chicago: bus rapid transit moves forward

Chicago is moving forward with an ambitious and large-scale Bus Rapid Transit project on Ashland Avenue, a north-south corridor running from Cortland to 31st parallel to the Red Line L to the east. Back in 2011, I did a post on a report from a Chicago nonprofit called the Metropolitan Planning Council on a plan for a network of BRT lines in the city. At the time, it looked like Western was the natural choice for rapid transit as the longest arterial in Chicago; following a study and outreach process on both streets last year, Ashland was chosen instead. Here is the proposed alignment, with the BRT corridor in yellow and potential future extension in black.  (It's a beautifully straight line, designed to function not just with Chicago's radial rail network but also with its grid-shaped network of frequent bus lines.)

Today, the street is composed of four travel lanes, parking lanes, and a median alternating with a turn lane. It's interesting to read the press materials for this project, because they heavily emphasize the importance of the repurposed right-of-way and related improvements, rather than focusing on the character the vehicles.   They also frequently highlight the suitability of the "70' curb-to-curb right-of-way". From the Ashland BRT Project Factsheet:

  • Dedicated center bus lane in each direction to keep buses out of general traffic during boardings
  • Limited stops: every 1/2 mile and at CTA 'L' stations
  • Transit Signal Priority intersections and longer green lights to keep traffic moving

The redesigned street will sport a dedicated busway with median stations, one travel lane in each direction.  As the urbanists will like, it removes a general purpose travel lane but retails the majority of on-street parking spaces. The initial Western-Ashland study considered alternatives that places the BRT right-of-way against the curb, as well as removing travel lanes or parking lanes. Ashland Avenue will also continue to be served by local bus service. 

This is clearly open BRT, meaning the buses could enter and exit the busway at many points.  Ashland Avenue BRT buses, for example, are likely to want to run further along Ashland than the facility currently goes, reducing the need for multiple transfers.  An open design allows for other bus lines whose routes take them onto the busway to realize the benefits of the reserved right-of-way where it exists.   In this case, open BRT means that buses will need doors on both sides, so that they can open on the left at busway stations and on the right at ordinary curb stops beyond the busway's end.

This looks like a great project.  It's position in a high-frequency grid means that it will be useful for trips extending far beyond the busway itself.  It makes the street itself a nicer place.  And it seems precision engineered to improve travel time, and thus access, for a wide swath of Chicago, making transit an even more logical choice for an even larger spectrum of riders.

You can also view an interview with the project's lead planners, here.


30 Responses to chicago: bus rapid transit moves forward

  1. Bruce Nourish April 25, 2013 at 9:03 am #

    One quibble: it’s a open busway, but with median stations, the buses need right-side doors. So you can’t take random bus routes that might benefit from the busway and put them on it unless you also spend a not-inconsiderable amount of money to give them new equipment. This is the only disadvantage to most median-running setups.

  2. Bruce Nourish April 25, 2013 at 9:04 am #

    Err, I mean left-side doors of course.

  3. Moaz Ahmad April 25, 2013 at 9:45 am #

    If the buses could run contra-flow then you wouldn’t need a separate fleet of buses with doors on the left side or both sides

  4. jfruh April 25, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    The biggest downside that jumps out at me is that it seems to parallel the Pink Line (only a block away) for much of the length of the initial segment? That’ll be less important when (if) they build out the whole thing, I guess.

  5. zefwagner April 25, 2013 at 10:48 am #

    I’m not sure how much more expensive they are, but buses with doors on both sides are used in other places, such as Eugene, Oregon. As long as they bought enough, they could be used by multiple lines.

  6. Zoltán April 25, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    The contraflow alternative is likely to have a pedestrian safety disbenefit – intuitively, this road setup looks like a pedestrian need only watch for traffic one way at a time, so it would risk pedestrians being struck by buses running the opposite way.
    Notably, in Leeds, England, the two pedestrian crossings over a short section of contraflow bus lane have been fitted with speakers saying “caution: two way traffic” every few seconds following such a collision.
    Though there will be some cost to non-standard vehicles with doors on both sides, I suspect it won’t be high as such doors shouldn’t alter the structural integrity of modern bus bodies. Also, one would hope that vehicles of a high-quality BRT would be somewhat different from the standard bus fleet and not used interchangeably.
    This centre-running setup does have the disbenefit of requiring local service to continue operating in mixed traffic; as opposed to in BRT lanes with pull-in stops. It’s a difficult issue to get around, because nearly all speed advantage is negated by kerbside bus lanes interrupted by nearside (in US, right-hand) turns.
    Finally, a little detail that matters to the speed and reliability of the system: because stops will be before the intersection in one direction, buses in that direction may have limited ability to pre-empt signals having moved off from the stop. Pre-emption before or at the stop is possible if, given off-board payment, engineers can be confident about dwell time (how long the bus will spend at the stop).
    Overall, I’m very happy about the setup proposed here. It’s clear that Chicago is taking BRT very seriously and attempting to create something about as fast and reliable as rail. Let’s hope that we don’t subsequently see a load of penny-pinching compromises built into the design.

