The Ogden bus makes a comeback

The No. 157 bus route was truncated in 2008 due to low ridership, but since then residents have been pressuring CTA to bring it back

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By PASCAL SABINO

Block Club Chicago

Lawndale residents will soon have a new transit option that will make it quicker and easier for residents to get to work, school and Downtown.

The new bus route is an old favorite, a revival of the Ogden Avenue bus that used to feed into one of North Lawndale's main commercial corridors.

The No. 157 bus was once a mainstay for customers and employees going to the businesses along Ogden Avenue. It also allowed Lawndale residents from as far west as Pulaski Road to get Downtown or to the Medical District with no transfers.

But reeling from decades of redlining and disinvestment, West Side businesses struggled to stay afloat, and many of the shops along Ogden Avenue disappeared. The neighborhood's population also shrunk by 14 percent in the decade leading up to 2010, so the CTA decided to cut to the route.

In 2008, the No. 157 bus stopped serving Ogden Avenue west of California Avenue, cutting off a major section of Lawndale from the rest of the city.

But this summer, the Ogden bus is set to return as part of a pilot program recently approved by the Chicago Transit Board that will realign the No. 52 Kedzie/California bus and the No. 94 South California bus to provide more streamlined service along the city's grid system.

The pilot will run for one year, after which CTA will evaluate feedback and ridership to determine whether to make the route changes permanent. According to a statement released by the CTA, the agency is aiming to increase ridership on the No. 157 bus by 700 average weekday rides with the extension.

The pilot program comes after Lawndale residents campaigned for years to get the Ogden bus route back into their neighborhood. The North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council's Quality of Life Plan made the Ogden bus a top priority for making transit safer, for supporting local businesses and helping residents connect to employment opportunities in other parts of the city.

A major advocate for the bus route was Rochelle Jackson, a resident who used to take the Ogden bus to work each day until the route was cut in 2008. As residents and community organizations and North Lawndale began to work together to create a blueprint for improving the neighborhood, Jackson was asked in 2015 if she would be interested in joining a transportation committee that would work on transit solutions for the neighborhood plan.

"The first thing I thought when I heard of the transportation committee was, can we get the Ogden bus back? If we can do that, it'll be all worth it," Jackson said.

Jackson and other community members joined forces with Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), who coordinated a late 2016 meeting between community leaders and CTA officials so that Lawndale residents could make their case for reinstating the No. 157 bus as far west as the Pulaski Pink Line station.

Jackson and fellow resident Valerie Leonard assembled data from the city that showed the population loss in Lawndale had stopped, and even reversed slightly, with a very modest increase in the number of residents from 2010 to present. They also tried to show transit officials there is enough commerce in the area to support ridership on an extended route.

"North Lawndale was being revitalized and new places were coming in. After the health center, the fitness center was built, we knew they would draw in more people to North Lawndale," Jackson said about the Lawndale Christian Health Center facilities at 3860 W. Ogden Ave.

"And we knew that a new school was coming to Ogden when they built [Legacy Charter School], and we felt that was another draw to have a reason to bring the bus back."

Over the years Jackson said she had sent several letters and called countless times to lobby for the bus, but it seemed to her that CTA wouldn't budge.

"It seemed to me to be such a done deal. I kind of gave up a little bit," Jackson said.

When Mayor Lori Lightfoot met with West Side community leaders, residents and local organizations at the Garfield Park Conservatory in the spring of 2019 to discuss the types of resources that underinvested neighborhoods needed to get back on track, Jackson saw the opportunity to bring attention back to the Ogden bus.

"I mentioned that route. And so she said that she was having a meeting with CTA that afternoon and she would talk to them about that," Jackson said.

And to show the city that she meant business, Jackson drew up a report that detailed estimates for how much it would cost the city in salaries and fuel costs to extend the Ogden bus back to Pulaski Road. She presented the report to Lawndale's transportation committee, then had it sent to CTA in the fall of 2019.

More recently, Scott invited CTA head Dorval Carter Jr. and Chicago Transit Board Chairman Terry Peterson to visit several places in Lawndale that are seeing renewed investment, such as the Ogden Commons mixed-use commercial development.

"On that ride-along, we did go down Ogden and broached the conversation about reinstituting that bus line," Scott said.

After meeting with the transit officials, Scott said it became clear that the city's priorities were now aligned such that extending the Ogden bus was a real possibility. And though they couldn't promise a permanent route, a pilot program was on the table.

"Because of that ride-along and a push from the mayor's office and the department of planning around INVEST South/West … it seemed that it was natural to make sure that that service was reinstituted," Scott said. 

A spokesperson for the mayor, Patrick Mullane, did not confirm that Lightfoot nudged CTA to take action on the Ogden bus in response to feedback from residents, but did say the pilot may help support economic development in line with the administration's promises of equity.

"A strong transportation network can revitalize neighborhoods and strengthen our local economies, which is why these investments build on Mayor Lightfoot's INVEST South/West initiative to maximize investments in Chicago's neighborhoods that have been neglected and underserved for far too long," Mullane said in a statement.

As the city rolls out the pilot, residents are hopeful that the city will invite the locals that pushed CTA to make the route improvements to participate in the implementation of the program as they hire drivers, determine schedules, and do outreach to boost ridership. CTA's press office declined to answer questions related to public engagement and participation for implementing the pilot.

Those residents are also eager to see the vast impact that the renewed Ogden bus will have on area by allowing for quicker travel, fewer and safer transfers, and a direct route for people across the city to visit the West Side and see all that Lawndale has to offer.

"If people come to see a few places that they can go, it can give them an incentive to bring their business to the Ogden corridor," Jackson said. "It can bring more economic development to Ogden Avenue."

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

CONTACT: @Pascal_Sabino | blockclubchicago.org 

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