Life in the Fast Lane: Shuttles Are Still Illegally Using the Loop Link Route

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An Aries Charter Transportation bus and an Aon / Prudential Center Shuttle in the Loop Link lane on Madison at Wacker.

Private bus lines in the Loop Link bus rapid transit lanes is definitely a thing.

Last week I posted footage of the red lanes, clearly marked “CTA Bus Only,” being used by Aon / Prudential Center shuttle buses, as well as shuttles operated by The Free Enterprise System. A Streetsblog Chicago reader who wished to remain anonymous provided the videos.

This week that person, plus another reader named Matt Kaynee, provided still more photos and videos of private buses using the Madison Loop Link lane during the evening rush. In addition to the aforementioned companies, shuttles run by Aries Charter Transportation were also captured using the red lanes. In some cases, the shuttles stopped to drop off passengers on Madison, which forced CTA buses to merge into the mixed-traffic lanes to get around them.

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A Free Enterprise System bus in the Loop Link lane on the Madison bridge.

Yesterday I shared the images with staff members responsible for the shuttle buses. “Thanks for bringing that to my attention,” said Aon Center manager Matt Amato. “Right now I have someone calling our third-party bus service provider to let them know they have no business driving in the CTA bus lanes.” Amato didn’t mention which bus company operates the shuttle.

A staff member from The Free Enterprise System, who asked not to be named, was unapologetic about the company’s drivers using the red lanes. “When the city sold Loop Link to the public, they said that there would be bus, bike, and car lanes, but they made no provisions for private buses,” he said. He claimed that it’s legal for the shuttles to pull into the red lanes to pick up and drop off passengers.

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An Aries Charter Transportation shuttle in the Loop Link lane on Madison west of Franklin. Photo Mike Kaynee

Anthony George, general manager of Aries, says the company has had a couple of meetings with the Chicago Department of Transportation to discuss the issue. “We’re doing our best to stay out of the lanes and we’re working with the city to try and come up with a solution, but we haven’t gotten much help from them,” he said.

Aries runs shuttles for the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois headquarters and other large downtown office buildings. “Loop Link was implemented sooner than we thought it would be,” George said. “For the last 15 years we’ve been picking up and dropping off passengers at the same locations. We move 350,000 people a year through the Blue Cross contract alone. We still have to be able to provide service for these passengers.”

The Aries shuttles serve the Ogilvie Transportation Center, Union Station, and LaSalle Street Station Station, but there aren’t currently red lanes by the pick-up and drop-off areas for those stations. Therefore, it’s unclear why drivers would feel the need to enter the Loop Link lanes, except to get around traffic jams.

CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey said private bus operators definitely aren’t allowed to use the Loop Link lanes. “CDOT has been involved in ongoing communication with the operators of private buses in the Loop,” he said via email. “One issue that we have emphasized in our communication with the operators is that it is a moving violation for private buses to drive in the red lanes that are marked for CTA buses only, subject to a $90 fine.”

“We are closely monitoring traffic patterns for the Loop Link,” Claffey added. “While we recognize there is a learning curve, we expect all users of the corridor to comply with the law.”

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Map of the Loop Link system. Sections outlined in gray have not been built yet.

CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman said his agency is aware of the problem. “Driving in CTA bus-only lanes is prohibited, and the CTA is working with the city to make sure the traffic rules are enforced so that Loop Link delivers improved transit service as intended,” he said.”

While it’s good to hear that this issue is on CDOT’s and the CTA’s radar, the city needs to reach out to the shuttle companies and make sure that there are no compelling reasons why their operators need to enter the red lanes. If there are, a solution needs to be found so that the shuttles can serve their customers without negatively impacting Loop Link service.

But if it’s the case that shuttle drivers are breaking traffic laws merely because it’s convenient to do so, the city needs to step up ticketing of the offenders. That would hit them where it hurts – in the pocketbook.

  • Pat

    “When the city sold Loop Link to the public, they said that there would be bus, bike, and car lanes, but they made no provisions for private buses,” he said.

    Damn right, because its a PUBLIC street.

  • NIMby7)

    This project is a complete boondoggle and a complete failure at all points. I think it’s fine that other buses use the lanes especially if there is no one in them. The city needs to learn that these projects are not welcome here and not wanted. The only way to do so is by continually violating the laws and showing complete disregard for the lanes. I might start driving in them myself!

