CTA Documents: Loop Link Has Yielded Only Minor Speed Gains

Loop Link buses at Washington and Dearborn. Photo: John Greenfield
Loop Link buses at Washington and Dearborn. Photo: John Greenfield

[This article also ran in the Chicago Reader.]

For years my feelings about Chicago’s $41 million Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor have been like those of a parent whose loveable kid has been getting mediocre grades. I’m proud of what it is: A smart reconfiguration of downtown streets to help move people — not just cars — more efficiently through the city. But I’ve been concerned that it’s not quite living up to its full potential.

Loop Link debuted in December 2015 with the goal of speeding up service between Michigan Avenue and the West Loop on seven CTA routes from the previous, glacial 3 mph rush-hour average, to a modest 6 mph. As part of the project, the Chicago Department of Transportation remixed Canal, Clinton, Randolph, Madison, and Washington, adding red bus-only lanes on most of the streets, plus eight bus stations with giant, rake-like shelters on the latter two roadways.

As part of the project, CDOT constructed the Union Station Transit Center to ease transfers between buses and Metra and Amtrak trains. The department built protected bike lanes on Canal, Randolph, and Washington. And converting excess mixed-traffic lanes to bus and bike lanes created shorter crossing distances for pedestrians and calmed motor vehicle traffic.

Despite those benefits, it’s been unclear whether Loop Link has achieved its main goal of doubling bus speeds. In addition to the car-free lanes, time-saving features include fewer stops, raised boarding platforms at the stations (so operators spend less time “kneeling” the bus for people with mobility issues), and white “queue jump” signals that give buses a head start at stoplights.

But even though the city originally said Loop Link would launch with prepaid boarding, which reduces the “dwell time” at bus stops, almost three years later it still hasn’t rolled out that feature. It’s also common to see unauthorized vehicles, especially corporate shuttles using the red lanes, which doesn’t help CTA travel times.

Using traffic cameras to enforce the lanes would require approval from Springfield, and the cams are highly unpopular in the wake of Chicago’s red light bribery scandal. (Similar express bus systems like New York City’s Select routes feature both prepaid boarding and camera enforcement.)

Many Latin American BRT systems use curbs to help keep private cars out of the bus lanes. However CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey said this idea was rejected because higher concrete curbs would make it difficult for CTA buses to pass illegally parked vehicles or stalled buses in the lanes, while low plastic curbs could be damaged by snow plows.

Bogotá's TransMilenio BRT system uses curbs to keep private vehicles out of the bus lanes. Photo: John Greenfield
Bogotá’s TransMilenio BRT system uses curbs to keep private vehicles out of the bus lanes. Photo: John Greenfield

When the Loop Link corridor first opened, there seemed to be little improvement in bus speeds, partly due to an infuriating rule requiring the operators to approach the raised platforms at a 3 mph crawl to avoid clocking customers with their mirrors. That decree was eventually relaxed, and when I test rode the system in early 2016, trip times seemed to have shortened a bit, although they were still well above the CTA’s goal of eight minutes for a cross-Loop journey.

Since then, whenever I’ve asked CTA officials for an update on Loop Link performance, they’ve provided vague statements about improved customer satisfaction but declined to provide hard numbers, promising that the agency would release a report sometime in the future.

Recently I got tired of waiting, so I filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking all internal documents with data on the corridor’s effects on bus speed and reliability. It turns out that the CTA has already put together a Loop Link performance report, but officials wouldn’t share the whole thing with me, citing a loophole in the FOIA rules that excuses them from releasing preliminary drafts. However they sent a number of charts and graphs from the study.

In a nutshell, the corridor’s performance has been a mixed bag. While the system has generally seen moderate improvements in recent years, in some cases travel times have actually gotten worse. However, that’s not necessarily the system’s fault, as I’ll explain a bit.

CTA staffers documented downtown bus performance in 2013, as they were planning the corridor, so that serves as the baseline for the current study. For example, in 2013 the total median time for an eastbound 8 a.m. run from Union Station to Washington/State, a distance of one mile, was about 12 minutes and 40 seconds. That’s roughly 4.7 mph, or a slow jogging pace.

Image: CTA
Image: CTA

One table from the FOIA response (above) gives an overview of Loop Link travel times in 2016 and 2017 compared to the 2013 baseline. Decreases in the duration of the cross-Loop trip (good) are shown in shades of purple and blue, while increases (bad) are depicted with orange and red hues.

