Tuesday, January 23, 2007

That Sinking Feeling: CTA Bus Ridership

RTAMS data shows that public transit ridership in the region is almost 30% lower today than it was in 1980, despite substantial population growth in the region. The ridership losses, however, were primarily on the CTA bus system. The CTA bus system's poor performance continued in 2006, when bus ridership dropped another 1.6 percent (4.6 million riders.)

Figures are in millions:

Mode/1980/2005/% Change

CTA Bus/540.6m/305.5m/-43.5%
CTA Rail/155.5m/154.9m/-0.4%
RTA System/814.1m/574.2m/-29.5%

The CTA bus and rail systems were affected by the same general demographic trends, such as Chicago's population loss over the past 25 years, the decline in manufacturing employment and higher rates of auto ownership. Yet, the CTA rail system did better than any other transit system in the region, while the CTA bus system did far worse.

The most important factor in the decline in the CTA's bus system likely is growing traffic congestion. That congestion creates a vicious cycle: congestion reduces bus reliability (e.g., bunching) which prompts people to abandon the bus system for cars (or in some cases CTA rail) which causes more congestion, which causes more people to abandon the bus system. This cycle has been grinding away for the past 25 years or more.

The flip side of this market decline in the CTA bus system is that the lost CTA bus riders may be the people most likely to be lured back on to public transit if bus system reliability can be improved. Improving bus system reliability will depend on low-glamor but effective measures such as traffic signal priorization for buses, a system wide roll out of real time bus location technology so people can use their cellphones to know when their next bus will arrive, use of bus rapid transit techniques, and other efforts to improve the travel experience (e.g., even more bus shelters, onboard Wi-Fi).

Such mundane improvements do not seem to be on the radar screen of the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents, including the service boards. Except for middling efforts to develop a few BRT routes, the MBC capital improvements wish list is tilted towards rail line investments.

It seems that in the effort to buy political support by scattering big ticket capital items around the region, the MBC proponents are forgetting that their first mission should be to attract back to transit the many folks who abandoned transit under the RTA's watch.

The 235 million annual trips lost on the CTA bus system between 1980 and 2005, roughly 650,000 per day, might be the easiest trips to win back to the region's public transit system. It is a shame that the MBC proponents are overlooking this market opportunity and failing to propose investing in winning these folks back to public transit.

Instead, it looks like we'll continue mining for public transit riders in exurban areas through Metra line extensions and more Pace service. Given Metra and Pace's poor performance during 25 years when their primary service areas were booming with rapidly growing population and employment growth, this strategy may be necessary politically but it doesn't make good transit sense.

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