Central Loop BRT Will Skimp On Key “Rapid” Features

Station platforms would have level boarding, a feature that helps to decrease dwell time. Image: CDOT
Station platforms would have level boarding, a feature that helps to speed bus boarding. Image: CDOT/CTA

The Central Loop Bus Rapid Transit project will launch without key features that distinguish BRT from conventional bus service. The busways, which the Chicago Department of Transportation will begin building later this year, will include most of BRT’s concrete features, like high-level bus-boarding platforms and dedicated lanes. These features will undoubtedly speed up six Chicago Transit Authority bus routes as they traverse the Loop.

However, key service improvements, which have been proven to speed up buses elsewhere, will only be “tested” in 2015, and their eventual adoption is far from certain. The initial absence of these features, namely off-board fare collection and signal priority, will knock Central Loop BRT down to a mere “basic” BRT system, using the methodology behind a new international standard meant to encourage effective, quality BRT.

At a May event, sources said that CDOT and CTA will “test” off-board fare collection at only one of the system’s eight on-street stations. At all other stations, riders will pay on the bus, one at a time, just like they now do on all CTA buses. CDOT would not comment on what the test will entail, how long the test will run, or how it will be evaluated. A test involving just one station, out of hundreds of bus stops along the routes, could confuse customers even more than a test at all eight BRT stations — and will offer only minimal travel time savings.

Collecting fares at the stations, before passengers board the bus, has been proven in several other cities to substantially reduce “dwell time,” or how long a bus waits at stops. In New York City, BRT features were added one at a time along the M34 route across Midtown Manhattan, which runs past the Empire State Building and Macy’s. When just prepaid boarding was added, total travel time for the entire route fell 10 percent. On Manhattan’s first BRT route, off-board fare collection alone reduced dwell times on New York City’s M15 Select Bus Service route by 36 percent.

Even though San Francisco hasn’t yet implemented any form of BRT, the city’s transit agency recently adopted “all-door boarding” — allowing passengers who’ve already paid (and have a valid transfer slip) or who will pay with a Clipper card (a contactless fare card, like a Ventra card or ticket) to enter buses through the rear door. As a result, dwell times fell by four seconds per stop, on average.

Another key technology that keeps BRT routes moving through heavily congested areas like the Loop is transit signal priority. Signal priority takes many forms, but the most far-reaching forms won’t be part of Central Loop BRT. Last year, CDOT spokesperson Pete Scales said that full transit signal priority, which re-programs the signaling system to better accommodate buses, won’t be included in Central Loop BRT. The J14 Jeffery Jump has signal priority as it travels through the South Shore neighborhood, but Scales said this technology is more appropriate for neighborhoods’ bus stop spacing than in the “dense grid of the Loop.” Sources also say that signal pre-emption, which allows buses to override normal signals, also won’t be used in Central Loop BRT.

Central Loop BRT will, however, include queue jumps — bus-only signals that turn green a few seconds before the other signals, and give buses a head start on other traffic where there’s no bus lane ahead. These work somewhat like leading pedestrian intervals, which have been added to many intersections around Chicago and give pedestrians a slight head start before turning drivers get a green light.

A queue jump would be particularly useful at Canal Street and Washington Street, where there won’t be an eastbound bus lane. It would allow buses in the right two lanes, departing from Ogilvie Transportation Center, to get a head start up the hill and over the bridge, instead of waiting to merge into regular traffic. The eastbound bus lane is planned to start just beyond there, at Wacker Drive. Queue jumps would also be useful at other intersections where buses leave the bus lanes to continue their routes (going from red to blue lines on the map below).

Station platforms would have level boarding, a feature that helps to decrease dwell time. Image: CDOT
Central Loop BRT will speed up six CTA bus routes. Image: CDOT

Both off-board fare collection and queue jumps are integral to many definitions of “bus rapid transit.” The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy developed the BRT Standard rating scheme, which awards points to many elements of BRT systems. Those points can add up to a “basic BRT” designation, or to bronze, silver, or gold standards. ITDP, which has consulted on the Central Loop and Ashland BRT projects, developed the standard to inhibit “BRT creep” — where cities propose projects that are BRT in name only, but don’t offer any improvements over conventional local bus service.

Comparing the Central Loop BRT plan to the standard shows that the project meets the Basic standard for BRT — but falls far short of reaching even the bronze rank. Points in its favor included having sufficiently long dedicated lanes (more than three kilometers), and queue jumps at intersections. Points could be deducted if there’s not a good mechanism for keeping motorists out of the bus lanes, but I presumed there would be effective enforcement of the bus lanes.

The project received nearly all of the points available in ITDP’s “Service Planning” category, which encourages frequent service — and is perhaps a given, since CTA runs so much service downtown. Points in its favor include having multiple routes in the corridor (which improves transfer times), building it in the highest-demand part of the bus network, and having good hours of operation. The project also gained points for incorporating bicycle lanes and bike-share, and for being accessible to and integrated with other transit modes.

