How Reborn Chicago Express Buses Could Point the Way Forward

The big news in the transit world recently has been the long-planned, quickly-executed rollout of Houston’s revised bus network, planned along frequent grid principles. Meanwhile in Chicago, the big transit news of the day is that CTA’s mourned X9 and X49 Ashland and Western express buses, victims of 2010 budget cuts, will make a limited return, operating during rush hours. Like they used to, the express buses will stop only at arterials and rail transfers–roughly every half-mile, instead of Chicago’s standard 1/8th mile spacing. However, this old dog comes back with a new trick: a rollout of transit signal priority, or TSP, along the Ashland and Western corridors that will benefit both the local and express buses.

The news about the return of the X buses has, naturally, brought on a lot of hand-wringing about the fate of the more ambitious Ashland BRT project, which would have been probably the nation’s best BRT corridor if implemented as originally designed. Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the Sun-Times that Ashland BRT is “way in the future,” and that the city’s priority is to “First and foremost, get the BRT on Washington and Madison built and open, and make these investments here (in the Ashland and Western express buses) regardless, because we need to do this to be more effective with 50,000 people every weekday relying on these two routes.”

To which I say: sure! Houston’s bus revamp is getting a lot of attention because it reorients the system around a gridded network of frequent bus services designed on utilitarian principles, with the purpose of serving as many riders and trips as possible at the expense of some geographic coverage (and because basically everybody loves Jarrett Walker, one of the chief designers). Chicago, on the other hand, already has arguably the best damn bus grid in the country. The regularity of Chicago’s street grid makes the layout of its bus system a no-brainer.

1938 Chicago streetcar map; the bus system still largely resembles this network.

1938 Chicago streetcar map; the bus system still largely resembles this network. Source

At the same time, though, Chicago’s bus have been suffering in recent years, with ridership on a distinct downturn despite growing rail ridership. As Daniel Hertz writes in the piece linked to immediately above, the downturns in bus ridership seem to correlate with service cuts such as the elimination of the X routes, which have been ongoing for quite a while now. Daniel writes that ” To be competitive, buses need to run frequently and reliably, and make decent time along their routes. They are absolutely capable of doing that, given relatively modest investments in operations funds, technology, and space. But we’re not making nearly enough of those investments.” And he’s right. It’s the improvements around the edge–not necessarily the sexy projects like Ashland BRT, though that would be huge too–that are missing right now.

And that’s why I’m somewhat hopeful about the reintroduction of the X routes on Ashland and Western. The initial rollout is obviously insufficient; rush hour-only service seems unlikely to be very popular (both routes have significant ridership throughout the day). There’s also the challenge of avoiding the problem that the old X routes fell into, namely that the wait for the less-frequent express buses tended to eliminate the time savings from actually riding them. The temptation to run a few token rush-hour expresses will be great, since employing drivers on a peaky schedule is expensive.

But. But! As Streetsblog Chicago reports,  “TSP should be implemented by spring 2016 on Ashland from Cermak Road to 95th Street by spring 2016, on Western from Howard Street to 79th Street by the end of the year, and on Ashland from Cermak to Irving Park Road by the end of 2017.” This is enormous, in large part because it benefits not only the express but also the local riders–30,000 or more per day on both corridors. It’s not the first crack at TSP on these corridors–a study undertaken on Western just as the X routes were being eliminated showed mixed results–but if fully carried out it could represent a major improvement in the life of all bus riders in the Ashland and Western corridors.

The 2010 TSP study also implied that queue jumps could be just as effective at many intersections as TSP. As I’ve written here before, I think that while dedicated lanes for buses would be great on major arterials, Chicago’s congestion isn’t necessarily of the type that requires them on all routes. On Western in particular, much of the bus delay is of the “hurry up and wait” variety, with buses making good time (especially if they don’t have to stop) for a 1/2 mile or more at a time but then getting caught up in huge jams and having to wait several light cycles to get through a busy arterial intersection. TSP will help with that situation, but only to some extent; the real solution is dedicated lanes of some sort. At most points, a block or two worth of repurposed parking spots on the approach side of the intersection will probably suffice.

Of course, I’d prefer to see the Ashland BRT project happen, followed by a citywide rollout along the lines of MPC’s plans.

MPC's map of a potential Chicago BRT network

MPC’s map of a potential Chicago BRT network

But let’s not forget that the Ashland BRT, as currently conceived, was basically a five-mile demonstration project (and a good one! For me, it makes the most sense of any segment in the city for such a demonstration). But Ashland is also highly politicized, and has (today like other days) taken a lot of attention away from the crying needs of the city’s other bus routes. I’d love to have both. But for now, let’s see where the X route restorations go. Let’s make sure the buses run frequently enough to make them a real time saver for riders. Let’s keep pushing for all-day service. Let’s make sure the TSP doesn’t get watered down to favor drivers, and fight for short segments of dedicated lanes around congested major intersections. Let’s implement off-board fare payment and all-door boarding on express buses and the Loop Link BRT.

In other words, let’s dream about full-featured BRT, and fight for it, but let’s also fight to make the everyday realities of Chicago bus riders better. The X route restorations, and especially the infrastructure improvements they come with, start that process, but they’ll need help from planners and advocates. Getting rush-hour express buses may feel like a comedown compared to true BRT, but it doesn’t have to feel that way. We know the problem. We know the solutions. Let’s go to work on plans both short and long term.


One thought on “How Reborn Chicago Express Buses Could Point the Way Forward

  1. Pingback: Productivity and Route Structure in a Chicago Neighborhood | Itinerant Urbanist

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