The Buses Don't Stop Here Anymore

I t's hard to imagine a dense city without mass transit, and not just because the urban ideal—people of all classes, creeds, and nationalities amicably rubbing shoulders—is realized most literally on the trains of an urban rail system. Urban densities are inconceivable without public transit, and urban populations contain many groups of people—the young, the poor, recent immigrants, the elderly—for whom private transportation is not an option.

Yet all over the country, with a handful of exceptions, urban transit systems are losing ridership, many catastrophically. Caught in a fiscal vise, systems are being forced to ask basic questions about the type of service they can afford to offer as their riders depart for the suburbs. The choices they make will have far-reaching implications for the future not only of mass transit, but of cities themselves.

Cities are defined largely by density and diversity of population. People live, literally and figuratively, right on top of each other; the most varied kinds of activities coexist. Forty years ago, in her classic book on urban life and economy The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs described "the need of cities for a most intricate close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially"—an intermingling of industry, residence, shop, and office, of varying incomes and habits. This diversity is what makes a city unlike a suburb, small town, or any other kind of settlement. Indeed, in my neighborhood on Chicago's Northwest Side, in the space of a block or two you might find a small Mexican grocery catering to the current wave of immigrants, a Ukrainian church or deli catering to the last wave, a metalworking shop, a bar advertising "Polish Spoken Here," a nice restaurant, and a manufacturer of pinball machine cabinets (northwest Chicago is the nation's center of pinball manufacture). Not surprisingly, rates of transit ridership here are among the highest in the city.

If neighborhoods like this depend on mass transit, it's just as true that mass transit depends on these neighborhoods; without them, it can't survive. Numerous studies (including, notably, one by Boris Pushkarev and Jeffrey Zupan for the Regional Plan Association) have found that density is a much stronger determinant of transit use than income, fares, or even the ease and expense of driving. And the economics of transit are such that it's not feasible to serve even a large number of potential riders unless a sufficient number of them share origins and destinations. As former RPA president John Keith once put it, "America's transit problem is not technology but arranging activities so people can ride together."

Of course, in modern-day America most activities are not so arranged, and transit ridership has been on a steep downhill curve since the 1940s. A wave of federal transit funding in the 1970s—including, in many systems, the first significant expansions and modernizations in 50 years—stemmed the decline in ridership that accompanied the inexorable flow of population and jobs to the suburbs, but since the mid-1980s the downward trend has resumed. Nationwide, only 1 in 20 commuters uses public transit; that figure reaches 1 in 5 in only sixteen cities, and 1 in 3 in only five cities.

Nowhere has the decline in transit ridership been steeper than in Chicago, home of the country's second-largest mass transit system. Since 1985, the Chicago Transit Authority's annual ridership has shrunk by 40 percent—some 215 million annual rides. No other system has turned in such a dismal performance, either proportionately or in absolute numbers. And now, its back against the budgetary wall, the CTA is planning a series of service cutbacks that are equally unmatched by any other major system: A dozen bus lines and half a dozen rail stops will be eliminated, more than a hundred bus lines will see reduced hours of service, and for the first time major portions of the rail system will shut down on nights and weekends.

What's happening in Chicago illustrates, in more dramatic form, the dilemma faced by transit operators throughout the country. Apart from New York—a different world as far as transit is concerned—cities have two choices. They can follow their ridership out of the central cities, creating, as in Boston and a few other cities, regional transit systems that maintain the comprehensive service of the past, but at a cost of higher subsidies given the inefficiency of mass transit at suburban densities. Or, as in Chicago, they can engage in a process of triage, sloughing off little-used routes to focus their resources where trip density remains high: daytime travel to office and entertainment centers downtown.

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Like the slow, steady movements of tectonic plates that are periodically expressed as earthquakes, the slow, steady movement of jobs and population out of Chicago has periodically resulted in crises for its transit agency. The CTA was founded in 1947 primarily to take responsibility for the city's private mass transit providers, which, like transit companies across the country, had ended decades of severe financial straits (no significant investment had been made in either the city's rail system or its trolleys since the mid-1920s) in irremediable bankruptcy. By law, the agency received no subsidy from any level of government, and it continued to support itself from the farebox until the 1970s, longer than any other major mass transit agency.

