Chicago Transit Needs an Upgrade: 5 Universal Features of European City Transit

More doors, faster boarding, unified branding, better fare integration, and bus lanes

Tram 15 arriving at Bellevue

During the three weeks I recently spent vacationing in northern and eastern Europe, I got to ride many of the world’s best transit systems. I started my trip in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, where 18 million people live. I visited Dinslaken, a small town of 67,000, followed by Budapest, Amsterdam, a quick stopover in Freiburg, a German city of 218,000, and wrapped up my trip with two days in Zurich. By the end of my journey, it occurred to me that there are five key principals of high-quality public transportation that, if adopted in Chicagoland, would go a long way to attract new riders.

I’d already been to Amsterdam several times on previous trips, so I knew how good their transit is, even though I did most of my travel by bicycle. I’d also visited dozens of other cities and towns in the Netherlands and several cities in Germany, all of which had high quality public transportation.

But transit in Budapest and Zurich is even better. I checked out Zurich for the first time last year during a two-hour airplane layover, a brief visit which was possible because the airport is only ten minutes from the city center by train. Budapest and Zurich both have ultramodern fleets of buses and trams that all stop at well-designed outdoor plazas. Budapest also has state-of-the-art, articulated, subway trains. In the 1960s and 1970s Zürchers (Zurich residents) decided against building a subway because it would have reduced the amount of tram service. Both cities rely heavily on trams that come every three to six minutes, which can carry more people than buses can.

My experiences riding transit in the ten European countries and dozens of cities I’ve visited this decade inspired the following list of best practices that should be applied in Chicagoland.

1. Widespread availability of dedicated bus lanes. Bus-only lanes are one of the best ways to speed up bus travel, and they seem to be the rule, rather than the exception, in European city centers. The millions of dollars the Chicago Transit Authority is currently spending on a new radio and software package to better communicate with bus drivers and  fight bus bunching is using technology to solve a geometry problem. The CTA may gain a few seconds here and there by avoiding bus-bunching, but that’s nothing compared to the time savings from well-enforced bus-only lanes. The Loop Link system is a step in the right direction, but it needs to be refined, and dedicated lanes need to be added to as many other bus lines as possible.

2. More doors on buses. Chicago Transit Authority buses need more doors so people can get on and off faster, and they should order these buses with extra doors on their next contract to speed up boarding and alighting. Buses that are going to be used on the busiest routes should have three doors minimum. However, I’ve even seen four doors on standard-length buses in other cities. It’s rare to see a bus in European city centers with only two doors, and you’ll never find an articulated bus with fewer than three doors; the CTA uses only two doors on its “bendy” buses. Zurich and Lucerne each use double-articulated buses that have five doors, which I’d recommend the CTA use on high-ridership routes like the #66 Chicago Avenue line.

Inside of a double articulated bus in Zurich, Switzerland
You can see the front of a double-articulated bus from the rear. In Europe there are no bike racks on the fronts of buses, but on some buses you can bring your bike inside.

3. All-door bus boarding. The CTA has tested all-door boarding, but in a rather labor-intensive, awkward, way at two stops. At the Belmont Blue Line station, passengers pay at an outdoor turnstile and enter a waiting pen until the bus comes. On many bus routes in Europe, riders board through any door and show proof of fare if asked by an inspector. This is a policy that can be route and bus dependent. Some buses and routes in Budapest require that you show the driver your pass, and others – mostly the routes that use the highest-capacity buses – don’t. Doors can be built and marked to enforce a two-way or exit-only policy.

San Francisco MTA buses have had all-door boarding for years.

Transit in Budapest, Hungary
Articulated buses in Budapest have twice as many doors as CTA’s.

4. Standardized information displays. CTA, Metra, and Pace each have their own design standard, and the Regional Transportation Authority offers a fourth. There can be more if there are outdated signs and maps that haven’t been replaced. Sometimes the City of Chicago shows off their own design, which is prominent in the underground pedway that connects CTA and Metra stations.

In Budapest, the transit “network coordinator” is BKK, which also operates local bus routes. In addition to making sure every route logo, map, and sign looks the same, they integrate wayfinding for the BuBi bike share system to instruct “exit here to find the bikes” instead of elsewhere in a subway station.

Transit in Budapest, Hungary
Screens in Budapest transit can even tell you if there’s a bike-share station at the next stop.

The common design is most prominent inside every bus, trams (operated by a different company), subway car, and suburban train (also operated by a different company): Large LCD screens inside the vehicles show upcoming stops and stations and the transfers you can make there, powered by the same app. The CTA tried this on the J14 Jeffery Jump, but it didn’t always work well, and the last time I rode that route the screen was switched off.

Common branding and design aspect also makes a transit system easy to use for tourists. Tourists shouldn’t have to spend time trying to understand the intricacies of a transit system, or system of systems, when they visit a city. The RTA is attempting to make it easier for people to find efficient walking routes for connections between Metra and CTA in downtown Chicago at Union and Van Buren Street stations.

Tourists shouldn’t have to know that one route is operated by one company and requires a different ticket than another route operated by a second company.

