The 79th Street pop-up bus-only lanes are only a half-measure
Transportation advocate Kyle Lucas, with whom I cofounded the new group Better Streets Chicago, reached out to me last week asking if I knew whether the pop-up bus-only lanes the city announced in late September had been completed. The city’s press release stated the lanes would be created on three miles of 79th Street, from Cicero to Western, and 4.6 miles of Chicago Avenue, from Laramie to Ashland, “in the coming weeks.” Together these corridors average a total of almost 20,000 transit riders per day during non-pandemic times.
Kyle and traveled to 79th last Friday around 1 p.m. to check things out for ourselves. Once we arrived at the 79th Red Line station, we waited less than five minutes for a bus. However, according to the Bus Tracker display, the next bus was expected to arrive in 13 minutes, followed by a 15-minute wait for the one after that, and then a 20-minute wait for the fourth bus. Those are not the kind of headways that attract new riders, nor do they suggest that the CTA respects the time constraints of current riders.
The 79th Street bus is one of the busiest routes in the CTA system and, while CTA ridership plummeted 80 percent during the crisis, ridership on the #79 saw less of a dip, and there were even dangerous crowding issues this spring. Transit ridership has not dropped as sharply on the South and West sides compared to the North Side because many essential workers who don’t have the privilege of working from home live in those parts of town. The 79th Street bus already had short segments of bus lane near the Red Line, so that was likely another reason the route was chosen for piloting longer bus lanes.
I have ridden buses that use the downtown Loop Link express bus corridor and was disappointed that my ride wasn’t significantly faster than before the system was built. I used to ride the #20 Madison bus whenever I was visiting the West Loop but after experiencing frustratingly slow rides, I opted to take the Green or Pink line instead given their reliability and speed. Because of that, my expectations for the 79th Street bus-only lane were low.
During our ride on 79th, when we got to Western, where the new bus lanes started, Kyle wondered where the red paint indicating the bus-only lanes were. We only saw white lines delineating the lanes, plus the stenciled words “Bus Only.”
According to Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey, unlike the Loop Link corridor, 79th and Chicago Avenue lanes won’t be getting additional red paint because the new bus lanes are temporary pop-up lanes. He confirmed that the 79th lanes are now operational, but additional signs are being installed. Claffey added that CDOT hopes to complete striping on Chicago Avenue soon, weather permitting.
We saw plenty of people driving in the 79th Street bus lanes, and unlike peer cities like New York, there was no camera enforcement, because that’s not even legal in Illinois yet. during the last election Mayor Lori Lightfoot has previously said she intends to get new legislation passed in Springfield legalizing it, but she hasn’t said much on the matter since then.
Red paint could help make the bus lanes more obvious to drivers, and enforcement is needed to ensure that motorists don’t clog the lanes during rush hours. We were riding in the early afternoon so traffic volume was relatively light. We wondered how well the bus lanes function from 4-6 p.m. when many folks are returning home from work.
Overall it was disappointing to see that the bus-only lanes were implemented in such a half-hearted way. It’s also a missed opportunity that there are no bus lanes on most of the stretch between Western and the Red Line, presumably because that would require stripping parking, even though much of the parking is not metered.
While transit ridership growth may not be a top priority during the COVID-19 crisis, we still should aspire to grow bus ridership. Continuing to prioritize car storage over the helping people on buses get where they need to go efficiently will not get us there.