Life in the bus lane: can Chicagoans be convinced to make a switch?


Center running BRT with travel lane removals. Image courtesy of CTA.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

“It comes down to: how do Chicagoans want their streets?” said Chris Ziemann, the city’s bus-rapid-transit project manager, as we drank coffee downstairs from the Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) downtown headquarters last week. “Do they want them to be congested every day at rush hour with gridlocked vehicles? Or do they want fast, reliable bus service and nice, comfortable conditions for walking?”

As car-dominated transportation systems become increasingly dysfunctional, more U.S. cities are looking to bus rapid transit (BRT) as a solution. BRT delivers subway-like speed and efficiency at relatively low costs through upgrades to existing streets rather than new rail lines. These improvements can include dedicated bus lanes, pre-paid boarding at stations in the road median, bus-priority stoplights and more. BRT is already common in Latin America, Europe and Asia, and it’s currently being piloted in dozens of American cities.

CDOT and the Chicago Transit Authority are partnering on several BRT projects in various states of completion. A proposal to build corridors along Western and/or Ashland avenues may include removing two of the four travel lanes on each street and replacing them with bus lanes, a scheme that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. “This is politically the best opportunity for bus rapid transit that Chicago’s ever had or might ever have in the future,” Ziemann says. “Mayor Emanuel and [CDOT Commissioner] Gabe Klein really get BRT, and they want it to happen as part of their sustainable transportation policies.”

For an in-depth look at the features, pros, and cons for each of the four scenarios, visit our new Western & Ashland BRT Pros and Cons website.


Chris Ziemann at the BRT open house.

The Jeffery Jump, a new express bus service, should debut this fall along Jeffery Boulevard on the Southeast Side. Ziemann acknowledges this won’t be true BRT because the dedicated bus lanes will only exist on a two-mile segment of the route between 67th and 83rd streets, and only during rush hours. But the dedicated lanes, plus other firsts like traffic signals that turn green when a bus approaches, will pave the way for bolder projects.

For example, the agencies are planning to build the Central Loop Corridor, operating between Union Station and Navy Pier, as early as 2014. This would be bona fide BRT, including full-time, dedicated bus lanes, bus-level boarding platforms, a new off-street bus terminal next to the train station, and protected bike lanes on Randolph and Washington streets.

But the Western and Ashland Corridors BRT, covering a twenty-one-mile swath of the city between Howard and 95th streets, is the most ambitious project yet, with the biggest potential payoff. According to the CTA, one in four Chicagoans live within a half-mile of Ashland and Western, and the avenues have the system’s second- and third-highest bus ridership, respectively. The agency predicts rapid buses on these streets would travel up to eighty percent faster than current speeds, saving the average rider fifty to sixty-five hours per year.


Image courtesy of CTA.

In general these avenues are seventy-feet-wide, curb-to-curb, with two travel lanes in each direction, plus medians with left-turn bays and parking on both sides of the street. Four potential street-configuration alternatives are proposed for each avenue, with buses running either in the center lanes or curbside, plus different combinations of travel lane, median and parking removal to make room for the bus lanes.

The Active Transportation Alliance advocacy group is pushing for the alternative that includes center-running buses and car-lane removal because it would be the most efficient and ped-friendly option. The streets would also lose their left-turn bays, but the design includes bus stations in the medians, parking on both sides of the street and wider sidewalks. According to CTA studies, this configuration would boost the average bus speed on Western from 10.1 MPH to 18.4, with a fifty-percent increase in reliability and a thirty-percent spike in ridership. Despite the loss of car lanes, the agency predicts average automobile speed would only drop from 17.9 to 16.3 MPH.

In the alternative where buses run curbside, with medians removed and parking stripped from one side of the road to make room for bus lanes, four car lanes plus left-turn bays, automobiles would maintain their current speeds. But bus speed would drop to 15.6 MPH, and there would only be a ten-percent increase in reliability and eighteen-percent increase in ridership, since curbside buses are frequently delayed by right-turning vehicles, parallel parking, double parking and cabs. Active Trans opposes this scenario because parked cars provide a buffer between pedestrians and moving vehicles, the loss of parking would hurt local businesses and peds would be forced to cross six lanes of high-speed traffic.


