Chicagoland Transit Provider Keeps ‘Pace’ With Shifting Ridership Needs

By Harrell Kerkhoff Busline Magazine Editor

Pace Executive Director Melinda Metzger is shown next to a Pace Express bus. The transit system operates a variety of services.

Opportunities and challenges abound for many public transportation providers in wake of the global COVID pandemic. One part of life, however, has not changed. People still need to get to places in a safe, reliable and (growing in importance) environmentally friendly way. Those three objectives are in the “wheelhouse” of Pace Suburban Bus (Pace), which operates one of the largest bus-only multimodal public transportation systems, encompassing much of the Chicago, IL, metropolitan area. Its headquarters is in Arlington Heights, IL.

Pace provides a family of public transportation services for riders within 274 municipalities in Cook, Will, DuPage, Kane, Lake, and McHenry counties, in northeastern Illinois. Operations include fixed route, community dial-a-ride, vanpool, on demand, and ADA paratransit. One of the largest public bus providers in North America, Pace covers 3,677 square miles, an area nearly the size of Connecticut and about 15 times the size of Chicago. Pace’s innovative approach to public transportation gives the agency a national reputation as an industry leader.

“Pace has always been unique as we operate the majority of our own services, but we also use contract carriers to meet those transportation needs located far away from our garages. It makes more economic sense to run with a contractor for such areas,” Pace Executive Director Melinda Metzger said. “On any given day, Pace has approximately 2,500 vehicles on the street, including around 800 fixed route buses and 1,300 paratransit vehicles.”

Pace operates over 140 fixed routes within the six-county area. It also operates its “Pulse” Arterial Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Milwaukee Line, with a second BRT line (Pulse Dempster) planned to be fully operational later this year. More BRT lines are expected in the future. Recently, state and local officials joined Pace leadership in downtown Des Plaines, IL, to showcase the first completed bus station along the new Pulse Dempster Line. It’s Pace’s latest service innovation that provides faster bus service with limited stops, accessible trip information, and modern amenities. Riders can take trips every 15 minutes most of the day when the service fully launches.

Each Pulse bus comes equipped with advanced transit signal priority (TSP) technology that extends green lights and minimizes red lights to help Pace riders conquer congestion.

Meanwhile, Pace’s ADA paratransit service is designed to meet the needs of riders whose disability or health condition prevents them from using fixed route buses for some or all their travel needs. Pace operates this service across the entire six-county region, including Chicago. Pace’s TripCheck service is an online tool that allows paratransit riders or their caretakers to view or cancel upcoming trips. Riders who are certified for ADA paratransit can also use the Taxi Access Program (TAP) for trips that begin in the city of Chicago. TAP is less expensive than paratransit, and often more convenient, as rides do not have to be scheduled the day before.

Also, Pace’s board of directors recently approved a new Rideshare Access Program (RAP) modeled after TAP and the DuPage Uber Access Program pilot. The approval allows Pace staff to explore options for providing supplementary service utilizing various Transportation Network Companies (TNCs). RAP will allow Pace ADA paratransit customers the option to use rideshare services like Lyft, Uber, UZURV or Via in conjunction with dedicated Pace ADA paratransit services.

“I have always felt, if you can build a system that best meets the needs of people with disabilities, you end up making the entire transportation system better for everybody,” Metzger said.

Other transportation options under the direction of Pace include:

  • Pace On Demand, which provides a reservation-based, shared-ride shuttle bus service in 10 designated service areas throughout the suburban region. Riders can book online or call to reserve a trip at least one hour (or up to 7 days) in advance, and pay when boarding with cash, a mobile wallet, Apple Pay apps or a personal contactless bankcard. On Demand is open to the general public. Anyone can book a trip and ride the service as long as the trip starts and ends within one of the On Demand zones.
  • Pace Vanpool, which is a rideshare arrangement that helps people get to work. The program is designed for commuters who start or end their travel in the Pace six-county service area. Pace vanpool groups consist of individuals who live near each other and have similar travel patterns and work hours. Pace vanpools are like a carpool but better, as Pace provides the van and covers all the expenses for a flexible monthly fare, based on each rider’s needs. Pace offers different commuter vans depending on the group size and accessibility needs.