  7. Zoltán April 25, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

    Bruce Nourish,
    Because the Chicago bus network is a grid, no bus routes will flow through the busway other than the Ashland BRT route itself – all other routes either run on parallel N-S streets or intersecting E-W streets, and should not logically be doing anything else.

  8. Pete Brown April 25, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    An alternative to island platform BRT stops in a centre running bus lane with offside doors configuration would be to have staggered stops instead, i.e. either side of the cross street intersection (both upstream or both downstream of the junction). The overall width of the BRT right of way at stops would therefore be minimised. BRT buses would not need offside doors, and local buses could use the BRT lanes if desired.

  9. Zoltán April 25, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    Pete Brown,
    A reasonable alternative; a few downsides:
    Buses do more lurching from side to side (Ashland BRT design indicates buses moving in more or less a perpetual straight line) and slightly more difficult road crossing (one half of pedestrian path is across two directions of buses and one direction of mixed traffic).
    In addition, stop infrastructure must be duplicated, and potentially personal safety is maximised by one stop with maximum volume of people waiting there at a given time.
    The incorporation of local service is possible this way, but only if street space allows for a pull-in bay AND a stop between BRT and traffic lanes. That’s potentially possible if parking lanes exist elsewhere but can be taken away for local stops. BRT may also be able to overtake locals by crossing over to the opposite-direction bus lane as needed, provided that can be done safely.

  10. Jim Moore April 25, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

    As an “urbanist” who happens to be a transit engineer, my criticism of this is that’s it’s crap for cyclists. It’s not good enough for transit designers to be wear the same sort of mode-blinkers that motorised vehicle designers have worn for decades. There would seem to be ample street width to include separated cycle paths whilst retaining car park spaces. For an example of what I mean see the Overtoom in Amsterdam. And I won’t brook any excuses that the budget doesn’t extend beyond installing the BRT infrastructure. Chicago has proclaimed itself as pro-cycling so this incomplete design is unacceptable in its present form.

  11. Ben Smith April 25, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

    Looking at this, I’m thinking this is what the St Clair streetcar right of way should have been. It is very similar, with median operation and the removal of a traffic lane, but instead of stops every 1/2 mile, they are placed every 1/8th of a mile.
    I also use the term “streetcar right of way” over “light rail transit” for more than just the stop spacing. Fare collection is done on board vehicles by the driver, and since all the stops are far side with the signal priority turned off, it usually has to stop on both sides of the intersection. So you can arguably say that the stop spacing is every 1/16th of a mile…
    That said, how are Chicago citizens taking the news about the loss of a traffic lane? In Toronto, St Clair has become the poster child for anti-transit right wingers as to avoid investing in surface ROWs, and ironically offer expensive subways as an alternative (though in reality, they don’t want to see anything done since the promise of subways is nothing more than a trojan horse as they don’t want to see taxes increased to pay for them). The opposition to St Clair also comes from how the city mismanaged the project, thus missing deadlines and overshooting cost estimates.
    That said, any links to info to the construction processes of transit ROWs done right would be appreciated. I ask because the suburban county I’m in is currently looking to construct BRT lanes similar to Chicago, and already opposition is building towards these projects – many such criticisms are comparing to the St Clair follies mentioned above.
    I’m looking to start a group to counter this opposition in support of transit ROWs, and case studies of smooth(er) construction processes would be much appreciated.

  12. Leo April 26, 2013 at 2:40 am #

    The fact that local lines can’t utilize the BRT lane is a good thing. Any BRT worth building will need all the lane and stop capacity for itself. Mixing different service types will waste capacity and squander priority.
    Give local service good transfer stops and their own infrastructure instead. Even discontinuing local service is better than messing up the BRT with local buses clogging the lanes and stops.

