ITDP Says Patience Is the Watchword When It Comes to Loop Link Speeds

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A Loop Link station on Madison Street. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership will allow Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We’ll be syndicating a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

The city hopes the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor, a bold reconfiguration of street space, will double the speed of buses crossing the central business district from the previous glacial rush-hour pace of 3 mph. The $41 million project was designed to provide an express route for buses traveling between Michigan Avenue and the West Loop.

The heart of the system is on Washington and Madison Streets, where mixed-traffic lanes were transformed into red bus-only lanes and raised boarding platforms featuring huge, rakelike shelters and plentiful seating, plus a green protected bike lane on Washington. Six daily CTA bus lines that terminate in various corners of the city are now using the route, including the #J14 Jeffery Jump, #20 Madison, #56 Milwaukee, #60 Blue Island/26th, #124 Navy Pier, and #157 Streeterville/Taylor.

Immediately after the system debuted on Sunday, December 20, some bus riders and BRT boosters were disappointed that there seemed to be little or no improvement in trip times. This was partly due to a CTA policy that requires bus operators to cautiously creep into the platform stations.

When I rode the Madison bus downtown from the west side during the evening rush on the Tuesday after the system launched, it took a full 16 minutes to travel the 0.8 miles between Canal Street and Michigan Avenue. That’s 3 mph, the same speed as before Loop Link was established, when buses were stuck in car-generated traffic jams.

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A station at Washington and LaSalle. Photo: John Greenfield

I overheard several commuters complaining about the new system. A couple of them strategized about different bus lines they could take to avoid the BRT corridor.

At the time, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase told me that bus drivers are currently instructed to drive no faster than 3 mph alongside the stations. That’s because the raised platforms are elevated a foot or so above sidewalk level, which means that people who stand in the dark gray, textured area near the platform edge are in danger of being struck by the buses’ rearview mirrors.

Chase added that bus drivers can go the normal 30 mph speed limit on other parts of the route. She implied that as bus operators and customers get used to the system, the speed restriction by the platforms would be raised.

As of last Tuesday, the 3 mph speed limit by platforms was still in place, according to CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman. However, bus speeds appear to have increased a bit overall since the launch, as operators and other road users have grown more comfortable with the new layout. Moreover, a leading authority on BRT says growing pains are normal when a new system launches.

Early January traffic may be a bit lighter than the hectic days leading up to Christmas. But when I rode the system several times during peak hours on Tuesday, most of my bus drivers seemed to be a little more at ease navigating the system than before.

Read the rest of the post on the Chicago Reader website. 

 

 

  • Ok so the stations currently lack amenities like decent weather protection and next bus arrival times. How about putting in bus shelters. Like the ones that exist all over Chicago. With weather if there are a lot of people you get some protection from those around you, so the bus shelters would be most useful when there aren’t a lot of waiting passengers. The shelters come with arrival times. And since there would only be one per corner the businesses can’t complain about something that other businesses have learned to live with.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The stations do have bus arrival time screens — see photo. But it would be amusing if some transit vigilante duct taped tarps to the back of the new stations to close the huge gap between the back glass and the canopy.

  • A few right-angle bits sticking out from the back glass would be more useful for shelter from wind. Or even a little two-corners-facing-each-other mini-corral, with a heat lamp above it.

    Or, y’know, a JC Decaux bus shelter. Which would still be better at keeping people dry and unfrozen than what they built …

    The ‘high ceilings’ in particular kind of infuriate me because in downtown conditions it means the thing is even useless against rain, because it’ll blow in under the roof and soak you anyhow. Purely decorative, these shelters. Well, decorative and a solid ‘back wall’ to … keep people from fraudulently boarding without paying?

  • Jeff Gio

    Those tarps would obscure business signage from the commuters speeding down Washington and Madison… I think someone explained why that would be bad for local businesses, so we will have to take those assumptions at face value

  • Clear plastic sheeting?

  • Pat

    To be honest, a bus going 30mph in the Loop is too fast for something of that size given all the pedestrians. Though, it is unlikely it will hit those speeds very often.

  • JKM13

    “If it’s affecting your speeds to the point where people are saying,
    ‘I’m going to get back on a normal bus line,’ I’d be a little bit
    concerned.”

    Time to be concerned. Sure, we can patiently wait for the CTA to stop handcuffing themselves, defeating the point of this investment in the process, or we can demand they adopt common sense with their policies. CTA trains don’t crawl into stations at 6 mph, they go normal speeds, and if passengers are too close to the edge of the platform, they blare that horn. Same as was done on Pittsburgh’s brt lines apparently.

