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Chris Christie Keeps Trying to Balance NJ’s Books on Backs of Transit Riders

Graph: Tri-State Transportation Campaign

That blue line is about to take another steep jump, but not the green one. Graph: Tri-State Transportation Campaign

Governor Chris Christie has really made a mess of New Jersey’s transportation finances. Since 2011, the governor’s “flipping the couch cushions” strategy has resulted in the state amassing an additional $5.2 billion in debt.

New Jersey’s gas tax has not increased since the 1980s and is the second lowest in the nation. Without new revenue, predictably enough the state can’t balance the books. This budget session, New Jersey Transit is facing a $60 million shortfall, and transit riders will soon be paying more for less. The state has proposed a 9 percent fare increase on top of service reductions.

The refusal to raise the gas tax is a hallmark of Christie’s political strategy. A 2012 report from the federal Government Accountability Office concluded that Christie killed the ARC transit tunnel across the Hudson because he wanted to siphon the money off for highways without hiking the state’s gas tax.

While the gas tax hasn’t budged since 1988, New Jersey transit riders got stuck with a 25 percent bus fare hike and a 10 percent rail fare hike in 2010.

A recent poll of New Jersey voters found 50 percent favor raising the gas tax. But that hasn’t convinced Christie to face reality.

Without new revenue, the state may be forced to cancel previously authorized projects, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign warns. And soon, New Jersey won’t even be able to pay the bill on existing debts. Something’s got to give — raising fares and cutting service can’t paper over Christie’s transportation budget mistakes much longer.

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Buy Metra Tickets and Reload a Ventra Account With Upcoming App

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The upcoming Ventra app will work on both Android and iPhones, and will offer, for the first time since at least 1996, the opportunity to buy Metra tickets on board without a surcharge.

Imagine this scenario: You’re running late to catch Metra’s UP-North Line to Rogers Park and, because the trains run so infrequently, you really need to make this run. You don’t have a 10-ride ticket in your wallet, the line for a ticket agent is too long, there are no vending machines at Ogilvie Transportation Center, and the conductors will charge you a $3 surcharge (soon to be $5) if you buy a ticket from them.

Riders with an iPhone or Android smartphone will no longer experience that stressful situation after Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority, and Pace co-launch the Ventra app this year. For the first time in the last 20 years (at least) riders will be able to pay for their trip on board with a credit card as well as without a surcharge. Being able to buy Metra tickets electronically on the train is a significant new convenience for daily and casual riders that makes up for the limited and slow options off the train.

Last week, representatives from Metra and the CTA demonstrated core features of the app, which is still in development. In light of the Ventra card’s extremely glitchy launch, I hesitate to say it, but my impression was that the new app worked quite well. During the demonstration, Tony Coppoletta, the CTA’s external electronic communications manager and who is involved in the app’s development, noted that “the plumbing is all there, and we’re putting on finishing touches”. The app works but there are still bugs to squash.

All three agencies understand that a successful app debut is important because of the botched Ventra launch two years ago. They’re using an app developer, GlobeSherpa, that has created successful ticketing systems for other transit agencies, and they’re taking testing seriously. So far, over 1,000 people have applied to test the app before the it goes public, and CTA spokesperson Catherine Hosinski said they’ve started “reviewing the responses to make our initial selection.”

The Ventra app has an array of features that can be used with and without creating an account, and certain functions even work without a cellular or wifi connection. For riders who log in to their Ventra account through the app, they’ll be able to access their account balance, buy CTA and Metra passes, load value from a bank card, turn autoload on and off, and buy and use Metra tickets and passes. Additionally, the Ventra app provides travel info from the CTA and Pace bus trackers, and CTA and Metra train trackers.

Essentially, Coppoletta said, “This puts a Ventra vending machine in your pocket.” Even when riders are not signed into a Ventra account, they’ll be able look up travel info and check an unregistered Ventra card’s balance. They’ll also be able to buy and use Metra tickets and passes by typing in a credit or debit card number. However these tickets purchased via an unregistered account won’t be replaceable if the phone is lost or stolen. The system should work well for visitors want to purchase a Metra ticket with a credit card, but don’t own a Ventra card. Read more…

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Other Issues Aside, It Was a Good Election for Transportation

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Rahm Emanuel and Chuy García. Photos: John Greenfield

Whether you were rooting for Mayor Rahm Emanuel or Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, I think most Streetsblog readers will agree that there were some positive outcomes for sustainable transportation in yesterday’s municipal runoff election. Regardless of how you feel about Emanuel in terms of the economy, education, crime, transparency, ethics, and other issues, it’s safe to say he was the more progressive candidate when it comes to walking, biking, transit, and traffic safety.

