The Central Loop BRT (above, rendering) will break ground in March. City of Chicago

Forget opponents—even supporters are debating whether the city has gone far enough in its BRT ambitions.

Let's acknowledge, right from the start, that there's a lot to like about Chicago's long-awaited, much-anticipated Central Loop BRT project, which is scheduled to break ground in March. The basic skeleton is an accomplishment in its own right: nearly two miles of exclusive rapid bus lanes through one of the most traffic-choked cities in the United States. The Central Loop BRT will serve six bus routes, protect new bike lanes, connect to city rail service, and reduce travel times for about half all people moving through the corridor on wheels. Half.

Not bad for a project whose roots trace back to a humble downtown circulator bus. And the benefits don't end there. The Central Loop BRT represents the cornerstone of a three-pronged, $150 million transit investment for the downtown, along with a new bus terminal near Union Station at the west end of the loop and a remodeled 'L' station on the east. In a larger sense, the project announces the start of the city's Big Bet on Buses, with a second BRT corridor on Ashland Avenue in the works, raising the stakes from novelty to network.

The timeline for launching the Central Loop BRT—by year's end—is perhaps too optimistic. But the point here is there's reason for optimism.

"What we're starting with here is going to be a great investment and reap benefits for everybody," Rebekah Scheinfeld, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, tells CityLab. "We really think this is a big step forward."

Now for the rub: Some of the strongest supporters of better bus service in Chicago are wishing that step forward had been even bigger.

The Central Loop BRT corridor will serve six bus routes and eight stops as well as the new Union Station Transportation Center, along mostly exclusive bus lanes. (Mark Byrnes / CityLab)

Several design elements of top-notch BRT are missing from the Central Loop project. Only one of the eight stops will have off-board fare payment when the system launches. The Windy City has passed on weather-enclosed train-style stations for open bus shelters. The buses will lack camera-enforcement for exclusive lanes and even lose that exclusivity for a block. All these factors can increase travel times and reduce the system's appeal.

Questions loom over the network's future, too. The Ashland BRT faces an uncertain timeline. There are no current plans to connect it with the Central Loop despite benefits for both riders and bus operations. And the city's notorious parking deal makes it mighty tricky (and costly) to acquire new lanes for transit.

Multiple supporters close to the project—most unwilling to speak publicly given its sensitive political nature—have expressed hope that Chicago's big bus plans will bear out but also echoed disappointment at some of these developments. They share a general fear that skimping on core BRT elements could compromise the project and make it harder to gain public support later on for service expansions or improvements. Such concerns have left some BRT advocates wondering if Chicago is in danger of failing to become the American model of world-class bus service.

"It's sort of a culture change that hasn't totally happened yet in the U.S.," says Annie Weinstock, the U.S. regional director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a global transport advisor that's consulted on Chicago's BRT plans. "It would have been great if Chicago could have been the first big city to really make that huge change."

Building a "Forward-Compatible" System

Let's give a little more credit where it's due to the Central Loop BRT system design. The exclusive lanes will alert drivers to back off with tinted concrete. Buses won't get signal priority at stop lights but they will get to jump the queue—giving them a head start on other traffic. The stops will have lots of seating, real-time arrival information, and a clear 90-foot canopy that in renderings looks a little like a huge rake that's been buried in the sidewalk.

The Central Loop BRT stops are more enhanced bus shelters than "train-like stations" that the city promised. (City of Chicago)

But the city promises "train-like stations" in its public literature on the Central Loop, and on that mark the rakes come up short. It gets a little cold in Chicago, if little means horribly and cold means blizzard-like. ITDP encourages cities in extreme climates to weather-proof their BRT stations, and early designs for the Central Loop seemed to do just that. The winner of a 2013 BRT station design competition—held in partnership with CDOT and the Chicago Transit Authority, which will operate the system—incorporated sliding glass doors and ceiling heat lamps to keep riders warm in winter.

The winning BRT station design from a 2013 contest held by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, in partnership with the city, showed an enclosed station design. (CAF)

Scheinfeld says the competition was a creative "exercise" meant to inspire the final station designs, but that contestants had the luxury of overlooking operational constraints. CTA spokesman Brian Steele says because the Central Loop corridor will serve six different routes—some with standard buses and some with long articulated ones—the open shelters provide more flexibility. He adds that several nearby businesses owners were concerned that enclosed stations might block their visibility from the street. Hence the rakes.

