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City Hall wants to make bus riding ‘sexy,’ cites Loop Link as example

This 2015 file photo shows workers putting the finishing touches on the CTA bus station on Washington Street between Clark and Dearborn that is part of Loop Link. A bike lane runs behind the raised platform.| Rich Hein/Sun-Times

CTA bus service needs to be made “sexy” to reverse “eroding” ridership tied to ride-hailing — and the downtown bus rapid transit system known as Loop Link is part of that effort, a top mayoral aide said Friday.

The jury is still out on whether Loop Link was worth the $32 million investment and whether it really has decreased travel times. Other vehicles continue to encroach on lanes that were supposed to be reserved for buses without consequence.

But testifying Friday at City Council budget hearings, Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld proclaimed the admittedly “bold” experiment a success in the campaign to make bus service ​with “eroding” ridership levels ​more than the “choice of last resort.”

“We want it to be the mode of choice so people don’t feel like they have to … be that single occupancy vehicle stuck in that traffic. So, how do we make buses sexy? How do we make it something people can rely on to get to work on time, to get to school on time, to get to that doctor’s appointment,” Scheinfeld said.

“Loop Link is a good example of how we’ve done that. It is not a cookie-cutter. We wouldn’t just do that in every context. It’s gonna be context specific. We’re learned a lot from Loop Link. It was a pretty bold move. It continues to show improvements in bus speeds. But we’re also looking at other corridors, and there’s a whole spectrum of things we can do. It doesn’t have to be something of such a magnitude.”

The CTA’s $160 million plan to build 16 miles of dedicated bus rapid transit lanes down the center of Ashland Avenue has been put on the backburner in favor of a $30 million plan to use express buses and “smart” traffic signals to speed travel times on Ashland and Western.

Still, CTA bus ridership is down nearly five percent, primarily because of the surge in ridership on Uber and Lyft. That’s evident by a similar decline at downtown parking garages and surface lots.

That decline allowed Scheinfeld to make the case for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to raise ride-hailing fees by 15 cents a ride next year and another nickel in 2019 to bankroll CTA capital improvements in the absence of a capital bill at the state and national level.

“We want ride share to complement our public transit system to create that last-mile connection to where the CTA service doesn’t get to now and make CTA a good mode of choice for more people. We don’t want ride share to erode, at the core, the backbone of our mass transit system and ridership on the CTA,” she said.

Scheinfeld said there is no question that there is “more congestion” and less usage of parking lots” and that the “continuous circulation” of vehicles is tied to ride-hailing.

“It’s very important that we think about this impact … and try to connect that to support transit. … The negative [impact] of more cars, more wear and tear on our streets and how to capture the cost so we have more funding streams to respond to that burden,” she said.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) joked that he has “never heard bus riding described as being sexy.”

He also blamed Uber and Lyft for the 3.8 percent decline in rail ridership

“Some train lines at night have almost zero ridership because you could do a shared Uber or Lyft and everyone pays three bucks, door-to-door. It’s much more convenient,” Thompson said.

Other aldermen used Scheinfeld’s turn on the hot seat to make suggestions or air their pet peeves.

Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) renewed his plea for a change in the $1.32 million-a-year-per-ward aldermanic menu program to give more money to wards such as his that cover a broader geographical area.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) lobbied for higher fines for bike lane and delivery zone encroachment and for failure to fix vaulted sidewalks. He noted that the city is “constantly being dragged into court” by pedestrians who trip and fall on broken vaulted sidewalks.

And under questioning from several aldermen, Scheinfeld said the city plans no further changes in the widely despised red light camera program beyond the suggestions made earlier this year by the Northwestern University Traffic Center.

They include, giving motorists caught on camera blowing through red lights more time to get through, what officials call the “dilemma zone” of hesitation and indecision.

The study also suggested moving red-light cameras from six existing intersections and placing them at five new locations where the study showed red-light cameras would have a greater impact on safety.