The Loop Link corridor at Washington and Franklin Credit: CDOT

For years my feelings about Chicago’s $41 million Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor have been like those of a parent whose lovable kid has been getting mediocre grades. I’m proud of what it is: a smart reconfiguration of downtown streets to help move people—not just cars—more efficiently through the city. But I’ve been concerned that it’s not living up to its full potential.

Loop Link debuted in December 2015 with the goal of speeding up service between Michigan Avenue and the West Loop on seven CTA routes from the glacial rush-hour average of 3 mph to a modest 6 mph. As part of the project, the Chicago Department of Transportation remixed Canal, Clinton, Randolph, Madison, and Washington, adding red bus-only lanes to most of them, plus eight bus stations with giant, rakelike shelters on the latter two roadways.

That wasn’t all. CDOT constructed the Union Station Transit Center to ease transfers between buses and Metra and Amtrak trains. The department built protected bike lanes on Canal, Randolph, and Washington. And converting excess mixed-traffic lanes to bus and bike lanes created shorter crossing distances for pedestrians and calmed motor vehicle traffic.

Despite those benefits, it’s been unclear whether Loop Link has achieved its main goal of doubling bus speeds. In addition to the car-free lanes, time-saving features include fewer stops, raised boarding platforms at the stations (so operators spend less time “kneeling” the bus for people with mobility issues), and white “queue jump” signals that give buses a head start at stoplights.

But even though the city originally said Loop Link would launch with prepaid boarding, which reduces the “dwell time” at stops, almost three years later it still hasn’t rolled out that feature. It’s also common to see unauthorized vehicles, especially corporate shuttles, using the red lanes, which doesn’t help CTA travel times.

Using traffic cameras to enforce the lanes would require approval from Springfield, and such surveillance is highly unpopular with many Chicagoans, especially in the wake of our city’s red-light bribery scandal. (Similar systems like New York City’s Select Bus Service feature both prepaid boarding and camera enforcement.)

When the Loop Link corridor first opened, there seemed to be little improvement in bus speeds, partly due to an infuriating rule requiring the operators to approach the raised platforms at a 3 mph crawl to avoid clocking customers with rearview mirrors. That decree was eventually relaxed, and when I test-rode the system in early 2016, trip times seemed to have shortened a bit, although they were still well above the CTA’s goal of eight minutes for a cross-Loop journey.

Since then, whenever I’ve asked CTA officials for an update on Loop Link performance, they’ve provided vague statements about improved customer satisfaction but declined to provide hard numbers, promising that the agency would release a report sometime in the future.

So I filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking all internal documents with data on the corridor’s effects on bus speed and reliability. It turns out that the CTA has already put together a Loop Link performance report, but officials wouldn’t share the whole thing with me, citing a loophole in the FOIA rules that excuses them from releasing preliminary drafts. They did send a number of charts and graphs from the study.

In a nutshell, the corridor’s performance has generally seen only modest improvements in recent years, and in some cases travel times have actually gotten worse. (In fairness, this isn’t necessarily the system’s fault, as I’ll explain a bit.)

CTA staffers documented downtown bus performance in 2013, as they were planning the corridor, so that serves as the baseline for the current study. For example, in 2013 the median time for an eastbound 8 AM run from Union Station to Washington/State, a distance of one mile, was about 12 minutes and 40 seconds. That’s roughly 4.7 mph, or a slow jogging pace.

Table #1
Table #1Credit: CTA

One table from the FOIA response (see above) gives an overview of Loop Link travel times in 2016 and 2017 compared to the 2013 baseline. Decreases in the duration of the cross-Loop trip (good) are shown in shades of purple and blue, while increases (bad) are depicted with orange and red hues.

Westbound, it appears that service has generally improved. Almost all of that section of the chart is lavender or violet, with modest decreases in travel times of up to 17 percent, although times haven’t improved so much during the evening rush, when most people are heading west out of the Loop.

The outlook for eastbound trips is less rosy, because there’s more red on the chart. Particularly during the morning rush, when most commuters are heading east into town and need to get to work on time, there are blocks of deep crimson, where travel times have increased by as much as 16 percent.