There are two types of Pace vanpools: Traditional and Feeder. The Traditional vanpool is a regular point-A to point-B commute. An assigned driver picks up members of a group and drives them to work and back home. A Feeder vanpool connects passengers from home or work to bus, train, or park-n-ride locations.

  • The Pace VanGo is a new vanpool option. The reservation-based service involves drivers/riders who reserve a van for the next business day and access the vehicle using a unique code. This new pilot program provides a first-mile/last-mile transit option for commuters traveling round-trip from either the Lake-Cook Metra Station (in Deerfield, IL), the Lake Forest, IL (UP-N) Metra Station, or the Palatine, IL (UP-NW) Metra Station to nearby work locations. From each of those stations, VanGo participants can travel in a defined zone. Pace recently launched another VanGo area. Commuters traveling to Itasca, IL, from either the CTA Blue Line Rosemont Station or the Itasca Metra Station can now use VanGo as well.

Those interested in becoming a driver under this program must submit a driver application. Riders must also apply for the service. Once approved, drivers and riders must then complete a participant agreement.

  • Pace Community Vehicle Programs provide cost-effective transportation options for municipalities or local governments within the Pace service area. Local government participants maintain control over hours of operation, fares, and how the program is administered. There are two Community Vehicle Program options — Locally-Based Service (LBS) and Municipal Vehicle Program (MVP). They differ only in the type of vehicle used and maintenance responsibility.
  • Having started in June, Pace Connect is a new late-night ride hailing service near O’Hare International Airport and Harvey, IL. For $2 or less per trip, anyone can take a ride within a designated zone to accommodate first/last mile transportation needs during times when fixed route public transportation isn’t readily available.

Metzger said it’s no coincidence that many of Pace’s new projects have taken shape since the start of the pandemic.

“At Pace, we looked at the pandemic as a time when the world was evolving. Our first priority was to make sure our employees and riders were safe while using our services, and then helping essential workers get to where they needed to go. That included our ADA paratransit service, where passengers could either use our Pace vehicles or a participating taxi service,” Metzger said. “A main goal for our paratransit service during the pandemic was to make sure there was one person riding per vehicle.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we concentrated on the shifting travel patterns that were beginning to take place within our entire system. The result was the emergence of new markets. We responded by starting new programs, such as our VanGo vanpool option. It was important to recognize that many past riders were no longer going to an office five days a week. In response, VanGo has helped us provide a more specialized transportation service to meet new needs. The same can be said with our contracts with TNCs (Transportation Network Companies). The main thing is to offer today’s passengers a variety of transportation options.”

She noted there is now a “new normal” in place as it relates to public transportation ridership. Overall, ridership numbers continue to be down for many transit systems. In response, changes must be made.

“That is where innovation comes into play, helping our riders with today’s changes. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, we were transporting approximately 100,000 passengers every weekday. That figure is now 70,000, but we do see ridership growth ahead,” Metzger said. “Part of the challenge moving forward is securing additional funding to replace federal aid that will end by 2026, if no action is taken. Just about every transit system it seems, coming out of COVID, has noticed changes in ridership. At Pace, we are currently rebuilding our ridership and changing how we are providing service. We will continue to operate our system as efficiently as possible, while seeking additional local, state, and federal funding to help run our services.

“If the pandemic has proven anything to those involved with different levels of government, it’s the importance of public transportation. At Pace, along with other transit systems across the country, we transported health care and other essential workers to places they needed to go.

“I think the future is very bright for public transportation, but it’s important to recognize that as an industry, we need to do more than just take passengers to work 9 to 5. We now have riders who only go to the office two or three days a week. We also have more people looking to travel from suburb to suburb rather than from suburb to downtown Chicago. It’s essential that we meet those shifting needs. Another reason I believe transit has a strong future is that many younger people are environmentally conscious, and less reliant on using a car every time they go somewhere. Transit, for them, is the answer.”

To help the transit system succeed in the future, Metzger and other Pace representatives are working on a network revitalization and systemwide restructuring initiative.

“It involves looking at all the services we provide in our six counties to see what changes need to be made,” Metzger said. “This is a two-year project that will provide a roadmap for our future, helping us better plan for current and future changes among different ridership groups.”

Pace Employees Lead The Way

Pace currently employs approximately 1,600 people to fill a variety of roles. They are all important to Pace’s success, according to Metzger.

