Loop Link propels Chicago into Transit leap forward


Moss has been a proponent of BRT over the last few years despite its many setbacks in Chicago and we are excited to see how the first phase – the Loop Link starts to shift the transit landscape as it gets under way.  

What is Loop Link?

Per the city’s own BRT website, Loop Link is:

a “modern transportation upgrade on Washington, Madison, Clinton and Canal that will move everyone more efficiently through the loop while improving the connection between neighborhoods across Chicago to jobs in our Central Business district.”

Well and good.  More specifically, the Loop Link is a new dedicated bus lane (and busses) which will connect across the loop east to west to efficiently  (travelling between Michigan avenue and and the Ogilvie and Union Station transit centers) to ease the trips for commuters and tourists to the loop and museums hotels and Michigan Ave shopping areas.  

loop link map

As anyone who has every tried to catch a train at Union or Ogilvy knows, getting on a bus to connect from the lakeshore (or even the loop L station stops) is scheduling suicide.  Snarled traffic can mean busses go MUCH slower than foot traffic and its always safer to plan walking the distance, no matter the weather.  Currently, a number of downtown towers offer private shuttle services like this one to connect residents and workers with “L”, Metra and Amtrak stations, offering convenience to their users but further snarling traffic.  That may all be about to change with the 2 miles of dedicated bus lanes that are the heart of the  Loop Link system.

Other features include:

  • fully separated bike lanes (now located adjacent to the sidewalk with a bus lane AND bus access points between bikes and moving car traffic).
  • bus shelters located off the sidewalk (next to the bus access lane) to free up more space on some of Chicago’s busiest sidewalks.  
  • a pilot program for an off-bus fare system.  

Remember how Ventra is the lowest electronic record keeping system known to man?  You sure do if you’ve ever waited in the rain at the end of a long line of passengers waiting to board a crowded bus while each person taps … and waits … for their fare to be recorded.  Off bus fare collection lets each person check into the system as they arrive at the station, so that when the bus arrives they can stride on and sit down much more quickly.  Plus they can enter at every bus door (like a train) rather than queuing at the front.

Unfortunately the CTA is only piloting this at ONE of their new BRT station stops (Madison and Dearborn) rather than immediately instituting them everywhere.  Hopefully more will follow if the first one proves successful.  

So, now we have a BRT in Chicago, what’s next.  Well … extending the line, for a start.  We’d like to see the Ashland BRT idea get back on the drawing board pretty soon.  Further in the future, this kind of improved bus system may pave the way for future streetcar development.

Is BRT a Gateway Drug to Streetcars?

Possibly.  While Bus Rapid Transit systems themselves require significant influxes of cash and infrastructure, they are less expensive than pushing through a street car initiative and yet may act as a precursor.  

Establishing a dedicated lane for shared transit vehicles rather than cars, and by acclimating city residents to the idea of expecting a regular, easy-to-access, efficient transit system at street level, BRT systems pave the way for a streetcar lines to follow.

Streetcars … really?  

YES.  Even though they may evoke the quaint old days of yore, Streetcars are actually an up and coming transit mode in many cities around the country (links to other examples – Portland, Seattle, DC, New Orleans, Atlanta).  They were also a central element of transit in times past.  The image below shows a horse-drawn New York City street car running on rails along a wood planked street.  

horse drawn streetcar

People find street cars easier to navigate, more trustworthy and more approachable than buses (especially for new users such as tourists and other out-of-towners).  The riding experience is more pleasant and quieter.  They encourage development because their expense proves a permanence for that area – a guarantee of good traffic and other development that makes it easier to sell new ideas to investors.  

So, are we going to see streetcars return to Chicago any time soon?  Probably not.  Nor are we likely to get the fully city BRT system (including the Ashland Avenue BRT line) implemented right away.  But hopefully this new Loop Link system is a big step in the right direction of a unified, yet diverse, transit system for the city.