The Loop Link corridor is used by six daily bus routes, plus the #19 United Center Express. Credit: John Greenfield

The city hopes the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor, a bold reconfiguration of street space, will double the speed of buses crossing the central business district from the previous glacial rush-hour pace of 3 mph. The $41 million project was designed to provide an express route for buses traveling between Michigan Avenue and the West Loop.

The heart of the system is on Washington and Madison Streets, where mixed-traffic lanes were transformed into red bus-only lanes and raised boarding platforms featuring huge, rakelike shelters and plentiful seating, plus a green protected bike lane on Washington. Six daily CTA bus lines that terminate in various corners of the city are now using the route, including the #J14 Jeffery Jump, #20 Madison, #56 Milwaukee, #60 Blue Island/26th, #124 Navy Pier, and #157 Streeterville/Taylor.

Immediately after the system debuted on Sunday, December 20, some bus riders and BRT boosters were disappointed that there seemed to be little or no improvement in trip times. This was partly due to a CTA policy that requires bus operators to cautiously creep into the platform stations.

When I rode the Madison bus downtown from the west side during the evening rush on the Tuesday after the system launched, it took a full 16 minutes to travel the 0.8 miles between Canal Street and Michigan Avenue. That’s 3 mph, the same speed as before Loop Link was established, when buses were stuck in car-generated traffic jams.

I overheard several commuters complaining about the new system. A couple of them strategized about different bus lines they could take to avoid the BRT corridor.

At the time, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase told me that bus drivers are currently instructed to drive no faster than 3 mph alongside the stations. That’s because the raised platforms are elevated a foot or so above sidewalk level, which means that people who stand in the dark gray, textured area near the platform edge are in danger of being struck by the buses’ rearview mirrors.

Chase added that bus drivers can go the normal 30 mph speed limit on other parts of the route. She implied that as bus operators and customers get used to the system, the speed restriction by the platforms would be raised.

“CDOT and the CTA really want this project to succeed. I think they’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

—Bus rapid transit expert Chris Van Eyken­

As of last Tuesday, the 3 mph speed limit by platforms was still in place, according to CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman. However, bus speeds appear to have increased a bit overall since the launch, as operators and other road users have grown more comfortable with the new layout. Moreover, a leading authority on BRT says growing pains are normal when a new system launches.

Early January traffic may be a bit lighter than the hectic days leading up to Christmas. But when I rode the system several times during peak hours on Tuesday, most of my bus drivers seemed to be a little more at ease navigating the system than before.

A westbound run I took at 8:45 AM on Tuesday took only ten minutes to make the trip on Madison between Michigan and Canal. That’s a big improvement over the 16-minute eastbound trip I took on the first Tuesday of operations, and not far from the city’s goal of eight-minute travel times for cross-Loop runs.

My 9 AM eastbound return trip on Washington was even faster, taking only nine minutes to travel between Canal and Michigan. Granted, there weren’t many riders at that time, so the bus didn’t need to stop often to let off passengers.

During the evening rush, a 5:15 PM westbound trip took little longer, at 11 minutes. This was partly caused by the bus getting stuck behind a line of right-turning cars at LaSalle Street.

A 5:31 PM eastbound run took almost 16 minutes once again. But the bus driver mentioned to a passenger that this was one of his first runs on the Loop Link corridor, and he seemed to be proceeding extra gingerly.

For a BRT expert’s perspective on the Loop Link situation, I contacted Chris Van Eyken, a senior planner with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a global authority on bus rapid transit systems. The think tank has done consulting work for Chicago’s BRT projects, mostly on the proposal for a more robust, center-running BRT system on Ashland Avenue between 95th Street and Irving Park Road. They also did some time-savings analysis of the Loop Link plan.

A boarding platform on Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT route
A boarding platform on Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT routeCredit: Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority

However, former CEO Walter Hook didn’t pull punches when talking about Chicago BRT in the past. He told the website Citiscope that Loop Link, originally scheduled to open in fall 2014, was delayed until after Emanuel’s reelection earlier this year for political reasons. “Emanuel has gotten beat up politically because of crime and the teacher’s strike and he’s gotten more timid,” Hook said.

Likewise, Van Eyken seemed to speak candidly about Loop Link. “If it gets to be a couple months after the launch and speeds haven’t picked up, and ridership has dropped off, I’d be concerned,” he said

However, Van Eyken argued that the two and a half weeks since the corridor opened isn’t long enough to evaluate it. “We like to give systems a few months of operations before we score them with the BRT Standard,” he said, referring to ITDP’s rating system. “That gives them time to work out some of the operational kinks.”

Van Eyken said that slow travel times are typical for new BRT corridors while bus operators learn the ropes, especially in cities that haven’t previously had rapid bus service. In New York, for example, the learning curve for new Select Bus Service express routes has gotten easier as more bus drivers have become familiar with how the system functions.

He implied that the CTA’s 3 mph speed limit by platforms may represent an excess of caution. “If it’s affecting your speeds to the point where people are saying, ‘I’m going to get back on a normal bus line,’ I’d be a little bit concerned.”

Still, Van Eyken suggested that Chicagoans should be patient while bus operators learn the system. “It’s just a little prudence, because no one wants to see someone anyone get hurt, or a bus or a platform get damaged.”

He added that if prepaid boarding is implemented, that should make a big difference in bus speeds. The city is planning to pilot this time-saving feature at the station at Madison and Dearborn Street this spring.

“CDOT and the CTA really want this project to succeed,” Van Eyken concluded. “I think they’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

So I’m cautiously optimistic that speeds will continue to improve as more bus drivers get used to the corridor, and hopefully the CTA will lift the 3 mph speed limit by platforms in the near future. Spokesman Jeff Tolman told me Tuesday the agency has heard from customers who are unhappy with the current bus speeds, and they’re planning to install signs to warn customers not to wait near the platform edge. Audible warnings may also be added to let customers know a bus is approaching.

It makes sense to be tolerant while the bugs are worked out of Loop Link, but the CTA should focus on getting the system, ahem, up to speed sooner rather than later. By demonstrating that bus rapid transit is a great way to move people efficiently through the city, the corridor could pave the way for the more robust BRT on Ashland and other streets. v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.