Image courtesy of CTA.

The CTA recently held three public meetings on the South, West and North Sides of the city to update citizens on the Western and Ashland project and ask which of the four proposed configurations they favor. The preferred alternative will be announced this winter, and next year the CTA will design the routes and conduct environmental impact studies.

That Tuesday I dropped by an open house at Iglesia Rebaño, a church in Humboldt Park. Fernando Benavides, an O’Hare Airport worker who came here with his daughter, researching a paper for school, argues BRT is a bad idea. “There are more disadvantages than advantages,” he says. “Especially if you’re talking about removing travel lanes or parking. Christ! It’s going to mean more traffic congestion, which means more idling and pollution. I use the CTA and I don’t mind the way it runs now. I just don’t understand why this is needed.”


CTA staffer and Fernando Benevides.

If Benavides represents the viewpoint of an average Chicagoan, could BRT, let alone car-lane removals, really be politically feasible here? Joe Iacobucci, the CTA’s manager of strategic planning and policy, thinks his agency can successfully make the case that fast buses are in everyone’s best interest. “That’s why we’re doing this outreach process,” he says. “Even if you only drive and never ride the bus, you’re going to see 31,000 more people taking transit on Western. A lot of those folks would be in cars otherwise, so that’s going to make things easier for everybody in the long run.”

For an in-depth look at the features, pros, and cons for each of the four potential street configuration alternatives, visit our new Western & Ashland BRT Pros and Cons website, which Steven created.

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

66 thoughts on “Life in the bus lane: can Chicagoans be convinced to make a switch?”

  1. Removing car travel lanes is never a good idea. While BRT may speed things up for bus riders, I doubt that the majority of the cars on Western or Ashland are starting and ending their trips on or near Western or Ashland, so BRT really won’t get those people out of their cars. You’ll end of with car traffic gridlock, and very little increase in bus ridership, and tons of taxpayer money spent and wasted on this.
    I’d like to see more information about how many people could feasibly trade their car for BRT on one of these routes, before “someone” decides that Chicago needs this.

    1. I agree that this won’t motivate a substantial number of people to switch from driving — you need to have a very specific commute for this to come close to the convenience of driving — but I like it because it will make the ride faster for public transit users who live on the route. We have really needed a faster north/south route west of the red line. If it’s successful, maybe we can expand BRT so that people who live elsewhere in the city will benefit — and then, if a large area of Chicago is covered, it might make a real dent in the number of people driving.

    2. One has to ask: removing car lanes is never a good idea for whom? Certainly not for me.

      In any case, to your point, most people who take buses don’t take a single bus, but transfer to get to their final location. These BRT routes would decrease the overall travel time by dramatically lowering one leg of the trip. Ideally the network would be expanded so that someone could connect to another, future BRT line – say, Grand, Chicago, or Roosevelt – towards major job and activity centers. A network has to start somewhere.

    3. 1 – Really? Never a good idea? I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

      2 – You might doubt that the majority of trips are starting/ending near Western and Ashland, but isn’t that the point of this alternatives analysis: to look at the data and make an informed decision?

      3 – Since we’re basing our opinions on pure speculation, I suspect you actually do have a sizable chunk of rush-hour destinations occurring along Ashland – The Medical District is one of the largest employment centers in the state.

      4 – You’ve also assumed that car trips are the only ones that count. What about the bus riders who make up a respectable proportion of trips? What about other transit users that currently ride a train into downtown and then back out on a different line? For instance, for me to get to Midway from the northside, I can either do Brown Line/Orange Line or take the extremely slow #49. I currently take the train because it is often faster and always more comfortable.

        1. So clearly they deserve the dedication of some roadway. Let’s round it up and be optimistic and call the bus-contained people 20%, or 1/5th. The CTA wants to permanently dedicate 50% of the current available through-lane roadway to them. Even if ridership doubles, it’s still a bit unfair to the rest of the people travelling …

          1. The CTA wants a fair shot at increasing ridership and providing more reliable and faster service. It, along with CDOT, has developed 4 scenarios (was 6) that improve upon existing conditions that will both increase ridership and provide more reliable and faster service.

