CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld Discusses the Loop BRT Project

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Rebekah Scheinfeld. Photo: John Greenfield

I recently sat down with Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld to discuss the city’s efforts to create safer, more efficient conditions for walking, transit and biking. We’ll be publishing the interview in a few installments, starting with this conversation about plans for bus rapid transit in the Loop.

John Greenfield: What’s going on with the schedule for the Loop BRT? I’ve heard there has been a little pushback from business owners. Some of them weren’t excited about the idea of having large bus stations in front of their storefronts, even though the design is transparent. So, when are you thinking that’s going to get rolled out and how many stations does it look like we’re going to get?

Rebekah Scheinfeld: We’re still planning to start construction this year. We have to finish the design process, and then it will go through the procurement process for the construction contractor, and there will be a full season of construction. So the expectation is that it will be operational by the end of 2015. And that also includes the Union Station Transit Center.

The design for the Washington and Madison corridors calls for eight stations at major connection points. We’re still working through the design. Obviously, it’s complex because it’s a major investment in the heart of the Loop, and it requires a lot of coordination with the different users: building owners, business owners, and other constituencies along both corridors.

So, we’re being thoughtful about the design and we’re working through concerns that are being raised through the outreach process we started last year, to reach out to stakeholders in the corridor, to make sure they’re aware of the project, and to talk through any impact concerns that they have about how the street is going to be reconfigured. That’s an ongoing process.

CentralLoopBRTWashington
The planned street configuration on Washington.

JG: What are some of the concerns the business owners have?

RS: One, it’s about understanding what the project entails, in terms of how the street would be designed and the way that there will be space allocated to bikes and pedestrians and transit and regular, general through traffic. We’re explaining that, just to get beyond any pre-conceived notions that people might have, like worries that the streets are only going to be only for buses, or something like that.

We’re explaining that this is going to be a corridor for all users, as well as explaining that there are going to be impacts in terms of where people can load or unload, for example. Obviously, businesses want to make sure that they can accommodate deliveries, for example. And there’ll be some minor offsets to parking. So a lot of it is about education, and each block is not cookie-cutter. On every block there are different kinds of buildings and different kinds of uses, so we take that very seriously.

JG: You have heard some concerns from people worried that their storefronts are going to be obscured, right?

RB: That was an early question that was raised, so we’re doing a lot to make sure that there is transparency in the design, but also that any information panels in the shelters would be perpendicular to the sidewalk, so that it maximizes the view and the sightlines.

CL Platform on street 12-18-13
Rendering of the preliminary station design on Washington.

The thing that we keep hearing over and over, and it’s important to reiterate, is how important this investment is in terms of moving people more efficiently across the Loop. You know, people are always concerned at some level about any change. And so it takes education and good communication to make a successful project, especially in a complex space.

Everyone will agree that for decades, it’s been a real challenge trying to move people efficiently across these corridors, and that there’s a lot of congestion. I think you’ve seen the statistics, in terms of how many people are riding transit across the Loop. [The BRT corridor will serve 11 bus routes that currently transport a total of 93,764 daily.] We know that often those buses are moving slower than an able-bodied person can on the sidewalk. That’s just upside-down.

You have buildings like the Prudential Center and Aon where they’re paying for private shuttles because they want to be able to get people from the west side of the Loop and commuter rail stations over to their buildings more expeditiously. You have had a series of failed attempts to address the problem, like the Central Area Circulator proposal. This is not a new issue.

We’re excited because this is really going to attack that issue of moving people more efficiently across the Loop, giving priority to transit, recognizing the great number of people that are on those buses and the importance of moving those buses efficiently and effectively so that people can get to their jobs on time, so they can get home on time, and so they can get to school on time.

  • hello

    What about making this bus free?

    Discuss…

  • Adam Herstein

    Are you aware of the study that shows evidence that BRT only converts 5% of car trips, while light rail or streetcars can convert up to 40% or car trips?

    Why spend so much money on a system that few people will ditch their cars for?

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Ahhh… because it’s so expensive?

  • John

    I think there should be a free fare zone downtown to encourage transfers to and from the Central Loop BRT.

