Third Ward alderman Pat Dowell is no fan of the 31st Street bus.
The route was canceled in 1997 due to poor ridership, but after years of lobbying by near-south-side community groups, the CTA rebooted the #31 as a pilot two years ago. It covers a roughly three-and-a-half-mile route between the Ashland Orange Line station and the Lake Meadows Shopping Center, near 33rd and King. But since the service only runs between 10 AM and 7 PM on weekdays—making it useless for morning rush-hour commutes or weekend errands—and there are only two runs an hour in each direction, some residents have argued that the test service was designed to fail.
The #31 pilot is currently scheduled to run through September, but while neighborhood organizations are urging the CTA to extend the test, last month Dowell wrote a letter to the transit agency’s board of directors asking them to pull the plug. Only three blocks of the bus route, the stretch between the Dan Ryan Expressway and Prairie Avenue near the Illinois Institute of Technology, runs through her district. But the alderman argued that, due to low ridership on the #31, the CTA would be wiser to boost service on the more popular 35th Street bus rather than spending money to extend the pilot.
Dowell has a point. The #35—which runs all the way from Cicero Avenue to 31st Street Beach and has seven-day service, longer hours, and shorter headways—saw an average of 5,077 rides taken per weekday in 2017.
Meanwhile, the CTA set a goal of 830 rides per weekday for the #31. While the line averaged 674 rides a day last November—81 percent of the target—it hit only 298 rides a day in July, with similarly underwhelming numbers in May and June.
At the transit agency’s monthly board meeting in mid-August, representatives from the Bridgeport Alliance, the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, and the Active Transportation Alliance made “Woodsman, Spare That Tree”-style pleas to the board members. They contended that if the days, hours, and frequency of the 31st Street service were increased and the route extended to include the beach, Mercy Hospital, and/or the Museum Campus, more people would use it. “If you build it, they will come,” said CBCAC’s Debbie Liu. The board will make a decision in the near future.
Aside from the ridership issue, the most salient argument in Dowell’s letter was her assertion that the #31 buses are creating traffic jams, which reminded me a bit of Ronald Reagan’s claim that trees cause pollution. She wrote that, since 31st Street is a two-lane street between the Ryan and Lake Shore Drive, “it’s unsuitable for bus travel, as the frequent bus stops cause major congestion.” (Notably, 35th Street is also two lanes along this stretch.)
First of all, if few people are riding the #31 buses, are they really stopping all that often? Second, if only two buses are running per hour in each direction, could they really have a major negative impact on congestion? Third, contrary to what drivers stewing in traffic might like to believe, buses don’t cause traffic jams—cars do. A standard CTA bus can hold more than 80 passengers, but even a partially full bus is a relatively space-efficient way to transport people. In reality, it’s the many metal boxes on 31st carrying one or two occupants that are responsible for any congestion problems.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t the first time sustainable transportation has been blamed for traffic jams on this portion of 31st. In 2014, years before the bus pilot, then-Chicago Tribune transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch called new protected bike lanes on this stretch “the reason why frustrated drivers often find themselves crawling in heavy traffic.”
Assuming Dowell’s letter is largely a case of her putting the perceived needs of her constituents who own cars before those who don’t, it’s the second time she’s done so in recent memory. Earlier this year the alderman chose to exclude her ward from the Car2go point-to-point car-sharing pilot, citing concerns that the shared vehicles would create a parking crunch for private vehicle owners even though the service would be useful for other residents.
At any rate, when I recently checked out the #31 route during the evening rush, congestion seemed to be a nonissue. In fairness, we’re in the dog days of August, when many Chicagoans take vacations, so traffic may be lighter than usual.
IIT grad student Dharini Kanagaraj was waiting at 31st and State for a ride from campus to her home in the Lake Meadows development, where many folks from the university live. She said she makes the trip several times a week, and the bus sometimes gets fairly crowded when classes are letting out. “If they cancel the service, it’s going to be really hard for many people,” she said.
Over at the Lake Meadows Shopping Center, a young man was getting off the bus to buy dinner at Jewel. He said he sometimes takes the #31 from the 35th-Bronzeville-IIT Green Line station to go shopping—if the train and bus schedules happen to line up. “With only two buses per hour, it’s hard to catch,” he said. “That’s kind of crazy to me.”
The stop at 31st and Halsted in Bridgeport seems to be one of the busier ones. There Michelle Sykes, a retired traffic aide who lives in the nearby Bridgeport Homes CHA housing, told me the #31 has been a godsend. She has relied on a cane ever since an Uber driver ran over her foot in 2015. She takes the 31st Street bus to the Sox-35th Red Line station, where she transfers to a #35 to get to appointments at Mercy Hospital with minimal walking. “The only sad thing is that it doesn’t run on weekends,” she said. She added that if morning rush service was offered, it’s likely Bridgeport teens would use it to get to school at De La Salle Institute.
After making my way to the Ashland Orange station via Divvy, I boarded an eastbound #31, which never had more than a dozen onboard, a mix of IIT students, middle-aged professionals, and senior citizens. Retired nurse Essie Gullett boarded after doing some shopping on the Halsted business strip. She was on her way home to the Armour Square Apartments senior-housing building on Wentworth. “I’m hoping they don’t cancel this bus, because it stops right in front of my house,” she said.
But is Alderman Dowell correct that #31 buses are creating traffic jams? “I don’t think so,” Gullet replied. “It’s the cars that cause congestion because there are more cars than buses. But talking like that will get the bus canceled for people like me who don’t drive.”
At the recent board meeting, CTA president Dorval Carter indicated that it’s unlikely the 31st Street bus service will continue much longer, let alone be expanded, unless the agency can find a sponsor, such as IIT or Mercy, to help shoulder the cost. Here’s hoping that a white knight emerges to save the #31, so that carless customers like Gullett don’t get left behind. v