Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The CTA Cuts -- An Alternate View

posted by richard gill

In response to the current iteration of the CTA financial crisis, a deal came out of Springfield that prohibited a fare increase and continued to let seniors ride for free, but paved the way for reducing bus and “L” services in order to preserve operating cash. The service reduction took effect on February 7, 2010.

The CTA says that, overall, the reductions are 18 percent of bus service and 9 percent of ‘L’ service. The way the media have treated this, one would believe the changes could dislocate everyone’s life and bring the city to a halt. True, the service reductions may create some inconvenience and hardship, but it appears that the CTA has implemented the cuts in a way that minimizes negative impacts. While the changes are regrettable, I don’t think they are as awful as they’ve been made out to be.

First, nobody is being left without service. The nine eliminated routes were all prefixed with “X,” such as X55, indicating a so-called express route. Those routes weren’t really “routes;” they were overlays on primary “regular” routes, on the same streets. All of those regular routes remain. Further, the “X” expresses weren’t really expresses. Rather they were limited-stop services that stopped at intervals of about a half-mile. Generally, they ran only during weekday rush periods.

The “X” service was nice, but did not save a whole lot of time. For instance, between the Museum of Science and Industry and Midway Airport, the X55 was nine minutes faster than the 55 local. The “X” routes were subject to the same traffic, speed limits, rates of acceleration/deceleration, and red-light delays as the local routes. They tended to have longer dwell times at bus stops, because their boardings and alightings were more concentrated.

Citywide, CTA’s route-by-route specifics indicate that where intervals between buses were lengthened, they were relatively small and incremental. On some routes where “X” buses were taken off, the local service actually increased somewhat to compensate.

It is also worth noting that the “X” services had initially been regarded as experimental, implemented only in the relatively recent past, and were not part of the historical operating pattern.

As for the “L,” all of the routes are intact, with slightly later morning start times and slightly earlier finish times, and minor headway lengthening. As with the bus routes, lines that had all-night “Owl” service continue to have it.

For the long run, at least, there may be some positive aspects to all of this. I can think of three.

1. Everyone now knows the precipice is not a mirage. Because of all the previous false alarms and last minute reprieves, there was widespread feeling that it was all posturing, and service reduction just wasn’t going to happen. Well, this time it did happen.

As for the CTA’s operating unions, they could have forestalled a good portion of the service and job reductions by making some concessions, including postponement of a wage increase. However, the prospect of an 18 percent reduction in bus service meant the large majority of bus drivers—those with enough seniority—could keep their jobs without making concessions. Union members voted to reject the concessions. Thus the service cuts were made and jobs were lost. It would be interesting to know if the vote went more or less according to seniority.

2. The cuts enabled the CTA to mothball their oldest buses. These were pretty well beaten up, having run on Chicago streets for 15 years. They have less effective emission controls than newer vehicles, and do not have the low floors now required for accessibility.

By reducing the number of buses on the street, CTA can close its 103-year-old Archer Garage. The Archer Garage began life as a streetcar barn, before there even were buses. It never was a very good bus building. One problem has been the garage’s narrow doors. Streetcars could go in and out with very small clearances on each side. The track kept them centered. Buses had a tendency to lose outside mirrors at the doors.

I would imagine the CTA will sell the Archer Garage and property, and let others fight over the building. Look for a battle between preservationists and developers. Maybe Save the Point people & co. will forget the Point and take up the cause of the old streetcar barn. Thus, positive aspect No. 3: Archer Garage is not in Hyde Park.


TA said...

In my experience, one thing that seems to have mitigated the effects of the cuts this time around is the CTA Bus Tracker. The GPS has made it significantly easier to catch a bus when you need it and allows people to not wait for the 20-30 minutes that they may have in the past. I think that for a lot of people, they don't mind less buses as long as they can judge when the bus will come and plan appropriately.

The Transit Union really botched this whole situation horribly. Instead of letting go of the pay raises, they've instead allowed many CTA workers to be let go and ruined any positive press that they could have received. What sympathy should we feel for a Union that refuses to let go of pay raises when none of us have gotten any over the last two years either? My sympathy goes out to the long-time CTA drivers that lost their jobs, but I don't feel any pity for the CTA Union that turned its back on some of its own workers. Any sympathy/anger that the union hoped to get from the public was lost when they made these moves, the CTA cut service, and the trains and buses were not that adversely affected. Makes you wonder what else we could effectively cut to get out of this budget mess.

kbsb said...

I must confess, I do notice a difference in taking the X28 bus downtown in the morning. It comes less frequently and is slightly more crowded at peak times. And, I have changed the way I travel downtown on many days.

That being said, I agree with TA, bus tracker helps a lot. But, many people don't have the resources, or know how to use the system. As a theoretical concept, should most people be able to use it, probably; but in reality there are a number of factors behind the fact that they don't.

