How BRT Can Build Chicago’s Economy as Well as Improve Mobility

Ashland and 18th Street bus rapid transit
A rendering of a bus rapid transit station at 18th Street and Ashland Avenue in Pilsen. Image: ## Transit Authority/Kevin Pound##

As planning advances for Chicago’s first full-fledged Bus Rapid Transit routes, public officials and advocates are starting to make the case that new, high-quality bus service is about more than getting people from point A to point B quickly and reliably. Those mobility benefits will be significant, but if BRT succeeds at improving transit trips for Chicagoans, it can also bring about a range of other benefits, spurring development and adding new housing choices where people can live without the financial burden of car ownership.

The non-profit Metropolitan Planning Council is undertaking a new study to determine the development opportunities along Ashland and Western Avenues, the two corridors currently under consideration by the Chicago Transit Authority for BRT routes.

The study will identify vacant land, underused parcels, and areas that lack essential amenities like grocery stores. “We want to find out where we can engage the community, neighbors, and developers, and inform them that a new rapid transit line could potentially create greater demand for this land,” said MPC Executive Vice President Peter Skosey, who noted that existing research on the link between BRT and development is scarce. “We found studies from Pittsburgh and Baltimore that showed a correlation between leasing costs and proximity to BRT, but nothing conclusive.”

MPC published a report in 2011, “Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago’s New Route to Opportunity” [PDF], which analyzed existing land uses to determine where new bus rapid transit routes could go. The report identified 10 new BRT routes based on 14 criteria, including “infill development potential.”

A center-running bus rapid transit line in Mexico City. Photo: MPC

MPC will be working with a finance expert on loan from World Business Chicago, an economic development corporation chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with much of the work conducted by in-house staff. Skosey explained that BRT is one of World Business Chicago’s primary infrastructure investments.

Developing the land near BRT stations will in turn help the bus routes generate revenue. According to BRT Chicago program manager Chris Ziemann, one lesson planners have learned from Curitiba, Brasil, where BRT was pioneered, is that you can surround the corridor with transit-friendly development that makes running it financially sustainable. MPC will also be exploring ways to finance BRT construction and operations.

Ashland BRT lane rendering
MPC's new study will look at specific parcels that could be developed near BRT corridors, improving residents' access to jobs and employers' access to workers. Rendering of Ashland/18th: ## Pound##

In addition to looking at how to pay for BRT on Ashland and Western, MPC will be looking at “nodes” along the corridors where development can be targeted. With a convenient transit option nearby, adding housing and new businesses in these nodes will help households shed some of the expense of owning and driving a car. (For more on the interaction between transit access and housing affordability, see the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s “H+T Affordability Index.”)

Skosey cited the former manufacturing corridors along Ashland and Western as examples of possible development locations. Many parcels are unused and, with the right incentive – not necessarily a financial one – developers could be drawn to these areas. The hook could be as simple as marketing the locations properly to convince developers that parcels near BRT have greater potential than parcels far away from convenient transit. Look for the MPC to address this question in its study.

  • Bolwerk

    I can’t tell whether this is NIH syndrome or just another crackpot scheme by loggerhead bus advocates, but it looks absurd. If you want to know how to do something like what Chicago wants right, look to the 1 or 7 light rail lines along Aachener Strasse in Cologne.

  • Jacob Peters

    Well, Bolwerk, if it looks absurd to you, then maybe you should look at the effectiveness of similar systems in Mexico City; Bogota, Columbia; and Curitiba, Brazil. Based on Chicago’s existing robust bus network, there are many benefits from operating a BRT service on these major arterials rather than LRT.  The biggest being an opportunity to use the BRT lanes to support and facilitate interlining, in which a bus uses a BRT lane in order to get swiftly between its major boarding and alighting corridors, but operates as a local on other portions of its route.

    I originally scoffed at BRT, but if built to high standards it can be just as much of a permanent infrastructure as a tram line.  I have ridden on the tram in Cologne, it is nice, but both Western and Ashland have narrower right of ways than Aachener Strasse.  Which if the implementation of BRT is built well, could make the effected corridors more human scaled than your example.

