Right Now It’s More Important to Install Bus Lanes on Chicago Avenue Than Bike Lanes

A rendering of a bike lane (with a passing lane) on the Chicago Avenue bridge over the Kennedy from the West Town Master Plan.
A rendering of a bike lane (with a passing lane) on the Chicago Avenue bridge over the Kennedy from the West Town Master Plan.

The new West Town Master Plan, commissioned by the West Town Chamber of Commerce and Special Service Area #29, floats the idea of converting  two of the four mixed-traffic lanes on Chicago Avenue in the neighborhood to buffered bike lanes. While that’s a forward-thing idea, it would actually make sense to use that extra right-of-way for dedicated bus lanes, because that would help move a greater number of people across the city more efficiently.

While in a perfect world there would be bikeways on every retail street in Chicago, unless we’re going to totally ban car traffic and/or parking from some streets (not a bad idea in itself), in the short term it’s necessary to pick our battles. There currently isn’t a desperate need for bike lanes on Chicago Avenue because Augusta Boulevard, located two blocks north is already a good east-west bike route, with buffered lanes from Milwaukee Avenue to Central Park Avenue, a more than three-mile stretch. The Chicago Department of Transportation did designate Chicago Avenue as a “crosstown bike route” several years ago in its Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan but so far the city hasn’t taken any action to improve the street for biking.

For transit riders, however, the CTA’s #66 Chicago bus really is a crucial crosstown route, and a workaholic at that. According to the transit agency, the route was among the top five most heavily ridden buses from 2011 to 2015, and in 2016 it got second place, after the 79th Street bus.

A possible layout for Chicago Avenue with bus lanes. Image: Steven Vance via Streetmix
A possible layout for Chicago Avenue with bus lanes. Image: Steven Vance via Streetmix

In 2016, the Chicago Avenue bus had a weekday average ridership of 22,512 — that’s almost as many bus rides as the total number of bike trips to work in Chicago each day, 23,011. The #66 has excellent frequency during the morning rush: Between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. the bus runs 147 times. The average frequency is 9.8 buses per hour, or about one bus every 6-7 minutes.

It appears there are currently more people traveling on Chicago Avenue by bus each day than in cars. The Illinois Department of Transportation counted 17,300 vehicles between Ashland and Western in a 2014 survey (which included CTA buses). There would have to be an average of 1.3 people per non-bus vehicle, which doesn’t seem to be the case, in order to match the number of bus riders on the route (The CTA doesn’t publish data that reveals how many people are on buses between Ashland and Western.)

In the downtown stretch of the #66 route, east of the Chicago River, the vehicle count here is higher, at 21,000 vehicles a day in 2014. Due to this higher level of traffic, on this segment timesaving strategies like removing unnecessary bus stops, using all-door boarding, and implementing transit signal prioritization would be especially beneficial.

A bicyclist and a bus on Chicago Avenue. Photo by Mike Travis.
A bicyclist and a bus on Chicago Avenue. Photo by Mike Travis.

Creating dedicated, well-enforced bus lanes on Chicago would mean that 22,512 trips to and from work, school, shopping, or doctors appointments every day would be faster and more pleasant. The #66 provides access to tens of thousands of downtown, more even than the popular Division Street and Grand Avenue routes. For all these reasons, creating bus lanes on Chicago is a bigger priority than striping bike lanes.

That’s not to say we should give up on the idea of adding bikeways on the avenue as well as bus lanes in the future, it’s just that this would require a heavier lift politically. Converting one of the parking lanes, in addition to the aforementioned two travel lanes, would make room for bike lanes.

Removing parking to make room for bike lanes is often a challenge, and it’s sometimes nearly impossible. But if Emanuel is serious about upholding the Paris Climate Accord and eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2026, making space for bike lanes as well as bus lanes on Chicago Ave. is something we should do in the future.

Does this sound like something you want? Contact the West Town SSA, or one of the eight alders whose wards touch the #66 route (1, 2, 26, 27, 28, 29, 37, 42). 

 

https://publicgood.com/org/chicagoland-streets-project/campaign/2017-fundraising

  • ardecila

    Thanks for coming out in support of this idea! The Daley administration (that’s “M”, not “J”) came out with the rush hours idea in the waning days of that administration.

    Unfortunately it went nowhere, but fortunately it could be implemented for almost nothing with a signage change and striping.

  • R

    http://www.rnstransit.com I went to this study in 2014. They are supposed to have a follow-up yhis year according to their website. Nothing has come of it, so I hope something happens soon.

