Bus Chicago

Chicago Commits to Downtown Bus Priority

» A series of bus lanes will link commuter rail stations, downtown, and the Navy Pier. It’s not quite a transitway — despite the branding — but it will speed movement for thousands of passengers.

A year and a half after Chicago won $24.6 million in federal funds for the construction of an urban circulator downtown, the city announced this week that it will contribute $7.3 million in tax increment financing to improve the state of bus service in the urban center and link commuter rail stations to office buildings. Together, the money will provide for painting dedicated bus lanes on the Madison/Washington and Clinton/Canal Street pairs for a total of two miles, offer signal priority, improve bus shelters, and add bike lanes. New buses and a small bus transit center at Union Station are also part of the plan.

Though the improvements will be most visible to customers using the new dedicated “Central Area Transitway” connecting Union Station and the Navy Pier northeast of the loop, the new lanes will also be used by seven existing Chicago Transit Authority bus routes which already collectively carry 32,000 riders a day on 1,700 buses.

There is nothing new about the idea of improved circulator service in Chicago’s downtown core. Following the failed efforts of planners in the 1960s and 1970s to expand the city’s subway system, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced in his first year of office (1989) that he wanted to construct a center-city light rail line linking major tourist attractions, commuter rail stations, and the business center. By 1993, the plan had morphed into a $775 million proposal that would include eight miles of median-running track designed to carry four routes — the first running east-west along Madison and/or Monroe Streets between Oglivie Transportation Center and Michigan Avenue; the second heading north-south along the river to Navy Pier; the third running south to McCormick Place Convention Center; and the fourth heading north to the Magnificent Mile of North Michigan Avenue.

The plan came surprisingly close to being realized. The federal and state governments each agreed to chip in $250 million, and local businesses in the Loop — concerned about their ability to compete with retailers on North Michigan Avenue and convinced of the importance of linking commuter rail passengers to the center — agreed to a special tax district that would also raise $250 million. The project would have reshaped the image of and mobility in Chicago’s inner core.

Yet in fall 1993, the U.S. Congress cut off most funding for the project. In 1995, the state pulled out of its share. Business leaders suggested they might double or triple their contribution to the project through neighborhood taxes, but North Michigan Avenue leaders pushed back, suggesting the project gave an unfair advantage to retailers in the Loop. The project died. By 2006, hoping to do something, the city had settled on the idea of a Navy Pier-Union Station busway.

Unlike these previous plans, the new proposal for Chicago will offer only minimal improvements to circulation in the downtown core: Customers will save an estimated 1.1 minutes on travel between Union Station and Michigan Avenue. The priority lanes will be beneficial, but buses will continue to stop at almost every cross street on Madison and Washington, limiting the amount of travel time that can actually be reduced. And the focus on serving the Navy Pier — a tourist trap that is scheduled for a major renovation — speaks to the limited degree to which this route will serve actual commuters.

Nevertheless, the connection between the commuter rail stations west of the Loop and the central business core provided by the bus link will offer the potential for improved circulation downtown. Improved service to Union Station must be a priority, since it is not linked to the L rail rapid transit network (the nearest station is about half a mile away) and it is the focus of the region’s commuter rail and intercity rail improvement efforts. The seven bus lines that will share parts of the route will split off and continue to other parts of the city, meaning that customers who are arriving on the #14 from Jeffery in the South Side, for instance, will have a quicker trip once they reach downtown.

If the CTA designs signage well enough, customers attempting to make the trip from Oglivie Transportation Center — another commuter rail station — to Millennium Park would have six services to choose from, offering fantastic headways of one minute at peak and two minutes off-peak. But the city will have to be careful not to place too much emphasis on the “Central Area Transitway” brand that it will give to the bus that runs the full route from Union Station to Navy Pier, because the most important element of this improvement project is its provision of minor improvements to many bus lines, not just a single one. It should be clear to customers that if they want to take a certain trip, they have several options.

Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s leadership, Chicago is taking an incremental approach to the improvement of public transportation in the city, steering away from the mega-fantasies of the Daley era. The CTA is already planning to invest in similar bus priority improvements on Jeffery Boulevard in the South Side for the #14 bus and along the north-south spine of Western Avenue as part of a citywide BRT plan that would fill in the gaps missing from inadequate rail service in certain areas. Slowly but surely, the city’s bus lines are scheduled for improvement.

Yet the city’s bigger ambitions remain apparent. In the application for the federal urban circulator grant in 2010, the city included the following map, documenting potential new transit routes for the center city along dedicated rights-of-way, clearly modeled after the improvements suggested by the 2009 Central Area Action Plan, which proposed light rail lines on the Carroll, Clinton, Monroe, and Lakefront Corridors. They would either be placed underground or along dedicated transit routes, like the McCormick Center busway (for the Lakefront route).

For lack of funding, it will be a long time before any such routes see the light of day. In the meantime, painting a few bus lanes and offering existing lines priority at signals represent a reasonable step forward.

Images above: Chicago downtown circulator routes, from City of Chicago, via Grid Chicago

48 replies on “Chicago Commits to Downtown Bus Priority”

In fairness to Chicago’s planners, while Navy Pier is almost exclusively a tourist destination, it’s a congested area, and anything the CTA can do to encourage more tourists to ride transit to and from it will be an improvement. Also, there are plenty of other origins and destinations along the way there from the West Loop, and there’s already a bus terminal there that serves as the endpoint and transfer point for a number of other routes. It makes more sense to end at Navy Pier than at any intermediate point.

There are three significant problems facing bus service in the Loop: 1) many of the already-existing bus lanes transform into right-turn lanes at intersections, 2) turning maneuvers for vehicles (buses or autos) are very difficult because there are few left- or right-turn cycles at lights (this makes number 1 even worse because there is often significant backup in right-turn lanes), and 3) bus lanes are frequently blocked by delivery trucks, taxis, or other illegally stopped vehicles. In the case of my particular commute, generally half of the total trip time is used for the first 5 miles and half for the last mile in the Loop. While I’m happy to see this particular circulator moving forward, I would really like to see transit getting real priority throughout the Loop and the near North Side.

I think all CTA Loop bus operators and their passengers are extremely familiar with all three factors.

As long as Commissioner Klein stays in that position for four years, a so-called “transit first” policy, like San Francisco has, may be a reality. Right now, Chicago, like most cities, I believe, maintains a “car first” policy.

I recently interviewed Klein for an article in Architect’s Newspaper in which he said:
“I think there was a push in the past to make it so that cars moved as quickly as possible. Back then, cities lost their self-confidence and catered to the transient drivers who passed through.”

Anyone remember these red bus lanes on Jackson (and I think Madison)?

Isn’t a potential solution to run the BRT in the left lanes and ban left turns by private autos on these streets? Since this encompasses only a small percent of Loop roadway, I would imagine that this could be done without causing an uproar among drivers, especially since these types of no-left-turn intersections already exist in Chicago (see Clark and Diversey).

Most of the streets in the loop are one-way, and most of the bus stops there are placed nearside of cross-streets that go to the left. So where traffic gets delayed by right turns, buses usually can avoid the delay by leaving the curb lane, without missing any stops.

Nitpick—the proposed lines in the second map probably aren’t meant for light rail. The place where that map comes from—an older draft of the plan (pdf)—describes all of them as bus rapid transit, with the Carroll Avenue transitway connecting Union Station and Navy Pier being described as having LRT-like special buses and other routes, like the Monroe and Clinton Street transitways—as being more like Open BRT, funneling line-haul routes through tunnels so as to avoid the sort of conflicts Jacob describes above.

