Pace will use the new coaches to replace older buses and those leased from MCI, on its popular “Bus-on-Shoulder” service, which debuted in 2011 between Chicago and the southwest suburbs.
“They were trying to find coaches that would provide reliability first, but also a way to increase ridership,” says Tom Wagner, director, business development, public sector sales. “The shoulder riding is actually a fairly nice concept; especially if you don’t have bus dedicated lanes or HOV lanes, because it allows you to bypass that traffic.”
In November 2011, Pace in a cooperative effort with the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), the Regional Transportation Authority and the Illinois State Police, launched the Bus-on-Shoulder program, which allows commuter buses to use the shoulders of the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) during rush-hour congestion, leading to reduced travel times, more schedule reliability and environmental benefits gained as more motorists use mass transit.
Under the program, Pace buses use the shoulder when traffic in regular lanes is flowing at less than 35 miles per hour (mph); buses using the shoulder cannot travel at speeds greater than 35 mph, or 15 mph faster than the flow of regular-land traffic — whichever is less.
“When I-55 was constructed, it was built with a shoulder wide enough to accommodate an additional lane of traffic,” explains Patrick Wilmot, spokesperson for Pace. “We had identified this corridor as a potential shoulder riding application after seeing the success that had occurred with Minneapolis’ Metro Transit’s program. It took a number of years, but we worked with all of the regional organizations to build support to get an amendment to the state vehicle code for this pilot project.”
Special signage and roadway markings show where buses can use the shoulder, and the buses have markings indicating they are authorized to use the shoulder.
Shoulder riding has been cited to be one of the most affordable options for implementing bus rapid transit (BRT) on highways because it is less expensive to modify shoulders than it is to construct new roadways and requires little capital investment compared with rail alternatives.
Due to the overwhelming success of the program, Pace is expanding its Bus-on-Shoulder service and will use the new MCI Commuters for that service.
During the program’s first year, Route 855 ridership rose 67%, and Route 755 ridership surged 120%. Those numbers are continuing to soar. In July 2013, ridership grew 441% on Route 755 and 119% on Route 855 from July 2011 to July 2013, according to Pace numbers.
The program has also reduced travel times and improved on-time performance. Pace reports that before the program, about 68% of trips on routes 755 and 855 arrived at their destinations on time. Since the pilot program began, on-time performance averages 92%.
“I-55 continually comes up as one of the most congested highways in our region, so travel times were very unpredictable and our on-time performance was abysmal,” explains Wilmot. “When we began the pilot project, almost right away riders were able to tell us how much time they shaved off their commute and how happy they were to have a much more predictable time of arrival at the office.”
When the service began, Wilmot says travel times were so unpredictable that Pace wouldn’t even publish arrival times for its afternoon or evening rush hour services at its suburban park-and-rides for the two routes.
“After transitioning to this program, we were not only able to begin scheduling arrival times of those trips, but in May, we were able to make those a little bit more aggressive, because we were finding we were running a little ahead of schedule thanks to the travel time savings,” says Wilmot.
To accommodate increased demand, Pace has already increased the number of inbound trips during the morning rush hour and outbound trips during the evening rush hour to 32 on its two routes between the southwest suburbs, the Near West Side and downtown Chicago. It also recently added midday service that never existed before as well as some later evening service.
“The nice thing about that is it offers riders a lot more flexibility, so if someone needs to leave the office early or stay late, they can now do that and still use our service, which wasn’t an option before,” Wilmot explains.[PAGEBREAK]
The Commuter Coach
Because of the success of the program, Pace will have a dedicated fleet of 14 MCI Commuter Coaches beginning in November.
The wheelchair-lift-equipped models are designed with plush, forward-facing seats along with individual temperature controls and reading lights for a tour-level riding experience that transcends typical transit. The high-floor coaches also offer maximum performance and safety at highway speeds, with a smooth, quiet ride.
