Exciting changes to Ashland, Western buses—but also some questions

So Dorval Carter, who took over as CTA President this summer from Forrest Claypool, and who told the Tribune‘s Jon Hilkevitch in an early interview that one of his priorities would be improving the bus network, is now taking some notable steps in that direction. In the CTA’s board meeting today, he announced the reintroduction of the #11 Lincoln bus and #31 31st St. bus, which had been the focus of a crosstown coalition of activists for some time (though only on a temporary basis, subject to ridership—the same qualification put on the ill-fated late-night Purple Line Express pilot earlier this year).


He also gave more details on the reintroduction of express bus service at rush hour on the 9-Ashland and 49-Western buses. Until 2010, both had express service as part of a ten-line network of “X” routes, which overlaid express lines that stopped every half mile over the local routes, which had stops every eighth mile. In 2010, nearly all of those express routes were cut as a cost-saving measure in the aftermath of the recession.

In addition to reinstating the X9 and X49, the CTA will do something many transit advocates (including me) have been screaming and muttering under our breath about for years: consolidate stops on the local service. Instead of having stops every eighth of a mile, the all-day local services on Ashland and Western will stop roughly every quarter mile, cutting the number of stops nearly in half. While boardings are extremely concentrated at certain stops—major activity centers and transfer points, mostly—anyone who’s taken a CTA bus, particularly at rush hour, has had the experience of stopping on literally every block to let off one or two people. Only about 15% of riders will have to walk the extra block to a stop—since the vast majority of people already get on or off at one of the relatively busier stops that will be kept—but nearly everyone will save time, as the bus won’t have to pull over nearly as much.

As (potentially) great as the reinstatement of the Lincoln and 31st St. buses is, the Ashland/Western news is even more exciting.* That’s because the improvements to the 9 and 49 could theoretically be implemented on routes across the city. When they were cut, the X routes were extremely popular—the CTA itself, in its materials about the new express service, reports that 86% of riders had a positive opinion about them, and many of the X routes (including Western) had ridership at or above their local parallel as of 2010. While the fact that the X9 and X49 will be limited to rush hour is disappointing, if they regain their old popularity, it could set the stage for the reintroduction (and maybe even expansion) of the X route network.

And while there may be some funding constraint on new express routes, stop consolidation ought to be basically free, apart from studying exactly which stops ought to go. Because some number of riders will have a longer walk to get to the bus, and because time savings increase as the length of rides increase, stop consolidation should be targeted at routes where boardings are very concentrated at certain stops and most people use the route for relatively long trips—but that describes a pretty large number of routes.

Still, these moves raise some questions. To illustrate a few of them, I made a chart (based on CTA reports) of the estimated time savings of these new services, plus the on-hold Ashland Bus Rapid Transit project.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 7.02.57 PM

(Note too that in the spring of 2016, the CTA is planning on rolling out transit signal priority on both routes—meaning that buses will be able to hold lights green or make red lights turn faster to avoid idling too long at intersections. That’s estimated to save an extra 5 minutes on each route, end to end.)

So here are some thoughts:

  1. The moves announced today really do represent significant time savings. That’s most evident on longer trips, obviously: the X9 will be 8 minutes faster than the current service from the Brown Line to the Orange Line (a trip you might take if you’re going from the North Side to Midway, or from the Southwest Side to a Lincoln Square service job), and the X49 will save you 13 minutes over the same trip on Western. But 20 to 17 minutes, though it seems small, is nothing to sneeze at, especially given how low-cost these changes are. Moreover, by reducing the number of stops, buses will probably be less likely to bunch, making wait times more reliable.
  2. A huge amount of the time savings comes just from consolidating to 1/4 mile stop spacing. The difference between the new local service and the express service is small enough that it will basically always make sense just to take whatever comes first, even if it’s the local: if you wait more than a minute or two for the express, you’ve wasted more time waiting than the express would save you once you’re riding. As I understand it, the current plan is for the express to be essentially a “supplementary” service on top of the local, which will run more frequently. But if people are just getting on whatever the first bus is, then it may make more sense to make the express the basic service, and the local the supplementary.
  3. Restoring X route-type service is great, but it’s not nearly as good as true BRT. In almost every case, the difference between current travel times on the 9 and travel times on the new X9 will be smaller than the difference between the X9 and Ashland BRT. Recall that the anti-BRT activists’ counterproposal was, essentially, the 1/4 mile stop-consolidated new local service. You can see in this chart just how much less convenient that service is than BRT—on the order of 30-50% longer trip times. The news that the X9 was coming back made a lot of transit advocates despair that Ashland BRT was truly dead, and this was our consolation prize. But we should continue to push for true BRT, on this corridor and others—it’s clear that there are still huge gains to be made.

* Though the 11/31 news is exciting for the additional reason that it represents a successful multi-neighborhood organizing campaign for better bus service—a model that hopefully will be adopted by other neighborhoods, and other organizations, across the city.


6 thoughts on “Exciting changes to Ashland, Western buses—but also some questions

  1. “But if people are just getting on whatever the first bus is, then it may make more sense to make the express the basic service, and the local the supplementary.”

    Would this mean that the X runs all day with 1/2 mile stops, and the “local” runs during rush hours only with 1/4 mile stops?

    1. No, because the CTA service standards, as I understand them, require service at least every 1/4 mile. Ideally, I think you’d have both the local and X running all day, but instead of (say) having a 2:1 ratio of local runs to X runs, make it 2:1 X runs to local.

  2. What’s so special about Ashland BRT that prevents the CTA from implementing it on all major bus corridor? Is it expensive to paint bus lanes and reprogram the stoplights?

    1. 1. Politics. Huge opposition to taking away car travel lanes.

      2. Despite having relatively wide streets, Chicago doesn’t actually have a ton of arterials with room for bus lanes *and* car lanes. (Actually, it does—if it could get rid of on-street parking lanes—but the parking meter deal has locked those in, essentially, until 2070 or whatever.) So there are roughly 10 potential Ashland-style BRT corridors in the city, as laid out by the Metro Planning Council in this 2011 report: https://www.metroplanning.org/uploads/cms/documents/brt_report_20110817_reva.pdf

  3. I think it’s extraordinarily silly to even bother with the Express buses once you have the improved Local. Why split frequency and complicate the network for minute gains? Jarett Walker would be disappointed.

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