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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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Union Station Plan Moves Forward and Megabus is Moving Pick-Up Locations

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Union Station serves 120,000 riders each day. Photo: Metropolitan Planning Council

It looks like plans to renovate Union Station are on track. On Wednesday, City Council passed an ordinance that will move the Union Station Master Plan forward by authorizing an intergovernmental agreement between the Chicago Department of Transportation, Metra, the Regional Transportation Authority, and Amtrak.

The ordinance paves the way for the use of up to $500,000 of Chicago’s tax increment financing money to fund preliminary engineering and design work for the station. In addition, Metra is committing $1 million to the project, Amtrak is providing $3 million, and $1.5 million is coming from the RTA.

The city, Amtrak, Metra, RTA, and other stakeholders are collaborating on short-term improvements to Union Station that will increase passenger capacity by renovating and expanding the concourse and platforms. The project will also address safety, wheelchair accessibility, and general mobility issues at and around the station, according to the mayor’s office.

Passage of the ordinance comes weeks after President Obama signed into law the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Bill, aka the FAST Act. The bill expands the Railroad Rehabilitation and Infrastructure Financing program, which could be a key source of funding for the Union Station Master Plan, a long-term plan to redevelop the station and surrounding area.

“The ordinance approved today by the City Council represents an important step forward for our ambitious plan to modernize Union Station,” Mayor Emanuel said in a statement. “We want to improve the experience for everyone who travels through Union Station and tap the potential that the station has to serve as an anchor for further economic development of the West Loop and surrounding neighborhoods.”

Amtrak recently issued a Request for Information from real estate developers asking for proposals to redevelop the Amtrak-owned station and surrounding land parcels. The passenger rail service is also in the process of hiring consultants to conduct planning, historic review and preliminary engineering work for the short-term term improvements to the station that are outlined in the master plan.

The design work will determine how best to widen platforms and corridors that often operate at or beyond their design capacity during peak times. It will also develop plans for adding elevators, escalators, and/or stairs from the widened platforms to street level and creating new pedestrian tunnels to the Ogilvie Transportation Center and the Blue Line Clinton Station.

The consultants will also prepare design plans for improving access to Union Station’s passenger terminal, including the Great Hall waiting room, which features a 110-foot-high ceiling with a barrel-vaulted skylight. The addition of a passenger elevator at the Canal Street entrance will improve wheelchair accessibility.

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“Transit Explorer” Map Shows Nine Upcoming Transit Projects in Chicagoland

Last week, Yonah Freemark and I published a new map called Transit Explorer, which shows all of the new transit projects that are under construction, or being planned, across United States, Mexico, and Canada.

Yonah, a project manager at the Metropolitan Planning Council and author of The Transport Politic blog, collected the data and created the map. I assisted him by writing the code for the map, which uses open source technologies, including OpenStreetMap.

Yonah has been tracking projects on his blog for seven years, and this is the first time he’s created an open-source map for the information. He says his goal was to make the map “easy-to-use and fun for anyone who’s interested in how public transportation can affect the future of their cities.”

The map (embedded above) shows a number of upcoming or proposed projects in the Chicago region, including five new or overhauled CTA and Metra stations, three new rapid bus lines, and the reconstruction of a CTA ‘L’ corridor.

Freemark said he’s most excited about the bus rapid transit line on Ashland Avenue, and the “arterial rapid transit” Pace is planning on Milwaukee Avenue. We hope you enjoy exploring the map and learning about upcoming transit projects all over North America.

Update Jan. 13: We reached out to Metra to learn the status of their Peterson/Ravenswood and 79th/Wallace stations. Here’s what their spokesperson Michael Gillis said, “Those two stations are among a group of state-funded projects that are currently on hold due to the state budget situation. We won’t know when we’ll be able to proceed until we hear from the state.”

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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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Some Bus Service Will Be Better In 2016, But Better Funding Needed

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The CTA has had to make tradeoffs to add more and faster bus service on Ashland Avenue. Photo: Daniel Rangel

2016 just might be the year of the Chicago bus. The Chicago Transit Authority is restoring express service and speeding up local service on Ashland and Western avenues, running six bus routes on dedicated bus lanes downtown with the new “Loop Link” corridor, and piloting restored service on the #11-Lincoln and #31-31st Street bus routes. Pace will also be gearing up to launch the Pulse “Arterial Bus Rapid Transit” service on Milwaukee Avenue in 2017.