The first two CTA crises, in 1973 and 1983, were chiefly budgetary and only indirectly concerned with the CTA's ridership. They resulted in the subordination of the CTA (along with the suburban bus and commuter rail systems) to the new Regional Transit Administration and the establishment of a regular subsidy, first in the form of a regional gas tax and then in the form of a graded sales tax. The current crisis, on the other hand, though it threatens the agency's budget, is most directly the result of an unprecedented collapse in transit ridership. And its result, though it may eventually lead to another reorganization, is most immediately an equally unprecedented curtailment of service.

After 15 years of ups and downs with no discernible trend, the current ridership decline began in 1985. The slide turned into a rout, however, only during the recession of the early 1990s: Between 1990 and 1993, the system lost about 40 million riders each year—more than triple the rate of decline of the preceding years. Since 1993, ridership has resumed its slow downward trend.

What can explain this sudden collapse?

  • Not demography alone: The ridership decline is even more dramatic in per capita than in absolute terms. In 1984, the average Chicagoan took about 225 trips a year on mass transit, a number that had not changed at all since at least 1960. But by 1990, the figure had dropped to a little over 200, and by 1993, to less than 160. This 20 percent drop in per capita ridership in just three years corresponds to no demographic trend—the city actually gained population over those three years—and has no precedent in the agency's history.
  • Not federal or state subsidies—the latter are unchanged and the former, while fast disappearing, never accounted for more than 5 percent of the agency's operating budget.
  • Could the problem be mismanagement? For some agency critics, this is the heart of the issue: They see a culture of bureaucratic indifference at CTA headquarters, traceable back 50 years to its establishment, in a belated act of Progressive Era idealism, as an independent agency to be run by professionals insulated from direct political accountability. For example, although the agency's proposed budget must be released for public comment, for a number of years not a single item has been changed between the proposal and the adopted budget. In addition, the agency has served as a patronage dump. As Jackie Leavy of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group explains, "For years, people had known that well-placed politicians could send people to the CTA for employment. By the late 1960s, the system became clogged with this type of patronage employees"—an observation confirmed by the explosive increase in CTA labor costs during the late 1960s and 1970s. But today, patronage employment is largely a thing of the past. By most measures— cost per vehicle mile or passenger trip—the CTA is fairly efficient compared with other big-city transit agencies.

If neither demographics nor declining subsidies nor mismanagement can explain the fall in CTA ridership, the answer must lie with choices made by CTA management and its political masters in city hall. And indeed, the sharpest decline in CTA ridership coincides with the first years of the Daley administration. Certainly Daley had no intention of wrecking the CTA, but he did bring a certain perspective to the agency—one expressed, most recently, in his comment that mass transit has "lost its constituency." (Frank Kruesi, a former roommate of Daley's who is his latest choice to head the agency, was recently quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying that mass transit was "no longer relevant to the American way of life.")

Daley's first general manager of the CTA was Robert Belcaster, a self-made real estate executive with a history of outspoken hostility to the agency. Belcaster made a point of bringing a hard-nosed business perspective to the CTA: Services that were not "cost-effective" would have to be discontinued. At the same time, as a downtown real estate developer, Belcaster made sure that the Loop continued to be well-served by mass transit. The result was a far-reaching reprioritization of CTA service that turned the slide in ridership into a permanent decline.

Drawn with a broad brush, the shift in CTA services looks something like this:

  • Trains are favored over buses. In Chicago, as in many cities, buses provide the bulk of mass transit trips and are arranged in a grid covering the whole city, while rail provides fewer trips and is arranged radially, with all lines leading downtown. As in Los Angeles, where disparities between bus and rail service have erupted into a high-stakes legal battle, bus riders tend to be poorer than rail riders and are more likely to be nonwhite. They are also more likely to be "transit-captive"—dependent on mass transit for travel to work and other essential destinations—whereas rail riders are more likely to be "transit-optional." The falloff in bus ridership, which is much steeper than that in train ridership, is directly linked to declines in bus service: Disinvestment in buses has increased average waits by almost a third, and there have been numerous harder-to-quantify service problems, from irregular schedules to the failure to install air conditioning. The abrupt elimination of popular monthly and weekly passes (monthly passes were later reinstated at a higher price) reduced bus ridership by 11 percent practically overnight.
  • Ridership trends vary among different elevated lines. While El lines serving the airports have seen ridership increase, and those serving the more affluent North Side have held steady, lines elsewhere in the city have suffered disastrous losses of riders. In the most extreme case, the Green line, which serves the mostly black South and West Sides, experienced a stunning 85 percent decline in ridership between 1985 and 1996. After numerous announcements that the line—which provided about 30 million rides in 1985—would be shut down and demolished, the city finally agreed to carry out a much needed renovation in 1994. After two years out of operation, the Green line was finally reopened in 1996, but a half dozen stations and a mile-long spur along 63rd Street had been torn down. (Officials actually claimed that removing public transit from the neighborhood would help spark redevelopment.) On parts of the West Side, stations are now as much as a mile and a half apart. (The Henry Horner public housing project is, as it happens, right in the middle of one of these gaps; though the El line runs immediately past their homes, project residents must walk three-quarters of a mile in order to board it.) For the poor and those without cars—the transit-captive—the importance of dependable service cannot be exaggerated. If planners had intended to drive residents of the South and West Sides away from mass transit, the formula of constant closure threats, deferred maintenance, lengthy closure, and diminished service could hardly have been improved upon.

    Over the same period, the CTA made two major additions to the El system: It extended the Blue line to O'Hare Airport, and it added an entirely new 11-mile line linking the Loop to Midway Airport. Both of these lines, almost uniquely in the system, have experienced steady ridership growth since opening in 1984 and 1993 respectively. And the Ravenswood line, serving stable and gentrifying areas on the North and Northwest Sides, was successfully rehabilitated without a lengthy shutdown, despite having been in as bad shape as the Green line. Ridership on the Ravenswood line is also up. Today, the agency's main rail priority is extending the O'Hare line into the northwest suburbs.

  • Fares have increased. In 1989, responding to declining ridership, fares were hiked from $1.25 to $1.50, and transfers from 25 cents to 30 cents. By law, the CTA must cover half its costs from fares, making it the least-subsidized major transit agency in the nation. Since the regional gas tax was abolished in 1983, the CTA's subsidy has come in the form of a sales tax levied by the Regional Transportation Authority. This sales tax revenue is distributed according to a formula whereby the CTA gets most of the revenue from Chicago, a small portion of that from suburban Cook County, and none from the farther suburbs. The remaining tax is divided between Metra, the Chicago-area commuter rail system, and PACE, the suburban bus system. When this formula was adopted, the distribution of subsidies was roughly proportional to the size of the various systems. But since then, the declining weight of Chicago in the regional economy has resulted in a double whammy for the CTA: declining ridership and a declining portion of the RTA's sales tax revenue. Meanwhile the lightly used PACE buses are heavily subsidized, meeting only a third of their costs from fares, and duplicate CTA service on some city-suburban routes. Metra, though it meets about the same portion of its costs from fares as does the CTA, has the largest (and most rapidly growing) subsidies on a per-passenger basis; compared with commuter rail systems elsewhere in the country, which often come close to breaking even, Metra's cut of the sales tax is generous indeed. The city and county provide a direct subsidy of just $5 million to the CTA—an amount unchanged since 1973. This inflexible subsidy structure forces the CTA into the position of raising fares even when ridership is already dropping.
  • Daley's transit priorities have been downtown. Even the mayor's admirers agree that, so far, the CTA has not gotten much attention from city hall, especially compared with such Daley priorities as the school system. The one occasion on which the administration focused its energies on transit was in 1991, when the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) passed for the first time. The act made substantial "new start" capital funding available for new transit programs, funds most large cities were naturally anxious to apply for. Chicago's proposal was not an extension of the CTA. Instead, the city embraced the proposal of the Metropolitan Planning Council, a privately funded planning body, for a Central Area Circulator—an entirely new light rail system that would serve the Loop and a few nearby areas, especially McCormick Place, the city's enormous near-South Side convention center.