  • 08mms

    I don’t understand why the police officers in the loop aren’t writing more tickets on this. It seems like one of the easiest traffic violations to catch and write tickets for, and there is a bigger payoff for the city on commercial driving infractions (plus, they would earn the deep gratitude of their fellow civic workers in the CTA)

  • So is StreetsblogCHI for mass transit and less cars on the streets or aren’t they? Making villains of private mass transit operators isn’t helping the cause at all. Ignoring the fact that the majority of roads are predominantly publicly funded and open to all with out an additional fee, private shuttles certainly do still take a lot of cars off the roads that would otherwise still not be paying anywhere near their fair share of the cost of using a public road anyway. If the issue is that the bus lanes are getting clogged, that means it’s probably time to remove another car lane on those streets to increase bus capacity.

  • Michael

    I really have no issue with private shuttles using the lanes, however when they stop in the lanes to drop passengers off as is done every single day at Madison and Canal before Ogilvie, I get mad. The shuttles pay nothing for the infrastructure and get to reduce the effectiveness of Loop Link when they should not be in the corridor at all. Why should a private shuttle get to use the infrastructure intended to benefit the public for free?

  • Michael

    Also, with Loop Link, these shuttles are less necessary with the 20 going to Illinois Center. If the shuttles weren’t operating illegally in the corridor, travel times for everyone would improve and buildings could discontinue the shuttle service.

  • NIMBY

    Yeah right – let’s see, bus service that is slower than walking, versus a non stop ride from the train station to the office building. Yeah,
    I don’t think Loop Link Is much of an option. Try again.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Automated. Enforcement.

  • Pat

    Great troll!

  • Pat

    I would guess that this is low on the totem pole for them and is a perfect argument for automated enforcement.

    You could fund the pensions with bike lane violations!

  • You’re assuming it’s an either/or of single-occupant car drivers and privately operated shuttles.

    Devil’s advocate is the private operations are actually using these lanes to steal public transit passengers, so the entire system of infrastructure will suffer as a result.

  • Thor

    They are 1) taking away business from the CTA by operating a private shuttle service in the same area as the CTA operates and 2) interfering with the proper operation of CTA buses by using these lanes illegally. Why are we not ticketing them? I would ban them completely from operating on the streets the Loop Link lanes are on….and fine them HEAVILY if they violate the ban. $90 are you kidding me?

    So glad they installed the northbound bike lanes on Clinton. That means I don’t need to ride down Canal and potentially get doored by Bus doors flying open in the bike lane (have had them clip me with their doors because they don’t look into the bike lane before they open it) or cut in front of by Taxis inventing a second turn lane at Canal/Madison which crossed right over the bike lane.

    Now if only I could get the pedestrians coming out of Ogilve crossing Clinton to look before they step right into my path in the bike lane. Or get the pedestrians who STAND IN THE BIKE LANE WAITING FOR THEIR WALK SIGNAL to move out of the bike lane. This is why I have an air horn now to get their attention. It doesn’t matter if they have headphones in, they’ll hear it.

  • I’m glad that a small group of people have options. They can pay for a slower ride or get a faster ride for free. I know which I would choose if I had those options.

    So for the much larger group of people without the free faster option their only option is now slowed down so the folks with options can go faster.

    But yes I agree the the Loop Link is not much of an option if you have one.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Realistically, I don’t know how many of the people riding these shuttles would ride the Loop Link buses. Right now Loop Link doesn’t save much over waking, and since the people riding the private shuttles are mostly Metra passengers, they’d have to pay a second fare or get a second monthly pass. Adding in the CTA fare to their commuting costs without saving them time is a tough sell.

    These shuttles exist to make office space in nearly transit served areas like Lakeshore East competitive with office space in better served areas like the west side of the Loop. Accessibility for Metra commuters is a big selling point for office buildings. Without fare integration between the CTA and Metra, I don’t see the CTA reducing demand for these buses.

  • I love the Loop Link! What a great piece of urbanity. Can it be better? Duh!

    Got my first ride on the Loop Link on Wednesday around 5:00pm. I took the Red Line to Monroe and schooched over to Madison. I was headed for a fun time at Jak’s Tap with a great bunch of Transit Oriented Denizens.

    The dedicated red bus lanes were successfully empty of cars. The bus I was in seemed to be running at a normal loop type speed, that is not creeping into the stops. It was nice waiting under the off-sidewalk glass canopy. The signage telling me which buses to take were clear. The cab drivers that snuck onto the red to drop off passengers seemed nervous to get out of the way. The cars spilling out of a parking garage seemed worried that about getting backed up onto the red lane.

    Further I noticed several times when we were able to move forward into the empty lane in front of us. In the old days there would have been cars blocking the way.

