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The Chicago region’s current hub-and-spoke transit system leaves nearly half a million Cook County residents stranded in transit deserts.

CTA launches prepaid bus boarding pilot

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This week the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) launched a prepaid bus boarding pilot program at the Belmont Blue Line station – a big step for an agency trying to improve local bus service.

Customers boarding westbound #77 Belmont buses during the evening rush no longer have to wait to pay fares as they board. Instead, CTA says they can prepay their fares in a designated area, allowing riders to enter buses more quickly.

See the boarding process in the ABC 7 Chicago video.

The six-month pilot is designed to reduce wait time, boost overall service and help prevent bus bunching along the route.

Read more about the program in the Chicago Tribune.

Prepaid bus boarding has been an advocacy priority of ours for years, as it’s proven to speed up service in cities across the U.S. The agency originally planned to pilot prepaid boarding at one station on the Loop Link corridor that launched late last year, but that pilot was postponed.

The CTA says they still plan to test prepaid boarding on Loop Link this year.

Since taking over CTA in spring 2015, President Dorval Carter has said improving local bus service is a top priority. This week’s announcement comes after CTA made improvements on two of its busiest routes on Ashland and Western and prepares to launch pilot programs on two recently restored routes on Lincoln Avenue and 31st Street.

The CTA should identify the best process for prepaid boarding soon and aggressively deploy it on routes across the city, as is being done in cities from New York to Seattle. The agency should also explore expanding its network of dedicated bus lanes to free buses from congestion and give more buses traffic signal priority (TSP) when approaching intersections.

With cash strapped budgets at all levels of government, major improvements and expansion of our transit system is likely to come via bus service, which is much more affordable and less disruptive than rail.

Buses efficiently carry many more passengers than personal vehicles and warrant priority on our streets. Many Chicago neighborhoods are cutoff from the rapid transit system and rely on bus service to get around. This is particularly apparent in low-income neighborhoods far from downtown where car ownership is limited.

In recent years rail ridership in the region has grown while bus ridership has remained flat or decreased. This is largely a result of slow and unreliable service and CTA needs to do more to change that.

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Launching prepaid boarding at Belmont and eventually expanding it to several high-ridership routes is a good first step.