» Chicago’s bus network is already slated for improvements. But what about a huge upgrade?
When he assumed office early this summer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he would pursue the construction of a network of bus rapid transit lines in his city — in addition to the extension of the Red Line L and the implementation of a number of bike lanes. A focus on buses in the Windy City is nothing new: The Chicago Transit Authority carries almost a million riders a day on its network, and the city came close in 2008 to establishing a $153 million BRT system paid for by the Bush Administration, before the city’s refusal to implement a downtown congestion charge got in the way.
Newly empowered by the change in leadership, the CTA has moved forward quickly on three proposed corridors — one in the Loop downtown, another along Western Avenue, and a third along Jeffery Boulevard. These, CTA President Forrest Claypool admitted to the Chicago Tribune, are more “BRT Light” than anything else — while they will feature improved stations, they will have limited reserved rights-of-way and little signal priority — and they will not serve much of the city.
But a new proposal by the influential Chicago-area Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), whose board is a collection of some of the city’s top business leaders, goes a lot further, promoting a $1.23 billion project that would dramatically improve connections between the city’s outlying neighborhoods and reinforce the core network of commuter rail and L lines. While Chicago, like all major cities, has a number of transportation priorities, an endorsement by Mr. Emanuel of this scheme as the city’s long-term plan could go a long way towards making the city a place where it is easier than ever to get around without a private automobile.
The proposal (click map above to see citywide vision) would add dedicated lanes, pre-paid fares, level boarding at defined stations every half-mile, and signal prioritization to 94.6 miles of streets on ten corridors. The proposal would offer service every five to ten minutes during peak hours and every twelve to fifteen minutes other times, perfectly adequate for most people, especially now that bus tracking is ubiquitous. The effect on the city’s transportation connections would be significant: Far better linkages among existing L and Metra rail stations, improved access to currently transit-deprived areas, and the ability to bypass the Loop when making connections between neighborhoods without loosing time or experiencing diminished transit service quality.
In order to select the corridors for investment, MPC analyzed the city from a variety of perspectives: It considered which areas were least transit-accessible, which places had room for new development, and which streets were wide enough to provide for two lanes of dedicated bus lanes, in addition to car traffic, bike lanes, and generous sidewalks (it determined 86 feet for running ways and 97 feet for places with stations was the minimum required).
The routes the group selected would provide north-south and east-west routes that are completely ignored by today’s transit network, thereby allowing for easy interface with the rail system. They would take advantage of Chicago’s broad and straight streets and significantly speed up bus running times by reducing the amount of traffic vehicles encounter and limiting the number of times they stop. In total, the MPC estimates, these corridors would add 71,000 daily transit trips to the region-wide total and reduce travel times for many more.
The total costs of these investments, which would also include improvements to the streetscape to allow for the incorporation of bike lanes and improved sidewalks, would sum to over a billion dollars, which may sound expensive until you realize that the estimated cost of the short, single-route Circle Line L, which would serve the areas just outside of the Loop, is between $2.3 and $4.2 billion. And that’s for a service that would serve far fewer people in total.
Why invest in improving Chicago’s transit system, when the city is known as already having one of the nation’s most extensive networks? Because there are hundreds of thousands of people in the city who are underserved. A new Brookings Institution report by Adie Tomer, released yesterday, notes that 400,000 households in the Chicago metropolitan region have no car — representing the second-highest rate in the country. Of those carfree who live in the city itself, just 39.2% can reach 40% of the metropolitan-wide jobs via transit in 90 minutes, far less than in Subway-heavy New York City (51.9%) and even supposedly car-dependent Los Angeles (44.9%). Part of the explanation may be job sprawl, but another is clearly that the radial orientation of Chicago’s existing network makes it difficult to get to jobs outside of the Loop; BRT running along circumferential and neighborhood-to-neighborhood routes would relieve some of those problems. So there is a need for the kinds of BRT the MPC has described.
For now, though, MPC’s suggestions are merely that — a study group’s vision for how the city should look in a decade or so.
On the other hand, Chicago’s municipal Department of Transportation has its own plan, as Commissioner Gabe Klein (recently moved in from Washington, D.C.) revealed on Wednesday in a roundtable discussion at the MPC. In addition to the BRT routes planned for the Central Loop, Jeffery Boulevard, and Western or Ashland Avenues, other corridors could form a grid of east-west and north-south lines throughout the city, much like the MPC plan would. To Mr. Klein, these investments would produce 80% of the bang of traditional rail investments at 20% of the price — enough to justify a significant investment.
The first rapid investment will come to Jeffery in 2012, replacing the existing #14 Jeffery Express line, serving parts of the far South Side. $11 million in federal dollars will go towards dedicated lanes between 83rd and 87th Streets and rush-hour only reserved bus lanes between 67th and 83rd Streets. Signal priority will be integrated into the network and there will be a queue jump at the intersection of Jeffery Boulevard and Anthony Avenue. This will be enough to reduce trip times by an estimated 9.3% at rush hour, declining from 72 minutes to 65 minutes. Finally, the project will include improved bus stations every half mile with next bus LED signs and kiosks providing fare card machines and neighborhood maps.
Similar improvements are planned for the Western Corridor, though the exact route has yet to be chosen, and the Central Loop BRT, which would connect Union Station with the Navy Pier by 2014. The latter project (see map below) was funded by a federal Urban Circulator grant.
Thus the city is advancing quite remarkably on its own, making more effective bus transit not just a vision but a soon-to-be reality. But the MPC proposal goes a step further than the city has been willing — or able — to do. The city is planning minimal investments in reserved lanes and some better stations, all of which will amount to slightly reduced travel times and a service quality that falls somewhere in between traditional bus operations and true BRT.
Unlike the DOT, MPC would encourage efficiency in the BRT network by encouraging adoption of systemwide standards along entire corridors: Visible, reserved lanes, level boarding, signal prioritization, and off-board payment — all which would make Chicago’s system world class. This would come at a significant cost. But compared to other investments the city is planning to make over the next few years, like the $2 to $4 billion replacement of the northern section of the Red Line, serious investments in BRT would be a great deal.
|Chicago Central Loop BRT Plan
|Chicago DOT BRT Plan
Image at the top: Imagining a BRT-based future for the Garfield Green Line Station, from Metropolitan Planning Council report. Maps of Central Loop and full-scale DOT BRT plans, from Gabe Klein presentation.