  • Chicagoan

    Yeah, the merchants association, or whatever, raised hell about the possibility of more robust train station-like enclosures, saying that it’d block their storefront’s exposure to the street.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    CTA trains don’t have objects hanging off the side that can cream customers.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I’m guessing that if there enough outrage over the fact that the new canopies provide less weather protection than the old shelters (which weren’t that great to begin with), there’s a possibility the short back-glass panels will be replaced with longer ones. You’d still be able to see merchants’ signs.

  • High_n_Dry

    No vehicles should travel at 30 mph in the loop but a bus going 30 mph would be frighteningly fast.

  • BlueFairlane

    I know, it being Chicago, that adding handrails would probably add millions to the cost of the project … but why not just add handrails to keep people back out of mirror range?

  • High_n_Dry

    Might have to hire a few more people so add a few pensions to that estimate. #snark

  • JKM13

    But the solution is the same, isn’t it? Cleveland (I mistakenly wrote Pittsburgh) does have the issue on their BRT and they addressed it w/a horn.

    Its really not that different with current buses. I’ve had a few close calls in my day when busses swing into bus stops and I realize the mirror is inches from my head, despite being on the sidewalk. Since they are veering into the bus stops, its not as easy to see where the mirror will end up. Yet, they pull into stops at normal speeds (without horns!), and do not approach each stop gingerly at 3 or 6 mph.

    Arguably – its less an issue with the looplink stations, as the busses arrive in a straight line, so its easier to see as the bus approaches that you may get hit by the mirror if you don’t step back. And although the platforms should have had the strips installed with a stronger color to indicate passengers shouldn’t stand on the edge, there actually is a strip on the edge, which does not exist at current bus stops.

  • Railings near the curb would mean the busses have to park in specific places so their doors line up. Right now a bus can stop anywhere alongside the station and give passengers unobstructed boarding/debarking access.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think that’s a relatively minor consequence if it means the buses can move more efficiently along the length of the platform. Drivers manage to stop the CTA trains in specific places, and they’re pulling a lot more weight at greater speeds. I would think a bus driver should be able to handle that requirement much more easily.

    Otherwise, this is a fundamental flaw of the platform system that will inevitably negate the benefits everybody’s been touting.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    This is not a design flaw but rather a common issue with BRT systems. Here’s how Cleveland handles this:
    http://chi.streetsblog.org/2015/12/23/how-cleveland-prevents-brt-bus-mirrors-from-clobbering-customers/

  • BlueFairlane

    The difference between “design flaw” and “common issue” is which side of the blueprint table you sit.

    As I noted in the comments of the linked post, Cleveland also has a station design that makes it difficult
    for people to line the curb. I think handrails would allow us to incorporate that difficulty into our own system.

  • Cameron Puetz

    This is something that prevents the project from delivering on its primary goal (faster buses). That makes this a design flaw. If it’s a common problem, then it should have been anticipated and addressed by the design. Between this, and the section that had to be torn out and rebuilt before the lanes opened, Loop Link isn’t inspiring confidence in CTA/CDOT’s design abilities.

  • Anne A

    It would have been smarter if they’d used bright colored strips (yellow or blue, as used elsewhere on CTA train platforms or Metra platforms) instead of gray on the edge of the platform. Having the tactile function is helpful for blind folks, but the gray color is rather ineffective as a warning.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “This is something that prevents the project from delivering on its primary goal (faster buses). That makes this a design flaw.” Only if this is a permanent situation, which it doesn’t appear to be — speeds already seem to be improving, and the CTA plans on eventually lifting the 3 mph restriction.

  • Mirror design changes? Ones that can be remotely moved out of the way upon approach and then returned after stop?

  • During construction and special events there often traffic officials? in the streets directing traffic. How about some to direct drivers to not block the red lane where the right turn lane crosses the red. At least until some habits are established.

  • neroden

    Great. If they’re eventually going to lift the 3 mph restriction… why don’t they do it next week? A week should give people enough time to adjust to the higher speeds.

  • neroden

    Yeah, that would be a good idea.

  • neroden

    I’ve never seen gray tactile strips anywhere else. They’re always brightly colored. This was a *very odd choice*.

    That said, it’s relatively cheap to fix.

