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