Despite Reduced Features, Loop Link Should Still Prove the Benefits of BRT

IMG_2751
A Loop Link shelter under construction on Washington Street. The location of a new protected bike lane is visible to the right. Photo: John Greenfield

Last week’s update on the Loop Link bus rapid transit project by the Chicago Tribune’s Jon Hilkevitch raised some valid questions about the ultimate value of the project. Hilkevitch noted that some of the planned features of the downtown express bus corridor have been reduced, modified, or delayed. However, it looks like Loop Link will still be a major win for the central business district, which could pave the way for a more robust BRT route on Ashland Avenue.

Let’s look at some of the timesaving elements the Loop Link system won’t – and will – have. For starters, as originally planned, the route will have seven fewer stops than currently exist. Having stops roughly every other block, instead of every block, will definitely speed things up. The system will also feature dedicated bus lanes with red pavement. That should provide a significant traffic advantage for the six bus lines that will use the corridor, provided that there’s decent enforcement to keep other vehicles out of the lanes.

Transit signal priority, which shortens red lights or extend greens to keep buses from getting stopped at intersections, isn’t planned for Loop Link. TSP already exists on part of the route for the Jeffery Jump, a South Side express bus that has a few BRT-style features. Because the downtown blocks are short and stoplights are closely spaced, providing TSP for one corridor might negatively affect intersecting or parallel streets, Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey told Streetsblog.

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 1.13.32 PM
Rendering of the Loop Link corridor on Washington.

However, there will be “queue jumps” for the BRT buses, which will give them a short head start before other vehicles get a green light, similar to leading pedestrian interval walk signals, Claffey said. “This will allow [the buses] to leave a station in advance of general traffic and avoid conflict with right-turning traffic on the next block.”

CDOT is building eight Loop Link stations along Washington and Madison streets. The corridor, which also includes Canal and Clinton Streets, will link Union Station and the Ogilvie Center with Michigan Avenue. However, Hilkevitch reports, the planned station at Madison and Wabash Avenue won’t open until the spring, due to the construction of the new Washington-Wabash ‘L’ station, currently underway. That’s a little disappointing, but it won’t impact the ultimate performance of the BRT system.

Perhaps a more serious issue is that the Loop Link will lack prepaid boarding when it debuts. We’ve known for more than a year that the station at Madison and Dearborn Street would be the only stop with prepaid boarding to begin with, although the plan is to eventually expand the prepay system to all eight stations. However, Hilkevitch reports that even that pilot will be delayed until sometime next year.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.13.55 PM
The Loop Link route.

“This will start after the service is launched to allow customers time to get used to the Loop Link corridor,” CDOT spokesman Claffey told Streetsblog. Again, it’s a bummer that this feature is being delayed, but hopefully the Madison/Dearborn pilot won’t launch too late in 2016, and we won’t have to wait too long until prepay is expanded to the whole system.

Another change to the plan is that the platforms of the island bus stations won’t be completely flush with all of the buses using the route. As late as last February, Loop Link materials promised that riders would be able to “get on or off the bus more quickly at bus-level stations that make it easy for everyone, including seniors and people using wheelchairs.”

While all of the Loop Link stops will have “near-level” boarding, since the CTA has an existing bus fleet that includes several models of buses, the design had to account for some variation between bus floor heights, Claffey said. “The platforms will be 11 inches high, which in some instances will be very close to level, and in all cases will be significantly closer to the bus floor.” While the bus driver may still need to employee a ramp for wheelchair users in some cases, the near-level platforms may eliminate the need to “kneel” bus to help seniors and people with disabilities who don’t use wheelchairs.

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Construction is currently underway on the Union Station Transit Center, slated to open next year, which will serve buses on the Loop Link corridor. Photo: John Greenfield

We’ve also known for almost a year that the bus shelter design has been downgraded. Earlier renderings, based on the winning entry of a station design contest, showed enclosed structures, but merchants were concerned that these would obstruct the view of their storefronts.

The shelters that are currently under construction are essentially 14-foot-tall canopies with a glass rear wall that stops several feet before the roof, so they’ll offer limited protection from blowing rain and snow. However, the shelters will average 90 feet in length, long enough to accommodate two articulated buses. They’ll also feature a bench that runs the length of the station, so just about everybody who wants to sit down will be able to.

To recap, we’re not getting transit signal priority, truly level boarding, and enclosed shelters, and the pilot of prepaid boarding will be delayed until next year. But we are getting limited stops, dedicated lanes, queue jumps, near-level boarding, and extra-long shelters with lots of seating, and we’ll eventually be getting prepaid boarding at all stations.

