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How the Chicago region’s bus and rail service is adapting to the changing needs of riders

April 6, 2023


This post is one in a series exploring the Agenda for Action and Advocacy in Transit is the Answer, the RTA’s new regional transit strategic plan. Together with our partners, working toward the items on this list will move us closer to the plan’s vision of a public transportation system that is safe, reliable, and accessible that connects people to opportunity, advances equity and combats climate change. 

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Chicagoland’s relationship with transit has changed drastically. Continued remote work trends mean that fewer people are using transit during the traditional weekday rush and riders are relying on service outside rush hour more than before. The entire transportation industry—both locally and nationally—faces significant workforce challenges, meaning that reliable service is more difficult to achieve. As the needs of our riders and labor force change, so too must our plan for the future of regional transit.

This is why adapting bus and rail service to meet the changing needs of riders is a key component of the advocacy and action agenda featured in Transit is the Answer. For the system to continue to grow and thrive, transit operators will need to prioritize ensuring riders can access transit when they need it for work, school, and other essential and social trips.

Our service partners at CTA, Metra, and Pace continue to work to adjust operations to meet these changing rider dynamics. New pilot programs, enhanced scheduling, and other initiatives to reimagine how transit works are underway, offering riders improved service across the region.

Optimizing service to meet riders where they are

CTA, Metra, and Pace have introduced new service programs and altered current services in response to changes in ridership patterns.

  • Metra aims to transition from a “commuter rail” model to a “regional rail” model by providing more service outside the traditional peak periods, as laid out in their new My Metra, Our Future strategic plan. By ensuring trains arrive at more regular, frequent intervals – including during the weekend – Metra will position the service to be a first choice for all types of trips rather than simply a ride to work. A few examples of how this is already improving the rider experience can be seen on the Milwaukee District North line, which now runs 52 trains, compared to 38 trains pre-pandemic. These added trains offer riders improved service at all hours, including midday, rush-hour, and late evening.
  • Pace introduced Pulse Rapid Transit Service: a network of fast, frequent, and reliable express bus service on major corridors across the region. They launched the first Pulse line in 2019 on Milwaukee Avenue connecting Niles and Chicago. Three more lines, Dempster, Halsted, and 95th, are in the works and several more are planned.
  • Pace is expanding its successful bus-on-shoulder initiative in partnership with the Illinois Tollway and IDOT. Currently, five bus routes bypass traffic using the I-55 shoulder, two routes use the I-94 shoulder, and six routes use the I-90 Flex Lane. Flex lanes will soon be added to I-294.
  • Pace is expanding on-demand services and launching new services in parts of the region where fixed route bus service isn’t feasible and won’t meet the needs of riders.

Evolving routes and networks to better serve today’s riders

New post-pandemic travel patterns have led transit agencies to evaluate their existing routes and make sure they are connecting people to where they need to go all day long. This includes a particular focus on people living in low-income neighborhoods that historically lack access to fast and frequent transit service. Prior to the pandemic, 39% of transit riders across the region came from households with incomes under $50,000. That share had grown to 50% as of 2021, underscoring the importance of transit service for the region’s residents experiencing low incomes.

  • CTA is partnering with the Chicago Department of Transportation to implement the Better Streets for Buses plan. The plan will lay the groundwork for ongoing bus infrastructure improvements by establishing a network of priority corridors and a toolbox of street treatments to facilitate faster, more reliable bus service in the communities that rely on it most. In many low-income areas buses are the only transit option.
  • As they increase service on lines that were cut during the worst stages of the pandemic, Metra is conducting a route restoration study to make sure they are restoring service in ways that grow ridership and increase access for residents riding outside the traditional rush hour periods. Metra is also undergoing a systemwide network plan featuring a regional assessment of travel demand and how rail service can adapt to meet today’s needs.
  • Pace’s Driving Innovation plan outlines the steps they will take to transform service models to deliver better, more reliable results for riders. This includes a network revitalization and restructuring plan to meet post-pandemic needs. Modernizing the On Demand service, launching new pilot programs to determine ideal locations for services, and exploring micro-transit partnerships are among the action items Pace will take on over the next few years.

Addressing workforce challenges

A strong and resilient workforce is needed to implement these changes to transit service across the region, but transit agencies have struggled to recruit and retain operators since the start of the pandemic. According to the American Public Transportation Association, 96% of public and private transportation agencies face serious staffing challenges and 84% of those report that workforce shortages have negatively affected services.

  • CTA issued Meeting the Moment – a comprehensive plan to address workforce shortages facing the entire transportation industry. The plan includes:
    • Expanding full-time employment and benefits.
    • More in-person and virtual job fairs to attract talent.
    • Removing financial barriers to obtaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL).
    • New hiring and retention incentives, including signing bonuses.
    • Improved starting rates for new hires.
  • Pace and CTA are partnering with local colleges to remove financial barriers for those looking to join their team. Those earning their CDL can see their tuition, training, books, fees, and other expenses covered at a variety of participating colleges.

The Agenda for Advocacy and Action in Transit is the Answer lays out a path to position the system for long-term success by seeking new funding, making improvements for riders, and supporting communities working to increase transit access.

Leadership from a diverse group of elected officials and community leaders is needed to achieve meaningful change. Join our coalition to advance this agenda and improve transit for the future.

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Tagged in: Transit is the Answer | CTA | Metra | Pace

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