Westbound, it appears that service has generally improved. Almost all of that section of the chart is lavender or violet, with modest decreases in travel times of up to 17 percent, although times haven’t improved so much during the evening rush, when most people are heading west out of the Loop.

The outlook for eastbound trips is less rosy, because there’s more red on the chart. Particularly during the morning rush, when most commuters are heading east into town, there are blocks of deep crimson, where travel times have increased by as much as 16 percent.

Image: CTA
Image: CTA

Another graph (above) illustrates Loop Link’s challenges with providing reliable service, which is one of the purposes of a BRT system. A red line on the chart shows the 2013 baseline of 12:40 for an eastbound cross-Loop trip at 8 a.m. A green line shows the projected improved trip time of about 10:50, or roughly 5.5 mph. A zigzagging blue line shows the median trip times during the post-Loop Link debut counting period, which basically never drops below the baseline.

A wide blue band on the graph, which oscillates wildly, represents the 90th/25th percentile band. This means that 25 percent of the runs had a lower travel time than the band’s bottom edge, while 10 percent of the trips had a higher travel time than the band’s top edge. Since almost all of the blue band is above the green projection line, that means the vast majority of trips didn’t meet that 10:50 goal.

While the graphics indicate that Loop Link hasn’t resulted in any dramatic speed improvements, and in some cases trip times have gotten worse, that may be partly due to factors beyond the CTA’s control. One thing that’s happened during the last five years is the rise of ride-hailing, which studies have shown is increasing congestion in large cities.

Another factor could be the recent boom in online retail, which has likely increased the number of downtown deliveries. Earlier this month CBS Chicago reported on numerous cases of Post Office, FedEx, and UPS drivers stopping in signed “No Standing” zones, creating traffic bottlenecks. (CBS called the bus- and bike-centric layout of Washington Street “the crux of the problem,” as opposed to the drivers’ decisions to break the law.) While the red lanes should theoretically make CTA buses immune to traffic jams, that’s not the reality because they’re not well enforced, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

So that leaves prepaid boarding as the best hope for cutting travel times, but the CTA has been dragging its feet about implementing that feature. In fairness, it’s a somewhat tricky problem. NYC’s Select bus routes have kiosks at every stop where you buy a ticket before boarding, and then fare inspectors occasionally ask for proof of payment. But since the Loop Link corridor represents only a small portion of the CTA routes that use it, that method probably wouldn’t work unless kiosks were installed at every stop along all seven routes, which would require a major investment.

It would also be challenging to retrofit the Chicago bus stations with turnstiles in such a way that scofflaws couldn’t simply bypass them by walking in the street and then stepping up onto the boarding platform.

In fall 2016 the CTA did a three-month pilot in which employees were stationed at the busy Madison/Dearborn Loop Link stop with a portable fare card reader during the evening rush, so that customers could pay before the bus arrived. Since summer 2016 the agency has been using the same method at the Belmont Blue Line station.

The prepaid boarding pilot at Madison/Dearborn. Photo: John Greenfield
The prepaid boarding pilot at Madison/Dearborn. Photo: John Greenfield

“The Belmont Blue Line station has been very successful and we have seen positive results in time savings,” spokesman Steve Mayberry told me, adding that the system will be made semi-permanent as part of the Belmont Blue Gateway rehab project, currently under construction.

However, the Madison/Dearborn test was deemed a flop. “Unfortunately, we saw only a minimal reduction in boarding times, which did not lead to any travel time savings,” Mayberry said.

The boarding time savings at Belmont, where large numbers of people coming off the train board buses at the same time, averages 38 seconds. But at Madison/Dearborn, where fewer people board any given bus, the savings only averaged 16 seconds. In addition, since the Loop Link stations have two entrances, staffing costs were higher.

“That said, we continue to look for ways to implement prepaid boarding in other [non-Loop Link] locations,” Mayberry said.

So the BRT system isn’t particularly fast and, with camera enforcement and prepaid boarding off the table for the foreseeable future, it’s unlikely to get much faster anytime soon. I don’t mean to throw the CTA under the bus here, but when it comes to dramatically improving transit commute times, Loop Link has turned out to be something of an underachiever.

So does that mean that the Loop Link corridor is an overall failure, or that it should be dismantled to give more real estate to private motor vehicles again?