One reason why Central Loop BRT doesn’t reach the bronze standard is because all of its routes – J14, 20, 56, 60, 124, and 157 – are squeezed into a single lane. That has the potential to reduce the speed gains achieved by other BRT characteristics. CTA and CDOT are aiming for ITDP’s gold standard with Ashland BRT, which collects dozens more points because it will only have a single route, running down a center lane, and will prohibit motorists from turning across its path when the buses are approaching intersections.

It’s certainly reasonable for CDOT and CTA to implement off-board fare collection and queue jumps – essential to basic BRT – slowly at first, to iron out operational problems before going full steam ahead. However, this shouldn’t become a permanent situation, and time-saving “software” should be rolled out quickly to fulfill the project’s promise. I asked CDOT spokesman Pete Scales for more details about which station would have off-board fare collection, and about CDOT’s plan to expand it to more locations, but he did not comment.

Scales did give an update on the construction schedule, though, saying “the [utility companies] are already underway with making the necessary upgrades,” and that CDOT will “solicit bids for the roadway reconstruction and station installation.” He said that the stations will be manufactured over the winter.

  • cjlane

    “Most vehicle turns accommodated with turn bays”

    Has anyone seen a layout proposal showing where the *right* turn bay (that is, the one that would be “in” the bus lane) will be located? Or the layout at LaSalle and State and Michigan, where there are both right and left turns?

    Does the Atwood lose it’s loading zone? Is all the parking going away on Washington? Where are the replacement spaces going to be?

    What does the layout on Madison–without the bike lane–look like?

    “the [utility companies]”

    Wait–so it’s not just the water department doing underground work? Did Rahm call in favors with the utility companies to get them go slow on their work, for election purposes?

  • Alex Oconnor

    As expected in this town.

    Chicago is a town with delusions of being a global city. The ingrained American addiction to the private auto will never be overcome in this town.

    Chicago is lucky to have benefitted from developing when it did; if it had developed as little as 35- 50 years later Chicago would resemble dallas.

    We got lucky for the transit assets that have been built here, most of which is 100 years old or even more.

    That is the why this town has at least the semblance of a reputation for being transit friendly.

    This town is increasingly disappointing to live in with its retrograde sensibilities.

  • Harry Potter

    There’s the door.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Sorry, I have to chuckle. Your graphic at the top of this story reminds me of something out of MAD Magazine (with out the sardonic humor) from when I was a kid.

  • I don’t the situation is that grave.

  • The Burnham Hotel (which is adjacent to Atwood) will keep its valet loading zone on Washington Street, which will impact the protected bike lane (meaning the protected bike lane will cease to exist at this part).

    I haven’t seen a layout because CDOT doesn’t give those out unless you ask 100 times or send them a FOIA request.

  • Did MAD Magazine ever touch on transportation projects?

  • As long as the “hardware” aspects are constructed in the initial phase, i’m fine with them taking a little bit of time to implement the “software” elements. (As you mention in the 2nd to last paragraph.)

    A little like Divvy, once people see how it works, they’ll quickly embrace it.

  • JKR

    Less cars and more transit would improve the loop tremendously.

  • Alex Oconnor

    I agree 100%.
    Except looking around this town from its dizzying parking minimums to its frustratingly low level of allowable FAR and zoning density to its prevalence of not leveraging TOD near transits assets makes Chicago more akin to a sun-belt town save for some legacy assets which we luckily have from 100 years ago.

    Post WWII Chicago has been outright antagonistic to pedestrian and urban character in tune with the vast majority of America.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Sit on your wand.

  • I’m intrigued. I think the bike lanes will have bigger bang for the buck than the BRT at first, but if they roll out off-board fare collection in a hurry after launch, I’d feel more optimistic.

    To me BRT always brings to mind the 5 second stops and bus-separated, bus-only lanes of the Chinese systems. Trying to pull that off on Chicago’s grid is impossible, but at least it’ll be an improvement.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The manufactured conflict zone from failing to design an arrangement for valet operators (leading them to just operate in the PBL) was one of the failings of the Dearborn design. Putting a valet in the bike lane while an approaching cyclist is hemmed in and hidden from view by a bus station sounds terrible. Not only will the design make it hard for a cyclist to go around a parking car, but neither the cyclist nor the parking driver will have a good view the other until they are in the conflict zone. As someone who rides Washington regularly, this sounds terrible.

  • I’m OK with there not being signal preemption. In the Loop, it’s arguably better for people walking. But elsewhere in the city, like on Ashland, there should be signal preemption so long as it doesn’t interfere with pedestrian signals (i.e., forcing pedestrians to wait too long).

