Productivity and Route Structure in a Chicago Neighborhood

WBEZ’s terrific Curious City series is out with a piece  and accompanying visualization about cost recovery  on the CTA bus system. CTA’s buses are a hot topic (so to speak) in the transit/urbanist online community; Daniel Hertz has covered the system’s woes extensively, and Yonah Freemark lent his voice to the Curious City piece. Though perhaps less than sexy, the question of how to build a better bus system for Chicago is an important one. Despite ridership declines and a trend of convergence, CTA buses still carry an overall majority of CTA ridership, and they provide crucial transit coverage to huge swaths of the city that lack rapid transit service.

For the graphic accompanying the story, Curious City pulled out CTA’s five “most productive” and five “least productive” (by average number of riders on an individual bus in an hour, with the ideal ranging from 35 to 55 riders) routes and mapped them. Much to my surprise (really), two of the top five most productive routes are the lines I consider my “home routes” in Chicago, the 155 Devon and the 49B North Western.

devon and western

Devon and Western–epicenter of bus productivity in Chicago?

I spent my high school years living two blocks (well, three, but one of them is really short) from the corner of Devon and Western, where the 49B and 155 meet. West Rogers Park (alternatively, West Ridge) is one of Chicago’s well-kept secrets, a wonderfully diverse (economically and ethnically), reasonably walkable and dense, green, and mostly quiet neighborhood. Though the density and vibrancy of the South Asian community along Devon fades into pretty boring single-family blocks the further north and west one progresses, Devon itself, especially the section between Western and California, is a riot of color, smell, and taste the likes of which almost sound cliched. (I’m going to stop before I get more homesick, I promise) All that being said, one of the reasons the area isn’t better known is what it lacks–namely, direct access to a rapid transit line.

Thus, while the neighborhood itself is moderately transit-supportive (much more so along Devon than along Western, which here as in most of its 24-mile existence is a wide asphalt auto sewer with terrible land use), the 49B and 155 play a role that wouldn’t seem to lend itself exceptionally well to high productivity, collecting riders and shuttling them to the L. The 155 drops riders off at Loyola and Morse on the Red Line, and the 49B connects to the Brown Line at its Western stop. Both loop on the opposite end on the very edge of the city, the 155 at Devon and Kedzie–it’s actually a very short route, geographically–and the 49B at Western and Birchwood (half a block short of an easy transfer to several lines running on Howard…but more on that later). Lacking significant anchors on the outer end, both lines are relatively sparsely used for the first section of their route–seemingly not a recipe for “productive” status.

That being said, I can attest from personal experience that both lines do get very crowded at times. The 155 in particular can be a very uncomfortable experience, to the point where I regularly receive texts from my father complaining about it when he winds up on the Red Line rather than the Brown Line on his way home. Neither runs especially frequently by major city standards, with both running usually around every 8-12 minutes during the day and 15-20 minutes at night. Ridership is moderate by Chicago standards, with the 49B fluctuating between 5,000 and 6,000 daily riders since 2001 (as far back as CTA data goes), and the 155 more consistently around 7,000. Still, that’s enough ridership to consistently fill–or overfill–the buses on at least the half of the routes closer to their L transfers. And while I joked about it in the caption above, the corner of Devon and Western is the key point for ridership demand on both routes.

49b southbound boardings

Southbound boardings on the 49B by stop, October 2012 (from CTA open data)

The 49B, in particular, experiences a huge ridership spike at Devon; the stop pulls in three times as many riders as the second most popular stop, the Birchwood terminus. Ridership on the 155 is more spread out, though reliable data isn’t available–Devon was under construction and closed to buses between Western and Ridge when the 2012 CTA counts happened, as a result of which a huge chunk of the route is missing–so I won’t present a chart here. Still, Devon/Western is a key stop; in my experience it’s typically the single largest on/off point, and on rush hour eastbound trips the buses typically run standing room only from Devon or a couple of stops east of there.

So: despite the unbalanced route structure, we have a pair of routes running through a somewhat transit-deprived neighborhood that pair moderately high demand with relatively limited frequency. Additionally, both routes use standard 40-foot buses almost exclusively, although the 155 would clearly benefit from having articulateds on rush-hour runs. That combination leads to extremely high productivity results–an indication of the imperfection of the metric, since a simple increase in frequency would presumably result in a sharp decrease in “productivity.” Productivity, remember, is to some extent just a nicer word for “crowding.”

But let’s look beyond a simple increase in frequency–clearly, there is significant demand for transit in the West Rogers Park area, both expressed and latent. How can CTA build on the perhaps unlikely success of these routes and strengthen West Rogers Park’s connection to the transit system while maintaining a highly productive route structure?

