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The Differences Between Bus and Train Riders


Results from this year's Regional Transportation Authority's Customer Satisfaction Survey point to opportunities to diversify the Chicago area's bus ridership. In May the RTA released the findings from its Customer Satisfaction Survey, conducted between autumn and winter of 2011. The RTA called the survey "the most complete local transit survey ever;" it was issued to more than 32,000 riders through onboard transit interviews, and phone and e-mail surveys.

While 80 percent of riders reported they were pleased with the transportation system in the region, the study provided numerous interesting and important insights. According to the results, 50 percent of Metra riders live in households that bring in $100,000 or more annually, compared with 19 percent of Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) riders and seven percent of Pace riders. Conversely, the largest segments of CTA and Pace riders both come from the "Less than $15,000" category, at 21 and 26 percent, respectively. Only three percent of Metra ridership households make less than $15,000.

Car ownership, historically a sign of economic prosperity, also varies between riderships: 45 percent of CTA riders and 40 percent of Pace riders own cars, while for Metra the number is 84 percent. Multiple causes account for this discrepancy:  Metra riders are on average 10 years older than Pace or CTA riders and travel from farther away. Many young Chicagoans now choose to live without a personal vehicle, instead relying on public transit and car-share companies such as IGO and Zipcar.

The RTA's findings point to a larger national trend, long presumed but only recently being confirmed: Rail riders are on average more affluent than bus riders. In 2011, a similar study in Los Angeles recorded a stark contrast in standard of living between bus riders and those who use rail. In an analysis of the L.A. study, Atlantic Cities writer Nate Berg reported that "…bus riders tend to have lower incomes and fewer transportation options. Train riders are richer and whiter." 

For next year's RTA transit user survey, separate bus and rail statistics would help clarify the Chicago data and benefit the CTA, transit agencies, and the Chicagoans they serve.

How can transportation agencies make bus transit more appealing to a wealthier segment of the population?  Two new programs that the MPC has been involved with—Chicago's bus rapid transit initiative and Pace's Stevenson bus-on-shoulder program—are good starts. The Jeffery Jumpwhich is testing elements of bus rapid transit, such as less frequent stops, signal priority, and dedicated bus lines along a route that connects Chicago's South Side to the Loopshortens trips by two transfers and at least 15 minutes. CTA and the Chicago Dept. of Transportation also are planning for bus rapid transit routes in the Loop and along Western/Ashland avenues. Pace's bus-on-shoulder ridership has increased 34 percent, due to efficient service and amenities such as free onboard Wi-Fi and coach seats. In fact, Pace increased the frequency of bus-on-shoulder service to meet rising demand. Although it remains too early to tell, the hope is that greater efficiency in bus transit will create a more diversified ridership in Chicago.

MPC Research Assistant Kyle Terry authored this post.

By Tim Grzesiakowski

Image: Transit Hub Sign via Shutterstock