The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) recently released a report entitled, “Chicago’s New Route to Opportunity,” a two-pronged call to action based on over a year’s worth of research on bus rapid transit systems. The MPC recommendation not only calls for investment in a bus rapid transit system for the City of Chicago, but also for the use of livability screening methodology in making transit decisions.

Recently celebrating its 77th anniversary, the Metropolitan Planning Council is an independent, not-for-profit organization involved in policy development, policy promotion, and policy implementation for the Chicago region. Basically following the footprint of Metra, the suburban rail system, its coverage area extends as far north as the Wisconsin border and runs through Will County, and east across the state line as far as Michigan City, Indiana.

The public transit system in Chicago is ripe for improvement, and the addition of a bus rapid transit system would greatly enhance existing transit options in the City, according to the report. It could also promote economic development.

In the interview that follows, Josh Ellis, Project Manager for the Metropolitan Planning Council, explains how bus rapid transit is a feasible transit option that could help provide greater access to jobs, shopping areas, schools, stores, and other amenities – and, in some cases – breathe new life into stagnant communities.

MuniNet: By definition, what is bus rapid transit, and how does it differ from traditional bus systems?

Ellis: Four main components differentiate bus rapid transit systems from traditional bus service. Bus rapid transit systems:

  • Utilize dedicated lanes rather than starting and stopping with regular traffic;
  • Offer pay-before-boarding stations, eliminating lines at the bus door;
  • Provide level boarding (no steps), as station platform is at same level as bus door(s); and
  • Are equipped with transponders to turn or keep lights green at intersections.

Great global cities offer many quality-of-life amenities, but depending on where residents live or work, some of these amenities may not be easily accessible by traditional bus routes. Drawing deeply on the concept of livability, bus rapid transit systems can better connect residents and businesses to hospitals, libraries, shopping areas, restaurants and theaters, for example.

In contrast with bus stops, bus rapid transit stations are standing brick-and-mortar buildings that can become a focal point for neighborhood development, much along the lines of a train station.

MuniNet: Would bus rapid transit compete with existing transit systems in Chicago?

Ellis: Bus rapid transit would actually complement existing bus and commuter rail systems by connecting more neighborhoods to Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus and Metra train routes, thereby increasing their accessibility to more people. Bus rapid transit would fill the transportation gaps in neighborhoods with limited or no access to CTA or Metra lines.

Great global cities offer many quality-of-life amenities, but depending on where residents live or work, some of these amenities may not be easily accessible by traditional bus routes.

Based on its own independent research, the MPC report reflects its vision for bus rapid transit in Chicago. However, the CTA applied for – and received – a federal grant to perform an analysis of several possible bus rapid transit stations along existing bus service routes. We have shared our findings with the CTA, and consider this a cooperative endeavor.

MuniNet: How can a new type of bus system contribute to the livability of a community?

Ellis: Livability encompasses many factors, including safe, reliable, and affordable transportation choices. As we stated in our report, transit planning needs to take into account unique individual’s needs to access work, schools, parks, and shopping, and other amenities. Today’s bus systems do that, but often slowly and awkwardly. We believe that bus rapid transit done right can improve the lives of Chicago and suburban residents and, at the same time, stimulate job growth and community redevelopment.

MuniNet: What other cities operate bus rapid transit systems?

Ellis: Many cities around the world have bus rapid transit systems in place; in fact, Bogota, Colombia’s system is ranked the finest in the world by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. At this point, only five U.S. cities – Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Eugene, Oregon – operate true bus rapid transit systems.

MuniNet: What would be the funding source(s) for the bus rapid transit system? Would it be run and maintained by the City of Chicago?

Ellis: MPC has considered – but not yet come to any final recommendations – regarding the granular details of funding and operating a bus rapid transit system. In addition to traditional funding options, including the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” and “Small Starts” grants, other cities have employed innovative funding programs such as value capture financing, a type of infrastructure financing where increases in property values are “captured” and used to pay for system maintenance. Because bus rapid transit falls under the community development umbrella, it might also be funded through a tax-increment-financing (TIF) or special assessment district. Leasing the system to a private company is another option, as is some type of public-private partnership arrangement.

MuniNet: Fast-forward: If there were enough political support and ample funding for a bus rapid transit system, what is the earliest Chicagoans could expect to see such a system in place?

Ellis: Realistically, bus rapid transit systems can move from concept to reality within three years, during which time existing roads would need to be realigned, stations would be built, and a fleet of special vehicles would be purchased. Analysis of a bus rapid transit system began while former Mayor Richard Daley was still in office, but the transition team of the City’s new administration, headed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, shifted it to high priority. Mayor Emanuel is serious about bus rapid transit, stating the goal to have a functioning, legitimate, state-of-the-art bus rapid transit system in place during the first term of his administration.

About the Expert:

Josh Ellis, Project Manager, has been with Metropolitan Planning Council since 2006. His focus is on advancing MPC’s environmental and economic goals through policy research, advocacy, and community engagement. His areas of expertise include sustainable water resources management, water supply planning and conservation, transit-oriented development, economic development, energy efficiency, and climate change.

Josh received a Master of Public Policy degree from the University of Chicago, along with a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies (also from the University of Chicago), and a bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary.