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Why the Belmont Blue Rehab Includes a Futuristic Canopy but No Elevators


Rendering of the redesigned Belmont Blue Line station, including its Jetsons-like canopy.

Early this month the city announced upgrades the Blue Line’s Belmont stop that will cost up to $15 million. The improvements to the station, which opened in 1970 and was originally designed by Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, include several cosmetic changes, including a space-age-looking weather canopy. However, many residents are scratching their heads about why the rehab won’t include the addition of elevators to make the stations compliant with the Americans With Disabilities act.

The project, which is slated to begin next year, is part of the CTA’s Your New Blue initiative, which includes makeovers to several stations along the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch, as well as track improvements. Residents have previously complained about the fact that many of the station redesigns don’t include elevators, and the CTA has said they plan to make all stations ADA compliant sometime in the future.

The planned improvements include a community gateway for the street-level entrance to the Belmont subway station and improvements to a safer, more comfortable environment for pedestrians. Importantly, the CTA plans to permanently add prepaid bus boarding to the station, a timesaving feature the agency has been testing since this summer on westbound buses during evening rush hours.

Attendants with portable fare card readers have customers scan their cards and wait in a fenced in bullpen. When buses arrive the employees direct the riders to board through both the front and rear doors. The CTA didn’t provide additional details on how the permanent prepaid boarding system would work.

But spokesman Jeff Tolman said the Belmont test, as well as a similar pilot that recently launched at the Loop Link’s Madison/Dearborn station, seem to be going smoothly. “Anecdotally, customers have responded generally positively to both pilots and they have helped reduce boarding times,” he said.

The large, skeletal canopy, designed by the Chicago architecture firm Ross Barney Architects, will provide additional weather protection. It’s more evidence that the city has a “When in doubt go with something Santiago Calatrava-esque” design philosophy. See also the Loop Link and Union Station Transit Center bus shelters, as well as the upcoming Washington-Wabash ‘L’ station – all of them are vaguely reminiscent of dinosaur ribs.

“Projects like this bring notable architecture and design that celebrates and complements the character of our communities, enhance our neighborhoods and bring economic and cultural opportunities to residents and businesses,” said Mayor Emanuel in a statement.

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Activists: Social Justice Issues Influence Black Residents’ Travel Decisions


Jason Ware campaigns on an ‘L’ train. Photo: Sarah-Ji Photography

[Last year the Chicago Reader launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate a portion of the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print.]

When it comes to improving Chicago transportation, city officials and advocates often focus on infrastructure, reasoning that street redesigns, public transit improvements, and better pedestrian and bike facilities will help make travel safer and more convenient for all residents.

But decision makers sometimes overlook issues that are specific to Chicago’s lower-income communities of color on the south and west sides. Many of these areas have poor mass transit service, unsafe conditions for walking, and limited or no access to bikeways and Divvy stations. Transportation costs that may seem trivial to higher-income residents, like the price of a CTA ride or a traffic ticket, can be significant for poor and working-class people. And street crime and police harassment—problems that disproportionately affect African-American and Latino Chicagoans—can be major factors in their travel decisions.

To get some perspective on these topics, I spoke with two leaders associated with Chicago’s Black Lives Matter movement: Charlene Carruthers, national director of Black Youth Project 100, and Jason Ware, an organizer with the #LetUsBreathe Collective. (We’ll hear from Latino activists in a future column.)

Carruthers, 31, was born and raised on the south side and currently lives in Bronzeville. Her organization, made up of African-Americans ages 18 to 35, addresses issues like police abuse, mass incarceration, and LGBT and women’s rights “using a Black queer feminist lens.”

Ware, 21, grew up in Rochester, New York, and now lives in the Austin neighborhood, where he runs a restorative justice program at Austin College and Career Academy. #LetUsBreathe was formed as a fund-raising initiative to provide aid to Ferguson protesters. The group uses civil disobedience, as well as outreach through various art forms, to call for police and prison abolition.

“I do believe transportation access is an element of social justice,” Carruthers says.

