Upgrades to These Six Bus Routes Would Improve Transit Citywide

The time it takes for everyone to get on the bus can sometimes take up 20 percent of the bus's travel time. Photo: Anne Evans
The time it takes for everyone to get on the bus can sometimes take up 20 percent of the bus's travel time. Photo: Anne Evans

The Active Transportation Alliance’s new study on boosting bus ridership, funded by the TransitCenter foundation, recommends that CTA bus lines across the city should be sped up using a combination of priority at intersections, dedicated lanes, and decreasing the time it takes for people to board. The group also proposed specific upgrades for six different routes.

The report, “Back on the Bus” [PDF], analyzes the factors behind the trend towards declining ridership on CTA buses, which still carry more than half of the system’s customers. To stem the loss, and increase safety and efficiency on Chicago streets, major improvements to bus reliability and speed are needed.

The study highlights exactly where and how Active Trans recommend making changes to speed up each route, some of which I’ll discuss in detail. While bus-only lanes would have the greatest effect on reducing travel times, reducing bunching, and generally improving reliability, Chicago currently has only four miles of them. Other cities in the United States have several times that amount. New York City has twenty times as many , Miami has ten times as many, and San Francisco has seven times as many.

Active Transportation Alliance recommends bus lanes for three of the six routes, but governmental relations director Kyle Whitehead, the lead author of the study, says that “the upgrades we suggested for those routes are also relevant elsewhere in the bus network.”

Changes that add bus lanes, bypass lanes, or priority at traffic signals, would involve the Chicago Department of Transportation. Signal upgrades are very expensive. The Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees the CTA, got a $40 million grant to pay for signal priority upgrades on parts of Ashland and Western Avenues, and for certain Pace routes in the suburbs.

On the other hand, bus-only lanes are cheap to install, but taking away street space from drivers and dedicating it for transit use can be a heavy lift politically. For example, the city’s proposal for bus rapid transit on Ashland was shelved a few years ago due to a backlash from some residents and merchants.

chart of bus lanes in various United States cities
You can count the number of miles of bus lanes in Chicago on one hand. Chart: Active Transportation Alliance “Back on the Bus” report

Cottage Grove

The CTA’s #4 Cottage Grove bus begins and ends most of its trips at Chicago State University in Roseland, going all the way to or from the downtown Illinois Center. Some trips go 20 blocks further south. It’s the fifth most used bus route, but ridership dropped 4.8 percent from 2014 to 2015.

Here’s what ATA said should be done:

  • Build bus lanes on Cottage Grove from 39th to 47th, and from 60th to 79th. Those are good, long sections, but the cross section of Cottage Grove is consistently wide and four lanes north and south of these sections.  That’s much more than existing traffic volumes require, so Cottage Grove could easily accommodate speedier buses on more of the street.
  • Give the bus priority at intersections with 47th, the Midway Plaisance at 60th, and 79th. The report didn’t have details as to how much buses are being delayed at those intersections.

The report didn’t specifically recommend adding bus lanes on the six lane-wide stretch of Michigan Avenue downtown, where the #4 and many other buses also begin or end their cross-city routes. Currently far too many bus drivers are slowed down here by traffic jams created by solo drivers.

Halsted

The #8 Halsted bus runs between Auburn Gresham to the south and Lake View to the north, carrying the third highest number of riders. However, ridership has dropped 6.5 percent. What can be done?

  • Build a bypass lane at the Lincoln/Fullerton/Halsted intersection in Lincoln Park, with traffic signal priority. This would mean that the Chicago Department of Transportation would have to get rid of one of its turn lanes for cars.
  • Build bus lanes between 35th and Garfield (55th)
  • Build bus lanes between Harrison and Roosevelt. This section is very short (only half a mile), but buses make a lot of stops here to pick up and drop off University of Illinois at Chicago students and staff. Buses are constantly hindered by car traffic and people parking in bus stops.

