Mexico City’s Metrobús Offers a Preview of How BRT Could Work on Ashland

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A Metrobús station on Mexico City’s Avenida Xola, which has a similar layout to Chicago’s Ashland Avenue. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editorJohn Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

With a metropolitan population of 21 million, the largest of any city in the western hemisphere, Mexico City is often associated with overcrowding, air pollution, and traffic jams. But when I visited for the first time last month, I found it to be a place of beautiful Spanish Colonial and Art Deco architecture, intriguing museums, tasty chow, and warm-hearted people.

The Distrito Federal, or D.F., as Mexico City is called in Spanish, also has an excellent public transportation system. Its Metro is the second-busiest rapid transit system in North America, after New York City’s. While the train cars can be scary-packed during rush hour, they crisscross a large portion of the city and provide a fast, smooth ride compared to Chicago’s ‘L’ trains.

And over the last decade, Mexico City has supplemented its subway by developing one of the world’s leading bus rapid transit networks, the Metrobús system, which debuted on Avenida de los Insurgentes in 2005. With dedicated bus lanes and raised-platform stations, the system provides subway-like commute speeds at a small fraction of the infrastructure cost of underground transit. The sixth route opened in mid-January, and a seventh line is slated for completion later this year.

As a wide, mostly straight roadway that runs the length of the city and intersects with many rail lines, Insurgentes is not so different from Chicago’s Ashland Avenue, where Mayor Emanuel has proposed building our city’s first full-on bus rapid transit corridor. As such, there’s a lot that we can learn from Mexico City’s experiences with Metrobús.

The road to full-fledged BRT in Chicago has been anything but smooth. In 2012 the CTA rolled out the Jeffery Jump, a “BRT-lite” route serving the south side, funded by an $11 million Federal Transit Administration grant. It features dedicated lanes on a mere two miles of its 16-mile route, and only during rush hour.

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CTA rendering of bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue.

That year, the city also held a series of public meetings on what would become the plan for a robust bus rapid transit system on Ashland between 95th and Irving Park, with dedicated lanes for the entire route, center-running buses, median stations, and other time-saving features. This $160 million project has been highly controversial, because it would involve converting two of the street’s four travel lanes into bus-only lanes, and eliminating most left turns from Ashland for drivers.

Aldermen George Cardenas and Scott Waguespack were critical of the proposal. Randolph/Fulton Market Association director Roger Romanelli formed the Ashland-Western Coalition, an anti-BRT group, in an effort to derail the plan.

By August 2015, when Emanuel announced the return of regular express bus service on Ashland and Western, it was clear that the Ashland BRT plan had been back-burnered. “It’s way off in the future,” the mayor said. “The only bus rapid transit I’m focused on right now is… in the Central Business District.”

Emanuel was referring to the $41 million Loop Link corridor, which opened in December, mostly on Washington and Madison. The route features red dedicated lanes and raised-platform stations, and serves six bus routes. So far the system’s performance has been underwhelming.

While it was supposed to have doubled cross-Loop bus speeds from the previous, glacial, 3 mph rush-hour pace, that hasn’t happened yet. Last week, an 0.8-mile trip I took on Madison between Michigan and Canal took 11 minutes.

Due to a horrific traffic jam on the Washington bridge, my eastbound return trip took a whopping 15 minutes. In addition, CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman confirmed last week that drivers are still required to creep cautiously towards the stations at 3 mph in order to avoid striking passengers with their rearview mirrors.

During my trip to the D.F., I was impressed by how well the Metrobús system functions. To access the buses, you cross the street to the median stations, which double as pedestrian islands. After buying a pass from a kiosk, you swipe your card at a turnstile–each ride costs six pesos, or about $0.30.

Read the rest of the article on the Chicago Reader site.

 

  • JKM13

    Mexico City’s Metrobus was my first experience with BRT as well. Now you know why I think its such a disgrace that Loop Link was sold as a *possible* stepping stone to BRT on Ashland, when CTA has basically done everything they could to make Loop Link fail.

    First no prepaid boarding and then the horrible policy of 3mph busses along the length of mainly empty platforms, I just can’t get over how much the CTA has botched this.

  • Chicagoan

    They’ve made a mess of things, but it can be turned around really fast with just a few fixes. First, they need to have pre-paid boarding at all of the stations. I think they’re piloting the concept at a station sometime soon, so this doesn’t seem unreasonable. Second, they need to lose the 3MPH approach speeds. Just taking these two ideas and putting them into play could boost the speed of trips quite a bit. The project will continue to be seen as a “boondoggle” by some until then.

