Why Is Bus Ridership Slipping in Chicago? It’s the Service, Stupid.

New transit ridership figures are making the rounds, and the news out of Chicago is that bus trips declined while rail trips increased.

Bus ridership has dipped in Chicago, but not as much as funding, points out Daniel Kay Hertz.
Bus ridership has dipped in Chicago, which is what you’d expect after big service cuts. Click to enlarge. Graph: Daniel Kay Hertz

The emerging narrative is that bus ridership in Chicago has been in continuous decline, but that’s not actually the case, writes Daniel Kay Hertz at Network blog City Notes. Instead, he says, service cuts in the wake of the recession explain much of the recent drop in bus trips:

I think any discussion of bus ridership in Chicago needs to include this chart [right], 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.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Political Environment notes that the new budget from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker eliminates all funding for bicycling while adding to highway debt. Streets.mn wonders what’s the best scale to assess inequality — by city, by region, or beyond? And A View from the Cycle Path explains how European cities are using smart bike lane design to eliminate the risk of dooring.

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