For a More Efficient and Equitable Chicago, Swap Car Lanes for Bus and Bike Lanes

The Loop Link system on Washington Street. Photo: CDOT
The Loop Link system on Washington Street. Photo: CDOT

This op-ed originally ran in Crain’s magazine.

Chicago’s fundamental transportation problem is too many cars.

The excess of driving puts people in danger, with 121 traffic deaths in our city last year, disproportionately imperiling people walking and biking, who made up 46 percent of the victims.

It makes Chicago less just, since our auto-focused transportation system makes it more difficult for residents of lower-income black and brown communities that are rapid-transit deserts—from Altgeld Gardens to Belmont Cragin—to access job and education opportunities.

The increasing amount of driving in Chicago, fueled by the growing popularity of ride-hailing, is counterproductive to fighting climate crisis. Our city should be at the forefront of reducing emissions from transportation.

And, of course, car-generated congestion makes it harder for just about everyone to get where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time. The fact is, cars—large metal, multi-ton boxes that usually contain only one or two occupants—just aren’t a smart way to move lots of people around cities.

The good news is that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s transportation platform already includes many of the solutions for reducing the number of cars on the road.

One of her key campaign pledges was to create more dedicated space on the streets for transit and cycling. That often involves converting mixed-traffic lanes to bus- and bike-only lanes.

Under the Rahm Emanuel administration, Chicago took some baby steps toward developing a rapid bus system, including the creation of the Jeffery Jump and Loop Link express routes. But we’ve still only got only about 4 miles of dedicated bus lanes, way fewer than cities like San Francisco (27 miles), Los Angeles (35.4), and New York (82.8). As such, Lightfoot set a goal of building 50 miles of bus lanes to keep straphangers from getting stuck in car traffic.

Of course, bus lanes are useless if they’re clogged with unauthorized vehicles, and lax enforcement of the red Loop Link lanes is a factor in why the corridor has only seen modest bus speed improvements. So we’re glad Lightfoot promised to work with state legislators to legalize fair camera enforcement of bus lanes.

Another way to improve transit service would be to reduce the number of ride-hailing vehicles on the road, which not only cannibalize CTA ridership but also make traffic worse, since Uber and Lyft drivers spend much of their time “deadheading” with no passengers. Lightfoot committed to add a surcharge for ride-hailing trips that begin in the congested, transit-rich Loop, as well as to implement a fee for ride-hailing vehicles that operate within Chicago but are registered elsewhere, and use the revenue to fund bus lane construction and increased 24-hour CTA service.

Like faster transit, safer bicycling can help reduce car trips. It’s likely that many “interested-but-concerned” types would try bike commuting if they had some assurance that they wouldn’t be struck by drivers. So the dozens of miles of physically protected bike lanes installed under Emanuel, sheltered from traffic by concrete curbs or parked cars, were a major upgrade. Lightfoot promised to pick up the pace of protected bike lane installation by earmarking $20 million a year in the city’s budget for cycling and walking safety infrastructure.

Divvy is currently expanding citywide, adding 10,500 new cycles with an electric-assist motor (helpful for getting around less-dense parts of the South and West sides), with built-in locks that will allow them to be parked anywhere, not just at docking stations. That will help close some gaps in the transportation network, but, again, we can’t just drop off bikes in areas with no safe bike infrastructure and expect people to ride them, so building more protected lanes will be key.

Chicago is currently testing dockless electric scooters on the West and Northwest sides, with a 2,500-vehicle pilot that runs through Oct. 15. These gadgets can also potentially help residents in transit deserts, but so far their safety record is not great, with at least 34 reported scooter-related emergency room visits in the first five weeks of the program. So the Lightfoot administration should analyze the trip and crash data carefully. But scooters do have the potential to build more political support for building car-free protected lanes—ideally, every major street would have dedicated space for bikes and scooters, as well as bus lanes.

Fortunately, Lightfoot is on the right page when it comes to reducing the number of cars in Chicago—we just need to make sure she keeps her word.

  • FlamingoFresh

    Camera enforcement of bus lanes will be a big help to successfully ensuring the exclusivity of buses using the lane and deter violators from using/blocking the bus lane. The lack of enforcement on the bus lanes thus far has limited the bus lanes success and essentially capped its beneficial potential. The more we can demonstrate the effectiveness of these bus lanes, the easier it will be to win over/gain support and further expand the system. It is imperative that we get this passed in Springfield because the success and future expansion of bus lanes depends on it.

  • Gary Chicago

    your article mentions LA having more bus lanes then Chicago
    I think this article from todays WSJ gives an indication on LA success or lack of

  • Courtney Cobbs

    Lack of camera enforcement, all door boarding, and signal priority are also factors. We also simply need more bus-only lanes.

  • rohmen

    SF is probably a better comparison given its geographic size is similar to us (though much of SF is parkland), but LA is also seemingly always going to beat us on lanes just given the sprawl. We obviously need more dedicated lanes, and only 4 miles is embarrassing, but hearing that LA only has 37 miles is pretty disappointing really. LA is much more comparable to NYC, which has over 87 miles.

