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CTA bus services losing riders in the last decade, data shows

The No. 79 bus is CTA's busiest route but it has also lost the most riders since 2008. | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

CTA bus ridership has been declining in the last decade, including on its most popular route, data from the transit system shows.

Based on the first nine months of every year, bus ridership has dropped 26 percent since 2008. About 180 million rides were taken last year compared with 245 million in 2008, the data from the CTA reveals.

Even the most used bus route — No. 79 79th Street — suffered the biggest drop, falling from 8.5 million riders ten years ago to 5.6 million in 2018.

While the CTA attributes the general drop in bus ridership to a variety of factors, including gas prices and the rise of ride-hailing, the No. 79 route was affected by the declining South Side population and 2013’s reconstruction of the Red Line, which shut down the CTA in the area — including the 79th Street stop — for five months, officials said.

“During that closure, both rail and bus ridership dipped somewhat — a normal outcome of any large-scale reconstruction project,” CTA spokesman Stephen Mayberry said. “Both during and after that project, many riders, including those using the No. 79 bus, adjusted their travel patterns and tried different alternatives for their commute. Some of those riders never returned to the No. 79 and other bus routes.”

Despite the decline in ridership, many commuters who take the No. 79 route remain loyal.

Austin Nelson has taken that bus everyday after work for the last two years and hasn’t noticed fewer passengers.

“The 79th Street buses are super busy and packed all the time,” the 46-year-old said.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) sees the bus moving constantly throughout the day from his ward office’s window that sits on 79th Street near Cottage Grove Avenue. He said most of his constituents seem to be happy with the route, which runs on 79th Street from Ford City Mall to the lakefront.

“No one has come into our office and expressed dissatisfaction with the service of the 79th street route,” Sawyer said.

The alderman was surprised to hear that the route was losing riders but also noted the population loss in the area.

“I can work with CTA about figuring out what the problems are and if there is something we can do to reverse that trajectory,” Sawyer said.

The route along the No. 79 bus lost over 12,700 residents from 2000 to 2014, the Metropolitan Planning Council found through an analysis of census data.

“This population loss in the South Side could very much have contributed to the decline in ridership,” Metropolitan Planning Council’s transportation director Audrey Wennink said. “This trend seems to match the city-wide decrease in ridership.”

Kyle Whitehead, a spokesman for the Active Transportation Alliance, said No. 79 bus commuters may not complain because the service has been poor for years and “it’s difficult for riders to imagine service could/should be better.”

“They’re a number of contributing factors for that [declining ridership], but people are less likely to ride the bus if the services aren’t fast and reliable,” he said.

The Active Transportation Alliance gave the No. 79 an overall F grade in its first-ever Bus Friendly Streets Report Cards in October because of the route’s excessive bus bunching and its average speed.

Whitehead said the only way to help alleviate the congestion and inefficiency of the 79th Street bus – as well as other routes like it – is to implement transit priority street lights, faster boarding options and dedicated bus lanes.

“These dedicated bus lanes don’t have to be the whole length of the route, although we certainly would be in favor of that. There’s an opportunity to do them in-and-out of some of the busiest intersections and stops,” he said.

In October, the city announced $5 million to go toward a funding a plan to make the No. 79 and No. 66 bus routes “faster and more reliable on high-volume routes.”

That plan includes the installation of designated bus lanes in certain intersections.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.