New Grant Will Help Chicago Spread the Word About the Benefits of BRT

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The Cleveland Health Line express bus service, rated silver by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. Photo by Robert Dupuis.

The toughest part of the city’s effort to create bus rapid transit in the downtown East-West Transit and the Western/Ashland BRT corridors will be convincing Chicagoans that it’s a good idea to remove travel lanes on major streets to make room for dedicated bus lanes. Help arrived today in the form of a $1.2 million Rockefeller Foundation grant that will be used to build local understanding and support for BRT in Chicago, as well as Boston, Nashville and Pittsburgh.

The funding, which will be shared by each city as needed, will support research, communications and community outreach efforts. The public affairs agency Global Strategy Group is managing the grant for Rockefeller; In Chicago GSC is partnering with the local firm Grisko LLC to run the campaign. Grisko will work with the CTA and Chicago Department of Transportation, plus various nonprofits and transportation advocacy groups, to engage local businesses and residents, and raise awareness of the benefits of BRT. (Disclosure: a separate grant from Rockefeller provides funding to the Chicago Community Trust that in turn funds Streetsblog Chicago.)

This is the latest of several grants from Rockeller to bolster BRT efforts in Chicago. Prior to today’s announcement, the foundation had provided nearly $1.8 million towards the city’s BRT program for several facets of the program, including technical assistance for a system network plan and overall coordination; branding and community outreach; and land-use planning around the Western/Ashland corridor.

“I thank The Rockefeller Foundation for its continued support of Chicago’s Bus Rapid Transit efforts,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a statement. “With this latest commitment, there is a real opportunity to collaborate among cities, and share information on what is important to various stakeholders as we all undertake this forward-thinking project. We want BRT service to be equitable, high-quality, and welcomed by residents and businesses. The Rockefeller Foundation’s support is key to these efforts.”

For more details about the new grant, and Rockefeller’s continuing support for BRT in Chicago, I called the foundation associate director Benjamin de la Peña.

John Greenfield: Why is Rockefeller interested in promoting bus rapid transit?

Benjamin de la Peña: We have two big goals. It’s about growth with equity, and resilience. We’ve been doing transportation work in this country for the last five years, trying to change the way we choose and fund transportation projects at the federal level and also at the state level. One of the things that’s clear to us is that Americans are vulnerable when it comes to transportation. Half of the country doesn’t have any transportation other than having to own private cars. Lower-income households tend to spend 30 percent or more of their household income on transportation because they have to buy a car and pay for it and pay for gas. And so when gas prices swing they’re very vulnerable.

On the flip side of that, it takes us forever to build mass transit. It takes literally decades to get a transportation project going. The appeal of bus rapid transit is that you can deliver very high quality transit in two to three years. Some cities have done it in less time. It’s very reliable, dependable public transit that has all the great elements of fixed transit but all of the flexibility of bus. And also in this era of declining resources, we need to get more bang for our buck. You can build gold-standard BRT for a fraction of the cost of fixed rail.

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Pittsburgh East Busway bus and station. Photo courtesy of Port Authority of Allegheny County.

JG: What can we expect to see Grisko doing with this grant money?

BP: They will start out by conducting an opinion survey. What happens after that depends on what we find out from the survey. So they’ll develop a strategy on how best to talk about BRT, and they’ll work closely with the existing BRT steering committee and its members, building on the great work that the Metropolitan Planning Council, the Active Transportation Alliance, the Chicago Community Trust, the Urban Land Institute and the Chicago Architecture Foundation have been doing around educating Chicago about bus rapid transit.

JG: By funding BRT projects in these four cities, what effect do you hope to have on other U.S. cities?

BP: We want to raise the profile of bus rapid transit and educate people on what BRT is. Because whenever it’s brought up in transportation meetings, people have only a vague idea of what it is, and it’s hard to have a conversation on what BRT can deliver unless people have a clear idea of what BRT is. We also want to learn about how to do this, how to talk about BRT and where is the public at, and how do you move public opinion and how do you mobilize people for higher quality bus rapid transit.

Chicago is one of the most visited cities in the U.S., so having gold-standard BRT on Western or Ashland would mean that many people outside Chicago might see it when they visit and say, “I can see how that works and I would want that in my city.”

