Bus Chicago

In Chicago, a Massive BRT Plan Could be the Best Bet for Inner City Mobility

» 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.

29 replies on “In Chicago, a Massive BRT Plan Could be the Best Bet for Inner City Mobility”

WRT the job sprawl and that 39.2% figure, part of the issue is that while the population sprawls fairly evenly throughout the Chicagoland area (densest at the core, thinning out as you go north/west/south), jobs do not.

The northwest suburbs, and especially Schaumburg, are the “favored quarter” (a la Option of Urbanism) of the region; the western suburbs, including Naperville and Oak Brook, 30 and 20 miles from downtown, also contain a lot of jobs. Furthermore, while these towns all have Metra service, it’s heavily concentrated for commuters to the Loop because most of these jobs are located conveniently off the expressways (I-90 or I-88) and for the most part commuter rail paths do not follow/are not close to the highways, so there’s extra time in taking PACE or a shuttle to the office.

So for a lot of people coming from the South Side and southern suburbs, there’s an imbalance of jobs located to the northwest and west of the city, which adds a lot of extra time. (And as you said, the radial nature of Chicagoland’s transit system means that even a lot of city dwellers have to go downtown first before they begin their reverse commute, although the in-city Metra stations help somewhat.)

This is an excellent proposal. If the $13 Million cost per mile is feasibile, this would be one of the most cost-effective transit improvements in the country.

Los Angeles needs to do something exactly like this, though we could use 200 miles of upgraded Metro Rapid routes. We already have a “BRT-lite” system of all-day, limited-stop buses, but getting exclusive bus lanes, level boarding, off-board payment and signal priority would greatly increase speed, reliability and ridership.

“It determined 86 feet for running ways and 97 feet for places with stations was the minimum required” A busway station is about 34 feet wide (in the center median). With 2 sidewalks and bike lanes, that leaves 40 feet for cars – 2 lanes each way. Almost all of our main arterial streets in the Los Angeles area have 100 feet between buildings (including sidewalks), so width isn’t a problem, we just need the political will to get this done.

Instead, we are spending this amount of money to add just one lane, in one direction, to the 405 freeway. That’s over $100 million per mile, 10 times the cost per mile of this BRT proposal, which would carry as JUST AS MANY people per hour per mile, even with only one bus every 5 minutes.

The Western BRT is envisioned as a far more comprehensive package of improvements than the Central Circulator or Jeffrey projects. It is not “BRT lite” – Claypool used that term to describe the OTHER two corridors.

Really, the Western BRT is a replacement for the Circle Line, so that Circle Line planning can be quietly terminated (which is fine by me). Because of this, it needs to have the full package of features, at least between the Brown and Orange Lines.

My problem with the MPC proposal is that it’s too timid. The routes chosen are almost exclusively based on roadway width, calculated to avoid contentious battles over valuable roadspace. These battles really need to be fought if the city is to have a brighter future for transit and bikes. For example, the Irving Park BRT ends at Western Avenue, even though a short extension of the line would bring it near Wrigley Field and guarantee thousands of daily riders during baseball season who would connect from Metra lines or the Blue Line.

This notion that Western BRT would somehow be a substitute for the Circle Line indicates to me a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Circle Line project really is and how it could affect regional transit travel and economic development. Some thoughts:

• True full-blown BRT on Western, by definition, would require removing at least two traffic lanes and severely curtailing turning movements, parking, and other access to Western Ave – not to mention navigating freight and commuter railroad viaduct piers at regular intervals. Personally, I’d be alright with that. But as to whether it could really happen, I’d hedge my bets.

• The Western BRT route does not form a circuit connecting all radial CTA and Metra rail lines – it absolutely doesn’t “connect everthing to everything” as the Circle Line would. Critically, CTA’s most important rail route (the Red Line) and its most important market (the Loop) are completely unserved by Western BRT, whereas they’re integral parts of the Circle Line. Connections and shortcuts between the Red Line and other lines, as well as Loop and its periphery are an essential feature of the Circle Line, but absent from Western BRT. Western BRT also would not cross paths at all with 4 of the 12 Metra/NICTD commuter rail lines, and there are currently no stations at 4 of the 8 points where the lines would cross paths. Comprehensive, ehanced regional connectivity and job access is a cornerstone of the Circle Line proposal, but far diminished in the form of Western BRT.

• At 2am, when there’s no street traffic and minimal boarding delay, the current #49 Western bus schedule averages 14.5mph along the full route (and closer to 12mph in the mid-section of the route between Milwaukee Ave and Archer Ave). During peak periods, the route slows to 10mph overall, and closer to 9mph in the mid-section. Although MPC’s report assumes that Western BRT will somehow average 15-20mph during peak periods, they are unable to show how that is physically possible. I personally doubt that BRT will be able to go any faster than the current bus does at 2am – and probably more slowly, similar to the speeds that the discontinued route X49 achieved (that service averaged about 12mph; 10.5mph mid-route).

