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Transit advocacy group offers solutions to address Chicago’s declining bus ridership

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Offering fast, more reliable service will be key

A rendering of Chicago’s Loop Link BRT.

With gas prices relatively low and rideshare services like Lyft and Uber continuing to thrive, bus use is on the decline in the Windy City. Since 2012, bus ridership has declined by more than 17 percent and is down more than 21 percent compared to 2008. This troubling trend can produce a destructive cycle where fewer riders lead to reduced revenue and in turn poorer service—further dissuading bus use. An increased number of private vehicles on the road also means more congestion and decreased bus speeds.

Active Transportation Alliance

Hoping to reverse the trend, the Active Transportation Alliance advocacy group released a new report this week that included recommendations for city lawmakers and transit planners. The document identifies strategies such as the creation of more dedicated bus lanes, faster boarding, and the addition of “smart” signals that would shorten red lights or extend green lights to prioritize buses.

Currently, Chicago has just 4 miles of bus-only lanes versus New York’s 82 miles and LA’s 35 miles. A long-discussed $160 million project to build 16 miles of dedicated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lanes down the middle of Ashland Avenue was in the works but has been delayed in favor of a $30 million plan to adopt intelligent signals along the route. Active Transportation Alliance would like to see Chicago add at least 50 miles of new bus lanes.

Keeping private vehicles out of bus-only lanes is already an ongoing issue with the Loop Link BRT and would likely only get worse once the system is expanded. The report calls for better enforcement in dedicated lanes and suggests the City look into installing automated cameras as a possible solution.

Prepaid boarding at multiple bus doors—piloted by the Loop Link and at the Belmont Blue Line station—is another improvement that could be adopted system wide to improve travel times. The change would involve a separate Ventra card reader at the rear of each bus. The Active Trans report identified that roughly 20 percent of time on a Chicago bus route is spent on-boarding passengers.

Finally, the report recommends finding dedicated revenue streams to finance local transit improvements. A recent call by Mayor Emanuel to impose a special tax on the rideshare industry shows that City Hall is open to exploring creative ways to modernize Chicago’s infrastructure. That initiative would add 15 cents a ride next year and then another nickel in 2019.