Pulaski

The #53 Pulaski bus runs on Pulaski Avenue between Little Village and North Park, carrying the seventh highest number of riders, but ridership has dropped 6.7 percent. The route serves four CTA ‘L’ stations and one Metra station. What does ATA recommend?

  • No bus lanes were proposed, but there could be three bypass lanes at the intersections with Irving Park Road, Division Street, and 31st Street
  • The CTA should speed up boarding at the Pulaski Orange Line station. This could be done using the bullpin-style prepaid boarding area method that is currently being tested at the Belmont Blue Line station, or through all-door boarding.

Chicago 

The #66 Chicago bus between the Austin neighborhood and Navy Pier, andit’s  the city’s second-most used route. Ridership has dropped 4.2 percent. In the morning, going eastbound towards downtown, buses come as frequently as every three minutes, but they’re slowed down by all the car traffic.

  • ATA recommends building bus lanes on Chicago between California Avenue (2800 west) and Fairbanks Court (250 east), but not the four block section between Larrabee and Franklin.
  • Build a bypass lane at Chicago/Western and at Chicago/Milwaukee/Ogden, where there’s a Blue Line stop.
  • Speed up boarding at the Blue Line station. This is a no brainer – 2,118 people boarded the bus here, in both directions, on an average weekday in October 2016.

79th

The #79 79th bus runs between Ford City Mall in West Lawn and South Shore, and it’s the most used bus route. The route isn’t any different from the others here: ridership has dropped 5.1 percent. This is what ATA recommends:

  • Build bypass lanes at the intersections with Halsted, Ashland, and at the Dan Ryan Expressway (where the Red Line station is). The report didn’t recommend any bus lanes.
  • Speed up boarding at the 79th Street Red Line station, where more than 4,000 people board per day.

Irving Park

The #80 Irving Park bus runs between the O’Hare community area and Uptown/Lakeview. It’s not in the same class as the others, carrying only the 27th highest number of people, but it had a large ridership drop of 8.2 percent. ATA recommended the following:

  • A very short bus lane between Clark and Sheridan, past Graceland Cemetery. There were no other bus lane recommendations. Irving Park Road has two lanes in each direction, consistently, but much more personal and commercial vehicle traffic than the other streets in the report – up to 46,500 cars per day, according to the report.
  • Bypass lanes at the intersections with Lincoln/Damen, and at the Irving Park Blue Line station, at Pulaski and the Kennedy Expressway.

Take action

If you want these proposals to become more than just recommendations in a report, you should email the report to your alder, or print it out and drop it off (it’s only 24 pages), and ask them to support the plan, especially changes recommended within the ward.

  • Tooscrapps

    The City needs to step up enforcement if these lanes are going to have the greatest impact. If the enforcement of traffic laws in the most congested part of the City (the Loop) is an indicator, don’t hold your breath.

  • Active Transportation Alliance’s report recommends that the CTA could use automated bus lane enforcement.

  • JacobEPeters

    more specifically it says that legislation must be passed to allow for automated bus lane enforcement https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/788727b69e6fe96ebb9afbe9cb5e79324c9ce89be4a8df8f9feb49e51b986285.png

  • Begin testing cameras now. Collect data on repeat offenders. Maybe even send “warning” notices.

  • JacobEPeters

    instead of “warning” notices, that would likely be ignored by these operators, just share the information gathered from these “security cameras” w/ the city, so that department of revenue knows where to set up stings for repeat offenders.

    The problem is, you can’t convince CTA board to fund those cameras if there isn’t a guaranteed revenue stream or guarantee that the cameras will be able to decrease operating costs through reduced delays.

  • Right. A catch-22.

  • david vartanoff

    Traffic signal priority should be useful to the Fire Department; perhaps installing the hardware could be a shared cost project. As the study shows, all door boarding with card readers at each door has decreased dwell on San Francisco Muni. Getting the ‘red carpet’ lanes will be a harder struggle, but if done in segments may be easier.