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

It’s worth noting that the gap in ridership between the two routes, which is generally in the vicinity of 1,000-2,000 riders per day, is almost certainly attributable to the differences in land use along their respective arterials. Compare Devon, here looking west at Rockwell:

to Western, here looking south midblock between Rosemont and Granville, just a block and a half south of Devon:

Encouraging dense, transit-oriented development along the Western car sewer is a no-brainer, particularly north of Peterson, where both sides of the street are lined with dead and dying (literally) car-related businesses–dealerships, body shops, etc. Unfortunately, what new development has occurred has often been very much suburban-style:

In the shorter term, though, there are ways to make the existing bus network function better. The returning X49 Western Express (well, for peak hours) should be extended at least to Devon, if not all the way to Howard; its current terminal at Western and Berwyn is nowhere of significance, and an extension would turn numerous trips that are currently three-seat rides into much more tolerable two-seat rides. Even just at peak, an X49 stop at Devon would take significant pressure off the crowded 49B.

The 49B itself would benefit from a stronger anchor on the northern end. And there are useful things to do with it! Currently trips from Western to downtown Evanston, a significant employment and cultural draw, are three-seaters, requiring a transfer to an east-west bus on Howard, then to the Purple Line or an Evanston bus at Howard terminal. Turning the 49b right on Howard and running to Howard Terminal might provide unnecessary extra capacity on that particular stretch of Howard, but would provide a one-transfer ride to Evanston. Alternatively, continuing the route north to downtown Evanston–the route taken by its much less frequent (doesn’t run on Sundays!) counterpart on California, the 93, would make that a one-seat ride and provide regular service to a relatively dense part of southern Evanston that currently has only infrequent “circulator” service. I suspect that whatever losses in efficiency were to happen because of these extensions would be easily made up or even exceeded by increased, better balanced ridership.

Taking advantage of the demand for transit on Devon and taking pressure off the 155 is, if anything, even easier. There are two long North Side local routes, the 36 Broadway and 151 Sheridan, that use Devon for part of the 155 route, between Sheridan and Clark. Both, however, loop at Clark and Devon for reasons that, as best I can tell, are simply historical; that loop was long ago the location of the Chicago Surface Lines’ enormous Devon Carbarn, and it made sense to loop the routes outside where the equipment was maintained. The carbarn, however, has been gone since 1957, and the area west of it has become much denser as South Asian immigrants moved in. Neither route is especially frequent, but if looped at Kedzie–just two miles west–instead of Clark, their combined 6 or 7 extra trips per hour could significantly reduce crowding on the 155 and strengthen Devon’s character as a transit-oriented arterial. Both the 151 and 36 are long, slow routes–both run to the Loop, though not every 151 makes the whole trip–so while Devon can be painfully congested, neither should feel the pain too much. Neither offers as direct a transfer to the Red Line as does the 155, but both encounter it multiple times along their routes, and the 36 runs just a block away from the L from Devon to Wilson, offering numerous opportunities for a relatively east transfer.

In some ways, West Rogers Park is an ordinary Chicago neighborhood. What has become clear in this analysis, however, is that it–like so many Chicago neighborhoods–has excellent fundamentals for transit, and a very strong basis to build on. When thinking about transit in Chicago, the public eye focuses largely on the L, but this is an excellent example of a bus-reliant transit-oriented area. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the public mentality of L prioritization has taken hold in the CTA planning process as well, with the area’s routes largely reduced to glorified–but productive!–shuttles to the nearest L stops.  But here’s the thing: taking the area’s transit from “OK” to “excellent” may not need the kind of glorious capital investment an L or rapid transit extension at all (though, assuming some TOD, BRT on Western would be great). Re-thinking the local buses within a framework of making them useful as more than shuttles, a few strategic extensions and route modifications, and incremental improvements that prioritize buses within the traffic flow could provide high impact for little investment. It’s clear that the fundamentals are there. Let’s build.


Note 1: Notice haven’t talked about Metra at all here. Metra’s UP-North line runs on the Rogers Park-West Rogers Park boundary, with a “Rogers Park” station at Lunt; there used to be a stop at Kenmore, just south of Devon. The line really should be turned into a rapid transit operation, and should that happen, a stop at Devon is essential.

Note 2: One of the other top 5 most productive routes is the 54 Cicero, which gives me some hope that the proposed Lime Line could be successful.