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A two-way protected bike lane is being created on Clinton as part of the Loop Link project. Photo: John Greenfield

The remaining features should still make a significant improvement in bus times. The CTA has estimated that these improvements will make a westbound trip across the Loop 15 percent shorter, and an eastbound trip 25 percent shorter.

The proposed Ashland BRT project would have more features than the Loop Link, including center-running buses, prepaid boarding from level stations, buses with multiple doors, and transit signal priority. Last month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the return of express bus service on Ashland and Western avenues, with the addition of TSP.

At the press conference, Emanuel seemed indicated that the full Ashland BRT project won’t move forward until the downtown corridor is completed. “The only BRT I’m investing in right now is the [Loop Link] in the Central Business District,” he said.

It looks like once the Loop Link system launches, and especially after prepaid boarding is established at all eight stations, Chicagoans will have a better idea of the benefits of BRT. Hopefully, that will help get the Ashland project moving again.

  • Deni

    I was living in Boston when the Silver Line on Washington Street started, which also cut back on all the promised BRT features (no pre-pay boarding, no signal priority, cars going in the painted lanes whenever they want, etc.) as well as having stops too close together due to neighborhood groups’ demands. What they got was another bus route that is barely faster than other buses in Boston.

    I fear that’s what will happen here, and that their predictions for 15% and 25% time savings will turn out to be higher than the reality. If the Loop BRT turns out to be a crappy bus service it will kill any chance to get the Ashland BRT, that’s a much bigger reason I worry about the reduction in features. If this thing kicks ass then you get a lot more people on board for BRT in this city, but if it tanks then you kill the future of BRT in Chicago.

  • duppie

    It appears the bi-directional bike lane on Clinton is still on. That’s vwhat I am looking forward to. Can’t wait for them to be put in use.

  • Yes, the Silver Line is the cautionary tale for BRT. Loop Link already has a few advantages already over the Silver Line: guaranteed limited stops (they’re not going to put in a more of the giant shelters), permanent red pavement, queue jumps (these don’t impact drivers, since leading pedestrian intervals are already in effect), and near-level boarding.

  • R.A. Stewart

    There remains the point you make regarding the dedicated lanes: “… provided that there’s decent enforcement to keep other vehicles out of the lanes.” Which there will not be, if my observation of the enforcement of every stinking traffic ordinance in every corner of the city has any bearing at all. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see police cars routinely traveling and parking in the red lanes.

    It will be nice, though, if those apparently thoroughly protected bike lanes make it into reality.

  • Between the lines the subtext here is the Ashland BRT’s future. I think that the moves that the mayor is taking make sense. He has stopped pushing the Ashland BRT which takes the wind out of the sails of the opponents. He is waiting to have a successful loop BRT to hold out as an example. He is beginning the re-implemtation of an upgraded with TSP express buses on Ashland and Western.

    Then armed with the hoped for success (or at least a neutral lack of failure) of the loop BRT and the results of the express buses he can make a big push for Ashland BRT. As Deni makes clear the loop BRT needs to at least not fail badly. The Boston example appears to have lost the battle for dedicated lanes and too close spacing of stops. The loop BRT has a shot at not failing.

    The other wild card are the express buses. I suppose it is possible that they could be so successful that they obviate the need for BRT in peoples minds. I tend to doubt that myself. Best case there would be that they demonstrate clearly the need for further BRT features.

    The mayor is on the right track and doing what he can. It is also his job to line up institutional support.

    But what the mayor cannot do is create vocal grassroots support. And really the key is vocal as in passionate. Perhaps it is out there and you here do not report on it. Perhaps Active Trans has such capability. When I think of vocal and passionate I think of the in your face efforts that worked for years to effect gay marriage.

  • You are quite right. It will be an early indicator of whether the mayor is really behind BRT. I’m pretty confident that ordinary motorists will actually be pretty observant. Of course it is the exceptions, few as they might be that can cause a lot of havoc. That and as you indicate all the self-important extremist law breakers in the police force and other city departments. But if the mayor has any influence it would be with those people.

    It too bad efforts are not being made to bring on camera enforcement of the lanes.

    I personally am cautiously optimistic that the dedicated lane aspect will actually work well, even being quite cynically aware of the general lack of enforcement of traffic laws.

  • Bi-directional? The picture above shows only one direction in the bike lane.

  • bfr12

    The rendering above shows Washington and an Eastbound bike lane. Randolph will have the corresponding Westbound lane. Clinton will have a bidirectional North-South lane.

    Edit: sorry, now I see the picture you’re referencing. I would guess they do not have the centerline striping done in the picture.

  • R.A. Stewart

    From your keyboard to God’s monitor!