The CTA discontinued express routes on Ashland, Western, and other streets in 2010. The 31st Street route was cut in the late 1990s, and the Lincoln route was truncated in 2012. Red-painted bus-lanes were installed on Loop streets in the 2000s, but the lanes weren’t enforced, and they were allowed to fade.

What accounts for the new focus on bus service? For starters, the Chicago Department of Transportation is currently implementing projects that Gabe Klein initiated when he was commissioner between 2011 and 2013. CDOT completed the east-west portion of Loop Link this month, and has begun constructing the Union Station transit center for people to transfer between buses and trains.

In addition to Loop Link, the restored Ashland and Western bus service, which includes the addition of transit-priority stoplights, can be viewed as laying the groundwork for a possible bus rapid transit line on Ashland. The city did outreach and planning for the system in the early years of the Emanuel administration, but it’s currently on the back burner.

The restoration of the #11 and #31 lines can be credited to tireless advocacy by local aldermen and a dedicated group of transit riders and businesses called the Crosstown Bus Coalition Last but not least, Dorval Carter took over as CTA president this year, and he said he wanted to pay more attention to improving bus service.

Service changes come with caveats

However, these bus service changes, past and present, have involved tradeoffs. When the CTA cut the #11 route in 2012, it was done as part of the agency’s so-called “decrowding plan,” which added service to ‘L’ lines, including the Brown Line, which roughly parallels Lincoln. The current Ashland and Western improvements are possible in part because the CTA is eliminating 100 management positions, including some some layoffs. Read more…

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Why the North LSD Rehab Should Swap Mixed-Traffic Lanes for Transit Lanes

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Buses and cars on Lake Shore Drive during the evening rush. 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.]

Earlier this month at a hearing on the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction study—dubbed “Redefine the Drive”—officials assured the public that all options for rebuilding Chicago’s coastal highway are still on the table. But the Illinois Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the drive, isn’t seriously considering the simplest way to help more people travel more efficiently: trading existing mixed-traffic lanes for bus-only lanes.

Immortalized in the eponymous song by local rock group Aliotta-Haynes-Jeremiah (R.I.P. bassist Mitch Aliotta, who passed away in July), the northern portion of Lake Shore Drive is 60 to 80 years old, and way overdue for a rehab. IDOT and the Chicago Department of Transportation are collaborating on the plan to rebuild the seven-mile section between Grand and Hollywood.

They expect to get approval for the design from the feds by 2018, with construction starting as early as 2019, pending available funding. The project could cost more than $1 billion and will take years to finish.

Starting in July 2013, the city and state transportation departments hosted a series of community meetings, where residents shared their ideas for the overhaul. In October 2014, the planners released a list of the 20 most popular ideas for the rehab, based on more than 1,600 comments from 330-plus attendees. “Improve transit service” came in second, after “Separate bike/pedestrian users on the Lakefront Trail.” Maintaining or improving driving conditions didn’t make the list.

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A vision of North Lake Shore Drive with rapid transit corridors and separated walking and biking paths published by 15 local civic organizations in July 2013. Image: Thom Greene

During the recent hearing at the Chicago History Museum, planners from IDOT noted that North Lake Shore Drive sees 70,000 transit trips a day on nine routes, accounting for one-fifth of all passenger trips on the drive.

IDOT projects that the population of the study area, bounded by Touhy, the Kennedy/Dan Ryan, and the Stevenson, will grow 15 to 20 percent by 2040, based on a state analysis of Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning data. The department predicts the number of transit trips on the drive will increase by the same amount during this period. However, they project the increase in car trips will be negligible, because new Chicagoans will mostly commute by transit, and some current residents will switch from cars to other modes.

To meet the growing demand for transit, the LSD project team is considering options for the drive like bus-on-shoulder (which already exists on some Pace lines) and bus-only lanes, possibly with rapid transit-style stations along the route. Light rail is even in the mix, although it would likely be cost-prohibitive.

Liberating transit riders from car-generated congestion via dedicated lanes is a no-brainer, since buses are exponentially more space-efficient than automobiles. The planners said cars on the drive carry an average of 1.2 people. Meanwhile, a 60-foot articulated CTA bus seats about 50 people (not counting standees) and takes up less room on the highway than two average-size cars, when you factor in the necessary distances between vehicles.

