Until Buses Get Priority, Living in a “Transit-Rich” Neighborhood Only Goes So Far

Howard Station. Photo: Courtney Cobbs
Howard Station. Photo: Courtney Cobbs

When people ask me why I moved to Chicago from Little Rock, Arkansas, I tell them I wanted to live in a city that didn’t require me to own a car. I first visited Chicago during the summer of 2012 on the weekend of the annual Pride Parade. On my first trip on the Red Line I was in awe of how the line was integrated into the North side neighborhoods it runs through. I loved how quickly the train got us to our destination.

I ended up meeting a cutie that weekend and took the #151 Sheridan bus downtown to meet her. I ended up regretting that decision when the bus got stuck in traffic and I was 20-30 minutes late for my date. From that day on I made a mental note to avoid the bus during rush hour and on days when heavy traffic is expected.

Seven years later, buses are still inconvenienced by single occupancy vehicles. My blood pressure rises during most bus trips because I’m highly aware of all the things the city and the CTA could be doing to speed up buses but haven’t done yet.

I live in Rogers Park which, on paper, is a transit-rich neighborhood. I’m a ten-minute walk from the Howard Red Line station and the Jarvis stop. It’s a short walk to a #147 Outer Drive Express stop, and if I walk or bike to Howard Street I can catch a number of CTA and Pace buses. There are plenty of Divvy stations as well. Since I recently bought my own bike and the weather has been nicer lately, I’ve started biking to Edgewater for my grocery trips. ALDI & Whole Foods are a short two-mile bike ride away. In the past I’d hop on the train to make these trips. Occasionally I’d take the #147, but only if I wasn’t pressed for time.

When the city of Chicago released data from ride-hailing trips earlier this year, a lot of folks commented on the fact that many rides originate in transit-rich areas. But I’d like to challenge the idea that Rogers Park and perhaps others are really “transit-rich”.

Living close to the 24-hour Red and Blue lines definitely qualifies as living close to quality transit, in my opinion. Of course I’m a relatively able-bodied person, so I don’t have to worry about whether or not an ‘L’ station has an elevator.

I’m not aware of any CTA bus line that comes every 15 minutes or less in Rogers Park. But even if we did have “high-frequency” buses, they’d be delayed by single occupancy vehicles just like all the other buses on Chicago’s streets.

Wait times for the #147 bus.
Wait times for the #147 bus.

We need more bus-only lanes for a number of reasons. One reason I don’t hear/read about much is increasing accessibility to other neighborhoods. I sometimes dread visiting friends in Hyde Park due to the lengthy transit trip. Speeding up buses through strategies like dedicated lanes, signal priority, queue jumps, stop consolidation, all-door boarding, and pre-paid boarding would improve travel times and could perhaps encourage folks to travel outside their neighborhood more often.

When I took a dance class in Avondale, it took me an hour on CTA to get there despite it being only 6 miles away. Currently your options for lengthy trips are to suffer through a long, slow transit trip, pay for ride-hailing (which makes congestion worse and delays buses), or drive your own car and sit in traffic along with everyone else.

I recently started working as a Bike Ambassador for the Chicago Department of Transportation which has led me all over the city. Last week I traveled to Norwood Park on the Far Northwest Side. This trip took me an hour and a half by transit. By car it’s half that time. I could have gotten there in an hour by bike, but the route seemed unsafe, and I wanted to conserve my energy. My transit commute could have been more reasonable if we prioritized buses on the streets and eliminated some stops.

Sure I live in a transit-rich rich area, but it’s worth taking bus speeds and travel times into account when assessing intracity travel. Living in Rogers Park is great for transit trips to adjacent neighborhoods and downtown, but aside from that, meh. I know this isn’t unique to Rogers Park. Plenty of Chicagoans are impacted by the lack of dedicated bus lanes the lack of enforcement to keep drivers out of the few miles of bus lanes that do exist. In my own neighborhood the free parking on Sheridan Road could be banned during morning and evening rush hours to create bus-only lanes.

I hope the Active Transportation Alliance campaign for 50 miles of transit-priority streets is successful. The hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans who ride CTA buses every day deserve priority on our streets. It’s a matter of efficiency and equity. Is it truly efficient or fair that buses with 40-to-50 passengers get stuck in traffic jams created by single occupancy vehicles?

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Courtney Cobbs Comments on the CTA

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[This piece originally ran in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.] Social worker and transit fan Courtney Cobbs moved to our city from Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2013, partly because she wanted to be able to live car-free. She has posted some thought-provoking comments on Streetsblog Chicago […]