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CDOT Vets and Other Leaders Discuss the Future of Urban Transportation


Mendoza, Tolson, Klein, Kubly, and Treat at the Shared Use Summit. Photo: Shared-Use Mobilty Center

Last week hundreds of civic leaders, entrepreneurs, and academics from across the U.S. convened in our city for the National Shared Mobility Summit, organized by the Chicago-based nonprofit the Shared-Use Mobility Center. This think tank focuses on practices and policies regarding bike-share, ride-share, car-share, and other mobility tools in an effort to maximize the positive impact of these new technologies.

The panel “Connecting the DOTs – City Commissioners on Shared Mobility” featured three former heavy-hitters from the Chicago Department of Transportation. The discussion was moderated by former CDOT commissioner Gabe Klein, now with the consulting firm CityFi and other transportation-related entities (including the board of OpenPlans, Streetsblog’s parent organization).

Joining Klein for the talk were his former CDOT deputies Leah Treat and Scott Kubly, who currently lead the Portland and Seattle DOTs, respectively. Earlier this decade, the three of them launched the Divvy bike-share system, as well as initiatives like the construction of 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes, the Bloomingdale Trail, and the Chicago Riverwalk. Rounding out the panel were Richard Mendoza, Atlanta’s transportation commissioner, and Clarena Tolson, deputy managing director for the city of Philadelphia.

“Connecting the DOTs” (get it?) focused on the new challenges and opportunities facing cities as we enter a brave new world of shared mobility, autonomous vehicles, and other emerging technologies. During the discussion, Klein and the city officials also talked about what they’ve learned as they’ve dealt with issues like aging infrastructure, changing regulatory demands, and current trends like ride-share that are disrupting traditional taxi and public transit models.

The officials started out by discussing some of the new shared-mobility and transit initiatives in their respective cities. Treat discussed Portland’s new BIKETOWN bike-share system, title-sponsored by Nike. Although the locally based sports-gear manufacturer is not known as a bike company, Treat said their sponsorship was probably the largest per-bike investment for bike-share at the time. One feature of the system that Chicago’s Divvy should consider emulating is the option of buying a single bike ride for $2.50, comparable to a transit ticket.

Treat also mentioned the new Portland Aerial Tram, a gondola service that carries commuters between the city’s South Waterfront district and the main Oregon Health & Science University campus, located on top of a hill. The university subsidizes 85 percent of the cost of the line, an investment that proportionate to the percentage of riders who are affiliated with the school.

Tolson discussed Philadelphia’s Indego bike-share service, which has been cited as an example of a system that was planned with equity in mind from Day One. The membership of American bike-share systems, including Divvy, have tended to skew white, male, affluent, and well educated, an issue CDOT began to address last year with the Divvy for Everyone equity program, which offers one-time $5 annual memberships to low-income Chicagoans.

Tolson said Indego was designed to be inclusive from the get-go, with early planning input from community groups and social justice advocates. Individuals who are eligible for public assistance can pay only $5 a month for use of the system instead of the usual $15 rate. Local media outlets have partnered with the city to promote the system to their audiences. As a result, Tolson said, Philadelphians have “embraced this as their own.” Over 900 residents have signed up for discounted memberships so far.

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CTA and Pace Brainstorm Ways to Improve North Shore Transit Service


A Pace bus. Photo: Wikipedia

Two transit agencies working toward a common goal is unfortunately a rare phenomenon in our country. Thankfully this has not stopped the CTA and Pace from joining forces to brainstorm ways to improve public transportation in the Chicago region.

The two agencies, with assistance from Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, are currently working on the North Shore Transit Coordination Plan, a comprehensive study of the northern edge of the city and the near-north suburbs primarily focused on improving the bus service of both agencies. The goal of the study is to develop a list of recommendations and a plan for the agencies to execute in the near future. Last week CTA and Pace held an open house in Rogers Park to show area residents what they’ve been working on. The results of the study are both expected and surprising.

During the event, I first took a quick trip around the room looking at all the information boards they had up. The first board featured a very promising Project Purpose stating, “The purpose of this plan is to improve the coordination of CTA and PACE services by better understanding existing travel demands and transit markets while leveraging changes in communities and transit investments since the last major service revision in that area.” The board also included a project timeline and study area, including territory in Rogers Park, West Ridge, Lincolnwood, Skokie, Evanston, Wilmette, and Kenilworth, showcasing the many towns, bus routes, and rail lines included in the study itself.

