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Did the CTA set up the Lincoln Avenue and 31st Street bus reboots to fail?

Residents fear limited hours of operation during a pilot program don't bode well for a permanent return of the routes.

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Community activists who lobbied for years for the restoration of the Lincoln Avenue and 31st Street bus routes rejoiced last November after CTA president Dorval Carter Jr. made a surprise announcement that the routes would be coming back on a trial basis in 2016. The CTA board voted earlier this month to relaunch each of the bus routes as a six-month-long test to determine whether there's enough ridership to bring back the lines permanently. But transit advocates say the way the agency devised the program's bus schedules ensures the pilots will fail.

While the restored #11 Lincoln line will debut on June 20, the #31 bus won't return until September. South-side activists say that will undermine the pilot because summer ridership towards 31st Street Beach won't be counted. Worse, residents say, both bus lines will run only on weekdays between 10 AM and 7 PM, so they'll be useless for morning rush-hour commutes. And while the Lincoln buses will run every 16 to 22 minutes, 31st Street buses will arrive only every half hour.

"It looks like it's set up to fail," Tom Gaulke, pastor of First Lutheran Church of the a and member of the Bridgeport Alliance, a social justice organization, told DNAinfo last week in regards to the #31 bus. "It feels like a bit of a slap in the face." Commenters on social media were also dismissive of the limited Lincoln bus schedule. "No availability on the weekend or morning hours for commuting doesn't appear to make this a true 'test' of whether there is demand for the #11 bus," north-side resident Brendan Carter wrote on Facebook.

The CTA says, on the contrary, that the schedules were actually devised to make sure the pilots succeed.

So how did it come to this?

Back in 1997 the CTA, citing low ridership, cut the #31, and residents have been trying to bring it back ever since. In October 2011 the Bridgeport Alliance and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization joined forces to lobby for restored service, which led to the CTA's addition of a section of 31st Street in Little Village to the existing 35th Street bus route in 2012. But advocates continued to push for full reinstatement of the #31.

The #11 route was shortened during a round of CTA bus cuts in 2012 that eliminated the portion between the Brown Line's Western station and the Fullerton el stop while preserving the stretch between Howard Street and the Western station. At the time the CTA recommended commuters take the train, which generally parallels Lincoln, as an alternative to the bus, but the el stations are as far as a half mile from Lincoln.

Alderman Ameya Pawar of the 47th Ward spearheaded an effort to win back full service along Lincoln. He was joined by other local elected officials, chambers of commerce, and residents—especially seniors. The retirees showed up in droves to CTA hearings wearing yellow bring back the #11 bus T-shirts to testify about how the service had formerly functioned as a lifeline, transporting them to grocery stores and medical appointments.

Since north-siders are often viewed as squeaky wheels who get more than their fair share of resources, Pawar realized he'd had better luck achieving his goal if he joined forces with south-side advocates to lobby for an equitable restoration of bus service. (Lincoln Park alderman Michele Smith and Bridgeport alderman Patrick D. Thompson, who also advocated for restoring bus service, didn't respond to interview requests.)

In April 2015, Pawar reached out to the Bridgeport Alliance, as well as to south-side groups Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, to form the Crosstown Bus Coalition. Last fall, the partnership proved its mettle when the CTA's Carter agreed to restore the routes to test their viability.

In order for the #31 to be permanently reinstated, the CTA wants to see 830 average weekday rides on the route, according to spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski. The target for the #11 is 1,500 average weekday rides.

But are the two bus lines getting a fair shake? Can they meet their ridership goals with their relatively limited hours, not to mention the autumn launch of the #31? Hosinski says that the routes were planned with maximum efficiency in mind to help them attract enough riders per hour to be deemed a success. The 31st Street bus, she explains, was originally supposed to debut in the spring but was delayed due to the complications of reestablishing the route. (The CTA has to work with the local aldermen to determine where bus stops would be most useful, as well as to minimize impacts from the removal of curbside parking to make room for the stops.) She added that the half-hour interval between #31 buses represents service that's twice as frequent as it was when the bus line was cut back in 1997. Of course, the fact that the bus used to show up only once an hour contributed to its low ridership, which Hosinski says was a mere 246 passengers per day on average.

Hosinski also notes that since the #31 route will stop a few blocks west of the beach (the 35th Street bus goes all the way there), use might not significantly spike in summertime, and anyway fall is often the busiest time of year for ridership due to the start of the school year. "So is starting later in the season going to hurt ridership? Not really," she says.

As for the limited hours and weekday-only schedule for both buses, Hosinski says that's a not a weakness of the plan but a strength. "A lot of folks out there say we're setting this up for failure," she says. "In reality we're trying to set this up for successful results."

The hours of service are intended to serve the kind of trips the community has said it needs, Hosinski says, based on feedback collected through surveys, meetings with aldermen and community groups, and public forums, including the CTA's annual budget hearings and monthly board meetings. Seniors, who represented much of the potential ridership for both lines, emphasized the need to use the bus for doctor visits and shopping trips.

"Furthermore, the CTA has limited resources, not only funding but also the availability of buses during the morning peak," Hosinski says. Three Brown Line runs were added this year during the AM rush, which Hosinski says resulted in a 10 percent spike in the line's ridership.

But Bridgeport Alliance member Rene Paquin doesn't buy the CTA's rationale. "Anyone who's commuting to a nine-to-five job or a regular school schedule will be left out," she says. "When I ride a [daytime] bus at 10, 11 AM, or noon, it's usually pretty empty, but when I ride a bus from 7 to 9 AM, it's always packed, so I don't get the logic."

The weekday-only schedule, as well as the fact that the 31st Street route stops short of the shoreline, will also limit recreational opportunities for low-income and working-class families, Paquin says. "I don't think the CTA is intentionally trying to make the bus fail, but I don't think they understand the needs of seniors, poor people, and the disenfranchised." Still, she says her group will promote the new service to residents.

David Crosby, a retiree who lives in CHA senior housing at Lincoln and Sheffield Avenues, testified at CTA hearings as part of the building's resident organization. "We're perplexed by the schedule," he says. "The Lincoln bus was not reinstated on weekends, which is when our families come to visit, and a lot of us go downtown." But he acknowledges limited bus service is better than none at all. "We'll try to make the best of it."

Alderman Pawar has a similar philosophy. "Will the bus service be as I would have done it? No," Pawar says. "I would have done it as it was before the cuts. But I'm an optimist–I'm not going to say this was set up to fail."

Pawar says his work won't be finished until the bus lines are fully restored. In the meantime he plans to push for strong ridership in order to convince the CTA to make the routes permanent.

"We fought for this for four years," he says, "and we're not going to stop now." v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.

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