Enthusiasm for Curbs: The City Should Use Plastic Barriers to Keep Loop Link Lanes Clear

Mexico City's Metrobus system uses plastic curbs to keep private vehicles out of the bus lanes. Photo: John Greenfield
Mexico City's Metrobus system uses plastic curbs to keep private vehicles out of the bus lanes. Photo: John Greenfield

So far the Loop Link bus rapid transit system’s timesaving features, including dedicated bus lanes, near-level boarding platforms, a reduced number of stops, and special signals that give CTA buses a head start at some stoplights, appear to be resulting in a modest time savings for commuters.

However, the system still isn’t living up to its full potential because the city has been dragging its feet on implementing prepaid boarding, which was originally supposed to be in effect at all eight of the stations when the system debuted in December 2015. 19 months later CTA has only tested prepaid boarding at the Madison/Dearborn Loop Link station, as well as three other bus stops in various parts of the city, using a system that requires an employee to be present.

Another problem is private vehicles clogging up the Loop Link lanes. Some peer systems, such as New York City’s Select express bus routes, feature camera enforcement of the bus-only lanes. But due to the unpopularity of automated enforcement in Chicago, and a state law requiring the Illinois General Assembly to approve additional traffic camera enforcement in Chicago, we won’t be seeing those anytime soon. Meanwhile, there seems to be little enforcement of the lanes by police officers, which is one reason its common to see non-CTA drivers, especially operators of private commuter shuttles, illegally using the lanes.

An Aries Charter Transportation bus in a Loop Link lane.
An Aries Charter Transportation bus in a Loop Link lane.

Here’s a cheap, fast, effective solution to this problem. When I was in Mexico City and Bogota and Cartagena, Colombia, I observed that the local BRT systems featured low plastic curbs, bolted into the road, to discourage motorists from driving in the bus lanes. (In Mexico City, these plastic curbs are also used to create low-cost curb-protected bike lanes.) Easy-peasy, right?

It’s not that sample, according to Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey. He said using curbs to keep private vehicles out of the Loop Link lanes is not an option since the bus lanes are not continuous – drivers of private vehicles are allowed to cross the lanes in some locations. In addition, he said that the system was designed to allow some use by private vehicles, including ingress and egress to garages and alleys.

Claffey added that curbs would interfere with snow plowing (which is not an issue in Mexico City or the Colombian cities.) Lastly, he said curbs would inhibit the CTA’s ability to let buses pass one another in the event of a breakdown or to alleviate bus bunching.

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Bogota’s Transmillennio BRT system. Photo: John Greenfield

The plastic curbs I saw were high enough to discourage drivers of private vehicles from entering the bus lanes, but low enough that it’s possible to drive over them if necessary. And couldn’t most, if not all, of the issues Claffey raised be addressed by having occasional gaps in the curbs? He said he didn’t have a response to this question.

However, the Active Transportation Alliance is encouraging CDOT to look into installing curbs along Loop Link, as well as to implement other strategies to speed up the buses. “The city needs better ways to keep bus lanes clear of automobile traffic, hold violators accountable, and maximize the impact of public investment in bus infrastructure,” said Active Trans director of government relations Kyle Whitehead. “Adding physical separation with curbs is one approach that’s worthy of research and evaluation on Chicago streets.”

Whitehead added that the city should step up manual enforcement of the lanes. “In cities across the U.S. and around the world, it has been proven that targeted in-person enforcement by the police department and other city agencies works. Longterm, a new state law is needed that enables photo enforcement of bus lanes.”

Later this year Active Trans is releasing a bus service report in partnership with the TransitCenter foundation that will highlight low-cost ways to speed up CTA buses, including adding more bus lanes while stepping up enforcement.

  • BlueFairlane

    Having gaps in the curbs would be the same as having no curbs, as people would just use the gaps.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    *Occasional* gaps. In general the existence of the curbs would discourage people from driving in the bus lanes.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think that’s optimistic.

  • planetshwoop

    I work on Madison, and there are two consistent issues I see when walking up/down it.

    1) The parking garages. Cars line up to get into the garage, but there is a lot of ped traffic, so it builds up. This causes cars to queue into the bus lane, and blocks the bus. I don’t know if curbs would help this — it seems like a bad design issue for the bus stop at Madison LaSalle and won’t go away unless the parking garage is changed.

    2) Right turns, pickup/drop-offs. I think curbs would help a lot here. Seeiing cars jump over at the last minute to pick up and drop off in the bike lane (Madison/Dearborn) or use it as a waiting area.

    There are probably other areas I’m less familiar with (Union Station? Madison Street Station?) where these would really help.

  • The concern about snow plows is a fair argument, the curbs would just get torn up. But with that said the city is pretty damn good at making excuses, just look at how recycling is handled year after year.

  • Courtney

    I’ve seen the issue with #1 numerous times while riding the Brown Line downtown.

  • Courtney

    Just having curbs at all would be an improvement vs not having them because of OCCASIONAL issues.

  • Courtney

    Let’s just have in-person enforcement. When folks see an actual police officer handing out tickets behavior will change REALLY quickly.

  • FlamingoFresh

    Some form of enforcement or deterrent for using the bus only lanes is needed. Having video camera enforcement should be looked at more. It’s closed minded to let a mismanaged use of cameras in the past prevent us from effectively use them in a different scenario. If they don’t want to use cameras, then they should use police officers to enforce it. The fact that they are aware of these violations and do nothing about it is unacceptable.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Yeah I think we need a consciousness shift about how motorists think about turning, standing and queuing if we’re going to have successful mixed use streets. It needs to be acceptable to block a lane of auto traffic temporarily rather than the bus/bike lane while waiting to turn or dropping off a passenger. Once the bike/bus lane and turn is clear only then should the motorist proceed.

    As it stands we only hold drivers accountable for thinking about 5 feet ahead of themselves though I’ll acknowledge impatient honkers encourage this behavior.

    If we can’t do it through education/cultural shift I think physical barriers and complex dedicated signal systems are the only way.

  • Courtney

    “The fact that they are aware of these violations and do nothing about it is unacceptable.” THIS!!

  • what_eva

    I frequently see trucks at the Walgreens at State/Madison. There’s a little space at the corner as the bus lane is moving out for the stop, but the stop doesn’t run the entire block, but it’s not enough room for a truck. Doesn’t stop them. On that same note, deliveries should be severely restricted during rush hour. If there isn’t an off street location, no deliveries.

    I frequently see cars drifting over into the bus lane. The buses end up having to honk to get morons to keep their lane.

  • EdRo

    This project is a complete failure. But I also have no problem driving in the bus lane if I have to. And I really don’t care. If there aren’t any buses around, what difference does it make?

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