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What's Wrong With The Bus? New Campaign Underway To Stop Ridership Decline

By Patty Wetli | March 1, 2017 8:33am | Updated on March 2, 2017 8:39am
 Unreliable, slow service is driving people away from bus transportation, advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance says.
Unreliable, slow service is driving people away from bus transportation, advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance says.
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DNAinfo/Lizzie Schiffman

IRVING PARK — Bus ridership has been in decline in recent years in Chicago, and public transportation advocates have launched a new campaign to reverse that trend.

Backed by a $150,000 grant from the New York-based nonprofit foundation TransitCenter, the Active Transportation Alliance, in partnership with the CTA, is in the early stages of an 1½-year effort dubbed "Speeding Up Chicago's Buses."

Kyle Whitehead, director of government relations for the organization, said unreliable service and slow speeds are driving folks away from buses.

"The demand for transit is high," he said, pointing to growing rail ridership, "but the bus network is not offering that quality level of service."

The first step in the organization's bus project is a just-released survey (click here) intended to gather information on ridership habits and to zero in on which service conditions most affect whether people ride the bus or not, ranging from wait times for buses to the availability of seats.

There's also an open-ended comment section for people to share their complaints, suggestions and horror stories, Whitehead said.

"Those are the types of anecdotes we want to collect, we're looking to hear stories," he said.

The survey places particular emphasis on six routes — No. 4 Cottage Grove, No. 8 Halsted, No. 53 Pulaski, No. 66 Chicago, No. 79 79th and No. 80 Irving Park — which are not only highly used but are also good candidates for some of the alliance's proposed solutions to the city's bus problem.

Among the organization's ideas:

• Dedicated bus lanes, which require streets already wide enough to accommodate them.

• Prepaid fare options, particularly at bus stops where large clumps of riders create what Whitehead called "choke points."

A pilot of this process has been ongoing since last June for the No. 77 Belmont bus at the Belmont Blue Line station. Riders tap their fare card to enter a designated "paid" waiting area and when the bus arrives, they board freely, similar to the rail system.

Allowing riders to pay their fare in advance speeds the boarding process, gets buses moving faster and prevents bus bunching, Whitehead said.

• Traffic signal improvements that would allow buses to connect with traffic signals and minimize stops at red lights.

According to a report issued by the CTA in January 2016, bus ridership, which accounts for 53 percent of all rides, has been affected by low gas prices, road construction and competition from ride-sharing companies.

Whether people choose to drive themselves or hop into an Uber or Lyft, the result is more congestion, Whitehead said, and simply pushing riders toward rail isn't the answer.

"Bus is often overlooked in favor of rail; we want to make it more top of mind," he said.

Where CTA's rail system is a hub and spoke, many key bus routes run east-west, he said.

"With most of the highest ridership bus routes, there isn't a good rail line alternative," Whitehead said. "Some neighborhoods are entirely cut off from the rail network."

The alliance survey will be live at least through March, and the organization is courting community partners to talk directly to riders on the ground.

The project is still coming together, Whitehead said, but its end goal is clear.

"We want to see bus ridership rebound," he said. "Having fewer vehicles and moving people more efficiently — that's the ideal."