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With new all-door boarding pilot, CTA takes a modest step towards modernizing buses

Prepaid boarding pilot at the Belmont Blue Line station in 2016. Image: John Greenfield

Chicago is blessed with an extensive grid of bus routes, but bus ridership has been falling steadily in recent years, a drop that has been accelerated by the rise of Uber and Lyft. The problem is exacerbated by increasingly slow bus travel times due to increased private vehicle traffic from ride-hail and the booming on-demand delivery economy. The ridership slump could eventually lead to service cuts and/or fare hikes, which would be especially harmful to residents of lower-income communities of color, who are more likely to be dependent on buses.

Peer cities like New York have been taking action to speed up bus service and make it more reliable and competitive. NYC's Select express bus system currently has 20 routes and dozens of miles of camera-enforced bus lanes with timesaving features like limited stops and prepaid, all-door boarding.

Chicago has been slowly taking steps in that direction, including the downtown Loop Link corridor, and a few other miles of bus lanes. But Loop Link has resulted in only modest improvements in bus speeds, partly due to the lack of camera enforcement and prepaid boarding, which was originally supposed to be part of the system.

Since the December 2015 Loop Link launch, the CTA has dabbled with prepaid, all-door boarding pilots during the PM rush, with CTA employees staffing mobile Ventra card readers for customers to swipe before buses arrive. The test at the Loop Link Madison/Dearborn stop was deemed a failure.

The 2016 prepaid boarding pilot on Loop Link. Photo: John Greenfield
The 2016 prepaid boarding pilot on Loop Link. Photo: John Greenfield
The 2016 prepaid boarding pilot on Loop Link. Photo: John Greenfield

But a pilot at the Belmont Blue Line station involving westbound buses resulted in a 38-second average decrease in bus-boarding times, a 54 percent improvement. So prepaid boarding was made semi-permanent when the Belmont station was rehabbed, via the construction of a special bullpen for waiting customers.

There was some good news for bus speeds last week when Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced an ordinance to allow parking enforcement aides to snap photos of people parked in bus and bike lanes and mail tickets to the car owners. That way there will be consequences for lane blockers, even if they drive off before they can be issued a citation.

There was another positive development this morning when the CTA announced that it will be expanding all-door boarding to two entire bus lines, the J14 Jeffery Jump and the #192 University of Chicago Hospitals Express. The total cost of the pilot will be $450,000, coming from federal funding leftover for building the Jefferey Jump's rush-hour South Side bus lanes several years ago.

These two recent moves are in keeping with Lightfoot's campaign promises:

I will encourage the CTA to explore new technologies that would allow for boarding at both the front and back of the bus as an alternative to prepaid boarding. I will also instruct the city’s parking enforcement officers to prioritize enforcement in dedicated bus lanes. In addition, my administration will work with state legislators to permit fair camera enforcement of bus lanes.

I haven't heard of any movement on getting bus lane camera enforcement passed in Springfield, where politicians are currently trying to pass a statewide ban red light cams. But hopefully there will be some action on legalizing bus lane cams soon.

According to CTA spokesman Brian Steele, the new all-door boarding pilot will launch in June and will last for six months. The J14 and #192 were partly chosen because they are express routes that use Lake Shore Drive, and because the Jump uses the South Side bus lanes, as well as the Loop Link corridor.

All of the buses serving both lines, 30 of them, all extra-long accordion-style vehicles, will get Ventra card readers installed at the rear door. When the bus comes to a stop, the driver will open both doors, allowing customers to enter and swipe their cards at either door. If you're paying cash, you'll need to board from the front.

Note that, unlike at the Belmont stations, this pilot does not involve prepaid boarding. Customers will still have to line up and swipe their cards one at a time, but the lines will be shorter, which could lead to modest decreases in "dwell time." "The faster you can get customers to board a bus, the faster the travel time," Steele noted.

One question the CTA seeks to answer through this pilot is whether this set-up with lead to significant fare evasion issues. Buses will be retrofitted with a new light or monitor on the dashboard that will notify the driver each time a fare is paid in back, and currently a convex mirror mounted by the rear door allows them to keep an eye on the door. However, it could be difficult for the driver to monitor the front and rear doors simultaneously.

Steele didn't seem overly worried about major revenue-loss issues arising. "As it stands, people evading fares [on buses] is pretty rare. We don't envision fare evasion being a big problem, but if we need to make changes we will."

Of course, making all-door boarding possible isn't going to speed buses if no one knows they can pay their fare at the rear door, which is why the CTA is getting the word out about the pilot now. They'll also be putting "Coming Soon" stickers over the new card readers and installing ads about the test on the inside and outside of all the buses on these lines. During the first couple of weeks of the pilot, the CTA will deploy "information specialists" at bus stops to explain how to board at the rear door.

Steele is optimistic that all-door boarding will make a noticeable improvement in bus speeds and help reduce the hated bus-bunching phenomenon, in which customers wait an eternity for a packed bus to show up, immediately followed by an empty one. "38 seconds can mean the difference between missing a signal change or being able to get through the green light."

However, the 38 seconds he was referring to was the time savings at Belmont, with its staffed prepaid, all-door boarding, whereas the new system may not shave as many seconds off dwell time. So if the CTA is serious about speeding buses, they should implement a prepaid boarding system on entire bus lines.

Select bus ticket kiosks. Photo: MTA
Select bus ticket kiosks. Photo: MTA
Select bus ticket kiosks. Photo: MTA

NYC's Select offers a good model. Under that system, customers buy tickets from machines at bus stops, and there are occasional onboard fare checks to discourage non-payment. It also helps that Select buses have three doors.

So it's encouraging the the CTA is trying something new, but considering that Select bus lines have been around for many years, it really is time for Chicago to pick up the pace of speeding up CTA routes.

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