A few weeks ago I was riding a bus to work (usually I walk, but sometimes I take the bus if it is right there). The bus had a canned announcement saying that if the CTA didn’t get a funding increase, the CTA was going to discontinue this route.

There were a large number of routes at risk. Most of the routes that only run during rush hours, like the 125, were “on the block” to be cut.

As I looked around the full bus, it really hit me what the CTA’s problem is – they can’t figure out if they are trying to make money or if they are trying to provide a public service.

The CTA runs a number of densely packed routes, generally during rush hour to and from downtown. Try to take the red line during rush hour; they need those guys that push people onto the trains like in Japan. The bus routes that serve downtown from local areas (Lincoln Park, for example) are also quite full, except that they suffer from the “bunching” problem where no buses show up and then three in a row come at once.

These routes are full of commuters; meanwhile, the CTA runs a “grid” system to provide transport throughout poor neighborhoods, as a method of transport of “last resort”. There is no way that these routes would remotely be as profitable as these rush hour routes; in fact they are designed to provide coverage to these neighborhoods rather than maximize customer traffic. Note that I am not saying that the CTA is providing “good” service to these areas; I can only speculate that a lot of poorer people spend a lot of time waiting for the bus.

Thus you have the contrast between the packed rush hour routes and the relatively less populated “grid” routes through the rest of the city. However, this is only half the story – the riders during rush hour are far less likely to be subsidized riders who are either students taking the CTA to school or college or are poorer and otherwise receive discounted rides.

On the non rush-hour routes you also need continuous routes in order to provide some level of service; on the rush-hour routes you can pack in drivers and staff for the inbound rush hour and outbound rush hour and not have to hire up for off hours work.

If you look at the CTA on these three dimensions:

1) density of ridership overall
2) amount of “full-pay” vs. subsidized riders
3) riders packed during certain parts of the day rather than spread throughout

then you could build a far more profitable entity (or at least run at less of a loss) if the CTA recognized its function to bring people downtown and back during rush hour.

On the other hand, the CTA is generally viewed to have an obligation to provide transport for those people who have no other way to get around. This part of their service is going to run at a massive loss in comparison, especially since this is where the subsidized riders are concentrated.

Whether you agree that the CTA has two dissimilar missions or not, cutting the rush-hour only rides is no way to “fix” the funding gap; likely this will only make it worse. You cut the full-fare patrons and limited routes (that require less staff and less wear and tear on capital gear) and leave behind the long routes full of subsidized riders.

The CTA could be fixed; concentrate on full-fare riders and rush hour traffic. Reduce staff and pare poorly trafficked routes. Reduce capital stock once you remove these routes, along with the associated maintenance.

But this isn’t going to happen… likely they will keep all the dimly used routes, whack the rush hour routes, and generally let the system die from under-funding and neglect, while keeping all the patronage hires on the payroll (those that actually attend work, as opposed to those that are on disability).

This used to be the City that Works, but that faded away a long time ago.

Cross posted at LITGM

6 thoughts on “The CTA”

  1. The recorded add isn’t a policy announcements, its an extortion threat. They may as well have a guy saying in a Bronx gomba accent, “Nice life youse got here. Be a shame if something happened to it because you couldn’t get to work.”

    As a government monopoly, the CTA has the ability to set routes without fear of competition and they know it. By threatening the riders of the most populated routes, they seek to intimidate the most voters into giving them what they want. I see the same behavior in my local politics. The fire department and library systems are much loved by middle-class voters and the politicals know it. Every time they want more money for anything they threaten to close up fire stations and libraries unless they get what they want. The vast majority of the money they extort goes to other projects.

    Evil corporations that get their money directly from their immediate customers would never threaten them in this manner out of sheer self-interest. They know people have options when dealing with private entities and that they will take them if inconvenienced.

    This is a good example of how people “pay” for a “free” benefit with a loss of freedom. The voters that ride popular routes will be forced to pay much higher fees to support a government entity because they are dependent on the state monopoly to move them around. If they don’t accede to the demands of the masters of the CTA they will suffer real, immediate economic harm.

    Its this kind of dynamic that makes me leery of socialized medicine. I’ve seen one to many Canadian political ads that threaten people with a loss of medical care if they don’t vote a certain way.

  2. It sounds like CTA has two separate businesses — well, more accurately one business and one social service. Maybe privatizing the profitable commuter lines and treating the other services as social services would more closely reflect reality.

    While it’s probably more likely “extortion” as Shannon said, I’m reminded of Austin (Tx) Capital Metro which admitted several years ago that it had no preventive maintenance program for its buses — it just drove them until they broke down and replaced them. These organizations don’t seem to attract business people.

  3. I agree with Capitano, except that I doubt the CTA would be willing to privatize the profitable lines. Those lines are cash cows. Also, any privatization means furloughing workers, which bureaucracies have difficulty doing. How many municipal transit agencies have been privatized or partially privatized?

  4. There’s an old joke about bus lines and business that I don’t fully remember but would be appropriate here.

  5. Talking about extortion: just returned to the office after running to the USPost Office during lunch, needed to mail a parcel.
    The line was about 35-40 people, 3 clerks were incredibly slow, two of them having a 10-min conference re: postal fees while the customer – and the rest of the line were patiently waiting. There were commercial customers in line – people with industrial shipping carts, filled with 2’x2’x2′ boxes with printed labels – and they, of course, took inordinate amount of time. Regular customers’ time – since we were on unpaid lunch, and they – conducting their business.

    The line has been waiting for 27 min and not moving much, and then comes this women, handling out pads and pens and announcing – I’m a Union rep, we were cut short of workplaces, please write down how long you have been waiting to be served, so we can reinstall our people back.

    If that’s not extortion, what is?

  6. Is there any reason to think reinstalling union hands will decrease the wait? I presume the current employees are union hands, too. They could be working faster to decrease the line, but they aren’t. The union hands know their jobs depend on the waiting time; if there was no wait, labor would be cut.

    I remember my first job as a union hand. Since I was young and foolish, I was working too fast, and a couple older hands took me aside and explained that “We never kill a job, son. Take it a bit easier…”

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