Buses hardly deserve their disagreeable reputation, Chicago’s city government and private agencies seemed to be saying this month, as they announced four bus rapid transit programs designed to bring area buses—which provide 2.1 million trips every weekday—into the 21st century.
One of the programs is in place now; the others will be rolled out over the course of the next year.
Pace, the suburban bus and paratransit operator, has been operating coach buses on highway shoulder lanes at up to 35 MPH during rush hour for a year. The benefits are undeniable: shorter, more reliable trips. Each morning, from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., buses coming into downtown Chicago from several southwest suburbs may use the shoulder when traffic has decreased below 35 mph. The same is true out-bound for the evening commute.
In creating this two-year experiment, Pace is following bus strategies in Minneapolis and Cincinnati. Six months after its own service began, Pace added a new daily trip to the 855 route and noted that ridership had gone up 67 percent since February 2011. This project differs from the three bus rapid transit (BRT) projects being planned by city agencies; one of them will begin this month. Running buses on shoulders exploits existing infrastructure while BRT builds new infrastructure.
The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) are working together on three BRT projects: Jeffery Jump, Central Loop, and Ashland/Western avenues. Jeffery Jump is adding several enhancements to an experimental section of existing express and local bus routes. They include a larger showcase bus stop shelter, “Bus Tracker” displays inside vehicles (to anticipate arrival times), and signal priority (meaning that several traffic signals will give an early or longer green light; and one traffic signal will give the bus a green light before other traffic).
Buses will have dedicated lanes that can be enforced by police for two hours northbound in the morning and two hours southbound in the afternoon. Stations are one-half mile apart instead of the local route’s one-quarter-mile stop spacing.
The Central Loop and Ashland/Western Avenues BRT projects are cut from a different cloth. The Metropolitan Planning Council, an independent advocate for sustainable, regional growth, has been working closely with CTA and CDOT, as a promoter for BRT. MPC vice president Peter Skosey described the look and feel of the projects: “Stations would provide riders with clear wayfinding, be attractively branded, and allow customers to pay before boarding. They will signal to property owners and developers that the transit investment is permanent,” he said.
The two programs are at different planning stages. The CTA wrapped up a series of open house public meetings about Ashland/Western avenues to show the four scenarios under consideration. The Central Loop project is further along, with the scenario already chosen and service estimated to begin in 2014.
These projects “not only will improve the connectivity of our existing transit system and benefit riders,” Skosey said, “but also will be an excellent investment in neighborhoods and the city.”