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Battle for Bus Lanes: Prioritizing Chicago's Public Transit

A red lane indicates that only specific busses may drive there.The Loop Link offers dedicated bus lanes for specific bus routes that pass through downtown Chicago.

The Chicago Transit Authority's (CTA) most iconic feature may be its mostly-elevated rail line system, affectionately known as the "L." However, its bus system is more widespread and more utilized, with bus routes covering almost six times more miles and serving over 100,000 more passengers each day when compared with the rail system. Some express services exist to shorten long waits for the bus at popular stops, such as the Ashland and Western Express buses, as well as buses whose routes include express portions on Lake Shore Drive, such as the J14 Jeffery Jump. Still, CTA buses, for the most part, run slowly and often fall prey to traffic and its effects, such as bus bunching. What is the city of Chicago doing to improve this?

One major way that the city has tackled bus inefficiency is by treating an east-west bus in Chicago's downtown Loop area as a form of rapid transit – also known as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The Loop Link project has implemented designated bus lanes on four different east-west streets in the Loop. It has also placed bus shelters that are significantly larger than the standard CTA models to designate the few stops that the distinctive, red Loop Link buses will make.

A map of the bus routes detailed in this article. Two are for express busses that travel a long distance North-South, and one is a small set of dedicated bus lanes in the downtown area.A map of the bus routes detailed in this article.

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) has referred to the hypothetical combination of the Loop Link and Ashland Express bus as approaching the "Gold Standard" of BRT projects. A major benefit of connecting these two projects would be that the benefits of more efficient bus service would not be limited to trips taken within the downtown area. This would ensure bus service that is useful for a variety of across-city trips. The Loop is certainly an important place to begin these sorts of BRT projects, given the variety and quantity of people that the benefits will reach in such a dense area. The Loop makes up the center of the greater Chicago area's urban core, or dense metropolitan area that contributes greatly to regional success.

Unfortunately, the Ashland Express bus has not been developed to BRT standards. Instead, it runs as a standard express bus, which is about 10% faster than the non-express route. The opposition, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and various traffic experts, have stated that BRT would be too costly to develop and inconvenient to many drivers. Still, BRT is much more efficient than express bus service and much cheaper than light rail transit.  

A CTA bus passes through a protected bus shelter in a downtown environment.A CTA bus passes by a protected bus shelter.

The Loop Link, despite criticism that it is not as rapid as expected and issues with keeping non-bus vehicles out of the bus lanes, has been a solid start to reimagining Chicago's bus system. As drivers and citizens become more accustomed to the new type of bus service, the city may realize how successful a system it can be.

What are bus routes like in your city? Are there express or rapid buses where you live? Would you accept fewer lanes for cars if it meant drastically more efficient buses? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.

Credit: Images by Hannah Flynn.