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A Blue Line train towards O’Hare approaches the UIC-Halsted station. CTA has added more runs to the O’Hare branch, in its “plan to reduce crowding” (more commonly called “decrowding plan”), which are short-turned at UIC-Halsted station. Photo by Jeff Zoline. 

The 55% of Chicago Transit Authority passengers who use passes will see an increase in their per-trip fare when they buy new passes or reload a Chicago Card Plus today. This is the first fare increase since January 2009. (See the full schedule of fares on CTA’s website.)

My friend Ryan Lakes, an architect, bike polo player, and West Town Bikes volunteer in Humboldt Park, strongly recommended I watch “Taken For A Ride“, a documentary about the systematic dismantling of rail transit in tens of cities nationwide, and the conversion of those routes to diesel buses manufactured by General Motors. I strongly recommend it, too. It was released in 1996, but watching it today shows me how transit history repeats itself.

Sharon Banks, General Manager of AC Transit (at the time)* was interviewed in the film and said, “It’s called a spiral unto death. You cut back service, you lose passengers, you lose revenue, you lose the confidence of your ridership that you can be effective and meet their needs. This is happening all over the country: over half of the transit operators are needing to either raise fares, cut service, or do both.”

The film, while not focusing one Chicago, motivates one to look up the extent of transit service in Chicago in the 20th century. Many lines are gone. Chicago had streetcars on the same streets as it had elevated trains. Chicago Surface Lines operated an extensive network. The city once had the world’s largest cable car network. If this is part of the “death spiral” that Banks introduces, then the CTA has been moving up and down it for a long time. Recently, though, it has done many things to try and get out, by maximizing all revenue opportunities, upgrading service in some places, and purchasing new vehicles.

In the CTA’s case, both happened. Service was cut on some routes (with some routes being eliminated entirely), while increased on other routes. Ridership has increased year-over-year for several years. The CTA’s 2013 budget recommendations noted that ridership was up 3.9% over the 18 months that Rahm Emanuel has been mayor. The Chicago Tribune today published that Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) expects the fare increase to have a “no ridership growth” impact. While somewhat ambiguous, this leads me to believe that RTA has predicted that the fare increase won’t produce a negative ridership growth.

The same article noted that 3-day passes are still available on Groupon for $9, a large discount from the $14 fare yesterday and the $20 fare today; there are three days left. CTA Tattler has posted some analysis on how monthly pass users can decide if they should switch to a pay-per-use fare.

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Bikes are still free to bring onto CTA vehicles. Photo by Chris Brunn. 

If you are looking to do something about this, take a look at Grid Chicago’s 12 ideas to moving beyond the shock of CTA fare increases to doing something about it. The CTA is funded mostly by sales taxes, but also by real estate transfer taxes, “gifts” (additional transfers from the sales tax fund) from the RTA and Illinois Department of Transportation (48% + 2%). Additionally, it gains revenue from fares (45%), advertising (2%), bond sales (less than 1%), a measly “donation” from the City of Chicago and County of Cook (excluding in-kind police service) (1%), and “other sources” (2%). In essence, what money the CTA gains is based largely on market forces, ridership, and laws set by the Illinois General Assembly in Springfield. One of those is influenced in part by democratic citizen action.

The CTA board chose in December to defer raising the price of trip leaving O’Hare (from $2.25 to $5) for those passengers with Chicago Card/Plus. Riders with passes were not affected. Those buying transit cards will pay the $5 fare.

Other CTA news

The CTA issued three press releases on Friday, January 10, announcing that it sold two properties (including the Archer bus garage that was decommissioned in 2010) and approved an order for 300 new buses. The CTA has also leased space at the Jefferson Park Blue Line and Roosevelt stations to Butterfield Kitchen, that will be selling fresh, made-to-order meals.

* AC Transit serves Alameda and Contra Costa counties near Oakland, California.

Updated 15:00 to include paragraph about removed transit lines in Chicago and add more insight as to whether or not CTA is in the “death spiral”. 

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  • John

    I’m not sure what the point of this article is? Is it that the service cuts and fare rises are taking place, or is it that they are taking place because General Motors buses are taking over the CTA?