  • BlueFairlane

    It was all about first impressions, and I’m afraid Look Link’s first impression sunk in hard. Even if you fix everything so that it runs perfectly, you’ll have a hard time overcoming the boondoggle label, especially with a mayor already on shaky ground. Ashland BRT is a long, long shot these days.

  • Pat

    I’m interested to know how enforcement is going along there. Personally haven’t ridden it, because I don’t need to, but the CTA should look into coordinating with CPD and providing the public enforcement statistics.

  • david vartanoff

    John, In your article you cite ridership on this single BRT line at nearing 400,000 per day. That is for instance nearly the entire BART subway/elevated daily ridership. In a picture on the Reader site there is one bus at the platform, the leader just a few feet ahead. From your experience is this occasional bunching or just thefrequency neededto carry the reported load? One might ask why not a subway under Avenida de los Insurgentes?

  • Chicagoan

    Yeah, I remember somebody saying that they should’ve referred to it as a “soft opening” and I definitely agree. The CTA paraded around yelling “BRT!” from the rooftops, which set them up for failure.

    I just wish Rahm could push this damn thing through the City Council. I’m not young enough to remember his time in office, but am I wrong to think Daley (Richard J.) would’ve made this happen? Lol.

  • The way he made it happen was by controlling all the aldermanic seats and their residents, being the single choke-point on the route to political power in this city.

    If we allow aldermen to be honestly elected by their constituents, they are going to vote differently than if they’re chosen top-down by the mayor. And then the mayor has to honestly build consensus support for his policies, instead of just ruling by fiat.

  • JacobEPeters

    This is exactly what I thought when I visited in 2014. Everyone we met scoffed at their downtown equivalent of Loop Link, as “not being real MetroBus, only fake MetroBus”.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    It’s not happening. On the Washington lane over the bridge, there are constantly charter buses using it. If we charge them the appropriate amount of money to allow them to do that, fine. But they are basically free riding.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I didn’t notice any problems with bunching, but buses seemed to come every minute or so during the business day. According to Navarro, a subway would have cost 10-20 times as much as BRT. The first three Mexico City BRT lines cost no more than $400 million, according to ITDP.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I was staying in a neighborhood a few miles directly south of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, so to get home we took a bus down Eje Central. Perhaps this is what people were talking about as “fake Metrobús,” because it doesn’t have rapid transit-style stations in the center of the road, and you pay on board. The buses were also kind of run-down. On the other hand, stops were limited, and there were curb-protected bus-only lanes, so it was still a pretty efficient was to travel, and the fare was only 20 cents.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    There is no Loop Link lane on the Washington Bridge — which is a problem. Are you talking about charter buses in the Loop Link lane east of the river?

  • JacobEPeters

    I think that is the same line, it also ran on Ayuntamiento past Plaza San Juan & the Mercado Carnes Exoticos.

  • JacobEPeters

    We saw bunching, but only at stations as one was waiting for a light to be able to pull out of a station. Because of the dedicated lanes this bunching didn’t tend to repeat itself at the next station since the “second” bus would know not to speed to the next stop.

    The most impressive thing to me was how evenly filled Insurgentes was. We took it from La Bombilla all the way to Roma, and because of the many destinations & transfers along the route it never was empty. Someone said it was the BRT system with the highest ridership per vehicle because it wasn’t as hub & spoke as any of Bogota’s Transmilenio lines.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    Oops, I meant Madison.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    Yes, the charter busses use the Loop Link lane almost exclusively during rush hour. Even more than CTA busses.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Hmm, if you think of it, try to get some photos or video of this phenomenon next time you see it. Thanks!

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    They’re quick because they have their own lanes but I’ll try!

  • neroden

    Why. The. Hell. Haven’t. They. Sped. Up. Loop. Link. Yet.

    Who is sabotaging Loop Link? Apparently CTA management, though perhaps they’re getting their orders from somewhere else.

    This is not acceptable. Heads need to roll at the CTA. Paint the tactile paving yellow and speed the buses up.

    Maybe it’s time for a freedom-of-information request to figure out where this speed restriction came from — “all memos and letters relating to speed restrictions on loop link”.

