A Hidden Phenomenon: The Private Bus Network - Metropolitan Planning Council

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A Hidden Phenomenon: The Private Bus Network

Midwest Motorcoach

Bus companies like Midwest Motorcoach, Pace, and CTA operate private shuttles for businesses.

There is an invisible web of bus routes that you won’t find on any transit map: it’s the private shuttle network. Usually designed as customized “last mile” connections from public transit stations to a specific location, these buses are offered by employers for their own employees, and are usually not available to the general public. In this two-part series, we’ll investigate this phenomenon and explore its pros and cons, drawing from examples in Chicago and elsewhere.

When the removal of a certain “perk” causes a business to lose a dozen employees and shift its entire recruitment focus, that perk is a big deal. So went the story for Civic Staffing L3C, a Chicago-based alternative staffing company and contractor to the Avon Products manufacturing laboratory in Morton Grove, IL. Having come to rely on CTA’s recently-gutted X98 route between the Jefferson Park Blue Line station and Morton Grove for their primarily South- and West-Side hires, the company has now had to switch to sourcing employees with cars, mostly from the North Side and Evanston. This cataclysmic shift, with more losses anticipated as more employees grow weary of the longer commute, all came about because of a bus.

Admittedly, Route X98 is a public service, not a private one, but its official title is “X98 Avon Express” and the overwhelming majority of riders are Avon employees supplied by Civic Staffing. These sorts of private bus networks come in all shapes and sizes. Private shuttles for residents, students, hotel guests and employees range from swanky to school bus, and everything in between. And while they mostly fly under the radar, these services are fairly pervasive.

For example, universities have long provided private transportation services to meet the mobility needs of students and staff. Loyola University (an MPC Commute Options participant) runs shuttles between its Lake Shore and Water Tower campuses; this service supplements existing CTA routes, providing a more convenient option for Loyola students and faculty members.  Similarly, Northwestern University operates several shuttles across its Evanston and Chicago campuses; the University of Chicago offers night buses and a weekend shuttle from Hyde Park to the South Loop.

Many companies, property managers and shopping or entertainment centers provide shuttle services to increase accessibility to their facilities. Several companies in Lake County (Aon Hewitt, Siemens Building Technologies, and Abbott Laboratories) operate private buses for their employees.  In Des Plaines, Rivers Casino runs a shuttle from the CTA Rosemont Blue Line station for staff and patrons 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In Chicago, Prudential Plaza and 600 West offer a bus connection to train stations for building tenants. Three of the nine suburban employers participating in MPC’s Commute Options program have some form of shuttle service from their offices to nearby train stations or other company buildings.

So how extensive is private transit service in the Chicago area? The decentralized nature of this phenomenon makes it hard to get a comprehensive picture and quantify its impacts.  In 2004, the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois – Chicago conducted a survey of non-public transportation services and identified 156 employers that were providing such services. To our knowledge, no other study has been done since then in the Chicago area.

The private bus phenomenon has attracted attention in other parts of the country, particularly the Puget Sound region and Silicon Valley. In those areas, tech giants like Google, Microsoft, Apple or Yahoo provide their employees with state-of-the-art coaches with guaranteed and comfortable seats, Wi-Fi, air conditioning and other amenities. These “luxury” shuttles have become an integral part of the company’s recruitment and retention strategy: they can make suburban corporate campuses more accessible and attractive to young high-skilled workers, who tend to prefer urban lifestyles. From an employer’s perspective, the financial cost of operating a shuttle is more than offset by gains in talent recruitment, productivity and reputation; similarly, for a commercial outlet or entertainment center, increasing connectivity helps expand the catchment area and attract more patrons and customers.

The private bus network represents an important link in MPC’s Commute Options chain. For employers whose current transit options are limited, private buses provide a robust commuting alternative. In Chicago, surveys conducted for the Commute Options program found that roughly 20% of workers would be very interested in taking advantage of a shuttle service if their employers offered it. A number of employees whose companies do offer private buses confirmed that the service was a critical factor in deciding to work there.

At the aforementioned Aon Hewitt, the private bus system has been both draw and retainer for many employees, including Mike Jokela, customer experience specialist: “When I was recruited, the transportation manager alerted me to the 1023 [subscription] Pace Bus. It was very strategic at the time, since my wife was working downtown and we wanted to be in the city, but didn’t have a car.” The 1023 has since been discontinued, but Jokela was able to switch to a coach bus operated concurrently by Midwest Motorcoach. For him, the bus is as indispensable as ever. “If [this service] didn’t exist, I’d have to go buy a car. I’m sure there’d be a number of people who would have to stop working here, or would have to work from home.”

Private buses can have a relevant role in meeting the Chicago region’s commuting needs, filling voids in the public transit service and providing more convenience to commuters. It is another commute option that is often overlooked as a possible solution for “last mile” commuting challenges, yet one that obviously has the power to make or break employee retention. It should be seriously considered by both urban and suburban employers.

Stay tuned for the second part of this story, where we’ll discuss the pros and cons of private bus services.

MPC Research Assistant Cecilia Gamba contributed to this post.

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