Mayberry says no. “Loop Link has shown that you can have a bus lane and not cause Carmageddon,” he said. “It’s the heart of downtown and, while there will always be tough traffic days downtown for any number of reasons, Loop Link has not been responsible for negatively affecting traffic. In fact, it’s raised the profile of bus service in the corridor and made it more obvious how much service we run and made our bus service more accessible for people.”

He added that while CTA bus ridership has been falling in recent years, largely due to ride-hailing and increased traffic congestion, ridership at Loop Link stops has steadily grown since the system launched, averaging a two percent increase so far this year compared to 2017. “When you look at the overall project, those are points of success.”

I’d also point out that Loop Link has better organized the streets along the route, especially Canal Street by Union Station, and has created better conditions for walking and biking, while discouraging speeding by private drivers, which makes everyone safer.

And then there’s question of what bus speeds would be like nowadays if Loop Link hadn’t been built, given the general increase in downtown car traffic in recent years. It’s likely that the first table discussed in this article would have more orange and red squares, and the blue line in the graph would be higher above the baseline, signifying even longer trip times for straphangers.

So while the FOIA-ed data suggests that you can’t call Loop Link a roaring success, it would also be wrong to dismiss it as a dismal failure. Rather, it’s an OK transit corridor that could someday become great if the city can figure out a way to add prepaid boarding and/or better enforce the bus lanes.

Steven Vance helped out with data analysis for this piece.

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  • Banthelink

    Let’s hope the next mayor plows over “loop llnk” this project was and is a failure from day one. It has done nothing but negatively impact all travel in the area. Thank you for honestly reporting that this is a failure.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “So while the FOIA-ed data suggests that you can’t call Loop Link a roaring success, it would also be wrong to dismiss it as a dismal failure.”

  • Scott Avers

    “”So while the FOIA-ed data suggests…” Let’s start right there. The Reader had to do a FOIA request to get the CTA to fess up on the stats. Wonder why?

    So $41 taxpayer dollars were spent on a questionable project with barely any value. Would have been much better to have spent those $41 million dollars to create bike lanes all over our city.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I think this still has a lot of value in terms of what is really needed in Chicago, which is a psychological 180 degree flip in terms of how we prioritize transit. It would be nice to see this having a more immediate impact, but we should all keep in mind that it took years and years for bike lanes to really have much of an impact. In the 90s I was regularly the only soul using Elston’s bike lanes, at least as far as the eye could see.

  • Justin

    Honestly, whoever is responsible for implementing something they were calling “Bus Rapid Transit”, but without fare prepayment, which in the transit world is considered a necessary prerequisite for BRT, should be publicly hanged in Daley Plaza. I am not joking. They have caused great injury to the taxpayers and citizens of Chicago. Every example from around the world explained exactly what they needed to do, they ignored every example and expert recommendation, and it resulted in this multimillion dollar boondoggle with nothing to show for it. There must be consequences for squandering the peoples’ money like that. Every transit project can’t simply be a crony cash giveaway. If we start hanging these thieves, some of them will get smart and see that they can no longer hire the politically connected patronage contractors to do a shitty job, they instead must spend the public’s money efficiently and wisely.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I assume you’re being Swiftian here, but let’s not joke around about killing people. Thanks.

  • GA

    Would love to see what on board camera enforcement, all door boarding, and some curbs could do.

  • Courtney

    No surprises. The city currently isn’t ready to do all the things one needs to do to truly prioritize transit. To me it’s a waste of money considering the buses could be going faster. I used to take the Madison bus often and even with the Loop link it’s a slow bus ride because of all the cars. More bus lanes with camera enforcement and signal prioritization throughout the city and then we’d really see changes in bus ridership. We should be making transit the first choice and the private automobile (including Lyft and Uber) the choice of last resort. Preaching to the choir here.

  • Courtney

    “Every example from around the world explained exactly what they needed to do, they ignored every example and expert recommendation, and it resulted in this multimillion dollar boondoggle with nothing to show for it. ”

    Indeed. I don’t think they called it BRT though. You’re right on the money that they ignored expert recommendations and wasted taxpayer money. The best way to make it right is to implement on-door boarding, extend the loop link (perhaps *GASP* close some downtown streets to cars and make them only accessible for buses and bikes), and implement camera enforcement to keep repeated offenders out of the bus-only lanes.