While the graphics indicate that Loop Link hasn’t resulted in any dramatic speed improvements, and that in some cases trip times have gotten worse, that may be partly due to factors beyond the CTA’s control. One thing that’s happened during the last five years is the rise of Uber and Lyft, which studies have shown is increasing congestion in large cities.

Another factor could be the recent boom in online retail, which has likely increased the number of downtown deliveries. Earlier this month CBS Chicago reported on numerous cases of USPS, FedEx, and UPS drivers stopping in signed “No Standing” zones, creating traffic bottlenecks. (CBS called the bus- and bike-centric layout of Washington Street “the crux of the problem,” as opposed to the drivers’ decisions to break the law.) While the red lanes should theoretically make CTA buses immune to traffic jams, that’s not the reality because they’re not well enforced.

So that leaves prepaid boarding as the best hope for cutting travel times, but the CTA has dragged its feet about implementing that feature. In fairness, it’s a somewhat tricky problem. NYC’s Select routes have kiosks at every stop where you buy a ticket before boarding, and then fare inspectors occasionally ask for proof of payment. But since the Loop Link corridor represents only a small portion of the CTA routes that use it, that method would probably require installing kiosks at every stop along all seven routes, a major investment.

It would also be challenging to retrofit the Chicago bus stations with turnstiles in such a way that scofflaws couldn’t simply bypass them by walking in the street and then stepping up onto the boarding platform.

In fall 2016 the CTA did a three-month pilot in which employees were stationed at the busy Madison-Dearborn Loop Link stop with a portable fare card reader during the evening rush, so that customers could pay before the bus arrived. Since summer 2016 the agency has been using the same method at the Belmont Blue Line station.

The prepaid boarding pilot at Madison/Dearborn
The prepaid boarding pilot at Madison/DearbornCredit: JOHN GREENFIELD

“The Belmont Blue Line station has been very successful, and we have seen positive results in time savings,” spokesman Steve Mayberry told me, adding that the system will be made semipermanent as part of the Belmont Blue Gateway rehab project, currently under construction.

The Madison-Dearborn test was deemed a flop. “Unfortunately, we saw only a minimal reduction in boarding times, which did not lead to any travel-time savings,” Mayberry said.

The time savings at Belmont, where large numbers of people coming off the train board buses at the same time, averages 38 seconds. But at Madison-Dearborn, where fewer people board any given bus, the savings only averaged 16 seconds. In addition, since the Loop Link stations have two entrances, staffing costs were higher.

“That said, we continue to look for ways to implement prepaid boarding in other [non-Loop Link] locations,” Mayberry said.

So Loop Link isn’t particularly fast and, with camera enforcement and prepaid boarding off the table for the foreseeable future, it’s unlikely to get much faster anytime soon. I don’t mean to throw the CTA under the bus here, but when it comes to dramatically improving transit commute times, the system has turned out to be something of an underachiever.

So does that mean that the Loop Link corridor is an overall failure, or that it should be dismantled to give more real estate to private motor vehicles again?

Mayberry says no. “Loop Link has shown that you can have a bus lane and not cause Carmageddon,” he said. “It’s the heart of downtown and, while there will always be tough traffic days downtown for any number of reasons, Loop Link has not been responsible for negatively affecting traffic. In fact, it’s raised the profile of bus service in the corridor and made it more obvious how much service we run and made our bus service more accessible for people.”

He added that while CTA bus ridership has been falling in recent years, largely due to ride hailing and increased traffic congestion, ridership at Loop Link stops has steadily grown since the system launched, averaging a 2 percent increase so far this year compared to 2017. “When you look at the overall project, those are points of success.”

I’d also point out that Loop Link has better organized the streets along the route, especially Canal Street by Union Station, and has created better conditions for walking and biking, while discouraging speeding by private drivers, which makes everyone safer.

And then there’s the question of what bus speeds would be like nowadays if Loop Link hadn’t been built, given the general increase in downtown car traffic in recent years. It’s likely that the table I discussed earlier would have more orange and red squares, signifying even longer trip times for straphangers.

So while the FOIA’d data suggests that you can’t call Loop Link a roaring success, it would also be wrong to dismiss it as a dismal failure. Rather, it’s an OK transit corridor that could someday become very good if the city can figure out a way to add prepaid boarding and/or better enforce the bus lanes. v