• The Circle Line (along the Ashland corridor), with relatively frequent stop spacing to serve all major intersecting bus and rail routes, would average at least 20mph (which is very conservative – most CTA rail segments are faster than that). That makes the worst rail travel time at least 33% faster than the best BRT time. During peak periods, rail speed slows minimally, whereas boarding and traffic delay for buses can be significant (BRT or not).

• There are currently about 50-60,000 jobs in the Ashland-Damen corridor on the near west side (IMD and environs), depending upon where you draw the limits. The Circle Line bisects this area, a short walk from nearly all of the jobs; Western Ave is more than a half mile away. There is abundant land in this corridor to accommodate more than double the current employment – but all of this land won’t be able to be fully leveraged unless regional transit access can support a high transit mode share. So assume a future with 120,000 jobs and 50% transit mode share (shouldn’t at least 50% be our goal?). That’s a future daily transit demand (workers only – not visitors or passers-through) of 60,000. Then assume 10% of daily demand is in the peak hour (standard planning rule of thumb) and that’s 6,000 passengers per hour. Divide by two directions and it’s 3,000 pphpd – very reasonable for a CTA train (that’s about what CTA’s Green Line carries currently). Note that the north Red and Brown and O’Hare Blue Lines are up around 10,000 pphpd in the peak hour, at their peak load points. This means that the Circle Line could actually ultimately accommodate a several-fold increase in jobs in the corridor at a high transit mode share. If, on the other hand, we were to assume (very generously) that BRT on Western (or Ashland) could likewise attract just 3,000 pphpd, that would require articulated buses to be scheduled 2 minutes apart (essentially one every other block), and even at that they would end up being crush-loaded. The bottom line is that it’s physically impossible for a Western BRT to accommodate the same level of transit-intensive economic development that would be possible with the Circle Line. They’re not even in the same league.

I’m all in favor of improving bus service along Western – and all CTA corridors for that matter. In fact, CTA had arguably achieved most of the possible “BRT” travel time savings simply by implementing the X-routes during the last decade (which notably was done at virtually no cost and it increased ridership). The current BRT plans appear to me to be as much about flash as they are about substance, especially in light of what the X-routes had previously achieved with minimial resources.

But most importantly, to claim that Western BRT is in any meaningful way a substitute for the Circle Line is in my opinion an unsupportable and, sadly, highly imprudent assertion at a time when Chicago needs to be preparing itself to accommodate robust, transit-oriented economic development and job growth in the years ahead. Yes, there isn’t enough funding available right now to implement the Circle Line, but why stop planning? To claim that Western BRT is a Circle Line substitute effectively takes Circle Line off the table as a planning project and makes its future implementation all the more difficult – if not impossible. Western BRT may represent an important part of an improved CTA, but it’s just not physically possible for it to be anything more than a very modest centerpiece for a future CTA.

Since Gabriel Klein is in Chicago is the city now considering any sort of streetcar? I must confess, while I’m not a BRT hater I am skeptical of its ability to provide the same benefits as a streetcar. Is the city proposing any sort of streetcar network? Chicago did have the most extensive streetcar system in the world at one time, I believe.

@Jake: I haven’t seen any proposals for a resurgence of Chicago’s streetcar network. Most of the network is still intact in the form of the bus network, to the degree that there are still 3 separate Western Ave bus services even though it’s one continuous street. I think the strong grid network helps a lot.

If BRt is what they want to build, then it seems to me that they should at least design and build it to be rail ready. That’s what was supposed to be done in Houston before they decided to go with all or mostly LRT. I don’t care what form of transit is decided on, every possible provision should be made for upgrading to the next higher mode of transit at the absolute least.

@Bucheyeman – I totally agree. I’ve always seen BRT as like a cheaper stepping stone towards light rail or a streetcar. Like you said, it’s the “next level” of transit it seems. I would just love to see Chicago have a supporting light rail or streetcar system to supplement the El. Munich has a system like this in Germany and it seems to work wonderfully.

I think the BRT needs to look to the Colorado Mountain Resorts like Vail and how their system shuttles people to ski. Instead of having a place for skis, the bus would have bike racks. I also would like to see the BRT system have flat screen tvs with local weather and news.

No, you don’t—they have this on Milwaukee’s buses (and I’m sure some others) and it’s incredibly annoying and distracting, and it’s actually one of the reasons why I almost always bike or drive in that city. If you want local weather and news, buy a paper or use a smartphone.

@Andrew – The reason there are 3 separate Western bus lines may have originated with the streetcars, but the reason that CTA keeps running 3 separate Western bus lines (in addition to running multiple Pulaski, Cicero, etc. lines) is that the north-south corridors in Chicago are so long that one roundtrip requires an operator to immediately go on lunch, to avoid running afoul of Illinois state law, which dictates a mealbreak after 5 hrs 30 min of work for ALL wage-earners in the state.

Creating a super-long Western Ave bus, while desirable for passengers, would create a route that is more than 2 hrs 45 min in each direction… which would be “unworkable” by human operators. Now, if they could simply speed up the north-south corridors… perhaps Chicago could have 1 route serving the FULL length of these corridors, benefiting passengers who right now have to pay to transfer.