The circulator was never built—there was too much political opposition to the idea of investing in a new system while the CTA crumbled; the city's own studies showed that it would offer little if any time savings for most riders; and the victory of Illinois Republicans in the 1994 elections doomed the circulator's chances of funding from the state. But the proposal left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Chicago transit advocates. As Jackie Grimshaw of the Center for Neighborhood Technology says, "It was designed to get suburbanites to McCormick Place and a few other downtown attractions. That is not the travel pattern of most Chicagoans. It was designed for tourists and suburbanites. And that is a metaphor for the Daley administration's approach to mass transit."

The current service cuts will make all of the CTA's problems far worse. These cuts were orchestrated by the consulting firm Booz-Allen, which was paid $500,000 to recommend a program of cutbacks and cost reductions. More than 100 bus lines will see some loss of service and about a dozen will be eliminated entirely. It is, as an article by Neal Pollack in the Chicago Reader put it, "the largest single reduction of service in the history of the CTA." Late-night El service will be eliminated on the Douglas line and on the long-suffering Green line. The Douglas line serves fast-growing Hispanic communities on the city's West Side and has actually seen ridership increase in recent years, and will also be shut down completely on weekends and holidays. In general, the city is targeting late-night service, weekend service, and little-used crosstown routes; even low-ridership routes serving downtown mostly escaped unscathed, despite Booz-Allen's general focus on routes that were money losers.

Cutting little-used late-night and weekend service is a short-term cost-cutting strategy that will likely backfire in the long run: Transit-captive riders need to be able to depend on the CTA for all their transportation needs, including rare but vital late-night trips; people affected by the cuts will have no choice but to buy a car or move out of the city. Like telephone or postal service, transit is a network; as it goes to fewer places, its value drops dramatically. But at CTA headquarters, says Art Lyons of the Center for Economic Policy Analysis, "They understand that a lot of people ride the El for standard rush hour service, but beyond that they don't have any notion of the role of service the rest of the day to keep the city functioning. For instance, the folks who come into downtown office buildings at 4 or 6 p.m. to clean and mop, how do they get home at the end of their shift? There are people who come to Chicago because they think it's a place they won't need a car."


What all this adds up to is a gravitation toward a commuter rail model—heavy rail service for daytime travel to downtown office and entertainment centers, and buses reduced to a residual feeder system serving the El (as the Daley administration has recently proposed). It's a strategy calculated to favor transit-optional riders—disproportionately likely to be affluent, suburban, and white—and to dovetail with Daley's development strategy for the city, which focuses almost exclusively on big-ticket projects in and around the Loop. But it's not a strategy calculated to maintain the CTA's usefulness as a comprehensive transit system or to win it many new riders.

Is there an alternative? In the short term, certainly: For the last four years, the city has run an annual surplus of at least $70 million, while the CTA's current service cuts are in response to a budgetary shortfall of just $15 million. And there are plenty of low-cost steps the CTA could take to increase ridership, from building bus shelters to updating bus routes, many of which still simply follow the trolley routes of the 1920s. But in the long run the picture is bleaker. As long as people and jobs continue to move to the suburbs, even the best-run urban transit systems will face immense difficulties. Of the nation's 20 largest urban mass transit systems, 15 have seen ridership decline in the 1990s, about half by 10 percent or more.

The distance Chicago (or Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Philadelphia) would have to cover to revive its transit system is illustrated by what has happened in cities that have done better. These include Denver and Miami, rapidly growing cities that have recently made major additions to their transit systems; Atlanta, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., cities with large, heavily used transit systems whose ridership is declining only slowly; and Boston, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, which have successfully expanded both transit service and ridership in recent years.

In Seattle, residents recently approved a ballot measure that calls for the city to evaluate the construction of as many as 40 miles of monorail-elevated electric trains with rubber tires—at a cost of as much as $1 billion. Spearheaded by political neophytes, the successful campaign for a monorail mass transit system—which would expand the one-mile monorail built for the World's Fair in 1962—took officials in Seattle and throughout the country by surprise. While some say the monorail supporters succeeded because people failed to take the effort seriously, others argue it demonstrates public support for mass transit.