From what I understand current plans for the west loop are pretty much in flux—the original plans show tunnels under canal and imply to me an underground terminal underneath where they’re currently making the above-ground terminal. Furthermore, preliminary Union Station plans (pdf) are weighing having through tracks connecting the two stations underneath Canal rather than Clinton, which implies to me that a Clinton bus subway is becoming less and less likely (and a Monroe one too as well)—perhaps Chicago will eventually take the plunge and dedicate more space on the streets to transit (two lanes for transit à la Minneapolis).

If any bus is to serve effectively as mass rapid transit, then it must be true BRT. To be true BRT, there must be 1) dedicated right-of-way, 2) pre-payment of fares, and 3) level boarding. Chicago’s mass rapid transit system was never completed. It is not a true, functioning ‘network’. Radiating ‘spokes’ were implemented, but no connecting lines (i.e. ‘wheels’ or rather ‘half-circles’, given Chicago’s placement along the shore of Lake Michigan.) Viz. — To travel on Chicago’s mass rapid transit system from, say, the north side (for example, from Andersonville) to the northwest side (say, to Logan Square), one must travel all the way down to the Loop then back north(west) to Logan Sq. This makes a trip that is approximately 3.75 miles as-the-crow-flies, into a 12 mile trip! If Chicago wants to grow and prosper in the future — or even just prosper — it needs to have real mass rapid transit — like London, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, New York, etc. etc. BRT could be the answer, but it must be ‘true’ BRT, not merely express, or enhanced, bus lines. Above, Jacob points to one problem why buses, as planned, will not work. There are many other reasons why buses won’t work in large American cities like Chicago with highly congested streets. When people/elected officials/transportation agency staff in the U.S. and other developed and wealthy, or developing and wealthy (i.e. China) countries, say that mass rapid transit — subways — are too expensive, they are not really being truthful. What they mean is that functioning mass rapid transit is not their ‘priority’. Perhaps sending astronauts to the moon, building grotesquely large expressway networks — not just, as originally planned, between cities, but within cities too — building grotesquely large arterial networks spreading over the multitudinous cities that comprise a ‘metro area’, and many other mega investments that our society makes are indeed more important than functioning mass rapid transit in urban areas. I may not think so, however, my only point here is that it is a matter of priority, not of ability-to-pay-for-it.

Personally, I’m really getting tired of increased on-street bus service being labelled “BRT”. If they just want to dump more buses into street traffic they should say so, but don’t brand it a “transitway”.

“When people/elected officials/transportation agency staff in the U.S. and other developed and wealthy, or developing and wealthy (i.e. China) countries, say that mass rapid transit — subways — are too expensive, they are not really being truthful. What they mean is that functioning mass rapid transit is not their ‘priority’.”

Yep, that about sums it up.

I believe that for the purposes of ADA-compliance there is no such thing as level boarding with BRT. Only rail has the tolerances to allow platform-to-vehicle boarding for ADA-compliance under the law. The BRT “level boarding” is about quicker boarding times and not true level boarding.

The Western BRT study done by the Metropolitan Planning Council showed no difference in total ridership between running BRT alone and running BRT along with traditional bus service, which means CTA service on Western would be terminated. So the new BRT would have stops every half-mile in the center of the road instead of every block at the roadside. That’s a disaster for access for the disabled and aging population of Chicago.

IMHO you can get 90% of the benefits of BRT for 10% of the cost by simply having better express bus service, fare collection, route information, and GPS/right of way triggers.

It would make sense to transform Monroe into a two-way bus-only lane which should at least knock out any travel delays on Washington, Madison, or Adams. Indeed, that limits Monroe being so close to both Madison and Adams (going westbound), but at the same time, if you want to improve travel time going across the loop (which can take over 10 minutes, and at that point i prefer to walk), transform Monroe and it would lessen up traffic issues to an extent.

I was in Chicago November and got around the whole time well on transit when I used it. What I would say, if ever there was a city geared up for biking its Chicago. The place is flat as a pancake, or even the Netherlands, which has most likely the strongest biking infrastructure in the world. If the Loop could be made a bit more bike friendly that’d make as big a difference as this bus plan. Chicago is crying out for a congestion charge.

