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An (Imaginary) Plot to Create CTA Bus-Only Lanes?

Jeff Wegerson says CTA bus drivers sometimes use the bike and parking lanes on Fullerton in Lincoln Park as de facto bus-only lanes. Image: Google Street View

There's lot of talk about fake news these days. So I thought I'd add my two cents. Two cents of fake news that is. I'll let you know when that part starts.

But first a shout-out to Streetsblog Chicago for their reader meetups. Since there is drinking involved, I always take the CTA rather than drive my car to these events. The upside is that I have regained some familiarity with the CTA bus system. I was already somewhat familiar with the Western Avenue buses since I occasionally use them to get to and from my car-repair shop. And I've taken the Lawrence Avenue bus from the the Brown Line's Kimball station to the Red Line's Lawrence stop to return home from another evening social event.

Because of Streetsblog I've also had the chance to take evening rush hour buses on: Fullerton to get to Coles on Milwaukee near California in Logan Square; Belmont to Kedzie to get to the Revolution Brewing production facility near Kedzie and Roscoe in Avondale; the North Ave bus to Damen for the Up and Up bar on the roof of Wicker Park's Robie Hotel; and the 35th Street bus to get to Maria's Community Liquors in Bridgeport. And to further burnish my bus riding credentials, let me tell you that my wife and I, being seniors, much prefer the Paris, France, bus system over that city's vaunted (and vaulted) Metro subway because there are lots of stairs on that system and not enough escalators or elevators.

Now here's the fake news I promised you.

[Begin fake news.]

So last month at the Streetsblog meetup at Simone's in Pilsen I ran into a CTA employee named Pat. It was a first for me, so I pounced, asking them what they did for the transit agency.

"I'm in strategic planning," Pat answered.

"Really? Like the Red Line extension past 95th or the Red/Purple modernization, including the Belmont flyover?" I asked.

"No, those are well over my pay grade. I'm just in the bus division," Pat said.

I was stoked. I had recently ridden four critical east-west bus routes that connect with the Red Line and I had seen firsthand some of the many difficulties that these routes face. "Well, I guess there is really only one problem for the buses: cars," I joked. We laughed at this and then we discussed how the so-called "future of transit," ride hailing, was at this time making traffic even worse.

I then told Pat about the time I complimented my bus driver for their skill at weaving in and out of traffic aggressively cutting in as needed.

"Well technically we frown on that behavior, but I take your point," Pat said.

I explained that I like to fantasize about how each of these east-west feeder routes will operate once they are turned into bus rapid transit lines.

Pat raised an eyebrow. "What do you know? You aren't privy to inside information are you?"

"I assume that the untimely demise of the CTA's Ashland BRT plan has put all effort to create BRT lines on the back burner," I replied.

"Oh, OK," Pat said somewhat cryptically and then sighed wistfully, "Yeah the mayor really led us down the primrose path on that one."

Wegerson says CTA bus drivers sometimes use the turn lane by the Home Depot on North Avenue as an express lane. Image: Google Street View
Wegerson says CTA bus drivers sometimes use the turn lane by the Home Depot on North Avenue as an express lane. Image: Google Street View
Wegerson says CTA bus drivers sometimes use the turn lane by the Home Depot on North Avenue as an express lane. Image: Google Street View

Then I explained that once while riding the North Avenue route, my westbound bus driver skillfully pulled into the empty turn lane for entering and leaving the Home Depot store store by the Chicago River and rode in the lane for a full block to Throop street.  "Boy did we ever pass a bunch of cars there. It felt like Paris. And at Throop the driver didn't hesitate to pull right back into the traffic lane." I added that it was then or maybe on Belmont that I gained a newfound love for rush hour parking restrictions.

"You mean the parking bans from 7-9 or 4-6 on many streets?" Pat asked.

Yes, I said, adding that as a car driver I always thought those restrictions were so stupid, even when enforced. There are always just enough scofflaws willing to risk a tow by parking in the rush hour travel lanes to screw it up. Even if a motorist drives in the curb lane for a few blocks, as soon as it's time to merge back into traffic, everyone pulls up tight and makes them wait. So the curb lanes really don't function as good parking lanes nor good travel lanes. Yet while riding the bus I realized that the one person willing and able to use these stretches effectively was the bus driver. They had the skill, the intimidating machine, and the moxie to get force their way back into the crowded travel lane.

Again the raised eyebrow from Pat.

I then mentioned my recent bus ride on Fullerton. Between Sheffield and Ashland there are non-protected bike lanes, just parallel lines with bike symbols and arrows. Sure, that's a little better than "sharrows," bike symbols and chevrons with no lines, but just barely.

Then I noticed my bus driver had a creative driving technique.  It happens that that stretch is mostly permit parking. At that time of day many of the permit holders were elsewhere, so  there were half-block stretches empty of cars. Sure enough, since other motorists kept to the left of the bike lane line, on stretches with no parked cars, the bus driver would use the bike lane plus the empty parking lane as a de facto bus lane. It wasn't enough of an advantage to get a jump on the traffic like the Home Depot lane, but it allowed us to keep our place in the line of cars and not fall back when the driver dropped off and picked up passengers.

Pat looked a little aghast at this story and pulled me aside. "You know too much. Who told you about Secret Plan X?"

"What?" I said, surprised. "What's Secret Plan X?"

"The plan to remove parking spaces one by one, block by block, in order to free up lanes for buses," Pat said.

"No," I retorted, "That can't be real. There would be a huge hew and cry from drivers and businesses and assorted NIMBYs. You would never get away with it."

"Shush," Pat responded. "That's why it's secret. No one can know why here and there, every now and then, a parking space disappears to be replaced by something else. Some times it's replaced by a flashing loading zone or sometimes a longer bus stop or sometimes just a "No Parking Anytime" sign. Next comes surge parking pricing during rush hour for the metered spaces, and eventually a rush hour parking ban.

"It can't work," I said. "What about the Richard M. Daley-era parking steal - err - deal? How are you going to compensate the parking concessionaire?"

"Simple," Pat said. "Side streets. Not the whole block. Even a quarter or half block will do. That and a few strategic house teardowns at the alley for mini parking lots."

"Forget that," I responded. "No resident is going to give up free parking in front of their house even if they do have a two car garage."

"We've thought of that," Pat replied. "The rest of the block and the next one over gets residential permit parking. They'll complain, but they'll still feel they have gotten something out of their loss. And besides parking is still free from 5 p.m. until 9 a.m. And then when enough of the street is stripped of parking, we'll paint bus-lane only lanes on the street. Sure, that's not a full BRT route,  but at least it's a real bus-only lane. That's how strategic plans work: Bit by bit towards a long term goal."

Shaking a bit I asked, "Do you have to kill me now?"

"No, no nothing like that," Pat said, laughing. "Actually go write this conversation up. Who's going to believe it anyway?"

[End fake news.]

Of course Pat isn't real and there is no Secret Plan X. But even if there was one, I would have to say that there wasn't, wouldn't I?

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