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Prepaid Boarding Debuts on Belmont, But Why Doesn’t Loop Link Have It Yet?

[Last year the Chicago Reader launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

Earlier this month, when the CTA announced its plan to test a faster bus-boarding method on the #77 Belmont Avenue route, my first reaction was "huh?"

The six-month pilot, which started last Monday and is in effect from 3 to 7 PM on weekdays, has customers who catch the westbound Belmont bus from the Blue Line's Belmont-Kimball station paying their fares in advance. When the bus arrives, they walk right on via both the front and rear doors without having to pay onboard—just like getting on an el car.

Prepaid, all-door boarding is a key time-saving feature of fast bus systems around the country (including New York City's Select Bus Service lines and Seattle's RapidRide routes) because it shortens "dwell time" at the stops. So the decision to try it in Chicago was a no-brainer.

Customers tap their fare card at the portable reader before entering the Belmont waiting area. Photo: John Greenfield

The head-scratcher for me was that the CTA has been planning to implement off-board fare collection along the Loop Link bus-rapid-transit corridor for years. But nearly six months after that route launched last December, prepaid boarding still hasn't materialized.

In contrast, there was no advance notice about the Belmont experiment until this month.

Why did the CTA decide to test prepaid boarding on the #77 before making this long-awaited upgrade to Loop Link?

The downtown BRT corridor already features red bus-only lanes, limited stops, raised boarding platforms, and special signals that give buses a head start at traffic lights—all of which help shorten travel times. But in 2014, before construction on the corridor began, the city revealed that it planned to implement prepaid boarding only at one of the eight Loop Link stations, located at Madison and 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.

CTA employees shepherd customers into three waiting lines when two buses are approaching. Photo: John Greenfield

But the transit agency says there are several reasons why the Belmont station, which is also served by the #82 Kimball bus, is a good location for the program's maiden voyage. The stop is one of Chicago's busiest rail-bus transfers—more than seven million rides were taken on the Belmont bus in 2015. The agency says boarding times on the Belmont bus can be as long as five minutes, which often results in "bus bunching," the hated phenomenon where customers wait an eternity for a ride only to have two or more buses appear at once.

CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman says the agency still plans to test off-board fare collection at the Madison/Dearbon Loop Link station later this year, in collaboration with the Chicago Department of Transportation. "While that location is different, the concept remains the same, and [the Belmont] pilot will help us to identify feasibility for any future opportunities."

While there's no guarantee the Loop Link prepaid boarding pilot won't be pushed back again, Tolman did have one good piece of news about the BRT corridor: when the system debuted in December, the transit authority required bus operators to approach the raised boarding platforms at three mph so as to avoid smacking customers with their side mirrors. Along with the lack of off-board fare collection, the rule was a factor in why the $41 million Loop Link project initially seemed to have little effect on cross-Loop travel times. Tolman says they've finally gotten rid of this infuriating speed limit.

On Wednesday of last week, I checked out the prepaid boarding setup on Belmont. As you leave the subway, signs direct westbound bus passengers toward a fenced-off waiting area on the wide sidewalk on the south side of the station.

Read the rest of the article on the Reader website.

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