For all his faults, the mayor has racked up an impressive list of transportation achievements during his first term, which got little airtime in the election coverage. These include the successful south Red Line reconstruction, many new and rehabbed ‘L’ stations, and the start of the Loop Link bus rapid transit project. We’ve seen an increased focus on reducing pedestrian fatalities, including plenty of new safety infrastructure. Big projects for bicycling have included dozens of miles of buffered and protected lanes, Divvy bike-share, and the Bloomingdale Trail.

García’s transportation platform, which voiced support for the Transit Future campaign for a dedicated funding at the county level, as well as for winning a fair share of state transportation dollars for the Chicago region, suggested that he understands the need for a high-quality transit system. When I interviewed him for Newcity magazine, the commissioner also said he was interested in creating a line item in the city budget for pedestrian infrastructure, and he praised Emanuel’s bike initiatives.

However, there were indications that the rate of transportation progress would have slowed down under a García administration. He told me he’s in favor of road diets and protected bike lanes, both of which became common over the last four years. However, he said that a more extensive community input is needed for road diets, and he would only install PBLs “where there’s good support for building [them.]”

Worse, the commissioner’s positions on automated traffic enforcement and the city’s plan for BRT on Ashland Avenue were downright reactionary, and seemed calculated to attract votes from disgruntled drivers. García and the other mayoral challengers deserve credit for drawing attention to ways that the Emanuel administration mismanaged the traffic cam program, including questionable locations, malfunctioning cameras and more. As a result, the mayor recently pledged to remove red light cams from low-crash intersections and make other changes to help rebuild Chicagoan’s confidence in the program.

However, García threw out the baby with the bathwater by promising abolish, rather than reform, automated enforcement if elected, even though numerous studies have shown that well placed cams have been very successful in reducing serious crashes and fatalities in other cities. Although he argued that the program unfairly targeted low-income and working-class Chicagoans, there’s actually a higher density of cams in the city’s more affluent neighborhoods. Moreover, Chicago’s worst intersections for pedestrian crashes involving children are located in low-income neighborhoods and, from my experience scanning news stories for Today’s Headlines, it appears that the majority of serious traffic crashes take place on the South and West Sides.

Likewise, García’s opposition to the Ashland BRT plan, which would nearly double bus speeds via dedicated lanes and other time-saving features, appeared to be a case of pandering to motorists. “This project cannot be approved in its current form, and frankly may never be appropriate for approval,” he told the Sun-Times.

Read more…

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What Would Jesús Ride? Talking Transportation With Jesús “Chuy” García

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García with CTA customers at a Woodlawn bus shelter. Photo: John Greenfield

[The full text of this interview runs in Newcity magazine.]

For most of the campaign, mayoral hopeful Jesús “Chuy” García has been relatively quiet about transportation issues, except for his vocal opposition to Chicago’s automated traffic enforcement program. Most recently, following the revelation that a former top aide to Mayor Rahm Emanuel lobbied for awarding the latest red light contract to Xerox, García announced that he would shut down all of the city’s traffic cameras on his first day as mayor.

The Emanuel campaign has noted that, before the Cook County commissioner joined other candidates in criticizing automated enforcement, he supported it. On March 11, 2014, García was part of a narrow majority of commissioners who approved an intergovernmental agreement that allowed Safespeed, LLC to install a red light camera on County property in suburban Forest Park.

Campaign finance records show that Citizens for Jesús García received a $1,500 contribution from Safespeed one day before the vote. When I asked about this issue, a García spokeswoman stated that the donation was from Safespeed president and CEO Nikki Zollar, a “thirty-year-old friend” of the commissioner, and it did not influence his decision.

