Why don’t people use transit? Findings from the Chicago area - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Why don’t people use transit? Findings from the Chicago area

MPC Research Assistant Cecilia Gamba authored this post

In our previous blog post, we reported on the results of a recent University of California, Berkeley study that identified a primary reason why people don’t use transit, unreliability, and what can be done to address that issue. This post highlights what is being done in the Chicago area to improve transit service reliability.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, Chicago is leading the way with one of the highest rail ridership increases in the country (4.85 percent in the 3rd quarter of 2012), as well as an upward trend across all transit modes: Through August 2012, the Chicago regional transit system accommodated more than 443 million passengers; early estimates put total 2012 ridership well over 650 million rides, the highest figure since 1990.

Yet, public transit still represents a minor share of total travel: Despite ever worsening road congestion and fluctuating fuel prices, driving is still the most common way to get around.  CMAP reports that over 69 percent of workers in the seven-county greater Chicago region drive to work alone, while only 12.4 percent take public transportation. MPC’s Commute Options pilot surveyed some 6,000 employees in Chicago (both urban and suburban) and found that more than 80 percent of them commute by car at least once per week, and over 60 percent drive every day. When asked what prevents them from choosing another commute option, respondents mainly answered that public transit between their home and workplace is inconvenient or takes too long. This finding mirrors the results of the Regional Transportation Authority’s Customer Satisfaction study, which showed that the biggest driver of customer satisfaction for Chicago-area transit users  is whether transit is readily aavailable when and where they need to travel.

All three Chicago area service boards – Metra, Pace and Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) – track on-time performance. The 2012 performance for CTA rail delays repeatedly fell short of their target: While the agency strives to have fewer than 78 delays of 10 minutes or more per month, in 2012 it averaged closer to 105 such delays per month. CTA bus operations fared better: on average, busses met the performance target of 4% or fewer buses running with big gaps between one another.

In 2012, Metra’s on-time performance fluctuated between 94 percent and 97 percent of trains on time. For Pace, the most recently published figures from 3rd quarter 2011 show that about 70 percent of all bus rides were on time, below the agency’s target of 80%.

The CTA recently kicked off an online communications initiative, “When things go wrong,” to give passengers more information about what causes delays The FAQ breaks down  the most common causes of service disruptions and explains how the CTA typically addresses them to minimize their impact on customers’ lives.  CTA also has pledged to improve their real-time communication practices during disruptions, by making the most of web, email, text alerts, electronic information screens, social media alerts via Twitter, and station/platform announcements. Indeed, the UC Berkeley study showed that when an agency does a good job communicating the nature, cause and expected duration of travel delays, customers’ experiences are better and they remain more loyal to taking transit.

On that note, CTA has been providing its Bus Tracker since 2006: As Atlantic Cities writer Eric Jaffe reported, a study published last year found that this tool succeeded in attracting a small but significant amount of new CTA riders, after controlling for other factors affecting ridership. The other Chicago-area transit agencies gradually followed suit, and all buses and trains (CTA, Pace and Metra) are currently tracked through Gooro, the integrated transit information platform provided by the RTA, now available also as a smartphone app.


  1. 1. Anne from Beverly on March 19, 2013

    I regularly ride the Metra Rock Island and CTA red line, with occasional trips on other Metra and CTA lines and various buses. On buses, not knowing how long the trip might take is a deterrent to some trips. On the red line, it's the same, whether I'm riding on the south side or north side.

    On the south side, it's not unusual for me to experience travel times from Roosevelt to 95th that are 50%-100% higher than they were 5 years - a HUGE deterrent to red line travel.

    On Metra Rock Island, infrequent night/weekend service has been a headache and is about to become a much bigger headache during the south side red line shutdown. I expect to be taking fewer transit trips this summer, riding my bike longer distances, going to the north side less often and staying at friends' homes when I do. I have no confidence that CTA's shuttle plan will work acceptably for me, as night/weekend travel times are already 1.5-2+ hrs for me between many near north and mid north locations and Beverly.

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