Achieving Results by Thinking Outside the Bus

By Melinda J. Metzger | 12/6/2023

Executive Director
Pace Suburban Bus
Arlington Heights, IL

Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, public transportation agencies across the country face tough challenges. Riders have been slow to return and the ways that riders commute to their jobs are rapidly changing. Transit agencies are adapting to a national workforce shortage while working to enhance service.

Yet, in these unprecedented times, transit agencies have tremendous opportunities to innovate their services—attracting new riders and serving existing ones. In Illinois, the investment in public transportation has never been greater, thanks to historic funding opportunities from the Rebuild Illinois capital plan and the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

At Pace, we believe the future is bright for our family of public transportation services. As the operator of one of the largest bus transit systems in the country, we’ve experienced pandemic-related challenges firsthand. However, we also see incredible opportunities to reimagine how Pace can exceed our riders’ expectations.

For me, after spending nearly 40 years at Pace, I cherish the chance to address these unique challenges. The opportunities to innovate, collaborate, and transform how transit agencies deliver services simply are too great to pass up.

Pace is positioning itself for sustained success in the decades to come. We are focused on growing our services and creating more options that can equitably, efficiently, and sustainably carry our riders. We are putting these historic funding opportunities to good use, building projects that can modernize and expand our decades-old transportation hubs and garages. And we are making progress toward converting our entire fleet to zero-emission vehicles by 2040.

In the past year alone, Pace kicked off a revitalization project that will examine all aspects of its service, suggest ways to better serve our different markets, and provide more effective coverage throughout our six-county service region that is home to 8.4 million people. The two-year ReVision project will define Pace’s vision for service in a post-pandemic world, and the effort will include ample opportunities for public input. We look forward to ramping up this project in 2024.

We also celebrated the launch of innovative services that help diversify Pace’s offerings. Daily service on our second rapid transit line, Pulse Dempster, is now up and running. The new line benefits our riders in northern Cook County by tackling congestion through faster and more frequent buses. The purple-branded Pulse buses have the technological ability to extend green lights and minimize red lights using Transit Signal Priority, reducing trip times with no impact on the flow of traffic.

Customers responded enthusiastically to the Pulse Dempster service when we launched limited, Sunday-only service in August as a trial run. In fact, we saw a 12 percent increase in Sunday ridership along the Dempster Street corridor from August 2022. Our staff spent years planning the line, working hand in hand with the many communities that benefit from the upgraded service. The success of Pulse Dempster has reinforced that when we build fast and reliable public transportation options, people will choose them.

Pace also continued to think beyond the bus in 2023. We expanded our service with transportation network companies (TNCs) to offer our customers additional mobility options when and where they need them. We launched Pace Connect near some of our busiest transportation hubs: O’Hare International Airport and the Pace Harvey Transportation Center.

Pace Connect is a ride-hailing service that operates late at night, catering to nontraditional commuters and third-shift workers who often struggle to find public transportation for their rides to and from work. Pace VanGo, a flexible vanpool program, expanded in 2023 to adapt to the new commute patterns of those not working in an office every day. Both services provide critical first- and last-mile connections.

Our new Rideshare Access Program, which was approved this summer, will extend convenient transportation options to our riders with disabilities. Under the program, Pace will utilize TNCs to offer our ADA paratransit customers subsidized rides throughout our service area.

We also saw more and more riders use our services in 2023. Pace is working hard to meet demands by actively and aggressively recruiting the next generation of professional bus drivers. Transit agencies across the country are dealing with a national driver shortage, but we saw this challenge as an opportunity to establish an employment pipeline at Pace.

Throughout the year, we’ve partnered with area community colleges to identify qualified candidates and enroll them in free courses to obtain their commercial driver license permit more quickly. We also launched rapid “Hire on the Spot” events that allow us to recruit, interview, and extend formal offers to candidates all in one day. We have extended offers to hundreds of candidates at these events.

Pace is making tremendous progress to address challenges and implement innovative, efficient, and flexible service options for our current and future riders. We are seizing this post-pandemic moment and thinking outside of the bus to achieve results the right way—through collaboration, partnership, and foresight.