  • rohmen

    I ride my bicycle into the loop on Washington daily, and I’ve actually very rarely ever seen a driver drive in the bus only lane that runs for a couple blocks through Ogilve (and it’s not even painted red). The ones that I do see seem like tourists that are lost/confused.

    Chicago drivers are bad, and you’re going to get some that disrespect it for sure, but my bet is that rampant disrespect will not happen.

  • NIMBY1976

    Again – this project is a complete boondoggle.
    All of this money, time, and aggravation for basically a dedicated bus lane? That could have easily been accomplished for far less cost and disruption.

    Bus shelters that won’t protect from rain? Why on earth would they design something like that? Who cares if you can sit down. If the seats are wet, no one will be sitting.

    And only 15% or 25% reduction in travel time? Really? Is that worth it? I don’t think so. While I generally follow traffic laws, if I find myself stuck in gridlock on those streets because of this monstrosity, I won’t hesitate to “veer” into the red lane. Why should my travel times be significantly increased for minimal savings hauling soaked commuters across the loop?

    this entire project will be a waste, and I’m not sure why people here keep thinking this will “pave the way” for BRT on streets like Ashland. Keep dreaming. This whole thing will likely be bulldozed within 5 years.

  • duppie

    I ride on Clinton every day, and you question my statement based on looking solely at a picture…

    And look again at the picture. You’ll see the contra-flow bike traffic signal installed on the pole in the left, wrapped in burlap.

  • Fuegofan

    It’s great that Randolph and Washington are getting bike lanes, but how does one get safely to that Randolph bike lane from the lakefront?

  • Those bus lanes are quite separate though.

  • Lower Randolph (direct but a little scary for some riders) and the riverwalk to State Street (there’s a ramp by the Vietnam War memorial) are options.

  • The 15- or 25-percent time reduction I mentioned is based on what CDOT told me last year. The Trib stated, “The service, operated on red-colored bus-only lanes, is designed to more than double the 3 mph average speed of CTA buses traveling across the middle of downtown. The CTA has estimated the average time savings per passenger at 7.5 minutes for trips that are generally a mile or less through downtown.” I’m double checking with CDOT to see what their current projection is.

  • Fuegofan

    So coming from the south, would that mean Monroe to Columbus to Randolph for that route? And then pick up the bike lane across Michigan? Any idea if the bike lane will be on the north or south side of Randolph? And any idea if they’ve started working on that lane?

  • Columbus runs under Randolph, so that wouldn’t work, unless you carry your bike up a flight or two of stairs. The most direct route would be to take Michigan between Monroe and Randolph, but that’s obviously not for the faint of heart. You can also get from Monroe and LSD to upper Randoph via paths through Maggie Daley Park (stay on the east edge of the park): https://www.google.com/maps/dir/41.8809032,-87.6168167/41.8845012,-87.6247805/@41.8825177,-87.6234512,1187m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m14!4m13!1m10!3m4!1m2!1d-87.6173129!2d41.8833813!3s0x880e2b58425c26ad:0x392bc7df59a290c!3m4!1m2!1d-87.6237294!2d41.8845016!3s0x880e2ca6083b57ad:0xad4eaf1208d736b7!1m0!3e1 Just about every one-way bike lane in town (except Dearborn in River North) is on the right side of the street, so the Randolph lane will probably be on the right side. I don’t believe work has started on this yet.

  • JacobEPeters

    I am just afraid of the kind of disregard that is given for these dedicated pieces of infrastructure by public service employees. From the postal truck stopped in the bus lane I saw yesterday to the Pace van parked with its flashers on in the dearborn bike lane outside the county building. Until it is enforced regarding those employees I will hold by breath on Loop Link being enforced.

  • This is the kind of response to be expected when you water down BRT. I might hesitate to even call this BRT until, at minimum, you get off board fare collection. That will be the ultimate game changer in reducing dwell time and increasing bus speed and reliability.

  • One challenge of doing pre-paid boarding on this stretch is that it will serve six bus lines, some of which originate in distant neighborhoods. Therefore, NYC Select-style ticket kiosks and random ticket checks might not work. However, it looks like it might not be that hard to retrofit the shelters to create limited access via turnstiles.

  • The key is proof-of-payment (POP) inspectors. Which may not be an efficient use of resources initially, but if the CTA expands their BRT activities onto Ashland as well as POP on Jeffery Jump, then this makes more sense. San Francisco MTA actually converted their entire bus system to all-door boarding with POP inspections. https://www.sfmta.com/sites/default/files/agendaitems/2014/12-2-14%20Item%2014%20All%20Door%20Boarding%20Report.pdf

  • My understanding is that the power requirements for ticket vending machines are baked into the design of the stations. I have to believe that turnstiles won’t really do much as you can still access the station from the street.

