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.

If We Can’t Kill The O’Hare Airport Connector, Can We At Least Make It Useful?

Chicago’s business community has been screaming for a fast transit link to O’Hare airport for decades, and it seems that it’s the idea that just won’t die. Chicago Tribune transportation writer Jon Hilkevitch reports that recently re-elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel is seeking to revive the airport link yet again:

Emanuel has made repeated statements recently that Chicago should try again to launch a nonstop express passenger rail service between downtown and O’Hare, patterned after the premium express trains that for years have been operating between airports and city centers in Europe and Asia, including London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris and Copenhagen, Denmark.

To his credit, Hilkevitch seems skeptical of the proposal, reporting that there are no financing measures in place that could support such a service, and that the mayor’s staff wish he would talk it up a little less. Hilkevitch’s skepticism of this project’s feasibility is perhaps mirrored by the standard–and quite well argued–urbanist line that airport transit is overrated. Stephen Smith–certainly no bleeding-heart class warrior–perhaps put it best, in a New York City context:

Globetrotting elites might salivate over the possibility of stepping off of an airplane and into a train that will take them directly to a starchitect-designed Penn Station in midtown, but if the next mayor wants to make a meaningful difference in the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, he should listen to the outer-borough residents who make up the majority of New Yorkers. Not landlords, business travelers and architecture critics in Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn.

The proposition of a new airport connector is, if anything, somewhat more absurd in Chicago. Chicago already boasts one of North America’s premier rail-airport connections, with the Blue Line running directly into a terminal at O’Hare (sometimes a little too far) and the Orange Line terminating at Midway (though a decent, somewhat inconvenient walk from the terminal).  Sure, riding the Blue Line from the Loop to O’Hare is kind of slow, but riders are already seeing results from CTA’s nearly half-billion-dollar rehab project, and it’s generally faster than the amazingly clogged Kennedy Expressway regardless of time of day.

So no, Chicago doesn’t need a new airport connector so much as the city’s business elites are seeking to hijack the planning process and spend the city’s limited infrastructure resources on a luxury item for themselves (seriously, just check out the prices for comparable airport connectors listed in the Hilkevitch piece). But at least someone powerful is vocally advocating for new transit in Chicago. Is there a way to harness the energies of the business elite and yoke them to a plan that could benefit the city more broadly?

One plan that seems to be emerging along those lines is the CrossRail Chicago proposal pushed by the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association. At first glance, the CrossRail Chicago marketing plan appears cringeworthy in the same elite-focused way as other O’Hare express proposals, selling the project as bringing “New, electrified express trains linking O’Hare to the Loop, McCormick Place and the University of Chicago.” Can you imagine a more business class set of destinations in Chicago? Underneath the elite-focused language, though, there’s an element of significant promise to the CrossRail plan that deserves some attention from business elites and transit advocates alike.

The key element of the CrossRail plan is the idea of using existing run-through platforms at Chicago Union Station to connect the Metra Electric District, the highest-quality passenger corridor in the area, to other lines on the North Side, with an emphasis on a northwestern connection to O’Hare. (graphics from the PDF flyer)

crossrail chicago downtown

With this–relatively uncomplicated, although somewhat capacity-constrained–core connection made, the rest of the regional network, which would serve both local and intercity services, could be built out in phases as money becomes available.

crossrail chicago phases

The first phase would be the downtown connector and electrification of the Milwaukee District-West and North Central Service (Canadian Pacific and Canadian National) tracks out to O’Hare. The entire distance would use existing right-of-way that primarily serves passenger trains, but sees significant freight traffic as well in some segments. I argued in my post on turning Metra into regional rail that the O’Hare connector would not be my first choice for a North Side connection to the Metra Electric District, but it does serve a significant need, and cost was a significant factor in my argument. In fact, the MD-W line serves one of the largest areas of Chicago currently completely unserved by high-quality fixed-guideway transit (apologies for the poor drawing).

Red outline is transit-less area, black line roughly traces the CrossRail path to O'Hare.

Red outline is transit-less area, black line roughly (variations may be blamed on my crappy trackpad and broken mouse) traces the CrossRail path to O’Hare.

Because of how industry, much of which has now moved out, historically clustered around the railroad tracks, there are plenty of opportunities for much-needed TOD projects along the MD-W path from the Loop to O’Hare. The adjacent neighborhoods aren’t among Chicago’s densest, but they’re diverse and still reasonably walkable and dense.

Would the CrossRail proposal, and the O’Hare connection it offers, be my first choice for Chicago’s next major transit expansion? No, probably not.  But it does offer significant new mobility potential for a large swath of the city, while potentially giving the business community the upgraded O’Hare connection they’ve always wanted. A CrossRail Chicago-like plan, assuming that it came with local as well as express service, could very well be a benefit to the larger population of Chicago in a way that other airport connectors have struggled to be. It would introduce the concept of regional rail upgrades to the extensive commuter network to the Chicago area, and indeed, has the potential to be the most promising regional rail project in the US, bettered in North America by Toronto’s efforts to turn Metrolinx into a Regional Express Rail. And it could do that while harnessing the energies of the business community, turning their self-centered desire to throw money around into something mutually and widely beneficial. And engaging the business community could–could–in turn bring support for a more extensive transit campaign, a strategy that the Transit Future campaign is clearly relying upon.