The most glaring design omission will be the absence of off-board fare payment at every BRT shelter. By making riders pay at the stop instead of on the vehicle, off-board fares enable travelers to board through any bus door, just as they would on a train. BRT experts consider off-board fares critical to reducing dwell times at a stop—dwell referring to how long a bus sits there as riders enter and exit—and, by extension, overall travel times.

The Central Loop will pilot off-board fare payment at one stop when the system launches—likely the Madison & Dearborn stop, which is expected to have the highest ridership. The CTA plans to monitor the pilot's success and decide whether the benefits of faster boarding are enough to warrant an upgrade across the board, which in addition to installation would include higher costs of enforcement. Scheinfeld says other stops will be wired for the equipment in case the city does choose to expand the feature.

"What we're doing is very forward-compatible with additional layers of benefits, or additional features that could be added in the future," she says. "The point was to get it right before rolling it out on a large scale."

To general ears, that plan seems sound enough. Peter Skosey, executive vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, which is part of the Chicago BRT Steering Committee, calls the pilot approach "prudent" and says CTA's job, in addition to running a strong bus service, is to spend public money wisely. He believes if the pilot shows that off-board fares are worth the extra expense, "the clamor will be there to do it." But ITDP's Weinstock says that isn't always the case.

"A lot of times when a city backs off of the really most important elements of BRT they say they're going to just do it later, in the future," she says. "And by the time it's later they have a million other priorities and nobody wants them to go back."

Waiting on Ashland

ITDP's criticism of the Central Loop comes from a place of love. Weinstock gives the project high praise for having "many of the important elements of high-quality BRT," and for running a service with those elements through the central business district. "Most cities chicken out on that altogether," she says. "This is where Chicago is starting. That's amazing." But as a short corridor, she adds, the Central Loop will provide only a modest boost to mobility.

"On its own, the Central Loop will have some small benefits," she says. "But it's not going to have as huge of a benefit until it's connected to a larger BRT network."

The Ashland BRT corridor (above, rendering) has the potential to be world-class. (City of Chicago)

That's where Ashland comes in. The corridor plan has all the prime BRT fixings. It runs for 16 miles without any turns through a congested north-south corridor with the possibility of expansion at both ends, operating in a dedicated lane along a center median alignment. Under ITDP's international BRT rating system, the Ashland project would currently rate out as a gold-standard project—something no other U.S. line has achieved.

An ITDP analysis from September 2013 tested seven potential service plans connecting Ashland and Central Loop. The most promising, in terms of travel time benefits to both riders and cost benefits to the transit agency, involved an S-shaped route connecting the two BRT lines via an express bus that continues along Division Street (bottom right, Scenario 7). The plan would amplify the total number of riders along Ashland, in particular, over the existing (0) and basic BRT (1) designs.

An ITDP analysis from September 2013 found potential benefits of a service plan connecting the Ashland and Central Loop BRT corridors (top, an S-shaped connector on Division). (ITDP)

CTA spokesman Steele says right now there's no service plan to connect the Central Loop and Ashland, but that one "could be considered in the future." Of course, that future presupposes Ashland gets built at all.

Right now the corridor's fate seems tied to that of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. While Emanuel championed BRT early on, the Ashland plans proved highly contentious—and a little absurd; some locals have gone so far as to bemoan the loss of left turns, as we reported for our Future of Transportation series—leading to speculation that the mayor has pulled back for political reasons. Last year, then-ITDP chief Walter Hook told Citiscope he thought Emanuel had "sort of pushed a couple of the more aggressive BRT proposals to after the next election."

(In that election, held Tuesday, Emanuel placed first but failed to win an outright majority, sending him into an April runoff.)

Officially, CTA says the Ashland plans are proceeding at pace. The agency is considering public feedback gathered during community meetings in 2013 and working through the "higher-than-anticipated number of comments," as part of the standard procedure for a federal environmental analysis. Meantime, CTA continues to pursue funding for the project's next design. Spokesman Steele says it's "too soon to tell" what a timeline for the corridor will be.

The $43 million Union Station Transportation Center (above, rendered) will facilitate train transfers for BRT passengers. (City of Chicago)

Peter Skosey of the Metropolitan Planning Council says he recently heard Emanuel mention Ashland during a public talk, so "it's clearly something still on his mind." As for the perception that its momentum has slowed, he's not sure there's much to race toward, given the logjam of projects competing for federal funding. He also disagrees that either Ashland or the Central Loop BRT needs the other to succeed: both connect to city rail systems, and since BRT strives for train-style service anyway, the lines might be better viewed as rail extensions.

