The Loop Link Bus Rapid Transit System Launches This Sunday

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Loop Link corridor on Washington near Franklin. Photo: CDOT

The long-awaited Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor, featuring dedicated bus lanes, limited stops, island stations, and other timesaving features, will begin operations this Sunday, December 20. Whether the new system is deemed to be a success or a failure by Chicagoans will be a crucial factor in whether the city moves forward with its plan for a more robust BRT system on Ashland Avenue.

Loop Link will provide an express route across the Loop for six CTA bus lines that terminate in various corners of the city, including the #J14 Jeffery Jump, #20 Madison, #56 Milwaukee, #60 Blue Island/26th, #124 Navy Pier, and #157 Streeterville/Taylor. The route includes red bus-only lanes and extra-large bus shelters on Madison and Washington in the Loop, plus red bus-only lanes on Canal and Clinton in the West Loop. The city projects the system will double rush hour bus speeds, which are currently a glacial pace of 3 mph.

Some of the planned features of the Loop Link route have been reduced, modified, or delayed, but it should still offer a significant improvement in service. The system won’t include stoplights that turn green when a bus approaches, truly level boarding, or enclosed stations, and pre-paid boarding won’t be piloted until next year.

But the system will include limited bus stops, signal timing that gives buses a head start over cars, nearly level boarding, and extra-long bus shelters with lots of seating. Prepaid boarding should be tested next summer at the Madison/Dearborn Loop Link station, the busiest stop in the system, according to Mike Claffey from the Chicago Department of Transportation, which is building the Loop Link infrastructure.

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Rendering of BRT on Washington at LaSalle.

Seven of the eight planned bus stations are nearly complete. The eighth one at Washington/Wabash was delayed by the construction of a new ‘L’ station at that location, but that bus shelter should open in January, Claffey said.

The dedicated bus lane on Canal should be finished this spring. CDOT is currently building a new bus-boarding center just south of Union Station, which is slated for completion this summer.

The Loop Link corridor already includes a new eastbound protected bike lane on Washington, located between the island bus stations and the sidewalk, plus a two-way protected lane on Clinton. An existing westbound bike lane on Madison has been removed, and it will be replaced by a new westbound protected lane on Randolph, after a construction project is finished at Block 37.

Two of the six bus routes will be modified to take advantage of the Loop Link corridor. The Jeffery Jump, which was the first route in the city to pilot BRT-style elements like dedicated lanes and signal priority on its South Side leg, will run eastbound on Washington instead of Monroe in the Loop. The Navy Pier route will uses Washington instead of Wacker.

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A view of the corridor, looking west from Washington/LaSalle. Photo: CDOT

At least two mixed traffic lanes are maintained on all sections of the Loop Link corridor. Right turns for motorists will be banned at four locations: Washington onto LaSalle, Madison onto Dearborn, Madison onto Wacker and Jackson onto Canal. At other intersections, drivers will be permitted to merge across the bus lane and into right turn bays. To avoid conflicts between right-turning motorists and cyclists in the Washington PBL, each mode will get a dedicated signal phase, similar to how things currently work on the Dearborn protected lanes.

Today CDOT, the CTA, businesses and civic organizations organizations began spreading the word about how the new system will work via a flyering campaign. “We’re asking everyone – CTA riders, drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists – to familiarize themselves with the new set-up,” Claffey said. “For example, the Washington bike lane will be a really nice feature, but there are going to be mid-blocking crosswalks for people accessing the bus stations. So bicyclists will really need to be aware of pedestrians and yield to them.”

The Loop Link brochure contains basic information about how the system will function, plus sections aimed at different types of road users. Transit users are warned to stay away from the edge of the raised bus platforms. Motorists are directed to pay attention to the new traffic signals, especially when making right turns, and use designated areas for pick-ups and drop-offs. “Stopping in a travel lane slows everyone’s commute,” the pamphlet notes.

Pedestrians are cautioned to watch for bicyclists when crossing bike lanes. The news release about the Loop Link launch notes “pedestrians are urged not to walk or stand in the… bike lanes and to obey signals when crossing at intersections.” However, that text wasn’t included in the brochure, which is a shame because those pedestrian behaviors are currently a problem along the Dearborn two-way protected lane.

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The Loop Link brochure includes info and warnings aimed at different types of road users.

While the new bus shelters won’t offer much protection from blowing rain and snow, they will have video screens with real-time bus arrival information. Streetsblog’s Steven Vance is glad that, unlike some Train Tracker displays at ‘L’ stations, the Loop Link Bus Tracker screens won’t force customers to view ads before they get useful info.

Since the new bus-only lanes won’t be camera enforced, the big question is whether motorists will respect them. If it becomes common for drivers to swerve into the red lanes to get around traffic jams, or pick up and drop off passengers, bus travel will be less safe and efficient. Hopefully, police officers will aggressively ticket motorists who break the rules.

This is key because, since mixed-traffic lanes have been converted to bus and bike lanes for Loop Link, it’s important that residents feel the safety and timesaving benefits of the system justify the street reconfiguration. Otherwise, it will be difficult to move forward with the city’s bolder proposal for BRT on Ashland, which would convert two of the four travel lanes on that street to dedicated bus lanes with median stations. And Ashland BRT, which would boost bus speeds from 8.9 mph to 15.9 mph, has a even bigger potential to revolutionize Chicago transit.

  • Pat

    Let’s hope the red paint works. Judging by the “Bus Only” lanes that currently exist in some parts of the Loop, compliance and enforcement are non-existent.

  • I’m hoping the Red “Paint” will make a difference but it probably won’t be enough.

  • Yeah – with the current crop of “Bus Only” lanes on Jackson (and Adams?) in the Loop, and the ones that preceded them (painted red back in 2006, I think), there was no strategy or policy to actually make them act like bus lanes.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    One big difference is that Loop Link uses red concrete, not paint, so the lanes will still be easy to see after several winters.

  • cjlane

    “If it becomes common for drivers to swerve into the red lanes to get around traffic jams”

    Or, you know, the illegally stopped cars and trucks that now populate the left lane of both Washington and (especially) Madison.

    I think it will be fine IF there is enforcement of the “No standing” in the left thru lane. Thus far, enforcement seems to be non-existent.

  • Dan Korn

    There’s nothing like a flyering campaign to spread the word to motorists, especially in the winter. Maybe motorists will voluntarily roll down their windows and allow the flyers to gently waft their way into their cars.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    In fairness, the news release calls it an “outreach and education campaign,” so there’s probably more to it than just brochures. Perhaps they’ll rent the Goodyear Blimp?

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    The best new feature, when traveling westbound on Madison, you cannot turn right on LaSalle on weekends and holidays because free parking is allowed in the right turn lane on weekends and holidays.

    If this was in Jeff Park, the NIMBYs heads would explode because they wouldn’t be able to decide which was more important, private car parking or right turns. Oh, the humanity!

  • If the number and frequency of the buses are great enough there is a strong intimidation factor. Plus who wants to chance getting trapped behind a bus.

    But yes interesting to see how this shakes out. I have my fingers crossed.

  • planetshwoop

    I work at Madison & LaSalle, and it’s silly that there are cars there at all. Between the buses, double-parking, and the ped crossing (since traffic is slow, it’s glorious jaywalking), traffic crawls more than usual. I’m not advocating that cars should roar through the Loop like it’s an expressway, but the traffic on LaSalle seems so pointless that it should just be shut out altogether and become a pedestrian-zone.

  • planetshwoop

    The signage is pretty significant, at least what I saw today at Wash + Madison. There is overhead signage to indicate the bus lane, so it’s fairly obvious even beyond the red concrete.

  • planetshwoop

    Sorry if I missed this in the coverage, but will non-loop link buses (e.g 20 Madison) use the lane too or be re-routed?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Loop Link will provide an express route across the Loop for six CTA bus lines that terminate in various corners of the city, including the #J14 Jeffery Jump, #20 Madison, #56 Milwaukee, #60 Blue Island/26th, #124 Navy Pier, and #157 Streeterville/Taylor.

