Happy Birthday Loop Link

It's not first-rate BRT, but it has improved downtown transportation

The investment in Loop Link shows that the city doesn't have a "let them eat cake" attitude when it comes to transit riders. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor. While the system doesn’t seem to have dramatically sped up bus service from the previous, glacial 3 mph rush-hour average, it does appear that bus service is somewhat more efficient than it used to be, and is perhaps getting close to the city’s modest goal of 6 mph speeds.

And the reconfiguration of Madison, Washington, Randolph, Canal, and Clinton as part of the project has had a number of collateral benefits. Converting excess mixed-traffic lanes to bus lanes and protected bike lanes has resulted in shorter crossing distances for pedestrians and safer motor vehicle speeds.

And yet, downtown car and truck traffic hasn’t ground to a halt, as some might have assumed it would. If it had, you can be sure the mainstream media would have reported on the problem, so the fact that I haven’t seen any negative press about Loop Link for many months is a good sign.

The Loop Link street remixes gave us the new couplet of protected bike lanes on Washington and Randolph, plus the two-way protected lane on Clinton (which was recently extended a block south to Van Buren). Along with the existing two-way PBL on Dearborn, that created a decent network of protected lanes in our central business district, which is rare among U.S. cities.

The recently opened Union Station Transit Center eases transfers between CTA buses and Metra and Amtrak trains. Along with moving CTA bus loading off of Canal, the redesign of that street has helped organize the formerly chaotic mix, which also includes private cars, cabs, and intercity buses.

One of the fringe benefits of Loop Link has been three new protected bike lane streets, including Randolph. Photo: John Greenfield
One of the fringe benefits of Loop Link has been three new protected bike lane streets, including Randolph. Photo: John Greenfield

Of course there are some frustrating aspects of the Loop Link corridor as well. The system doesn’t yet have prepaid boarding, which is a key timesaving feature of first-class BRT networks. And since, unlike New York City’s Select express bus routes, there’s no camera enforcement of the CTA bus-only lanes, too often private vehicles, especially corporate shuttles, are seen in the red lanes.

Despite these issues, the CTA says Loop Link’s inaugural year has been a success overall. “We are pleased with Look Link’s performance,” said spokeswoman Tammy Chase via email. “The Loop Link corridor has already helped to achieve the project’s original goals of organizing traffic, improving overall mobility and efficiency for the corridor, improve CTA bus speeds and improving the choices people have for travel.”

Chase added that while bus speeds have improved, the agency won’t be able to make a full assessment of the Loop Link corridor’s performance until construction projects at Adams/Canal and Madison/Wabash are completed. The work is scheduled to wrap up next year.

“As for bus-only lanes, which you’ve asked about in the past, we continue to have conversations with the city to address traffic violations of non-CTA vehicles using the dedicated bus lanes,” Chase said. “As these violations are reduced, we expect to see improvement in travel times as well.”

Meanwhile, the three-month test of prepaid boarding at the Madison/Dearborn station, which took place during evening rush hours, has just finished. “We’ll be looking at the results as we explore ways to enhance service reliability and speeds along Loop Link,” Chase said. Hopefully the city will move quickly to implement prepaid boarding at all eight Loop Link stations, which could significantly shorten travel times.

Assuming that there’s improvement in these two areas in 2017, Loop Link service could start living up to its full potential. As it is, while the corridor currently falls short of being a robust BRT system, it is an improvement to the former status quo that seems to have become an accepted part of the downtown scene.


  • MLKendricks

    Lack of enforcement of the legal use of the lanes is by far the biggest issue. Automated Camera Enforcement would massively increase the efficiency of the lanes. The poor and possibly corrupt way that red light & speed cameras were implemented in the city years ago might have poisoned the well for automated enforcement in the region, even though for situations like this it’d be perfect.

  • ” Converting excess mixed-traffic lanes to bus lanes and protected bike lanes …”

    So the way we know a lane is excess is if there are no complaints in media after 6 months?

  • Put the cameras on the bus and operated by the driver. Maybe even connected to the horn!

  • ardecila

    Everyone here is assuming that camera enforcement is impossible, even though nobody at the CTA level is really asking for it.