  13. John April 26, 2013 at 8:06 am #

    @ Jim Moore. I’m a cyclist in Chicago. I’m not going to complain about this massive improvement for public transit on Ashland (which is not currently an option for most cyclists) because I know that better (and improving) options for cyclists exist on parallel streets.

  14. Zoltán April 26, 2013 at 9:21 am #

    My thoughts exactly. In a densely spaced grid of streets, just as not all streets have buses, not all streets require bicycle facilities. I’ve only been to Chicago once, but my impression was that cycling is much more pleasant on quieter streets parallel to the main grid streets such as Ashland.

  15. david vartanoff April 26, 2013 at 10:20 am #

    Good basic plan given there is no money for restoring and extending the Paulina Connector rail line. CTA has said they will retain local service so, will the BRT run all night as current Ashland service does? If local service is the overnight pattern, which I think would be more useful, will they use the BRT stations? Good reason not to go for center platform and both side door buses. When they implement signal priority, I believe they should equip the locals (in the BRT lite services where I live the Rapids stop running at sundown thus the net 33 of local and rapids over a week are the same).

  16. Spencer April 26, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    @ Jim Moore. Yet another cyclist in Chicago who supports the project as designed. Ashland has never been a good cycling street and there is definitely not space to include good cycling facilities. The beauty of Chicago’s grid system is that there are adjacent parallel streets that provide a much more pleasant experience.

  17. Spencer April 26, 2013 at 11:58 am #

    And, for the record, CDOT does incorporate bike facilities into their BRT designs where it makes sense.

  18. Paytonchung April 26, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    The Pink Line north-south stretch has all of one station currently, with a second station as a distant proposal, so it’s not exactly duplicating coverage. There’s one service duplication I wish were included here: the existing Ashland local bus turns east at its northern terminus to meet the Red Line, providing a nice transfer point for continuing further north, and this map doesn’t indicate that the BRT route will do the same.
    As John and Zoltán point out, Chicago has a thorough grid of streets, and cyclists have almost no reason to dodge buses on Ashland when there are superb streets for cycling just 300′ away.
    Another factor that makes both Ashland and Western excellent corridors for BRT is that there frankly isn’t much retail along either corridor. Pedestrians won’t often be tempted to run across the street to cross-shop, since retail focuses on more human-scaled streets nearby. This also might explain the relative lack of uproar over removing moving lanes; there’s ample capacity in the road system.
    Given CTA’s history with rapid bus service, I would expect that BRT service will run as an overlay during the day and a local service will continue overnight.

  19. david vartanoff April 26, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    @ Paytonchung. I would think you are correct as to overlay–all the more reason to do side platforms and have the locals come over so that riders at Rapid stops have both options/easier transfers.

  20. Al Dimond April 26, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

    As a former Chicagoan…
    – As others have noted, the Pink Line’s north-south movement is pretty incidental. I think it would be cool if they built a stop at Paulina and Madison but I have no idea if this is in anyone’s plans.
    – At this point it would be expensive, controversial, and complicated to extend the L on Paulina (or build the fabled “Circle Line”). Ashland BRT provides similar impact using techniques that could be rolled out all over the city.
    – I bet one reason the street reconfiguration didn’t face much opposition (assuming it didn’t, as people say — I haven’t been paying attention) is that most of the part where the street is being reconfigured is in pretty poor neighborhoods. For one thing, these are mostly not neighborhoods where people fancy themselves transportation engineers and protest these sorts of projects, and for another, these are neighborhoods where people ride the bus. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more local concerns about gentrification along parts of the line than Ashland road capacity.
    – I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some opposition from the freight lobby — I wonder how much that has to do with the initial section ending at Cortland (just before the north branch of the river and its industrial corridor, and all the freight movement on Elston).
    – The current Ashland bus doesn’t cut over to the Red Line, its terminal loop only goes as far as Clark. It’s sort of useful for going farther north because it’s a couple blocks closer to the Red Line and has a direct connection to the Clark bus, though, so hopefully the new service still allows that transfer.
    At any rate, having spent a considerable amount of time stuck in traffic on the Ashland and Western buses I’m really glad to see an improvement there.