  • rohmen

    Are you aware of the study of US-implemented BRT programs in NY, LA and Cleveland that showed higher than a 5% draw from car users and fairly significant increases in transit users in the whole.

    http://wagner.nyu.edu/files/rudincenter/NYU_RudinCenter_BRT_Report.pdf.

    Of course light rail or a traditional streetcar would be better, but the gains to be had through properly-implemented BRT at a much lower cost seem to be worth it.

  • J

    Umm… So what you cited is not a study… It contains almost no data on actual mode shift (the mode shift you cite is a part of the “definitions” section, which makes no sense and should be an automatic red flag), and it was not peer reviewed or published in any sort of academic journal. The reality is that very very few systems (BRT or LRT) create anything like a 40% shift to transit. A shift of 10% in 2 years would be phenomenal and would require both carrots and sticks. Arguing over wheel types is a distraction from the bigger issue of how to make transit a more attractive choice than driving.

    http://www.humantransit.org/2011/03/rail-bus-differences-contd.html
    http://www.humantransit.org/2011/02/sorting-out-rail-bus-differences.html

  • david vartanoff

    On the mode question, of course rail would be better for the circulator aspects, however, if the BRT lanes are used for regular CTA buses from all over in their Loop routings, then they , too, will benefit. It is critical therefore that this BRT project be tailored to standard right side door CTA buses. As to fares, the entire CTA fleet should have ventra readers at all doors to speed boarding.

  • cjlane

    What’s the plan wrt right turns in/across the ‘bus only’ lane?

  • cjlane

    I’m pretty sure that this particular BRT will convert approximately 5 (not 5%. Five) car trips, because that is not the point. The point is to smooth out the travel times, headways and frequency of the 11 routes using it as they cross the loop. If this works as intended (the right turns I ask about and cabs violating the ‘bus only’ being substantial wildcards), then it should become very quick to use CTA to get to/from Michigan and the Metra stations.

    Even if it works perfectly, there will be very, very few people who change from driving to using Metra + CTA or CTA alone to get to central and east loop destinations. Perhaps it will get a few out of their cars to go to the United Center, but I’m dubious unless the BRT is extended at least to Ashland.

    PS: It’s a fairer question about the Ashland plan, but then the “look at the cost difference” becomes an even more relevant response.

  • rohmen

    I think your dead on for the loop BRT (which this story is talking about), but the sell on the Ashland BRT only makes sense if it will replace car trips. That said, studies that have look at BRT already implemented in the US do seem to show that they increase users in the system in a double digit amount and reduce car trips at a greater than 5% number.

  • I think a free fare zone is something worth considering as a means to encourage transit but there are some potential drawbacks to a free system (aside from the cost of providing it).

    First of all, all bus routes that use these streets now will remain – there won’t be one route.

    1. The additional draw may put buses at capacity requiring more buses, which may get in each other’s way at stations (there may not be enough physical space to run as many buses as would be needed to respond to the demand).

    2. Enforcing fares when the bus leaves the free fare zone. How would CTA reduce abuse of this program?

  • david vartanoff

    If it is any serious grade of BRT, the buses should have a bus only green ahead of all cars, and RT on R should be disallowed.

  • cjlane

    If so, then I predict a Bus v Cab accident at least once every week day for at least the first year.

    Right on Red is already ‘disallowed’ (by sign) at most of the subject intersections.

    Will be fun when Madison and Washington are essentially single lane thru streets for auto traffic (bc: have you seen the turn lane stacking on M&W as it stands today? It is a principal reason the buses are slow). Yes, I understand that many here will see that as a feature, but it’s not exactly geared to build support for transit.

  • cjlane

    “Enforcing fares when the bus leaves the free fare zone. How would CTA reduce abuse of this program?”

    1. Forced transfers/exit & reentry on the ‘outbound’ routes just outside ‘free zone’.

    2. “Conductor” with portable Ventra pad enters at stop just outside ‘free zone’.

    You only have to worry about it at a single point.

    “The additional draw may put buses at capacity requiring more buses, which may get in each other’s way at stations”

    1. They’d run faster, as no one would need to wait for bad swipes, and could use all doors for boarding. Could easily offset the possible bunching/space issue.

