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Chicago’s Bus Priority Zone program shifts into high gear

A new stretch of bus lane on Chicago Avenue at Ogden photographed earlier this fall. Photo: CDOT

During the mayoral election, one of the chief planks in Lori Lightfoot's transportation platform was speeding up bus service.  In recent months the city has started to follow through on that promise with the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation's $20 million Bus Priority Zones program, which seeks to eliminate bus “slow zones” caused by bottlenecks along the city’s busiest corridors. A portion of the funding is coming from the new ride-hail fees that passed City Council last week. Strategies include various combinations of red bus-only lanes, overhead signage, special signals at intersections that give buses a head start before private vehicles get a green light, and/or pedestrian improvements like sidewalk bump-outs.

These elements are already in place on the downtown Loop Link corridor, which has seen only modest bus speed improvements, partly due to lax enforcement of the bus-only lanes. However, Lightfoot hopes to help pass state legislation to legalize camera enforcement of bus lanes, which already exists in New York City.

This summer CDOT made upgrades near the corner of Chicago and Ogden Avenues, and the department is currently wrapping up work on the stretch of Chicago from Larrabee Street to Michigan Avenue. In October CDOT started work on the first elements in a series of projects along 79th Street.

What's that red paint on Western Avenue? CTA buses now have their own lanes to ease gridlock.

— Block Club Chicago (@BlockClubCHI) December 2, 2019

As reported yesterday by Block Club Chicago's Hannah Alani, the latest bus upgrades are happening on Western Avenue near the Armitage Blue Line station. CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey forwarded the information he provided to Block Club to me, so here's my spin on the project.

Besides the red bus lanes, several other changes are in the works:

    • Part-time parking restrictions will allow buses to use the curb lane during rush hours, southbound in the morning and northbound in the evening. A new pedestrian island on Western at Cortland Street and Winnebago Avenue will make it easier to cross the street.
    • A sidewalk bump-out at Wilmot and Armitage will shorten pedestrian crossing distances and facilitate a bus stop relocation.
    • Sidewalk wheelchair ramps will be upgraded
    • Concrete pads at bus stop pads will be installed in the street to prevent pavement rippling
    • Overhead signs reminding drivers that the curb lanes are bus lane are slated for January installation

In addition, the city is making changes to the #73 Armitage bus route near Western/Milwaukee. The eastbound and westbound near-side stops at Western are being moved to the far-side, and the westbound near-side stop at Milwaukee is being eliminated.

The city also recently completed transit-friendly signal upgrades on Western from Howard to 79th Street. According to Claffey, the stoplights now give an extended green to CTA buses that would otherwise fail to reach an intersection before the light turns red. "We will be collecting data over the next year to see how it performs."

Improvements are also in the works for Wacker Drive at LaSalle Street and Wacker at Michigan Avenue. Other corridors being considered for future or additional improvements are: Halsted Street, Pulaski Road, 63rd Street, and Belmont Avenue. Planning for the new improvements is expected to take place in the remainder of 2019 and into early 2020, with construction work possibly starting next year.

While it's encouraging to bus improvements being made in various parts of the city, it must be noted that the city is taking an incremental low-hanging-fruit approach that will likely result in only modest speed gains. That's particularly true since, judging from the Loop Link experience, drivers probably won't be particularly respectful of the bus lanes unless camera enforcement is implemented.

It would be great to see Chicago take some bold action to create fast bus corridors, like New York City recently did with the 14th Street Busway, a nearly car-free route that has produced dramatically faster bus speeds. It's true that a project like that would be a much heavier lift than what Chicago is currently doing. But that's what's really needed to make CTA buses a more appealing travel option, which is key if we're serious about reducing congestion and fighting climate change.

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