It's Time to Double Down on Speeding Up Buses - Metropolitan Planning Council

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It's Time to Double Down on Speeding Up Buses

Audrey Wennink

Loop Link Bus Rapid Transit

The conversation about developing true bus rapid transit (BRT) in Chicago has been going on for years … make that decades. BRT is bus service that is given priority on streets via dedicated travel lanes, gets to go first at traffic signals, and has increased frequency and nicer stations for a great rider experience. Other than a short stretch of the Loop Link, Chicago has very little true BRT.  This is what we’ve got currently in Chicago:   

  • Some segments of painted bus lanes on 1.1 miles of Dearborn downtown  
  • Segments of dedicated lanes during rush hour for the J14 “Jeffery Jump”  
  • Some dedicated bus lane segments along Chicago Avenue (rush hour only)    
  • Some dedicated bus lane segments on 79th Street that are marked with white stencils – not red paint. 

Our peers across the U.S are doing it and leaving Chicago in the dust when it comes to BRT. Indianapolis, which was long behind on transit, sprinted ahead by launching the first of three major BRT lines in 2019.   New York City’s Select Bus Service of 16 routes started implementation a decade ago and has been adding more routes during COVID, including enforcement strategies.  Minneapolis has three BRT routes in operation and will be opening five more in the next three years. Miami is building a 20-mile BRT route, one of six corridors being planned in the Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit Plan.   With significant federal funding on the way from many programs in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Chicago could get some serious dollars to invest in transformative BRT corridors.  But we only have five years to define the projects and secure the funds.   

To date, Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), which manages city streets, have used bus improvement spot treatments at largely isolated locations, not along complete corridors.  Enforcement continues to be a significant problem:  even if there is a dedicated lane for buses, cars and delivery trucks often drive in bus lanes causing difficulty for bus operators.  Violators rarely are ticketed. But design is also a major issue. Several of Chicago's “bus lanes” aren’t marked with a full lane of red paint so they’re barely visible to many drivers, especially after the few white markings fade away over time. 

Although buses carrying the majority of CTA riders, bus operating speeds in the years just prior to COVID had been declining due to buses getting caught in slow traffic.   According to New York foundation and transit advocacy organization TransitCenter , transit ridership was decreasing nationwide even before COVID and “transit agencies have to compete harder than ever for customers.”  In areas of Chicago with less access to rail – largely on the South and West sides - there is even more urgency to make buses run faster from an equity perspective since, according to TransitCenter, in Chicago “transit provides less access to opportunities for Black and Latinx residents than other residents.”   When people have to travel further on the bus to get what they need, speed is even more important.  

CTA and CDOT just launched its Better Streets for Buses study, which features maps where people can tell CTA where they want priority bus improvements and a toolkit of street treatments.   While it's good that CTA is seeking Chicagoans' feedback, the challenge here is that if individual riders are asked what they want from a list of improvements, they are likely going to define an enhancement where they live or work and not along an entire corridor. Mismatched improvements could be identified all over the city.  

To see significant bus reliability and speed improvements, Chicago must commit to upgrades along entire corridors.  It’s particularly disappointing to see the 11-mile South Halsted route, one targeted for Pace Suburban Bus Pulse rapid transit treatment, be designed with no dedicated lanes despite being the most heavily used route in the Pace system and also part of the CTA network.   

The bottom line is we need to double down on a handful of BRT corridors and just start doing it.  Why not commit to some of the corridors in the still-valid Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago’s New Route to Opportunity plan developed by MPC in 2011, which identifies a set of 10 priority corridors?  More than a decade ago, we identified these corridors as ideal for BRT because they carry a huge volume of riders, connect to many popular destinations, and there’s enough space on the street to add BRT features. All this remains true today. 

Another great place to focus would be along bus corridors elevated for transit-oriented development incentives via zoning changes in 2019…and more are expected soon.  Some areas near CTA rail stations and along select bus corridors have received zoning incentives such as lower parking requirements for developers to encourage denser development near transit. 

The beauty of bus is that it’s so much easier and cheaper to build than rail and faster to implement.  So what’s the hold-up?  We must prioritize a group of corridors, design the BRT projects, and apply for the funds. We stand to lose out big time if we waste time.  Here is a video about the benefits of BRT in Minneapolis. Don’t you want that for Chicago? Speak up by visiting the CTA website, emailing the project team at betterstreetsforbuses@transitchicago.com, or calling/texting the project team at (312) 772-5496. Public comment is being accepted until June 10.  

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