            If you want to make comparisons of vehicle quantity, road space, and persons traveled, I think a fairer comparison would be the number of square feet each person takes up divided by mode.

            If you look at an uninterrupted (no intersections), 1,000 feet long, single direction stretch of Western Avenue (with one lane for buses and one lane for every other vehicle), here’s what you can carry there: In the bus lane, 60 people. You can actually carry about 240 if you wanted to “bus bunch” but frequency won’t be that high. In the travel lane, 37.2 people.

            Here’s my math:

            I don’t believe this is how many people will see the project, but in terms of democratizing road capacity and squeezing efficiencies out of existing infrastructure, big buses in their own lanes so they can go fast is the way to do that.

          2. Thing is, though, if you stripe off a buses-only lane, then THAT is the area being occupied by the people riding the busses, not the footprint of the bus. Because nobody but the busses (and therefore the bus-riders) is permitted to use the interdicted pavement, it has a disproportionate impact.

            I have no problem if the remainder of the space is moderately acceptable for the rest of the users, but on Western and Ashland, two car lanes plus left-turn boxes in the center is barely adequate as it is — shrinking it from two traffic lanes to one (and removing the left-turns, so any time anyone needs to turn left ALL traffic in that direction stops until they can find a gap) is a major difference in a way that going from three lanes to two (or four to three, etc) really isn’t.

            I’m a lifelong transit-head, I’ve been riding the CTA by preference since I was so little my mom had to hold me in her arms, and it’s still my first choice when logistically useful, but I also learned to drive as an adult 6 years ago, and Western and Ashland are particularly tense, densely-used, car-full streets at the size they currently are.

            If there were a BRT (-ish; I don’t think any of these are proper BRT, really) solution being proposed that would preserve two traffic lanes AND the bus lane, maybe by completely axing parking or something, that might work — even then, two lanes and no left-turn pull-outs would still chunk up the traffic a lot, but acceptably (to me).

            One car lane and no left-turn boxes is a traffic modality useful on tiny side streets, not on the best option in the area for an “arterial” through street.

          3. In two of the four proposed configurations, left-turn lanes remain. In the the other two configurations, left turns are prohibited entirely (so there won’t be anyone blocking traffic waiting to turn left).

          4. Um, wrong. At least one of the CTA proposals retains exactly the same number of through car lanes; it reduces parking and left-turn pockets.

    4. Having spent about a decade living on the West Side, I’d dispute that ‘most Ashland/Western cars end or start their trips near Ashland/Western’ claim; those two streets are the closest thing to north/south arterials between Damen and Cicero for a good swath of the city, meaning if you need to get north, you go over to them and use them to go a good long distance before going east/west again to your destination.

      There isn’t a better option, and it completely sucks if you’re a driver who has to go from west-side-south-of-Roosevelt to west-side-north-of-Fullerton on a regular basis.

    5. Removing car travel lanes is never a good idea? I take it you never biked over the new North Damen bridge before they converted it from four lanes of speeding car traffic to two lanes of smoothly flowing traffic plus bike lanes, to name one of many successful “road diets” in Chicago.

  2. Any time you make driving even the tiniest bit less convenient, drivers get all up in arms. Remember all the people opposed to the parklets because they removed TWO parking spaces?

    Despite the fact that better bus service can benefit everyone, some motorists driving sigle-occupancy vehicles look at it from a very selfish point of view, and want to make driving for just them better.

    We will always have these kind of people. The goal should just be to be louder than them.

  3. LAZ makes any option that removes parking to preserve travel lanes a non-starter, so if this happens, Ashland and Western become single-lane for cars. The question is what impact this will have. Considering the volume of traffic on these streets and the lack of substantial alternative until Central Park, I find the idea that the average speed will be reduced a mere 1.6 mph kind of funny. This is especially funny when you include the elimination of left turn lanes.

    Now, to be sure, I don’t drive in the city, so I only care as much as it affects my biking routes and the very short distances I do drive between my house and the Kennedy on my way out of town. I ultimately see Western and Ashland becoming impassable to cars much of the time. That’s going to have a trickle effect on side streets as drivers seek alternative routes. If it happens, it will be fun to watch it play out.

