CTA riders ask: Why is Chicago’s transit tracker unreliable?

The search for answers included a 29-mile trek to Ikea, four transit apps and more than a dozen calls to experts. Here’s what I learned.

An illustration of a trip to Ikea using public transportation.
With construction snarling the Kennedy Expressway, public officials are encouraging more drivers to take public transit to and from downtown. But riders say transit tracking apps aren't always reliable. Illustration by Yiran Xia
An illustration of a trip to Ikea using public transportation.
With construction snarling the Kennedy Expressway, public officials are encouraging more drivers to take public transit to and from downtown. But riders say transit tracking apps aren't always reliable. Illustration by Yiran Xia

CTA riders ask: Why is Chicago’s transit tracker unreliable?

The search for answers included a 29-mile trek to Ikea, four transit apps and more than a dozen calls to experts. Here’s what I learned.

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After about two hours sitting on a train, then a bus, then walking through a parking lot and over a grassy knoll, I’d finally made it to that beacon of Swedish furniture, meatballs and Lingonberry sauce: IKEA.

Major construction projects have snarled the Kennedy Expressway and the Blue Line’s weekend service, so my editor sent me on a 29-mile odyssey to Schaumburg. The idea was to test how Chicago’s regional transit agencies (CTA, PACE, Metra) work with each other and how many apps, trackers and planning devices I’d need to use to get there.

We were trying to see firsthand how accurate the region’s tracking technology is and why apps often promise buses and trains that don’t show up when they’re supposed to. All this comes at a time when public officials are encouraging more drivers to take public transit to and from downtown.

My two-hour sojourn to IKEA was unremarkable and pretty much on time (barring some initial inaccurate estimates from every app I tried except the city’s Ventra app). Still, other riders have experienced inaccuracies with trackers, and it’s hard to get to the bottom of why. In a recent WBEZ survey of nearly 2,000 CTA riders, about 9 in 10 survey takers said they’d experienced a delay taking a bus or train in the past 30 days.

Many respondents also said they were frustrated that available tracking technology — whether on apps or on electronic boards in stations — didn’t seem to offer a realistic picture for people planning trips and commutes. In a section that solicited rider questions, riders asked whether the city is using outdated technology to estimate arrival and departure times, and whether that tech could be revamped

A Chicago Transit Authority train tracker
On CTA’s bus and train trackers, the radio waves symbol means the arrival time is based on real-time data, while the clock indicates the tracker is using schedule-based information. Chicago Transit Authority

Over a dozen phone calls to transit app companies and transportation experts later — plus a Saturday afternoon on the bus — I had some answers but not all.

I did learn that Chicago, which used to be a leader in transit technology, now has some catching up to do with the broader tech world. “Our train and bus tracker were among the first tools of its time among any U.S. transit agency,” Brian Steele, CTA’s chief spokesman, said in an interview. But predictive algorithms have evolved, Steele acknowledged, and Chicago needs an upgrade that would give it the ability to automatically update the position of a bus that goes off a route or a train that falls behind.

Other major U.S. cities, including New York, have in the past couple of years started to plan major upgrades to their tracking tech, and Chicago plans to follow suit, Steele said.

Coming home from IKEA, I tried to understand how my relatively smooth trip to Schaumburg fit into the broader questions Chicagoans were asking about tracking technology and my own experience as a frequent rider. It was time to consult some experts.

Cars crowd the Kennedy Expressway.
A three-year construction project began on the Kennedy Expressway in March 2023 that reduces the number of lanes. Officials urged commuters to take public transportation instead of driving. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

One of those experts was Chicago cybersecurity analyst Brandon McFadden, who began compiling data on train arrivals and departures last year. According to his data, the Blue Line — which I took for the first leg of my journey to IKEA and which city officials are touting as an alternative to stalling on the Kennedy — is especially unreliable, with less than 50% of scheduled trains actually arriving between January and February 2023, according to McFadden’s data.

The CTA has said a shortage of drivers and operators are to blame for its reliability problems, and that it’s doubling down on hiring to fill the gaps. CTA spokesman Steele questioned the accuracy of that data – saying it sounded “low” – and added that the agency recently updated schedules to reflect the reality of its current workforce shortage, prompting customer complaints to drop. According to CTA’s data, Blue Line trains went on about 62% of scheduled runs in January and close to 80% in February. CTA trains overall went on about 85% of scheduled runs in March.

But I still wondered why having fewer staff would mean that the city can’t implement a tracker system that offers accurate wait and arrival times to reflect such delays.

Steele said the city uses a combination of real-time and schedule data to keep passengers informed, and when scheduled operators get sick or call off from work, it throws off how many trains and buses can be deployed.

A sign on the Forest Park Blue Line reads 'To trains, rush hour stop.'
Several big metro regions are updating their transit tracker technology, including New York, San Francisco and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Taylor Glascock for WBEZ

“Certainly there’s a technological aspect to it,” Steele said. “The bigger issue is our manpower shortage. Trackers work as well as your ability to put out your scheduled service, and when you have unprecedented workforce shortages – which the transit industry across the United States has been seeing for over a year, now – it makes it difficult to have enough bus and train operators.”