  • Bus camera enforcement if driver operated should be no more controversial than police operated radar enforcement. This needs to be revisited by the legislature. It is categorically different than red-light and speed camera enforcement as there is a human operator who could also attend court proceedings or other executive appeals mechanisms.

  • Courtney

    I’d much rather have independent camera because even with driver-operated enforcement there can be room for bias. Either way, camera enforcement is necessary. I’d love to see the revenue be given to CTA to improve and expand service.

  • Even revenue neutral enforcement would be valuable. Bias could be mitigated via an exponential fine schedule. The first few fines would go from slap on the wrist (not literally mind you) to a few real dollars. Then quickly go up from there.

  • Carter O’Brien

    This doesn’t hold a candle to the stupidity on display with the Belmont Blue Line project. This just makes me want to scream:

    ““The Belmont Blue Line station has been very successful and we have seen positive results in time savings,” spokesman Steve Mayberry told me, adding that the system will be made semi-permanent as part of the Belmont Blue Gateway rehab project, currently under construction.”

    Because it’s like CTA never once has stopped to ask why on earth the westbound 77 bus shouldn’t just go in a straight line on Belmont, which would result in “positive results in time savings” for everyone else traveling within a half mile of the stop.

    Anyone who doubts this only needs to go watch how much better the intersection has gotten since the westbound 77 has been forced to simply stop just east of the Walgreens, on Belmont, which is where it belongs. The inconvenience is trifling (I take this often), and with extra people actually crossing the street to get to the Blue Line, traffic has actually both calmed down and improved.

  • crosspalms

    I was walking on Washington near Clark Monday afternoon and in the space of 2 blocks saw: a cab pull into the bus lane to drop off a fare, blocking a bus; a car pull into the bus lane, put on its blinkers, blocking a second bus, both occupants got out and went into a building, leaving the car for who knows how long. We can’t have BRT if drivers don’t respect the dedicated lane, just as we can’t have safe cycling if drivers don’t respect the bike lanes.

  • Too bad the dynamics are too different but a “bus lane uprising” civilian vigilante group like “bike lane uprising” would be interesting.

  • Jeremy

    “human operator who could also attend court proceedings or other executive appeals mechanisms”

    That shouldn’t be necessary. The photos/video could be uploaded to a database after the shift (by the driver or another employee). The database could be accessed by someone in the courtroom.

  • Jeremy

    Those problems will have to wait. The alderman is currently trying to ban bikes from the riverwalk.

  • Steve Brown

    Simply extending the westbound bus lane all the way to Clinton, with a bus-only signal for the buses that turn left there (since they’d then be turning left from the far right lane) would singlehandedly take at least 3 or 4 minutes off the running time during PM rush.

  • JeBuS

    What if CTA bus drivers were employed by the Chicago Department of Finance, like the parking enforcement?

  • .For sure. My intent was to address a possibly non-existent objection by those “rabid” anti-camera enforcementers that modern life is too automated and inhuman.

  • FlamingoFresh

    Camera enforcement due to unauthorized vehicle entering/occupying the bus lane is completely different than the red light cameras. Even though nobody likes traffic tickets, the red light camera was setup and implemented around an illegal bribe. In addition, most of those signals that had red light camera’s were found to have questionable yellow light signal phasing durations to the point where is was used to catch additional drivers running the light and borderline unsafe. Cameras used to enforce the bus lanes will be unbiased and will only ticket unauthorized vehicles that enter/occupy the lane. There will be video evidence to prove this physical crossover. It’s apples to oranges with the only constant being a camera to enforce it. That’s not a valid excuse to be hesitant and not speed up the process of getting it implemented.

    If the city/state is really concerned they would set clear guidelines and spell out what is considered a violation so when implementation is carried out they can be covered.

  • neroden

    Delivery companeis should be pushed to do downtown deliveries by handcart. A ticketing and towing blitz combined with a “best practices” pamphlet (park outside the Loop, carry your packages in on a handcart) would help.

  • neroden

    We need roving vigilante tow trucks to remove the illegal cars.

    …or, we could remove the pavement and put in streetcar tracks. That seems to act as a deterrent to cars. In practice, this is why BRT never works, but LRT does work: you need to get the cars out of the way, and the only way to do it is to put in ballasted railway tracks which the cars physically cannot drive on.

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