    Once more for my money, had this not been oversold it would appear as a great success.

    Here are the issues I noticed. A long wait when more than five people boarded at once. The south bound lane on Clinton was so narrow that the private buses in the middle-lane actually blocked us because they were a foot over into our red lane. That is the lane was empty but effectively blocked. Then they pulled into the red lane to drop off and held us up. Clinton was also the one place where we waited for a red-light when there was zero cross-traffic.

    At the corner of Madison and Clinton there was a delivery truck at the curb. But since the lane was not red there and since our bus had to pull over to the left lane to turn anyway it wasn’t an issue.

    I did ask a regular rider if all the “stuff” was effective. He said “no, it’s a waste of money.” He was mad because he was going to miss his train and have to wait a long time for the next (frequency much Metra). He admitted that it was a lot better now that the construction was over. And it was clearly better than walking for him on that day. He was young and fit enough looking that that was a real option for him. He also had the luxury of a seat. And it must have been enough cheaper than a cab too.

    The problem with anecdotal stories is that they are fueled by the moment. If he could remember that he missed his train 6 out of 10 times before and now is only missing it 5 times out of 10, then yes he could say it is better. But he is still missing the train on that day and that counts a lot for him.

  • I dunno. It seems kinda scatter brained, jumping all over the place concept wise.

  • They don’t have the manpower to ticket even dangerously nonfunctional cars (cracked windshields, broken headlights).

  • Private, for-profit shuttle operators free-riding on infrastructure built to foster nonprofit, publicly-owned transit operations (and obstructing the operation of same) is never ok.

    If corporations want to use it, they can pay for it. Otherwise they’re just dumping their sewage in our drinking water.

    The lanes are “getting clogged” because the shuttles are stopping suddenly where there is no designated CTA or other dropoff point and just disgorging passengers with no coordination or plan, thereby obstructing the use for which the lane was built. Not ok.

  • Especially since there ARE designated bus drop-off areas for Ogilvie that are not in the red pavement.

  • duppie

    To the city’s credit, I ocassionally see enforcement vehicles (city tow trucks, or TMA vehicles) patrolling Clinton and shooing vehicles out of the bus lane

  • duppie

    This may be an urban legend so take it for what it is:
    I read somewhere (on StreetsBlog?) that these bus charter companies collect all tickets they receive in a given year, and then once a year negotiate a settlement with the city, where they end up paying pennies on the dollar.

    If that is true, there is little incentive for these companies to change their behavior.

  • These are legit points, but if the buses aren’t going faster due to the shuttles, it seems to be a bit of a vicious cycle thing here.

    You are definitely right about the fare integration. How this reduces the appeal of pre-tax commuter benefits is a big issue where I work, as a lot of people do in fact combo up Metra and the CTA (or try to, then give up and revert to driving.)

  • I wonder – would it be cost effective/legally enforceable to mount cameras on the CTA buses that use Loop Link and have them take pictures of the license plates of vehicles in front of them, then to send tickets to the owners of those vehicles, or does a police officer need to see the infraction in person?

  • BlueFairlane

    Regardless of whether the private buses should be in the lane, they’re not what’s keeping Loop Link from performing as promised.

  • “As promised” is always a dicey concept when politicians are involved.

    I’d certainly agree they aren’t the *only* thing keeping Loop Link from performing better, but they sure aren’t doing anything but dragging down the system no matter how you slice it – I saw one of them double parked in the lane last Friday and it most definitely was gumming up the works.

  • Pat

    I think it would require some sort of legislation as it has in New York and California.

    Could also be valuable in “rush” bike/bus lanes like on Clark.

  • John

    It seems like a lane of traffic has enough capacity for CTA and private bus operators. However, it might make sense to charge them a permit fee to use the lanes.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    If the private companies wish to take a proposal to the city council to pay for use of the lanes, they are free to do so. Otherwise, they are stealing from taxpayers who paid for this to be built and used exclusively by CTA.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Realistically I suspect the city is hesitant to enforce keeping these buses out of bus lanes because they’re an important part of what makes several commercial areas work. Metra has a major last mile problem. Without transferring to another transit option, Metra really only serves the Loop and West Loop. These private buses appeared when building owners in Lake Shore East, the Mag Mile, and River North started trying to attract Metra commuters. They fill a need that was created by the lack of any coordination between the CTA and Metra to allow Metra to serve a larger area.

    Without a free bus option, driving becomes competitive both time and price wise for suburban commuters. Eliminating or substantially slowing the private buses would lead to more driving and decrease the appeal of growing areas like Lake Shore East and River North unless it was accompanied by better integration between the CTA and Metra.