  • Endless Mike

    I think the best to help BRT in Chicago is that if its done, its done right. Not halfway like it feels like the Jeffery Jump is without synchronized stop lights and all the things that make it truly fast.
    If they do the Ashland route. They should do as long a route as possible and actually synchronize the stop-lights, have cameras for lane violators and be able to run at peak efficiency. If Chicago residents see the real benefits BRT can bring, it will be easier to bring them into the city downtown and on other routes like 79th, Western, Chicago and other routes.

  • Anonymous

    “Chicago is one of the most visited cities in the U.S., so having
    gold-standard BRT on Western or Ashland would mean that many people
    outside Chicago might see it when they visit and say, “I can see how
    that works and I would want that in my city.”

    That may well be true; however, nothing published to-date suggests “gold-standard” BRT is being planned. Some form of bus improvement that will undoubtedly make necessary improvements to bus service, sure, but not gold-standard BRT.

    Puffery is counter-productive, and common in highway projects. It should not bleed into transit projects, nor should it be tolerated in highway projects for that matter.

    I’d like to see gold-standard BRT along Western. Other substitute bus improvements are welcome, as well. Let’s simply be careful to describe them as they are, rather than as some idyllic form that artificially raises traveler expectations.

    Don’t over-promise and under-deliver.

  • BlueFairlane

    Here’s a thought, though it’s only sort of related.

    Transit advocates are largely happy with the Rahm administration in large part because of big-thinking-in-theory initiatives like the BRT, the expansion of bike lanes, the speed cameras, and such. The problem is that more and more, transit advocates seem to be the only people happy with the Rahm administration. As of right now, I think Rahm’s an easy target for even semi-serious contenders. If he ran today against the same people who ran last time, I think he’d lose to either Chico or Del Valle.

    So the question is, how and when does the transit/bicycle community position itself for a change. A lot of what Rahm’s done can just as easily be undone, and I don’t see much in the next year or two to make any of it permanent. Is the transit/bicycle advocate community prepared for a transition to a mayor who doesn’t share Rahm’s interests? I don’t think it’s too early for you guys to start thinking about that.

  • Bus-priority stoplights and a queue jump should be coming to the Jump route this spring: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/04/01/route-j14-revisited-is-the-jeffery-jump-still-running-smoothly/

  • Good point: transportation gains can be dialed back by an unfriendly administration. See Toronto, where the mayor has taken out bike lanes and has generally been completely hostile to sustainable transportation. Several mayoral candidates in NYC have expressed skepticism about protected lanes. Fortunately in Chicago, bike-friendly Richard M. Daley was succeeded by Rahm Emanuel, whose administration has been even more pro-bike, as well as pro-ped and pro-transit.

    All the major candidates in the last Chicago election, including Del Valle and Chico, expressed support for sustainable transportation (http://timeoutchicago.com/things-to-do/this-week-in-chicago/142499/mayoral-front-runners-respond-to-sustainable-transportation). Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, another possible challenger, also seems to be in the loop about these issues, so I’m not too worried, but we’ll definitely stay on top of this topic when election season rolls around.

  • Gold-standard BRT, including dedicated lanes with camera enforcement, center-running buses, signal prioritization, prepaid, level boarding, etc., is a definite possibility, and Rockefeller is pushing for it. I’m sure if CTA and CDOT have there druthers we’ll get gold-stand, but the issue is finding political support for these features. This outreach campaign should help raise some of the needed support to make gold-stand service a reality.

  • I still fail to see what advantages ‘gold-standard BRT’, fully implemented, has over installing new light rail. Electric light-rail vehicles have about three times the service life of (dedicated-purchase BRAND NEW, because of left boarding) diesel busses, and if you’re going to spend all that money separating the right of way, building stations, making fare control, etc — it’s not really that much more expensive to just put tracks in the road when you repave.

    Or, and this is just my pipe dream, new elevated or subway lines. Western in particular would be ideal for this, as would the old rail right-of-way just east of Cicero; both would provide good, solid, traffic-independent transit service to underserved swaths of the city where you currently have to take a bus (stuck in traffic) to another bus.

