Eyes on the Street: On the First Day of Loop Link

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Loop Link station on Washington east of State. Photo: John Greenfield

Like kids unwrapping presents, travelers in downtown Chicago had some shiny new infrastructure to try out Sunday morning. The Loop Link bus rapid transit system debuted on a day when weekday traffic wasn’t an issue, although the central business district was packed with holiday shoppers. Monday will be the first big test of the system.

The main part of the bus corridor runs about a mile across the Loop district on Washington and Madison streets, where giant bus shelters with near-level boarding platforms have been constructed. On Washington, a new protected bike lane runs between the sidewalk and the island stations.

The route also includes Canal and Clinton streets in the West Loop, so it connects the two West Loop commuter rail stations with Michigan Avenue. Six different bus routes that terminate in different corners of the city are now using the corridor, which is designed to double bus speeds from the previous sluggish pace of 3 mph during rush hours.

Time-saving features include red concrete bus-only lanes, limited stops, and white “queue jump” signals at intersections, which give buses a head start, similar to “leading pedestrian interval” traffic signal timing. The queue jumps are currently in effect and seem to function well. Pre-paid boarding isn’t in effect yet, but the city says it will be tested this spring at the station on Madison at Dearborn Street. Read this post for more info about the design of the Loop Link corridor.

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Right turns by motorists are prohibited at several intersections. At others, drivers may cross the bus lane, and right-turn and bike signals prevent conflicts. Photo: John Greenfield

The system is still very much a work in progress. Only seven of the eight planned stations are built — one at Washington and Wabash Avenue will be constructed after work on a new elevated station nearby is finished. Some of the existing shelters are still under construction. And bus drivers, motorists, bike riders, and pedestrians will need some time to get used to the new traffic patterns.

That said, things seemed to be functioning pretty well on Sunday. True, cars in the remaining two mixed-traffic lanes on Washington were moving pretty slowly when I visited in the late afternoon, but it was prime shopping time. In particular, lots of people were walking between the State Street retail strip to the German Christmas market at Daley Plaza, which made it difficult for drivers to turn north onto Dearborn.

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A sign on a Loop Link bus shelter directs customers to the Blue Line subway. Photo: John Greenfield

But CTA riders seemed to appreciate how easy it is to board the buses now, similar to walking aboard an ‘L’ car, as well as the plentiful seating in the shelters. Annoyingly, the glass panels of the structures stop several feet below the roof, which means they’ll provide minimal protection from blowing rain and snow.

There were some issues with lines of right-turning vehicles on Washington blocking the buses, as well as incidents of cabbies dropping off and picking up customers in the red lanes. Washington and State was a particular trouble spot, since drivers pulling up to the Hotel Burnham were constantly blocking the bike lane. But there were many police officers on bicycles who did a good job of shepherding motorists.

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Police officers tell drivers to exit the Washington bike lane at State. Photo: John Greenfield

This isn’t the most robust BRT system around. More timesaving features are planned for the 16-mile route that is very tentatively planned for Ashland Avenue, a north-south street two miles west of the center of town. And there’s definitely going to be a learning curve for Loop Link during the upcoming weeks. Count on plenty of stories in the mainstream media quoting drivers who are annoyed by the lane conversions.

But Loop Link looks like it’s going to be effective in making crosstown bus travel more efficient and less frustrating. It’s going to be especially useful for “last mile” trips for workers and visitor arriving in the West Loop via Metra commuter rail. It’ll be fun to witness the bus system become an essential element of the downtown transportation mix.

View more photos from Sunday’s Loop Link debut here.

  • JKM13

    Why does the bus travel so slowly in the video, even though it has a clear lane?

    If you aren’t going to take advantage of the infrastructure to actually speed up buses, what’s the point?

  • DrMedicine

    Hotel Burnham, Atwood restaurant.

  • The bike cops need mobile ticketing cameras for fast enforcement. Lots of warning tickets until word hits the media and creates a circus. The circus will but the fear of automated ticketing into many drivers and keep them out of the colored lanes.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Fixed, thanks. If you can’t beat ’em, Burnham.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The bus drivers will probably drive less gingerly once they get used to navigating the lanes and pulling used to the platforms.

  • Robert Garvey Jr.

    Is this what Daniel Burnham had in mind when he said “Make no little plans”? A bus lane? How’s about an east-west subway?

  • Chicagoan

    Okay, you gonna pay for it?

  • ohsweetnothing

    I would happily pay for it (via some new tax, surcharge, fee, etc..), but your point still stands. Haha.

  • Robert Garvey Jr.

    Subways are currently under construction in New York and Los Angeles. Why not here?

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    They were also going slow this morning. I walked just as fast as a 56 Milwaukee bus going westbound. It had no traffic. The driver also didn’t take advantage of the bus head start signals.

  • JKM13

    Maybe – its just driving in a straight line, something they can do pretty well at this point (most, anyways).

    Seems more like a policy, and if so, you have to wonder, who the hell came up with it?

