Place Chicago Mass Transit On A Diet

Background Reading

Summary

Bus-Ridership-Declines

Bus-Ridership-Declines

The article states:

Service and Ridership on CTA Buses

Service and Ridership on CTA Buses

But I think any discussion of bus ridership in Chicago needs to include this chart, and take two things away from it.

1. First of all, declining bus ridership is not actually a “long-term” trend, though it’s often framed that way. (Or, to be more specific: decline is typical of the last 50 years, but not the last 10 or 20.) In fact, as recently as the mid-2000s, ridership was growing. And other than the deep recession years of 2009-2010, 2013-2014 represents the first multiyear ridership decline since the mid-1990s. This isn’t meant to wave the problem away: it actually makes it worse, since it suggests that far from experiencing a long, slow decline driven by structural factors, something specific has changed recently that’s made buses less attractive.

2. Secondly, service matters. I think it is probably not a coincidence that ridership growth in the 2000s came at a time when the CTA was adding service: reducing wait times between buses, expanding their hours, and introducing express routes. (Between 2002 and 2006, the CTA created ten “X” routes, which mostly followed existing bus lines, but stopped every half mile instead of every eighth. Almost all of them were discontinued in 2010 because of a budget shortfall.)

I think it is also probably not a coincidence that the CTA has had a difficult time recouping its bus ridership losses from the recession, given that its dramatic recession-era service cuts have mostly remained in place.

To be clear, this isn’t at all a slam on the CTA, which can’t raise significant revenue without raising fares. Moreover, it has launched some bus service improvements in the last few years – the Jeffery Jump, the “Loop Link” busway, and the proposed Ashland BRT – that make a good template for expansions into the rest of the system.


TakeAways

Service Matters. Why is it that everyone wants to reward a mass transit system where its users are unhappy with its performance by giving it yet another infusion of cash? Would it not be better to treat mass transit the way we do airplane companies? I do. But the problem is that unlike the airplane industry, mass transit is essentially working in a vacuum.

The bus system is actually competing with its rail segment. And losing. It would be ideal if there were actually two or more mass transit systems running in a city the size of Chicago. That way customers would have a choice. Each system would be able to see what works and what does not.

But instead we have this monolithic behemoth that plods along afraid to raise its fares because that might drive away customers, but needing the cash to keep itself going. This is business practice at its worst. And anyone trying to prop it up by complaining that the system is having its taxpayer dollars cut is being disingenuous.

What is wrong here is the way in which transportation has been allowed to be the plaything of politicians. When people want to get around town by cab they have choices. If they are using Divvy bikes they themselves get to decide how fast and along which routes they will operate.

But a large city like Chicago is trying to grab as much money as possible by creating new gimmicks like BRT. As I have said before running buses down the middle of the street was the way it was done when I was a child. The reason the practice is being revived is because it can generate new government monies. On paper it looks like something new.

There has to come a time when Chicago no longer gets to bleed the Federal and State monies for transportation away from the suburbs and downstate users. We have to get from place to place and we do it mainly by automobile.

Our operating costs are clear. Every gallon of gasoline we buy is taxed. It is supposed to be used to help maintain the very roads we use. But in addition to that much of it is being siphoned off to help pay for mass transit infrastructure in Chicago. That is just plain wrong!

If a city the size of Chicago cannot or will not get its financial house in order, then it should have to live with the consequences. Their inability to maintain a satisfied ridership level is their problem and not that of folks living hundreds of miles away. Everyone should be using transit modes that best suit their needs and paying for the privilege locally.

I do not expect to be paying for the transit needs of Oak Park or Evanston any more than they should expect to have to fund DuPage County transit needs. We enjoy a wonderful forest preserve district efficiency in this county. I hope it stays that way. The idea that suddenly our tax dollars were being siphoned off to pay for Cook County Forest Preserve needs is appalling.

And yet that is what is happening with mass transit. Yes, many suburbanites use mass transit in the city. That is why the fares should be raised and the costs of taking mass transit should more closely reflect the reality of that transportation systems efficiencies.

Every times someone in the ‘War On Cars‘ Crowd starts whining about automobiles they trot out images of the size of cars (indicating wasteful spending) versus that of buses. And then the math is done to show that taking mass transit is cheaper.

But unlike mass transit what I pay to drive is an ‘honest cost‘. I know my fuel costs and that of my insurance and the repair rates for vehicle upkeep. But in the case of mass transit these expenses are kept artificially low because the mass transit system wishes to avoid raising its rates to cover the real costs and instead holds out its hands and asks for more free money from the tax pool. In fact the really galling thing is that groups like Active Transportation Alliance are lobbying to have the U.S. Highway Trust Fund rates increased so that those who choose to ride mass transit can remain in the dark about the true costs of these inefficient transit systems.

They are slow and cumbersome and when a crash occurs and passenger have to be delayed or rerouted their customers suffer. When my car breaks down, I am the one who is inconvenienced. And that gives me motivation to keep my vehicle in good working order.

Mass transit also needs to have to keep its house in order with respect to maintenance. But it keeps reminding us that it does not have the financial wherewithal to do this. Why? Their usual answer is that the nasty governor is cutting their funding. Their real problem is that their rates are too low to cover their needs. Raise their fares and they would have more money.

But some would decry such a move because it would drive down ridership. Tough. If you were an airline you would be facing the same reality. Keep up the fleet and you survive. If that means raising fares, so be it. Its time to get the mass transit black holes to cough up their access to the taxpayers wallets and learn to survive on their own.