In the nearly four decades since the birth of bus rapid transit — the world’s first system, in Curitiba, Brazil, launched in 1974 — the concept of dedicated bus lanes and specialized stations to improve speed and efficiency has gained traction among public transport experts and city officials.
Now it’s coming to Chicago, where work began last week on the first phase, along Jeffrey Boulevard on the city’s South Side. The plan, and possibilities of BRT, are detailed in an ongoing exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, called Bus Rapid Transit: Next Stop, Chicago. Backed by the Chicago Transit Authority, the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, the show’s first objective is to inform, starting with the most basic question: What is BRT?
A mass transit system, comes the answer, that increases reliability, cuts trip times up to 30 percent and tends to include specially marked or separated lanes of traffic used only by buses. Other key characteristics include specialized bus stations, greener fuels and strong branding elements.
Photos highlight the BRT system in Guangzhou, China, with only 14 miles of lanes yet used by 843,000 people everyday; Seoul’s BRT stations, like small islands in between vehicular traffic; Viva BRT, in Canada’s York region, with one of the strongest brand identities, using V’s and two shades of blue; and Detroit’s diesel-reliant buses.
Bus rapid transit in Guangzhou, China. Credit: Chicago Architecture Foundation
A visitor also learns that Jakarta, Indonesia, has the world’s most extensive system, with 170 kilometers of BRT lanes, and that Bogota, Colombia’s TransMilenio system has probably done the most to bring BRT into the 21st century. Gorgeous red articulated buses have five sets of doors and stop at sleek, simple pre-paid boarding stations in the center of traffic. The city’s network is the world’s fastest, averaging 22 miles per hour (a New York bus averages six miles per hour; Chicago, nine). As a result, one in five riders is a car owner.
BRT buses often receive priority to speed through intersections — in Las Vegas, left turns in front of buses are prohibited, and Bangkok buses have their own lights, with the letters “BRT” lit up in green — and stations generally go beyond the purely functional to build and reinforce city and community identity. Johannesburg’s stations are covered in local artwork. In tech-friendly Ahmadabad, India, stations offer digital displays with real-time travel info. Curitiba has iconic black glass tubular stations, with bus-level boarding that shortens stops and provides easier access for the elderly, disabled and children.
Finally, the show goes into the Windy City’s nascent plans. Chicago operates the second-largest transport system in the U.S., with 1,781 buses, about 11,500 stops and nearly 2,000 miles of routes, according to the exhibit. The city’s total of about one million bus rides per day is down from a couple decades ago (though rail readership has returned to its 1960s peaks). With traffic reaching intolerable levels — Chicago is among the country’s most congested cities, costing the local economy $7.3 billion each year, according to a Metropolitan Planning Council study — city officials decided the time was right for BRT.
Indeed, launching a BRT program has been one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first-term priorities, and he has said BRT is a strong candidate for his infrastructure trust, which allows private funding for major public projects. A Groupon-sponsored Milwaukee Avenue BRT line, for example, may be in the city’s future.
For now, Chicago has three initial routes, chosen after a 2011 study seeking existing bus routes that offer long, straight roads with adequate street width, transport connections, frequent delays and opportunities to extend access to jobs and education for under-served riders. At the exhibit, a blinking electronic map highlights the planned route of the Central Loop Corridor, from Navy Pier to Michigan Avenue, past tourist attractions like the the Tribune Tower and Millennium Park, major shopping and theater districts and train hubs. The plan includes a new bus terminal at Union Station and smart-looking BRT stations, with ticketed turnstiles and weather protection, by Derek Trusler, who has designed BRT stations for Guangzhou and his home city of Brisbane, Australia.
The Loop plan has $32 million in funding, with nearly $25 million from a Federal Transportation Authority grant, and is slated to begin construction in 2014. A second plan, to build BRT corridors on Ashland and Western Avenues from 95th Street, at the city’s southern rim, to Howard Avenue, on its north, has no firm construction schedule, and only a $1.6 million FTA planning grant. The third element of Chicago BRT is the Jeffrey Avenue system, now under construction and funded by an $11 million federal grant.
When the Jeffrey Corridor launches, in late November, it may not deserve the term “rapid.” Ostensibly it runs from Union Station, in the West Loop, to Jeffrey Boulevard and 103rd Street, but the plan is mostly cosmetic improvements to the CTA’s existing #14 Jeffrey Express bus from 67th to 103rd. Apart from one showcase station at 71st Street, bus stations will be the same, with an added information kiosk and bike rack. The system will use the current express route’s articulated buses, with the addition of external branding. Bus-only lanes will exist only during rush-hour, when the BRT buses will also receive traffic signal priority. Traffic signal priority is not expected until early next year.
Rendering of Derek Tusler’s design for a Chicago BRT station. Credit: Chicago Architecture Foundation
Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture and urban planning critic, calls the Curitiba system the “gold standard,” with double-articulated buses carrying 270 passengers along dedicated lanes, stopping at sleek stations with raised platforms and pre-boarding payment. That system has been credited with cutting pollution and helping people find jobs. “By comparison,” writes Kamin, the Chicago plan “looks pretty thin.”
Even CTA President Forrest Claypool has stressed lower expectations for the initial route. “I think it’s important to understand that Jeffrey is testing various elements of BRT, but it is not what I think what anyone would call BRT,” Claypool told the Tribune.
The first phase is in large part a pilot for the CTA and CDoT to explore BRT’s potential in Chicago. The city’s long-term plan envisions 20 corridors covering nearly 200 miles, creating an extensive transit grid connecting bus to rail and commuter trains. The Jeffrey Avenue system, on a route with 21,000 daily riders, is essentially a trial balloon. If ridership is high, response is positive and ride times are significantly curbed, the Loop and Western and Ashland corridors are likely to be fast-tracked and additional routes planned.
Chicago has been here before. Four years ago, federal officials awarded the city a $153 million grant to build the country’s largest BRT system and add congestion pricing to the Loop. But when the city missed a deadline to devise a parking meter pricing plan, that grant was rescinded.
Perhaps concerned about an early misstep, Dennis Hinebaugh, director of the National BRT Institute at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research, thinks Chicago’s measured approach is smart. “It’s best for each local community to decide what characteristics put the “R” in BRT,” he said in an email. “Setting a ‘gold standard’ based on international experience may not be best in U.S. cities.”
At the end of the exhibit, comments from locals are posted along with those from top officials. Chicago resident Stephanie argues, “For Chicago to be an example for other cities they need to take the lead on BRT.” Are they doing that? The Jeffrey Corridor BRT is unlikely to change Chicago’s public transport infrastructure or begin to recoup some of the billions of dollars lost in traffic, but it may begin to point the city in the right direction.
A freelance journalist and editor based in Istanbul, David Lepeska writes about Islam, technology, media, and cities and sustainability, and has contributed to The New York Times, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Metropolis, Monocle, The Atlantic Cities and other outlets.