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Getting Bus Rapid Transit Right the First Time

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

The Metropolitan Planning Council made a big fuss earlier this week over its renewed interest in studying Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Chicago.  They say they'll be releasing their study's results this summer, and I look forward to it.  For now, I'd like to focus on one of the little details that is so easy for cities to get wrong, but which it appears the MPC has gotten correct.  Namely, its definition of BRT:

"BRT is defined as a transit service operating along its own right-of-way with signal prioritization technology in place and prepaid boarding at stations. The study is examining true BRT services, not an express bus with elements of BRT."

There is, however, a wrinkle in this I hope they'll take note of, because it can make or break a BRT system.  In September 2008, the CTA had a presentation about their four pilot BRT routes: Chicago Ave from LSD to Cicero, Halsted from North Ave. to the River, 79th St from Jefferey Blvd to Western, and Jefferey Blvd from about 63rd to 87th.  In this presentation, they said these BRT routes would be "Integrated with but not replacing local bus services."  The devil will be in the details of how this integration works.  They say BRT will be given its own right-of-way.  Where BRT is mapped onto a city street, this usually means giving the buses the curbside lane, and setting up some type of physical separation--or at least an emphatic paint job and lane striping.  But if local bus service continues, it will have to make curbside stops as well.  Without spending huge sums on grade-separated rights of way or drastically widening the street to put a busway with bus shelters in the median, there are two ways of ensuring that local bus does not impede BRT: giving local buses curb cuts for their stops so that BRT can pass, or giving over the street to buses completely.  Curb cuts into already crowded sidewalks can ruin an area for pedestrians, and since any program vying for FTA funds must meet its 6 livability standards this won't fly.  Alternatively, since many of the BRT routes CDOT/CTA are studying are arterials, I'm skeptical that they would even try to kick cars off the road.  (I'm not saying it wouldn't work--I'm the guy who wrote this with my tongue only partly in cheek, after all.)

I'll hold off on hard criticism until the full results of the study are released in a few months.  But if CDOT and the CTA are going to convince the city of Bus Rapid Transit's potential, they need to get these details right the first time.

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1 Comment

Emily said:

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Chicago’s streets are incredibly diverse. Sidewalk widths, number of traffic lanes, curb heights, parking restrictions, planters, landscaping, and even 6-lane intersections make BRT in Chicago incredibly complex. As an example of these street complexities, we’re finding that Cermak Road is as narrow as 66 ft. from building to building in some places and as wide as 150 ft. in others. Cleveland’s BRT on Euclid Corridor, which included a café zone, sidewalks and parking, took up 99 ft. of space from building to building. New York City’s proposed BRT plan along one corridor squeezes the service in a 60 ft. right-of-way. This raises considerable constructability challenges. If that weren’t complicated enough, the Cermak route touches industrial corridors, residential areas, small business centers, and even McCormick Place. And that’s just one route!

In our study, the goal is to carefully balance ridership, connections to destinations and other rail services, economic growth potential in communities, and ease of implementation to come up with a phased list of BRT that provides the greatest benefit. Combining all of these criteria is no easy task. As far as we can tell, this level of analysis hasn’t been done elsewhere. We’ve got a big job ahead of us but are working through the methodology and analysis carefully. We’re excited to see the results of the study and will keep you and your readers posted on our progress!

Emily Tapia Lopez, Manager
Metropolitan Planning Council

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