    1. I disagree that any option that removes parking is a non-starter. The display boards have a page dedicated to each scenario on each street (so 8 pages) and each describes how much metered parking would be removed. Less than 10% of the parking along Western Avenue in the project stretch is controlled by Chicago Parking Meters, LLC (LAZ being CPM’s contracted operator). To appease the contract, the parking spaces must be leased from CPM or must be swapped for similar value, unmetered spaces elsewhere in Chicago.
      Check out

      1. I believe Ald. Waguespack did one of these parking swaps (put a meter in an unmetered space, got a space for a parklet). He would be a good person to interview on the narrow topic of buying back individual parking spots for use by the city, what it costs, whether it can be scaled up for something like Western BRT. 10% of 14 miles is 1.4 miles of completely metered space – that’s a lot of spaces to find one or two at a time.

        1. Joe, in response to another commenter bringing up parking meters, I listed in the BRT Pros and Cons website we made to list how many metered parking spaces are affected. Western has very few metered spaces in the project scope while Ashland has several times as many.

          Here’s the site:

          Look for “5% of parking spaces removed (42 are CPM)” where CPM means Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, the Morgan Stanley-Abu Dhabi company.

      2. You have educated me on the parking meters. I never drive on Western, so I’d never noticed that none of the spaces in the stretch nearest me (say, between Logan and Milwaukee) are metered. I took a walk yesterday and saw that all that’s free parking and therefore easy to get rid of. I had no idea.

        I have to wonder about the segments where there is metered parking, whether the city would opt to narrow Western to one lane rather than play space juggle. I think shifting it to one lane in splotches would be far more destructive to traffic flow than shifting the whole thing to one lane.

        1. I’m not sure this is the case. I think a mixed strategy should absolutely be part of CTA’s toolbox. For example, on the West Side between Roosevelt and Lake there are a lot of closely spaced intersections where there are lots of turning movements and weaving, and four traffic lanes are more important than parking (businesses in the area are pretty meager anyway). North and south of there, it may be feasible to return to a two-lane arrangement when the stoplights occur at regular 2-4 block intervals. In those sections, you might have “hot spots” around expressway interchanges and diagonal streets where, again, the extra traffic lane is more valuable than parking. The result is a mix of widths with wider areas when lots of people are merging in (just like a freeway).

    2. How about the concept of “traffic evaporation” – if you provide less space for driving, less people will drive. A section of Wacker Drive has been closed to cars for months now during repairs, but has anyone really noticed Loop traffic getting any worse than it was before? Conversely, did the recent expansion of the Dan Ryan make traffic flow any better, or did it just cause more people to choose to drive, filling the traffic vacuum. I remember that when they fixed the Hillside Strangler and made it easier to drive through that section of the suburbs, more drivers immediately took advantage of this, so there wasn’t much of a gain in travel times.

      1. I don’t think you can use Wacker as an analog, as there are a number of similarly high-volume, redundant streets that cover the same ground nearby. In fact, if you were to distribute the 21,200 vehicles the City of Chicago data portal lists traveling Wacker each day evenly to the eight streets east to Grant Park, which collectively see 151,700 vehicles, you would see an increase on those streets of about 1.7% (That said, several people I know who work in the Loop have, in fact, said traffic on those streets is worse.)

        The difference with Western and Ashland is that there is no similar redundant street pattern. Western near where I live (at Fullerton) carries 39,200 vehicles per day. You have a to go a half mile east before you find a comparable street (Damen), which carries 22,100. Your next option, Ashland, is another half-mile east, which carries 40, 200 vehicles. In the Loop, you have eight streets handling 15,000-20,000 vehicles per day in a space a little over a half-mile wide. You have nothing like that between Western and Ashland.
        As far as traffic evaporation goes, while I understand the concept, I think the name is imprecise. Traffic doesn’t evaporate. It just goes someplace else. Traffic on Wacker had lots of other places to go. Traffic on Western and Ashland doesn’t. Some portion of that group will opt for the bus. The rest will move to the side streets. The interesting thing will be seeing what proportion of it does what.

