Measuring BRT’s Potential to Spur Transit-Oriented Development

Melinda Pollack responds to an audience question
The panel at the MPC roundtable. Photo: Ryan Griffin Stegink, MPC

Today’s roundtable at the Metropolitan Planning Council, “BRT: Moving People, Driving Development” looked at the potential of fast, reliable bus rapid transit to draw investment to urban corridors, and the benefits of transit-oriented development in general. The panel featured CEO Walter Hook and U.S. and Africa Director Annie Weinstock from the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development policy, which has helped plan BRT systems around the world and is consulting on Chicago’s upcoming projects. Also appearing was Melinda Pollack, vice president for transit-oriented development with Enterprise Community Partners, a Denver-based affordable housing nonprofit.

“The concept of using bus rapid transit to spur some of the same development that we see around train stations, and how do we capitalize on that opportunity, is really what today is about,” said MPC Executive Vice President Peter Skosey, by way of introduction. “We’re going to have a whole new transit line [the Ashland Avenue BRT] cutting through the center of Chicago. How do we plan for that, how do we do land use around that, and how do we attract developers to that opportunity?”

Skosey introduced the new Ashland BRT Corridor Mapping Tool MPC has been working on over the last year to make people aware of the development potential for the new bus line. This online tool allows stakeholders to zoom into a station and see what the current zoning is around that station, as well as features like tax increment financing districts and special service areas. It also shows what the existing square footage of a building is and what the underlying zoning allows. Darker purple shades on the map reveal higher development potential. MPC also recently added a layer to show where the city’s proposed TOD ordinance would apply. “So what you have here in essence is development potential,” Skosey said.

Screenshot from the Ashland BRT Mapping Tool, showing how the TOD ordinance will affect zoning around the future 18th Street BRT station.

Weinstock said ITDP is about to release a report called “More Development for Your Transit Dollar,” an analysis of the economic impacts of 21 BRT, light rail and streetcar corridors around the US and Canada. “We did this study because there had been a lot of experience in the U.S. about the development impacts of light rail and not so much around the development impacts of BRT,” she said. They also rated light rail corridors using the ITDP’s BRT Standard rating system, because they’re similar to BRT in many ways, she said.

The study found that investments in both BRT and light rail can attract substantial real estate development. But per dollar of transit investment and under similar conditions, BRT draws much more real estate investment than light rail or streetcars. They found that the Portland, Oregon, MAX Blue Line light rail and Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue Health Line, both silver-rated, spurred $6.6 billion and $5.8 billion dollars in development, respectively. However, the Cleveland system led to about 31 times more TOD per dollar invested than the Portland one.

Hook said that a high level of government support for TOD on a transportation corridor is the most important predictor of success. “Cleveland turned out to be sort of the poster child,” he said. The Health Line connected the two most economically productive anchors of the city, downtown and University Circle, where there’s a concentration of hospitals, universities and cultural institutions. “The land between it was quite blighted,” he said. The city branded it as the Health Tech Corridor, and invested $150 million to bury power lines and replaces sewer and water lines, and built new sidewalks, street furniture and bike lanes. “All of these additional investments into that corridor reassured the developer community,” Hook said.

Health Line Bus
Cleveland Health Line bus. Photo: Tom Bastin

In addition, the city of Cleveland adopted robust TOD zoning, which encouraged mixed-use development, and required developers to build to the street line, build out 80 percent of lot width, with ground-level retail and a minimum of three floors. “They changed the parking regulations from a minimum to a maximum and they cut that number in half,” Hook said. “It was very progressive zoning for this country. By European standards it’s fairly retrograde.”

Pollack said that Enterprise Community Partners has increasingly made its work about affordable and equitable transit-oriented development. “We’ve concluded many of the same things that Walter and Annie presented to you,” she said. “We’re coming at it as community development practitioners who need that quality for our community development to be a success.”

One example she gave of a successful transit-friendly development is the Dahlia Apartments, which Enterprise bought with money from the Denver TOD fund. Located in northeast Denver, this 36-unit building had been foreclosed. “We used the TOD fund and neighborhood stabilization funds to purchase the property, fix it up, get it reoccupied, build a playground,” she said. “It’s in a neighborhood that’s a block off of a high-frequency bus line that runs downtown. In 2016 it will have rail access but that rail access was really a modest factor. The high level of bus use is really what drove us to consider it TOD and to invest in it.”