  • JoeDokes999

    Chicago is one of the most car-privileged cities I’ve seen in the US. The infrastructure is built to support cars-based lifestyles, and everyone seems to have just accepted that is the way it is. While Chicago was once at the forefront of urban transit – having the world’s largest streetcar system, the nation’s busiest train terminal, and a commuter train that went 90 mph in 1940, it went all in for cars in the 1950s/1960s, which has devastated entire neighborhoods and severely injured the city. It will take massive investment in infrastructure to repair this damage, but there is no demand for this, only a vague perception that things aren’t right. It may take 50 years to fix Chicago’s transit systems and change people’s behaviors, but the public is largely apathetic and there is no money or leadership at the Federal level that recognizes the damage caused by cars to our cities and, ultimately, our economy.

  • FlamingoFresh

    I agree but at least for all door boarding, prepaid bus boarding, and signal priority, that can be done at the city level and doesn’t require any state assistance.
    I know last year or something it said the city made a purchase of a bunch of electric buses to update their fleet. It would have been nice if some of the buses had three side entrances as opposed to the traditional 2 (front and middle). I know some seats would have been lost but if all door boarding is implemented, the throughput of people getting on and off will be much greater and help further reduce dwell times.

  • kastigar

    Many bike lanes need to be extended

    In the 45th Ward there’s a bike lane down Foster Avenue, from Milwaukee to Elston, where the bike lane ends. This should be extended its full length thru the
    39th Ward. This would pass along side of several parks La Bagh
    Woods, Hernandez Picnic area, Gompers Park North (“Big Gomp”) and
    Gompers Park South (“Little Gomp”) and Eugene Field Park. It
    would provide a link to the new extension of the North Branch
    Trail. It would provide access to Northeastern University and
    North Park University. It would provide access to the Albany Park
    Library. Continuing east on Foster, beyond Kedzie into the 40th
    Ward it would provide access to River Park, Winnemac Park, and the
    North Branch Trail.

    Foster Avenue is not a four-lane street, contrary to popular
    perception. The outside lane in most locations is a PARKING
    lane. There are few restrictions on parking (bus stops, bridges,
    crosswalks) on Foster. Because so few cars park along Foster, a
    bike lane on Foster would take away mostly unused parking.

    Because of the rarity of parking, FOster Avenue is frequently
    refereed to as FAster Avenue. Cars speed well above the
    posted speed limit, and pass mostly on the right. This is illegal
    but infrequently enforced. A bike lane on Foster would make the
    whole street safer for everybody. Drivers, cyclists, pedestrians,
    kids on the way to and from the parks. It would return Foster to
    the original two lane street, it would not impede traffic, it
    would merely slow it down.

    Bike riders often have mechanical problems and infrequent
    physical problems. On Foster you can pop a bike on the #92 bus,
    swipe your Ventra card, and easily get closer to your destination
    in either direction. Bicyclists often carry a spare tube, a pump,
    and the Ventra card when cycling.

  • rohmen

    You could insert almost every city in the U.S. outside of NYC into this paragraph and it would hold true. I was just in S.F., and to be honest, even with its higher density, it’s a very, very car-centric place (I’d argue even more so than Chicago). Same is true even in cities like LA that are expanding transit at a somewhat-decent scale.

    It’s a U.S. cultural problem, not just a Chicago problem. We definitely need a federal solution to affect real change.

  • what_eva

    So I don’t want to say that Chicago doesn’t need lots of improvements (it does), but you’re kidding, right? Have you ever been to Texas? You want to talk car-privileged…

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Foster is one of those streets that seems like a side path on the north side of the street would be feasible.

  • planetshwoop

    Yes, true. And there are reasonable alternatives for most of the icky stretches for taking side streets.

    But the other benefit would be slower traffic. The challenge is less the utility to bikes but the safety of everyone.

    Unfortunately this will change for the wrong reasons once the Target comes in by the Edens. Congestion will likely slow everyone down.

  • planetshwoop

    The city that is really killing it with BRT is Pittsburgh. They have pretty decent bus service and have had it for forever, before BRT was a common acronym. Given how small the city is, it’s done a good job (I think) maintaining reasonable transit in the region.

  • JoeDokes999

    I am referring to cities I’ve seen; but certainly the damage from car-focused infrastructure has affected the entire country; in fact, the world – someone from China told me that the Chinese wanted to copy America, and adopted our terrible policies toward cars. I thought everyone was driving bicycles in China but he said they are making the exact same mistakes we are in US cities. I’ll say this – Chicago once had the world’s largest streetcar system, but it was torn up and replaced by buses and highways. It’s a same what the oil/car companies pushed on this country, and it will take generations to fix, if ever.

  • JoeDokes999

    We need leadership. But there is none on this issue at the federal level . My solution? I sold my car and live without it. I just bought a nice little stand-up electric scooter. As long as I don’t get killed by a speeding SUV, I should be OK (I always wear a helmet).