  • Allan Mellis

    Without pre-boarding fare payment and the need to accommodate wheelchair riders, what will be the new one-way total commute time, how does that compare with the original estimate, and how does that compare to the current commute time?

    Will allowing the busses to start earlier at a light, cause safety concerns especially for the visually impaired?

    Will the new Loop Link Bus Shelters provide adequate protection for passengers in the winter and on rainy days?

    What will be the time savings of the Ashland BRT compared to the new Ashland express bus?

  • Hey what do I know? Thanks for the correction!

  • Fuegofan

    Thanks for the responses. Columbus to Randolph is a route I take in the car sometimes. Yes, Columbus goes underneath Randolph, but Randolph has a lower spur that connects with upper Randolph. The merger is unpleasant in a car, so I can’t say that I would be enthusiastic about doing it on a bike. It’s super annoying that there are no good ways into the Loop from the south. Best I’ve found so far is likely through Grant Park to 9th Street and zig zag a bit over to Dearborn, but it’s far from efficient.

  • My first impulse was to ignore all your negative nelly kwetching. I wondered, unless you were a troll, why do you even bother to read this site much less comment.

    But…

    I think I see where you are coming from, and that is the big classic pie in the sky boondoggle from what the late 70s, the infamous “State Street Mall”. As I began to think about this project I realized that really it is not a BRT project. I guess you could call it a stretch of downtown street with BRT features. Not really even BRT light.

    And here’s why, because a real BRT has to have some length to it. Some heft. And this doesn’t. All your complaints, overblown and purposely added together as they are for maximum put down, actually generally have a kernel of truth to them.

    Then why do I thing this project is useful, important and likely to succeed at least on its own terms if not as BRT?

    Partly because the third time will be the charm. In a way the State Street Mall was BRT before its time. Remember, while cars were out, buses were in. But the mall was neither a true mall nor a true BRT. That and that it was swimming against several anti-urban tides of the time spelled its doom. But it was the first try at helping buses work downtown.

    The second try was the previous attempt by the CTA to speed cross loop bus travel. Remember that experiment? Dedicated lanes like now. But without the pretense of BRT. I don’t know all the reasons for it being bulldozed, and in way less than 5 years, but at least one was that it seemed to confuse pedestrians surprised by vehicles coming the other way on the one way streets. It truly was an experiment. On the cheap too as I recall. Just some signs and some paint, no?

    And there you have it. There is a real need for this project that has been seen for years. And maybe the only reason to call it BRT was to get dollars or to lend weight in people’s minds about the goodness of doing it. But the CTA has clearly learned from past experiences and from present opportunities. The CTA is also riding the urbanist wave of complete streets and the return to pedestrians of public street space stolen last century by the automobile fetish.

    So yes this is no real BRT. But no I will bet that it will not be a boondoggle. This is something long time coming and long time needed.

  • Here’s what a number of folks worry about. Of course simply a “lane” is different than a “BRT lane”. We’ll see.

    Super effective bus lanes on Madison ave #nyc. OMG EVERYONE STOP HONKING IT DOESNT DO ANYTHING @BilldeBlasio pic.twitter.com/widJitY52L— Craig Toocheck (@ctoocheck) September 15, 2015

  • NIMBY1976

    I’m being negative? I’m simply pointing out FACTS.

    And you think the CTA has learned from past experiences? I doubt it. CTA is one of the most poorly run transit agencies I’ve ever seen.

  • Then you haven’t seen many transit agencies. CTA does a lot more than you think with the limited resources it has. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but there are many transit agencies more poorly run than this one.

  • Oh, right, I forgot you can take the ramp from Middle Randolph but, yeah, that merge is pretty sketchy. If you’re the kind of cyclist who would consider that, you’re probably best off taking Monroe from the lakefront and then riding a couple of blocks on Michigan (which really isn’t that awful for confident cyclists) to Randolph.

  • NIMBY1976

    BRT on Ashland is never going to happen. If the Ashland express bus is successful, why would you need BRT? And it would likely be watered down BRT anyway, so why bother?

  • You’re basically saying, if we’re successful at speeding buses up from 8.7 to 10.3 mph, why would we bother speeding them up to 15.9 mph?

  • Which are the best. Which others are similarly poorly run? Provide some examples from your experience please.

    Do you honestly believe that you are not being negative? Even if your so-called facts are facts they are presented in a negative tone. Really do you believe that you are not engaging in negative criticism? Do you think your tone and presentation are positive or even neutral?

