City Announces New Bus Speed Initiative, But Will Drivers Respect the New Lanes?

Rendering of the new cul-de-sac and bus boarding area at Chicago and May.
Rendering of the new cul-de-sac and bus boarding area at Chicago and May.

Today Chicago took a step to address our city’s slow bus speeds and pathetic bus lane mileage — a mere 4.1 miles of dedicate lanes versus 35.4 miles in Los Angeles and 82.8 miles in New York City. City officials announced plans for short stretches of red bus-only lanes on Chicago Avenue, Western Avenue, and 79th Street, plus other improvements to speed bus service and improve pedestrian safety.

The $5 million Bus Priority Zones project focuses on unclogging bus slow zones at bottlenecks and pinch points, with the goal of improving service along entire bus routes. This initiative coincides with Chicago’s developing policy of allowing dense, parking-lite transit oriented-development policy along high-capacity bus corridors, and is one of the first projects to be implemented based on recommendations made by the city’s Transportation and Mobility Task Force in March.

In addition to the new bus lanes, which may be in effect all day or only during designated periods, other timesaving features will include queue jump signals to give buses a head start at intersections, relocating bus stops for maximum efficiency, and pedestrian safety infrastructure.

A Chicago Avenue bus. Photo: John Greenfield
A Chicago Avenue bus. Photo: John Greenfield

The first project focuses on chaotic Chicago/Milwaukee/Ogden junction, home to the Chicago Avenue Blue Line station. It’s one of the busiest bus-boarding locations in Chicago during rush hours, and the #66 Chicago Avenue bus, with 6.9 million rides taken in 2017, is one of the highest ridership and highest frequency bus routes in the CTA system.

The eight-week project, which kicked off today, include street repaving, new signs and the cul-de-sac-ing of May Street north of Chicago to simplify the intersection and provide a longer bus boarding area for riders. Along with a short stretch of bus lanes on Chicago Avenue between Sangamon and May streets, a one-mile stretch of bus lanes will be installed on Chicago downtown between Larrabee Street and Michigan Avenue.

The #79 79th Street bus route, with 7.8 million rides in 2017, will also be getting improvements at the Kedzie Street, Halsted Street, Dan Ryan Expressway, and King Drive intersections.

Western Avenue will get bus lanes between George Street and Logan Boulevard, as well as between McClean Avenue and Moffat Street. Transit signal priority, which shortens red lights and extends greens to help keep buses moving, is slated to be completed on Western by the end of this year.

Improvements will also be made downtown on Wacker Drive at LaSalle Street and Michigan.

The project areas.
The project areas.

At a groundbreaking for the May Street project this morning, CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. listed other bus projects the city has completed under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, such as the downtown Loop Link express bus corridor, the (stalled) effort to build bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue, rush-hour bus lanes on the Jeffery Jump route, and prepaid boarding for westbound bus customers from the Belmont Blue Line station. He added that the CTA has updated its buses under Emanuel and currently has one of the youngest fleets in the country.

Emanuel noted that Chicago bus ridership has dropped in recent years. Studies have shown that the rise of ride-hailing, and the ensuing increase in traffic congestion, which slows down buses, are to blame for this decrease. “This investment is about moving the buses faster so they can continue to be a competitive transportation mode,” he said.

Of course, bus lanes aren’t as effective for speeding up service if private vehicle drivers use them, which is why Loop Link has resulted in only modest bus trip time improvements. Camera enforcement of bus lanes, which is currently done in cities like New York, would require new legislation in Springfield. Chicago mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot plans to “work with the state legislature to permit fair camera enforcement of bus lanes,” according to a statement from a spokesperson last month.

City officials and workers break ground on the new cul de sac at May Street. Photo: John Greenfield
City officials and workers break ground on the new cul de sac at May Street. Photo: John Greenfield

Rebekah Scheinfeld, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, which is building the new bus infrastructure said that having more miles of bus lanes will naturally lead to better compliance from motorists. “There’s a big benefit to continuing to socialize bus lanes throughout the city,” she said. However, she added that “having more automated enforcement options would be very effective, and it would allow police to focus on things related to violence.” She added that the revenue from the tickets could be used to support bus operations.

Ron Burke, director of the Active Transportation Alliance, which has promoted better bus service through initiatives like its “Back on the Bus” study and bus report card project, lauded the new bus improvements, but he agreed that camera enforcement is needed to maximize the benefits of the bus lanes. “Unfortunately, automated enforcement is a bit of a lightning rod issue in Springfield,” he said. “My hope is that a bill that narrowly limits video enforcement to bus lanes, maybe with cameras on the buses [as is done in other cities] might quell the concerns of some legislators.”

