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

The #31 stops at 31st and Halsted. Photo: John Greenfield
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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  • It is a clear “bait and switch” by the CTA. It is working because the CTA is depending upon the lack of transit sophistication by the public, particularly the activist transit public that is pushing for the bus line.

    The CTA uses the same language used in the transit concepts of “coverage” and “ridership” but uses them without context in order to perform the bait and switch. Look, says the CTA, we are providing “coverage” services at the appropriate times needed by seniors and students and other carless populations during the times they need them. That’s the bait. But, the CTA then exclaims, their has not been enough “ridership” to support the offered “coverage” bus service.

    For a brief yet more detailed description of these concepts read here:

    It is possible that the CTA does not understand the concepts themselves, that their “bait and switch” is an honest unsophisticated mistake. Either way, it behooves us to educate ourselves and our followers in the concepts in order to call out the CTA.

    It is further possible that the CTA is not making a mistake in cancelling the 31st Street bus effort. We cannot know without the data and the policy decisions that go into using the C/R concepts.

    Working backwards here is a potential list of reasons to keep or kill a “coverage” bus line: (from the link above)

    “On the other hand, coverage-oriented networks serve a different set of goals, including:

    Ensuring that everyone has access to some transit service, no matter where they live.

    Providing lifeline access to critical services for those who cannot drive.

    Providing access for people with severe needs.

    Providing a sense of political equity, by providing service to every municipality or electoral district.”

  • Cameron Puetz

    The CTA never intended for this or any of their recent pilot projects to succeed. The name of the game for the #11, #31, and extended Purple Line express trials was to offer such limited service that it was transportation of last resort and only used by people who didn’t have other options.

  • Cameron Puetz

    They ran it like a coverage route, providing the bare minimum of service with limited hours and long headways, but then evaluated it like a revenue route.

  • Exactly right. They even attempted to generate coverage revenue from the hospital and university.

    I think they are honestly unsophisticated. But then it doesn’t matter if we are unsophisticated as well.

  • david vartanoff

    Program proceeding as designed–to fail. Classic bureaucrats sabotaging something forced on them by political pressure.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think it should be obvious by this point that the CTA treats all routes as ridership routes. I don’t think this is a lack of sophistication in their language, but a philosophical belief that a route needs to reach a certain ridership plateau to justify its existence. As such, trying to frame the situation using language the organization doesn’t use is pointless. In the CTA, there is only one kind of route.

  • Quite right. It is not just a language issue. For the CTA it is a lack of philosophical sophistication as well. And of course, if the CTA neither recognizes nor understands the concepts involved in the “Ridership / Coverage trade off” approach, then our usage of the language is moot.

    You are right in thinking that really the CTA does not need to create coverage routes. The division of transit between the CTA and Pace/Metra means that the CTA provides ridership routes and Pace provides coverage routes. The division has already been made and the political decisions needed to divide the budgeted monies already done as well.

    But not understanding the concept has caused the CTA unnecessary public communication pain in this case and the #11 Lincoln as well. If all the CTA has to provide is ridership routes then they never need to respond to coverage requests. They need only say here is a pilot you activists think will work and now lets see if the ridership is there or not. And from the get-go if the pilot is a “coverage route” in nature then we need to say sorry forget it, it’s a waste of time and money. Do it right or not at all.

    But we fell for the “bait and switch” and now we face the consequences of our foolishness. Twice now. Fool me once…

  • Bureaucrats did not sabotage anything here. They created the thing that was forced on them and gave it a reasonable chance to succeed.

    The failure lays with the political actors, elected and activist. We allowed the bureaucrats to design the route and then accepted the design for piloting. And we knew ahead of time that the pilot would fail so it’s a double failure on the political side.

    I believe that part of the political failure was a lack of transit sophistication on the part of the political actors. I believe further that the CTA either had a similar lack of sophistication or cynically refused to educate the political actors pressuring them. Which I get is your belief.

    At the moment I believe it’s a lack of sophistication on both sides. But I am prepared to believe willful deceit by bureaucrats. That’s why I call it a “bait and switch”. But for now I am giving the CTA the benefit of doubt that they actually have a sophisticated understanding of the concepts of “Ridership / Coverage route tradeoffs.”