The Buses Don't Stop Here Anymore

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

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

  • 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

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

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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