Shortly before the February 24 municipal election, García, who has a master’s degree in urban planning from UIC, broke his relative silence on other transportation topics by releasing a transportation platform. The document suggests that he is well informed about transit funding and transit-oriented development, although there’s little mention of pedestrian and bike issues.

The platform endorses Transit Future, a campaign by the Active Transportation Alliance and the Center for Neighborhood technology to create a dedicated revenue stream at the county level for public transportation infrastructure (as does the Emanuel campaign). García says he’s interested in the possibility of raising the state gas tax to fund transit, and/or creating a transit-impact fee for new developments.

The candidate called for building more housing near train stations and reducing the parking requirements for these developments, in order to reduce car dependency. He also stated that he wants to secure a larger percentage of state and federal transportation funds for the Chicago region, which contains seventy percent of Illinois’ population but only gets forty-five percent of state transportation funds.

On March 7, I caught up with García at his Woodlawn campaign office to talk about sustainable transportation and safe streets issues in advance of the April 7 runoff election. We discussed his positions on pedestrian infrastructure, bike facilities, road diets, bus rapid transit and, of course, traffic cams. I’ve edited the conversation for brevity and clarity.

John Greenfield: I was impressed that your transportation platform endorsed Transit Future and transit-oriented development.

Jesús “Chuy” García: I’m a transit rider, a Pink Line guy. We fought for the reconstruction of the Pink Line, which used to be the Blue Line, the Douglas [Branch], back in the nineties, when they were going to eliminate it. We fought back and got it renovated. We even engaged in some civil disobedience to force the contractor to hire some folks from North Lawndale and South Lawndale. We got arrested for blocking the entrance to an office of the contractor because they weren’t hiring any minorities.

JG: Interesting. I just wanted to double check, on the Active Transportation Alliance’s transportation survey, you checked a box that said, yes, you would be in favor of dedicated funding for pedestrian safety infrastructure. These are things like speed humps, crosswalk striping, curb bump-outs and pedestrian islands. If elected, would you, in fact, propose a line item for safety infrastructure in the city budget, instead of requiring aldermen to pay for that stuff out of menu money?

CG: I’m leaning toward doing that. I say that with some hesitancy, recognizing how the financial straits of the city seem to be worsening, with the [credit] downgrade that we suffered, the park district downgrade, and now yesterday’s Chicago Public Schools downgrade. I would want to do that, but I’ve got to have a better picture of exactly what the finances are going to be, in terms of the city budget. But if I had it my way, yes, I would do that.

Read the rest of the interview at Newcity magazine’s website.

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Courtney Cobbs Comments on the CTA

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Courtney Cobbs.

[This piece originally ran in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Social worker and transit fan Courtney Cobbs moved to our city from Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2013, partly because she wanted to be able to live car-free. She has posted some thought-provoking comments on Streetsblog Chicago in the past about the need for better bus and train access on Chicago’s South and West Sides. I caught up with her by phone to hear more of her take on the equity issue.

John Greenfield: What’s the public transportation system like in Little Rock?

Courtney Cobbs: There really isn’t much of one. I actually had a brief conversation with the people there about, for example, how ridiculous it was that I lived about five or six miles from the community college that I attended and that, in order to get there, I would have to take two buses and it would take me 30 minutes, versus a ten-minute drive. The bus service is very infrequent and doesn’t run very late. It’s like not having a system at all, for the most part.

JG: You wrote a while ago that the transit system is one of the things that brought you to Chicago.

CC: Yes. I wanted to live in a city where I didn’t have to own a car, because I really care about the environment, and public transportation saves you money. I really like big cities, and I felt like Chicago was an affordable option versus New York or L.A., and I could live here without a car relatively well.

JG: Where do you work nowadays?

CC: I work for Thresholds Psychiatric Rehabilitation Centers, at their Ravenswood location. I work with adults with chronic mental illness, helping them with daily living skills and integrating them into the community. For example, I help them navigate the CTA.

JG: You live in Edgewater, near the Bryn Mawr stop. How far a walk do you have to the train station?

CC: Two or three minutes. It really just depends on if I have get walk signal or not. [Laughs.]

JG: So you’re really only about a block away. Is train noise an issue in your apartment?

CC: It isn’t, surprisingly. If it’s late at night and I have my window open, occasionally I can hear “Doors closing,” but that’s about it.

