|Rendering of Proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Ashland Avenue in Chicago. Source: Chicago Transit Authority|
One of the apparently lesser known positives taking place in the Chicago area is the region’s progress on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT was pioneered in Curitiba, Brazil in 1974, and consists of high-performance bus service that functions similar to fixed rail systems, at a fraction of the cost. While in use in many of the world’s cities, BRT has had limited implementation in the United States; there are existing BRT lines in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco, among others, but full BRT networks have yet to materialize in the U.S.
In general, four key features allow BRT to operate as quickly as other forms of rapid transit – pay-before-boarding systems, dedicated lanes, traffic signal priority and level boarding areas for efficient access. Utilizing these features, BRT can approach transit speeds of 20-30 mph, as opposed to the 7-10 mph that buses generally meet on crowded Chicago streets.
Activity on BRT in Chicago has picked up in recent years. The City of Chicago was awarded a grant from the Federal Transit Administration last year to study BRT in Downtown Chicago, and the CTA implemented a pilot BRT route on Jeffery Boulevard in 2012. The City has also announced its plans to implement a BRT route on Ashland Avenue, linking it to Blue and Orange Line rapid transit connections on the north and south, respectively. Outside the city limits, the regional bus provider Pace also recently implemented an express Bus on Shoulder pilot project on I-55 and has expanded that service due to its popularity. Additionally, the Illinois Tollway Authority and RTA were awarded federal funding to study methods to integrate transit in managed lanes on I-90 and have been proceeding with this analysis.
This is good news. Perhaps the most definitive study on BRT for the Chicago region comes from the Metropolitan Planning Council. Released in 2011, the report advocates for a 10-route BRT system that would link to existing CTA rapid transit stations. Relatedly, Pace has also included the study of BRT as part of its Vision 2020 planning efforts, and is advocating for the creation of a 480-mile BRT system in Chicago’s suburban areas.
Another reason this is a good idea? A new study from the Center for Neighborhood Technology evaluated the progress of transit-oriented development between 2000 and 2010, and found that:
(F)our of the nation’s five metropolitan regions with extensive rail transit systems (those with 325 or more stations)—New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco—achieved growth and development within their transit zone, or the land area within one half-mile of their fixed passenger rail stations. Only Chicago, the fifth region in this extensive system cohort, saw a decline in development around transit relative to growth in the broader region.
And a major reason for this:
Downtown Chicago gained population, but on a county-wide basis the highest population growth rates in the Region occurred in the collar counties: Will, Lake, Kane, and McHenry. By 2012, the Chicago Region’s transit assets, however, are concentrated elsewhere: 306 of 384 (80 percent) of the Region’s CTA and Metra train stations are located in Cook County. The Region’s strongest population growthis occurring beyond the reach of the rail transit system.
The study does note one very significant point that distinguishes Chicago from the other four regions surveyed, and indeed may have an impact on the city’s loss of population in the last decade:
Part of the lower rate of household growth can be attributed to the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation that eliminated 18,366 units in the City of Chicago. Fifteen thousand and forty-nine of these eliminated housing units were located within a half-mile of a CTA or Metra station. More than one-third of these housing units (5,703) were occupied. Considering that the transit shed added just over 9,000 households over the study period, this loss of nearly 6,000 households significantly affected the housing stock growth rate.
BRT is critical for improved transit service in Chicago, but it is also crucial for suburban areas as well. BRT is necessary for the region’s development and ultimate success – higher speeds from better service will create greater connectivity to job centers and reduce regional economic disparities. BRT can facilitate the transition of conventional suburban areas to more walkable ones, if transit-oriented development is allowed to flourish.
Unfortunately, however, the Chicago region appears to have two entities, one city and one suburban, attempting to innovate without coordination, and the region as a whole may be losing out on the ability to fulfill its potential.