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Chicago is getting more bus-only lanes. Could they alleviate rush hour congestion?

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With more rush hour enforcement, bus service could actually get more reliable

A red painted bus priority lane in downtown Chicago next to a bus shelter. There are tall buildings around the street and sidewalk.
A downtown bus stop with a priority bus lane.

In Chicago, bus ridership has steadily declined while ride-hailing services have skyrocketed. The city’s congestion is worse than ever before, which slows down buses and increases pollution.

How is the city fixing this? More dedicated bus lanes. Better enforcement for those bus-only lanes. And, higher fees for Uber and Lyft trips.

In April, bus-only lanes appeared on Chicago Avenue, and in October the funding for the Bus Priority Zone Program was quadrupled from $5 million to $20 million. In order to help the bus service improve, the Chicago Department of Transportation announced Tuesday it would impose rush hour restrictions on traffic.

The red bus lanes are only effective if other traffic isn’t in the way, so the city will begin to better enforce policies of no idling or stopping during morning and evening commutes along Chicago and Western avenues. Cars that choose to park in the bus lanes could end up with a $100 ticket.

Improving the bus system means reducing car traffic, minimizing pollution, and giving more people better access to rail lines. With less congestion, Active Transportation Alliance’s Executive Director Melody Geraci explained what an ideal bus service might look like.

“[Can you] imagine a bus coming up every 5, 10 minutes without being impeded in traffic, sailing through traffic signals, would this make your experience of riding the bus so much better? Could it encourage you to choose riding the bus over grabbing a ride-hailing vehicle? I think it could,” she said a previous announcement.

What improvements are coming to the bus system?

With a new budget of $20 million, the Bus Priority Zone Program will bring bus-only lanes, queue jump signals, and better traffic light timing to some of Chicago’s highest ridership routes. These traffic improvements aim to remove slow zones, bottlenecks, delays, and bunched up buses that come one right after the other.

Safety improvements will make it easier to walk and bike to bus stops as well. Riders will notice new pavement markers, clearer street-level and overhead signs, safer bus stop locations with curb extensions and pedestrian refuge islands.

The city first added short stretches of bus-only lanes to Chicago Avenue, Western Avenue, and 79th Street. In addition to these corridors, over the next two years transit officials will also consider Halsted Street, Pulaski Road, 63rd Street and Belmont Avenue.

Why we need a better bus system

Bus ridership has declined 28 percent since 2008, and ride-hailing services quickly grew by 271 percent between 2015 and 2018.

When the mayor first announced the additional funding for the Bus Priority Zone Program, she also proposed a change in the ride-hailing tax. The new tiered fee is now in effect and city officials hope it will alleviate downtown congestion and incentivize public transportation.

More than 250 million rides are taken on CTA buses per year—that’s half of all rides on the CTA. Improving service for these people is vital.

“Lower quality bus service has a major impact on equity as well and many bus riders live in disinvested communities or they work in places that lack access to rail. Without improvement to buses, Chicago risks people abandoning transit,” said Active Transportation Alliance’s Executive Director Melody Geraci at a previous announcement.

More bus-only lanes are popping up around the country, and Curbed’s Alissa Walker argues that every bus deserves it own dedicated lane. In 2019 a handful of cities (Minneapolis, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Seattle) built bus-only lanes which improved ridership and reliability. The impact of this infrastructure is crucial: less emissions, congestion, and traffic deaths.