5. Fare integration. The three Chicago operators have a single payment method – even though using Ventra to buy a Metra ticket is one of those intricacies because you need a smartphone app, not the card – but they don’t have fare integration. There’s no single pass or ticket that allows you to transfer between Pace and CTA routes and Metra routes.

I could ride any route in Budapest with my five-day pass, regardless of which company operated the route. Frankly, it’s nigh impossible for someone to detect that different companies operate different modes in Budapest. In Zurich, too. I could ride any route in the city using my combined transit and museum pass – including intercity and suburban trains in the adjacent fare zones.

These aspects are standard operating procedure in transit systems around the world. If it happens, Mayor Rahm Emanuel can try stealing workers and businesses from Europe in addition to West Coast tech workers.

  • Dedicated bus lanes only work if the cars actually stay out of them.

    When implementing them in a city that hasn’t had them before, that means strong enforcement for a year or two until the new norm sinks in.

  • planetshwoop

    Closer to home, I’ve always been impressed by Pittsburgh’s transit system. It allows free rides between the handful of stops downtown (you pay when you exit) and has some serious busways.

    Customers would seriously benefit if the sophisticated software that prevents bunching helped coordinate service too. The number of times I have gotten off the el with dozens of other passengers to watch the bus drive away, or seen one bus pull up as the cross-street bus pulls away.

  • Pat

    We can’t even keep the bus/bike lane on southbound Clark b/t Diversey and Armitage (22 & 36) clear for 2 hours. This includes delivery trucks, overnight parkers, people hopping out for coffee, and the mess that is Francis Parker. This is due to a combination of infrequent enforcement by parking officers, CPD apathy, and especially poor signage. The signs seemed to have disappeared in many places and the markings on the road are inadequate.

    There is no reason every pole about denoting the street as metered zone and farebox can’t have the 7am-9am parking ban rules on them. I’ve seen them ticket this stretch and they do a decent job, but its time to bring out the tow trucks for a week and enforce the message. After all, it only takes one or two cars to ruin the whole stretch.

    I know many Sbux fans in LP might disagree, but the convenience of the morning coffee isn’t more important than a bus full of people trying to get to work.

    Bigger picture: the parking meter deal really screws us on dedicated lanes for bus or bikes on most streets.

  • We have three bus lanes. And they are mostly clear most of the time I see them (the adjacent bike lane on Washington, not so much).

    We should be building more bus lanes, not waiting around to see if the first ones work.

  • “Customers would seriously benefit if the sophisticated software that prevents bunching helped coordinate service too.”


    I don’t know what the policies are in the dozens of systems around Europe I’ve ridden, but their frequencies are often so high that this doesn’t matter.

    For intercity trains, however, it’s different. Two trains to different destinations with a known or projected amount of transfer riders will stop within minutes of each other, and often on the same platform, so you can get a cross-platform transfer – your second train will leave within a few minutes.

  • A lot of streets still have rush hour parking controls, AKA an “extra” lane. But yea, Starbucks patrons blocking it are going to be an enforcement issue in many neighborhoods.

  • Obesa Adipose

    I don’t think you mean to say “beyond the pale”.

  • Jeremy

    Complain to Alderman Smith’s office. That portion of Clark is in her 43rd ward. Her website will allow you to upload a photo.

  • Courtney

    My first time riding a bus in Chicago I was on the 151 and we were stuck in traffic for a good 20-30 minutes. I was pretty new to riding public transit but even then I knew it would be a good idea to give buses their own dedicated lane.
    Of course all of your suggestions make so much sense which I why I don’t see the CTA, RTA, Pace, etc making any moves (relatively soon) towards implementing these necessary improvements.

  • Courtney

    “Customers would seriously benefit if the sophisticated software that prevents bunching helped coordinate service too. The number of times I have gotten off the el with dozens of other passengers to watch the bus drive away, or seen one bus pull up as the cross-street bus pulls away.”


  • Pat

    I have to no avail. I’ve also asked her office to look into fixing the giant puddles in the multi-use path by Diversey Harbor. Her office’s response:

    “There has already been a $12 million dollar commitment to the running, biking and pedestrian path along the entire lakefront. This project will be moved forward and started in 2017.”

    Yah, these aren’t the same thing. Haven’t heard back since I told them that a month ago.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Rush hour parking control space should simply be given to the bus, with near-draconian traffic enforcement to ensure drivers and double parkers don’t jank it up.

    And that Starbucks “I’m only running in for a second!” double parking habit is as old as the chain, they should be held to the same standard bars are for the behavior of their patrons outside.

  • Chicagoan

    Didn’t the FTA, or some consultant, recommend integration of the CTA, Metra, and Pace into a single agency?

  • Chicagoan

    I think Pittsburgh’s bus system is strong because it’s train system isn’t of much use.

  • david vartanoff

    Comedic thought. Can we legislatively mandate that the “driverless” cars obey traffic laws.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Or ask the CIA to invent some kind of mind-control serum that could be placed in Starbucks’ coffee?