JG: Where did you live when you first came to Chicago?

CC: I lived in Kenwood, at 44th and Drexel. Transit service wasn’t as good. The best part about living there was the #4 Cottage Grove bus. That runs along Cottage Grove between the Illinois Center and Chicago State University.

JG: That was how you got downtown?

CC: Yeah. When I started with Thresholds, I would take the 43rd Street bus to the 47th Street Red Line station. My commute was about an hour, hour and fifteen minutes every day, which was really physically draining. Moving to the North Side has cut down on my commute time considerably.

Read more…

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John Discusses Active Trans’ Candidates Survey on WBEZ’s Morning Shift

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Mayoral candidates Walls, Fioretti, Emanuel, García, and Wilson. Photo: Chicago Sun Times

This morning I pedaled down the Lakefront Trail to WBEZ’s studios at the end of Navy Pier to talk with “Morning Shift” host Tony Sarabia about a questionnaire the Active Transportation Alliance sent to all of the mayoral and aldermanic candidates. Listen to the full recording of our on-air conversation here.

The survey asked the candidates what modes they and their family members use for work commutes, errands, and work commutes. It asked whether they support expanding the bike network, and earmarking money for transit and pedestrian infrastructure. The questionnaire also covered automated traffic enforcement, separation of pedestrians and cyclists on the lakefront path, and indoor bike parking at office buildings.

Since the survey was mostly in a yes-or-no format, it’s not surprising that it resulted in nearly identical responses from mayoral contenders Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Alderman Bob Fioretti, Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, and former Harold Washing aide William “Dock” Walls. Businessman Willie Wilson didn’t return the questionnaire.

Obviously, none of the respondents was going to say “no,” they’re not in favor of better conditions for walking, biking, and transit. The only place where the responses varied was on the subject of red light and speed cams — Emanuel was the only one who voiced support for more of them.

If you want to learn anything new about the mayoral hopeful’s viewpoints on transportation, you need to look at the PDFs of the additional comments on the surveys from Emanuel, Fioretti, and García — Walls simply checked the “yes” and “no” boxes. Emanuel has the most extensive responses, since he’s got four years of transportation achievements to boast about. However, it’s a little disappointing that he promises to continue pursuing state and federal grants for pedestrian infrastructure but doesn’t commit to creating a line item in the city budget.

Fioretti deserves credit for being the only candidate to reference the recent campaign for a more equitable distribution of bike resources for the South and West Sides. But his claim that cameras that ticket traffic scofflaws are “an unfair burden on taxpayers” is pretty laughable.

García had nothing additional to say about walking, biking, or transit, but he wrote that, before adding more traffic cams or traffic cops, “I would… look to other jurisdictions for the best, most effective strategies that can be used to increase compliance.” Actually, that’s already been done — there’s no doubt that red light and speed cameras save lives.

While I was on the air, we got several nice tweets from Streetsblog readers who were excited to hear our take on the mayoral race. (Note to self: Turn off the text message alert chime on your cell phone before doing radio interviews.) One reader lamented the fact that, due to our current funding shortfall, we haven’t been able to do original reporting on a regular basis.

Thanks for the contribution, Carmin! The good news is, we’re closing in on reaching 50 percent of the $75K we need to fund a year of operations, and we’re hoping to garner some major donations and grant money in the near future. If you haven’t already done so, please consider donating to the Streetsblog Chicago Resurrection Fund. If the site does not return to daily publication of original reporting by April 8, all money will be returned. Thanks again for your support.

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Active Trans Wants Candidates to Commit to Working for Safer Streets

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Active Trans is asking mayoral and aldermanic candidates to support increased enforcement of traffic safety laws, including the state law requiring drivers to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Photo: John Greenfield

The Active Transportation Alliance released its 2015 election platform last week [PDF], featuring strategies to improve walking, biking, and transit in the region that they want candidates in the municipal elections to endorse. The Active Transportation Platform focuses on creating safer streets and providing better infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. The group hopes candidates will pledge to take action to reduce the number of pedestrian and bike fatalities in Chicago, increase transit funding, and address other key transportation challenges. 