During the hearing, planners stressed they haven’t yet ruled out any options for reconfiguring the drive. But afterward, IDOT project and environmental studies section chief John Baczek told a different story to Charles Papanek, who reported on the meeting for Streetsblog .

Baczek said it’s unlikely any of the drive’s existing travel lanes will be converted to transit-only use, because this would reduce capacity for drivers, and the number of car trips isn’t expected to decrease. Therefore, he implied, adding dedicated bus lanes would probably require widening the highway.

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

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How Cleveland Prevents BRT Bus Mirrors From Clobbering Customers

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It’s also possible to be struck by a bus mirror while waiting for the HealthLine but, thanks to an audible warning, it never happens. Photo: GCRTA

As I wrote this morning, the CTA is currently requiring bus operators to drive no faster than 3 mph when passing by the long, raised Loop Link bus rapid transit platforms. This is to ensure that the buses’ rearview mirrors don’t strike customers who are standing too close to the platform edge. Unfortunately, this has been a big factor in why bus speeds along the corridor, which opened on Sunday, have so far shown little or no improvement over the old 3 mph rush-hour average.

It turns out that the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority had to deal with the same mirror issue when they launched that city’s HealthLine BRT system back in 2008. Mike Schipper, a deputy general manager at GCRTA who was responsible for implementing the route, visited Chicago a few weeks ago, and he said the Loop Link layout has a lot of similarities to Cleveland’s.

“It’s also physically possible to be hit by a [bus] mirror if you’re standing at the edge of the platform in Cleveland,” Schipper said. “I’m tall, so I’m particularly aware of that.” Like Loop Link, the HealthLine platforms have a tactile area by the edge. 

However HealthLine bus operators don’t have restrictions on how fast they can drive past or to the BRT platforms. Rather than slow to sub-walking speeds like their CTA counterparts, they sound a loud electric gong as they pull up to drop off and pick up passengers, according to Schipper. The noise is similar to that heard on a CTA ‘L’ train cars before the doors close.

Schipper said this strategy has been very successful in getting the attention of HealthLine customers, even if they’re wearing earbuds. In the seven years the HealthLine has operated, there have been zero cases of passengers being injured by bus mirrors, he said.

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Why Are Loop Link Buses Moving So Slow, and Will They Get Faster?

Since Chicago’s Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor launched last Sunday, there’s been little or no improvement in bus travel times along the route. It turns out that a big part of the problem is that the CTA currently requires bus operators to drive at walking speed while passing by the long, raised station platforms. Hopefully, as operators and CTA customers get used to the new infrastructure, bus speeds will get much faster.

The city of Chicago certainly deserves kudos for launching Loop Link, a bold reconfiguration of street space to prioritize transit, walking, and biking. In fact, the redesign of Washington Street as part of the system was nominated for the Streetsblog network’s “Streetsie” award as one of the nation’s best urban street transformations of 2015.

However, for Chicagoans to feel that repurposing several mixed-traffic lanes was worth it, and for there to be any chance of moving forward with the city’s Ashland BRT proposal, it’s crucial for Loop Link to provide significant benefits in terms of faster, more reliable bus service. The city has said the goal of the project is to double downtown bus speeds from their previous molasses-like pace of 3 mph during rush hours.

Obviously, any brand-new transportation system is likely to have a few bugs, and there was bound to be a learning curve while all road users get comfortable with the new layout. When I test-rode the system on Sunday, I noticed that the buses weren’t moving much faster than before, even when the red bus-only lanes were free of other vehicles, and they were especially slow when pulling up to the platforms. I chalked that up to the operators being especially cautious while learning to navigate the route.

But when I rode the #20 Madison bus downtown from the West Side on Tuesday afternoon, I overheard several commuters, who seemed like daily riders, complaining about Loop Link. “These platforms make the trip take a lot longer,” said one lady. “Whoever brainstormed this doesn’t have all their faculties intact,” replied her companion. They strategized about different bus lines they could take to avoid the BRT corridor.

