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Transportation deputy commissioner Luann Hamilton and commissioner Gabe Klein answer questions. Updated 08:57 to clarify details about Jeffery BRT project and add construction timeline. 

Bus rapid transit in Chicago has never felt more real for me than it did tonight at the open house hosted by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Even though the Jeffery BRT project will be constructed and operational this year, I never visited one of the community meetings about that project and I haven’t been keeping track of its development. But BRT really will come to Chicago. What’s up for debate is “how much BRT” each project exemplifies.

Every BRT implementation is different. Planners pick and choose the attributes most appropriate to the street characteristics, political, business, and community support, and funding availability.

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Project map showing six bus routes that will run in enhanced busways on Madison, Washington, Clinton, and Canal. 

Bus rapid transit is best explained by the guides put out by the Metropolitan Planning Council, and by the ITDP, who created the BRT “gold standard” and accompanying score card. Luann Hamilton, deputy commissioner in charge of project development at the Department of Transportation, showed photographs of BRT in other countries (it was invented in South America) and reviewed some of the potential elements of any BRT system. See slide 5 in the presentation document (PDF).

Today’s meeting was as much about BRT in Chicago as it was about the specific project in the flyer: Central Loop BRT. The other projects discussed were the Jeffery BRT (route 14/Jeffery Express, with a rush hour bus lane from 67th to 83rd Streets and enhancements elsewhere all along the route; see slide 10), a study about implementing BRT on Western and Ashland Avenues, and a citywide master plan. Also part of the meeting was re-presenting the Union Station Transit Center (USTC), first presented in December 2011.

The Central Loop BRT is atypical. Most BRT systems around the world wrap an entire bus route in BRT features, or create a new line from scratch. This project is more about improving two things: (1) the mobility of buses on Clinton, Canal, Madison, and Washington Streets between Michigan and Clinton on the west and east, and Washington and Jackson on the north and south; (2) bus stops and waiting areas. CDOT proposed three enhanced busway options: Basic, Balanced, and Focusedclick on the links for the slides; a comparison table is at the bottom. I prefer Balanced, but with a slight modification (described in Unanswered questions).

The routes affected are

  • 14 – Jeffery Express
  • 20 – Madison
  • 56 – Milwaukee
  • 60 – Blue Island/26th
  • 124 – Navy Pier
  • 157 – Streeterville/Taylor

After the proposals were discussed, CDOT showed the results of a transportation mode survey to see how many people are using these streets and with which mode. It didn’t seem surprising to anyone (at least not me) that there are more people in a “walking” vehicle than an automobile vehicle. In other words, there were more pedestrians than those bicycling, in taxis, on buses, or in automobiles. I pointed out to a CTA project manager that while most people are traveling by foot, they are forced to shuffle on too-narrow sidewalks, crosswalks, and bridges.

I was thrilled when I learned about the projected travel time savings (for bus trips) and travel time increases for automobile trips (although the Basic option “improved” travel time by 0.1 minutes). We need to try every trick in the book to facilitate the conversion of trips by car to trips by bus and train, two extremely efficient transportation mode, comparatively.

I quickly made a BRT scorecard for Central Loop BRT based on the ITDP’s method. I couldn’t find scorecards of existing systems. Regardless of Central Loop’s BRT score (try scoring it yourself) the real matter is that trips by bus will be a more attractive and reliable option for travelers.

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Graphs showing how many people use the street and what mode they use.

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Travel time changes. 

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Many staff from CDOT, CTA, Metropolitan Planning Council, and their consultants were available to directly answer attendees’ questions about bus rapid transit. Photo by John Greenfield. 

Unanswered questions

It happens too often that I don’t come up with these questions until I can’t ask them before publishing.

1. Madison Street cycling accommodations. In no scenario was cycling accommodated with a dedicated bikeway. Slide 23 (PDF) said, “Bikes relocated to Protected Bike Lane on Randolph”. This statement is misleading as bikes (really, people riding bikes) aren’t being moved anywhere: if their destination is on Madison Street, they will be cycling on Madison Street. I asked a consultant about the lack of bikeways here; note that there’s a bike lane there now, the first and only bike lane in the Loop in the “modern era” (bike lanes were installed on Clark and Dearborn in the 1970s, I believe, but I don’t know if they were in the Loop or elsewhere). He said, “That’s one of the drawbacks of these scenarios and we’ll have to study that further”. It should be.

2. Branding. Will the buses be identified as being part of this enhanced busway, or will the new branding only be visible at stations? I predict the buses won’t have any different livery because the CTA requires the flexibility to use any bus at a specific garage for any route from that garage. New York City Transit, having the same need for flexibility, uses a purple light to distinguish vehicles running on Select Bus Service routes.

3. Street configuration on Clinton and Canal. This was not discussed in the presentation or poster boards.

4. How travel time changes were calculated. What is a round trip? Is the figure based on the average improvement of all runs of all routes that will operate in the enhanced busway?