There are 198 people running for alderman in 46 Chicago wards, according to the website Aldertrack, and at least four people are running for mayor. Active Trans plans to send a questionnaire [PDF] about the platform to every candidate. Hopefuls from the 43rd Ward will also receive a questionnaire [PDF] from the group BikeWalk Lincoln Park, which asks about the candidates ideas for making Clark Street safer and more vibrant, among other topics.

Active Trans based the questions on discussions with supporters, feedback from last year’s member meeting, and a public survey, according to staffer Kyle Whitehead. The first question quickly establishes the group’s priorities, asking if the candidate or a family member routinely walks, bikes, or rides transit to get to work or school, to run errands, or for recreation.

The platform states that there should be a sustainable funding source to pay for pedestrian infrastructure improvements, and bike lane and crosswalk maintenance. Whitehead said this plank came out of the Safe Crossings campaign, which identified the ten most dangerous intersections in Chicago for pedestrians. “Even when the alderman, residents, and the Chicago Department of Transportation all agree that there’s a problem in pedestrian movement [at an intersection], there’s not always funding to develop solutions,” he noted.

Each alderman has $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” funds, but “aldermen are being pulled in all directions as to where that money should go,” Whitehead explained. When there’s a pedestrian safety issue that needs to be addressed, there’s often a lengthy back-and-forth between the alderman and CDOT about how infrastructure should be financed, which delays improvements. “Pedestrian safety is critical, to the point where there should be a portion of the city’s annual budget dedicated to improving the pedestrian experience,” he said. 

The same thing is true for bike lane maintenance. CDOT usually only restripes bike lanes and when there’s a repaving project, or when an alderman wants to pay for the restriping via menu funds. Only a handful of aldermen, all from downtown and North Side districts, have chosen to do that, which contributes to the poorer quality of the bike network on the South and West Sides. Rather than having the visibility of a bike lane depend on which ward it’s passing through, dedicated funding would create a more functional citywide bikeway system for all cyclists.

Read more…

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Pawar, and an Army of Seniors, Lobby the CTA to Restore Lincoln Bus Service

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Pawar testifies at last night’s CTA budget hearing. Photo: John Greenfield

Last night, local community leaders and dozens of senior citizens showed up for the CTA’s 2015 budget hearing, imploring the agency to restore the full #11 Lincoln Avenue bus route.

The Lincoln bus previously ran between Skokie and the Blue Line’s Clinton station in the West Loop. As part of the CTA’s 2012 decrowding plan, which added service to 48 bus routes and most ‘L’ lines, the agency partially or completely cut service on roughly a dozen bus routes. The heart of the Lincoln route, from the Brown Line’s Western stop to the Fullerton station, was eliminated as part of these cuts.

The #11 still travels between Skokie and Western, and a new #37 Sedgwick bus now runs between Fullerton and Clinton. However, the total bus ridership on Lincoln has dropped from the previous average of 5,489 rides per weekday to 3,152 rides, RedEye reported. Overall, CTA bus ridership has dropped over the past few years.

When the bus cuts were announced, the CTA stated that affected #11 riders could instead take the Brown Line, which roughly parallels Lincoln between Western and Fullerton. In the past two years, the CTA has added 15 weekday Brown Line roundtrips per day, and increased service on eight of the ten bus lines that serve the area, RedEye reported. The CTA says the Lincoln route cut is saving the agency $1.4 million a year.

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Some sections of the affected stretch of Lincoln are a half-mile walk from the Brown Line. Image: Google Maps

However, some locations on this stretch of Lincoln are a half mile away from the nearest Brown Line station – a ten-minute walk for able-bodied people, and a significant distance for seniors and people with disabilities. The Brown Line was overhauled in the late Nineties, and all stops are currently ADA accessible. 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar has said bus cut has increased travel times for his constituents. Some are now choosing to drive instead of taking transit, or are avoiding destinations on Lincoln, he said.

The CTA has said it doesn’t plan to bring the Lincoln service back, arguing that the affected area is still one of the most transit rich parts of the city. Pawar has offered to use Tax Increment Financing money to help restore the service, but TIF funds can only be used for infrastructure, not operating expenses. Frustrated with the agency’s refusal to reverse their decision, the alderman has said he’s pulling his support for the Ashland bus rapid transit project.