I also agree with TA, the union looks bad. But, it also seems to me the CTA has been itching to make these cuts no matter what solution was fashioned. My personal belief is the CTA thought these cuts would not substantially effect commuters (and revenue) so they wanted to do them one way or the other. So be it. Hopefully some savings can go into extending L service, which I believe is more efficient at any rate and the type of transportation most likely to be used by visitors to the city (and, the fact you can't get to Streeterville on the L is just plain crazy to me).

Richard Gill said...

Union local 241 has not covered itself with glory, as TA and kbsb say. Tuesday night on Channel 11, Elizabeth Bracket interviewed the president of 241 and Richard Rodriguez, the CTA president. The union guy came across as an inarticulate jerk, admitting the union has no leverage, but is deserving of money and jobs, and he even hinted at an illegal strike. The union is flailing, and you can believe the CTA already has a request for injunction prepared and just has to fill in a couple of blanks.

I think kbsb has a point about the CTA wanting to make some of those cuts anyway. They were probably running more bus service than was necessary. The cuts likely needed to be made in any event, but the current situation gave political cover.
There is no noise more grating and shrill than a Chicago Alderman screeching.

The CTA warned that waits would be a bit longer and buses/trains a bit more crowded. The average headway lengthening was about 90 seconds. A Chicago News Cooperative survey found that ridership has held up since the changes. I believe the CTA made the cuts as painless as possible.

As for 'L' service to Streeterville, there was a valiant try in the 1970s. A new subway system, just below street level, called the Distributor Subway, would have connected the extremities of the downtown area. It was in detailed design when the mayor - either Bilandic or Byrne - killed it. It was far over budget, but what else is new? There was also some dream about an elevated people mover that never (pardon the pun) got off the ground. In the 1990s, design was progressing on a surface light rail (streetcar) system, the Central Area Circulator, covering the same area. It was halted by Daley for a number of reasons, but it didn't appear to his administration that the time savings were worth the cost. Historical trivium: the last streetcar line in Chicago ceased operation in 1958.

rdb said...

The cuts do seem to be the dog that didn't bark, so far, and if there were some howling, the news outlets tuned into this story would have found it. On "Chicago Tonight" the other night, Rodriguez seemed to rule out restoring the cut routes and service. He talked instead of using any restored funding to address less served areas. RE: Streetervile, it doesn't have an El because when most of the system was built, Streeterville wasn't Streeterville yet.

kbsb said...

RBD - huh? We didn't have O'Hare either, but the L goes there.

Richard Gill said...

Good point about Streeterville, rdb. It didn't boom until well after the original 'L' system was built. What's also interesting (and typical of upscale neighborhoods when a transit line is proposed)— Streeterville strongly opposed the Circulator in the 1990s, via an organization called the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents (SOAR). I wonder how long it took them to dream up that name. After extreme politicking, they got on board, but the project later was cancelled.

Something similar took place in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC, when the first phase Metrorail system was built in the 1970s. Georgetown successfully fought plans to route the line through their area. It barely gets anywhere close. They are sorry now.

chicago pop said...

I think the NIMBY mentality regarding transit infrastructure -- especially subways -- has gone through a sea-change over the last decade or so. Prior to that, heavy rail was seen as something that poor people used, and as something that would bring about a drop in quality of life and a drop in property values. Locally this mentality led to the dismantling of the Green Line spur along 63rd Street. Now we know that, in fact, well designed rail transit drives property values up and can be instrumental -- as it has been along the Brown and Red Lines of the L -- in fostering urban reinvestment. Washington DC, as Dick highlights, is a classic case of just this dynamic.

I bet if any of these schemes were proposed today, they would win popular support. Too bad the money will never be there for them.

Richard Gill said...

"...We didn't have O'Hare either..."

Well, yeah, but O'Hare was opened in 1958, and the 'L' didn't go there till 1982.

Beckett said...

Living in the south loop and commuting to HP, I've actually found a small benefit to the cuts, because the 2 express route now runs a bit later in the mornings and evenings, which is convenient for a lazybones like me. It's not clear that the buses have gotten any more crowded, at least the ones I travel one, though.

Fargo said...

Streeterville strongly opposed the Circulator in the 1990s, via an organization called the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents (SOAR). I wonder how long it took them to dream up that name. After extreme politicking, they got on board, but the project later was cancelled.

SOAR is the ultimate NIMBY group. I've seen their tactics kill or delay many worthy projects. Maybe someday I'll get my wish and Streeterville will fall off into the lake and disappear. ;)

Richard Gill said...

"SOAR is the ultimate NIMBY group."

They certainly are financially able to hire zoning attorneys and mount campaigns against almost anything. At least they no longer have talky Alderman Burton Natarus to help lead their parade. What a windbag.

I wonder if SOAR has been mentoring the Hyde Park NIMBYs.