It’s Up to Chicago to Set a Bold New Standard for American BRT

Q&A Session
Scheinfeld, Klein, Ribley and Turner. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Planning Council.

“We knew how important it was for federal policy makers to see innovation and new ideas bubbling up from important cities around the country,” said Nick Turner, managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation at a bus rapid transit roundtable last Friday. The foundation has provided roughly $2.8 million in grants to Chicago’s BRT program for research, technical support, land-use planning, project management, community engagement, branding and communications. “That’s why we started to get interested in the work here in Chicago.” The seminar, Bus Rapid Transit on a Roll in Chicago, took place at the Loop offices of the Metropolitan Planning Council, which promotes sustainable development and transportation in the region.

Turner heads the charitable foundation’s Promoting Equitable and Sustainable Transportation initiative. “It is not always federal policy that drives things,” he added. “It’s innovations that happen in cities that makes other mayors pick up the newspaper and they say, ‘Huh, I want that.’ We want Chicago to be able to be that for the rest of the country.”

Rebekah Scheinfeld, chief planning officer with the CTA, kicked off the discussion by talking about features that are common in BRT systems around the world, including dedicated lanes, signal prioritization, and prepaid, level boarding. She then outlined Chicago’s BRT-related projects, starting with the J14 Jeffery Jump express bus, which launched last fall on the South Side with branded buses, upgraded shelters, limited stops and bus-only lanes during rush hours between 67th and 84th.

Rebekah Scheinfeld, CTA
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Planning Council.

Next she discussed plans for the Central Loop BRT Corridor, which will feature bus-only lanes on Washington, Madison, Clinton and Canal, plus level boarding, queue jumps and possibly pre-paid boarding and camera enforcement of the lanes. Scheinfeld closed by outlining the proposal to create BRT routes on 21-mile corridors along Western and/or Ashland, which would be within walking distance of one out of four Chicagoans. The CTA estimates that faster bus service on these routes could save the average commuter 50-65 hours each year, the equivalent of $650-850 per year, she said.

Commissioner Gabe Klein from the Chicago Department of Transportation went into further detail about the downtown BRT plans. “This is really a balanced, complete street approach to BRT,” he said, noting that the proposed street configurations include dedicated bus, car and protected bike lanes, as well as pedestrian improvements. The project is currently at the 30 percent design phase; the design work should be finalized by the end of the year, and construction completed by the end of 2014.”

Gabe Klein, CDOT
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Planning Council.

The plan also calls for a new transit center to be built on what’s currently a surface parking lot just south of Union Station. The city is currently working on acquiring the land. “Yes there’s some parking going away but there’s a huge garage with a lot of capacity going in next door, and to be honest we have a lot of capacity for parking throughout the loop,” he said. Klein added that the new facility will have three lanes and nine bus bays serving five routes, plus access to an underground pedway leading to the train station. As he showed renderings of the somewhat drab-looking facility Klein said, “We haven’t added the public art yet so it’s a little gray right now, but it will be beautiful, I promise.”

Warren Ribley, executive director of the Illinois Medical District Commission, said that BRT corridors on Western and Ashland would be a boon for employees, patients and students who commute to the 560-acre medical complex. “The hospitals all have parking decks and they’re all full,” he said “If you drive along Harrison and Congress on any given day you can’t find a parking spot. Public transportation is critical to the growth of the medical district.”

Warren Ribley, Illinois Medical District
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Planning Council.

He noted that that many surface parking lots within the district are slated for development in the next few years. “So we’re going to have to pay attention to how we get people into the medical district and back out. We can’t just do it by building more parking. That is why proposals like BRT are so important to us.” He noted that some 20,000 workers and 75,000 visitors commute to the district each day. Ten percent of those trips are currently done on transit, and that number is steadily rising. “From a selfish perspective we’d really love to see BRT on Ashland since it’s our eastern boundary and that’s really where the access to all the medical facilities are at,” he added.

Nick Turner discussed Rockefeller’s $75 million, seven-year initiative to advance equitable and sustainable transportation, with the goals of strengthening cities, reducing transportation costs for millions of Amercans, and decreasing pollution. “We thought, wouldn’t it be great if there were a few cities that could move forward and advance [BRT”] projects of the kind that one sees in Bogota or Mexico City,” he said. The foundation has endorsed the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s “BRT Standard” guidelines, which rate systems around the world as gold, silver and bronze, similar to the LEED green building guidelines.