  • Carter O’Brien

    That reminds me of the amazing history of Chicago’s urban planning in this book by DePaul professor Joseph Schwieterman, “Beyond Burnham: An Illustrated History of Planning for the Chicago Region,” *highly* recommended:

    “Beyond Burnham” provides a fascinating account of a century of
    visionary planning for metropolitan Chicago. From Daniel Burnham and
    Edward Bennett’s famed 1909 “Plan of Chicago” to the push for
    superhighways and airports to battles over urban sprawl, the book
    showcases an illustrated portrait of the big personalities and the ‘big
    plans’ they espoused. The human face of planning appears in the
    interplay between public officials and citizen advocates. Powerful
    institutions – the Chicago Plan Commission and Regional Transportation
    Authority, among others – emerge to promote metropolitan goals. Some
    efforts succeed while others fail, but the work of planners lives on in
    efforts to shape new visions for the region’s future.

  • Carter O’Brien

    And the puddles are just a symptom of a surface that more closely resembles the moon than a recreational path… that response shows a frightening disconnect from the most valuable real estate in her ward. Yikes.

  • The thing is, the things I’m recommending aren’t reliant on there being a single operator. It does, however, rely on an authoritative and respected RTA.

    The organizational hierarchy of many European transit systems is more complex than in the United States, with many independent “planning organizations” and “operating organizations”. I’ve described a common organization hierarchy in Germany-speaking countries to the best of my ability on the Transitland blog (a company I consult for).

  • Right now I think that’s because they’re essentially competing with each other, and they have completely uncoordinated strategic plans (or, in the case of Metra, no strategic plan).

    The RTA to its credit is trying to coordinate but it’s not powerful enough to say, “Hey CTA and Metra and Pace, we’re taking over branding for all organizations”.

  • Are you referring to the path on the north side of the harbor that runs east-west from the residential area towards the lakefront?

  • Pat

    The large gravel path that runs perpendicular to Cannon.

    Looks like Google took their Streetview photos of Cannon not long after a rainstorm. Gives a decent representation, but often times is far, far worse.

  • Pat

    The large gravel path that runs perpendicular to Cannon.

    Looks like Google took their Streetview photos of Cannon not long after a rainstorm. Sadly, this isn’t even the worst I’ve seen it.

  • planetshwoop

    It’s a constant recommendation. I think most recently it was the output of a task force that was assembled after the Metra scandal.

    It doesn’t need to be a single agency really (as Steven’s mentioned). It just means they have to *plan* together. Trying to create a comprehensive network that balances between Metra and CTA would be great, (or decently integrated the two), but it never happens.

    Metra is overweighted towards suburban needs despite having significant numbers of stops in the city; the CTA is overweighted towards Chicago in the same way. The turf war has casualties: customers who might use more than one of these.

    (Also, I believe PACE isn’t really one agency; it’s like 3 that use a common logo and fare structure. Each region has a unique set of directors, facilities.)

  • Frank Kotter

    I also know nothing about policy behind it but speaking from my years in Germany as a resident, all transportation systems run on a very specific schedule. There is nothing about just putting buses on a ‘line’ and letting them drive around. They are driving a schedule that is able to be on time most of the time so that you can plan your day around it. As an added benefit, there diverse transportation systems share their schedules so that you can use the city transportation apps to get door to door and they can tell you the exact connections you need and exactly when they will happen.

    It is not that the system knows where their assets are, rather the assets know where they should be and do a good job of being there.

  • Bernard Finucane

    The last time I flew through NYC I transferred from JFK to Laguardia. It took me more than an hour by bus, plus waiting time. It’s 12 miles, I think.

  • Bernard Finucane

    In fact, the more bus lanes there are, the more likely drivers are likely to respect them, because they are no longer viewed as exotic.

  • “It is not that the system knows where their assets are, rather the assets know where they should be and do a good job of being there.”

    Part of the ability for the vehicles and their operators to be on time is that they aren’t dealing with traffic congestion as they have their own lane.

  • Pat

    Perhaps. That logic hasn’t applied to bike lanes though.

  • More bus lanes are needed. The closer to downtown the greater the need. 6 way choke points need them. Without curb separation better enforcemrnt is needed. The best enforcement would be bus mounted cameras. Doing piecemeal build out provokes less car driver backlash. Emanuel has lost enough support that he is afraid to push BRT. There is no sign of any other leadership that both understands and is able to effectively promote this agenda. Streetsbloggers lack clout to advance the agenda. Streetsbloggers don’t even have a collective database of all the ideas we have and essentially agree on.

    Ditto for bike infrastructure.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Yeah, it could be wishful thinking on my part. You need enforcement for any law to work.

  • JeBuS

    Put exterior cameras on all buses. Let a meter maid review the footage daily and send out tickets of anyone the bus catches in the bus lanes. Problem soon solved.

  • That has long been a dream of mine. But in Illinois it falls into the “automated cameras” prohibition.

  • Read more on this topic of branding/signage standardization from Daniel Hertz about the power of collaboration: