Chicagoans are rejecting the bus. Since 2012, annual Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus ridership has dropped by about 55 million rides, a more than 17 percent decrease. From 2015 to 2016 alone, the system saw 15 million fewer rides. It is unsurprising given that all but a few U.S. cities have seen bus ridership decline in recent years. Understandably, the trend has transit advocates worried that it could lead to a death spiral for a critical piece of Chicago’s transit network.
With that in mind, Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance set out to find out why people are abandoning the bus and think about ways to turn things around. This month, the nonprofit transportation advocacy group released a report detailing its findings and suggestions for infrastructure and policy changes to improve bus service in ways that might bring riders back to the fold.
“The steep ridership decline over the last couple of years is alarming for us, given that people rely on bus service and that it represents the majority of transit trips in the region still. If we’re losing people on the bus it means fewer people using transit, potentially more driving, which has an impact on our mission encouraging alternative modes,” says Kyle Whitehead, Active Trans government relations director.
According to the report, buses still account for 52 percent of all CTA transit trips. But budget cuts in 2010 led to service cuts, which contributed to dropping ridership.
“There’s been a lack of investment in bus service in the last years, especially as we’ve seen significant improvements with other transportation options. Buses needs to stay on par with those other options if they’re going to maintain and grow riders,” Whitehead says.
Because most Chicago buses are driving in general use lanes, they are victims of the terrible gridlock that plagues many cities. As such their arrivals can be unpredictable, they are often slow moving, and it is difficult for riders to predict exactly how long their trip will take. In a survey of more than 2,100 riders, Active Trans found that 45 percent ranked how long they had to wait for the bus as extremely important to their decision to ride. Another 31 percent said speed and 26 percent said reliability were extremely important.
The solution, according to Active Trans, is dedicated bus lanes, signal prioritization and faster boarding times via all-door boarding or pre-boarding fare payment at bus stops. Chicago has already experimented with all three to varying degrees, but Active Trans wants to see significant expansions.
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