Nick Turner, Rockefeller Foundation
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Planning Council.

Turner noted that while express bus systems in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Eugene and Pittsburgh have been rated bronze by the ITDP, no US city has achieved a silver or gold rating. Rockefeller hopes Chicago will boldly implement its upcoming BRT projects, setting a new bar for stateside public transportation. “We hear a lot about Chicago being a global city,” he said. “Here’s your chance to really show other cities what can be done with bus rapid transit.”

  • Anonymous

    Maybe there’s a Rockefeller grant for fully separated busways, but if we were doing that level of improvement it would likely make sense to go with some form of rail.

    Regardless, I’m looking forward to time and reliability – mainly reliability – improvements whether first, second, or third class. It isn’t all about time savings; in fact, reliability is far more important. A few minutes here and there helps, but getting there on-time in reasonable comfort and at a reasonable price is what getting the gold is all about.

    Being able to plan a trip and actually get there as planned without a lot of “fudge time” added into the trip? Priceless. Can “bronze” service do that?

  • Joseph Musco

    The ITDP rating system makes as much sense as the LEED-certified parking garages. Any transportation planning agency that relies on a rating system that excludes operating costs, the consideration of other modes, customer satisfaction, and ridership gains is looking for trouble. ITDP simply stipulates that if you follow their rating system great things will happen. Select Bus Service in NYC provides all the things you mention – improved reliability, time savings, improved trip planning, high customer satisfaction – yet ITDP give it a failing grade. It’s madness.

  • I don’t think it’s accurate to say ITDP rates select service as being a failure, but as a step in the right direction towards BRT. The ratings are about encouraging cities to add as many features as possible to enhance their systems. For example, while Select seems like a good service, Turner showed a slide of cars parked in the bus lane, so Select might benefit from features that would keep the bus lane clear.

  • Shemp

    Bus lanes but no cameras or sidewalk fare-payment are sub-Select Bus. What’s bold and new about this?

  • I feel I’ve already responded with this in a comment to you, so forgive me if this is repeated: the Federal Transit Administration is removing “travel time savings” as a factor to rank transit projects for competitive grants (U.S. DOT blog.

  • We’re talking about several different existing and potential Chicago BRT projects here. The Jump, already operating, is sub-Select (although a good foot in the door for introducing BRT-style elements to Chicago). The downtown corridor may have pre-payment and camera enforcement. Western and/or Ashland could potentially be gold-standard BRT, with all the fixin’s.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Steven. Yes, you did already relate that (and I was already aware of it when you did).

    However, I’m not referring to the regulatory lay of the land but rather the text of the article I was commenting on: “The CTA estimates that faster bus service on these routes could save
    the average commuter 50-65 hours each year, the equivalent of $650-850
    per year, she said.”

    All too often, a premium is placed on time savings when it is often not a primary driver of mode choice, and particularly when time savings is at the margin, i.e., no “quantum leap” in time savings, etc.

  • Joseph Musco

    It got less than a 50 on a scale of 100 and no rating as BRT. I said “failing grade” which I believe is a fair representation of a score of less than 50 on a scale of 100.

    http://usa.streetsblog.org/2011/05/26/itdp-american-bus-rapid-transit-can-catch-up-to-the-rest-of-the-world/

  • I see the glass as half full.

  • The ITDP rating scale is an attempt to provide what you yourself have asked for — a definition of what qualifies as BRT and what does not. According to the ITDP scale, NYC’s Select Bus Service routes do not qualify as BRT. That’s not the same as saying that SBS has “failed.” The routes are clearly a big improvement and the ridership gains speak to that.

    But SBS could have made bus trips even speedier and more reliable by incorporating more BRT features — namely segregated lanes, level-boarding, and busways that incorporated local service. Manhattan avenues do have enough space to incorporate all of that, but the political lift was deemed toodifficult, apparently, and the MTA people were also skeptical that curbside segregated lanes wouldn’t get blocked by oil delivery trucks and the like.

    The ITDP system is a very useful compass to help us see how effective these projects can be if we commit to them fully. The question now is whether Chicago is going to make that commitment. In a best-case scenario, it looks like the Central Loop will struggle to make ITDP’s “bronze” rating, while something more groundbreaking might come out of the Ashland/Western projects.

  • Anonymous

    Good answer.

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