full route’ as envisioned… so many years ago -- which would have run from Little Village to McCormick Place… so that workers could get to and from jobs -- even at night and on the weekend.”

Gaulke added that while the CTA is blaming ridership numbers for the decision to cut the route, low use was predictable due the limited utility of the service. “Without regularity and reliability, a route fails,” he wrote, arguing that the transit agency’s claims that the bus schedule was based on input from residents was bogus. “Don't let CTA's PR department's speak of ‘community feedback’ fool you. We gave our feedback. They didn't listen.”

CTA spokeswoman Irene Ferradaz told me this afternoon that the limited hours of the bus "were intended to serve the kinds of trips that the community told us they wanted most, including access to senior activities, medical appointments and shopping trips." She added that the ridership target was set based on those hours of service, so any service beyond those hours would have required a higher ridership target. Ferradaz also indicated that the cancellation of the #31 might make more funds available for improving the #35, if the agency determines that more service is needed on that line.

CBCAC’s Debbie Liu told me that while Connelly’s letter touted the agency’s work to publicize the 31st Street pilot, she felt those efforts fell short. For example, Connelly noted that the CTA assisted with the “#31 Snap” social media campaign developed by Bridgeport alderman Patrick Daley Thompson and community members, which offered discounts from local businesses to riders who posted photos of themselves on the bus. “A lot of seniors don’t have smart phones and the promotion was only in English, so it wasn’t a campaign a lot of Chinese folks would participate in,” Liu said. She added that her organization emailed Connelly a few times to check in before the route was cancelled, but never got a response.

Daley Thompson and north side alderman Ameya Pawar, who lobbied for the #31 pilot in conjunction with efforts to bring back the full #11 Lincoln Avenue bus route, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. The #11 pilot, which launched in summer 2016 with the same limited schedule, was also canceled a year ago due to low ridership.

The Active Transportation Alliance’s Julia Gerisamenko who, along with Liu and a Bridgeport Alliance, implored the CTA board to expand, not kill, the #31 at a meeting earlier this month, said the advocacy group is disappointed but not surprised by the news. “Asking people to wait 30 minutes between buses makes it likely people will choose other options.” She added that if the route is revived in the future, possibly with private sponsorship, it should be “set up to succeed with long hours of service and high frequency, connecting important community landmarks and amenities such as Mercy Hospital and the lakefront.”

Liu said she’s not sure what the bus advocates’ next move will be, but she didn’t rule out the possibility of a protest. In the meantime, the Bridgeport Alliance’s Gaulke urged his neighbors not to be discouraged by this setback, but to view the failed attempt to win back the service permanently as a battle worth fighting. “This bus was a community effort that brought neighborhoods together across generational and racial lines, and the struggle made us stronger and better unified.”

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