  • al_langevin

    So Blair Kamin has a Trib article on the BRT today (Sunday). Here’s the blazing stats on the BRT going from Canal to Michigan:

    BRT Bus – 13 minutes and 22 seconds, speed of 3.6 mph
    Walk – 14 minutes and 49 seconds, speed of 3.25 mph

    So walking the same route is about as fast and he didn’t even walk fast. And yes we should absolutely encourage people to take a bus vs. walking right?

    “Is Loop Link a $32 million boondoggle?” Yep. A big fat $32 million dollar union boondoggle.

  • Bernard Finucane

    It’s mind boggling that a city that has so many dangerous intersections should do this to itself.

  • Chicagoan

    Do what to itself?

  • Chicagoan

    Disappointing speed, yes. Though, in this current weather, I’d argue a minute and thirty seconds less is a good deal for commuters :)

    I was surprised by Kamin’s review. It was far less scathing than I thought it’d be. It appears he’s approaching it like many are on here. It’s a great, urban bit of civic infrastructure. The Loop should discourage automobile use as much as possible, as it’s too dense and too transit-friendly to cater to cars. This is a nice step in that direction.

    I’m kind of waiting to see how things progress, as the bus drivers become more comfortable, and as the city tries out pre-paid boarding. If they can eventually install pre-paid boarding at all stations, times will decrease significantly.

  • Chicagoan

    Regarding the possibility of pre-paid boarding, how would the CTA enforce it? I read that they’d install turnstiles like a train station, if the pilot goes well. Couldn’t somebody just walk around the turnstiles to get into the shelter?

  • Jeff Gio

    Some have proposed random ticket inspection to discourage fare evasion. The fee would be considerable to reduce likelihood of repeat offenders.

    You have to consider the time savings of all fare paying customers vs lost fare from theft to see if this arrangement makes sense.

  • Jeff Gio

    Yeah, I think it’s key to withhold judgement. As transit advocates, we need to be very critical of even the most earnest projects

  • Jeff Gio

    Plenty of new vehicle designs use cameras instead of mirrors. Mirrors can create large blind spots. Some major car manufactures have petitioned the relevant US authorities to allow mirror-less cars.

    This doesn’t help us now, but the buses will eventually be due for a redesign

  • And what do people who board outside the area that provides paper tickets do to prove they paid when they got on (outside the Loop)? All the Link routes have long segments outside the Link area.

  • BlueFairlane

    This is one of those solutions that would be great if it didn’t increase cost by at least an order of magnitude. What’s it cost to put a camera system on a bus versus a mirror? How much will maintenance costs increase? What’s that work out to once you multiply it by the number of buses that CTA might want to run through Loop Link?

    On the larger scale, I really don’t want the government to allow mirror-less cars. I’ve gone through 27 years of car ownership without ever having to fix a mirror. I doubt an electronic camera system would be as durable. Meanwhile, I know people who refused to spend the time or money to replace a $5 mirror that broke. Imagine trying to get them to shell out a couple of hundred or more for a camera system.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    An option is having the front of the station enclosed, with doors that open when the bus arrives. This is done on other systems, like Bogota, Colombia’s TransMilenio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

  • Jeff Gio

    You’re supposing that we have on-board inspectors, but you could have inspectors at the pre-paid boarding stations waiting to fine people that jump the turnstile. In all, you raised a good question and I don’t know the answer

  • Jeff Gio

    Do you own a vehicle with a rear-view camera? They are not so fragile. Regardless of your preference, the automobile industry will adopt mirror-less vehicles, so we should expect our buses to do the same. You are right that my suggestion would not be a timely fix though, so maybe it’s a moot point afterall!

  • Bernard Finucane

    Sorry, my comment was a bit vague. I meant spending millions on a project to improve transportation and let it be tripped up by nonsensical safety measures that could have been predicted in advance anyway.

  • So add 24 hours of full-time paid employee labor cost, per station? Hard sell.

  • BlueFairlane

    My in-laws have a large RV with a rear-view camera. Know what? It stopped working shortly after they bought it. I believe the cost to fix it would have run something close to $500. They opted to leave it broken.

    Regardless of either of our preferences, replacing a simple piece of equipment like a mirror with a complicated piece of electronic technology is foolhardy and will result in a lot of vehicles with no view behind them.

  • neroden

    Currently the line is being kneecapped by the ridiculous 3 mph speed limit. This MUST be lifted. There is no excuse for it and “patience” is totally inappropriate.

  • neroden

    Nope, mirrors will be required on autos for the forseeable future. Just like handbrakes.

  • neroden

    A month and a half of this stupid 3 mph rule… so far.

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