What are the pros and cons of the private bus network?
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 typically are not available to the general public. In our previous blog post we explored this hidden phenomenon and the reasons why employers and other private entities choose to offer it. Here we analyze the main advantages and disadvantages of these services.
Advantages of private buses
What benefits do private buses deliver over public transit? Besides additional comfort features, their main advantage is that they run solely to serve the needs of a specific organization’s employees. Their route, stops and schedules are designed to match the company’s location and hours and to create efficient connections with the employees’ home locations. This neutralizes some of the biggest barriers to public transportation (namely travel time, convenience and reliability issues) and increases the attractiveness of taking the bus versus driving to work. Take for example the Aon Hewitt shuttle service, which transports employees from the Highland Park Metra station in the north suburbs of Chicago to company offices in Lincolnshire, about seven miles west. In theory, there is public transit available between these two points: Chicagoland's suburban bus service, Pace, runs route 471 from Highland Park to Deerfield, where commuters would transfer to Pace route 576, which runs at rush hours and stops very close to the Aon Hewitt building. However, the two bus lines are not timed to coordinate with each other, leading to overall travel time up to one hour.
In other cases, public transportation is simply not available. Some routes do not have the ridership potential to justify regular public bus service, and transit authorities cannot afford to run inefficient routes. Sometimes, private entities agree to subsidize specific routes that serve their location, which wouldn’t otherwise be serviced by transit operators. Take UPS, for example, which subsidizes the Chicago Transit Authority route 169 bus and multiple Pace routes to connect its Hodgkins campus (about 17 miles southwest of downtown Chicago) to various train stations in correspondence with shift changes. Similarly, a few companies in Deerfield subsidize numerous Pace “Shuttle Bug” routes, for example route 627 (Discover Financial Services and Takeda) or route 633 (Walgreens). These subsidized buses differ from private shuttles in that, while people affiliated with the subsidizing institution get to ride for free or at a reduced fare, anyone from the general public can also use them at full price. However, these ad-hoc arrangements are not always feasible, and completely private buses might constitute the only effective option for organizations that want to offer their employees an alternative to driving.
Whether they fill voids in public transit service or provide alternative routes, private shuttles are an effective way to take cars off the road. A study from the California Center for Innovative Transportation estimated that corporate shuttles replace some 327,000 solo vehicle round trips per year in the Bay Area, eliminating approximately 20 million vehicle miles travelled and 8,000 to 9,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually.
Disadvantages of private buses
Private buses have some drawbacks. Their uncoordinated and unregulated nature might create inefficiencies, because employers are typically reluctant to coordinate shared buses with neighboring companies. In San Francisco, the proliferation of employer shuttles is creating congestion issues and interfering with public bus stops – to our knowledge, this is not an issue in Chicago at the moment. Furthermore, private buses might drain riders from public transit and jeopardize the viability of certain routes, to the detriment of the rest of the population. In some cases, they do compete directly with existing public transit service, which results in additional costs for the employer providing the service. It might be more cost-effective for that employer to promote that public transit service to their employees. However, private shuttles are more frequently a substitute for cars rather than public transit, as they fill specific connectivity gaps and provide a convenient alternative to people who would otherwise drive.
Better private buses through better communication
To minimize any issues, better communication and coordination between private companies and public agencies would be useful. MPC’s work on Union Station is looking at options to incorporate private buses as part of the overall transportation mix. City and regional governments could set guidelines and regulate shuttle services to avoid conflicts with public transit; public agencies could even contribute to funding, in order to achieve a consistent level of service across employers and over time. After all, despite their limited accessibility, private buses can deliver significant public benefits: Their flexibility makes them an effective Commute Options strategy to reduce car dependency, congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
Overall, private buses are an important part of the regional mobility picture and could constitute a cost-effective way for governments and transit authorities to meet specific travel needs. The Chicago region could benefit from greater attention to these services and a better integration between the private and public network.
MPC Research Assistant Cecilia Gamba contributed to this post.