    Many drivers speed through camera zones routinely and consider it to be a right, and grumble about red light cameras enforcing a full stop for right-turn-on-red, but driving in a bus lane seems like something that most drivers, other than a handful of assholes, would avoid. I don’t think there would be the same backlash.

    I’ve made this point before, but the city should sell access to the private shuttles. They’re still a more efficient use of street space than private cars or Ubers, and they usually serve markets that the CTA doesn’t, like Illinois Center or 600 W Chicago.

  • Courtney

    As we all know, to really speed up bus traffic downtown we need to reduce the number of cars on the road. Buses should have priority downtown and honestly throughout the city. *sigh* My concern is that the city will use the fact that the loop BRT failed (it was designed to fail) to discourage expanding BRT in other parts of the city.

  • So far imho it hasn’t failed. It hasn’t lived up to its slightly over hyped expectations yes. But my guess, even before full functionality which I still expect, if it were proposed to be removed there would be enough of an outcry that it would be kept. That’s success right there.

    But I get what you are saying about its being useful as an excuse to do no more BRT. I also agree that buses should have priority everywhere in the city. The sooner the better because there could well be a struggle over the false utopian promise of autonomous cars versus an actual potential utopia of autonomous buses. AC cars would be just as congestive as current cars because “geometry”. Even Musk thinks congestion is a software and technological problem rather than a geometry problem.

  • Agree with everything but am concerned about private buses. Especially at union station as long dropoff and pickup times there are possible. At the station special facilities need to be created. Actually what is bein done there now? I last rode the route before the transit center.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    For what it’s worth, the city says the traffic cam revenue is earmarked for traffic safety and violence prevention efforts to protect kids, such as crossing guards and crosswalks, plus after-school and job-training programs.

  • Blockthelane

    Thankfully this is the case. Not sure how you think “automated” enforcement would work or make it any better. Cars have to veer into the lanes for turns, and sometimes the car travel lanes are blocked so it’s necessary to use the bus lanes. Why don’t you run a business in the loop and then come back and tell me if you think “automated ” enforcement is somehow the answer. And thankfully the greedy politicians have already gotten slaughtered on it (pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered), so don’t expect ANY expansion whatsoever in Illinois. In fact, I would expect we will (thankfully) see less and less in the coming years. And yes, I will continue to use the bus only lanes when needed. Sorry if it slows YOU down. Feel free to tweet a picture of my car. I’ll be happy to retweet it!

  • what_eva

    The city can say that, but there’s the little problem that money is fungible. Unless they’ve increased the funding given to all of those things over pre-camera funding levels by the amount taken in by cameras, they’re full of it.

  • al_langevin

    So we continue to see claims like this ” improve CTA bus speeds” with zero data to back it up. Taxpayers have spent $50 million on the project with no empirical analysis, just the promoters claiming things have improved. Please provide data and show us the data.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    $41 million. From my experience timing rides during rush hours, bus speeds have improved somewhat, and that was before the CTA lifted the rule requiring driving to approach the stations at 3 mph: http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/loop-link-brt-slow-speeds-improvements/Content?oid=20783705 Probably time to time some more rides.

  • I should be able to dig this out of the bus tracker data I’ve been caching. Something to do over the last days of the holidays.

  • rohmen

    “And yet, downtown car and truck traffic hasn’t ground to a halt, as some
    might have assumed it would. If it had, you can be sure the mainstream
    media would have reported on the problem, so the fact that I haven’t
    seen any negative press about Loop Link for many months is a good sign.”

    Probably impossible to provide anything other than an anecdotal measure, but traffic in the loop is far worse gridlock-wise than in any years past that I can recall. Also, as a daily cyclist on Washington, I can say the traffic on that street does back up much more often than it did pre-BRT. From Clinton east on Washington is pretty much bumper-to-bumper now in the morning, and I think that’s directly tied to the BRT lanes.

    And I say all of the above as someone who’s not bugged at all by that fact. The loop is a horrible place to drive a car, and the gridlock hopefully should serve to discourage people from doing it. People driving in the loop should not be catered to at all—if traffic reduced to absolutely necessary levels, most of the issues would disappear. No one thinks driving in mid-town Manhattan is a good idea, and the loop shouldn’t be treated any differently.


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