  • Pat

    I think the Joker’s parade scene from Batman would be more effective.

  • Yeah, but that was on LaSalle, not Madison or Washington. :->

  • Pat

    I’m talking Tim Burton’s Batman!

  • BlueFairlane

    Only if you commit to extending that scene through its conclusion.

  • Chicagoan

    Hoping it’s a hit and makes the CTA take a long look at an investment in Ashland and Western BRT.

  • Jeff Park will get its own version of BRT-lite with the Pace Pulse Milwaukee Line. http://pulse.pacebus.com/index.php/service-lines/milwaukee

  • Neil Clingerman

    NIMBY reaction in 5, 4, 3, 2… ;)

  • johnaustingreenfield

    There’s been a reaction, not from the NIMBYs but local transit cranks Citizens Taking Action: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2015/09/01/citizens-taking-action-takes-a-reactionary-stance-on-bus-rapid-transit/

  • cjlane

    Nah, not a pedestrian zone–should be light rail/streetcar only south of Wacker, with the light rail/streetcar running up LaSalle to the Park, and then either up Clark, or thru the park and then up Sheridan, replacing all the bus lines. Would be awesome.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    Yeah this is cool because the frequency of the buses is much higher than the current 270.

  • Lisa Curcio

    Having been walking along Washington today, I think the biggest problem is going to be pedestrians crossing the bike lane against the signal to get to the bus stop and to get to the islands. The traffic signals for car lanes, bus lane, and bike lane look like they should work (if my fellow cyclists obey the bike lane signals ;-))

  • Wait, is there not all-door boarding…?

  • DanielKH

    They’re using the same buses, which don’t have back-door scanners, so without prepayment they can’t do all-door boarding.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    This was never really in the mix for Loop Link. It would be for Ashland.

  • Also just realized a lot of the back doors, if not all, can’t be automatically opened. They may have an assist but I’m pretty sure someone has to give it a push first.

    The Ventra scanners would be easy, just put another one at the back door?

    Point is, if they *wanted* to make boarding easier, they could.

  • DanielKH

    Yeah, I’d really love to talk to someone who understood the buses technically well, because I’ve wondered the same thing about opening the doors from the outside/automatically. It seems like it’s not possible, but maybe there’s a relatively simple fix? After stop consolidation, this seems like the most obvious next step if Carter’s serious about improving bus service.

  • I’ve also noticed that there are only 2 doors even on articulated buses. Many other cities have 3 doors for articulated buses. So I guess “3 doors” is another wish-list item for future buses.

  • giovanni

    Overall, I’m excited and hopeful. I want to mention two things I find unfortunate in this plan.
    First a small thing that should have been a no-brainer. The bus arrival information signs have only 3 lines, on a corridor with 7 routes. There is plenty of room on that kiosk to lower the advertising sign several inches to allow for a larger info screen, and/or make the cover plate over the info screen smaller.

    Second, for all the minor controversy over the exact size and design of the shelters, we seem to have overlooked a much bigger weather issue. Loop Link is intended in major part to circulate commuters from the two Metra stations. But there is no shelter at either of those stations for customers waiting to catch one of the buses. That’s just weird. A couple of the routes do pass under the Metra tracks on Washington, but given travel patterns, I’d think the routes heading north on Michigan will be more heavily patronized, and for 3 out of 4 of those you’ll have to wait in the rain on Canal to catch. Canal at Ogilvie is far bigger than needed for the traffic, so it would have been easy to create a sheltered station there. Maybe that’ll be in phase 2 with pre-paid boarding.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The new Union Station transit center will have covered waiting areas.

  • Anne A

    Another variant on the problems we’ve seen along Dearborn, where too many peds stand or walk in the bike lane.

  • Pat

    I’ve definitely noticed this has been getting better though. I think as more protected lanes are implemented, people will adjust.

  • Chicagoan

    I was going to say, perhaps they’re eyeing a bus model with 3 doors for their next round of purchasing.

    Honestly, this is only, what, 75% BRT? It doesn’t have train station-like enclosures (though, I don’t think we need them in this instance), there isn’t all-door boarding, and there are some small other details that bother BRT followers.

