Bus Rapid Transit Comes to Downtown Chicago

A guest post from Christopher Ziemann, Chicago Bus Rapid Transit Project Manager

Transportation has always been essential to Chicago’s economic success. The city was established at the junction of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River and is currently the transfer point of half of all trans-continental goods. With the second-largest public transportation system in the country, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) are bringing Bus Rapid Transit to the downtown “Loop” area, the second-busiest downtown in the U.S. and the heart of the regional economy. Congestion in the Loop, like in most cities around the world, is increasing, and BRT is the most cost effective solution to maintain the region’s competitiveness.

Indeed, Chicago’s master plan for multiple BRT lines, including the Loop line, are key components of the city’s Climate Action Plan and 3-year environmental action agenda, Sustainable Chicago 2015, developed under the leadership of Mayor Emanuel.

The Central Loop BRT will provide a much-needed east-west connection to complement the north-south rail lines. The first proposal to meet this need was a subway in 1968, then a streetcar circulator in the 1990s. Later this year, construction will begin on Chicago’s first Bus Rapid Transit corridor, providing fast, reliable service to the East Loop from Union Station and Ogilvie Center (and a new Union Station Transit Center), the main long-distance and commuter rail stations. This will make it more convenient to access the entire downtown for visitors, commuters and residents. The Central Loop corridor will serve six different bus lines, improving reliability for neighborhood bus service as well.  This doesn’t only benefit riders, but businesses will have access to a more diverse workforce, strengthening the regional economy.

The project will feature bus-only lanes, level boarding, transit signal features, pre-paid boarding and protected bicycle lanes. The stations will be modeled on the winning design of the BRT Station Design Competition hosted by the Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Chicago Architectural Club.  All of these features will speed up the 1,000 buses by 20%, saving time for the 30,000 daily passengers.

Any project of this magnitude comes with trade-offs. The City initially analyzed three different alignments for BRT through downtown, and found that the preferred alternative, which leaves at least two travel lanes on every street, produced the biggest benefit to transit, enhanced safety and comfort for pedestrians and bicycle riders, and organized street operations to reduce conflicts between all modes. Achieving all of these benefits will only add a minute and a half to vehicle travel times.

The City’s BRT program has benefitted from assistance from many outside organizations, including C40, the Rockefeller Foundation, and a Steering Committee made up of non-profit partners. For example, through C40, we have been able to connect with BRT professionals in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, learning from their experience in communications, technical analysis and political support. The Rockefeller Foundation and the Steering Committee helped in ways that the City either did not have the bandwidth for or that city agencies generally are not allowed to do, such as meeting with dozens of community groups, hosting exhibitions, and holding lectures and roundtables to educate the public on Bus Rapid Transit; building community support through on-line petitions, collecting letters of support, attending street festivals and writing blogs; and holding the BRT Station Design competition. All of this has not only made BRT possible in Chicago, but has led to a better, more comprehensive project.