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A line of cars waiting to turn right on Clark blocked the bus lane. Photo: John Greenfield

As we entered the Loop, predictably, there were issues with a few motorists driving in the red lane, and others stopping in it to drop off and pick up passengers. At one point, the bus got stuck behind a long line of cars crossing the bus lane to make a right turn onto Clark Street. At no time did our driver leave the lane to pass stopped vehicles, including other buses as the platforms. This meant we always waited until all the buses in front of us were finished dropping off and picking up passengers before proceeding.

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. Since the buses often seemed to be moving sluggishly for no good reason, it seemed even slower.

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Eyes on the Street: On the First Day of Loop Link

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Loop Link station on Washington east of State. Photo: John Greenfield

Like kids unwrapping presents, travelers in downtown Chicago had some shiny new infrastructure to try out Sunday morning. The Loop Link bus rapid transit system debuted on a day when weekday traffic wasn’t an issue, although the central business district was packed with holiday shoppers. Monday will be the first big test of the system.

The main part of the bus corridor runs about a mile across the Loop district on Washington and Madison streets, where giant bus shelters with near-level boarding platforms have been constructed. On Washington, a new protected bike lane runs between the sidewalk and the island stations.

The route also includes Canal and Clinton streets in the West Loop, so it connects the two West Loop commuter rail stations with Michigan Avenue. Six different bus routes that terminate in different corners of the city are now using the corridor, which is designed to double bus speeds from the previous sluggish pace of 3 mph during rush hours.

Time-saving features include red concrete bus-only lanes, limited stops, and white “queue jump” signals at intersections, which give buses a head start, similar to “leading pedestrian interval” traffic signal timing. The queue jumps are currently in effect and seem to function well. Pre-paid boarding isn’t in effect yet, but the city says it will be tested this spring at the station on Madison at Dearborn Street. Read this post for more info about the design of the Loop Link corridor.

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Right turns by motorists are prohibited at several intersections. At others, drivers may cross the bus lane, and right-turn and bike signals prevent conflicts. Photo: John Greenfield

The system is still very much a work in progress. Only seven of the eight planned stations are built — one at Washington and Wabash Avenue will be constructed after work on a new elevated station nearby is finished. Some of the existing shelters are still under construction. And bus drivers, motorists, bike riders, and pedestrians will need some time to get used to the new traffic patterns.

That said, things seemed to be functioning pretty well on Sunday. True, cars in the remaining two mixed-traffic lanes on Washington were moving pretty slowly when I visited in the late afternoon, but it was prime shopping time. In particular, lots of people were walking between the State Street retail strip to the German Christmas market at Daley Plaza, which made it difficult for drivers to turn north onto Dearborn.

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Chicago Should Take Over the North Lake Shore Drive Redesign Project

Lake Shore Drive: currently, and probably in the future unless Chicago takes over planning and design. Photo: Mike Travis

Last week, the Illinois Department of Transportation hosted the first public meeting on the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction project in almost a year and a half. This state-jurisdiction road, which is located entirely within the city limits, currently restricts access to our lakefront. And since CTA “express” buses are forced to share travel lanes with cars, the buses are slowed to a crawl during peak-hour traffic jams.

After the meeting, an IDOT staffer said it’s unlikely that any existing mixed-traffic lanes on the drive will be converted to transit-only lanes as part of the redesign. Instead, transit lanes would probably only included as an add-on to the existing eight lanes.

However, the department’s own analysis projects that the population of project area will increase by 15-to-20 percent between 2010 and 2040, with negligible motor vehicle traffic growth.

The shoreline of Lake Michigan doesn’t need 30 more feet of asphalt. Moreover, if buses are removed from all the existing mixed-traffic lanes, even more space will be available for cars on than there is now, further encouraging driving.

IDOT’s backwards policy on lane conversions demonstrates why it would make sense for the city of Chicago to take over control of the highway. In recent years, the Chicago Department of Transportation has helped build several forward-thinking transit projects, such as the Loop Link express bus corridor, which opens this Sunday.

Ideally, Chicago wouldn’t have a lakefront highway at all. Barring that possibility, Lake Shore Drive should be transformed into a much smaller, park-oriented street, and/or moved underground. San Francisco converted a double-decker highway into a shoreline boulevard instead of rebuilding it. Madrid buried their river-hugging highway under a brand-new park.

Lake Shore Drive could also be capped, with the newly created land used for parks and public space, as was done with Boston’s Big Dig project. CDOT’s recent actions show that the city might take these ideas seriously.

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