    2. So there’d be a few people trying to hop on the bus at the train stations (and vice versa) who would be willing to pay, but forced to wait. Seems like there could be worse problems to deal with. PLUS: *huge* added constituency in favor of CTA transit.

  • duppie

    They have a free fare zone, or at least used to have it, in Seattle, where downtown buses are free. Once you get out of the downtown zone, you can only exit at the front, where you pay before you exit. When I used it (15 years ago?) it seemed to work pretty well.
    I do not know how it was funded.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    And then there are delivery vehicles and what happens when there needs to be utility work?

  • As you can see in the rendering, there are two travel lanes, plus turn lanes at intersections.

  • hello

    So how about just the “circulator” route(s) is free?
    Presumably not leaving the free fare zone.

  • cjlane

    Um, where do the right turning vehicles that currently stack in right turn lanes go? Do they magically disappear, or do they stack into one of the two thru lanes, making it, de facto, one thru lane and one turn lane?

  • cjlane

    And the cabs! How do we make the cabs/black cars *not* drop people in front of (eg) 3 First National (showing my age–70 W Madison)? Does everyone *really* believe that painting the lane green will affect cab behavior?

    And don’t say “camera enforcement” unless you have a good Springfield lobbyist pitch.

  • I’d love to see a return of the free trolleys to Navy Pier from the Metra stations. These were operated (with a contractor) and paid for by CDOT.

    The 124-Navy Pier bus route could be free and would ease the tourist transition from the Metra stations to Navy Pier (also a major job center). It would also diminish the crush and congestion because of taxis and reduce visitor costs (so they can spend that money on trinkets).

  • The buses will have a queue jump (not sure if this will happen at all intersections) but not a signal preemption.

    This means that the bus will leave the intersection first, ahead of any turning vehicles (beneficial where there’s not a turn signal).

    It also means that the bus’s approach to the signal cannot turn it green (that’s what preemption means).

    Frankly, though, the project is still being designed and information is released in bits and pieces.

  • +1 on the Ventra at all doors. This happens on some routes in San Francisco.
    http://sf.streetsblog.org/2013/02/11/muni-all-door-boarding-continues-to-increase-bus-speeds-fare-payment/

    This is also part and parcel to New York City’s Select Bus Service (SBS), which we demonstrated in December. http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/12/11/a-look-at-nycs-select-bus-service-and-why-ashland-brt-will-be-better/

  • Deni

    Paying on boarding is such a long process and the cause of so much delay. I wish our transit systems would go the Europe model and do random checks and large fines for fare evaders. Even Rome – no model of transit paradise – has buses that pull up and then leave right away, never getting stuck with a line of people paying as they board.

  • Pete

    Problem is, Chicago would be unwilling to meaningfully punish fare violators. Sure they would fine some yuppy who forgot his farecard that day, but what to do about the many homeless who would ride for free? Fine them? They have no money (officially anyway). Do we stack them up in jail, and have a whole wing of the jail dedicated to fare evaders?

    The United States has more social disorder than European countries that use this system, and less willingness to deal with it. This is why it won’t work here.

  • what_eva

    You really think Springfield would not pass bus lane camera enforcement? They had no problem with red light cameras and there was no question speed cameras would get passed, there were only questions of parameters. I could see it restricted to Chicago only, but it’ll pass.

  • Deni

    Works in L.A. whicc was in the U.S. last time I checked It doesn’t increase the level of fare evaders, who find a way even in the barrier system. And it decreases costs significantly.

  • Alex_H

    St. Louis also uses a fare check system on its MetroLink.

  • Pete

    But nobody rides MetroLink.

  • cjlane

    “They had no problem with red light cameras and there was no question speed cameras would get passed”

    In both cases, the justification for the installation was “safety”. Here it will be “let buses run faster”–which simply doesn’t carry the same weight..

  • Fortune Restoration

    People think that their
    storefronts will be hidden if the project is implemented. And although the
    authorities are confident about transparency of the design, the reality will only
    be revealed when the work’s complete. It will be a challenge to maximize view
    as well as sightlines. Businesses will obviously not want to be at loss due to
    any delivery accommodation-related issues!

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