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I’ve updated the article with a new paragraph to help answer this question.

      The article reminds people that the fare hike is here and that there are ways to deal with it that aren’t just accepting the new price at face value. The article also discusses how in some cases these actions lead to the “death spiral”. CTA, though, has done many things to try and head that off, by maximizing all revenue opportunities, upgrading service in some places, and purchasing new vehicles.

  • iskandr

    The point is that jacking fares while cutting service teaches the public that transit is NOT reliable or convenient leading to more car usage. One might scan news of Beijing’s current smog issues to see what happens when carbon based pollution gets out of hand.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      The sub heading for the film “Taken For A Ride” is “Why Does America Have the Worst Public Transit in the Industrialized World, and the Most Freeways?”.

      Beijing is opening subway lines left and right.

  • mcass777

    I remember reading that many of the original bus and rail lines in Chicago were largely independent operations and many went bankrupt. The city took over many lines under the CTA. It seems that mass transit (including long distance rail and air travel) is really difficult to turn a profit. Look at all the airlines that went out of business. And before that rail lines were incredibly unprofitable resulting in a wave of consolidation in the late 1800′s. I am sure large government support is necessary to sustain these operations. Fare hikes are expected I guess.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      Every transportation mode is subsidized by the government. The difference is in how much and when that came into being.

      • mcass777

        Sure, it is interesting that it all so very unprofitable, across the board. If it were your own company or family business, it would be a scary enterprise to have to make it work!

  • http://transportnexus.com/ Ryan Richter

    A few things about streetcars and transit. 1. most streetcar companies were actually development companies that operated streetcars as a way to lure people out to their developments. 2. Chicago Surface Lines came late to the game – buying up old lines discarded by the real estate companies in the hopes of turning a profit. A few things prevented this – poor infrastructure due to years of investment (the big reason CTA was founded), the expansion of the automobile as early as the 1920′s as a major competitor to transit and price controls that made raising fares extremely difficult. Transit throughout much of the world is government subsidized. In the few places where it turns a profit (Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore) it is because transit is effectively the only mode of reasonably fast travel.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      The film points out that streetcars were taking up space that General Motors thought should be allocated to a public it wanted to which it wanted to sell cars. GM propaganda made it seem that buses were as good or better than streetcars. Well, I don’t want to summarize the whole film.

      Every transportation mode in the world is subsidized by government in some way (except maybe Japanese and Hong Kong transit). Japanese and Hong Kong transit is different than Singapore in that the former are still development companies (operating under government regulations) while Singapore is government owned but operated by two companies.

      If streetcar companies weren’t competing with the “free” roads, then perhaps they wouldn’t have had such a tough time with revenues and expenditures. For the transit vs. highway competition that governments support simultaneously, see one of my favorite blogs, Systemic Failure.

      • http://transportnexus.com/ Ryan Richter

        Steve, I’m familiar with the film and agree with much of it. I also agree that streetcars (and buses too) compete with roads that are vastly underpriced to the automobile user and hidden behind many indirect costs. For a good history of the streetcars. As a transit planner myself, I can tell you that when it comes to major capital projects, the federal government expects us to fund at least 60% locally while going through a rigorous competitive grant program that measures cost/benefit, environmental impact, fiscal analysis, etc. (New Starts). If you’re a highway department there is no rigorous grant program and the feds will pay 90% of the costs. It’s almost as if, since the beginning of public funding for transit, it was set up to fail. That’s where I agree most with the movie.

  • http://twitter.com/paytonchung Payton Chung

    Eh, CTA’s been on a death spiral for decades. This 2001 article outlines the 20 years of decline immediately prior, of which the 1990s were especially painful.

    Transit suffers from the fact that it offers mostly external benefits and internal costs; riders pay fares, but property owners derive value. Driving has mostly internal benefits (driver gets time savings, comfort) and external costs (pollution, congestion, crashes, ugly sprawl). I think that’s a reasonable reason to support the former and tax the latter.

  • TransitDB

    sharon banks is not the general manager of AC Transit

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I meant to say that she was the general manager of AC Transit at the time of the interview. The film was published in 1996.