Blue Line Construction Strands Shuttle Bus Riders Amid Detoured Traffic

Heavy traffic in Logan Square
Two southbound shuttle buses took about six minutes to travel 500 feet through Logan Square’s traffic circle.

Last weekend’s Blue Line track work, just one week of the months-long Your New Blue project, pushed rail riders onto shuttle buses that ran along Milwaukee Avenue — and right through a traffic jam created by the very same track work. Instead of following the designated detour, drivers diverted from Fullerton and Sacramento Avenues under the Blue Line piled onto Milwaukee Avenue and slowed buses to a crawl.

An alternative approach that I’d suggested earlier would have set up diverters on Milwaukee, preventing through traffic while still allowing access to all businesses and parking spaces. Since there were no diverters to keep Fullerton drivers off Milwaukee, many drivers continued on Fullerton and then — at the last minute — turned onto northwest-bound Milwaukee, adding more traffic to a stretch that’s already plenty busy during weekends. The resulting traffic jam paralyzed not only the Blue Line shuttle buses, but also the heavily used 74-Fullerton and 56-Milwaukee bus routes.

CTA Blue Line traffic detour
This diagram shows the intended detour in blue, designated by signs on the street, and the more commonly used detour in orange that slowed buses. Image: Adapted from Chicago Transit Authority

A small sign on Fullerton directed drivers to turn onto California, but the road ahead was wide open, and barriers didn’t force a turn off Fullerton until Milwaukee. Forcing a turn at California would have kept Milwaukee relatively clear for the many shuttle buses needed to carry Blue Line passengers, minimizing their delay and keeping the “rapid transit” service at least a little bit “rapid.”

Traffic jam on Milwaukee Ave. during Blue Line track work
The little detour sign that most westbound drivers on Fullerton ignored.

Gareth Newfield, a longtime Logan Square resident I interviewed while we both watched crawling, bunched-up shuttle buses from inside the Logan Square Comfort Station, noted that “the CTA always provides complete service” during construction projects, “but it doesn’t provide good service.”

Newfield suggested shifting priorities. “How about we say, ‘Getting people to the airport is such a priority that we’ll shut down a [traffic] lane to run express buses’ ” and maintain adequate service for Blue Line riders traveling through Logan Square. “The city isn’t taking [that trip] seriously, but the CTA does.” Newfield added that the few personnel dispatched to a site aren’t thinking about traffic jams as a system: “even a cop… isn’t thinking about it – ‘hold on folks, this bus needs to go first’ — or limit[ing] turns.”

Traffic jam on Milwaukee Ave. during Blue Line track work
Drivers line up to turn onto Milwaukee from Fullerton, instead of making the recommended detour earlier.

Even where there were additional lanes, for example through the square, no space was dedicated for transit; instead, both lanes were filled with cars. The CTA didn’t respond by press time to a request about shuttle bus speed data.

He later tweeted that “[I] probably could have walked faster.”

Police officers or Traffic Management Aides were not on scene to change or hold traffic signals, or to prevent turns onto Milwaukee when they saw a shuttle bus coming.

Erin Borreson was biking northwest on Milwaukee to the Comfort Station; she had to get off her bike and walk on the sidewalk because there was too much traffic. “Buses were [driving] so close to the parked cars,” she explained, “and there’s no way a biker could have gotten through.” Borreson said she was not only more comfortable on the sidewalk than in the jammed street, but added “I was faster on the sidewalk.”

The next Blue Line bus bridge along an equally congested stretch of Milwaukee will start Friday, April 4, replacing Blue Line service at Damen and Western. The shuttles will run a much longer route than the first weekend — from Western Avenue to the Clark/Lake station —  because it’s the only way to provide fully accessible service.

The same problems may recur that weekend, unless there are appropriately enforced detours. Whenever there are more buses on the road, that means more traffic. The city has a lot of options at its disposal to live up to the spirit of its Complete Streets policy, and to put transit riders first.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Well… I would think that this is a prime example that you can’t always predict traffic patterns. The Ashland BRT is going to throw traffic in all sorts of directions. I don’t think the Environmental Report even considered the additional traffic flow onto Milwaukee Avenue and Clybourn. If you think that bike rider had a hard time, just wait until all the traffic (including trucks) that can’t make left turns move to other streets, like Damen and Southport.

    Even if you put up a great big sign that says Milwaukee Ave is open to local traffic and bus/bikes only, once drivers do figure out that it is not because the road is actually closed they will ignore the detour. And I really doubt if the city has the police manpower to patrol.