    The only thing worse than being on a bus stuck in traffic, is being on a cta train stuck in a 6 mph slow zone. Seems like we’ve spent millions on infrastructure that (rightly or wrongly) will set course for any future BRT in Chicago, and decided that once its in place, operate it like its a slow zone.

  • Robert Garvey Jr.

    Lots of plans. No construction.

  • ohsweetnothing

    My evidence is purely anecdotal, but the amount of static public transportation infrastructure projects seem to receive here makes me think a subway through the loop is a loooong way away.
    I had the opportunity to be in a room with stakeholders affected by the Washington/Wabash station construction. It was discouraging to say the least, at that was just one elevated station.
    I also think we’re still at a point were people in Chicago still accept owning at least one car as a necessity. Things are slowly changing, but imo it will be awhile before we’re at the point where conventional wisdom will tolerate the major disruption and $$ such a project comes with.

    Of course I’d be thrilled to be wrong about everything I just typed.

  • Michael

    I just took the Madison bus east through Loop Link. The bus driver did not know which intersection the bus would stop at (I couldn’t remember the stations, but I thought the driver might.) Each time we approached a station, we stopped and inched in. I understand the driver was probably worried about damaging the new platform, but I’d say most of the time savings were negated. CTA had plenty of time to train drivers on the new corridor, but probably just assumed “how hard could it be”.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yep, there’s going to be a learning curve, but I expect the drivers will be pretty comfortable with the system within a week.

  • Chicagoan

    Again, sounds cool, you gonna pay for it?

    The city isn’t exactly in a great place right now financially and they rely heavily on federal funds to complete these kinds of projects.

    The FAST Act sounds promising enough that the Red Line extension to 130th sounds pretty likely. So, there’s that.

    Also, if I’m not mistaken, most of our rail infrastructure was privately funded.

    So, actually, you wanna pay for it?

  • Chicagoan

    What’s the deal with the Circle Line?

    Are we ever going to see that happen? I’d love to see it in my lifetime!

  • Robert Garvey Jr.
  • Chicagoan

    I think it’s past bits of incompetence that have indeed made money the problem.

    I also don’t think we should be turning up our nose at bus service improvements. This is a compact, dense part of the city. Why does it need to have a subway?

    The city has taken away lanes from cars and poured red pavement designated for buses only. They’ve also created protected bike lanes. *Really* protected bike lanes.

    Considering past city policy when it comes to things like this, I consider this a really strong project. If it proves popular, it could become even better (pre-paid boarding).

  • Eric X

    Madison is a total puzzle.

  • DanielKH

    LA passed a huge regional tax increase to fund transit expansion. There are a few such campaigns here, but the general financial crisis at the state, county, and city levels are making that pretty hard. As for NYC, it’s taken them something like 60 years to actually get the Second Avenue Subway built–and they’re still far from done.

  • DanielKH

    No, the money is the problem. $400 million would buy you less than half a mile of subway.

  • b_hack

    Do you mean the Blue and Green lines, east-west subways serving downtown that are conveniently located about a mile apart from each other? The Loop Link is meant to connect CTA and Metra stations over a short distance that’s easily traversed by bus, made faster with the bus-only lanes and priority signals. Paying for a subway to cover a few blocks of downtown would be a waste of resources and unnecessary. The logical rail option for that distance is a streetcar, which moves at about the speed of…a bus.

  • Robert Garvey Jr.

    The Green Line is a subway? Really? And if two lines “about a mile apart” are so great, why do we have so much east-west congestion that the city needs to add these bus lanes?

    Great cities have numerous, complex, overlapping subways, like New York, London, and Paris. Other cities, like Cleveland, have “bus rapid transit lines,” a risible contradiction in terms. At one time, Chicago aspired to greatness. Now it wants to be Cleveland.

  • neroden

    A subway stopping every two blocks and running for only ten blocks doesn’t even make sense. This is the right thing to do for downtown “circulator” traffic.

  • neroden

    Full-scale bus lanes are a really really big deal. I think these are the only full-scale bus lanes in any downtown in the US right now.

    They *took lanes away from cars*. They took *THREE* lanes away from cars. What’s the last city which did that?

  • neroden

    I’m glad they got this part opened. They’ve got some more to build — most notably the complete reconfiguration of the Union Station block of Canal Street, which I am really looking forward to, since that’s where I arrive whenever I’m going to Chicago.

  • Jim

    Took the Madison bus Monday, Tuesday, and today (Wednesday). Same thing, the buses ride the brakes through the platform areas, 1-2 mph at most. They also self que themselves at Wacker and Washington, blocking a lane of car traffic behind them while they wait at a green light. Same thing happened at Wells. There were two buses ahead and seemed like they’re not allowed to “overcrowd” the bus lanes. The slow moving through the clear bus lanes is the biggest annoyance. So far, not impressed.

  • JKM13

    Its absurd. They better figure it out by the time most return to work in January.

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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 […]