  21. Eric O April 27, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    This is probably coincidence, but that rapid transit map seems to wink at Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan for Chicago. Just a little. How appropriate to pick Ashland really. Burnham imagined three continuous and dead straight north-south arterials spanning the entire extent of the city, and Ashland was the central one of these. Maybe what the city’s planners never successfully executed with the fabric, the transit system eventually will? Ha! What a thought…

  22. Ben April 29, 2013 at 6:46 am #

    It will be interesting to see how this project works out. If it is successful, they should seriously consider it for the Broadway corridor in Vancouver, with possibly a Light Rail line running along the south side of false creek from Main Street Station to UBC. BRT could serve the dense VGH-Granville sector, with LRT serving points further west, including UBC. This would reduce Broadway’s burden of serving as Vancouver’s all purpose east-west arterial/commercial hub, improving mobility at a fraction of the cost of a subway.
    While they’re at it, Translink should consider connecting the Millenium line to the Expo line just east of Main Street Station, rather than building a subway down broadway. The Expo line is already overcrowded, and it’s only going to get worse with the construction of the Evergreen line.

  23. Alan Robinson April 29, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    There are differences between Ashland and Broadway that make non-grade separated transit on Broadway less suitable.
    Ashland has double the route length and at present, a little over half the daily boardings of the 99. Broadway also has a higher density of arterial and pedestrian crossings. Corridor and crossing-crossing capacities have to be about 2-4 times higher on Broadway.

  24. Ben April 29, 2013 at 9:59 am #

    You make some good points. I’ve only been to Chicago once, and don’t know much about Ashland compared to Vancouver’s Broadway.
    What do you think about running a LRT along the south side of False Creek between Main Street Station and UBC? Wouldn’t that do a lot to relieve the overcrowding and “pass ups” that happen on the 99? Or do you think a subway is the only solution for the Broadway corridor?

  25. Alan Robinson April 30, 2013 at 11:31 am #

    I believe both options are feasible alternatives that will provide sufficient capacity. Having been a student at UBC, I’d prefer the fully grade separated* option for its reduced travel times, ability to relieve demand on other bus routes to UBC, and better reliability. However, the surface running rail option west of Arbutus has merits in providing some reduced cost, and service for residents and customers along False Creek.
    * To reduce cost and construction difficulties with tunneling through silt, I’d have a Broadway line elevated W of Macdonald and surface running through the endowment lands and along 8th behind Jericho hill, but I’m pretty sure that won’t gain many supporters.

  26. Eric Goodman May 2, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

    I sure miss my Chicago grid. This is well-done. Center running has issues, but so does side running. A dedicated lane on the outside can’t be exclusive to buses where there are access curb-cuts, Usually it becomes a BAT lane (Business Access and Transit) which is acceptable if it’s the best you can do, i.e. if there is no support to take a lane. But drivers frequently (stupidly) speed up and cut in front of the bus to make the right turn. That endangers everyone nearby and often ends badly. I will be interested to see how soon they can extend this line and whether local service remains. My experience has been that the local/ BRT mix can work well even when local frequency is much lower than BRT, but that is with a local service that has a distinct well-connected endpoint not shared by the BRT. Has anyone else seen different? Also, I may have missed it, but what’s the proposed frequency (you know, that little detail…)?

  27. Alon Levy May 7, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    Ben, Alan: any solution except a full subway will make capacity problems worse than they already are for at least some segment of riders, since UBC-bound traffic overwhelms multiple east-west streets already. See explanation here.
    This probably doesn’t apply to Ashland, which doesn’t have anything near the traffic volumes of Broadway.

  28. Eli Naeher May 8, 2013 at 7:40 am #

    Will every stop be at a traffic light? A large majority of intersections on Ashland have no light and no stop signs–as such they are basically impassible to pedestrians. The idea of having to cross two lanes of high-speed Ashland traffic to get to the bus seems very offputting.
    The most disappointing thing about this is that it stops at Irving Park. This makes it basically useless to me and the hundreds of thousands of other people who live near Ashland north of there. That is basically half of the north side that will not be served by this route. And it can never be extended all the way north (as it could be if they’d gone with Western) because Ashland ends around Bryn Mawr.

  29. Al Dimond May 8, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

    @Eli: Look at the map and Know Your Grid. All the stops are at major intersections with lights.
    The route very well could be extended north of Bryn Mawr; they could use Clark, for example. But a line can’t just go on forever without crazy bunching issues, and the Ashland route goes quite far south. Anyway, if this ends up being the win it should be (if they don’t compromise the design, speed and reliability are what they should be, and ridership jumps) it’s a cheap concept that could be replicated on other streets like Western in the future. The hope is that it’s not a once-in-a-generation project, that it can be a model for the city and the nation.

  30. Matt August 9, 2013 at 2:08 am #

    Mr. Walker,
    Would it be possible for you to do a post on ‘open’ vs ‘closed’ BRT?