        1. The CTA display boards addressed traffic distribution extremely vaguely. I look forward to more information about traffic studies and prediction models to see what traffic might do (I question how well we can guess how people would change their modes or routes).

          1. Again, I have to point out that Wacker is a bad example. It’s barely a half-mile long, and is only one of many redundant routes through the Loop. I sincerely doubt anybody changed modes because of the closure.

            This discussion inspires a thought experiment. (This will be long, so I apologize for taking up space.) Again, I posit that traffic doesn’t evaporate, as people are still going to make the trip. Some will change modes and take the bus. (I suppose if you equate it to a phase change from liquid to gas, you could call it evaporation. I consider that buzz-word torture, but mileage varies on that sort of thing.) So, the first part of the experiment is to ponder what volume a one-lane version of, say, Ashland could handle. How much evaporation needs to take place?

            The busiest stretch of one-lane street I can think of is Milwaukee at Wicker Park. Averaging the three data points nearest Damen give a daily traffic volume of 13,500 vehicles. That’s about the most I think that street can reasonably handle, based on rush hour congestion. Averaging data from several points along Ashland suggests the street handles about 35,000 vehicles. So to bring Ashland to Milwaukee levels, you need to evaporate 21,000 vehicles.

            Which brings me to the second part of the thought experiment. As Steven says, it’s hard to predict how people will react. If these people are to change modes rather than change routes, CTA will need to accommodate them, and they’ll need to do it in such a way that the hassle of the crowds seems less than the hassle of driving. One assumes CTA already planned to increase capacity along Ashland. How much will it need? Rather than do annoying math, I’ll make it simple and assume one car equals on person. The average CTA bus holds about 80 people, so to accommodate 21,000 extra passengers, you would need to add 255 bus trips.

            Now, these are all back-of-the-envelope figures, and there are weaknesses to the way I’ve figured it. The number of new trips needed for the Ashland route wouldn’t be quite that large … but I think it’s reasonable to assume half that number. And this is why this line of thinking is important. If this is to work, CTA needs to show it can handle the traffic. It needs to make a substantial investment in increasing service along these routes, such that a CTA bus equates to a CTA train. That is to say, you’ll need many buses running in tandem. Otherwise, the routes won’t be attractive to people, and they’ll just keep diving, no matter how bad the traffic jam.

          2. I don’t think one can assume 13,500 vehicles is all Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park can handle in 24 hours. You could assume it cannot handle any more at the busiest time of day than it handles now, but the day is long and traffic in most hours of the day is probably less than half as much as the busiest hour of the day. Demand for that one or two hour period each day is great and that’s when efficient modes (like buses) are most needed, but they are not in demand as they are slow (just as slow as everyone else).
            One option to avoid congestion (from a personal and city government perspective) is to adjust work times, a strategy in the Transportation Demand Management toolbox.

          3. Well, that’s one of the faults with this data, though I do think you can assume that the 24-hour numbers represent s degree relative path preference. As in, Ashland sees three times as much traffic than Milwaukee over a 24-hour period, so it’s resonable to assume Ashland sees three times as much traffic at 5 pm as Milwaukee sees at 5 pm, and so on. This won’t be 100% true, as congestion on one street can drive vehicles to another, but I think it’s a close thing.

            I think the city hits a problem when it starts including things like adjusting work times into the mix. A useful transportation system will be useful when people want to use it, whenever that may be. It you’re depending on people leaving an hour earlier or an hour later for a system to function, you’re just going to make people more resistant to change. They leave when they want and turn the radios up in their cars as they take to the side streets.

            Edit to add: The most important point, regardless of the actual numbers of evaporation, is that CTA will need to run a lot more buses than they do now. There’s no getting past that.

          4. With the increased reliability and 83% decreased travel time along the route, one can expect to carry 83% more passengers on Ashland and Western without buying more buses or hiring more drivers. That’s about 25000 more passengers/day.

          5. Damen is a one-lane road in many sections with a higher traffic count than Milwaukee. 22,100 just south of Webster. 19,200 just south of Belmont. 20,300 just north of Lake Street.

