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.”

  • mikeschwab

    10am? So no one works along the route? 7pm? No late night jobs either?

  • Dead horse beating time.

    Is the goal ridership or coverage? Different criteria determine success and/or continued service depending upon the answer to that question.

    Debbie Liu is rightfully miffed by the CTA’s waffling. The CTA is unable to give people clear criteria because they do not know the answer to the ridership/coverage question themselves. They do not know because they are not using the sophisticated ridership/coverage concept to make the decision. They are muddling through the issue with muddled criteria and data.

    Some here on Streetsblog claim that the CTA only does ridership routes. To an extent that is true. PACE is the system that generally does coverage routes. So since CTA has insufficient experience doing coverage routes it now finds itself buffeted by political winds.

    To review: The ridership/coverage concept posits that an agency with limited funds (what agency doesn’t) asks the community through the community’s politicians and the community’s activist organizations to decide upon a percentage number to divide the budget between ridership and coverage.

    Then when routes are built or proposed they are assigned to one or the other budgeted amount. When the ridership budget is used up then ridership routes compete with each other to see which can get the most ridership. Darwin rules.

    On the other hand when the coverage budget is used up then likewise the coverage routes compete with each other to see which routes best meet the goals established ahead of time to measure success of a coverage route. Notice that ridership is never by itself a measure of success for a coverage route. Notice also that politics is important because that is the way that the success measures were decided upon.

    So for example, if the #11 and the #31 had both been created from the coverage budget, but there was only enough money in the budget for one of them then it would appear that the coverage needs of the #31 out competed the coverage needs of the #11.

    The beauty of the concept is that it is no longer the CTA that makes the decision of what routes get created and kept going. Is there enough ridership for the ridership route? Then fine. For the coverage route, the CTA says to the community, you pick where to put the money available. You want rush hour and frequent service. Sorry but that would make it a ridership route and the #31 can not successfully compete in that arena. But if you can live with 10am and half hour frequencies then yes we can run this bus but you will have to convince the city council (or whatever political process) to run it instead of the #11. So also not up to us CTA bureaucrats to decide.

    Or if you can talk a school or hospital to kick some more money into the coverage budget,,,

    Are we getting there yet? Is the question becoming clearer? Can we all start using a sophisticated transit concept?

  • Montannnna

    I really like Jarret Walker and respect his contributions to transit in general. But, everything you say is null and void if CTA isn’t structured to operate in the ‘sophisticated’ manner that you propose.

    Look at the ridership report, there are currently routes with much more service than route #31 that have WORSE ridership than #31. Why should the CTA be forced to fund another dud?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Jarrett Walker? That guy’s an idiot.


    The best way to increase ridership would be to extend the route up Ashland into Pilsen/West Loop and down into Kenwood/Hyde Park.

  • I’m a fan of Walker too. Obviously eh?

    You are right that using the concepts around Ridership/Coverage as a way of trying to figure out what in the world is the CTA thinking is moot if they don’t think that way themselves. I am doing it to clarify my own thinking. I comment here with my thoughts because I think it helps to share good ideas.

    I’m not Walker.

    The literal answer to your question of “Why should the CTA be forced to fund another dud?” is because that is the way Coverage routes are supposed to work. A dud route is very often a Coverage route. By dud I assume you mean insufficient ridership to support a Ridership route.

    Coverage routes, by definition, are routes that exist because of politics. Politics are supposed to be the will of the people. The more democracy our governments exercise the more that it is the will of the people. Community activists also are supposed to represent the will of the people.

    So yes a transit agency is supposed to wait until it is “forced” by political “forces” to create and kill routes that are funded by the coverage portion if its budget. And that portion is also determined by the forces of politics.

    Ridership routes on the other hand are supposed to be created and killed by the agency’s own decisions. The only interference from politics on agency decisions about ridership routes should be the setting of the total budget and the portion that will go to coverage routes.

    There is however a nuance in ridership routes that could allow for the creation of some “dud” routes within the ridership budget. Ridership is a network issue more than a single route issue. A particular dud route might be facilitating a more vibrant network to the point that overall ridership benefits more from the dud route than simply the dud routes own ridership numbers. I’m not Walker so again I may not have the best understanding of that concept nor the best articulation of it.

    That’s a kinda long response to your perhaps rhetorical question. But maybe someone else has had the same thought but not rhetorical.

  • John. Disqus detects my post at the top as spam. I guess I wrote too much. Says needs moderation from you.

    Hey sorry I had to leave early Thursday. How about I meet you at your choice bar and time, sometime?

  • Allan Marshall

    The CTA also did those limited as crap weekday hours, for the #11 pilot Lincoln bus service south of the Brown Line that was discontinued. :( I wish riders of the #31 bus pilot luck, but I’m not holding my breath it’ll succeed in the end sadly to say. Honestly both those bus pilots should’ve had longer trial hours(at the minimum more weekday hours, such as it starting at 6 or 7am), for them to actually succeed.