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?

  • Daniel Joseph

    Below is a list of CTA bus routes in Rogers Park that have a “high-frequency” of service with a headway of 15 minutes or less. The only CTA bus route in Rogers Park that has a headway wider than 15 minutes is #96-Lint.

    CTA routes in Rogers Park with a “high-frequency” of 15 minutes or less:
    # 22: Clark
    # 36: Broadway
    # 97: Skokie
    #147: Outer Drive Express
    #151: Sheridan
    #155: Devon

  • skelter weeks

    What you need is a ped/bike bridge across the North Shore Channel at Pratt. Then you’d have a low stress way to go east/west. People moan about getting the Stone Bridge, but how hard is it to use Lincoln? Plenty of north/south routes, what Chicago needs are crosstown east-west routes and transit.

  • Carter O’Brien

    As an Avondalian who briefly lived in Rogers Park, I hear you. I am curious, has the addition of the Purple Line stop at Wilson helped matters at all? I was temping downtown during the heat wave summer of 95 and I still remember taking turns with other passengers to hold the L car doors open because the AC often failed, and good lord was that a long trip.

    There are a variety of different images on this theme: https://www.hedkayse.com/blogs/news/41116612-how-much-space-do-cars-need-vs-bikes-vs-buses-vs-trains that seem to be pretty effective in making the point IMO. Maybe Active Trans could stage something similar downtown…

  • Jeremy

    The problem (IMO) with banning parking during rush hours to create bus lanes is that a few people will ignore it, messing up the whole thing. I see this on LaSalle during commutes on the 156. There won’t be enough enforcement, and if there is sufficient enforcement (towing vehicles), there will be complaints about equity impact.

    Bus bulbs might be a better option. Buses would not have to be moved to the curb, they could be stopped in the travel lane. IF SOVs are delayed behind a stopped bus, so be it.

  • planetshwoop

    First, you are right that the lack of east-west routes stinks. But that’s kind of a separate issue from the fact that the bus is. so. slow.

    How hard is it to use Lincoln? It’s a nightmare. It’s a super busy 4 lane road and indeed, in a number of the places the lightposts are actually in the sidewalk. So it’s pretty narrow and dangerous. And Devon is just as bad.

    The Stone Bridge will connect the trail, so it will be a big deal.

  • Actually the occasional car keeps many drivers out of the lane because they aren’t skilled at merging back in. Bus drivers on the other hand are very very good at merging back in.

    So yes not perfect but a big improvement.

    But yes bus camera enforcement would be even better.

  • When one looks at a transit dense city like Paris and one realizes that that density is within an area about two thirds the size of Chicago’s north side (sans Ohare of course) one wonders how we could make up the transit gap.

    For me the realization that sparked my imagination was that BRT could do it. I’m in north Edgewater so yes to your experiences. For me the drag of a trip is to and from O’Hare. That’s when I’m ready to kick all the cars off of Lawrence and BRT it to Jefferson Park.

    But the real point is that individual BRT routes are only a start. An entire gridded network of BRT’s is needed to fill the gaps in the el system in the densest parts of non-loop Chicago’s vibrant neighborhoods.

  • Austin Busch

    Honestly, the buses run long enough into the evening that several lanes should be no-parking entirely. There are multiple stretches of N Sheridan Rd that abut parking lots and parking garages, where the street parking is a straight-up handout. Those lanes would also help speed up ambulances, which frequent the many senior living communities along that same stretch.

  • david vartanoff

    Tow away works very well.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yes, the stone bridge is important. It’s likely that many “interested-but-concerned” riders, families with young kids aren’t willing to use the Lincoln Avenue detour to connect the two sides of the trail. And we also need a safer crossing at Devon.

  • Gary Chicago

    costs about $132 per hour for the CTA to operate a bus. . That covers costs for the driver, gas, administration, and maintenance. (leaves out capital costs, such as the bus itself.)
    But in 2013, the average rider only paid about a dollar per trip. This is because, in compliance with state and federal regulations, the CTA offers a large number of riders free or reduced fares, including students, seniors, people in the military, and disabled passengers.
    Given the fact that the average passenger on a bus is only paying about $1 per trip,” a bus needs about 132 riders over the course of an hour in order to cover its costs.
    with this cost structure and how many bus lines get 132/hour let alone lines that run at 10%
    we will never have high frequency runs

  • Social_werkk

    I appreciate you adding this, Daniel. My lived experience says otherwise and as many bus riders know, buses often get stuck in traffic which can impact the headways.

  • Social_werkk

    The Purple Line is only an option for me during rush hours. I would love it if the Purple Line did runs to the Loop from say 7am-10pm. There are plenty of times I’m traveling downtown during the day and could benefit from the Purple Line.

  • Social_werkk

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’ll “never” have high-frequency runs. Someone on Twitter mentioned that bus-only lanes can double frequency without having to run more buses if that makes sense. The time needed to complete the route would be cut due to the addition of a bus-only lane.

  • rohmen

    If bus lines are considered infrastructure, and I think many would consider bus lines infrastructure for a big city to function properly, why do the lines need to be entirely self-sufficient and break even? I mean, like any infrastructure, we want to recapture some of the investment through usage fees, but why is the goal different for transit than literally anything else government-funded and provided?

    What other infrastructure generates enough through taxes and user fees that some subsidization doesn’t occur at the government level? Certainly not City roads for private cars or public parking.

  • Gary Chicago

    Water dept makes money as well as parking is a major source of general revenue . Buses do not need to be such a fixed cost such as infrastructure like a bridge. The labor cost structure is just to high and fixed to support compete with other alts with better price product and service

  • JacobEPeters

    Those “other alts with better price product and service” are also massively subsidized. Ride hailing apps provide services at rates far below the cost of the service & lose billions a year. If venture capitalists instead chose to sink a billions a year into bus frequency instead, then maybe we would see transit innovation, instead of low capacity vehicles clogging streets with high trip demands that require larger vehicles with more capacity & shorter per rider dwell times.