          6. Again, though, that still works out to 2/3 what Ashland handles. So even if you drop the traffic on Ashland by only a third, you still have to have a lot of buses. 10,000 people instead of 20,000, 128 buses instead of 255. This is the point CTA has to see. If you are going to remove a car lane, simply making that lane bus-only won’t be nearly enough. You’re going to need more buses. A lot of them.

            Now, if you leave the car lane, you can get by on current service levels. But what’s the point of that? If your goal is to get people to change modes, then you need to have the preferred mode ready for them to jump into.

        2. There are relatively few north-south streets east of the Dan Ryan that are uninterrupted for any distance. Halsted goes through, but many people avoid the Englewood section. Racine is interrupted. Ashland and Western go through from one end of the city to the other. Damen and California are each interrupted in multiple locations. Kedzie goes through, but parts of it are narrower and slower. Central Park is interrupted. Pulaski is similar to Kedzie, with narrow, congested sections. Cicero is like a highway, but that’s 3 miles west of Western. Laramie and Central are interrupted. Austin, Narragansett and Oak Park are all interrupted more than once south of Pershing. Harlem is the next uninterrupted street – 3 miles west of Cicero.

          Between State (0 E/W) and Harlem (7200 W), a distance of 9 miles, the only uninterrupted N-S streets are Halsted, Ashland, Western, Kedzie, Pulaski, and Cicero.

          1. It doesn’t really matter for vehicular traffic if a street is interrupted if there is an alternative nearby at the location of the interruption. That’s what makes a gridded road system so resilient. It will be important to balance the grid so that mobility isn’t impaired unnecessarily at the choke points, but there’s no reason beyond driver convenience why Western or Ashland need to be a 4-lane through-way their entire length.

          2. That makes sense – those are all mile-streets, i.e. they run at one mile intervals. Halsted is 800 W, Ashland 1600 W, Western 2400 W, Kedzie 3200 W, Pulaski 4000 W, Cicero 4800 W. That the way the city grid was designed. One-mile streets are major, contiguous streets; half-mile streets are lesser volume, not necessarily contiguous arterials; the rest are mostly side streets, save for the diagonals – many of which existed before the grid was laid out.

          3. Also note that there are many more interruptions on the south side than the north side due to rail lines/yards and industrial areas.

  4. I really don’t see the advantage of BRT (or even BRT-lite like most CTA plans) over light rail. It’s a little bit cheaper to paint the lanes than to lay track (or, as I’d suggest as my pie-in-the-sky money-is-no-object option for Western, elevate it), but anything using buses instead of trains will always be limited by the capabilities of buses.

    Separate the right-of-way completely, use trains, get them up to decent speeds, and avoid traffic lights altogether. Run them on electricity and quit spewing diesel fumes along the streets.

    Oh, and I’d like a pony, too. :-> Failing that, why on earth does the CTA keep cutting express bus routes (which actually did save significant time, especially at non-rush-hour) and then coming up with complicated “We need to redo entire streets!” plans for quasi-BRT to replace them? A local AND an express bus, on streets that have a lot of long-distance commuters, seems a sensible solution to me, if you can’t afford to put in a proper train.

    1. BRT is a lot cheaper. Light rail would cost about 4x or more per mile than any of the scenarios presented by CTA and CDOT.
      What are the limitations of the buses’ capabilities?

      BRT doesn’t preclude the installation of rail transit in the future.

      1. Depends how you do it. If you’re just painting lanes as bus lanes, yeah, BRT is cheaper, and I’m all for that.

        If you start “building new lanes”, then LRT is cheaper.

        1. This includes anything where you have to tear up and rebuild the road.

          Charlotte, NC did something clever: they started installing tracks when they did previously-planned road-reconstruction projects along routes which were planned to get either light rail or streetcars. The tracks sat there until the funding could be found to finish the rail projects, but by building them when the road was torn up down to the subbase anyway, they found out the true cost: not that much more than a road reconstruction.