    Really you will not hesitate to break the law and to “‘veer’ into the red lane”? It sounds to me like you are a dyed-in-the-wool car driver who neither appreciates nor understands transit.

  • Yeah, bike lanes see a lot of disrespect.

  • cjlane

    “Will the new Loop Link Bus Shelters provide adequate protection for passengers in the winter and on rainy days?”

    It will be better than at most of the stops now.

  • cjlane

    Isn’t the 25% time reduction for the average *total* trip that includes some portion of the looplink route?

    I had gotten that impression somewhere.

  • cjlane

    “I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see police cars routinely traveling and parking in the red lanes.”

    There would have to be police cars in the Loop regularly for that to happen. I’ll believe *that* when I see it.

    But you will have:

    Cabs
    Ubers
    UPS
    FedEx
    Miscellaneous city, county, state vehicles

    all in the bus lane on the regular.

  • cjlane

    Mnay of those employees do not have to pay their own tickets, and receive no official sanction for getting them.

  • JacobEPeters

    Yep, the official sanction is what needs to be strengthened. In what other jobs can you receive no penalty for being caught breaking the law while on the job? Only while driving & bike messengering it seems.

  • 1976boy

    You obviously do not use the CTA.

  • NIMBY

    Again, Jeff, I state facts, that’s all. Which of my so-called facts are not facts?

    Great transit agencies:
    I’ll list by city, as I don’t have the time nor desire to look up the proper name
    Tokyo
    Munich
    Berlin
    London
    Barcelona
    Madrid
    New York City

    Poorly run:
    San Francisco
    Santiago
    Chicago

  • Well thanks for the list. I appreciate that you are engaging in good faith here, honestly from the tone of your original comment I was not expecting an actual exchange.

    If you have experienced all those cities’ transit, then hats off to you, you are way more sophisticated than I am. My recent experience within the last ten to fifteen years would include in no particular order:

    New York
    Paris
    San Francisco
    Chicago
    Barcelona
    Amsterdam
    Denver
    New Orleans
    Boston

    From many years ago:
    Frankfort/Heidleberg
    Atlanta
    Seattle
    Philadelphia
    Los Angeles

    But as a resident only San Francisco and Chicago. The rest from a tourist point of view. Even the Paris system which at this point I know pretty well it too only as a tourist.

    But maybe a tourist gains a broader view of a transit system than a regular rider that sticks mostly to a few relevant routes.

    To have a quality discussion around this topic I suppose we would need to really get down to brass tacks and create definitions and standards or some such. But unless you are some kind of transit professional, which I certainly am not, then I don’t see that direction as being worth our time.

    From my own list I would put Chicago in the middle. I guess when we (you?) decide how well run a system is we are kinda referring to the quality of a system when dealing with things potentially within managements control. So yeah various big capital needs shouldn’t count against them.

    So for me I give Chicago, unlike Paris, a lot of credit for running an all night system for the most part. It is also very much a frequent system unlike say Denver and New Orleans.

    I would also upgrade Chicago for its recent attempts to clean up the stations, especially on the red line. Still San Francisco, or at least BART, strikes me as cleaner, as does, of course, a new system like Denver’s. On the other hand New York’s seemed very grungy compared to Chicago. But my New York memories are getting out of date. Even Paris seems dirtier and Barcelona’s no cleaner.

    As for bus systems I give Paris very high marks. Paris has worked very hard to give buses lots of priority in the streets and it shows. Otherwise buses are buses the world over and the variable is consistently whether dedicated road space is carved out from cars. In that respect Chicago is like many others near the bottom. Chicago buses are clean, so they don’t lose points there and we have added many shelters over the last few years. And yes I get that it came at the cost of allowing advertising.

    Sorry for going on so long. Perhaps you could share some of your transit comparisons. I would be interested in learning from your experiences.

  • neroden

    BRT is gibberish.

    But these are bus lanes. Bus lanes are good. And if they’re enforced, they’ll be very useful.

  • neroden

    It would probably have cost this much to put in dedicated bus lanes, period. It’s surprisingly hard to get them put in. And they have to have colored pavement or they get ignored.

  • neroden

    You’re dead wrong about New York City. One of the worst-run transit agencies in the entire world. Chicago’s run a LOT better. I’ve dealt with both repeatedly.

  • neroden

    The road situation near the various railroad stations (Union, Ogilvie, Millennium) was a complete mess before Loop Link. It’ll be a help if only for that reason: shuttling people from the railroad stations to the CTA.

    At Union, the taxis and the dropoffs are being given their own stopping places and sorted out from the buses, though that won’t be done until late next year. It should make a huge difference for traffic flow.

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