Burke added that Active Trans would support steps to help ensure that tickets for driving in bus lanes don’t result in a financial burden for low-income residents, such as sliding-scale fines, or allowing violators to take a safety class in lieu of paying a ticket.

  • ardecila

    I don’t remember hearing anything about these plans. Did I just miss it, or are these truly coming out of nowhere? The only think I can remember is a (vague) plan to improve the #66 Chicago with battery-powered buses and some traffic signal improvements.

  • Courtney

    Think of all the transit and biking improvements we could have had with the money we gave away for the Lincoln Yards and 78 development.

  • Nawc77

    It all about the enforcement. If no one is getting ticketed or towed, then it will fail.

  • Nicholas L

    Use 311 app to report for sure.

  • Dennis McClendon

    No money is being given away for those developments. TIF bonds are repaid solely from the future increase in tax revenues from that district. I believe Lincoln Yards would develop without TIF, and therefore oppose that district—but it’s not a giveaway of money the city already has.

  • Jeremy

    It is a giveaway in the sense that the district is active for 23 years. Once the bonds are repaid, the increase in property taxes still accrues within the tif zone and must be spent in the tif zone. This allows the mayors and aldermen that oversee the zones to give money for projects that benefit an already developed and prosperous area.

    There are still tif zones in downtown. Should developers receive financial incentive to build/renovate downtown at the expense of areas that may have good uses for the money?

  • Here’s the thing, the great majority of car drivers do respect the lanes. And therein lies the opportunity for improvement of bus movement. The most important enforcement issue imho, would be delivery trucks blocking the lanes. My gut feeling is that there is little of that. The other big issue, again imho, for the loop lanes are other buses using them for drop off and pickup. It seemed that was a issue early on. I it still? I don’t know. I wish Streetsblog had access to bus drivers for their takes on these sorts of things.

    Ultimately for such a short distance there isn’t a great chance for speed improvement for the loop lanes. I think the improvements are in the general flow of the the buses. And the general flow has a huge impact on perception. If it feels like your bus is moving right along, that is, imho once again, more important than the few minutes difference a bus lane may actually save you.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It would be good if TIFs like this were designed so that they expired as soon as the funding for the development was paid off by the new property tax revenue generated within the district. But Chicago mayors like the system the way it is, because they can allocate TIF funds without a City Council vote, which gives them more clout.

  • what_eva

    A couple of thoughts on delivery trucks from my personal commuting.

    At the Belmont Red Line station, there is a truck there multiple times a week that is partially in the bus stop. It’s a long bus stop that can take 2 buses, which given the frequent bus bunching is needed. There is also loading zone between the bus stop and Sheffield, so there is plenty of room for the truck to not be in the bus stop, but that wouldn’t be as convenient to the driver dropping stuff at Blaze Pizza.

    Similar story at Walgreens at State/Madison on the Loop Link. Trucks there multiple times a week.

    One of the biggest annoyances I have with these is that the impact of the trucks would be much less if it wasn’t morning rush hour. Make those deliveries after 10 and it’s not nearly as big an issue. Less traffic on the roads, buses on midday headways. And it’s not like those trucks aren’t delivering somewhere else after 10. Drop a few tickets on them and get those schedules adjusted.

  • TonyAB

    A big YES to cutting off that part of May st at Chicago ave. This was my bus stop for years and the idea that you could make a left turn onto this street from any lane (regardless if you were coming east on Chicago Ave, or North or Southbound from Milwaukee) was always crazy.

    That said I think the bigger problem at this bus stop was that it was also the preferred drop off location for Uber / Lyft passengers going to the blue line from the points east. I’m not sure how this addresses this. They will still pull up to the Blue Line stairs, and the bus will wait for them to unload their single passenger … while everyone on and off the bus waits. Is there an easy solution here that I’m missing?

  • FlamingoFresh

    They need to stop dragging their feet with video enforcement for entering the bus lanes. Video enforcement for lane violations is completely different than a red light camera controlled by shorted signal phasing. The former can be proposed with strict guidelines of what constitutes a violation, while the latter was rigged to catch more vehicles due to below standard yellow signal phasing. The people and groups responsible for this push should easily be able to separate the two and ease public concern. If not, get someone else who can. This is non-issue that the media is trying to make a connection when the people in charge should be separating the two to prevent this from becoming a problem.

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