  • Kurtis P

    Is all of Chicago Ave wide enough for this? It’s hard enough for cars to drive side by side west of the freeway. Cars generally drive in one lane once you get to around Eckhart Park. I agree that the Chicago bus is critical, but how much of that ridership is strictly east of the freeway? Brown and Red line transfers, Hospital, Navy Pier. Maybe the sections should be treated differently? I think the West Town road diet makes sense for that neighborhood.

  • JacobEPeters

    I can confirm that there is high bus ridership consistently on the Chicago bus on both sides of the river. When I used to ride it to work, there would be no seats by Damen, then completely full just in time for the bus to alight ~50% of passengers at the Chicago Blue Line stop, and refill with riders transferring from the Blue Line onto the bus.

    I found the bus to be slowed more by the long wait times for passengers to board and alight than congestion along the corridor west of the river. It might make sense to design the corridors on either side of the river differently, but not due to a difference in bus ridership, but rather a difference in car traffic.

  • Kurtis P

    I live at Chicago and Noble, so I understand how packed the bus can get during rush. That’s not quite my point. I just want to know the numbers in ridership on both sides of the freeway. With the frequency of the route, and the on/offs at the Blue, I’m not sure a dedicated bus lane is right for West Town. Especially with the road size, which I again would like to know if it’s wide enough in those areas to do what Steve suggests. A road diet with a center turn would still allow pretty substantial movement for buses.

  • JacobEPeters

    I can dive into the 2012 boarding and alighting data during my lunch tomorrow, but I agree that a dedicated lane is not necessarily the best way to address what causes delays (& bus bunching) regularly for riders of the #66 bus.

  • My study area was between Ashland and Western because that’s where the IDOT traffic count data was for. The graphic at the top is 56 feet curb to curb, measured at 1700 W Chicago Avenue on Google Earth.

  • Pretty much yes. The side-by-side driving issue you point out is a problem because of how the parking lanes aren’t aligned well with the turn lanes, and thus it creates a 1.5 lane area.

  • Kurtis P

    Man, it seems tighter than that over there. I just have a hard time visualizing essentially 2 lanes of buses, 2 lanes of cars and 2 lanes of parking all actually fitting

  • Kurtis P

    I couldn’t agree more with the turn lane comments. They try to squeeze too many spots near the intersections. So that brings us back to the parking issue and the City not willing to give up spaces.

  • There’s probably dozens if not hundreds of free parking spaces on Chicago Avenue. Today I biked on Chicago Avenue from Wood to Noble (only half a mile, I think), and I noticed a LOT of loading zones.

  • Look at my graphic!

  • Frank Kotter

    And this is the really maddening part: You, someone steeped in design and policy, develop a streetscape which will….

    1. Increase capacity
    2. Increase safety for people in cars, pedestrians, and cyclists
    3. speed travel times (all while…)
    4. slowing each individual vehicle
    5. Improve the quality of life in neighborhood by making it more walkable, quieter, cleaner.

    …but has no chance of being implemented due to lanes which are considered ‘too narrow’ – a determination based on zero fact or statistics and actually disputed by empirical evidence from nations which have similar street design.

  • Thanks for pointing out the high ridership numbers on the #66 route. Without a doubt Chicago Ave should be among the first routes to be upgraded with dedicated lane BRT style technologies. An entire grid network of BRT routes going in all four directions on streets like Chicago, North, Fullerton, Belmont, Ashland, and Western as a starting example is well past due. The el network is reaching capacity and would ideally be extended were the United States to refute the failure of neo-liberal corporate austerity economics and return even to post WWII Keynesian style Capitalist economics needed to fund such an expansion. Short of that path towards building a rapid mass transit gridded network in Chicago it behooves us to pursue the inexpensive BRT one.

  • Dustin Clark

    Anecdotally (since CTA does provide the numbers) that there is strong ridership east of the river, and buses are quite full. Aside for your apt list of destination spots there are some 5,000 employees [~2,000 at GroupOn alone] from the river to Chicago Red Line (Credit: ESRI BOA). Furthermore, planners should consider long term developments as Goose Islands turns over to residential, and redevelopment in Noble Square and Ukrainian Village.

  • Dustin Clark

    Interesting…Belmont Bus 77 effectively has a jump-lane west of Paulina and east of Greenview due to restricted rush hour parking. Perhaps a similar strategy could be fully implemented for parts of Chicago Ave.

  • JacobEPeters

    In the October 2012 dataset, the stations east of the river account for ~16k of the ~28k average daily boardings along route 66. That is significant, given that this represents a small portion of the total route length, but the ~12k boardings on the rest of the route is still more than the Jeffery Jump.

  • what_eva

    Unfortunately a lot of the east of greenview gets blocked by trucks and the like during morning rush.