  • Tooscrapps

    With the fiasco around the red light camera programs, I doubt there is little appetite for more automated enforcement in Illinois.

    That being said, I think automated parking enforcement is allowed. Could bus drivers be equipped with something that would allow them to snap photos of parked/stopped cars for tickets to be mailed?

  • FlamingoFresh

    I can only speak for the #8 Halsted bus route but I am for the bypass lane at the six corner intersection of Lincoln/Halsted/Fullerton. The delay at this intersection really hampers the Halsted bus travel time as it crawls through this intersection. I also recommend the city make possibly DePaul run a intersection design study at the intersection just north of that six corner intersection of Halsted and Belden. With new school facilities being constructed just west of Halsted segement between Fullerton and Belden as well as a DePaul buildings at the NW and SE corner of Halsted and Belden, the operation of that intersection needs to be improved from it’s current four-way stop. Way too many vehicles are being excessively delayed due to the high volume. I recommend a large enough roundabout to be installed so CTA buses are able to navigate through and thus reducing overall delay and stops at that intersection,.

  • Tooscrapps

    Halsted and Belden is south of the six corner intersection.

    I don’t think that intersection is really hampering times. Vehicles going north are already being delayed by the six corners and the way the light is timed, you’re not getting vehicles traveling south on Halsted backing up on to Fullerton/Lincoln. Not only that, there isn’t enough space for a proper roundabout.

    Furthermore, that four-way is a pretty heavily used pedestrian crossing. You can’t just drop a yield sign/roundabout and expect cars to stop for pedestrians. Read this article about urban roundabouts: https://streets.mn/2017/11/17/are-roundabouts-safer-for-pedestrians/

    While roundabouts move more traffic and reduce T-bone style collisions, they aren’t better for pedestrians.

  • Courtney

    Michigan Ave needed bus only lanes YEARS ago. I have been in this city for 4 years and have been wanting bus only lanes on Michigan Ave (among other streets) since I arrived. I agree it makes no sense for bus riders to be delayed by single occupant vehicles. Even cars carrying 2-3 folks should not receive priority over buses.

    Sadly none of these routes are within my ward (I’m in Rogers Park) but I have emailed my alderman to let him know I’d love to see BRT on Sheridan Rd. and/or a bus only-lane for the 147 and 151.

  • FlamingoFresh

    Yeah it is south of the six corner intersection, my mistake.

    The northbound vehicles aren’t being affected as much as southbound vehicles that leave the intersection. A queue of vehicles from the upstream intersection (6 corner) when heading south cross the intersection, following a green, only to queue 600 feet down the road at the four way stop controlled intersection of Halsted and Belden.

    Crosswalks can be design upstream for each leg of the intersection reducing crossing distance and increasing visibility. Peak hour on these roadways is where this intersection would benefit most limiting delays. Pedestrian foot traffic at this intersection comes mostly from students who attend DePaul and generally don’t have the same peak hour demand a roadways during rush hour.

    While the link did mention the safety concerns related to pedestrians and bicyclists, the link referenced 2 lane roundabouts on roadways with higher travel speeds. Seeing that space is limited the roundabout design would be smaller with tighter curves thus creating lower speeds. In this case the intersection isn’t being designed to mitigate crash incidents at the roadway, I don’t think that’s an issue. Just to improve vehicular operations. obviously you don’t want to change the configuration of an intersection and create more accidents but that’s why I proposed that this intersection receive a design study where vehicular and pedestrian volumes are collected to get a better picture of how this intersection operates.

    Yes I agree, I’m not very confident there is enough room to construct a roundabout but the operations of the intersection needs to be looked at.

  • Alex

    When I’m on Clark Street, I often have to catch the 22

  • That’s a really bad pun. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  • I doubt it. See JacobEPeters’s comment in this thread.

  • Tooscrapps

    How is it any different than the City sending parking violations with photos by mail? I agree legislation would remove some ambiguity and allow for ticketing for driving in a bus lane, but the the principle is the same.

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