A New Hope for the 31st Street Bus

After announcing that the pilot would end this week, the CTA is giving the route a reprieve

A 31st Street bus near IIT. Photo: John Greenfield
A 31st Street bus near IIT. Photo: John Greenfield

Reports of the death of 31st Street bus have been greatly exaggerated.

Last Friday evening a CTA representative notified Near South Side bus advocates that the #31 route, which launched as a pilot two years ago after years of lobbying from community members, would be killed this Friday due to low ridership. In July the 3.5-mile route, which runs from the Ashland Orange Line station to Lake Meadows Shopping Center only saw an average of 298 trips taken per weekday, far short of the CTA’s target of 830.

Boosters from the Bridgeport Alliance, the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, and the Active Transportation Alliance said they were distraught, and argued that the pilot never really had a chance because it only ran on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., with only two runs per hour in each direction. (Third Ward alderman Pat Dowell was presumably pleased, since she recently wrote the CTA board asking it to pull the plug, insisting that the few buses on 31st, rather than the many single-occupant cars, were to blame for traffic jams.)

But this afternoon I got a surprise notification from the CTA that, like a prisoner on Death Row issued a pardon from the governor, the #31 was given a new lease on life. Spokesman Brian Steele told me that the transit agency had changed its mind and 31st Street bus service would continue, albeit with its current, anemic schedule, for the foreseeable future.

What happened to snatch the bus from the jaws of death? “Over the last couple of days we’ve had some discussions in which we’ve identified some potential new avenues of support in the community, which could consist of financial support or something to help boost ridership,” Steele said. “So instead of just shutting it down, we felt the best thing to do was to continue service in the near future.” He declined to mention which entities are involved, but CTA president Dorval Carter recently mentioned IIT and Mercy Hospital as possible white knights.

Steele added that, depending on how the negotiations go, it’s possible that bus service could include more days, longer hours, more frequent runs, and/or a longer route, all of which could help boost ridership. There will be a meeting with one or more potential sponsors next week, and the CTA expects to provide an update in about two weeks.

Steele credited 11th Ward alderman Patrick Daley Thompson with pushing to save the #31. “I think I was persuasive,” Daley Thompson told me. “I’m grateful to the CTA for giving this another chance, and optimistic that we can make this work. That being said, we need to control our destiny by growing riderships, finding a sponsor, or finding new funding.” He added that while City Council passed a new ride-hailing fee last year to fund CTA infrastructure, the most sustainable funding solution would be a grant from the state government, which cut regional transit funding as part of the 2017 budget deal.

Active Trans’ Julia Gerasimenko said her group is heartened by the news, but argued that #31 pilot should have featured more robust in the first place “in order to be set up for success and sustainably maintained as a permanent route.” But she echoed the alderman’s sentiments about funding. “We will continue to advocate for transportation funding to be prioritized on the state and city levels so that CTA will not have to pick and choose between equally important community mobility needs.”

Quade Gallagher from the Bridgeport Alliance was also critical of how the pilot was conducted. “Bridgeport Alliance does not find it acceptable to run a flawed pilot program and call that giving us a chance,” he said. “CTA, the city of Chicago, and the state of Illinois need to fund the bus so it can actually serve the community — and create budgets that put people and planet over profit.” Still, he conceded that seeking outside funding from Mercy Hospital and IIT as a way to expand the pilot “is better than nothing.”

Debbie Liu said she was please that 31st Street bus will be running for the start of the CPS school year, she also had harsh words about the quickly alternating bad and good news from the CTA that has made the bus service seem more like a roller-coaster ride. “This fiasco highlights the bigger issue of a lack of coordinated transparent, community-based, long-term planning by the city and its agencies, if you can say one thing one day and another the next.”

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