          1. And I’m going to suggest that with the BRT on Ashland and Western. In areas where the road is merely going to be resurfaced, go ahead and simply paint a bus lane. But whenever the road is rebuilt from subbase up, put the tracks in under that bus lane. When the volume gets high enough to demand rail service, you’ll have half the work done already for little extra cost.

          2. I like this idea.

            BTW, did you know you can edit your previous comments if you made them as a registered user? (You can register with Disqus, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.)

    2. As Steven mentioned below, light rail is prohibitively expensive. New York City’s MTA is currently building its first new line in over eighty years after numerous stops and starts due to funding problems… Chicago simply doesn’t have the money to build a new fixed-guideway rail line right now. Additionally, light rail is not nearly as dynamic as BRT – once you put the track into place, you can’t move it. If neighborhood demographics change or ridership decreases, there’s nothing that can be done. BRT combines the speed and reliability of light rail with the dynamism and cost-effectiveness of bus systems.

      Having a series of both local and express buses riding on a shared ROW seems a little ineffective, don’t you think? NYC’s train system runs similarly to this, but they have dedicated tracks with no interference. It’d be much more efficient to have a dedicated BRT system instead of increasing the number of buses and having express and local buses fighting with each other and with auto traffic, increasing congestion and not achieving any sort of measurable positive result.

      The Western/Ashland BRT project represents a very important tipping point for this city. Iif fully implemented, would put Chicago at the forefront of progressive transportation systems and, perhaps more importantly, put it in a real conversation about its place as a true “global city”. Cycling, BRT, complete streets – this is the future of urban transportation. Take a look at other places around the world and you’ll see that they’re only widening the gap… its high time Chicago got on board.

      1. Minneapolis, Houston, and Dallas all have light rail in place that is popular and expanding. When he was DC DOT head Gabe Klein called light rail a “no-brainer” when it came to economic development and spoke at length about light rails advantages in economic development vs. other modes.

        It is a false choice to talk about BRT or nothing in these corridors. Using the 4x cost difference that Steven mentioned as a baseline it is conceivable that differences in operating costs, economic development benefits of light rail vs. BRT, and the scalability of each mode makes the Western/Ashland BRT less than the clear choice for the moment.

        But we never see an apples-to-apples consideration of different modes in all aspects with this project. When BRT supporters want to criticize light rail, they cite cost. My suggestion that the X49 bus is even cheaper gets dismissed as having a lack of vision and doing nothing for development. When the economic development benefits of light rail are mentioned vs. BRT, I hear crickets. Transit times are compared side-by-side to local bus service with no comment, with the more reasonable (and unfavorable to BRT) comparison of the old express bus service ignored. Operating costs over the life of the system for different modes are not discussed.

        Where is the context in any of these projects?

        1. I digress: transit modes should not be selected based on their economic development potential but for their ability to provide accessibility and mobility. There are countless other tools to impact the growth of an economy.

    3. 2/3 of ballot initiatives for tax increases for large transit projects like light rail pass when introduced. The people are way in front of the planners when it comes to thinking big. Texas thinks big so Houston and Dallas have light rail. Minnesota has honest government so Minneapolis has light rail. You need something going for you besides an army of public relations drones and poll-tested BS in order to have nice things.

      Illinois and Chicago are dysfunctional in many ways. I don’t know how you fix it but not rolling over like a dog for every PR issued by City Hall is a start.

  5. I would find BRT on Western very useful – but only if it extends to 95th. If it ends at 79th (and I have to wait – and wait – and WAIT to transfer), it’s useless to me.

    Extending Western BRT to 95th would offer a more direct connection from Beverly to Midway Airport (via the orange line), which would eliminate a lot of car trips. If I want to take transit to Midway now, the only tolerable options involve 3 buses, or Metra/Rock Island to the Loop, then the orange line.

    Western BRT from 95th could also offer a better plan B connection to the Loop for nights and weekends when the Metra schedule is inadequate at best. It would offer me a non-car alternative to visit friends in Little Village, Pilsen and Lawndale – replacing trips I need to make by car now.

    I understand that running the Western bus all the way to 95th is a LONG run, but with its current end points (79th and Berwyn), it leaves too many people at the north and south ends of the city with poor service. Having BRT in the middle won’t make up for that. If it’s extended, its potential for replacing car trips is much greater.

