Productivity and Route Structure in a Chicago Neighborhood

WBEZ’s terrific Curious City series is out with a piece  and accompanying visualization about cost recovery  on the CTA bus system. CTA’s buses are a hot topic (so to speak) in the transit/urbanist online community; Daniel Hertz has covered the system’s woes extensively, and Yonah Freemark lent his voice to the Curious City piece. Though perhaps less than sexy, the question of how to build a better bus system for Chicago is an important one. Despite ridership declines and a trend of convergence, CTA buses still carry an overall majority of CTA ridership, and they provide crucial transit coverage to huge swaths of the city that lack rapid transit service.

For the graphic accompanying the story, Curious City pulled out CTA’s five “most productive” and five “least productive” (by average number of riders on an individual bus in an hour, with the ideal ranging from 35 to 55 riders) routes and mapped them. Much to my surprise (really), two of the top five most productive routes are the lines I consider my “home routes” in Chicago, the 155 Devon and the 49B North Western.

devon and western

Devon and Western–epicenter of bus productivity in Chicago?

I spent my high school years living two blocks (well, three, but one of them is really short) from the corner of Devon and Western, where the 49B and 155 meet. West Rogers Park (alternatively, West Ridge) is one of Chicago’s well-kept secrets, a wonderfully diverse (economically and ethnically), reasonably walkable and dense, green, and mostly quiet neighborhood. Though the density and vibrancy of the South Asian community along Devon fades into pretty boring single-family blocks the further north and west one progresses, Devon itself, especially the section between Western and California, is a riot of color, smell, and taste the likes of which almost sound cliched. (I’m going to stop before I get more homesick, I promise) All that being said, one of the reasons the area isn’t better known is what it lacks–namely, direct access to a rapid transit line.

Thus, while the neighborhood itself is moderately transit-supportive (much more so along Devon than along Western, which here as in most of its 24-mile existence is a wide asphalt auto sewer with terrible land use), the 49B and 155 play a role that wouldn’t seem to lend itself exceptionally well to high productivity, collecting riders and shuttling them to the L. The 155 drops riders off at Loyola and Morse on the Red Line, and the 49B connects to the Brown Line at its Western stop. Both loop on the opposite end on the very edge of the city, the 155 at Devon and Kedzie–it’s actually a very short route, geographically–and the 49B at Western and Birchwood (half a block short of an easy transfer to several lines running on Howard…but more on that later). Lacking significant anchors on the outer end, both lines are relatively sparsely used for the first section of their route–seemingly not a recipe for “productive” status.

That being said, I can attest from personal experience that both lines do get very crowded at times. The 155 in particular can be a very uncomfortable experience, to the point where I regularly receive texts from my father complaining about it when he winds up on the Red Line rather than the Brown Line on his way home. Neither runs especially frequently by major city standards, with both running usually around every 8-12 minutes during the day and 15-20 minutes at night. Ridership is moderate by Chicago standards, with the 49B fluctuating between 5,000 and 6,000 daily riders since 2001 (as far back as CTA data goes), and the 155 more consistently around 7,000. Still, that’s enough ridership to consistently fill–or overfill–the buses on at least the half of the routes closer to their L transfers. And while I joked about it in the caption above, the corner of Devon and Western is the key point for ridership demand on both routes.

49b southbound boardings

Southbound boardings on the 49B by stop, October 2012 (from CTA open data)

The 49B, in particular, experiences a huge ridership spike at Devon; the stop pulls in three times as many riders as the second most popular stop, the Birchwood terminus. Ridership on the 155 is more spread out, though reliable data isn’t available–Devon was under construction and closed to buses between Western and Ridge when the 2012 CTA counts happened, as a result of which a huge chunk of the route is missing–so I won’t present a chart here. Still, Devon/Western is a key stop; in my experience it’s typically the single largest on/off point, and on rush hour eastbound trips the buses typically run standing room only from Devon or a couple of stops east of there.

So: despite the unbalanced route structure, we have a pair of routes running through a somewhat transit-deprived neighborhood that pair moderately high demand with relatively limited frequency. Additionally, both routes use standard 40-foot buses almost exclusively, although the 155 would clearly benefit from having articulateds on rush-hour runs. That combination leads to extremely high productivity results–an indication of the imperfection of the metric, since a simple increase in frequency would presumably result in a sharp decrease in “productivity.” Productivity, remember, is to some extent just a nicer word for “crowding.”