  • JacobEPeters

    Bus bunching is the worst, but in a lot of instances the bunching is not due to street congestion as much as it is because of the dwell times associated with on board fare collection. We need dedicated bus lanes in many places, but at bus stops with high boarding volumes we also need pre boarding fare payment like we have at L stations. This is what slows down all of those express buses that use North Michigan Ave.

  • david vartanoff

    Easy solutions–ventra readers at all doors, all door boarding, random POP fare checking.
    Traffic signal priority can be deployed without all of the brouhaha associated with full bore BRT. Getting the buses to move faster is critical.

  • what_eva

    And, of course, all those ride hails are operating on massively subsidized roads.

  • what_eva

    I would have to imagine bus lanes would have a huge positive impact on bus bunching as well.

  • what_eva

    but but but POP can’t possibly work!

    I feel like there is race/class behind opposition to POP. “OMG! All the poor brown people will just get on the bus without paying! The horror!”

    POP works just fine in cities larger and smaller than Chicago.

    A good example is Oxford Street in London, which I’d argue is what Michigan Ave should look like. Much wider sidewalks, 2 traffic lanes mostly buses only with limited delivery hours outside of rush hour. Tons of buses with lower dwell times because they have all door boarding and POP. On some of the bus models, the back door is preferable because that’s where the stairs are to go up where there are more seats.

  • Paris, of course, accomplishes this with the Métro, not with BRT.

  • Cars are of course subsidized far more heavily than public transit, and nobody has any expectation that roads make a profit. Charging for parking doesn’t really even cover the cost of providing that parking, read Donald Shoup for the basics on this.

    Without actual numbers, “parking is a major source of general revenue” is nothing but sentiment.

  • JacobEPeters

    If you went that route you wouldn’t put readers at all doors, because validating your card at an entrance would still create boarding bottlenecks. Instead it would need to be just two fare validators somewhere on the bus & one at every covered bus stop (the busier stops)

  • david vartanoff

    Um, parking is not a revenue generator; Daley II mortgaged it for a quick cash budget filler.

  • david vartanoff

    Once the RPM rehab is done we should push CTA to run the Purple as a full base day service. If Chicago can get serious, the L south of the Red Line ramp should add an extension perhaps down Clinton giving direct access to the growing west of the River BD, Union and Northwestern (Ogilvie if you prefer). From there, a link to the Orange and a possible spur east to McCormick Place would be useful. Chicago needs many new miles of L-subway routes.

  • JZ71

    Part of taking longer is getting stuck in traffic, but so is stopping every few blocks, to let someone on or off. Dedicated lanes won’t fix that, while signal priority would help, but is difficult to implement.

  • My opinion as a career semi driver who delivered multistop meat in Chicago for 25 years is that buses mess traffic up. They stop to pickup or drop-off passengers and block a lane of traffic, which makes congestion worse. Buses should as much as possible stop off of the major arteries that they run on.

    Dedicated bus lanes with priority signals will cause even more congestion for other roadway users as most of Chicago’s roads are narrow and can’t be widened. An awful lot of local residents can’t ride public transit without a trip taking 3 times as long. Building dedicated bus lanes will drive-up freight costs which will drive up the cost of living too.

    I’ll never forget driving through Chicago that day, it was either the 1st or 2nd of January, 1999, the day it snowed about 2 feet. I drove in on the Kennedy from St. Paul, MN headed to New Jersey. Every Blue Line stop I passed on the Kennedy and every Red Line stop on the Ryan had hundreds if not 1000 or more people standing on the train platforms, waiting in-vain for a train to show up in blizzard conditions. By then O’Hare was closed and the city had shut down the trains.

    I got on the Skyway and drove all the way to Ohio, fighting that blizzard the entire way. At least the management of the Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road made a concerted effort to keep both roads open.

    The next day I drove all the way to New Jersey, delivered my freight, picked up another load, and headed back. When I got back to Chicago, traffic was still dead stopped lined up like rush-hour on I-80/94 from Lake Station through Gary in more than 2 feet of snow with drifts up to 15 feet high, but the Indiana toll road and the Skyway were passable driving on packed snow, and I got all the way back to Minnesota and was home before they got that giant jam-up cleared too.

    Unless you want to completely choke other traffic and jump the cost of living way up I would recommend against dedicated bus lanes with priority signals and would also recommend making as many artery stops off the road as possible too, with the goal of keeping traffic moving as well as possible.

    I would also recommend that businesses receiving heavy truck freight must have off-street freight docks rather than docks that must be backed into off major arteries, which also congests traffic. Not allowing street dock operation during rush hours might be an immediate step the city could take to speed up artery traffic some. Banning rush hour artery parking would help traffic flow a little better and speed up buses and trucks too, which will help keep costs down for everyone. .

  • The roads that cars drive on are only subsidized by about half at State fuel tax of 35 cents per-gallon fuel tax on an average-cost basis nationally, whereas most big-city public transit agencies only take-in 15-25% of their infrastructure, construction, maintenance, vehicle acquisition, and operating cost at the firebox.

    If car owners should pay full.price for roads on an average-cost basis nationally State fuel tax should be 70 cents per-gallon but if NYC subway riders should pay full price a single subway ride should cost $18 each way, not just $3.

  • If delivery trucks are further delayed your costs and local retail prices rise too.

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  • This is why I proudly own a car. I’ve spent the better part of three decades using headache-inducing public transportation (except while out-of-town). Don’t miss riding the urine-scented “L” one bit.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

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 […]