    1. I agree with this. I live pretty far north of the route (in Rogers Park), and so I won’t be able to use it either. Of course, no matter how far it goes, the people who live beyond the route will complain — but I do hope they extend the route north and south if it’s a success.

    2. I used to take the X54 to Midway quite happily; the difference in travel times between the (now defunct) express and the local is big enough as to make it a completely unworkable solution anymore, coming from the north side, so now instead of a calm one-seat airport trip, I have to do brown-to-Orange and wrangle my 3yo kid through the chaos of Clark and Lake.

      If I take a taxi it’s nearly $30, which is unsupportable for our family (though comparable to storing one’s car in the long-term parking for a short trip).

  6. Two very simple questions that I’d like CTA and CDOT to answer:

    1) Will local bus service be retained on either the Western or Ashland BRT routes?

    2) Can we see a cost/benefit analysis of reinstating the X49 or X9 bus with Ventra and signal clearance vs. BRT?

    These are not difficult questions. If they can’t be answered in a straightforward manner by city planners at CDOT or CTA I think it tells you a lot about the credibility of the rest of the information they are presenting when they talk about the Western and Ashland BRT corridors.

    1. In your second question when you include Ventra in there, are you proposing a scenarios where the X routes only accept Ventra? As it stands, buses would still accept cash alongside all Ventra media and compatible media.

      1. I’d be OK with eliminating cash as an option for express buses. I know that fare collection slows down buses. Speeding boarding time counts the same as speeding bus speeds in traffic to commuters.

        I believe San Fran has open boarding on their trains and buses with pretty tough enforcement. That’s one way of dealing with the cashless system. If you let people board with no cash, they are just rolling the dice on getting a pricey citation. It’s a $100 ticket if you get caught riding without a fare in SF. I think that is a good way of running things.

          1. Metra has open boarding but not a proof of payment system. They have on-board fare verification. PoP is when you don’t have fare verification, but rather roving fare checks.

  7. My question to CTA planners is whether this is all-or-nothing. CTA could perhaps use different types of bus lanes along the length of Ashland and Western, so in some places you’d axe a traffic lane and in some places a parking lane, in some places you’d run buses in the median and in some places you’d do curbside.

    Local service will be preserved alongside the BRT. AFAIK, the local service will not use the bus lanes except at major intersections, where the local bus will berth at the BRT platform to allow for easy transfers.

    1. The trick is that the busses need to have priority for the entire corridor while balancing parking vs. travel lanes may evaluated over shorter sections.

      I’m continuing to hammer the point that no information at all has come out regarding the interactions of local and express bus services on the corridor, or what headway these services would have. As I understand it from the conversations I had at the consultation meetings, removing local service is (I believe quite properly) under consideration.

    2. The trouble with “bus lanes in some places” is that politics always means that bus lanes get put in low-traffic locations (where they aren’t needed) and the buses are forced into mixed traffic in the high-traffic locations (where the bus lanes ARE needed). Switching between curbside and median slows things down enormously, too.

      It does seem that it would be fine to have two travel lanes in some areas and a travel lane / a parking lane in other areas, but they would have to be large, continuous areas.

  8. It would be pretty awesome if the new BRT buses had space for bikes ON the bus instead of those racks on the front.

    1. The BRT buses would likely NOT have front bike racks because of the delay loading and unloading bikes would cause. Additionally, if there is level boarding (i.e. a raised platform), loading bikes onto front racks wouldn’t be possible.

      1. So will they have vertical hanging racks like many streetcars and light rail cars do or just ban bikes altogether? Obviously I’d prefer the former. All aisle seating like the 5000-series ‘L’ cars would make it easier to load bikes onto the bus as well.

  9. catching up on my reading for the week, and almost no one is mentioning Cleveland. they invested in bus rapid transit, and re-did Euclid Avenue from downtown to the Cleveland Clinic with center-island bus shelters; it looks fantastic and seems to work. the buses do have separate stoplights, allowing left turns by cars.

    etc. etc.

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