Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The shifting tides of Chicago transit

The Chicago Transit Authority's ridership numbers came out a few weeks ago, and the numbers look good on first glance.

In 2012, Chicago’s mass transit system saw its largest growth in 22 years, the Chicago Transit Authority announced on Wednesday.  The CTA said that ridership grew to 545.6 million rides last year, an increase of 2.4 percent from 2011, according to a statement from CTA.  Rail ridership was at its highest level in 50 years, increasing to 231.1 million rides in 2012, according to the CTA.  Bus ridership was also up, increasing to 314.4 million rides, an increase of 4.05 million rides from 2011.

Stepping back and looking at the RTA's numbers as a whole since 1980 gives nuance.  Ridership on the CTA's rail lines is up since 1980, but was more than offset by a decline in bus riders.  Thus the CTA is providing fewer riders today than in 1980.  The system as a whole is up from its trough in 1995, but below its 1980 levels.  The declines all came from bus transit.  Both the CTA rail and Metra are up from 1980 but the CTA bus and PACE are down.  And thus the RTA as a whole is down since 1980.

It shouldn't be that surprising that the CTA gives fewer rides today than it did over 30 years ago, as the population of Chicago is smaller today than it was 30 years ago.  However the region is bigger today, so it does not explain the RTA's net losses.  What is surprising is the rise of rail transit and the decline of bus usage, not just in Chicago but the whole region.

This presents a real puzzle.  Does the decline of bus ridership and rise of rail ridership reflect a changing taste in RTA patrons?  Does it reflect the demographic changes of Chicago's neighborhoods; rail accessible neighborhoods growing in population while bus accessible neighborhoods declined?

It is also possible that we are looking at a shift in office space.  As the Loop continues to transform from sleepy downtown to vibrant city core and suburban employers move their offices in or near downtown, this might be the result of a change in employment patterns.

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