The RTA is currently developing the 2023 Regional Transit Strategic Plan for Northeastern Illinois at a time when the challenges and opportunities facing our region’s transit system have never been greater. We have invited a group of transit leaders to participate in a series of guest blogs on Connections, including the three transit operators in the Chicago region: CTA, Metra, and Pace.
The following guest blog was submitted by Melinda Metzger, Interim Executive Director, Pace Suburban Bus
Pace’s priority has always been the safety of our passengers and operating personnel. Our response to COVID-19 was guided by this value, even when ridership dropped to 30% of pre-pandemic levels and certainly as it rebounded to 65%. Many of those who continued to ride and returned more rapidly to public transportation are the essential workers who cared for us through the pandemic and neighbors who needed critical access to medical care, groceries, and social services. The continued use of our service in the face of a global pandemic reinforced what we already knew—Pace is a critical component of our region and provides invaluable access to transportation for those we serve.
The last two years have given us the opportunity to focus on our vision of the future. In March of 2020, we paused the release of our strategic vision plan, Driving Innovation, so we could incorporate what we were learning and adapt to a new world where the typical 9-5 may no longer exist, where people need flexible service options for their flexible schedules, and where innovation will be the key to keeping our region connected. The plan, adopted by our board last fall, will help guide us as we seek to address the major issues that will impact our region over the next several decades. The RTA’s strategic plan will help us align our own plans with our partners in the region, connecting communities and maximizing our impact.
Thanks to relief funding and new investments from the state and federal government, the strength of the state’s economy and capital program, and many opportunities to collaborate on regional projects, we are well poised to continue to make a positive impact on life in northeastern Illinois. Even during the worst of the pandemic, Pace invested more in the communities that need us most. Fair Transit South Cook, a partnership with Cook County, Metra, and RTA, is a tremendous example of how different agencies can work together to improve service and affordability. The three-year pilot project enhances transit service on Pace Route 352 Halsted and lowers Metra fares for residents of the South Side of Chicago, as well as south suburban Cook and north Will counties.
Pace is planning further improvements on South Halsted and in other areas, such as new ADA paratransit technology, ADA paratransit transfer facilities in Calumet City and Schaumburg, a partnership with Metra and the City of Harvey to build a new multimodal transit center, and a new South Campus in Markham that will house a bus acceptance facility, Pace’s Customer Relations department, and a CDL training course. Improvements like these will ensure that all people have access to the same mobility. They will connect jobs and healthcare with neighborhoods that have neither. And if implemented in conjunction with other institutions that serve our region, they will build a more equitable society for all.
As a regional public transportation provider, Pace believes that there is wisdom and strength in diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Those values are foundational to how we operate our transportation service and treat our employees. Pace believes that when we draw upon the values, talent, and skills of a workforce that is representative of the multicultural population we serve, we are better able to understand and meet the needs of those who rely on us.
The climate crisis also poses a serious threat to our region, country, and planet. Pace is committed to doing our part to solve this problem. All public transportation is good for the environment. Every time we pick someone up, we take a car off the road. Every time we take a car off the road, we reduce pollution. The average diesel bus trip produces 33% fewer emissions per passenger mile than a comparable car trip; at rush hour, the savings increase to 82% with a full bus. Cumulatively, public transit reduces U.S. carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons annually—equivalent to the electricity used by 4.9 million households. But we can do better.
Pace has pledged to operating a zero-emission fleet by 2040. A bus system powered by alternative fuels instead of fossil fuels will make our air cleaner, and it may ultimately save us money. We will begin by transitioning our North Division garage in Waukegan to a battery-electric fleet in the next five years. As we work through the transition at this smaller scale and seek further funding, we will be ready to scale up the technology to the rest of our system. Soon, a zero-emission bus system will improve the health of residents (through emission reduction) and the ecosystem in which they live.
We are reimagining service by thinking “outside the bus.” In 2022, we will explore alternative services where traditional bus services may not be the best solution.
We will pilot new concepts to fill those gaps, including new technology applications and innovative service pilots using shared vehicles and partnerships with transportation network companies. And systems that work well already, like our Dial-a-Ride partnerships with counties and townships, will be expanded. We believe this type of innovation can actually improve coverage, flexibility, and ridership in less dense areas, after traditional commuting hours, and in places where few people ride consistently.
All these changes won’t be possible without radical innovation and improved efficiency. American cities simply cannot afford to continue to operate a twentieth-century transportation system in the twenty-first century. New infrastructure will allow us to better serve the region that exists today while ensuring Pace is ready to meet future needs. People will ride a more modern and useful system, increasing our revenue as well as the political will to fund further improvements. I am excited to work with the RTA on their strategic plan. I can honestly say the future has never looked brighter for our agency or our regional system. We are all ready to make a positive impact in the lives of those we serve. Let’s get to work!