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Active Trans Plans 2015 Pedestrian Infra Campaign, Winter Bike Challenge

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Active Trans will be pushing for dedicated funding for pedestrian infrastructure next year. Photo: Suzanne Nathan.

Last Thursday at the Active Transportation Alliance’s annual member meeting, director Ron Burke announced plans for next year, including campaigns for better downtown bike parking and more funding for pedestrian infrastructure and Safe Routes to School programs. The advocacy group will also continue lobbying for bike access on South Shore Line trains, and launch a new winter bike commuting challenge.

At the meeting, attended by about 75 Active Trans members, Burke began by touting the group’s 2014 achievements. The new Kids on Wheels on-bike education program brought a trailer full of loaner bikes to suburban schools, and Active Trans recently secured funding for a second trailer. The group met with Metra to negotiate the loosening of restrictions on bringing bikes on board, including the elimination of most event-related blackout days and a new policy allowing cycles on early-morning inbound trains.

The Safe Crossings campaign announced the 20 most dangerous intersections in the city and the suburbs as a way to draw attention to pedestrian safety issues. “It’s really all about educating municipalities, and the Illinois Department of Transportation, frankly, about the importance of making our streets safe places for walking and biking,” Burke said.

This year, Active Trans worked with the Center for Neighborhood Technology to launch the Transit Future campaign, advocating for a new Cook County-based revenue stream to expand public transportation. “In Metropolitan Chicago, only one out of four people can get to work by transit in under 90 minutes,” Burke noted. “Our transit system is really from a different era. It really doesn’t work for where people live and work today. It hasn’t expanded — in fact it’s shrunk, a lot.”

Active Trans’ Family-Friendly Bikeways campaign is working to build more miles of advanced bike facilities — such as protected lanes, bike boulevards, and off-street trails – in the suburbs. The group has been pushing for light rail or bus rapid transit to be incorporated into plans for the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction, and is also lobbying for better separation of pedestrians and cyclists on the Lakefront Trail.

Active Trans has also helped stage Play Streets events, block parties that open neighborhood streets to pedestrians for healthy recreation. Staffer Jason Jenkins has created clever instructional videos on bike commuting. And the group organized to nip in the bud an alderman’s proposal to license and register cyclists, and has responded to anti-cycling messages in the media, such as bike-baiting columns from Tribune columnist John Kass, Burke said.

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BOMA Misses the Memo on How Loop BRT Will Work

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Rendering of BRT on Washington at LaSalle.

File this one under “People unclear on the concept.” On September 29, the Chicago Department of Transportation announced it had launched the bidding process for the $32.5 million Central Loop BRT project and released final plans for the corridor. Yesterday, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago published an ill-informed op-ed piece in Crain’s, warning that the current design for Washington Street will create carmaggedon, including crashes caused by right-turning vehicles.

It’s odd that the article, written by BOMA vice president Michael Cornicelli, contains so many misconceptions about the plan. The city met with the association several times to discuss the project, according to CDOT spokesman Pete Scales.

“It’s difficult to imagine Chicago’s downtown traffic becoming worse, but that could be the result if the city of Chicago doesn’t steer its Central Loop Bus Rapid Transit plan in the right direction,” Cornicelli warns. He claims that the BRT project will reduce the number of lanes available to motorists on Washington from the current four or five to only two, in order to make room for the dedicated bus lanes, island bus stations, and a protected bike lane. “Reducing vehicular capacity by half on this heavily traveled route means a dramatic increase in congestion and delays.”

Actually, in addition to maintaining two through lanes for motorists at all times, the design provides left- and right-turn lanes where these turns are permitted, which means three or four lanes will be available to motorists. True, car traffic will move somewhat slower on eastbound Washington and westbound Madison after BRT is implemented on these streets, but there are plenty of parallel streets that can be used as alternatives.

Meanwhile, CDOT predicts the project will make an eastbound trip across the Loop 25 percent shorter, and a westbound trip 15 percent shorter. While cars and taxis occupy most of the downtown street space and cause most of the congestion, buses make up only four percent of motor vehicles in the Loop but move 47 percent of the people traveling in vehicles. BRT will speed commutes for an estimated 30,000 people per day, which more than justifies slightly longer travel times for a much smaller number of drivers.

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