More bus improvements in Chicago

Last fall, new-ish CTA president Dorval Carter—who has said in interviews that making bus service better will be one of his top priorities—re-introduced the “X route” expresses along Western and Ashland during rush hour, and, perhaps more excitingly, announced a stop consolidation program that would notably reduce travel times even on the locals.

This morning, the CTA announced a series of service enhancements to bus lines on the South Side, as well the Green Line L:

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As you can see, the changes are mostly improvements in service frequency, as well as significant expansion to service hours on the 26-South Shore Express; a 2.5-mile extension of the 4-Cottage Grove line’s service area, from the current terminus at 95th St. to 115th St., which amounts to a significant increase in frequency to a corridor that was previously only served by 115-Pullman/115th; and the combination of the current 95E and 95W lines, which currently meet, and end, at the 95th St. Red Line station.

These improvements have pretty much been met with a yawn by Chicago media, whose coverage, as far as I can tell, has been limited to an “and also” addendum to the bottom of this Tribune story about Mayor Emanuel naming Andrea Zopp to a new community development position. (Though I wouldn’t be surprised to see a story in Streetsblog Chicago, too.) In fact, one reporter at the press conference couldn’t help but wonder when there would be a real transit story:

Without passing judgment on the merits of the Red Line extension, this (non-)reaction reminded me of the excellent opening to Yonah Freemark’s recent post at The Transport Politic:

Given how reliant the people of New York City are on their Subway, an outsider just looking at ridership data might conclude that the system must be paved with gold, or at least its stations must be decent to look at. After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the comfort of a transit system plays an essential role in encouraging people to abandon their cars and get on the train or bus. That’s why, some would argue, it’s so important to put amenities like USB charging and wifi into transit vehicles.

Yet anyone who has ever ridden the Subway knows first hand that its success has nothing to do with aesthetics or access to luxury amenities. Stations are hardly in good shape, trains are packed, and cell service is spotty at best. People ride the Subway in spite of these things; they ride it because it’s fast, it’s frequent, and it’s (relatively) reliable.

Particularly for people who aren’t regular transit users—which, unfortunately, includes a large number of both decision-makers and reporters on the subject—there’s a sense that real transit improvements must include either new infrastructure, or something that easily translates to the world outside transit, like cell service underground or maybe express service to the airport.

But if you actually talk to regular transit users—especially bus users—about the improvements they’d like to see, you’re likely to hear about how frustrating it is to show up at your stop and see that no bus is coming for 10, 15, 20 minutes or more. Or that some bus doesn’t even run on certain days, or doesn’t run early enough in the morning, or late enough in the evening, to be useful for the trips they need to make. In other words, what matters is whether you can depend on a line to get you where you’re going, when you need to go.

These improvements, unsexy though they are, will make important progress towards that goal. The extension of hours on the 26-South Shore Express means that the line will now be more useable by service workers in the Loop who don’t work a traditional 9-5 day. Riders of the 71-71st/South Shore on the 2/3 of the line below 73rd St. will see average waits for a bus fall by 3.5 minutes at rush hour and 7.5 minutes off peak. From 79th St., that represents an average 9% time savings on the whole trip to the Red Line at rush hour, and an average 17% time savings off peak. (Remember that on transit, trip time is travel time plus wait time. And of course, these are averages—but in many ways, it’s more important that maximum wait times will decrease from 15 minutes to 7 during rush hour, and a completely unacceptable 30 minutes to 15 minutes off peak.)

On Cottage Grove below 95th St., the extension of the 4 means that instead of a bus every 15 minutes at rush hour, there will be one every 3.5 minutes—an improvement in average waiting time of 5.5 minutes. On top of that, those traveling to destinations on Cottage Grove who previously had to transfer from the 4 to the 115 will no longer have to transfer—another savings of 7.5 minutes of wait time, on average, for those traveling southbound.

And the combination of the 95E and 95W lines means that people traveling across 95th St., but not going to the Red Line, won’t have to transfer. These lines run about every 12 minutes at rush hour and 15-20 minutes at other times, meaning these travelers will save an average of 6-10 minutes per trip.

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The Metra Electric tracks on 71st St. in South Shore. Credit: Samuel A. Love, Flickr

Of course, these improvements don’t answer every important question about transit on these corridors. For one, while waiting time is important, travel time is too—and right now, too many Chicago buses get stuck in car traffic they could avoid with bus-only lanes. Particularly for the 26, which runs express to the Loop on Lake Shore Drive, it’s far past time for the city to dedicate bus lanes on LSD. The number of travelers to downtown on buses rival those arriving by private car, and while there’s no way to ensure fast car travel without paving the entire lakefront, because buses are so much more space-efficient, we could guarantee at least one rapid form of transportation along the lakefront with bus lanes. (Of course, that also ignores the larger question of the existing high-capacity rail transit line along much of the 26’s route, the Metra Electric, which has been the subject of an ongoing campaign for frequent all-day service for decades.)

Beyond bus lanes, speeding up fare collection—either with off-board payment at SBS-style kiosks or all-door boarding, a la San Francisco’s Muni—and reducing bus bunching are also important measures.

But today’s announcement is another encouraging sign that the current CTA administration is interested in making the kind of service changes that actually make the difference between lines on a map and transit service that you can rely on to get around your city. Hopefully we’ll see more of these kinds of moves on routes all around Chicago.


(I don’t really have room to discuss it here, but I should briefly mention that the other recent CTA bus news—that the long-sought return of the 31st St. and Lincoln Ave. buses will come in the form of pilots that don’t even run during the morning rush, and have frequencies as bad as every 30 minutes, is seemingly an indication that the agency is not very invested in the long-term return of these lines, to put it mildly.)

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One thought on “More bus improvements in Chicago

  1. Plaudits to Mr. Carter and his team for these sensible no-nonsense improvements on the Far South Side. And YES to HOV lanes for buses on South LSD!

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