We bungled congestion charge (for parking) in 2008 by missing a deadline to grab the federal funding that the New York state legislature apparently didn’t want when it didn’t pass legislation for congestion charging in New York City.

Anyway, we now have a $2 “congestion premium tax” for all garage parking in the Central Business District. But that’s a revenue raiser, not a plan to reduce congestion. You can’t implement a single strategy and call the job done. Nope, there’s a lot more than raising the price of parking that needs to happen to reduce congestion.

Chicago will launch bike sharing soon.

IINM under the tarmac on Carroll Street is the old C&NW branch which once served the Tribune bldg w/ printing paper and might have once extended to Navy Pier.

From what I understand development in the eighties and nineties covered up the old ROW, so it doesn’t really exist east of Rush or Michigan anymore.

Although it is not as close as we would like, the CTA Clinton Street Blue Line stop is less than two blocks south of Union Station. Although the City of Big Shoulders has Big Blocks, too, it seems like less than “about half a mile away.”

It’s not far—0.2 mi according to Google Earth—but it’s not especially convenient, either: there are three traffic lamps (plus an unsignaled crossing at Tilden, where cars tend to move fairly fast), plus any potential added from the weather and the amount of luggage you’re carrying. A tunnel’s floated in some of the downtown plans, but it would be fairly long for an underground pedestrian tunnel and one that wouldn’t see very much passenger use, which could make it seem unsafe.

I think we’re basically stuck with an imperfect connection between the Blue Line and Union Station—if I were to offer a suggestion, it would be something basic like moving the Clinton station exits from underneath the Congress Expressway to north of Tilden and south of Congress Parkway, taking passengers out of the shadows and sparing them a bad traffic crossing.

I went to a conference at UIC, emerging from the subway at Clinton. The experience of walking under that overpass led me to want to write a freelance article for Streetsblog entitled “Chicago’s Urbanism Fail.”

If the old Post Office ever gets developed into a rail terminal (or super-tall shopping complex, as proposed now) the Clinton station is perfect for it – there really does need to be a better link to the north into Union from it, but the entrances to the south are well used – Greyhound is right around the corner and there has been big retail and office development to the south and more poised to come online in the near future (Sara Lee, etc).

Alon, I hope there was method to your madness, since UIC is the next stop to to the west…

The hotel was closer to Clinton.

The area around Union Station is better than the Clinton stop. More buildings would help. Not having I-94 there would help even more, but that’s not on the table.

It could be a lot worse – the viaduct/bridge is narrow and it’s not too dank underneath, unlike the bridges on the Kennedy on the north side. Some retail in lieu of parking under the bridge along the street with make a dramatic change there.

I’ve done the transfer between the Clinton stop on the Blue Line and Union Station.

Yuck. If the Clinton station is ever rebuilt to make it ADA-accessible, with elevators and stuff, one might be able to make an attractive walk between there and Union Station. But right now, it’s “what the hell, do they maintain this sidewalk at all?”

What’s wrong with LaSalle Street as a terminal. Assuming you want a terminal and not a station that connects with the northern suburbs, Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

Wow, that’s someone who’s (understandably) still sore the old Grand Central was torn down and (not so understandably) still wants to do something about it. :^)

It’s arguably ugly when seen with a certain eye, but it’s also reminiscent of the Harold Washington Library a few blocks away — retro with a definite wink.

Adirondacker — it’s not LaSalle Street Station, which is just east of the suggested site. It’s literally the site of the old Grand Central, which is now partly River City but largely empty.

Yeah, that was my thought too – HWL is functionally a terrible building (as well as, in my opinion, hideous). These would be dead end tracks, I suppose you could tunnel here, but it would be more sensible/make more sense to be on the west side of the river and link the two existing stations with more tracks (I think only like one goes through). It also interferes with the riverwalk the city is hyping and future residential/office/commercial development to the south, it’s also not a great location for street access either – gridlock from Congress Expressway. The biggest problem is lack of direct connection with other trains – you’d have to shlep over to Union to go to or from like Rockford, Galena, Dubuque or Quad Cities (coming soon).

