For the past three years, Pace has run two express bus routes down the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) from Bolingbrook and Plainfield to downtown Chicago and the Illinois Medical District, and used the expressway’s shoulders to bypass traffic jams. Creating these dedicated transit lanes has resulted in better reliability — on-time performance jumped from 68 to 93 percent — and faster service, which when combined with comfortable (and wi-fi equipped) buses, has led ridership to jump 226 percent.
Governor Pat Quinn hosted a press conference yesterday at UIC to sign a new law that makes the pilot project permanent, and expands the program. The legislation, sponsored by Representative Robert Rita (D-Blue Island) and State Senator Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago), gives the Illinois Department of Transportation full authority to allow buses on any “specially designated” shoulder in the state.
Before the pilot, IDOT spent $9.5 million to rebuild the shoulders on the Stevenson so that the heavy coaches could ride on them, and plans to spend another $363,000 so that the buses get three more miles of smooth sailing. A press release from Quinn’s office said that this fall, IDOT will outline improvements that would be needed to run buses on shoulders along the Edens Expressway (I-94) between Foster Avenue and Lake-Cook Road, through Northbrook, Glenview, and Skokie.
The Illinois Tollway will be including beefed-up shoulders as part of its reconstruction and widening of I-90 from the Kennedy in Chicago to Barrington Road in Hoffman Estates. The tollway and Pace will also construct park-and-ride lots at the Randall Road and Route 25 interchanges in Elgin, and at Barrington Road [PDF]. The press release said that the Tollway is also building the Elgin-O’Hare Western Access Road to accommodate bus on shoulder operations.
Bus operators can only move into the shoulder once traffic speeds drop below 35 mph, and cannot travel above either 35 mph or 15 mph faster than adjacent traffic. Operators merge back into travel lanes whenever police or broken-down vehicles are using the shoulder, and either merge across ramps or follow ramps back to the shoulder.
Bus on shoulder operations were pioneered in the Twin Cities in 1991, and now that area boasts over 300 miles of shoulder-running bus routes. Cities nationwide have since rolled out similar operations, usually to speed long-distance commuter bus routes.
Historically, suburban Chicago has relied on Metra rather than express commuter buses to access major job centers. Using under-utilized infrastructure, like expressway shoulders, for priority transit services can help to meet increasing demand for transit from areas beyond Metra’s reach, like Plainfield – or, for that matter, the Illinois Medical District. If fast, reliable, comfortable buses can tempt drivers off local roads, those drivers not only stand to save money personally but also can limit their contribution to regional pollution, and reduce cut-through traffic on Chicago’s streets. Faster service like the bus on shoulder routes can also put more jobs within reach and increase economic mobility.
Pace is adding service to keep up with the increasing demand. Next Monday, the 755 will make another a morning trip to Chicago, while the 855 will add two new branches. The 755/855 schedules currently don’t allow for reverse commutes, which would increase the number of jobs available to people living in Chicago — but this might work well for the Edens corridor, since many office parks along Lake-Cook Road currently run shuttle buses to welcome reverse commuters.