"I really see BRT as another leg of our 'L,'" he says. "I see benefits of a network from a single BRT line on Day 1."

"Ossifying" the Bus Network

There's no way to sugarcoat Chicago's terrible parking deal. For a one-time fee of $1.15 billion—most of it spent immediately filling budget deficits—Chicago leased its parking spaces, and the meter revenue that comes with them, to Morgan Stanley for the next 75 years. As bad as the deal seems at face value, sociologist Stephanie Farmer of Roosevelt University in Chicago recently found it's even worse in the weeds. Especially its implications for transportation planning. And especially it's implications for planning a BRT network.

Farmer outlines the corrosive ways that the deal might impact Chicago's emerging bus plans in a 2014 paper in Environment and Planning A. Turns out Morgan Stanley built protections into the deal that limited its own risk. Some of these protections, known as "adverse action" clauses, prevent the city from disrupting the meters for any reason. If Chicago shuts down meters temporarily for a parade, for instance, or permanently for a bus lane, it triggers an automatic "adverse action" compensation.

That compensation can take two main forms: either the city must move meters to a comparably popular location, which takes time, or it must pay what are called "true-up" penalties, which takes cash. In some cases, the city has taken out bonds to meet true-up penalties, meaning it owes interest on them over time, too. Together, the compensation rules could "have the effect of ossifying a particular configuration of the urban built environment," writes Farmer, as costs force planners to abandon projects entirely.

"You can imagine the more that we have to pay—not just the true-up penalties, but you can tack on the interest payments to pay for the true-up penalties—it squeezes more and more out of the budget what we could actually do in terms of building sustainable transportation on the roads," she tells CityLab.

Farmer says BRT is the transit mode "most impacted by true-up revenue penalties," because it needs so much space for dedicated lanes. She reports that some early Chicago BRT routes avoided adverse action payments because they found sites for replacement meters. But all the planners she spoke with felt that eventually the city will run out of alternative locations, leaving planners to pay true-up fees, target suboptimal corridors, or design poor systems. Here's how one planner put it to her:

"There is only so many comparable spaces left. When these are gone planners are going to be in a real bind."

At the very least, the BRT planning process in Chicago just got a lot longer. Farmer reports that CTA conducted a "parking utilization analysis" for each potential BRT route, which required workers to drive up and down the corridors for a week, assess the meter situation, then find comparable meter sites. Ultimately, she writes, planners are in the unenviable position of worrying about Morgan Stanley's well-being rather than that of Chicago commuters.

"All the planners I talked to, they all pretty much agreed that now, when they make plans, they have to consider how their plans are going to be impacted by the parking meters," says Farmer. "So it's one more layer of consideration. It's not necessarily always going to be a barrier, but it will be another part of the process."

Officials hope the Central Loop (above, rendering) will be ready for service by the end of 2015. (City of Chicago)

Rapid Buses, Less-Than-Rapid Growth

Let's end where we began: on a fairly positive note. None of the faults in Chicago's BRT network are fatal. Off-board fare payment can be added on the Central Loop. The stations are better than what city bus riders have now. Rahm could win the runoff and Ashland could emerge. A service plan could be drafted to connect BRT routes. The next seven or so decades of the parking deal could—well, OK, that one's less rosy.

But while it's the job of advocates to make the good the enemy of the perfect, many of these critiques go away under some label other than BRT. Purists defend the BRT brand for the right reasons: public officials should strive for best practices when using taxpayer money, and it's in the interest of cities to introduce a bold new era of buses that shatter the expectations of old buses. Yet even with its flaws, Chicago's big bus plan should make life better for millions of everyday riders. The size of the steps seems far more suitable for debate than its direction.

A final point in the plus column: whatever compromises the Central Loop BRT has endured is in many ways a product of the very public feedback system cities have demanded. Peter Skosey says the CTA and CDOT have done a "crazy" amount of outreach for the project. "They've literally gone through that corridor and every address along the way," he says.

In that highly democratic sense, then, Chicago BRT may become a very American endeavor after all. That may be one of the key lessons from the city's experience, says civil and environmental engineering scholar Joseph Schofer of Northwestern, who's been observing Chicago transportation developments for years: Simply to appreciate that BRT adoption in big U.S. cities will be anything but simple.

"None of this means Chicago's BRT won't grow—that is in the plan," he says. "But we should not expect that growth to be easy or rapid."

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