  • neroden

    The Mexico City BRT is cheaper than a subway for a few reasons:
    (1) A subway is underground. Is the BRT actually cheaper than light rail? Probably not.
    (2) Bus drivers are cheap in Mexico City. Not in Chicago.

  • neroden

    The 3 mph garbage is pure outright sabotage and I want to know who’s doing it. If they don’t correct it soon they need to be fired.

  • Ozzy86

    LOOP link is a complete disaster. Speeds are slower than they were before. It might work better if they had a dedicated set of buses that only traveled on the “link” instead of feeding in so many buses. But not sure how they could really do that. The point is that CDOT and CTA are completely incapable of doing anything beneficial. Both agencies are filled with completely incompetent people.

  • JKM13

    Right. Pull into stations at 15 mph, and if someone is cluelessly standing at the edge about to get hit, *then* slow down and honk. (Similar to how EL conductors blare the horn if someone is too close, except they are coming at 30-40 mph).

    Think about what bus drivers encounter on a daily basis, merging in/out of traffic for each stop on a regular route, dealing with clueless pedestrians, conflicts with busses/cyclists sharing the same place, reckless drivers. They have the judgement to see if someone is too close to the platform, and then slowing down and honking to warn them.

    The same logic that allowed this absurd policy to go into place should have made the Lasalle contraflow bike lane illegal. Bikes travel 20 mph, people aren’t expecting them from the other direction. The Lasalle design wasn’t ideal, but it basically works, because Gabe Klein made sure it would work.

    otoh, Rebekah Scheinfeld and whoever’s in charge of CTA nowadays are making sure this is a failure, a joke, and another black eye on a city that has too many of them these days.

  • Neil Clingerman

    I rode it recently and its faster than the first time I rode it, but seriously – why aren’t they just honking if someone is out on the platform? Its not hard.

    The other issue here I think is that the CTA was not good at communicating that this wasn’t finished yet – one new station just opened and there are others that aren’t ready yet. I’m hoping that the Loop link doesn’t hurt prospects for a well run Ashland BRT.

  • Frankly, rear-view mirror can quite easily knock my head off if either I
    or a driver isn’t looking (I’m quite tall), and busses don’t crawl into
    every bus stop. If they don’t crawl for me, why do they need to crawl into a platform with clear yellow areas where one is instructed to stand back?

  • cjlane

    “Avenida Xola, which has a similar layout to Chicago’s Ashland Avenue”

    Which part of Ashland is a one-way street, with no curbside parking?

  • High_n_Dry

    The layout (i.e. width) is similar. Ashland is six lanes with a large median. and/ or seven lanes (four traffic, two parking and one turn).

  • cjlane

    Are you asserting that layout and width are at all synonymous? If John had meant width, I assume he would have written ‘width’, as John’s a sharp guy.

    Anyway, Xola is all of 55′ wide (curb to curb) for most of its run. So, it’s not even true, as Ashland is mostly 70′, 80′ or 85′.

  • Neil Clingerman

    The mirror literally would only affect tall people who are standing at the very edge of the platform which already has similar markings to the EL platforms that we mostly know we should stay away from. A simple paint job to yellow, a sign reminding people to stay back when a bus is arriving and even a honk from the bus would be just fine.

    Streetsblog noted that Cleveland does this… I’m sure there are other BRT systems that aren’t so hung up on this.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I said similar, not identical. However, I did overlook the fact that Xola is one-way for cars — easy to miss, since the street is two-way for buses. The absence of curbside parking on Xola is somewhat relevant, since cars entering and leaving the parking lane can slow down vehicles in the adjacent lane. Of course, the greater width of Ashland is an advantage for implementing BRT.

    Navarro tells me there are other streets where there are only two lanes for general traffic, one on each side of the bus lanes. I should be able to provide some Street Views in the near future.

  • cjlane

    Yes, I know you said similar, and I was questioning the similarity, since I don’t find it especially similar.

    I agree that that particular layout could work *great* on a one way street, with no parking (and actual enforcement–something that is 100% absent in the block of Madison b/t State and Wabash–there are almost always multiple cars and truck parked in the left lane).

    And, obviously, you weren’t referring to the width of the RoW.

  • southsidecyclist

    Is the BRT the right solution for the Ashland corridor? It appears the decision was made purely on cost. A railed tram system might be better received by the communities and greater capacity. As a transit consumer I’d feel safer and better served on a tram.

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