But that’s a lot of ifs. It’s a lot of conditions to be met. And it’s a lot of uncertainty. There would seem to be a way forward that could both satisfy the globally connected dreams of Chicago’s business elite and provide public benefit, but it is a path fraught with potential disagreement, waste, and acrimony. I would, tentatively, support an O’Hare connector project that followed these lines, and perhaps even name it one of the city’s top transit priorities. Chicago would do well to remember the experience of Philadelphia, which spent 25 years building perhaps the nation’s most advanced piece of regional rail infrastructure with significant backing from the business community, including (of course) an airport connector. In the meantime, the (much more heavily used) rest of the system fell to pieces, and the Center City Commuter Tunnel has never been used to its full, transformational potential.  A CrossRail-based O’Hare Connector might provide mobility to a large swath of Chicago that needs it. It might provide the vehicle by which the Metra Electric District finally becomes the rapid transit system it is destined to be. But if that’s going to happen, it’s going to take sustained work, cooperation, backbone, political savvy, and not a small dose of luck.

Looking West, not East–Analysis of Chicago’s Transit Future

On Thursday, a coalition of Chicago nonprofits, advocacy groups, politicians, and corporate leaders unveiled the Transit Future campaign, dedicated to bringing improvements to Chicago’s public transit system through dedicated revenue streams. On Friday, I offered my thoughts on some of the specific lines proposed; today, I want to take a step back and look at the political processes that might lead to some of this actually getting done.

The primary reaction to the revealed map of proposed improvements on Chicago planning Twitter and in the comments on Streetsblog Chicago’s article about the campaign was surprise, ranging to shock, at the extent to which the ideas presented consisted of extensions of the L into relatively sprawly suburban areas, such as Schaumburg and Oak Brook. Personally, I’m skeptical of the utility and fiscal efficiency of these extensions, but I do think there is a method to the madness in some ways, and that it actually says a lot about the political strategy being implemented with the purpose of getting these projects done.

Traditionally, Chicago’s transit system has (and for good reason) been most closely compared with those of the older, core cities of the East Coast. The Transit Future campaign, though, is looking west. The presence of former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the press conference, and the prominent mentions of Los Angeles’ Measure R sales tax campaign, which Villaraigosa helped shepherd through as mayor, make it clear that the leadership of Transit Future intend to copy not from the playbook of New York’s MTA (as the governor’s commission on Chicago transit had proposed), but from that of Los Angeles, acting at the county level. A brief recap: Measure R was a half-cent sales tax increase on Los Angeles county residents approved by referendum (which, in California, requires a 2/3 majority) on the November 2008 ballot. At the time of passage, it was expected to raise up to $40 billion for transit projects. Since then, LACMTA has expanded its transit system with alacrity, with a combination of Measure R and some federal funding.

So how, exactly, did a massive spending increase on public transit pass with a 2/3 majority in famously car-mad Los Angeles? One possibility is that Angelenos had simply tired of sitting in traffic all day and wanted options for getting around. More importantly, though, I think, is the careful coalition-building that the supporters of Measure R conducted. The Measure R coalition included politicians from several different constituencies, labor groups, business groups, and environmental groups–the same mix apparent on Transit Future’s “supporters” page. For better or for worse, determinations of where Measure R-supported lines would go weren’t determined by technical measures alone; the benefits were spread around to ensure political support, even from semi-suburban constituencies who might not be expected to vote for transit funding. It’s worth noting that, even though an LA County follow-up measure known as Measure J failed very narrowly in November 2012 because of a drop in support from suburban voters, a majority (though not enough to pass a 2/3 vote) supported transit improvements in almost every suburban area. Is every line built with Measure R funds going to show maximal return on investment? Probably not. Is the system going to get built, when it would not have without massive county-wide support? Yes.

Chicago’s task is, in many ways, easier than LA’s was. First of all, for better or for worse, Cook County’s Board of Commissioners can approve a tax hike without a referendum, needing, as far as I can tell, only a simple majority of Commissioners. The Transit Future plan appears to already have the signature of 9 of the 17 commissioners, and the presence of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Board President Toni Preckwinkle at the press conference means they are at least willing to consider lending their considerable clout to the project. Ultimately, though, the ability of the Commissioners, especially those from suburban areas, to continue supporting the Transit Future plan will rely upon their ability to present the plan to their constituents and point to specific benefits which those constituents will be receiving. That means spreading the love around.

And that, ultimately, is I think one of the major factors underlying the structure of the Transit Future plan. Everyone wins a little. The white, liberal North Side gets a rebuilt Red/Purple Line. The poor, African-American South Side gets better service along the Metra Electric District (the “South Lakeshore Line“), and a way to get to Midway Airport and the industrial corridor with its few remaining jobs along Cicero Avenue (the “Lime Line,” or Mid-City Transitway). Commuters in the western suburbs, who confront horrible traffic on any given day, get a new commuting option with the Blue Line extension to Oak Brook (which is, oddly, in DuPage county–I don’t know how that would work). The northwest suburbs would also get a new commuting option, with the Blue Line extension from O’Hare to Schaumburg fitting in nicely in the geographic gap between Metra Milwaukee District West and UP-NW line service. The denser first-tier northern and southern suburbs would get extensive Arterial Rapid Transit (think express buses, with many of the amenities of full-blown Bus Rapid Transit, but without dedicated lanes) networks. The business community gets improved access to both airports, including a direct link between them (though I think that’s the single least likely project to get built). There’s a little something for everyone.

Is every one of these projects going to be a success on a dollars-for-riders basis? Probably not. But some of them will be, and we won’t get those projects without countywide political support, and we won’t get countywide political support without a few projects that satisfy the the parochial needs (ok, probably wants) of certain constituencies. Given the timing of then announcement–in an election year–and the fact that 9 out of 17 county commissioners have already signed on, there seems to be a decent amount of confidence in the plan’s ability to go forward. Ultimately, this is Chicago. Chicago has the benefit and curse of having a tradition of strongly centralized, almost authoritarian political maneuvering. And though that tradition has certainly been weakened in recent years, if Rahm and Toni want Transit Future to get done, it probably will.