Changing Chicago through Bus Rapid Transit
Public transportation is the foundation of cities and communities everywhere. Not just any public transit system will do, however – it must be efficient, well planned, and comprehensive. For the past year, the Chicago-based non-profit Metropolitan Planning Council has conducted an in-depth study on transportation in Chicago and developed a vision for the city’s future development. Its key focus has been Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a network that capitalizes on the idea of livability by revitalizing bussing, improving neighborhoods, and easing urban congestion.
The MPC discussed its latest study at the “Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago’s New Route to Opportunity” event on Wednesday, August 17, 2011. Featured at the event was Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, and Annie Weinstock, the U.S BRT Program Director.
Though BRT is one of the most efficient public transit systems, it has not yet been widely instituted. In his speech, Peñalosa addressed the reasons behind this slow development. Several obstacles face BRT, among them doubts about it spurring private investment and redevelopment and belief that its operational costs are much greater than that of rail systems. Furthermore, many people are hesitant to take away road space from cars – road space being “the most valuable resource a city has,” said Peñalosa.
Peñalosa disproved each of these misgivings, however, first pointing to Salt Lake City as an example of a city whose tram system failed its redevelopment plan, and who could have benefited from BRT instead. He then explained that rail depreciation costs are rarely accounted for. Additionally, rail systems are frequently imported, whereas buses are more often than not locally made. Finally, Peñalosa stressed that road space “is a political decision. It is not a technical decision.”
Weinstock followed Peñalosa’s presentation by illustrating the gold-standard BRT, which comprises four main components: dedicated lanes separated from car traffic, pay-before-boarding stations that cut down on dwell time, wide doors and level boarding to further speed up the process, and signal prioritized intersections. In addition, the BRT system is built around iconic bus stations that are directly incorporated into the fabric of the city. These changes are aimed at solving such transportation problems as behind-schedule buses, long wait times, congestion, traffic jams, and overall inefficiency.
BRT also aims to embody the six federal Livability Principles by improving access to underserved areas and strengthening connections to schools, employment centers, and other community fixtures. As a whole, the system promises congestion relief while promoting community and lowering costs.
Serving as a paragon of BRT’s success is Bogotá, Colombia. Since the implementation of TransMilenio in 2000, which was largely carried out by Peñalosa, Bogotá has seen a reduction of travel time by 32 percent and of emissions by 40 percent. It has become an altogether revitalized city – a transformation Chicago now seeks to replicate as it works to make BRT a reality.
It is important to note that if BRT were to be instituted in Chicago, it must complement the expansion of the current CTA system. Indeed, for the last several years the CTA has been working on developing extensions to existing routes such as the Red and Orange Lines, and the creation of the Circle Line – a new route that aims to connect all existing CTA and Metra lines. What BRT presents is a welcome step in the evolution of Chicago's transit infrastructure; it should not come at the expense of the city’s ongoing plans for heavy rail extensions. Only in collaboration can these two projects bring about the economic and social redevelopment promised to Chicago.
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