    It’s basically a last-mile transit option for Metra commuters and I’m okay with that.

    My hope is that the Loop Link is a hit and it more or less forces the CTA to go all-in on 100% BRT for Ashland and Western, perhaps eventually spreading to Cermak and North, or 31st Street, something like that.

  • The current shelter designs along the Loop Link are really more theoretical than useful. The roofs are so high that rain and wind and snow just come right in the sides on the wind.

  • cjlane

    WTF is with all the bitching about the ‘shelters’? The prior shelters were ok (but just ok) for about 3 people, so long as the only wind was from the long enclosed side. The no shelters are a little worse, but provide some protection for 100+.

    Get over it, everybody.

  • DanielKH

    Yeah, it really shouldn’t be called BRT. It’s an improvement! But bus lanes and nicer stations really just ought to be considered normal improvements for high-ridership lines. Ditto bus tracker signs, which the CTA (to their credit!) has already installed at hundreds of stops around the city.

  • They’re basically decorative sculpture. They don’t keep you dry, they don’t block any noticeable wind at all, their entire purpose is to be pretty.

    If they’d lowered the roof to, say, 7 feet, there’s a chance it would keep you dry in rain and prevent some snow drifting. If there were any front wall, it might be a useful place to huddle out of the wind.

    But they didn’t want an “enclosed” feeling and the businesses yelled at the thought that one micron of their signs might be visually blocked, so we ended up with pretty pieces of street art that don’t actually work as bus shelters.

  • Chicagoan

    I really like it. I think the stations are a nice compromise, not a bus station but not a train station either. They don’t need to be train station-like, as its a last-mile transit option.

    Bus dedicated lanes, made with red concrete, are the big win on this. Anything where the city is taking streets in The Loop away from cars and giving them back to cyclists/pedestrians/transit riders is a great thing.

    This little stretch really isn’t ideal for BRT, it’s too tightly packed. They’re just using the term BRT because it’s a current transit buzzword and it’ll help them make the option more appealing to commuters and tie the proposed Ashland BRT to it if the project is successful.

    It’ll be on Ashland that 100% BRT is a real possibility and I think the CTA is holding out until they can make that happen.

  • cjlane

    Ok, as opposed to the previous non-existent street art that also didn’t work as bus shelters.

    The project site has as the related benefit: “Riders will stay comfortable and dry at longer, covered stations equipped with Bus Tracker displays and other amenities.”

    “comfort” is likely from more space to sit (which is true). “dry” is only applicable with zero wind, but is more likely than before on most of the route. The rest is true.

    And, indeed, the only reference I see to “shelter” in the materials is that shelters are being *removed* from walkways. I think that the language was chosen carefully, as everyone knows that the station covers /= “shelters”.

  • Andrew

    The Washington/State intersection looks very poorly designed for bikes. The configuration here is different from the one in the brochure. There is a loading zone for the hotel there so the bike lane just abruptly ends, requiring cyclists to zig zag their way around the cars that will likely always be occupying that zone. The only place to ride will be into right turning cars. I hope there will be some sort of light system at this intersection to make this less worse.

  • Eric X

    So the bike lane on Madison is gone. There may be one going in on Randolph. Lovely. Good job to Active Transit Alliance for being useless as usual.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    There *is* one going in on Randolph, as soon as Block 37 construction is done, and it will be a protected lane. That’s a big upgrade over the old Madison bike lane, which forced cyclists to ride between two lanes of moving traffic.

  • Eric X

    A city planning department that wants to actually protect cyclists would jobs put that in first. And the two way bike lane should have gone in on Washington where there is no conflict with crazy drivers trying to pile onto the Kennedy. Good planning, CDOT!

  • Eric X

    Here’s a fun one: northbound Frankilin onto eastbound Washington. Someone made the bike turning lane big enough for a car (or is it a car turning lane…doesn’t make any sense from the signs) and a Prius can fit in the lane.

  • Walter Crunch

    It would be nice to see an enforcement/education component paired with any new infrastructure plan. However, the CPD might be a little busy with various protest/lawsuits.

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