By Jon Hilkevitch, Chicago Tribune reporters
7:46 PM CST, December 17, 2012
The CTA attempted to de-crowd buses and trains Monday — and da crowd cheered and da crowd booed.
Old habits, particularly commuting habits, are highly resistant to change. That was the case for many transit customers forced to try a new way to work and home because their usual bus routes were eliminated or truncated to save the CTA $16 million that the agency invested in expanded service on other bus routes and rail lines.
"I'm devastated, (and) I'm probably going to move," Katie Blochowiak, a teaching assistant with Chicago Public Schools, said while waiting to board a Brown Line train at the Western station.
The CTA's move to eliminate the section of the No. 11 Lincoln/Sedgwick bus route between Western and Fullerton upended Blochowiak's commute between her home in the Lincoln Square neighborhood and her school in the Lakeview neighborhood, she complained, because now she must walk much farther.
John Hyland said it would be nice to have the No. 11 as an option, but he'd rather ride the Brown Line. The "rapid" was put back into rapid transit during his morning commute.
"Sometimes I'll wait for two or three trains" on the Brown Line before being able to get on comfortably because of overcrowding, said Hyland, who boarded the first train that came by his stop Monday morning at Sedgwick.
The train had plenty of room for standing passengers.
"Today, no issue. Just walked right on," Hyland said. "Little more elbow room."
Red Line rider Candi Stromwell, 31, would agree. "This is the way my commute should be every day," Stromwell said as she found an open seat on the train at Fullerton.
But Glenn Eckstein, a software developer who rode the Brown Line train behind Hyland's, said he didn't notice any improvement. "Exactly the same," he grumbled after getting off a packed train at the Merchandise Mart.
The easing of congestion — resulting from extra service and adjustments to waiting times on 48 bus routes and six rail lines — might also have gotten a boost from what appeared to be a generally lighter morning rush just a week before Christmas.
In addition, Monday was the first day of the winter schedule for CTA bus and rail operators — with "slightly new timetables, a minute or two here and there," CTA spokesman Brian Steele said.
The full effect of the changes on ridership won't be seen until after the first of the year, when commuters return to work after the holidays, Steele said.
Overall, the first day of changes went "fairly smoothly" in the CTA's view, Steele said. Ridership data from Monday won't be available until later this week, he said, so no comparisons could be immediately made to a previous Monday.
"Anecdotally, we did see, and hear about via social media, improved conditions on a number of bus and rail routes," he said.
CTA staffers are taking note of the general capacities of trains and buses and looking for areas where service tweaks might be considered, Steele said.
Unlike passengers — who, given a choice, would always avoid congested highways, airports and transit vehicles — transportation providers thrive on congestion. The airline hub-and-spoke system is based on scheduling large numbers of planes into a major airport from various smaller airports in a short span of time, then transferring passengers from one aircraft to another so they can reach their final destinations. Airlines are willing to accept the delays that inevitably result as simply a cost of doing business.
Transit agencies are attracted to congestion, too, because passengers jammed into trains and buses mean more fare revenue to help pay operating costs. It's why the CTA often runs four-car trains packed with passengers in the middle of the day on the Green and Brown lines even though riders would be much more comfortable in a six-car train.
Random counts of riders per train car conducted by a Tribune reporter Monday morning indicated 65 to 75 passengers on many of the cars on the Red, Brown and Purple lines. The new targeted maximum under the CTA's crowding-reduction plan is 70 to 75 passengers per car, which is down from 90 or more passengers per car during the height of rush periods when trains are packed at "crush loads," officials said.
The new maximum occupancy goal on a regular 40-foot bus is 45 to 55 passengers instead of 70, officials said.
Rider experiences Monday likely varied markedly on a system that provides more than 1.6 million rides on an average weekday. But in some cases, the CTA appeared to offer too much service.
At 8:10 a.m., two No. 77 Belmont buses pulled up bumper to bumper to the Belmont "L" station and each bus was little more than half-full, a reporter noted. The CTA added service to the No. 77 route because of overcrowding.
"We made it here in no time," passenger Rita Robinson said after she exited one of the buses and walked into the rail station. "There was hardly any traffic on Belmont."
Riders also told the Tribune about excess service on the street during the peak of the morning rush on the No. 11 route; the No. 80 Irving Park route, which received added runs in the de-crowding plan; and on the No. 146 Inner Drive/Michigan Express route, which also received more service, in part to make up for the elimination of the No. 145 Wilson/Michigan Express route.
Charlie Calvin, 26, said he was annoyed that the CTA removed the No. 145 express bus from its rotation. He normally catches it right outside his building near Wilson Avenue and Sheridan Road, but on Monday he walked about three extra blocks to Marine Drive to catch the No. 146 to his job at a spa in the Gold Coast neighborhood.
"It felt a lot longer than three blocks," Calvin said. "Now I'm going to have to bundle up."
Tyrone Overton typically stands on the CTA bus as he's headed home, but the Chicago resident said he enjoyed a new perk this evening: sitting on a less crowded bus.
Just after hopping off the No. 29 along Clark and State streets during afternoon rush hour, the 51-year-old said he was happy with the CTA's de-crowding plan. The No. 29 route is among the 48 getting more service, and several buses passed the busy intersection just after 4:30 p.m., some with as little as one passenger on board and others with a few dozen.
Sitting down was a welcome change, Overton said, "'cause I'm tired."
"Sometimes you're face to face with people," he said of the commute. "It wasn't that bad today."
Tribune reporter Naomi Nix contributed.
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