    Even the optimistic forecasts for the Western BRT line shave a couple minutes off the end-to-end time the old express busses used to make.

    Bring back express bus lines (with, perhaps, signal control and maybe even painted bus lanes for rush hour), but build new rail, too! They’re good at different things.

  • Thanks for the feedback. According to the CTA (http://www.transitchicago.com/asset.aspx?AssetId=6942), BRT on Western would cut travel time from Fullerton to 79th from 72 minutes for the #49 local bus to 40 minutes. It’s unlikely that the old express buses, which stopped less frequently than the locals but had no other speed advantage, offered anywhere near that time savings.

  • Joseph Musco

    Here’s an old explanation of the Western Xbus service from fta.dot.gov. If this old data accurate, BRT will be slower than the old Xbus service on Western. http://www.fta.dot.gov/4324.html

  • Statistics have been cited in comment threads on this blog before giving precise historical minute-counts for the x49; they were within ten minutes (and I remember the x49 and being the faster, but I can’t find it right now for support) of the projected full-on-BRT times. Not worth it.

    One advantage I see of BRT is being able to use a flexible fleet of busses and move the rolling stock where you need it — something much harder to do with trains, of course. But if the BRT lines have dedicated special left-boarding weird busses that are in no way interoperable with ordinary bus routes, that goes out the window, IMHO.

  • I’ve been searching some more, and I think it’s in the old Grid Chicago posts. More when I find anything.

  • Annnnd I found the citation.

    It was in this post: http://gridchicago.com/2012/cta-will-reveal-more-detailed-plans-about-westernashland-bus-only-lanes-today/

    Several Guests were having a conversation in a thread, and one said:

    Thanks RG! A few points…

    1) I am happy that the reduced sidewalk options presented at the first BRT meeting have been eliminated in the latest plans.

    2) The 18 mph BRT speed on Western is 6 mph slower than the X49 Western Avenue Express bus per this FTA document I found online (no date, 1998?). The X49 service was cancelled in 2010 along with the X9 Ashland Express service. Comparing express BRT service to local service obfuscates the true policy choices available. With no fleet purchases and no infrastructure improvements CTA could bring back the X buses on Western and Ashland. Pre-Ventra, pre-signal priority, CTA predicted the X49 would average 24 mph. So why should anyone be excited about BRT averaging 18 mph at a much higher cost?

    (the link posted was this one: http://www.fta.dot.gov/4324.html — looks like the same one posted by Joseph Musco below)

  • Joseph Musco

    That “Guest” in the old Grid post was me ;) I deleted my Disqus account and it turned all of my old posts into Guest posts.

  • Thanks for the feedback. I believe 24 MPH figure for the X49 refers to speed in freely flowing traffic, which still seems unlikely for a bus making even occasional stops. Just using common sense here, it’s obvious a center-running bus with a dedicated lane, prepaid boarding, signal prioritization, etc., would run significantly faster than even an express bus that has deal with car congestion, passengers paying fares onboard, vehicles exiting and entering the curb lane, and so on. There’s absolutely no way it would be slower.

  • Anonymous

    Is signal priority feasible given the anticipated headways? Is it conditional or unconditional prioritization?

    A 44% improvement in travel time between Fullerton and 79th seems quite unrealistic for a non-grade-separated improvement that will most likely feature conditional signal prioritization, if any at all.

    Again, set realistic expectations and meet or exceed them . . .

  • Anonymous

    Signal priority assumption requires validation – there’s abundant research highlighting the limitations of signal priority on heavily traveled urban routes with busy intersecting streets.

    Is the projected 44% improvement in travel time reasonable, or the product of an overly optimistic assumption embedded in a model run? Would Western BRT actually avoid dealing with congestion?

    Set realistic expectations and meet or exceed them . . .

  • david vartanoff

    bringing back the express buses does not evoke any funding for consultants, in house planners, station builders etc, NONE of whom make buses move any faster. And yes as others point out special buses mean less flexibility; just another facet of “gold standard” bogus rapid transit. On the BRT lite 1R Rapid (here in Berkeley-Oakland) the buses are sometimes very fast-24 mph? I don’t know, but time competitive to riding in a car.

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