New York City’s new 14th Street Busway has improved bus travel times up to 47 percent. Credit: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

When it comes to providing fast, reliable trips, the current state of CTA bus routes is a civic embarrassment. As of late 2017, Chicago had a mere 4.1 miles of dedicated bus lanes, compared with 27 miles in San Francisco, 35.4 miles in Los Angeles, and a whopping 82.8 miles in New York City, according to the Active Transportation Alliance’s “Back on the Bus” report on speeding up service. We’ve only added a handful of blocks of new bus-only lanes since then.

Part of the problem has been reluctance from Chicago leaders to take away street space from drivers to make room for more sustainable and space-efficient modes for fear of a political backlash. In 2013 under Rahm Emanuel, the city floated a bold proposal for a bus rapid transit system on Ashland between 95th and Irving Park, with dedicated lanes, stations in the middle of the street, and time-saving features like prepaid, multi-door boarding, which would have nearly doubled bus speeds. But in the face of organized Not In My Back Yard-style opposition from some residents and merchants who balked at the idea of giving two of the four existing travel lanes to buses and banning most left turns from Ashland, the plan was indefinitely shelved.

On the other hand, the downtown Loop Link express bus corridor, launched in December 2015, was a relatively gutsy move. That involved converting multiple travel lanes on streets like Washington and Madison to bus-only lanes, “island” bus stops, and protected bike lanes. From a livable streets standpoint, the project was a success, proving that taking large amounts of downtown street space away from drivers to make sustainable transportation safer and more pleasant doesn’t create carmaggedon.

But in terms of speeding up buses, the $41 million Loop Link project was more show than go. While it included raised boarding platforms with giant, architecturally interesting shelters, the CTA never implemented prepaid boarding, which means buses waste time while customers wait in line to swipe their Ventra cards onboard or pay in cash. And there’s little enforcement of the red lanes, so private vehicles often clog them. As a result, the initiative has had only a modest impact on bus speeds.

Meanwhile, New York has built miles of Select express bus routes all over the city. While they’re not as visually impressive as Loop Link, they’re a lot more effective. Customers buy tickets from machines at the stops before the buses arrive, and they can board at any of the three doors on the extra-long buses (random ticket checks by inspectors discourage fare evasion), so there’s little “dwell time” at the stops. On top of that, the curbside bus-only lanes are camera enforced, so people don’t drive or park in them.

Fortunately, Mayor Lori Lightfoot stated in her transportation platform, “I want Chicago to have a world-class bus system . . . People will seek out other transportation options if bus service is inconvenient.” She vowed to create 50 miles of bus lanes, revisit the Ashland bus rapid transit (BRT) plan, and get legislation passed in Springfield to legalize fair camera enforcement of bus lanes.

Under Lightfoot’s $20 million Bus Priority Zone program, partially funded by the new ride-hail tax that kicked in on January 6, the city has taken some tentative steps toward expanding the busway network. Short stretches of rush-hour-only bus lanes were recently installed near el stations on 79th, Chicago Avenue, and Western, along with new overhead signs and “queue jump signals” that allow buses to move through an intersection ahead of regular traffic. Thankfully, the city recently deployed traffic aides to write tickets to scofflaws who park in the new red lanes while grabbing lattes from Starbucks. Other streets under consideration for these kinds of improvements include 63rd, Belmont, Pulaski, and Halsted.

But it’s time for Chicago to go bolder and follow the latest inspiring example from New York. (Hey, I don’t mind us being the Second City in this regard if it means I don’t get stuck in traffic on the 22 Clark bus.) Launched in October, NYC’s 14th Street Busway, a nearly car-free corridor traversing Lower Manhattan, has been a roaring success.

From 6 AM to 10 PM daily, through traffic on 14th is limited to M14 Select buses and trucks making deliveries on the street, plus emergency and paratransit vehicles. Private car drivers, cabbies, and ride-hail drivers can make pickups or drop-offs along the stretch, as long as they make the next available right turn to exit the street. The city is currently putting in curbside bulb-outs (raised platforms for passengers) at intersections so that the buses don’t have to maneuver in and out of (minimal) traffic to make stops, further speeding operations. 

As with Chicago’s Ashland BRT plan, there was NIMBY opposition to the 14th Street Busway—a lawsuit on behalf of disgruntled neighbors delayed the launch by a few months. But the proof is in the pudding. A new study by Sam Schwartz Engineering found that bus travel times on 14th improved by 22 to 47 percent in recent months. The time savings for straphangers are as much as 9.7 minutes from one end of the corridor to the other, traveling east. Ridership on the M14 has increased by 24 percent during the week and 30 percent on weekends. And, contrary to the doomsday predictions of opponents, the traffic impacts on nearby streets have been minimal.

So how about rolling out a similar initiative in Chicago? The transit authority’s statement in response to this potentially controversial idea was anodyne: “CTA will continue to monitor the bus-priority street project in Manhattan, as well as bus projects in other cities, to see if [the strategies] can be used to enhance CTA service.”

But transit advocates and experts say they’re jazzed about the concept. “Let’s face it, with our city and state’s financial problems, we can only expect so much in terms of new rail [lines],” said DePaul transportation professor Joe Schwieterman. “The results from New York are impressive and encouraging, showing that that busway projects can produce a fairly dramatic ridership boost at relatively modest cost.”

Metropolitan Planning Council transportation director Audrey Wennink agreed that we should follow New York’s example. “This is the direction world-class cities are heading: making streets work better for high-capacity transit, to reduce traffic deaths, and improve air quality.” In addition to the aforementioned streets where Chicago is currently eyeing bus improvements, she named Michigan, Fullerton, and Lake Shore Drive as high-ridership roadways where car drivers currently slow down transit commuters, so bus lanes would be beneficial.

University of Illinois at Chicago transportation expert P.S. Sriraj said he’s also interested in piloting a 14th Street-style Busway in Chicago, citing Division, Harlem, and Ogden as other possible candidates. “The challenge for getting this off the ground is to have a champion on the political front.” He noted that if there is vocal support for the project from the mayor and the CTA president, which wasn’t really the case with the Ashland BRT proposal, it will have more credibility to overcome NIMBY opposition.

Schwieterman agreed. “Creating more busways will require a fair amount of salesmanship to convince a skeptical public.”  v