  • NIMBY

    Theres a thing called due process. And thankfully Chicago’s current photo programs are a complete disaster, so I doubt the legislation is going to allow for any expansion. So all you people who think cameras are the answer- sorry. Oh, btw, for all of you camera supporters, did you see that pedestrian deaths in Chicago are up! Cameras are pretty effective, eh?

  • NIMBY

    No one asked this taxpayer if I wanted this boondoggle. So I’ll do what I want. In fact, I might start driving my car in the lanes just for fun. Do you think I care about the cta? They’re a horribly run organization, and this project is a perfect example of their complete incompetence.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    You’re right. If we disagree with laws, we shouldn’t follow them. No one asked me if I wanted sidewalks so I should be able to drive on them!

  • Working for an institution that provides its own transportation, I can say there is definitely a perception that the private shuttle bus is safer than regular public bus, especially for and among women. (Who, you know, exist, in case anyone forgot again.) It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true as long as the perception is there.

    In addition, the shuttle is slightly cheaper per ride and definitely cheaper per month. If the only bus you ever ride in Chicago is between Ogilvie and work, then why spend more than twice as much on the CTA, which has a reputation for being unsafe and disgusting?

    I’m not justifying any of these bus lane shenanigans, I’m just trying to point out that it is unrealistic to expect that all of these shuttle riders would hop on Loop Link in a heartbeat if only they were enlightened to the true facts or something.

  • Three Slice Toaster

    it’s not entirely true to say the shuttles pay nothing for the infrastructure. They pay gas taxes, which go to street infrastructure projects like this one. They also pay federal and state business taxes, which is where the bulk of the Loop Link funding came from.

  • Pizza delivery vehicles and FedEx pay every single thing you mentioned as well. That doesn’t entitle them to use CTA-specific lanes either.

  • neroden

    This sort of stuff is why it is correct to build tracks and run trains. Ballasted tracks, with no concrete, so no buses or cars are tempted to get into the lane.

    Alternatively, a large curb could be built between the Loop Link lane and the next lane over to make it truly difficult for cars and private buses to invade the lane.

  • Jeff Gio

    Okay, so let Aon Center build their own shuttle lanes.

    I’m sorry you’ve had such a poor experience with public transit, but the buses are not disgusting. I cannot speak about perception of safety, but the people and women in my life have not expressed such concerns.

  • Jeff Gio

    And that issue really raises the question of priorities. I understand the strong sentiments that public infrastructure should not benefit private operators, but we need to consider the benefits and consequences. My question is would private shuttle riders opt for the Loop Link if they perceived it as a better transit option.

    With the upward trend in CTA rail ridership, I think I’m willing to take the risk that driving will stay more inconvenient than metra + CTA bus/shuttle.

  • Jeff Gio

    Yes, and provide clear guidelines to ensure flow of traffic. We don’t want the shuttle exiting and entering the bus lane and inconveniencing CTA operators

  • Good for them. The day that article on sexual harassment/assault came out in RedEye, every women in my department had a story about being groped or masturbated in front of on the CTA, and every man in the department had a story about his girlfriend being groped or masturbated in front of on the CTA.

  • Jeff Gio

    That’s very concerning and certainly an issue. Unfortunately not all women’s employers will provide a shuttle bus

  • johnaustingreenfield

    This issue has been addressed in many systems around the world with women-only rail cars during rush hours: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women-only_passenger_car

    I once started boarding one in Tokyo, only to have fellow passengers usher me to the correct car.

  • Cameron Puetz

    I believe that private shuttle riders would switch to Loop Link if they viewed as a better transit option, but right now Loop Link isn’t a better option. Loop Link to Lake Shore East or the Mag Mile ads $80/month and 20-30 mins of transit time each way for Union Station commuters. That’s on up of the time and cost for their Metra ride to Union. If Loop Link included a downtown circulator route that quickly served Loop adjacent neighborhoods and had fare integration with Metra, them it would be an effective alternative.

  • California’s programs only issue parking tickets because moving violations require a sworn peace officer see the infraction occur.

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Free Enterprise System please remind your drivers that red lanes are for @cta vehicles only. #NotaCTABus @fespress pic.twitter.com/PTmfQgzH7J — Streetsblog Chicago (@streetsblogchi) July 25, 2016 Bus rapid transit has the potential to be a cost-effective way to move people quickly and efficiently across Chicago, without the buses getting slowed down by congestion caused by private […]