Posted on July 12, 2010 4:04 AM
BRT is Coming to Chicago
by Lindsay Banks
Last week, the Chicago Department of Transportation was granted over $35 million to launch a bus rapid transit system traveling through downtown and also between the South Side and the Loop. The concept of bus rapid transit (BRT) is not new to the Chicago region; the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) and Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) have been studying BRT throughout the metropolitan region and have done planning for pilot areas (which did not get implemented due to missed deadlines).
BRT is high-quality, high-capacity bus service that would travel on dedicated lanes. As our GO TO 2040 public input showed, many people want transit, but they usually insist on rail transit while remaining apprehensive about buses. But buses can be much more cost-effective at moving people. Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff cited an estimate of the deferred maintenance backlog for the entire transit universe at about $78 billion, 75% of which is needed to replace rail assets. He emphasized that communities currently thinking about laying down “shiny new rails” should think about the long term maintenance costs that they will face down the road, before committing to new transit. Alternatively, BRT could be a solution to fulfill the demand for transit without incurring such high infrastructure costs.
Local and regional transit planners are facing the same budget shortfalls everywhere, and are often forced to make service cuts. Aaron Renn of Urbanophile.com, cites Rogoff making a good point when talking to communities seeking federal transit funding:
If you can’t afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion? If you can’t afford your current footprint, does expanding that underfunded footprint really advance the President’s goals for cutting oil use and greenhouse gases? Does it really advance our economic goals in any sustainable way? Are we at risk of just helping communities dig a deeper hole for our children and our grandchildren?
High-quality BRT bears little resemblance to POBS* (Plain Old Bus Service). My fellow transit riders who despise POBS have typical complaints: it’s too slow, it’s unpredictable, and buses will be 20 minutes late and then 3 will show up at the same time (“bus bunching”). I agree with those points, but a well-devised BRT system would change that.
An oft-cited example of high quality BRT is Bogotá’s TransMilenio, explained in a great video on StreetsBlog.org. Modernized buses make the experience almost identical to a subway system. In Bogotá, they have major terminals that integrate multi-modal transportation (with free secured bike parking), free feeder buses, and a high-tech control room. The CEO of TransMilenio said that in 1998, a trip of 30 km used to take about 2 hours, and now with TransMilenio, they can make the same trip in just 55 minutes. She estimates that the system is transporting about 1.3 million people per day. The Chicago project will not be as extensive as TransMilenio, but it will use transit signal priority, Bus Tracker real-time arrival signs at stops, and would include bus-priority lanes on two miles of downtown streets, which currently serve seven CTA bus routes. An off-street transportation center just south of Union Station is also part of the plan.
For communities in northeastern Illinois who desire new transit, BRT could be a cost-effective solution. CMAP supports strategic investment in transportation (PDF), and increasing commitment to public transit (PDF).