Rendering of a BRT station at Ashland and Polk, with Rush University Hospital in the background. Image: CTA.

When the floor was opened to questions I mentioned that there has already been significant opposition to the Ashland BRT because car lanes will be converted to bus lanes and left-turns will be prohibited. I asked Hook if there have been similar situations in other cities that have implemented BRT and, if so, how was that dealt with?

“Every community grapples with a similar set of issues,” Hook responded. “In terms of dedicating a bus lane, that’s usually not that heavy a lift. Because if your buses are already going up and down that corridor they tend to consume more or less a lane anyway because they stop all the time, so somebody’s trapped behind that bus one way or another. If you have a high enough frequency of buses and you give them a dedicated bus lane, you’re probably moving the same number of people that your mixed travel lanes are and you’re probably not doing that much to deteriorate the speed of the remaining traffic.” The CTA is predicting that car speeds on Ashland will only be diminished by 4.9 percent.

“The issue of the left-hand turns always comes up,” he added. “It’s just a misunderstanding of traffic engineering. In most cities on major arterials they’re forbidding left-hand turns without a BRT because it’s simply a question of the speed of the people going straight relative to the time lost of the people turning. So if you don’t have very many people turning and yet you have to add a signal phase to accommodate that movement, it’s not just delaying your busway, it’s delaying everybody going straight. So you should run a cost-benefit analysis to see if it makes sense.” He noted that Chicago’s dense street grid means the left-turn prohibition shouldn’t cause drivers undue stress. “All you have to do is make three rights and you’re done. So for us Chicago is a paradise for banning left turns.”

  • Walter Hook also mentioned that San Francisco banned left turns on Van Ness over a year before it approved BRT for that street (which they did today) because of how it messes with traffic flows.

  • Al Lux

    the youtube of the roundtable is available here:
    It doesn’t start until 51:30

  • HJ

    That mapping tool is awesome.

  • Minor typo-report: in the last paragraph, ” shouldn’t cause drivers undo stress” should be undue, not undo.

  • BillD

    Thanks for the update. I think your style of writing and reporting is evolving and making your articles more readable.

    A few points from a (continuing) north side skeptic.:

    1) While using experiences from other cities is necessary and useful, one has to be able to normalize the information. Comparing Cleveland to Chicago doesn’t seem to be reasonable (based on the info in this piece) as it states there was blight between the 2 “productive anchors”. There isn’t blight on Ashland anywhere north of Division, at least (I can’t speak for south). Don’t oversell the investments made based on a fortified bus route.
    2) The last time 3 rights were mentioned here the point was passed off as “people will use other arterial N/S routes”. This is one of my largest fears as a person who lives one block from Ashland. I don’t need any more bad drivers on my block. Hopefully the investment and maintenance cost assumptions includes 3 speed humps per block on every block within 1 block of Ashland.
    3) The CTA owes everyone on every side all the assumptions, data, and analysis they are using to sell the project. How is the 4.9% figure calculated exactly?

  • Peter

    I agree with your comments BIll. I also am a property owner on the 1500 W block of a street that I anticipate will see a significant increase in traffic as folks “make 3 rights” and your concerns resonate with me.

    In regards to your point 3. I hope this information will be made available in ITS ENTIRETY soon (CTA – Please dont just release the executive summary or some other watered/dumbed down version) . I would also like to further understand the theory of reducing the traffic capacity by 50% without significant impacts to vehicular travel speeds/times. (FYI: I’m not looking for responses on this from the blog crowd… I want to see the TECHNICAL aspects and design as they relate SPECIFICALLY to Ashland Ave, in the City of Chicago, Illinois, USA)

    FWIW: I have contacted CTA staff about available traffic study information and they have told me that the traffic study is part of the Environmental Assessment which is not yet completed.

  • Thanks, I think. The CTA says they should be releasing the environmental analysis by the end of the month.

  • Al Lux

    I think everyone is eager to see the technical aspects of the document.

    The point Walter Hook makes about the elimination of left turns and the effects on signal phasing (the elimination of a left turn arrow and ultimately the benefit to traffic going straight) is something I hadn’t thought about before. Like he says, run a cost-benefit analysis to see if it makes sense. It very well might.