    And since this is going to go on for months, you really have to consider the business people. Most need that Saturday/Sunday traffic to be profitable.

    So if the shuttle took 20-30 minutes to get thru the corridor, what would have been the time on a regular bus? 10-15 minutes? We all suffer the indignity of small everyday inconveniences. Guess this is one of them.

  • Mishellie

    On the train? Like MAYBE 10 min.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    So if it takes 10 minutes on the train, and per Steve’s reckoning 30 minutes on the bus, I would have to say 20 minutes on a regular bus on a regular day. So in other words to save people 10 to 20 minutes, you would have to nearly shut down Milwaukee Avenue to thru auto traffic, a large commercial street.

    I’m sure if you have to get to work on the CTA or something time sensitive, you would be planning for some delay and adjusting your schedule accordingly.

    To be outraged by a 10 to 20 minute delay is just too dramatic.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Only during a substantial delay would that take 10min by train. From Western to Logan Square is closer to 5 min.

  • JacobEPeters

    This is an example of traffic jams caused by an incompletely executed detour protocol. It has Nothing to do with Ashland BRT, since that will include a dedicated bus lane providing an express option for anyone who needs to move along the corridor & who doesn’t need to use a private automobile to do so.

  • JacobEPeters

    It’s a matter of pointing out how enforcement of the intended detour would have lessened congestion for both shuttles bus riders, and cars navigating the corridor. So that improvements can be made, and traffic patterns can be improved for all road users.

  • what_eva

    That little detour sign is ridiculous. They needed to block the street with those “road closed, local traffic only, detour ->” signs

  • That’s exactly what they did…a block down the road, at Milwaukee, contributing to the increased through traffic on a neighborhood street.

  • BlueFairlane

    Thankfully, we have a robust street grid easily able to absorb all that traffic.

  • Karen Kaz

    I learned last year that CTA apparently doesn’t give very much information to their drivers when there is a detour. There was a detour of the 155 Devon bus, and a driver almost blew past people waiting at a detour stop (on the opposite side of an intersection from where the normal stop is). After we waved her down, she apologized and said that it was her first time driving the detour so se didn’t know there was a stop there. Some better communication with their drivers could help this kind of thing a lot!

  • what_eva

    Wow, so someone at CDOT is a genius for setting it up that way…

  • I’ve since found out that the little sign was used in error. Larger signs were supposed to be used, and placed in the curbside lane.

    The traffic plan is created by CTA and reviewed by CDOT (I presume CDOT has approval authority).

  • what_eva

    sounds like they still had the wrong plan. they should have had Fullerton very close to blocked by signs on the far (west) side of the intersection. so that your average driver would realize they were supposed to turn right on California.

  • There will be a street closure on Friday, April 4th, at North Avenue under the ‘L’ tracks. The detour starts at North Avenue/Western Avenue and North Avenue/Ashland Avenue and uses Division Street as the east-west route. Bicyclists will be detoured to Wabansia and Leavitt. I’ve been told larger signs and Type III barriers will be used to direct through-traffic around the area. I’m skeptical it will be successful though because Western and Ashland are much further apart than California and Kedzie were in the Fullerton/Sacramento street closure detour.

  • Agreed.

  • I’ve heard this complaint before. Was the detour planned in advance?

  • Karen Kaz

    Yes, well in advance. It was a reroute due to sewer line construction at Devon and California, if I remember correctly. The eastbound re-route took the bus up to Pratt and then down Western to turn back onto Devon. The Devon & Western bus stop, normally on the west side of Western, was moved to the east side and she was about to drive right by everyone waiting there until we waved and yelled.

  • what_eva

    Is it just North that’s closed under the L or is Damen closed too? That detour just seems like a bad plan because there is so much going on around North/Damen/Milwaukee.

  • This is exactly what I was saying, @Wewilliewinkleman:disqus. The through traffic on the weekend was more than Milwaukee can handle and more than it usually handles. Milwaukee is a neighborhood street lined to the brim with shops, restaurants, and homes. Fullerton is mostly residential and should have only local traffic.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think an additional issue with the planned detour is that Division is a long way from North, and that people will look for closer cut-throughs. I know were I driving this way, CDOT’s plan isn’t the detour I would follow.

    This whole episode illustrates the need for planners to take into account what people will actually do rather than some idealized version of what they’d like them to do. People will take the shorter route. It would have made sense, then to send the bus the route people are less likely to want to go. The bus could have taken that right onto California and encountered less congestion.

  • Benjamin Gembler

    I find it interesting that the CTA hasn’t promoted the Divvy option, given the stations are conveniently located at these locations.

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