I understand it would be a new station… just a block or so away from the perfectly good one commonly referred to as LaSalle Street Station even though it’s a terminal….

Adirondacker – but LaSalle’s not grand enough I guess. I think this is an architects fun-time project rather than a serious proposal.

They should be sentenced to commuting between Maplewood New Jersey and Jamaica Queens for a month or so or Forest Hills Queens and Newark NJ, . .. something where they have to change trains in Penn Station New York.

The Western BRT project is nothing like the Jeffery “BRT-light” pilot program or this much needed bundle of downtown improvements for this affordable circulator service. From what I understand the Western BRT plan would involve much higher construction costs to remove traffic lanes and parking spaces (which the city effectively no longer controls), the construction of a dedicated BRT center island lane, and contracting with an outside operator, not CTA, to operate the line.

Bus service on Western has actually regressed in Chicago due to cancellation of the X49 express service on the route. If increasing service for the people who use the Western corridor is a priority then the City of Chicago should restore the X49 Western express route ASAP. If they do not restore the X49 but continue to tout the benefits of improved service in the Western corridor then you can tell by the City of Chicago’s actions that something other than serving riders is driving the process.

The feeling I’ve been getting is that this is so landlords can discontinue their commuter shuttles to Union/Ogilvie – particularly the buildings in and around Illinois Center.

Just like there is a question about how far it is between CUS and the Clinton Blue Line stop – does anyone have an idea as to why CTA is planning a new combined station at Madison/Washington and Wabash:

I would appear the north entrance to the station will be on the south side of the Washington & Wabash intersection, two blocks away from the Millennium Park station entrance on the SE corner of Michigan & Randolph; where it is now 330 short feet from the Randolph & Wabash ‘L’ station.

The new station could be constructed with a north entrance just south of Randolph to connect with Millennium Station (and the Pedway) for the convenience of riders.

But since Metra, CTA, and RTA don’t coordinate that type of planning, riders will be left with a two block walk to transfer (where it is 330ft now).

This is why there should be O N E operating agency, rather than 3 disparate sibling-competition entities.

Could it possibly be that the CTA wants to, umm, keep Randolph/Wabash OPEN while Washington/Wabash is being built? Which would tend to preclude building the north entrance of the new station smack-dab in the middle of the existing station.

I think it would be better to close and remove Randolph & Wabash altogether to construct the new station (Madison & Wabash and State & Lake as alternatives); than to be left with a permanent 1 block outside walk to the Pedway, and 2 outside blocks to Millennium.

They could construct an enclosed connection to the Pedway (and thus Millennium) greatly enhancing rider convenience; especially in -10 deg. windy Chicago winters (or does anybody think of that??)

Fair enough. During construction of the new station, either Madison or Randolph has to go while the other stays open until completion of the new station, but that doesn’t answer which one goes and which one temporarily stays.

The CTA’s plan is two stops on each side of the el loop. There are currently three on Wabash (it seems to me they are needed, but they do need rebuilds). The pedway is privately owned and closed when trains are still running, so a connection might not be easily, shall we say, arranged.

The problem with one agency would be the CTA and city services would get the shaft since suburban legislators would pull the purse strings and have all the power. That’s what has supposedly happened in Philly. Chicago IS too fragmented govermentally, but it’s more every, particularly a problem for small, poorer towns, municipality has it’s own water, sewer, school, park, etc districts, even compared to other regions of comparable or similar size.

I agree with you 1,000% that One large Agency governing all would have the potential to be a big screw-up.

But the present 4 Agency situation isn’t working either; Adams/Wabash and Randolph-Washington/Wabash would yield 2 stations on Wabash – but allow connection to the Pedway.

