ON TO 2050 calls on the Chicago region to take bold steps toward a well-integrated, multimodal transportation system that seamlessly moves people and goods. A reliable and accessible transit system plays a central role in realizing that goal. Metropolitan Chicago’s transit system not only connects people to jobs, education, entertainment, and other necessities, it also improves air quality, reduces carbon emissions, mitigates congestion, and provides an affordable and safe option to those who do not drive or lack access to a car. To maximize the benefits of a strong transit system, it is critical that the system works well for all kinds of riders. However, new data from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) show that regional and national ridership declined again in 2017 from the region’s peak in 2012, even as the amount of service available to riders increased. Reversing recent trends in ridership -- and better yet, making transit a more attractive and viable option for all riders -- will require a renewed commitment to consistent and dedicating transit funding.
This Policy Update analyzes regional and national ridership statistics made available by FTA’s release of 2017 data and explores related opportunities and challenges facing this region’s transit agencies. The analysis focuses on trends between 2012-17, a period marked by economic recovery and the introduction of several tech-enabled mobility options. Transit ridership is linked to many external factors, including economic conditions, gas prices, trends in land use, and other changes in regional mobility. Because of these interconnections, ridership levels have fluctuated over time. This analysis uses 2012 as the base year to better understand near-term trends, though it’s important to note that regional ridership over the last two decades peaked in 2012. The data below covers the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) service area, which includes Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties.
Shared challenges to increasing system wide ridership
FTA’s latest annual data release shows that total transit trips taken in 2017 continued their recent decline across the country, down nationally 2.94 percent from 2016. Total transit trips in the region declined more than the national average, down 3.29 percent from 2016 levels. The region’s recent decline is consistent with trends over the last five years. Since 2012, total bus and rail trips served by Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Metra, and Pace have decreased by more than 11 percent, despite modest population growth and an increase in total jobs in the same time period.
An increase in total jobs paired with a decline in transit ridership underscores the importance of planning for transit-supportive land uses, a strategy identified in ON TO 2050. Locating housing near public transit is important, but emerging research shows that placing employment near transit may have an even stronger impact on ridership. CMAP analysis also shows that the number of jobs near areas with high transit availability made a resurgence between 2010-15, but post-recession growth was not enough to overcome the previous decade of job losses in these areas. Planning residential and future employment around transit is essential for keeping the system convenient for all riders and competitive with other modes, particularly transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft that offer door-to-door services.
Despite an overall decline in total transit trips both nationally and regionally, riders are showing a clear preference for fixed guideway modes like rail. Unlike buses that share the road with cars, bikes, and pedestrians, fixed guideway modes tend to experience fewer delays because of their dedicated right of way.
Ridership on urban rail -- which includes heavy, light, and commuter rail -- has increased nationally by 3 percent since 2012, while bus ridership has decreased by more than 12 percent. Regionally, bus ridership has also declined quickest. Although CTA rail and Metra have both experienced moderate declines in ridership since 2012, the declines in bus ridership are more drastic; Pace ridership has decreased 10 percent and CTA bus ridership is down more than 20 percent.
Increased congestion and its impact on bus speed in the region may be contributing to declining bus ridership. Surveys of the region’s riders and a growing body of transportation research show that speed, frequency, and reliability are the most important factors in promoting ridership and customer satisfaction. Speeds have decreased both nationally and regionally across rail and bus modes, though national speeds have declined at a faster rate than in the region since 2012.
Reduced speeds create a competitive disadvantage for both bus and rail modes in areas of moderate and high density and walkability. Transit has historically served these markets more efficiently and effectively than other modes, which is why ON TO 2050’s strategy to invest in and protect transit’s core strengths and the RTA’s Invest in Transit plan’s call to build on the strengths of the existing network are an essential part of prioritized transit investments. Focusing investment will mean different things for different transit modes. For the rail system, it often means addressing capacity constraints that limit the speed and frequency of trains on high ridership routes. The region’s challenges have included addressing electricity needs on the CTA rail system, positive train control, and station constraints. Bus service can be improved by prioritizing buses in the right of way with strategies such as transit signal prioritization that can substantially speed up service on arterial routes. Investing in these kinds of transit projects can make transit more competitive and help bolster ridership.
Funding the region’s transit system
Growing ridership and increasing the regional benefits of transit requires a modernized and high-performing system that riders can rely on. Yet the region’s infrastructure is aging and present funding levels are not adequate to maintain the system in its current form. As transit assets age and maintenance is deferred, the system tends to experience frequent mechanical failures and system congestion that cause delays for passengers. Moreover, agencies have only made limited investments in technologies that prioritize transit on the region’s roads. Under these conditions it is difficult for the transit agencies to attract new riders and retain current users. Without dedicated and consistent funding it will be difficult to reverse recent declines. In 2012, state funding represented 23 percent of total capital funding for transit in the region; in 2017 it accounted for just 1.2 percent. Such year over year fluctuations make strategic planning for large capital improvements difficult, especially when local revenues must compensate for deficiencies in other funding sources.
Underinvestment in capital affects the quality, availability, and reliability of service. ON TO 2050’s recommendation to make transit more competitive identifies strategies to ensure that transit remains the backbone of the region’s transportation network. With diversified and increased funding solutions, the region can protect transit’s core strengths, reverse recent ridership trends, and ensure equitable transit access. A transit system that works for all riders, especially those in low income communities where people tend to be more reliant on transit, is a critical component of inclusive growth, one of the three principles identified in ON TO 2050.
The RTA is leading the effort to increase funding for the region’s transit system. The agency’s 2018-23 strategic plan, Invest in Transit, makes the case for pursuing state and local funding solutions to close the gap between available resources and the growing need for new funding simply to maintain current assets. The RTA estimates that the annual capital need for the next ten years is between $2 billion and 3 billion, yet average available capital funding since 2012 has been about $750 million. If the system is allowed to deteriorate, riders who have the choice and resources will elect to use other mobility options. As other aging transit systems in the country have demonstrated, growing ridership will be a challenge without considerable investment to maintain and grow the Chicago region’s transit system.
Transit can support vibrant and prosperous communities but its ability to do so is contingent on prudent local decision-making. Stakeholders across the region must also take steps to implement the many ON TO 2050 recommendations that make transit a competitive option including land use planning, parking management, and prioritization of pedestrians, bikes, and transit in the public way.