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BRT v. LRT: Options For Our Transit Future

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Bus Rapid Transit is coming up a lot these days in the local pols' playbook, with the Metropolitan Planning Council releasing a report on 10 routes tailor-made for BRT, and calling on funding. Additionally, Mayor Emanuel and the CDOT are responsible for ongoing studies for two major BRT proposals — The Western Corridor BRT and The Jeffery Corridor BRT. According to CDOT, the Jeffery BRT has $10 million in dedicated federal funds and another East-West proposal from Navy Pier through downtown has $24.6 million to play with. It certainly seems that BRT has momentum in this town, but what about Light Rail Transit?

When the mayor appointed his new transit czar Gabe Klein, some saw it as an endorsement of Klein's light rail credentials from his time as transit boss in D.C. and that city's light rail accomplishments. Some exploratory proposals for light rail have already been floated in Chicago, such as a Cottage Grove line serving the far South Side as a piece of the city's South Lakeshore Transportation Corridor Study. With BRT garnering all the headlines (and the starter cash), does that mean we're years away from lending seriousness to light rail proposals?

BRT is often pitched as a starter kit for more intensive rail infrastructure once ridership is built, but sometimes ridership can only be built by rail. In planning circles, the debate rages. BRT and LRT are not mutually exclusive, however, especially in a city like Chicago, which has many highly built-up, dense corridors without much in the way of transit, and plenty of extra-wide avenues to accommodate dedicated transit lanes.

The right choice for the city might be a mix. Across the country, there are successful examples of both modes, so let's jot down some pros and cons:

BRT: Pros & Cons
· much cheaper / polluting
· flexible routes / noisy
· flexible capacity / an eyesore
· quickly implemented / requires wide thoroughfares

LRT: Pros & Cons
· friendly to streetscape / expensive
· pedestrian friendly / relatively inflexible
· environmentally sound / poorer service to far-flung areas
· proven to build ridership / track upkeep more disruptive
· quiet, smooth ride

There's your fairly comprehensive list of pros and cons. Doesn't necessarily make decisions any easier, and it's usually money that decide these things, anyway. However, given the mayor's outspoken interest in making Chicago a world-class pedestrian city, LRT is the natural choice for those neighborhoods where people can and do walk, while BRT might better suit the transit-starved far south and west sides. The concern is the city might do the exact opposite. Or nothing at all.
· The Silly Argument over BRT and Rail [The Transport Politic]
· South Lakefront Transportation Corridor Study [City of Chicago]
· Bus Rapid-Transit Plan Secures Federal Funds [City of Chicago]