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Staff and residents at Tuesday’s open house at the Rogers Park library. Photo: Charles Papanek.

The next board was an overview of current bus service with stop-level ridership and a zoomed in version of the main RTA map showing the area in context with the surrounding landscape along with several performance indicating charts. Unsurprisingly, terminals like Old Orchard Mall, the Davis Street CTA and Metra stations, and the CTA’s Howard stop dominated the stop-level ridership, with between 2,000 and 5,000-plus boardings.

The third board was on demographics and travel patterns. It featured surprising info about the number of people moving into the study area instead of out of it. By an almost two-to-one ratio, more users entered the zone than left it for places like downtown Chicago. This is extremely important to highlight as it emphasizes the need for more investment in outlying urban and nearby suburban bus service.

The next two boards reiterated the CTA/PACE ridership survey and a study-specific drilldown on occasional riders. Several facts stood out. For example, 50 percent of riders are between 18 and 40 years old, rith a disproportionate number of riders aged 18-24. However, in the “occasional rider” breakdown, there are a disproportionate number of adults aged 65 and over.  Evanston was also singled out as the primary destination that people are going to and from with even downtown Chicago taking a back seat. The final interesting fact was that frequency was considered the most important factor in increasing ridership while additional destinations beat out both on-time performance and extending service hours.

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Sprawl Is a Global Problem


Even in the places with the best transit systems, there’s a steep drop in transit access once you venture outside the central city. Graphic: ITDP

Sprawl isn’t just a problem in car-centric America. Even cities with the world’s best transit systems are surrounded by suburbs with poor transit access, according to a new report by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. As billions of people migrate from rural to metropolitan areas in the next few decades, these growth patterns threaten to maroon people without good access to employment while overwhelming the climate with increased greenhouse gas emissions.

For 26 global cities, ITDP looked at the share of residents with access to frequent, high-capacity rail or bus service quality, rapid transit within 1 kilometer of their homes, or roughly a 10- to 15-minute walk. Then ITDP looked at the same ratio for the region as a whole. The results suggest that coordinating transit and development will be a major challenge in the fight against global warming.

In Paris, for instance, fully 100 percent of residents have access to good transit. But the city of Paris is home to only 2 million people in a region of 12 million. And looking at the region as a whole, only 50 percent of residents live within walking distance of good transit. That still manages to beat most other regions ITDP examined.

In New York, the highest-ranked American city, 77 percent of residents live within reach of high-quality transit, but region-wide only 35 percent of residents do.

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Active Trans Wins $150K Grant to Help Accelerate Slow Chicago Bus Service


Prepaid boarding is currently being tested at Madison/Dearborn — riders swipe their fare card at a portable reader before the bus arrives. Photo: John Greenfield

There was some good news for Chicago straphangers last week. TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation dedicated to improving urban mobility, awarded 16 grants, totaling more than $17 million, to civic organizations, universities, and municipalities, and the Active Transportation Alliance was one of the winners. The Active Trans proposal, called Speeding Up Chicago’s Buses, involves working with the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation to eliminate some of the roadblocks to faster transit and higher ridership.

Like many large U.S. cities, Chicago has seen an increase in rail ridership but a decrease in bus use in recent years. In 2015, ‘L’ ridership hit record levels, with 241.7 million rides. But, while buses still accounted for the majority of the rides last year, bus use dropped for the third year in a row, falling by 0.6 percent from 2014 levels to 274.3 rides.

“Declining bus use is not acceptable,” said Kyle Whitehead, director of government relations for Active Trans. When bus ridership falls, he noted, it can lead to reductions in the hours and frequency of service, which in turn can reduce ridership, creating a vicious cycle.

“That has an equity impact,” Whitehead said. “Many parts of town without easy rail access are low-to-moderate-income communities of color. If bus service declines, it disproportionately affects people in these neighborhoods.”

Whitehead said Active Trans will use the grant to expand on the transit advocacy they’ve done over the last few years, including outreach on the city’s Ashland Avenue bus rapid transit proposal. That project is currently on hold due to backlash from residents and merchants against plans to create bus-only lanes and limit left turns from the avenue. But if the downtown Loop Link BRT corridor, which opened last December, is ultimately judged a success, it could lead to renewed interest in the Ashland proposal.