Answered questions

1. Who will operate it? What will the fares be? The CTA will operate these buses (remember only the bus stops and busways are changing, not the routes) and collect the same fare as any other route.

2. What about enforcement? CDOT and CTA will work closely with the police department. Additionally, the bus lanes will be more visible than existing or previous bus lanes. CDOT/CTA is looking into video enforcement but this would require a legislative change.

3. Will private companies, like MegaBus and shuttle operators, be able to use the Union Station Transit Center? Perhaps. The USTC is designed primarily for CTA and only when it meets CTA’s needs can other users access the off-street boarding and alighting area.

Timeline

  • Jeffery BRT will begin construction this summer or fall
  • Alternatives Analysis study (a plan that describes all the different ways CDOT surveyed to move people in a corridor) for Western/Ashland BRT to be completed in 2012.
  • May 17 - Apply to Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for NEPA approval (for categorical exclusion, which says that the Central Loop BRT will not have a negative environmental impact thus doesn’t need an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS) – see slide 35
  • September 30 – Grant deadline with FTA
  • Fal 2012 to fall 2013 – Design and engineering
  • Late 2013 – Advertise for and select contractor
  • 2014 – construction

Scenario features

Attribute Basic Balanced Focus
Bike Lanes on Washington (eastbound) Protected Protected Protected
Bike Lanes on Madison (westbound) Standard None None
Bike Lanes on Randolph (westbound None Protected Protected
Fully dedicated bus lane on Washington No Yes Yes
Fully dedicated bus lane on Madison Yes Yes Yes
Vehicle lanes on Washington 2 2 3
Vehicle lanes on Madison 2 2 0 (access lane only with forced turns every block)
Vehicle lanes on Randolph 3 3 3
Curb extended boarding platforms? (wider sidewalks) No Yes Yes
Travel time changed for bus round trips Decreases 2.9 minutes Decreases 7.5 minutes Decreases 11.6 minutes
Travel time changed for automobile round trips Decreases 0.1 minutes Increases 1.5 minutes Increases 4.6 minutes
Cost $27.7 – 30.3m $34.2 ‐ 38.1m $38.4 ‐ 43.1m

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  • Carter

    I’m cautiously optimistic overall, but it really needs to be said that the City has a dismal record on this all-important aspect.

    I’d argue that budgets for these projects should come with dedicated staff lines in CPD to handle enforcement, as the City is already way low & I doubt I’m the only cyclist who regularly sees delivery trucks and cars parked in bike lanes, and those are sitting ducks for tickets.

    “What about enforcement? CDOT and CTA will work closely with the police
    department. Additionally, the bus lanes will be more visible than
    existing or previous bus lanes. CDOT/CTA is looking into video
    enforcement but this would require a legislative change.”

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      A few of the attendees I talked to after the meeting had little faith that bus lanes would be enforced. 

      Look at scenario 3, Focused. It has a single lane on Madison Street for accessing driveways and alleys, alternating sides on each block, with a forced left or right turn so that you can only drive (or bike) for a single block. 

      What happens when a UPS driver plops their brown truck there and 6 bus routes are using the two-way bus lanes?

      • http://twitter.com/aka60643 AKA60643

        Eek!  Looks like they need to take a serious look at the issue of deliveries. Between UPS, Fed Ex, delivery trucks for local businesses (like office supplies or storage/shredding services like Iron Mountain), parked trucks are a frequent issue throughout the Loop.

    • Clark Wellington

      This is something I never have understood. I feel like the CPD could go a long way to be self-financed if it would simply enforce traffic laws. Hell, parking in bike lanes alone would have to yield 20+ tickets per day.

  • http://twitter.com/aka60643 AKA60643

    I pointed out to a CTA project manager that while most people are traveling by foot, they are forced to shuffle on too-narrow sidewalks, crosswalks, and bridges.

    This “elephant in the room” has been routinely ignored in any kind of planning or construction in the Loop for too many years.  I’m glad that more construction sites are using wider scaffolding to reduce the “cattle chute” effect, but we still have a long way to go.  If Loop BRT functions better than existing routes to get people across the Loop, and bike share helps some people who currently have slow walking trips, we could see a reduction in crowding on sidewalks and at corners, because some of those people will be riding bikes or buses instead of walking.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/alottes Ash L

    This choice is a solution in search of a problem. When I think about areas of the city bereft of fast, reliable transit options, the loop is the last place to come to mind. What happened to Ashland and Western as the two roads that would have an alternatives analysis this Spring as per the meeting at 50/Fifty this Winter?

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      Bus transit in the Loop is hardly fast.

      The Ashland/Western BRT was briefly mentioned. Look at the timeline at the bottom of the post and then download the slideshow for some more information about the Alternatives Analysis.

      • http://twitter.com/aka60643 AKA60643

        Agreed.  Buses through the Loop are maddeningly slow. 