  • Randy Neufeld

    Bus lanes on Chicago would simply make it a horrible, horrible street. The graphic is what urban hell looks like not a complete street. This zero sum bus vs. bike planning is what we’re trying to get away from. Let’s start by talking about the kind of street we want. The kind of place we want. The bus lane design is bad for bikes, bad for peds and bad for retail. It’s likely bad for buses because it probably wouldn’t function well and it would destroy the attractiveness of the corridor, thus reducing bus demand. Let’s start with data on how people use the street.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “This zero sum bus vs. bike planning is what we’re trying to get away from.” Sounds good to me. Let’s completely ban driving and car parking from this street, and then we’ll have plenty of right-of-way for bus lanes, bikeways, and wider sidewalks.

  • Believe it or not, I agree, Randy.

    My point in writing the article was to put a pause on the West Town Chamber of Commerce’s plan, and not just accept it at face value that we should build buffered (um, why not protected?) bike lanes there.

    I agree that going from four lanes of traffic to four lanes of traffic is dumb. There should really be both bus and bike accommodations, which would mean some of the parking would have to go.

    The bus lanes could be rush hour only. There should not be shared bus and bike lanes. These are not comfortable for cyclists.

  • I don’t think the L network is reaching capacity. Some lines have crowding issues during certain times.

  • Who is going to reject it on 11 foot bus lanes being too narrow?
    I believe Chicago already uses 10 foot travel lanes in a lot of places.

    For example, Clark Street was restriped in ~2012 to add buffered bike lanes and it created 10.5 foot wide travel lanes. In some instances, where there are turn lanes, the lanes are 10 feet wide. Clark Street engineering plans.

    King Drive was restriped to have buffered bike lanes in each direction and 4 travel lanes. The 4 travel lanes are, from curb to curb: 10.5, 10, 10, 10.5 feet wide. King Drive engineering plans.

  • Well sure. All we need to do is to get people to move and live closer to the under-utilized lines and/ or get more flexible work hours. Housing prices will get people to move.

    But as you know, an inadequate transit network besides showing up as over-crowding would show up as traffic congestion as well. Again an encouragement to move to a less congested neighborhood. But then that leaves the best transit neighborhoods to die on the transit vine as it were.

    I’m just saying that Chicago deserves a rapid frequent network as dense as say Paris, at least in part, and that new subways are too expensive to meet that objective, so the next best is dedicated BRT.

  • It’s not zero sum when one prioritizes and that is what Vance is doing. At times sections of Chicago is at its capacity for moving people. So what option induces the most demand? At least some cars have to be removed. Either parked or moving. Which induced demand will result in the greatest increase from the removal of the fewest cars?

    I agree with Vance that strategic removal of parked cars at choke points could result in faster/greater bus throughput. It is a much more likely result than expecting a comparable increase in bikes, cars or pedestrians.

  • I have always been disdainful of rush hour parking bans as a technique to gain travel lanes. Every street I’ve driven on that had those bans inevitably had just enough scoff-laws to upset the apple cart. So sure if you were willing to butt back into the open lane every few blocks you could make use of the lane. But butting in line is so ingrained in us as bad behavior that few will do it. Just look at the attempt at construction sites on interstates to get drivers to use both lanes and zipper merge at the very end.

    But there is a big exception to that reality. Buses and bus drivers. They are the king of “butt-iners”. And I suspect that many many drivers actually take some pride to back off and let them in.

    Here’s a concrete example from your last “brew-in” at the Up & Up bar. I took the red line to North and caught the North avenue bus. I figured it might be a tad slower than going all the way downtown then blue lining it but hey I’m a Streetsblogger as it were.

    And sure enough the trip starting for me at Clybourn on North was immediately trapped in congestion. But we had a good driver (I complemented him when I got off). The piece-de-resistance for me was when we arrived at the special lane for Home Depot that appears just after the river. It was empty because no one was going to Home Depot and a driver would have to butt-in at Throop (and break the law as it’s a right turn only lane) to get back.

    But our driver immediately grabbed the lane and passed a block worth of cars. Hoo-Haaa I loved it and him!

    Point being, of course, that while rush hour parking restrictions work poorly at best for cars, I just bet that they would do wonders for buses!

  • The rush hour bus lane in my imagination would revert to a general purpose outside of rush hours.

    I know that extra lane at Home Depot/Throop! That would be a great place for a queue jump traffic signal for the bus. There are lots of these “natural” places for queue jumps, and tons more places we should go ahead and create.

  • Frank Kotter

    Wow, this is a real eye opener. Thanks for this. I had always assumed (don’t know where this came from) that there was nothing lesser than 11’travel and 9′ parking. Great to hear.

  • CDOT stripes 7 foot parking lanes if there’s a 5 foot bike lane next to it.

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