Chicago Explores Bus Rapid Transit

Jeffery Corridor Bus Rapid TransitMayor Rahm Emanuel says his $7 billion infrastructure plan is paid for, even though most of that money isn't quite in the bank just yet. Among the planned improvements are upgrades to more than 100 CTA stations and construction of the city's first Bus Rapid Transit line.

The improvement plan includes a Bus Rapid Transit system running from Jeffery Boulevard into the Loop.

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On Wednesday, we presented the first part of our recent visit to Mexico City to see that city's Bus Rapid Transit system, which some say can serve as a model for Chicago.

We look at the plans in the works for Chicago and what some experts are recommending on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm, when CTA President Forrest Claypool joins us in the studio. CTA President Forrest Claypool

Over the last seven years, Mexico City has constructed three bus rapid transit routes covering 42 miles of the city. The system is called Metrobús and line 1 of the system runs on Mexico City's longest street: the 18-mile long Avenida de Los Insurgentes.

What makes it a true bus rapid transit system is its distinctive components: dedicated bus-only lanes lined with concrete or rubber dividers to prevent cars from entering, and keep buses moving through the city’s notorious traffic; traffic signals that give buses priority; raised passenger platforms mainly in the center of the street and multiple doors for commuters to get on and off articulated and bi-articulated buses.

Chicago has nothing comparable -- yet. But, later this year, the CTA will try a BRT-like pilot program along Jeffery Boulevard and Lake Shore Drive. It will run for 16 miles, from 103rd Street to the Loop.

“You're going to see out here basically buses that run on express lanes in some places, and in other places can get through the lights faster ahead of traffic,” said CTA President Forrest Claypool. “The whole purpose is to allow people to get where they're going much faster than they're accustomed to now on buses stuck in rush hour traffic.”

But critics already say that the Jeffery proposal amounts to little more than an effort to speed up buses, but does not reach the level of a real BRT system free from regular traffic.

“The areas where they provide some of the best inputs or best results, you’ve got the dedicated lane, you’ve got a real substantial BRT station that’s not just a pole in the ground but an actual station that people can sense and feel, and they have some assuredness that that service is not going away,” said Peter Skosey, Vice-President of the Metropolitan Planning Council.

“That’s kind of key for adjacent development around the area. The bus itself kind of travels in a different lane. It has signal preemption so it can move more quickly and freely through the traffic signals, the stations themselves have prepaid boarding. So, as people come into the stations, they are either paying to get into a turnstile, or have some proof of payment once they get on the bus. They’re loading en mass like a CTA train, so you’re not queuing up behind everybody, swiping the card one by one. So all those kinds of features lead to, again, the faster, reliable service folks are looking for.”

The City expects to implement another form of BRT in 2014 that stretches from the Ogilvie Transportation Center in the West Loop, runs through the Loop and then through Streeterville toward Navy Pier. The Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council is pushing for a still more ambitious plan. They've drawn up a map recommending 10 BRT routes in Chicago. The thicker portions of the routes indicate where planners believe there would be the most usage of the BRT route.

“I believe that within the mayor’s first term, we will see some BRT up and running in Chicago,” Skosey said. “Part of it’s going to be a real education campaign with the public, part of it is going to be that sort of community engagement, both with the local aldermen and with the local chambers of commerce between the organizations, and BRT providing additional access to your community is a good thing: it brings more jobs to a community. More people shopping in your corridors, centers, your grocery stores, whatever happens to be in your community. Or if you don’t have those things in your community, it allows your residents to get to them more easily.”

So far the United States is behind the curve on BRT. Among those considered the best in the country are the systems in Cleveland and Eugene, Oregon. Even Los Angeles, a city not renowned for public transportation has launched a BRT line.

Mexico City's Bus Rapid Transit is called Metrobús.For the best in the world, a Chicagoan has to travel pretty far. Bogota, Colombia's BRT is the model that has set a global standard. But also doing it right, according to transit experts, are the cities of Ahmedabad in Western India and Guangzhou in South Eastern China.

So far, the Mexico City BRT system has cost about $400 million, a fraction of what a similar system might cost in Chicago. And while there has been some resistance among residents and the business community, officials insist it’s increasingly being embraced.

In Chicago, a BRT system could face a number of obstacles, one of which would be a change of culture for motorists.

“You have to restrict turns across the bus way. People in Chicago are not really used to that,” said Walter Hook, Executive Director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a nonprofit agency that promotes environmentally sustainable transportation policies and projects in the developing world. “But it will benefit the people going straight anyway and maybe increase the bus speed, so that’s going to take some adjustment. People have to adjust their travel a little bit, but Chicago’s a big grid and it will work to everybody’s benefit.”

But Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard offers up this piece of advice to his counterparts in Chicago: “Perseverance. It makes sense, they are right. It works in several cities. Mexico City is a megalopolis and it’s working very well. So the first step, you’re going to have resistance, but you are going to win this battle. I’m sure about it.”

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