If I Ruled the Metro: Bus Rapid Transit in Chicago

Proposed BRT network for Chicago, showing connections with CTA and Metra.  Source: Metropolitan Planning Council.
Today, I’m starting a new weekly series.  In the name of Daniel Burnham’s call to “make no little plans,” I want to start thinking of big planning ideas that could make a big difference in metro areas across the nation.
What if money were no object?  What if politics were no obstacle?  What if you ruled your metro?
In the Chicago area’s case, one big idea would be the implementation of a metro-wide Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system.  This is not an especially new idea.  Chicago nonprofit planning advocacy group Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) released a report in 2011 touting the merits of BRT in Chicago.  BRT potentially offers, according to the report, “rail-like speed, convenience and community benefits at a fraction of the cost.”  This happens because successful BRT systems, according to the report, share the following qualities:
“1. Dedicated lanes. Instead of stopping and starting with the rest of traffic, BRT sails down the street in its own lane. This may divert some auto traffic into the remaining travel lanes, but drivers also have a better transit option at their disposal, and no longer have to contend with stop-and-go buses.

2. Pay-before-boarding stations. Rather than wait in a line of people standing at the bus door, passengers pay to enter the station, then simply get on the bus when it arrives, much like a train. This allows for much faster boarding.

3. Level boarding. The station platform is at the same level as the bus door. No stairs, just step (or roll) on and find a seat. Like a train car, many BRT buses have multiple doors.

4. Signal prioritized intersections. BRT systems are equipped with transponders that keep or turn traffic signals green for approaching buses, allowing them to continue through the intersection safely and without stopping.”

Using these qualities, BRT can approach average speeds of 20 miles per hour, putting it on par with Chicago’s rail system.  In Chicago, BRT can be successfully paired and connected with the L, providing much-improved transportation access throughout the city.  Job centers that currently lack transit access, or require a trip through downtown Chicago before connecting to a transit line that does link to a job center, would stand to benefit tremendously. 
Furthermore, MPC touts the cost-effectiveness of BRT.  According to their research, which examines the implementation of heavy rail, light rail and BRT systems throughout North America, the average capital cost of the construction of a heavy rail line is more than $96 million per mile; for light rail, $35 million per mile.  However, for BRT the cost is a much more affordable $13 million per mile.  BRT has been successfully implemented in cities from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, with measured success at all stops.  MPC even proposes a recommended system for implementation in Chicago.
But it does not go far enough.
A metropolitan region as expansive and diffuse as Chicago requires a BRT system that goes far beyond the borders of the city itself.  Substantial job centers in suburban areas (the Lake-Cook Road corridor in the northern suburbs comes to mind) currently lack transit access, making them inaccessible to large parts of the metro area.  For many businesses, moving to existing transit-rich areas will be an option; for others, it will not.  For those without that option, BRT allows them to develop as fully-accessed, mature job centers that can attract a wider range of prospective employees.

If I ruled the metro, there would be BRT for everybody.

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