    My skepticism of the project has definitely softened, but I still have trouble understanding how traffic speeds would be reduced by only 4.7 or 4.9 percent. If average auto speed on Ashland is 20 mph (which is probably a few mph to high) then anything less than a 5% decrease in speed would be less than a 1 mph decrease in speed. I just find it hard to believe that taking away a travel lane would result in travel speeds decreasing from 20 mph to 19 mph.

    (And by the way I find talking about average auto speed on ashland as something that is constant over several miles to be confusing because in my experience there are sections of ashland where travel speeds are higher and other sections where travel speeds are lower. If most trips on Ashland travel the entire length of the road, then using the average speed value makes sense, but I don’t know that that this is true)

    I suppose the modeling exercise assumes that some drivers will switch to the bus, some will decide not to travel at all, some will still travel but switch their route to other roads, and that the elimination of left turns will improve north-south traffic flow on Ashland. Can the combined effects of all of this result in a 4.7% reduction in travel speeds? I don’t know, maybe.

    To use some numbers: lets say someone is traveling 8 miles along Ashland.

    If travel speeds are 20 mph, then travel time is 24 minutes.

    If there is a 5% reduction in speed (speed is now 19 mph on average), then travel time for the 8 mile trip increases to 25.3 minutes.

    In other words a 1.3 minute increase in travel time, or 1 minute 18 second increase.

    This realism of this increase in travel time all depends on the assumptions made about the magnitude of the four model assumptions I listed above: some people switch to the bus, some people don’t travel at all, some people travel but take alternate routes, and the elimination of left turns improves north-south traffic flow.

    Maybe the modeling also includes coordinated signal timing, which I think can improve traffic flow on Ashland a lot. that’s just my hunch, right now there seems to be no coordination at all.


  • Joseph Musco

    If Blueberry Blvd has an average speed of 30 mph x 18 hours a day and 15 mph x 6 hours of rush hour the average overall speed is 26.25 mph. If under BRT the average rush hour speed for Blueberry Blvd declines by 33% to 10 mph, the overall average speed for vehicle traffic would still be 25 mph daily or a 4.7% drop in average daily speed.

    All of the these statements are true:

    – the average vehicle speed under Blueberry BRT declines only 1.25 mph when removing one lane
    -the average vehicle speed under Blueberry BRT declines only 4.7% when removing one lane
    – the average rush hour speed under Blueberry BRT declines by 33% when removing one lane
    – it will take 30 minutes to drive 5 miles on Blueberry under BRT during rush hour

    So you have to look at what is being said and make sure you are hearing apples-to-apples figures. It’s wonderful to say how much better BRT will be vs. the Local 9 bus during rush hour — which is why you hear CTA say this figure all the time. Less wonderful is the average rush hour speed for individual vehicles – which is why this speed has never been shared as far as I know.

    Now you have to look at the amount of vehicle traffic at various times. The vehicle load on Blueberry is very low in the early AM hours so the average speed by hour is not the median user experience. A better measure would weigh average hourly speeds by number of users at a given time. But these figures come out not as data but as part of marketing spiels so it is hard to really see the big picture.

  • Having driven on Ashland routinely in rush hour for a while (but no longer, thank G*d), the thing that stopped it up dead dead dead was having to slam on the brakes behind left-turners at the (most of them) intersections without a dedicated left-scoop and sit there while (a) the traffic going the other way was too stressed, jammed, and interested in getting their own way to let the turner through and (b) people from behind one whip around as hard as they can on the right and pass one at about 25mph, the fastest they’ll go all day, so they can slam on the brakes at the next light anyway, preventing you from going AROUND the left-turner. Assuming there’s not a bus or some other reason that stops the right lane too.

    Ashland in rush hour is effectively one-lane of through traffic at about half the intersections anyway, and I can easily imagine the changes around the BRT installation will make all the car traffic flow more freely, even in half the lanes, so that total speed in rush hour RISES.

    It happened in Manhattan, it can totally happen here (because if you think we have traffic and gridlock-pocalypse, you have NEVER tried to walk in Manhattan at rush hour!)

  • Mark Twain

    So now MPC is becoming a developed shill instead of focusing on transit and moving people around?