I sometimes transfer from Loop ‘L’ trains to Millennium trains; the day in February 2017 that I have to walk from Washington & Wabash to Millennium at 20 below zero in screaming wind – I will be C U R S I N G the designers, and thinking of genocide.

Shouldn’t it be the Mayor’s job to arrange access with the Pedways owners, for the benefit of Chicago’s citizens and tourists (just like they sold off the Parking Meters to screw us).

No, the Pedway is, as I understand it, fully private property (for instance, it runs through the basements of Macy’s and the Library – government obviously- rather than under the street) and I’m not sure of how the financing works, it’s essentially something the building owners do to be nice. I think Rahmbo has better things to do than piss off property owners. (I think the connection to the Pedway is bad now at Wabash/Randolph as it is)

Yeah, one agency means bye bye South Chicago Branch and hello BT (with no R in there) or nothing new to replace ME, not even additional 14’s.

They will cut it – why? It’s expensive to run and has low ridership. Look what happened when the CTA took over the elevated system they cut branch lines. Blue Island will come first, but S. Chicago will be replaced by bus since it’s all under one system.

13 March 2012 at 06:14

I’ve done the transfer between the Clinton stop on the Blue Line and Union Station.

Yuck. If the Clinton station is ever rebuilt to make it ADA-accessible, with elevators and stuff, one might be able to make an attractive walk between there and Union Station. But right now, it’s “what the hell, do they maintain this sidewalk at all?”

Here is Nathaniel’s statement about spending scarce money to improve the existing bad Blue Line/CUS connections; and here CTA is P L A N N I N G to significantly downgrade the Millennium Station/’L’ connection.

Does anyone think we got a good deal on the Parking Meters? Skyway? Block 37?

Should the City be allowed to do Anything it wants to uncontrolled and unrestrained?

Not sure what your point is – the CTA isn’t doing anything at Clinton AFAIK and their el plans in the loop have been known for years.

My point is that the connection between Clinton-Blue Line/CUS is rotten and exposed (everybody knows this).

Someday it may (expensively) change; but here is an opportunity to greatly improve an ‘L’/Millennium connection before a single thing is constructed.

And obviously I am concerned about that connection in reference to implementation of the Gray Line (which will utilize the South Chicago and Blue Island Branches, along with a new Shuttle to Hegewisch).

For some reason, the City of Chicago did their best to hide Millennium Station, as if they were embarassed by it.

It could seriously use a headhouse. I had trouble finding it.

Agreed that a 24-hour Pedway connection would be wise.

The Clinton-Blue Line / CUS connection is far worse than the Millenium – Loop connection, however, because at least the City bothers to maintain the sidewalks and the CTA bothers to paint the El structure, and the neighboring buildings are kept up.

At Clinton Blue Line you’re underneath decaying concrete and rusting metal with plastic mesh barriers, and walking on spalling concrete which clearly hasn’t been repaired in quite a while, while walking past decrepit asphalt parking lots, retaining walls, and fences.

They don’t want the riders on other Metra lines to find it. They would experience electric trains… Just like the Metra Electric riders found out that other Metra riders had toilets and didn’t have to suffer the annoyances of turnstiles.

Hide it? It’s underground… The original IC station was further south, this was always purely a commuter station. It really is an impossible site to do much with on the surface since you’ve got two high rises over it, streets on decks and parking garages hemming in it, as well as the big new park above it. The signage, though, is poor.

I think the Clinton underpass may have been repaired since you were there, because I’ve been going there for work and don’t find it too bad. The walk between Union and Clinton is beyond the CTA, Amtrak or Metra’s control. Why the el never went to Union or at least had a good connection, in the first place is another question, but the original el wasn’t much closer.

I hate the toilets in the new cars – they steal a lot of space and for the shorter runs they are totally unneeded. At least they aren’t in every car. I’m not keen on the new EMU’s, they don’t ride as comfortably as the old ones and the seats are school bus quality – and there are some questionable design decisions and functional details.

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