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
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

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?

  • Jacob Wilson

    Great read, thanks!

  • Anne A

    I have a friend who is a bus route planner for Pace (for real). We’ve had some good conversations about successes and failures in various parts of the Pace system that I interact with.

    Living in Beverly, we have a mix of service from Pace, CTA and Metra. Some parts coordinate better with others. A while back, some changes were made to bus stop configurations at the 95th St. red line stations It was nice to be able to give positive feedback to someone who was involved in that change and tell her how much it improved the rider experience. (Of course, current construction on the station has undone that improvement, at least for now.) She appreciated the feedback, because she often doesn’t get any from actual Pace riders.

  • FlamingoFresh

    Don’t forget, once Secret Plan X is implemented that there needs to be strict enforcement of any unauthorized vehicles blocking these bus lanes. Continually enforcement is a must if not it could end up like the bus lanes downtown that get blocked constantly without any fear or repercussion.
    On a another note, it’s very troubling how restricted we are with our road redesigns due to the street parking deal.
    When are we going to vote out all those who screwed over the city?

    Alderman Votes for the parking deal per City of Chicago:

    Yeas – Aldermen Flores, Fioretti, Dowell, Lyle, Harris, Beale, Pope, Balcer, Olivo, Burke,
    Foulkes, Thompson, Thomas, Lane, Rugai, Cochran, Brookins, Munoz, Zaiewski, Dixon, Solis, Burnett, E. Smith, Suarez, Mell, Austin, Banks, Mitts, Allen, Laurino, O’Connor, Doherty, Reilly, Daley, Tunney, Levar, Schulter, M. Smith, Moore, Stone – 40.

    Nays – Aldermen Preckwinkle, Hairston, Ocasio, Waguespack, Colon – 5.

    Alderman Tunney moved to reconsider the foregoing vote. The motion was lost.
    The following is said ordinance as passed:

  • As for the parking steal, err deal, don’t forget that it falls not only on Daley but also on Emanuel because he got a shot at a renegotiation.

    But really the real crunch for the parking steal, er, deal will come if AVs become so common and no one wants to own a car anymore that no one needs to park anymore. Farfetched? Well sure maybe but when the steal was being negotiated no one was ready to even accept the notion of AVs much less the reality.

    And really the steal does not constrain road design. It’s just a useful excuse for the Emanuel regime and the Alders to not have to deal with the emotional politics of car drivers. Remember that car drivers consider their cars as lethal weapons protected by the second amendment. But back to constraints on design no. That’s because people have to park somewhere and meters can just be put in that somewhere. And even a one space for one space is not needed as it is a total income steal that must be met. So put the spaces anywhere and charge more if need be. Not really a big problem. But Alders etc would like to have us think it is a big hurdle to proper street design.

    Enforcement. Actually the best enforcers, at least in the short run are illegal parkers themselves. They keep the lane clear of drivers. Remember bus drivers are quite good at butting back into the travel lane as needed. Often when they don’t it’s because they are ahead of schedule anyway.

    Later enforcement needs to be a bus mounted enforcement camera operated by the driver. That would sure make people think twice about abusing the bus lane.

  • FlamingoFresh

    I agree with the blame falling on Rahm as well. He didn’t really change things up at the negotiation table.

    As far as AVs go, someone or entity will own them and there will need a place to park (for the time being). I can see the city abandoning parking garages and forcing these vehicles to use street parking, at least for the sake of the city since they need to cover any lost revenue from spots etc. I just don’t see them accepting these losses and moving forward without some shake-up.

    Well if this roadway transformation gradually happens and leads to more efficient buses on these given routes, then I could see car ownership going down due to less reliance on personal vehicles due to increase reliability of public transit (all that is a good thing!). However, the city will be in the hole for the abandonment of these parking spots and have to cover the lost revenue.

    I don’t have faith in our government to full push and support a system that generates cost to operate (CTA) and takes away from revenue (or additional costs), street parking revenue. It’s a great situation for the road users to have high ridership and very reliable public transport but it’s bad for the City of Chicago’s wallet. Obviously its very foolish and optimistic of me to think that when public transit operates with great efficiency that people will decide to abandon their vehicles and personal space so I can be over thinking this.

    Either way, your article was fantastic and I think you made some great points.

  • FlamingoFresh

    Jeff,

    I was wondering if you’d be interested in speaking about this for a live audience. The Chicago Chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation (YPT) is hosting Chicago’s first ever transportation camp and I’m a part of the committee to run this event. We’re currently looking for individuals in the transportation community that wouldn’t mind talking about traffic. I felt like this article would be a great topic matter for the event.

    If you’re interested or would like to get more information about this, you can find me at smisztal90@gmail.com and we can talk .

  • I will contact you in a couple of days. I’m out of the office so to speak.

  • So sorry I’m just seeing this reply. I am at the moment unable to give you a proper reply. Sunday perhaps.

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