  • Bolwerk

    Heh, I have. And, sorry, they aren’t impressive. BRT fantasists never stop to ask why the USA is the only developed country that leans so heavily on a third world transit mode. Part of the answer is labor is cheap in those places, so they can afford the extra overhead of buses even if it impairs ridership.  Then I guess another part of it is U.S. capital costs are insane enough that we just settle for the crappier option,* even if it means higher operating costs.

    Rail tends to have a smaller footprint per square meter of passenger space, so I’m not sure why narrower streets are supposed to make a case for BRT either.

    * Although BRT purists usually insist it’s not True BRT until it has Bogota’s fashion of grade separation too, which actually does drive the capital costs of BRT up to that of grade-separated rail, and therefore negates even the presumably lower capital expenditure.

  • Alan Hoffman

    I cannot comment on the efficacy of the proposed BRT lines in Chicago, but I can share some perspective on BRT in general and its potential utility for American cities.

    To begin with, I am an MIT-trained transportation planning specialist with close to two decades of experience working with various transit modes, including various rail and bus modes. I was an early proponent of BRT, in the sense that I had bothered to study BRT and BRT-like systems and found that BRT was a useful tool in the transportation planner’s toolkit. More recently, I was commissioned to write a study on Advanced Network Planning for Bus Rapid Transit, which was published by the Federal Transit Administration back in 2008.

    None of this means that I have all the answers, or that I am “right” merely because of my training and experience. But it does mean that I have a professional perspective which may be of use to others as they sift options in their own minds and try to arrive at fair judgments as to the appropriateness of any particular transit project.

    Here are my observations with regard to the current discussion:

    1. Whenever anyone refers to “just another crackpot scheme” and “loggerhead bus advocates,” what they are really doing is giving expression to their own prejudice. I know that there are people out there who have a strong and visceral dislike of buses at a primal level, but invective and the impugning of others in this manner is uncalled for and does not help us to understand whether the projects in general are worth the investment or not.

    2. The USA is most decidedly *not* the only “developed” country that “leans so heavily” on a “third world transit mode.” To begin with, since Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Beijing, Delhi, and other “third world cities” have metro systems, are those “third world modes”? Canada has made and continues to make heavy investments in BRT (Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal, and the Toronto region all have operating systems at various levels of intensity, and even in Ottawa, where light rail in a tunnel will replace the central portion of their BRT corridor–most of which was never developed with the appropriate infrastructure–it continues to expand its Transitway network in other places); Australia has made major investments in BRT in Sydney, Brisbane, and Adelaide; the UK has BRT (they are particular to guided busways because they are “self-enforcing”) lines in many cities and is building quite a number more, and the Netherlands has also built some nice bus infrastructure. If anything, *most* BRT in the US is of minimal capital cost, with buses running in mixed traffic or various forms of HOB lanes.

    3. Buses are inherently less attractive than trains, except when they allow for a network structure and time savings beyond what a train could offer. I dealt briefly with the operating cost argument in the article I co-authored with Alasdair Cain in Mass Transit Magazine (, but the essential point is that operating cost and ridership depends heavily on the service plan (which routes run where, how often, and in how much time), and in a significant number of cases, buses running at least partially on a dedicated right-of-way can outperform the traditional “bus feeds rail” network topology.

    Please bear in mind, this does *not* mean that buses are better than trains, or that trains are better than buses–what it means is that plans must be judged on their contexts, viable options, and market response.

    Just the same, it is worth noting the experience of Brisbane, Queensland (Australia), which began building grade-separated busways (what I have dubbed “Quickways” to distinguish them from at-grade facilities such as LA’s Orange Line Busway); the Southeast Busway, at its busiest point, moves well over 18,000 passengers an hour in the peak direction during the peak hour (this is about 50% greater volume than the single busiest stretch of light rail in North America) and does so at very near to full operating cost recovery (according to my Aussie colleagues who work with the system). Brisbane’s system is far from perfect, but all the performance data I have been able to review confirms that their investment was neither a “crackpot scheme” nor damaging to ridership (if anything, they experienced about a 60% gain in total transit ridership over a six year period leading up to about 2009; this was followed by major increases in transit fares, which led to flattened ridership and even small declines, but not nearly at the level one would expect from fare increases of that magnitude).