  • Wewilliewinkleman
  • 94110

    Meanwhile, in San Francisco: http://sf.streetsblog.org/2014/07/18/sfmta-says-van-ness-brt-cant-have-high-platforms-for-level-boarding/

    How do your busses work without lug nuts?

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Well it’s sorta, kinda level boarding. Hope it works for wheel chair riders. What the plan for snow removal as it has to go somewhere. And if all thats done is to shovel it off the platform and into the street, oh well.

  • JKR

    I rather see more New York style subway building but I’m a dreamer.

  • I’d be happy to just be getting consistent sub-20min headways at rush hour on major bus routes … but at least on the north end of the Pulaski bus, it is sometimes 40min between busses at 8AM.

  • oooBooo

    Another design for 8mph bicycle travel, almost guaranteed mixing with peds, and being hidden from drivers’ views while making left turns needlessly difficult.

  • I had to submit a FOIA request to get the slideshow at the meeting in May. At least one slide was removed prior to my receiving the file. This one slide showed the design for how the valet and the protected bike lane would be merged.

  • david vartanoff

    So the Loop B(ogus)RT will not only be delayed but watered down? Anyone suppose the minimal effort needed to build this gesture won’t cost more than the original estimate for a better product?

  • cjlane

    “The Burnham Hotel (which is adjacent to Atwood) will keep its valet loading zone on Washington Street”

    So, are right turns on to State going to be banned? Or will Washington essentially be a left turn lane, a right turn lane and a bus lane at State, with basically no thru traffic?

  • I don’t think either is the case, but I have no evidence from CDOT to back this up.

    As it is now, there are four marked lanes. Going eastbound, from left to right (north to south), it’s like this on the segment between Dearborn and State:

    1. Very wide travel lane, no parking
    2. Normal width travel lane
    3. Normal width travel lane
    4. Normal width travel lane that’s also a loading zone for half the segment. At State, this becomes a lane for right turns and buses only.

    I feel that Washington can actually not see any lane reductions, but Lane 4 will be narrowed (because it’s really a parking lane but marked and signed as a travel lane), and much of Lane 1’s width will make the protected bike lane (which will become Lane 5).

  • AFAICT, the plan here is to use the existing wheelchair ramps as bridges.
    The only valid SFMTA rationale I can re: Van Ness is how to board GGT’s highway-coach commuter buses. In Chicago, those folks take Metra.

  • ChicagoStreetcarRenaissance

    For very high ridership routes like this one, buses are too small for signal priority. With high ridership and small vehicles, the frequency would be so high that giving the bus signal priority would shut down traffic on the surrounding grid. For the highest ridership routes, you need longer rail vehicles (with longer headways between them) if you’re going to give them signal priority.

  • cjlane

    “4. Normal width travel lane that’s also a loading zone for half the segment. At State, this becomes a lane for right turns and buses only.”

    The right lane is signed (right in front of the Walgreens) as a “buses and right turns only” lane that almost invariably has cars parking in it in the zone that would typically be part of the right turn bay (ie, in front of Atwood/Burnham). Bc of this loading zone parking, the next lane (#3) becomes part of the right turn bay.

    When the #3 Lane becomes a bus only lane, that will divert some of the right turn stacking (and at rush hour, am + pm, there is always stacking bc of pedestrians crossing State), into Lane #2, which is the only thru lane in the scenario, bc Lane #1 is (a) the left turn stacking lane, and (b) flows into a parking lane/loading zone east of State.

    Thus, the north to south layout would be:

    1. Normal width travel lane, that is mainly a left turn stacker past mid-block
    2. Normal width travel lane, that functions as overflow right turn stacker at point of Atwood/Burnham loading zone.
    3. Bus only lane
    4 PLUS 5. Normal width travel lane, that stops at the Atwood/Burnham loading zone, then continues as the right turn stacker PLUS bike lane, in some combination.

    Now, one could make 4/5 on the west half of the block a parking lane (either inside or outside the bike lane) and shorten the Atwood/Burnham loading zone, but that’s (a) really tough to enforce, (b) having cars pulling in and out across the bus lane, and not necessarily solving the right turn stacking issue.

    Of course, not being able to locate a *single* render of CDOT’s proposal for handling right turns along the BRT route, maybe they have some great, simple, idea that I’m not thinking of. But, since I can’t find one, it’s easy for me to assume that there is not such an idea.

  • cjlane

    “bus signal priority would shut down traffic on the surrounding grid”

    Most here would consider that a feature, not a bug.

  • StevenChicago

    You see the SF designers do not have snow, so there is no plan to remove it. We all know it is going to end up in the bike lane.

  • feralryan

    There better be a fence at the non-crosswalk end of the bus terminal to prevent passengers from spilling onto the bike lanes. Pedestrians just don’t look left and right.

  • cjlane


    Have you seen the state of construction in front of the Burnham? That is going to be an *incredibly* difficult intersection at rush hour, especially if the hotel uses any portion of Washington for loading.


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