“We had these coach buses that were used elsewhere in the region, but shifted them over to be used on these routes. At the time, they were 10 years old and we knew we would need to work toward replacement,” says Wilmot. “We are excited to have the new buses. Riders respond extremely well on these routes to the coach buses.”
Pace’s new coaches also include Wi-Fi, security cameras, special Bus on Shoulder graphics and “do not follow” warnings on the back of the bus.
“Obviously, the comfort and safety of the new MCI coaches will help attract riders, but allowing people to bypass the traffic jams and get to their destination in a more timely manner is really an advantage,” says Wagner. “Programs like Pace’s are a great example of how agencies try to add incentives to their coaches to get people to try mass transportation.”
MCI’s Commuter Coach is strong and durable, with a rugged semi-monocoque structure that elevates passengers and drivers above traffic, plus Electronic Stability Control, tire pressure monitoring system and fire suppression system that make express routes, BRT and Bus-on-Shoulder service safer.
The MCI Commuter Coach offers a highly competitive per-seat price, plus low cost of operation and the best up-time rate.
“At MCI, we have about 6,000 Commuters in service with transit agencies throughout North America,” says Wagner. “Typically, their prime focus for these vehicles is commuter express service where they are going 20 to 25 miles at highway speeds. That is really where the Commuter Coaches are really the primary fit.”
Additionally, the MCI Commuter Coach is Buy America-compliant and available in clean diesel, hybrid and CNG options. Wagner adds that CNG has become a particularly popular option for transit agencies.
“Many agencies are moving toward CNG. The technology has developed over the years, and we are seeing better performance,” says Wagner. “Cummins is about to come out with a larger CNG engine, which for could provide some enhanced capabilities. Historically, MCI has only built 40-foot coaches, but the new engine offerings will allow us to provide a much more improved performance for a 45-foot coach.”
MCI has recently made several deliveries of the Commuter to agencies around the nation, including 18 to Toronto’s GO Transit, who is also the company’s largest public sector customer in Canada with 417 MCIs. [PAGEBREAK]
Market, Outreach, Growth
Local media outlets were extremely supportive of Pace’s program and were also paramount in spreading the word, safety wise, to commuters who use I-55 that buses will be using shoulder. In addition, Pace launched a significant paid media campaign that included broadcast media and print advertising.
“We actually used a mix of conventional and unconventional advertising methods,” Wilmot says. “We used billboards along I-55, but we also had some interesting things like advertisements on gas pumps at gas stations to attract some people that currently drive for their commute.”
While commuters didn’t give up their vehicles immediately, Wilmot adds that they did use the service on days when traffic was expected to be horrible. Eventually, as arrival times became more predictable, ridership began to really pickup.
“Now that they know they can have the consistent travel times and the additional flexibility of when they’d like to travel, people have responded real well to that,” he says.
While the Bus-on-Shoulder program is only a five-year pilot, Pace is looking to expand the project to other areas.
“We have had discussions with the Illinois Tollway and IDOT to bring this program, or something very similar to some other area highways, including the I-90 Tollway in the northwest suburbs, and also, I-94, which is north of Chicago, and the Bishop Ford Freeway south of Chicago," Wilmot says.
Pace has also put forth its vision for a future that includes a 480-mile BRT network along 23 northeastern Illinois corridors. The agency seeks to implement arterial BRT alongside its Bus-on-Shoulder program through such measures as Transit Signal Priority, which is already being implemented on Pace’s Cermak Road route, plus ramp metering.
As an additional incentive for commuters, when the new Ventra smart card payment system is put into place, Pace will begin offering a 30-day pass for premium fare routes. The offer is directly targeted at riders of Routes 755 and 855, with a discounted pass available for students and seniors.
“In the past, the only discounted pass program we had for these routes was a 10-ride pass, so we are trying to be more responsive to riders who asked for this,” says Wilmot. “So far, with the ridership patterns we have seen, this pass is definitely warranted, and we think it will be popular among riders.”