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Finally Some Relief for Memphis Bus Riders

The shameful state of Memphis’s bus system is one of the more outrageous stories in American transit.

Buses in Memphis are in such bad shape, there have been a number of fires. But help is on the way. Photo via Memphis Bus Riders Union

Buses in Memphis are in such bad shape, they’ve been known to catch fire. But help is on the way. Photo via Memphis Bus Riders Union

When we checked in with the advocates at the Memphis Bus Riders Union in March, they told us the local transit agency, MATA, was running buses so poorly maintained that they were known to catch fire. In the midst of this crisis, local business leaders had marshaled enough cash to restore the city’s historic trolley system, which mostly serves tourists. Meanwhile, MATA was struggling just to maintain bare-bones operations, with a 17 percent service cut looming.

The current condition of buses is so poor, riders can’t even be assured a bus will arrive no matter how long they wait, said Bennett Foster of the Bus Riders Union.

“Some routes are not being served throughout the day due to a lack of buses,” Foster told Streetsblog. “When a bus breaks down they don’t have another bus to send out. There are people in the city every day who experience just no buses running.”

But the advocacy of the Bus Riders Union is getting results. Mayor Jim Strickland has allocated an additional $7.5 million from the city budget toward the transit system this year. About $5 million of that will be reserved for replacing buses — an absolute necessity.

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Eyes on the Street: CTA Tests Prepaid Boarding on the Loop Link BRT System


Customers swiped their card at a portable Ventra reader before entering the waiting area. Photo: John Greenfield

Besides being the day Chicago was ranked the top biking city by bicycling magazine, September 19, 2016, may also go down in history as the day the Loop Link bus rapid transit system started getting faster. While the corridor, which debuted last December, seems to have been resulting in modest timesaving gains for bus riders, it’s been missing a key element of robust BRT: prepaid boarding. Today the CTA launched a test of this feature at the Madison/Dearborn station, the busiest of the Loop Link stops, and it appears to be working well.


The pilot only runs during the evening rush. Photo: John Greenfield

In June the CTA launched a six-month test of prepaid boarding for westbound #77 Belmont Avenue buses departing from the Belmont station of the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch during evening rush hours. Riders pay their fares at a portable Ventra card reader, staffed by a customer assistant, and waiting in a fenced-off bullpen until the westbound bus shows up.

The system at Madison/Dearborn was simpler to set up, since the raised station was already surrounded by railings, except for the side of the platform the bus pulls up to and the entrances to the ramps on the east and west sides of the facility. For the downtown prepaid boarding pilot, which will run for from 3:00-6:30 p.m. on weekdays, for a three-month period, CTA staffers are stationed at each side of the shelter with Ventra readers.

During the pilot hours, customers may only pay their fares with Ventra card or ticket, or personal credit or debit card, not cash. The CTA is encouraging customers at Madison/Dearborn who need to add transit value or unlimited ride passes to their Ventra account to do so at the Ventra machine inside the Walgreens directly behind the platform. Other options for adding value include ‘L’ stations and the Ventra app.

As you can see by comparing the two videos below (the first one was shot a few days after the December launch), prepaid boarding significantly shortens the bus “dwell” time at the station. With onboard fare payment, it took about 30 seconds for 11 passengers to get on the bus, but with today it took only about 15 seconds for ten customers to board – a roughly 50-percent timesavings.

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The Wait Is Almost Over: The Loop Link Prepaid Boarding Pilot Starts Monday

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The three-month prepaid boarding pilot will take place at the Madison/Dearborn station, which has a Walgreens with a Ventra machine right behind it. Photo: Google Street View

Since it launched last December, the Loop Link bus rapid transit system’s timesaving benefits have been modest, but they’re about to improve. The CTA just announced that this Monday, September 19, it’s starting a three-month test of prepaid boarding — in which customers pay their fare before the bus arrives — at the BRT system’s Madison/Dearborn station.

