Our transit system is one of metropolitan Chicago’s most critical assets, improving air quality, allowing travelers to avoid congested highways, and connecting people to jobs, education, entertainment, and other amenities. Transit access is especially crucial for those who cannot drive or lack access to a car. In addition, a robust transit network is an increasingly valuable asset that helps the region compete nationally for new businesses and residents. The region’s long-established transit network is extensive: Together, the CTA, Metra, and Pace provide more than two million trips each weekday at a cost per rider that is among the nation's lowest. However, the system also faces numerous challenges, including lack of funding, minimal supportive land use changes, demographic shifts, aging infrastructure, and competition from emerging private transportation services.
In areas with rising transit use, growth is occurring at times and locations that strain local capacity. Ridership has boomed on CTA and Metra stations serving Chicago’s North Side and at the outermost stations of many Metra lines. Since 2000, weekend ridership has grown faster than weekdays on all modes of transit. Suburban areas with limited transit access, particularly in Cook County, have seen more population and employment growth than the rest of the region. Much of this growth is in demographic categories that tend to have higher rates of transit use, including groups that do not own cars or own only one car, low income residents, Asians, blacks, and younger adults. Older adults are growing in number: While less likely to ride transit than younger demographic groups, they nevertheless become more dependent on being driven to destinations as they age. ADA paratransit service in our region has grown dramatically in response to intensifying demand and likely will continue to grow as the population ages. Paratransit provides a critical mobility link for more than four million trips per year taken by people who cannot use a fixed-route service. However, paratransit can be 10 times more expensive to provide than fixed-route service, while statute limits fares to double those of fixed-route fares. This preserves affordability but may degrade the long-term sustainability of these services.
At the same time, population and employment have declined substantially along the southern branch of CTA’s Red and Green Lines as well as on the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines, triggering ridership declines. Bus ridership has also been in decline throughout the region and nation. Shifts in transit ridership create challenges for the transit agencies, both in terms of providing sufficient capacity where demand is burgeoning and in allocating appropriate service levels to areas where ridership is declining, despite their residents' reliance on transit.
The transit agencies are experiencing a capital funding shortage, with mounting state-of-good-repair and modernization needs. While the transit agencies are committed to operating safely, 31 percent of the transit system is not in a state of good repair -- a percentage projected to grow without significant increases in capital funding. Current funding levels often force the agencies to make difficult choices in the face of annual budget limitations, including to allow degradation of some assets’ condition. While transit operators have successfully and efficiently maintained basic service levels in this environment for some time, the transit system’s condition is degrading as the repair backlog grows, posing a long-term threat to service quality and reliability.
Transit agencies are also facing increased competition for riders from emerging private sector mobility providers, particularly TNCs like Uber and Lyft that provide on-demand, door-to-door services at prices and speeds that make them attractive alternatives to transit. The mobility innovations could make it easier for people to be less dependent on owning and driving their own cars and help solve the challenge of providing transportation options in less dense suburban areas that are currently difficult and expensive to serve with traditional transit. Transit agencies are already working to incorporate these technologies into their services. However, if left unchecked, private sector mobility services could also contribute to increased congestion, slower bus speeds, declines in transit ridership, and decreased service quality. Ensuring the continued success of the region’s mass transit network is in the best interest of private mobility providers, whose services are most widely used where people own fewer cars and rely on multimodal transportation options.
The prior comprehensive regional plan, GO TO 2040, set an aggressive goal of doubling transit ridership, and ON TO 2050 recommits to this goal. Because growth in transit ridership requires implementation by many stakeholders across many issues -- such as increasing funding for the transit system, intensifying development of housing and employment near bus and rail transit, and appropriately pricing roads and parking -- this indicator is a bellwether for the success of many ON TO 2050 recommendations. However, the region is not currently on track to achieve its transit ridership goal. Reaching it will require sustained investment in the transit system that substantively exceed today’s levels, and coordinated action by a wide range of stakeholders.
To be competitive, transit must provide fast, frequent, reliable, and affordable service that connects people to important destinations. Surveys of the region’s riders and a growing body of transportation research show that the basics of transit service -- speed, frequency, reliability -- are the most important factors in promoting ridership and customer satisfaction., This finding offers clear focus for the limited dollars available to improve the region’s transit system. Investments that improve the speed and reliability of bus transit, such as dedicated lanes and TSP, are particularly cost-effective ways to improve transit service. On the rail system, addressing bottlenecks and capacity constraints on high ridership routes can improve reliability and allow more frequent service. ON TO 2050 sets targets for additional miles of roadway and number of traffic signals with transit priority (See Draft ON TO 2050 Indicators Appendix).
To improve service and increase ridership requires regional action by not just the transit agencies, but also municipalities, highway agencies, and funding authorities. Transit agencies cannot sustain fast, frequent, reliable service without accompanying supportive land use changes. Effective transit service results from a combination of strategic investment in transit service and coordinated land use planning. Locating jobs and residences near transit has a powerful positive effect on ridership. CMAP analysis shows that taking steps to increase employment density near transit stations and pricing parking would have more impact on ridership compared to many other strategies for capital investment and service expansion.
Note: the design of this graphic will be updated in the final plan
The combination of historical development patterns and continued suburbanization of housing and employment in recent decades have created a mismatch between locations with high transit availability and those with high employment densities. As shown below, many suburban areas act as employment nodes but may have limited transit. Many neighborhoods with high concentrations of low income residents have strong access to transit but may have few jobs nearby. This dynamic limits economic opportunity for people who depend on transit to get to work and must access jobs outside of the region’s core.
[GRAPHIC TO COME: A Transit availability Local Strategy Map interactive feature will highlight the relationship of transit availability and employment density in the region.]
Places with high transit availability but low population and employment density can better support transit through targeted infill development. In some cases, these areas have experienced long-term job and population losses. (See the Invest in disinvested areas recommendation in the Community chapter for relevant strategies.) Places with high transit availability, high density, and transit oriented design and placement of buildings are good candidates for targeted investments to eliminate bottlenecks and improve the speed and reliability of bus transit. Employment centers with limited transit availability should be evaluated for potential additional services, especially services that connect these centers with economically disconnected communities, in concert with investment in walkable streets and development patterns.