5 thoughts on “Productivity and Route Structure in a Chicago Neighborhood

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines for Wednesday, November 25 | Streetsblog Chicago

  2. Thanks for reminding me that productive means crowded more than high ridership. Great analysis by the way. It has occurred to me that any Western BRT ought to turn on Howard and then end at the Red Line but your idea of extending either it or just the regular (or express!) to Downtown Evanston is perhaps even better. For me the Ashland BRT ought to go to Devon and then connect to Red Line as well.

    I have always disliked that the Western bus split at Berwyn. I get that the length of the line dictates it. But yes I wonder if the return of the Western Express would save enough time to as you suggest extend it to Devon.

    Thanks again for the good read.

    • My understanding of how the CTA defines productivity is that it isn’t the number of passengers on the bus in a given hour, but the number of boardings during that hour. In other words, they are productive at the fare box. So, a line where many people hop on for a stop or two can be very “productive” without necessarily being crowded. This seems to be the way the 36 is on nights/weekends through Lakeview and Lincoln Park, for example, where someone boards and alights at nearly every stop. The opposite situation pertains with the LSD express buses. They are often very, very crowded, but since they have long runs where they don’t see any turnover (the express portion), they are not the money makers that some of the slow arterial routes (like the 49) are.

      Basically, I agree that it isn’t a very good performance metric, since it is focused on fare box recovery ratios rather than on moving people around the city.

  3. The big problem with the CTA is frequency. Most routes have decent service, but very few offer anything better than 10 minutes. Even some of the trains have poor frequencies, namely the Pink Line, the Blue Line on the West Side, the Purple Line, the Yellow Line, and the Green Line all have extended periods of time where service is every 12-15 minutes.

    Because the structure of the network is so focused on transfers, it’s very unfortunate that the frequency of service is not good. Oftentimes buses will bunch, causing waits of over 20 minutes on lines like 49-Western which wrecks the time competitiveness of transit.

    The other problem is poor integration with Pace. The 155 is a prime candidate to become an extended grid route and connect to Cumberland or Rosemont station. The 307 should take over the last few miles in the north segment of Harlem from CTA 90 to provide a one-seat bus from the Kennedy Expressway to 63rd. A 24-hour O’Hare-Midway bus through the near west suburbs could provide job access for those who live near the airports. Unfortunately, integration between CTA and Pace is very poor, with no free transfers between the two unless one uses a special weekly or monthly pass.

    Ultimately, the CTA needs to improve frequencies to higher standards, maybe every 6-10 minutes for main lines and 10-15 for secondary lines. Second, get rid of half the bus stops, so that they are spaced every 1/4 mile. Third, integrate service with Pace, so that the city-suburb boundary isn’t cumbersome for transit riders to handle. Fourth, make a “Transit First” priority like San Francisco, where great strides have been made recently in increasing the usability of the bus network.

  4. These are such important points, because examples like this exists all over the system. The Northwest Side needs all sorts of route changes.

    Near where I grew up in Edgebrook/Sauganash, the terminus of the Peterson 84 bus is a great example. It ends at Caldwell & Central providing access to the Metra MD North and Downtown Edgebrook, but one thing I notice all the time is the number of people transferring to the 85A to get from here to Jefferson Park and the Blue Line. I wish(!) the CTA would terminate the Peterson bus at Jefferson Park, because it would provide a lot of people in Forest Glen and surrounding communities direct and quick access to the Blue Line (i.e. two seat rides a very short distance rather than a 3 seat ride).

    Another frustrating example is the lack of direct transit access between the Yellow Line (Skokie Swift) and the Blue Line. The only direct Blue Line/Yellow Line connection is the 54A on North Cicero, which runs a limited service Mon.-Fri. rush periods only. It’s essentially useless as of now. The Pace buses 225 and 226 are also problematic. Going north on Central from Jeff Park to the suburbs they come tantalizingly close to making a really quick connection between two Metra and ‘L’ lines and the commercial districts of Jeff Park and Skokie, but alas turn west too early.

    These are the connections buses are failing to make undercutting the entire system. You can only wonder why the CTA and Pace aren’t considering route changes. Yeah, I agree with Temetro that bus frequencies need to be improved, but for a lot of riders route changes would be enough even if frequencies weren’t changed, simply because the transfers (which we all know can add 20 minutes to a trip) are removed from the equation. I went to Lane Tech and my trip home usually lasted 45-60 plus minutes, mostly because of transfer times, because the damn 49 ended at Berwyn, just shy of Peterson. Not having to make that transfer would’ve saved me 15 minutes a day easily.

    The 155 should absolutely be extended west too.

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