For several months after the December launch, the CTA required bus drivers to creep towards the raised stations at 3 mph in order to avoid striking waiting customers with side-view mirrors or crashing into the platforms. In recent months the transit agency lifted that overly cautious requirement.

Unauthorized vehicles in the red bus-only lanes – especially private shuttle buses – certainly aren’t helping Loop Link speeds. The #NotaCTABus social media campaign has raised awareness of the problem, so hopefully we’ll see some action from the city to address the issue in the near future.

But this latest announcement is the next step towards Loop Link reaching its full potential. Having passengers pay their fares before boarding the bus eliminates the delay caused by a line of riders having to swipe their Ventra card (perhaps multiple times) or put cash in the fare box while the bus waits.


A sign at Madison/Dearborn notifying customers of the upcoming pilot. Photo: Kevin Zolkiewicz

Prepaid boarding is one of the key timesaving elements of BRT, and originally it was anticipated that Loop Link would launch with this feature at all eight stations. But in 2014, before construction on the corridor began, the city revealed that it planned to initially implement prepaid boarding only at Madison/Dearborn.

And in fall 2015, the city announced that prepaid boarding wouldn’t even be in place at that station in time for the system’s December debut. Instead, the CTA planned to pilot it at Madison/Dearborn sometime this summer. Monday is a couple of days before the fall equinox, so they’re the agency is just barely keeping its promise.

Meanwhile, in June the CTA launched a six-month test of prepaid boarding for westbound #77 Belmont Avenue buses departing from the Belmont station of the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch, only during evening rush hours. Riders pay their fares at a portable Ventra card reader, staffed by a customer assistant, and waiting in a fenced-off bullpen until the westbound bus shows up.

At that point, since everyone has paid the fare already, passengers can quickly board through both the front and rear bus doors. Customers I interviewed said they were pleased with the timesaving effect of the new style of boarding.

Some BRT systems in other cities, such as Mexico City, have turnstiles with fare card readers and enclosed platform stations where you wait until a bus shows up, similar to how payment on a subway works. New York’s Select bus routes feature kiosks where you buy a paper ticket while waiting for the bus, which you must present when the occasional onboard inspection occurs or else face a stiff fine.

Since the primitive, labor-intensive system at Belmont seems to be reasonably effective, the CTA is trying it at Madison/Dearborn from 3:00-6:30 p.m. on weekdays, for a three-month test period.

“By allowing CTA bus customers to pay fares in advance much like they do to ride the “L”, we will be able to determine how much more quickly customers are able to board buses and how bus service reliability is improved,” said CTA President Dorval Carter in a statement.

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No, Uber’s Not Going to Replace Buses, But It Can Complement Them

Not a day goes by without a raft of stories about “new mobility” providers — ride-hailing companies like Uber or car-share services like Car2Go that have tapped into recent technological advances to provide new ways to get around.

ansas City is using the private vanpool service Bridj to link two neighborhoods with weak transit connections. Image: Bridj

Kansas City teamed up with the private vanpool service Bridj to link two neighborhoods that the bus network didn’t connect well. Image: Bridj

In a new report, “Private Mobility, Public Interest” [PDF], TransitCenter deflates some of the hype surrounding these services while laying out several opportunities for productive collaboration between public transit agencies and private mobility providers.

Despite what you may have read, none of these services will replace transit — at least not buses and trains that move large numbers of people. But that doesn’t mean they can’t help transit agencies improve service, diversify their offerings, and operate more effectively.

Based on interviews with more than a hundred people working on mobility in the public and private sectors, TransitCenter’s report examines the opportunities for transit agencies to team up with mobility companies. If transit agencies keep the core values of providing “equitable, efficient, affordable, and sustainable transportation” in mind, TransitCenter writes, they can forge new partnerships that yield broad public benefits.

Here are some of the most fertile areas for collaboration.

Convenient, Cost-Effective Paratransit

Paratransit for riders with disabilities is usually among the most expensive types of service for transit agencies to provide. This can strain budgets and drain resources from other transit services. If agencies can provide paratransit at lower costs per trip, they can free up resources to run more bus or train service.

Both Boston and Washington have started to experiment with contracting paratransit to taxi and ride-hailing companies that can not only operate the service more cost-effectively, but also offer riders more convenience.

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