So why not change drivers en route? That is what you would do if it was light rail.

Yes this is complex and difficult to manage. But lots of things about providing good public transit are hard.

The other reason the Western Ave line is in pieces is that ridership in the central portion was much higher thus needing more service. Schedule adherence also decreases as lines are longer.

So the Jeffery bus will still be subject to downtown traffic and potential problems on Lake Shore Drive (and no signal priority there according to the CTA’s fact sheet – there are lights on the last mile and a half from 57th to 67th)? South side traffic isn’t as bad as some other parts of the city (maybe why it’s been chosen for tests as well as aldermanic clout) so I’m wondering how much “real time” improvement there will be, especially if the city doesn’t enforce the parking/bus only regulations stringently.

In all likelihood, the main reason Jeffrey was chosen was because two routes run along it, allowing them to consolidate stops on one bus while still leaving every block with its own stop, which is an easier sell than making an argument for stop consolidation.

Of course using the Jeffrey Express as a testbed for Metro Rapid-type BRT in Chicago makes little sense for the reasons you listed above, but that’s what happens when your main criterion for transit corridor improvement is political expediency.

If CTA wanted to get riders on Jeffrey to the Loop in a hurry, they would adopt the
proposal with increased frequency on the under utilised rail line. When I lived in South Shore, the Jeffrey Express was good, but the Electric was reliably excellent (late to work once in 2 years account downed wires during a blizzard)
Integrating Metra Electric into CTA’s fares with more frequent service is a much better investment.

Except the rail line is not in the Jeffery corridor. It’s a mile east of it, requiring a long walk at both ends just for a faster ride in the middle. The door-to-door nature of the express buses appeals to a lot of riders.

Jeffery was chosen for BRT because there are no businesses to complain about losing the curb parking.

Bryn Mawr Station at Jeffrey & 71st is a perfect transfer point to fast trains not encumbered by Lake Shore Drive traffic. The downtown stations are indeed 2 blocks east of State St but State has few offices compared to Michigan. So, at very low capital cost (fare gates) making the CTA passes good on Metra Electric gives riders the option at zero increased cost.
As to how far one walks to transit, Jarrett at has thoroughly discussed this. At the half mile point west of the ME, you walk to Jeffrey OR take a crosstown bus. More than a half mile west of Jeffrey, the walk would be to Stony Island which also has express service and a ME station at 71st.

Yeah, but you’re making a one seat ride downtown into a two seat ride, big minus, and if you are going to State Street, Union Station or points in between the 14 is way far more convenient that ME.

The fare gates isn’t as easy or physically simple as some say – Metra is starting research into a universal fare card, but they haven’t figured out the readers yet and putting turnstyles back into the stations won’t be popular on ME since there are two fare systems already in place as it is now.

Anyways, the CTA and Metra are, for the moment and near to medium future, separate, so for the moment the bus experiment is a better option.

Bus lanes are good, yes. I haven’t checked to see whether this plan is actually a sensible bus lane plan which uses EXISTING pavement. If it is, good. If not, bad.

The non-bus-lane “improvements” are never going to come close t qualifying as “rapid”.

If there’s any corridor in Chicago minus Western and Jeffrey that needs dedicated BRT, thats the 79th Street corridor where buses literally run every 2-3 minutes most of the day.

BRT would be great, I’d like to see one down Western, North, 35th, Garfield, Cicero (using old tracks maybe) and a Circle Line BRT. I think this is necessary for Chicago. I would, even though expensive, like to see streetcar revivals, as they spur development.

What Chicago REALLY needs is to start out small. First on the list is an overhaul of our L and subway connections. I’m talking pedways, sky bridges, and aligning the grid. Washington/ Wabash station will open sometime around 2019, replacing Madison and Randolph/ Wabash stations. It is quite possible to link up Washington/State,/Dearborn,/Wabash, and Millennium stations via private and/or pedway tunnels. Reopen Washington/State too-all you would have to do is reopen the station entrances and put back the signs.

Just found this in early 2021. Ten years later and what has become of all these huff ‘n puff BRT plans? Almost nothing, So typical of Chicago transit planning, as a victim of Chicago region and IL state politics. “Oh yeah, we’re going to build this big, kick-butt citywide BRT system. Just like we at one time were going to build a streetcar subway, then a lake airport, then a distributor subway, then a ‘deep subway’ (under Franklin St.), then a Crosstown Expressway corridor, then a Central Area light-rail Circulator system, then an ‘Ogden Avenue trolley’, then a whatever cross-town circle connector line, then a Metra (electric?) STAR Line! (Oh, yeah, wasn’t there a lakefront monorail going somewhere thrown in the mix sometime along the way, too?) ” And how did all of those turn out again, hmm? Yeah, now we’re really gonna do it with the BRT! Ten years later, here we are still drumming our fingers waiting. And we will probably be waiting at least another ten years. So Chicago in nature. City of big shoulders, or bigger bloviating talk? Obvious.

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