        At times when I’ve been slowed by a sprained ankle or other injury, I’ve taken a northbound bus on State or Dearborn. On trips from Adams or Jackson to Wacker or Hubbard in rush hour traffic, I’ve experienced rush hour travel times of 15-20 minutes (or more with construction-related lane closures).  East-west trips from Union or Ogilvie station to Michigan Ave. are equally slow. In other words, an able bodied person could walk there faster.

        If I’ve taken rush hour bus trips from the Loop to somewhere in Old Town or Lincoln Park, the Loop portion of trip has often taken as long as the rest of the trip, even thought it may have been only 1/4 to 1/3 of the total distance.

    • Rob Bielaski

      Here’s the info on the CNU Illinois Happy Hour later this month about BRT on Western or Ashland featuring Metropolitan Planning Council:
       
      Join us at Floyd’s Pub with special guests Josh Ellis and Peter Skosey from Metropolitan Planning Council for discussion on Bus Rapid Transit.  The event will include a short tour of Western Avenue where our guests will point out opportunities and challenges of retrofitting a street with BRT.  RSVP and learn who else is coming via Facebook.
       
      Thursday, May 31
      5:30 pm
      Floyds Pub
      1944 N Oakley Ave (1 block east of Western Blue Line station)

  • Scott Sanderson

    Who should we contact to show support for this project (esp. for alternative no. 3)?

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      Good question.

      Along with sending a comment to CDOT at CentralLoopBRT@cityofchicago.org, I’d also recommend you contacting your alderman so they will support the project if there’s backlash.

  • anony

    Exciting!  Too bad this kind of thing always seems so far off (2014 construction planned).

  • joejoejoe

    Great reporting Steven!

    I think the CTA is on the right track with some of their modernizing bus improvements. I have no doubt that the new fare system, improved stops and signage, better designed lanes, and signal clearance will all make a big difference system wide for all bus travelers.

    I think this Jeffrey project will be a great improvement to good, old, regular bus service but I am a skeptic when it comes to BRT in the United States. I think BRT is in vogue among politicians because it’s a convenient way to eliminate the discussion of light rail or street/tram cars, modes with higher initial costs (which are felt by politicians who live in the short run) but lower per passenger operating costs over time (which is the best measure).

    I’d rather our region abandoned the term BRT and just focused on reducing trip times and improving ridership overall.

    If a better bus brand is needed for express service, that’s mostly a marketing problem, not a transportation planning problem. Just go with something like New York’s Select Bus Service, market it to business commuters who will pay a premium, and stop calling wildly different bus systems “BRT” just because the term is in fashion.

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  • Guest

    This was a good public meeting, but it didn’t seem to attract many members of “the public.”  Almost everyone there was from the transportation planning/engineering industry.  This isn’t surprising.  Did they really think regular people would stay after work to talk about BRT?  If they want the opinions of people who will likely be using the service, they should have an open house during lunch hours, and possibly at Union Station or Ogilvie.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I felt the same way about who attended. I knew 25% of the people in that room.
      The open house for the Union Station master plan was much better attended by “the public”. It had two presentations, one before train rush and one after train rush and was held in a meeting room at Union Station. Here’s what I wrote about that meeting. http://gridchicago.com/2011/the-plan-for-union-station/

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  • Donctor

    Dedicated bus lanes ≠ BRT

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      What would have to change for you to consider this project BRT?

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  • Gylden Gyl

    Thank you for the summary! 

    Are any of the existing US BRT initiatives are looking at health cost savings as part of the total incentivizing economic picture (economic development along routes was more the focus last night). The EU often quantifies health-related benefits of CO2 reduction as part evaluating expenditures & policies (often in summary projections as at the bottom here, for example, http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/roadmap/index_en.htm).
     
    Cleveland, with its Healthline anchored by two major research hospitals & emphasis on ADA compliance, seemed like the obvious program to have researchers looking at these kinds of savings/benefits, but I couldn’t help but notice that SF’s line will run near a new hospital & that Chicago’s concentration of hospitals came up in discussion of the possible Western BRT line. Maybe an opportunity for good research?
    I think one big inhibitor to a wider attendance last night may have been that the meeting cost $10 through the CAF website.

  • Gylden Gyl

    Ah, I see. The meeting I was talking about was at the CAF last night, which is different from the one you were posted about a full month ago! :)

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      Yep. I would have liked to attend the CAF panel discussion last night, but I don’t have an event budget.

      • Gylden Gyl

        CAF events, I’ve discovered, include lots of food, so I justified it as a meal ticket! 

        Was a bit surprised that there wasn’t a more holistic approach to benefits in the presentation, also on the part of the cities. I realize BRT’s just developing so the meeting was largely explanatory & geared towards: how does this work?But there was almost nothing about why & how cutting down on fuel use & emissions matters (certainly nothing financial) and more about reduced travel times & possible economic development along a BRT route. In the question & answer Cleveland mentioned reduced labor costs for fuller operation but didn’t elaborate on fuel use or costs. It struck me as odd … just seems like the fuller financial picture (actual documentation of the widest range of benefit variables) would encourage more public support & help secure future funding.