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The CTA Bus Vision Project aims to examine, evaluate, and reimagine the entire CTA bus network.

The Bus Vision Project will help shape how CTA reimagines Chicago’s bus network and what improvements it should implement in the future. It began with the development of a Framing Report, an extensive analysis of the existing CTA bus network. As CTA continues to make strides in hiring operators and restoring full pre-pandemic service levels and reliability, this report can be used to facilitate conversations to help CTA understand what Chicagoans value and prioritize related to bus service improvements.

Keep scrolling to read key takeaways from the Framing Report.

Here are some key takeaways from the Framing Report:

For most Chicagoans, the bus is the nearest public transit option; 96% of residents live within a half-mile walk of a CTA bus stop compared to only 30% of Chicago residents who live within the same distance of a CTA rail station. CTA’s bus network follows the City’s consistent grid of arterial streets that connect and span the entire city, enabling countless trip patterns to reach destinations throughout the City.

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While there is more work to be done, bus service contributes towards more equitable access to opportunity in Chicago. In this context, “access to opportunity” is the ability to reliably reach useful places—like jobs, schools, grocery stores, healthcare, and recreational facilities—in a reasonable amount of time. Largely because many of these types of destinations are unevenly distributed across the City, access to opportunity is not equitable throughout Chicago. Low-income, Black, and Latino residents tend to be located farther from jobs and services compared to higher-income and White residents. CTA bus service does a lot to counter the geographic inequities, by providing an affordable way to move throughout the City for people of all ages, income levels, and abilities.

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Throughout the worst phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people continued to ride buses than trains, demonstrating that bus service is essential to many Chicago residents, including healthcare workers and grocery store workers who provided essential services to all of us. Based on survey results, pandemic riders tended to lack access to a car, hold jobs that couldn’t be done remotely, have lower incomes, and were more likely to be Black.

Due to operating budget shortfalls stemming from the recession that began in 2008, CTA had to implement a 16% reduction in bus service in 2010. Less frequent service reduces access to opportunity, especially since it can doubly impact travel time for trips that require a transfer from one bus route to another. The 2010 service cuts had a major impact on bus riders, and shaped the network that is still in place today. As bus ridership in Chicago began to decline around 2012, many experts pointed to the rise of ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft, or to shifts in population and residential patterns. While these factors also contributed to downward bus ridership trends, an important and often-overlooked cause of ridership loss at the time was that bus service had been significantly cut. This made the bus a less useful and less competitive choice for many trips.

The Framing Report discusses several potential tradeoffs to consider—ranging from allocation of street space and bus stops to the distribution of service hours throughout the day and week. Importantly, it explains that any changes to bus service levels need to be made within funding constraints and in the context of current ridership patterns. Historically, limited funding and regulatory structures have driven CTA to pursue the highest potential full-fare ridership to generate specific levels of farebox revenue mandated by the state. These factors have limited CTA’s ability to expand geographic coverage and provide higher frequencies in less dense parts of the City, places that are often home to lower income populations who need transit most. Improving mobility for these key populations while also serving existing demand on higher ridership corridors will require a new approach to balancing priorities, as well as new ideas about how to sufficiently fund them. 

The Bus Vision Project is now beginning its public engagement phase to identify potential improvements to bus service based on Chicagoans’ priorities.

While the core grid system design for bus service works well, CTA understands the need to reevaluate and consider adjustments to both timing of schedules and geographic coverage of routes. Overall levels of service related to frequency and hours of service need to be compared to both current demand and potential needs, especially given all that has changed over the last few years. In addition, some route and network redesign may be needed in areas where travel patterns may have changed over the last few decades. 

In considering what changes to make, CTA wants to ensure that any new vision for the bus system reflects the public’s goals and values. The release of the Framing Report and the launch of public engagement kicks off the Bus Vision Project in earnest.

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