Real-time information is only available after a train or bus leaves the terminal – and only if that bus or train is on its scheduled route, Steele said.

But now more than ever, people expect new technology or apps to make public transit trips smoother and more seamless, according to a 2021 survey from TransLoc, a company that builds tracking systems and other tech for public transportation agencies.

Other cities have made improved transit tracking a part of efforts to combat ridership decimated by the pandemic. New York announced a project in July 2020 to offer real-time information on cleanliness and crowding. The San Francisco Bay Area transportation system signed last summer a $6 million contract for a company called Applied Wayfinding Inc. to develop a single mapping and tracking system for the region’s myriad transit systems. And the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is finishing upgrades meant to prevent train accidents by tracking the location and speed of commuter rail lines.

And what about us? In January 2023, Illinois’ Metra system announced the rollout of a $26.7 million “wholesale replacement of Metra’s current train tracking system,” courtesy of Woodbury, N.Y. transportation company Clever Devices. Clever Devices also built one of CTA’s two tracker systems: the one for the bus. The agency built its own train tracker system.

Clever Devices wouldn’t return my multiple phone calls. Steele said the city is working on upgrading its bus and train tracker system but offered no timeline, cost estimate or definitive project scope.

So I reached out to the Eno Center for Transportation, a non-profit think tank aimed at improving transportation policy. I wanted to know if Chicago is an outlier when it comes to inaccurate wait times, delays and service interruptions. It seems like it may not be.

A Chicago Transit Authority El stop is lit underneath the glow of the Chicago Theatre sign.
A CTA station sits under the glow of the Chicago Theatre sign. Chicago Transit Authority officials said they are planning transit tracking updates but did not offer a timeline. Michael Gerstein for WBEZ

“It’s definitely not uncommon,” said Robert Puentes, Eno’s president and CEO, of delays and other service problems. “Pretty much every agency, especially major ones, knows where their vehicles are … [the challenge] is providing customers with the real-time information.”

It’s particularly challenging for buses, Puentes said, and private firms like Clever Devices work on proprietary models that take schedules, real-time GPS data, traffic patterns and historical arrival and departures to create an accurate predictive model.

Yet, roughly 20% of buses that are supposed to arrive on the countdown tracker available for riders nationwide don’t arrive (commonly referred to as “ghost buses”), according to Puentes.

They get delayed for all kinds of reasons: Road congestion, construction and unpredictable weather can all cause schedules to get out of whack. In Chicago, as in other cities, a crisis of staffing shortages is mostly to blame, the agency has said.

For riders, the changes don’t always show up on the apps. And that can be a real problem for people trying to get to work on time, catch a doctor’s appointment or pick up their children from school or daycare.

Stephen Miller, the spokesman for the Transit App, a third-party navigation app for consumers, said that, compared to other cities, Chicago uses a proprietary format from its vendor instead of a standardized data format common in other big cities.

New York, Los Angeles and nearly every other major city, meanwhile, use a data format called GTFS, that makes it easier for analysts to pinpoint problems in the system that might be causing delays or inaccuracies in wait time or arrival countdowns.

Simply put: The fact that Chicago uses a proprietary data format from its vendor is something “that’s a little outdated,” Miller said. “The accuracy of the countdowns is really up to the companies that are hired to produce them.”

CTA’s Steele said Chicago is also working to offer the more updated GTFS format for all of its systems. Will Anderson, manager of external electronic communications for the CTA, said the technology will be available within “months, not years.”

City transportation agencies tend to each do things a little differently, said Ashley Stifler, manager of professional services at TransLoc. Using a combination of real-time tracking and schedule data is often the norm for large cities, which sometimes still struggle to predict when a delay might happen due to the unpredictable – like when a bus goes off route because of a construction project or someone steps onto the train tracks.

Stifler said cities that contract with TransLoc don’t revert back to schedule data when a bus goes off-route. Some other cities that contracted with the company don’t rely on scheduled data at all: They only offer real-time information.

“A big city like Chicago is probably not going to meet its schedule all the time,” Stifler said. But she agreed that systems can be tweaked to be more accurate.

So what did I learn? That transit apps are an intense subject of scrutiny in cities as a tool to get back ridership. That Chicago officials have updates in the works but didn’t share any specifics beyond that. And that our city keeps its data in a way that makes it very difficult to compare Chicago’s transit performance to other municipalities, at least when it comes to the accuracy of the city’s tracking system itself.

I also learned that I really don’t like being in IKEA. Some people prefer navigating a maze-like furniture store where you can’t find anything, that’s about 5 degrees too warm, and where every aisle and bathroom stall is packed.

Compared to that, I’d rather sit around waiting for the Blue Line.

Michael Gerstein is a freelance writer based in Chicago.