But let’s look beyond a simple increase in frequency–clearly, there is significant demand for transit in the West Rogers Park area, both expressed and latent. How can CTA build on the perhaps unlikely success of these routes and strengthen West Rogers Park’s connection to the transit system while maintaining a highly productive route structure?

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

It’s worth noting that the gap in ridership between the two routes, which is generally in the vicinity of 1,000-2,000 riders per day, is almost certainly attributable to the differences in land use along their respective arterials. Compare Devon, here looking west at Rockwell:

to Western, here looking south midblock between Rosemont and Granville, just a block and a half south of Devon:

Encouraging dense, transit-oriented development along the Western car sewer is a no-brainer, particularly north of Peterson, where both sides of the street are lined with dead and dying (literally) car-related businesses–dealerships, body shops, etc. Unfortunately, what new development has occurred has often been very much suburban-style:

In the shorter term, though, there are ways to make the existing bus network function better. The returning X49 Western Express (well, for peak hours) should be extended at least to Devon, if not all the way to Howard; its current terminal at Western and Berwyn is nowhere of significance, and an extension would turn numerous trips that are currently three-seat rides into much more tolerable two-seat rides. Even just at peak, an X49 stop at Devon would take significant pressure off the crowded 49B.

The 49B itself would benefit from a stronger anchor on the northern end. And there are useful things to do with it! Currently trips from Western to downtown Evanston, a significant employment and cultural draw, are three-seaters, requiring a transfer to an east-west bus on Howard, then to the Purple Line or an Evanston bus at Howard terminal. Turning the 49b right on Howard and running to Howard Terminal might provide unnecessary extra capacity on that particular stretch of Howard, but would provide a one-transfer ride to Evanston. Alternatively, continuing the route north to downtown Evanston–the route taken by its much less frequent (doesn’t run on Sundays!) counterpart on California, the 93, would make that a one-seat ride and provide regular service to a relatively dense part of southern Evanston that currently has only infrequent “circulator” service. I suspect that whatever losses in efficiency were to happen because of these extensions would be easily made up or even exceeded by increased, better balanced ridership.

Taking advantage of the demand for transit on Devon and taking pressure off the 155 is, if anything, even easier. There are two long North Side local routes, the 36 Broadway and 151 Sheridan, that use Devon for part of the 155 route, between Sheridan and Clark. Both, however, loop at Clark and Devon for reasons that, as best I can tell, are simply historical; that loop was long ago the location of the Chicago Surface Lines’ enormous Devon Carbarn, and it made sense to loop the routes outside where the equipment was maintained. The carbarn, however, has been gone since 1957, and the area west of it has become much denser as South Asian immigrants moved in. Neither route is especially frequent, but if looped at Kedzie–just two miles west–instead of Clark, their combined 6 or 7 extra trips per hour could significantly reduce crowding on the 155 and strengthen Devon’s character as a transit-oriented arterial. Both the 151 and 36 are long, slow routes–both run to the Loop, though not every 151 makes the whole trip–so while Devon can be painfully congested, neither should feel the pain too much. Neither offers as direct a transfer to the Red Line as does the 155, but both encounter it multiple times along their routes, and the 36 runs just a block away from the L from Devon to Wilson, offering numerous opportunities for a relatively east transfer.

In some ways, West Rogers Park is an ordinary Chicago neighborhood. What has become clear in this analysis, however, is that it–like so many Chicago neighborhoods–has excellent fundamentals for transit, and a very strong basis to build on. When thinking about transit in Chicago, the public eye focuses largely on the L, but this is an excellent example of a bus-reliant transit-oriented area. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the public mentality of L prioritization has taken hold in the CTA planning process as well, with the area’s routes largely reduced to glorified–but productive!–shuttles to the nearest L stops.  But here’s the thing: taking the area’s transit from “OK” to “excellent” may not need the kind of glorious capital investment an L or rapid transit extension at all (though, assuming some TOD, BRT on Western would be great). Re-thinking the local buses within a framework of making them useful as more than shuttles, a few strategic extensions and route modifications, and incremental improvements that prioritize buses within the traffic flow could provide high impact for little investment. It’s clear that the fundamentals are there. Let’s build.

 

Note 1: Notice haven’t talked about Metra at all here. Metra’s UP-North line runs on the Rogers Park-West Rogers Park boundary, with a “Rogers Park” station at Lunt; there used to be a stop at Kenmore, just south of Devon. The line really should be turned into a rapid transit operation, and should that happen, a stop at Devon is essential.

Note 2: One of the other top 5 most productive routes is the 54 Cicero, which gives me some hope that the proposed Lime Line could be successful.

 

 

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.