“We have many great and loyal people working at Pace. That was reinforced during the pandemic as they were wonderful ambassadors for our transit system,” she said, “They always put safety first, which is most important to me and everyone at our organization. After that, our operations and maintenance staff keep our buses running safely and take really good care of our customers. I am very proud of the job they do.”

One major challenge for just about every transportation provider involves the nationwide driver shortage. To find more driver candidates, Pace partners with local community colleges to help people attain a CDL. Once that is accomplished, new drivers hired by Pace receive approximately eight weeks of training by the transit system.

“That process has been very successful for us. There is a lot involved to becoming a good driver. One important characteristic is having patience. That is essential when driving in traffic and transporting a wide variety of riders,” Metzger said. “Being a driver is a tough job that can involve changing schedules. Therefore, we look for people who enjoy performing public service. The amazing thing about public transit is, it’s a service industry. You are helping people. Working in this industry also helps in developing analytical skills, such as figuring out how to solve problems and address issues.

“It can be a great and exciting career, and changes take place each day. There is always something new going on.”

Pace was created by the 1983 RTA Act — which established the formula that provides funding for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), Metra, and Pace — unifying numerous suburban bus agencies that existed at that time. In doing so, fares, branding and management were made consistent throughout the region. On July 1, 1984, a consolidated agency began operations as the Suburban Bus Division of the Regional Transportation Authority. A year after that, the brand name “Pace” was established. During its first years, Pace representatives focused on unification efforts and upgrading bus garages and the fleet. Meanwhile, rapid suburban population and employment growth, during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, led to increased strategic and long-range planning efforts at Pace.

“Pace has experienced tremendous growth over the decades, which includes the development of a family of services. Our main objective, however, has never changed — continually making our services better and doing so in a timely fashion,” Metzger said. “A future goal is to get our fleet to zero emissions by 2040. We are currently working on that transition with our first electric buses. That focus, however, started in 2012 with our first hybrid diesel/electric buses as well as buses powered by CNG. Currently, there is one electric bus in our system, with 22 on order. We are also improving our facilities and training our mechanics to take care of these new vehicles.”

Another focus is providing modern technology for passengers to better help them get from one place to another. Such technology includes:

  • A mobile Transit trip planning app, which provides real-time public transit data. It includes departure times, information on when buses will arrive, cancellations when they occur, and crowding information on how full buses may be based on recent ridership.

“Since Pace provides so many different transportation options today — including fixed route, express route, on demand, vanpool, and paratransit — it’s important we help people better understand our various services and how to use each one. The trip planning app can greatly help,” Metzger said.

  • The aforementioned TripCheck, which helps Pace’s paratransit passengers keep track of their rides. The TripCheck portal allows users to view trip information, cancel trips, and opt in and out of email, text, and phone call alerts. Chicago and suburban ADA paratransit riders, as well as users of Pace-operated Dial-a-Ride services, can use TripCheck.
  • Intelligent Bus System (IBS), which is a satellite-based communications technology used to improve the tracking of buses, collection of data and communication between Pace and its drivers and passengers. Completed in 2005, IBS allows Pace to greatly improve routing and scheduling due to the data generated on ridership and route efficiency. There are several components that provide Pace with data to improve bus schedules, add or reduce buses as dictated by ridership and track buses in the event of an emergency. IBS can also be a vital statistical provider during present and future restructuring initiatives. With IBS, Pace can collect data that was once cost-prohibitive, leading to greater improvements in suburban public transportation.

Looking Ahead With Anticipation

One of the great aspects about working in public transportation is that the field offers many types of positions and room for professional growth. That has certainly been the case for Metzger, who has been involved with the industry for 40-plus years.

“I started as an intern and was only going to stay the summer,” Metzger said, with a laugh. “I ended up, however, finding something I really liked doing, in a career that offers many opportunities. Most of my time in transit has been focused on operations. I have been with Pace since 1984 and assumed the role of Executive Director in January 2022. What I enjoy the most is being part of an organization that helps people get to their jobs, the doctor’s office, and many other places they need to go. It’s very rewarding to truly help people each day.

“I also feel that despite various challenges, it’s an exciting time to be involved with public transportation. The future holds much promise in this field.”

Visit pacebus.com.

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