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Chicago to Reorganize Transit in Central Loop

Along Washington Street, a bicycle lane will be added between the BRT line and the sidewalk
Lanes for the bus rapid transit (BRTZ) system will be shaded red to distinguish them. Along Washington Street, a bicycle lane will be added between the BRT line and the sidewalk. Chicago Department of Transportation

Chicago’s Central Loop will soon have dedicated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lanes that will streamline journey times for all commuters, regardless of their transit choice.

June 24, 2014—Traveling through Chicago’s Central Loop—specifically between Union Station and the Navy Pier, along the one-way Washington and Madison streets—is about to become faster and more predictable. The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) is in the process of creating a dedicated Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT) that will streamline travel times for everyone along the route, regardless of their method of transportation.

“Chicago is a built-up and busy city; this is really about reorganizing the roadway to serve today’s users and contemporary needs,” said Keith Privett, a coordinating planner at the Chicago Department of Transportation and the project manager for the preliminary design and National Environmental Policy Act approvals process for the first phase of the BRT project. Privett wrote in response to written questions posed by Civil Engineering online.

“We have a strong rail network [in Chicago] that is growing in ridership, and bus routes that are slower and not showing the same growth,” Privett explained. In part, the slow bus growth is due to the fact that “in traffic, buses can be as slow as walking,” he said. “Getting stuck in downtown congestion also makes these routes go off schedule, affecting riders on the rest of the route, out in the neighborhoods.”

The BRT project will create eight covered stations serving dedicated lanes along the east-west streets. With only eight stops, the system is expected to merge the reliability of light-rail systems with the flexibility of bus systems, according to material on the City of Chicago’s website. And increasing the reliability of bus travel along the Central Loop will make more jobs accessible by public transit.

Rapid-transit lanes that are dedicated to buses is a flexible, more affordable, and quicker-to-implement solution to improving urban mass transit than, for example, improving existing rail lines, according to Privett—although the city is doing that as well (read “Chicago Closes, Rebuilds Red Line South System” and “Freight Rail Bypass Project Opens in Chicago” on Civil Engineering online).

To speed the process of travelers boarding and exiting buses, the stations will have raised platforms that enable level boarding. At the station that is expected to be the busiest—on Madison Street between the Red and Blue lines of the Chicago Transit Authority’s rail system—equipment to facilitate prepaid boarding may be installed. If the equipment proves successful in shaving time off travelers’ journeys, similar machines will be added to the remaining stations, Privett noted.

The new BRT lanes will be used by the approximately 1,000 buses that operate daily along six existing bus routes, which include connections to rail stations, business centers, universities, and major visitor destinations, according to Privett. These include Navy Pier, Michigan Avenue, Millennium Park, and the United Center arena.

BRT buses will operate in lanes topped with red-tinted concrete, but are not otherwise separated from the other travel lanes. The roadways will not be widened, because that would negatively impact the 56 percent of the street users who are pedestrians, Privett noted. Such embedded elements as medians or bollards are not being included due to the need for snowplows to be able to maintain the roads in the winter months.

Along Washington Street, which is 5 ft wider than Madison Street, a bike lane will be added as part of the city’s “Complete Streets” policy, a CDOT program that seeks to ensure that all modes of transportation can use the city’s streets safely. The bike lane will be located between the station and the sidewalk, protecting bicyclists from motorists.

Washington and Madison streets were selected for the BRT lanes because they already have some sections of bus lanes that could be easily adapted for the BRT system, as well as loading and parking zones that can be repurposed, Privett explained. Both streets, which operate one-way in opposite directions, will “always retain at least two general travel lanes—which should flow better without buses pulling in and out of them on a regular basis,” he said.

Union Station, the city’s busy Amtrak hub and commuter rail station, will serve as the western terminus of the new system. Here potential traffic problems will be resolved with the installation of an island platform and designated lanes that will guide public transit, private shuttles, intercity buses, taxis, and private vehicles, Privett said. “Under a separate contract we will also be converting a surface parking lot into a new bus transit terminal where 6 to 9 buses can layover and passengers can enter or exit Union Station through a new connection to an existing underground walkway,” he said. “It will make it much easier for passengers to transfer between bus and rail, and improve safety by reducing conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles.”

The engineering work on a second phase of the project is nearing completion. Bidding on the project is expected to take place later this year, and off-site preparation and fabrication will begin shortly thereafter, according to Privett. The Central Loop system is anticipated to be complete by the end of Fall 2015.

A $24.6-million Federal Transit Administration grant and $7.3 in local Tax Increment Financing monies are funding the installation of the route, according to the BRT Chicago website.



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