November 25, 2014

Chicago’s Central Loop Poised To Be A Major Milestone for BRT in the US

Panorama Downtown Chicago Kevin Zolkiewicz
Source: Kevin Zolkiewicz

Across the United States, major cities are in a race to build the country’s first Gold Standard BRT. From Boston to San Francisco, community groups and transportation departments are evaluating options for BRT corridors, many of which have the potential to be score high enough on the BRT Standard to be Gold Standard. With Chicago’s recent announcement that it will begin construction on its Central Loop Project in March 2015, the city appears poised to take a major step toward that goal. Though the corridor alone won’t let Chicago bring home the Gold, it lays the groundwork for Chicago to take the lead, and in the process sets several precedents for BRT in the United States.

The planned corridor is cause for excitement among US BRT advocates. Perhaps most noteworthy, the Central Loop corridor will cut through Chicago’s central business district, something no US city its size has considered. Nearby Cleveland’s Health Line BRT has already demonstrated the benefits of bringing better transit downtown, and Chicago’s corridor will bring Cleveland’s success to a new scale. Studies have shown that bringing BRT through high density, commercial areas, brings benefits to real estate and business owners along the corridor.

Source: City of Chicago
A rendering of the Cental Loops Corridor along Washington Street in downtown Chicago. Source: City of Chicago

The system as planned includes dedicated lanes, at-level boarding, and turning restrictions at several intersections. In addition, bike lanes along Washington Street, protected by the bus lane, sets a new precedent for bicycle/BRT planning in the US. More often, the bike lane is placed along the opposite curb, creating more conflicts between mixed traffic and more sustainable modes of transportation. By designing both the bike and bus lanes along the northern curb of Washington Street, both can benefit from turn restrictions and the bus lane provides a comfortable buffer between bicycles and mixed traffic.

Initially, the corridor will launch with off-board fare collection at only one station. Billed as a pilot, there are hopes that this feature will expand to all stations in the Central Loop. Doing so would greatly improve travel times for all buses that use the corridor and would bring the project more closely in line with international best practice BRT systems.

The Central Loop project also uses a “direct service” model, common in other parts of the world but new to the US. Rather than operating only one dedicated bus route from one end of the corridor to the other, at least six routes will make use of the dedicated lanes, entering and leaving the corridor at different points. By doing this, riders from many parts of Chicago can benefit, rather than just the riders who are traveling within the Central Loop only.

Once Ashland opens, L-shaped routes could turn Chicago's disjoint corridors into a true BRT network.
Once Ashland opens, L-shaped routes could turn Chicago’s disjointed corridors into a true BRT network.

The direct service model also offers opportunities to connect this project with Chicago’s planned Ashland Avenue BRT. If built as currently proposed, the Ashland BRT could become Chicago and the US’s first Gold-Standard BRT. If the two corridors connect, with bus routes making use of both corridors, the Central Loop would be a key link in a Gold Standard BRT chain.

Starting from a relatively modest plan to improve one bus route downtown, Chicago’s plan for the project has grown into an impressive step forward for BRT in the US. After receiving a federal Urban Circulator Grant, Chicago DOT began working with ITDP and other experts to advise on how to design the highest-quality BRT through the city’s downtown. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, ITDP worked with the city’s BRT Steering Committee, CDOT, and its consultants to deliver technical assistance and station design concepts, producing a significant amount of technical analysis for the corridor.

The project has room for improvement, such as adding off-board fare collection at all stations, and extending the dedicated infrastructure to the 2 mile minimum required to qualify as BRT. Nonetheless, the plan is a major first step for Chicago. Improved public transit travel times will make moving through the Central Loop easier and more pleasant for city residents, and businesses downtown will benefit from the extra foot traffic. Other US cities looking to make the move towards building BRT in their downtowns will have a big city precedent to look to on home turf. With plans finalized and the construction bid open, Chicago is moving forward.

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