Will CDOT and CTA Launch “True BRT” on the Central Loop Corridor?

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Washington Street BRT configuration with protected bike lane.

Last week the CTA and Chicago Department of Transportation unveiled the proposed lane configuration for the Central Loop East-West Transit Corridor. According to the city’s press release, the improvements will include dedicated bus lanes on Canal, Washington, Madison and Clinton, delineated with colored pavement and additional signs. The system, which is slated to open for service next year, would serve some 1,700 buses and would include level boarding via “island” bus platforms, plus queue jumps at key intersections.

While the city is calling this a bus rapid transit corridor, some Streetsblog commenters argued that these features alone don’t make for true BRT. CDOT spokesman Pete Scales and CTA spokewoman Lambrini Lukidis recently provided some additional details that provide a better picture of how far the city might take the proposal. If it has all the features it could have, the Loop project will be much more effective than if it only goes halfway. (For more background on what constitutes true BRT, check out the rating system devised by the nonprofit Institute for Transportation & Development Policy.)

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The J14 Jeffery Jump express bus in South Shore. Photo by John Greenfield.

CDOT is responsible for the physical changes to the streets, including pavement, signals, signs and more. Scales said that in addition to the queue jumps, the Canal/Jackson intersection will have a camera-actuated exclusive cycle for buses exiting the new Union Station Transportation Center, also part of the project. But he said there probably won’t be bus-priority traffic signals, like the ones that will soon be added along the route of the J14 Jeffery Jump, a BRT like express bus service with stops spaced every half-mile or so on the South Side. “They are more appropriate for the stop spacing of neighborhood arterials than the dense grid of the Loop,” he said.


View Loop protected bike lanes on BRT corridor in a larger map

Proposed downtown bike lanes: north- and westbound on Canal and Van Buren (green); 2-way on Clinton (red); eastbound on Washington (blue); westbound on Randolph (orange).

Will there be cameras to enforce the bus-only lanes, as is the case with New York City’s Select bus service? “We will evaluate camera enforcement during the final design and engineering phase,” Scales said. While the city’s press release stated that the proposed Washington configuration includes a protected bike lane and Randolph, a block north, will also get a protected lane, readers were curious whether the existing conventional bike lanes on Canal and Clinton would be retained. “The current design would install a two-way protected bike lane on the east side Clinton from Randolph to Van Buren,” Scales said. “The lane on Canal would be removed north of Van Buren and a transition lane would be installed on Van Buren. This solution will minimize bus-bike conflicts.”

Lukidis answered questions about bus operations. Will there be pre-paid bus boarding, as is the case in NYC? “CTA is examining the possibility of off-board payments in conjunction with its new Open Fare payment system, Ventra,” she said. Would there be less frequent stops, like the Jump? “There is currently no plan to eliminate bus stops in the Central Loop,” she said. “Unlike the Western & Ashland corridors, the Central loop is a shorter distance; dedicated bus lanes would improve the efficiency and reliability of all buses and ultimately improve travel times without removing bus stops.”

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Select Bus Service on First Avenue in Manhattan. Photo by John Greenfield.

Lukidis noted that the dedicated east-west lanes through the loop on Washington and Madison will be served by six CTA bus routes: the Jump, #20 Madison, #56 Milwaukee, #60 Blue Island/26th, #157 Streeterville/Taylor and #124 Navy Pier. She says that in addition to the blue-painted Jump buses, the #124 will also have branded service, since that route serves as a downtown circulator between Union Station and the pier. Asked if there will be an increase in the frequency of bus service along the Central Loop corridor, Lukidis responded, “CTA is always examining ridership and service frequency, and will take a closer look at this as we begin the next phase of the Central Loop BRT project.”

So while the Central Loop East-West Corridor won’t feature physically separated bus lanes, transit signal prioritization or less-frequent stops, it will serve multiple routes and could potentially incorporate many of the other BRT features: dedicated lanes with camera enforcement, queue jumps, pre-paid fares, and level boarding. If Chicago implements all these other features, the result should be fast, convenient trans-Loop bus service.

  • jack

    If you look at the definition of BRT in the latest transportation bill (49 U.S.C. 5302 and 5309), the answer is a definite no. To be BRT, it must essentially be the same as a light rail line. The separate right of way requirement is certainly not met by having one painted lane.

    Basically both this and the Jeffery Jump consist of some minor street improvements on the cheap, based on the about $10 million Liveability grants for each. Somehow this project was shoehorned as an “urban circulator,” although all of the other urban circulators that received those grants were for a bus that went in a circle (sort of like the Niles Free Bus). In the Washington St. case, it isn’t much different than the dedicated bus lane that was in the middle of the street through the mid 70s, although the platforms will be a bit better protected than the “safety islands.” The bus lane certainly won’t be distinguishable if there is any snow.

  • Adam Herstein

    “The lane on Canal would be removed north of Van Buren and a transition
    lane would be installed on Van Buren. This solution will minimize
    bus-bike conflicts.”

    What the heck is a “transition lane”? Is he referring to the “enhanced sharrows” found on Wells and Franklin?

  • He means that you can use the lane on Van Buren to transition from Canal to Clinton, as shown on the map.