    Ugh. Make it stop.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    Apologies to Elliott for plagiarizing his words, but …

    Having cycled on Ashland routinely in rush hour for a while (but no longer), the thing that stopped it up was having to slam on the brakes behind double-parkers and sit there while (a) the double-parker was too interested in getting their own way to let traffic through and (b) people from behind one whip around as hard as they can on the left and pass one at about 25mph, the fastest they’ll go all day, so they can slam on the brakes at the next light anyway, preventing you from going AROUND the double-parker. Assuming there’s not a left-turner or some other reason that stops the left lane too.

    Ashland in rush hour is effectively one-lane of through traffic with the added frustration of switching between two lanes, and I can easily imagine the changes around the BRT installation will make all the car traffic flow more freely, even in half the lanes, so that total speed in rush hour RISES.

  • MPC’s interest in development issues is part of its primary mission: “For nearly eight decades, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has
    developed and implemented innovative, pragmatic solutions to planning and development challenges in Chicagoland.”

  • My college professors always insisted it’s not plagiarism if you cite your sources, it’s quotation or homage.

    That said, I’m tickled that you liked my wording enough to swipe it (with attribution). :->

  • Anonymous

    Why is everyone ignoring this:

    “In terms of dedicating a bus lane, that’s usually not that heavy a lift. Because if your buses are already going up and down that corridor they tend to consume more or less a lane anyway because they stop all the time, so somebody’s trapped behind that bus one way or another. ”

    This is COMPLETELY *NOT* the Ashland proposal. NOT NOT NOT. The proposal *retains* the local buses, which will be running in the single remaining traffic lane!

    The guy who is supposed to make this all sound ok (1) doesn’t actually understand the CTA proposal, and (2) essentially says (when you read into it) that the CTA proposal will result in a traffic clusterf**k.

    While I strongly favor improving transit options in Chicago, I am totally opposed to BRT on Ashland and Western, north of about Chicago Ave (I do not have sufficient direct experience south of Chicago to be totally opposed), unless (1) NO parking and (2) NO ‘local’ buses using the non-BRT lane(s). The R-O-Ws are simply not wide enough to support parking, ‘normal’ auto traffic, local buses and BRT. In addition, the alternate routes are insufficient to handle displaced auto traffic volume and accessibility advocates will pillory (partly correctly) the removal of local bus service.

  • Kyle Smith

    Because development and mobility are inexorably linked to one another. Transit must be anchored by high quality, walkable development if it’s going to thrive. The city must capture investment around transit if it’s going to reduce reliance on automobiles.

  • Roger Millar

    Different transit applications work better in different situations. BRT was a non-starter in the streetcar corridor in Portland. It works wonderfully elsewhere, like in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. When transit advocates get into a bus vs. rail battle, auto-dependency usually wins.

  • Anonymous

    People are ignoring it for the same reason that people ignore most things: because they dont care. They dont care about the adverse effects the BRT imposes on people, or how much financial sense it makes, or pick any other drawback – they just dont care. They just want a BRT somewhere and all else can be damned.

  • Anonymous

    They *should* care, if they have any interest in having BRT in more than one location in Chicago, or ever actually running the full, ‘planned’ route on Ashland (which, btw, *absolutely* should be planned run all the way to Clark–but the proponents are way, way too scared of the opposition of those who live north of IPR–FUNNY!).

    If BRT + retained local buses + retained curbside parking on Ashland goes as poorly as I expect it will, there will be so much ammo for the “NIMBYs” (scare quotes bc it is used as a reflexive pejorative for anyone who disagrees with anyone in a planning context–that has to stop, too, but that’s a whole other issue) that future BRT will be basically DOA. And the pro-BRT folks don’t seem to have a contingency plan to make things not suck.

  • Anonymous

    They should care but the dont because they’re too myopic and idealistic. The allure of a BRT – any BRT – is too great to try to do it sensibly or in a way that doesn’t turn things into a cluster for everyone else who wont use it.

  • The Overhead Wire

    This report is going to drive everyone nuts. Not only are there tons of apples and oranges comparisons, many “BRT” lines in the United States just change to regular buses with fancy stops when they get beat up enough. But the comparison of the Blue Line to the Cleveland Health line is fraught with misunderstanding of urban corridors and the differences in markets. The Blue Line was a greenfield corridor along an existing freight right of way with limited market expansion while the Health Line was a very urban high frequency bus corridor before being changed over.

    But Roger is right, IDTP is just fueling the fire, but its worse when there’s a lack of understanding of how certain corridors are planned and work.


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