    4. I was unaware that “BRT purists” insist on “Bogota-style grade separation.” Outside of the fact that Bogota only has partial grade-separation, most of the BRT planning professionals I know of in the US have spent very little energy on grade separation; I have done some work educating fellow professionals and informed members of the public of the potential value of grade separation in certain contexts, but I have been clear that “Quickways” are *not* actually BRT (to use the commonly accepted attributes of BRT, which may be found in documents such as the NBRTI’s BRT planning documents), but are a distinct mode of bus transit (much as light rail is distinct from streetcar or heavy rail).

    I hope this discussion is useful. It is too easy for those whose prejudices inflame their perspective to lash out *a priori* at plans they do not approve of, but I would like to suggest that thoughtful, concerned members of the public rather equip themselves with key questions with which to make more informed choices. These questions should always include financial ones (what is the scale of investment, and what are the projected benefits, and to whom do they accrue?) and they should include planning ones: what do the proposed projects do to enhance the reach of the transit network? Will they save people travel and/or wait time? And will the experience match customer expectations?

  • BRT has only been grade separated in China, where they built an elevated highway for the buses. There are many instances in South America where the BRT will run on an existing highway, but space has been carved out for the exclusive use of the buses. This doesn’t get close to approaching the costs of any rail, grade separated or not. 

    MPC’s 2011 report looked at the costs of recent light rail, heavy rail, and BRT construction in the United States. See page 6

  • How is this true? “Buses are inherently less attractive than trains”

  • Alan Hoffman

    I’ve done a lot of primary market research on the issue of buses and rail, and what I’ve discovered is that, among some significant part of the population, buses are perceived negatively (though some of the research suggests that those who are strongly negative against buses are also unlikely to ride rail in any significant numbers), but that most of the negative perceptions are due to the fact that most buses run in mixed traffic and hence are slow, jerky, and unreliable. When you place a bus in a traffic-free right of way (such as LA’s Orange Line busway), most of the negative perceptions (or at least, those which affect mode choice) disappear. In research we conducted back in 2000 in San Diego (the modeler, incidentally, was a Chicagoan), we found very little difference in customer response to BRT and LRT. A study published by the NBRTI a couple of years ago on Los Angeles found similar results.

  • pretty sure there are significant or total grade-separated BRTs in Brazil, Japan, and Australia, and a few BRTs with grade separation at hotspots like downtown, crossings, etc. – like Canada/Ottawa, America/Boston, etc., with about 10,000 more BRTs, grade-separated and otherwise, on the way.

  • Anonymous

    Express bus and BRT are going to be valuable additions to the range of transportation choices in Chicago, and on many streets will be the best choice for upgrading from slow buses stuck in traffic to something more efficient and cost-effective. 

  • Bolwerk

    Uh, I didn’t say I have a problem with buses. Buses are good things, when used properly. I admittedly have a bit less confidence in BRT as a concept, but my barb was directed at bus advocate ideologues, not buses. Maybe there is a good reason to use buses on this corridor, but nobody mentioned one yet and I’m running with the assumption that it’s a quite busy corridor, given the type of capital investment they’re putting into it.

    “Third world” was not intended to be derisive. I realized after I posted I should have said “developing world” – the important point is that labor costs are significantly lower in such places, including what are still advanced cities, and capital costs are comparatively higher, at least in theory. True, I overlooked Canada, though much as they hate to admit it, they pretty much have all the political deficiencies of the USA it’s a lovely place.

    The studies you mention interest me more. How do you control for whether you get a different customer response based on mode? How do you know whether or not people who would take one mode aren’t staying home because they’re stuck with the other mode? The best guess I can come up with is comparing analogous corridors, but that still seems to present some major problems, which can be summed up as saying “no two corridors are exactly alike.”

    Re “Buses are inherently less attractive than trains”: I suspect trains are pretty much universally more comfortable than buses, as far as the ride itself is concerned, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily more cost-effective – and that’s true even if they attract fewer riders. Still, even in a dedicated bus lane, the ride is not going to be quite as comfortable.

  • jafar

    Nice post !! Many parcels are unused and, with the right incentive – not necessarily a financial one – developers could be drawn to these areas.
    Thanks for sharing !


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