  • Anonymous

    That is not BRT. If anyone wants BRT to be successful in Chicago they need to be very careful about labeling much lesser service BRT or risk damaging public understanding and perceptions of the service.

    I could paint BRT on the side of my VW bus and drive it down the Kennedy reversible, but that wouldn’t make it BRT…just a VW bus in a supposed-to-be express lane.

  • Look for an interview with Walter Hook from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy about their rating system for BRT, soon on this site. What aspects do you think are missing that make this “not BRT”?

  • I’m excited about all these new bike lanes!

  • Anonymous

    Yes, they are improvements, but to call them “BRT” is a misnomer. Que jumping at some intersections? That’s simple express bus. No signal priority? That’s not even ART. Sure, there are BRT elements contemplated, but putting a Mercedes hood ornament and hubcaps on my Vega does not make it a Mercedes.

    A lot of writing has been done about “gold standard” BRT and why US systems over promise and under-deliver through implementing less than “gold standard BRT.” MPC even highlighted one such report in their BRT advocacy pieces. Chicagoans can tell the difference between gold, silver, bronze, and scrap iron.

    Gold? Well, it has its price, but is generally associated with coming in first. Like Ricky Bobby said, “If you’re not first, your last.” If last is our aspiration, or the upper limit of our financial means, then last it is.

    That written, some bus improvements are better than no bus improvements, especially when they’re not being done in combination with expanding road capacity, but rather in thoughtful concert with pedestrian and bike improvements. Save the “BRT” labels for when we’re actually building BRT – gold standard BRT by any other name. Let’s not over-promise and under-deliver, but deliver what we promise.

    All too often, we’re the victims of transportation over-promise. If we were to take all of the money allocated to ill-advised and under-performing or doomed investments and turn that it into a pool to make worthwhile ones we would have fewer, but far superior, projects. IDOT is notorious for over-promising and under-delivering. Haven’t we had enough of that?

    Call it like it is.

    How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg – Abraham Lincoln.

  • We’re talking about a transit-priority corridor for several bus lines here, not a single express bus line. Obviously Chicago already has simple express buses, i.e. buses that make limited stops, but don’t have the priority lanes, level boarding, queue jumps, and possibly pre-paid boarding, advantages buses on this corridor will have. So it sounds like the the lack of signal prioritization is the one element you feel is missing here that would make this real BRT.

  • Anonymous

    The article appears to be focused on the the the Central Loop East-West Corridor, which it relates will not feature physically separated bus lanes, transit signal prioritization, or less-frequent stops. Those are all important to BRT service, but less important to improved service that does not constitute BRT, at least not at a level consistent with international best practices.

    Whether BRT or not, or what “grade of BRT”, the proposal looks good and may be the best we can do for busses in the downtown area. Heck, it may well qualify as some gradation of BRT on a scale that doesn’t not include things like express bus or ART in its lexicon, but it seems clear that it will not operate like the world’s best systems, particularly those with grade-separated exclusive runways.

    Bottom line is if it is making service faster and more reliable, its a plus. I call it Red Stripe Service – better than express bus, but some mix of ART and BRT characteristics combined with thoughtful consideration of bike and ped improvements.

    That’s not a bad thing, just not the best example of BRT.

  • Thanks for the feedback. I believe Red Stripe Service is already operating in Kingston, Jamaica.

  • Anonymous

    I see you caught the reference :)

  • jack

    Coolebra goes into good detail here, but as I mentioned above, the federal transportation law (MAP-21) says what is BRT, and that excludes what the two grants under former law are providing.

    Heck, even CTA management acknowledges that, by first referring to the Jeffery Jump as “BRT Lite,” and then only as “elements of BRT.” This project is even less, as the 2 demonstration stations on J14 are not even included.

    And, with Ventra devices coming to all CTA buses, one even wonders whether off bus fare collection is necessary.

  • Nope, this could be much closer to BRT than the Jump is. The Jump only has rush-hour bus lanes, and only in one direction; these will be 24/7 and colored. The Jump doesn’t have camera enforcement of the lanes, level boarding on island platforms, or pre-paid fare payment, which reduces boarding time by eliminating the need for each customer to swipe their card as they board.

  • jack

    Quibbling over details that still demonstrate the legal insufficiency of either project under current definitions. Although Miss CTA sort of indicates in the article the possibility of preboarding fares under Ventra, there may be a Ventra card vending machine on the island, but that’s that; the passenger will still have to scan some card on entering the bus. I really doubt that CTA will have back door loading, especially since the downtown project serves about 7 routes, not a dedicated BRT line, nor a conductor to audit fare cards, which is usually required if the passenger is not required to swipe them on the bus. There certainly won’t be a paid fare area, anlogous to what’s in a rail rapid transit station. I had commented, with regard to the lost grant proposal for a $185 million or so for BRT, including Jeffery, which had drawings showing the need to go through a turnstile to enter the bus shelter, that the riders were not going to tolerate being caged in drive by shooting territory.

    Note that Pace has always called its proposals ART [for arterial], not BRT, and, as I noted before, CTA doesn’t call this BRT, either.

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