The case of Boston is especially interesting because, unlike the cities of Cascadia with their growing economies, urban growth boundaries, and other planning innovations, Boston has experienced the same depopulation and sprawl as other big eastern and midwestern cities. Yet the trajectory of its transit system has been dramatically different. Since its formation in 1964, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority has not only held ridership at a steady 200 million rides per year but has undertaken a massive expansion in transit service, especially rail. There have been four major rail extensions, and annual vehicle miles have doubled; bus and trolley vehicle miles 7have increased by 10 percent.

The MBTA has benefited from the settlement patterns of the Boston area, which, despite suburban sprawl, remain more conducive to mass transit than those of many other regions. More important, though, is a commitment dating from the MBTA's beginnings to maintain ridership by expanding service and holding fare increases below the rate of inflation, and a willingness on the part of local and state government to provide the concomitantly heavy subsidies. The MBTA covers less than a third of its operating costs from fares, one of the lowest ratios in the country. The willingness of Massachusetts taxpayers to subsidize the system so heavily no doubt has something to do with the fact that, after several decades of rail expansions, the MBTA is truly a regional transit system. In addition, mass transit is seen as vital to avoiding congestion in the Boston area, given the state's commitment, dating to the early 1970s, not to build new expressways within the Route 128 beltway. Yet despite generous subsidies and widely praised service, the MBTA can't seem to do more than maintain its current ridership base. As a share of the region's commuters, transit ridership declines every year.

Another transit success story is Toronto, whose system is generally considered the best in North America. Not only has the system successfully expanded service and ridership without budgetary crises or ballooning deficits (in part because fares have been kept relatively high), but it is one of the few systems that seems unequivocally to have had a major impact on land use. Toronto's central city is dense, livable, and pedestrian-oriented, in large part thanks to transit: According to several studies, neighborhoods near rail stations have experienced faster growth, higher densities, and higher land values than comparable areas elsewhere in the city.

It's important to note that these benefits, which many cities hope for in vain from transit systems, did not occur automatically. While Toronto was expanding its subway system, it was also aggressively marketing air rights and available land parcels near stations; designing stations in coordination with developers who wanted direct access from office, retail, or apartment buildings; and, most importantly, adjusting zoning, floor-area ratios, and other regulations to allow much higher intensity development in areas served by transit. Canada's income tax, which allows no special deduction for home mortgages, is a subtler but probably equally important reason why transit was able to stimulate development in Toronto, as is the Toronto area's unusually strong regional government, which was able to direct new growth toward transit corridors. The moral seems to be: Build it, zone, regulate, and plan appropriately, and then they will come. [For more on Toronto and other models for cities, see Robert Geddes, "Metropolis Unbound: The Sprawling American City and the Search for Alternatives," TAP, November-December 1997.] All this seems a world away from most American cities—and certainly from Chicago, where rail lines are built in highway medians and where tearing down El lines is seen as a spur to neighborhood development.

But while on the ground suburbanization proceeds apace, it seems to have lost some of its ideological luster. The New Urbanism figures more and more prominently in architecture schools. Transit-oriented development, as promoted by organizations like the developer-funded Urban Land Institute, is being embraced by many suburbs. And cities seem to be enjoying some kind of vogue in the popular imagination, at least judging from the rash of popular urban-themed sitcoms on TV.

In themselves, these developments can't do much to promote mass transit use or otherwise foster a real urban revival. According to one recent study of Los Angeles suburbs, for instance, neighborhoods laid out according to the precepts of the New Urbanism showed no higher transit use than neighborhoods with more traditional form. And it's hard to imagine that many transit system administrators, faced with declining ridership and soaring deficits, find much solace in Seinfeld.

Chicago seems to be engaging in a process of triage, cutting off transit service on all but the most cost-effective routes and to all but the most favored areas of the city. CTA critics like Jackie Grimshaw, for their part, argue that where traditional transit has become too expensive, the agency needs to "modernize" its service. It needs to replace its full-sized buses running on fixed routes with minivans or shuttle service, or some form of paratransit—buses or vans that operate according to rider demand. In this debate, the critics are certainly right. But it would be a mistake to separate these short-run solutions to transit's crisis from the larger imaginative task, toward which transit-oriented development and the rest are the first halting steps: to re-envision dense, diverse, genuinely urban cities. In the long run, that is the only real future mass transit has.

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