Chicago’s Bus Makeover

Author Chiara Montecchi is a Master’s student in the School of Public Service at DePaul University, in Chicago, Illinois. She is currently employed as a Fundraiser in DePaul’s Office of Advancement.

Last fall I had the opportunity to meet with some of Chicago’s transit and city planning leaders to discuss my research in sustainable transit. The focus of my research was to find strategies to help increase public transit ridership in Chicago by 30%, as suggested in the Chicago Climate Action Plan. Such an increase, as outlined by the plan, could cut emissions by .83 MMTCO2e (million metric tons in greenhouse gases in carbon dioxide equivalent units). More than focusing on ridership gains alone, I was interested in finding ways to create a lasting mode-shift from single-occupancy vehicles to mass transit, as a way of reducing Chicago’s emissions.  

I asked in every interview why Chicago’s rail ridership has grown so much compared to bus in recent years. Investment in rail coupled with bus service cuts has partially contributed to this, but economic factors are responsible as well, as the neighborhoods hit hardest by the 2008 recession are covered primarily by bus routes.

By looking more closely at some of the bus routes in Chicago, however, I noticed that ridership was still high in 2008 and 2009. The corridors that offered an express route (making limited stops) in addition to local bus service manifested high ridership throughout the recession, up until 2010, when these express routes were eliminated due to funding limitations. Between 2009 and 2012, some routes lost over 10% of their average weekday ridership; of these, the Cicero route reported the highest losses (nearly 13%). Some of the lost ridership was recovered by rail, as is suggested by the growth of rail compared to bus during this time; routes that run close to rail lines, such as the Madison route, which runs between the Blue and Green rail lines, are likely to have experienced a mode shift from bus to rail. However, it is less likely for rail to have absorbed the ridership losses for other routes, like the Cicero 54, and the Irving Park 80, because trains do not serve the same areas. 

Nearly every person I interviewed explained this loss in bus ridership as the result of the growing demand for reliable, fast and efficient transit. Rail services surpass bus in timing and efficiency, largely because CTA trains are not affected by road traffic. The higher demand for rail in recent years has prompted higher investments in rail over bus, as exemplified in the 2012 de-crowding plan, which added a total of 76 rail cars to CTA rail lines.

But Chicago’s transit agencies are also looking at ways to improve bus services to meet Chicago’s demand for reliable service. The planned introduction of BRT services along the Ashland route, and the recent addition of these services downtown, such as the Jeffrey Jump route (introduced in the Fall of 2012), are part of a larger strategy to improve timeliness and reliability of bus along Chicago’s most traveled routes.

While necessary, the improvements to Chicago’s mass transit system are not sufficient to create a lasting shift to mass transit. The example of Freeburg, Germany comes to mind. Investments in the mass transit fleet in Freeburg between the 1980s and 1990s resulted in a significant increase in ridership, but the mode share for private vehicles during this period stayed constant. This implies that the increased patronage came from pedestrians rather than drivers.

If we want to make Chicago a greener city by lowering its emissions, a policy framework that includes transit-oriented development (TOD), walkable neighborhoods, bike paths and infrastructures to better accommodate mass transit is just as important. Unbundling parking from residential property, raising the gas tax, and pay-as-you-go insurance are also viable options to incentivize drivers to choose other transit modes. The purpose is not to punish drivers by any means, but simply to make mass transit easier and more attractive so commuters have access to more options, while placing some of the social and environmental costs of driving on the user.





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