City announces permanent bus lanes on Chicago Avenue; advocates worry about enforcement, frequency

Despite the city making “important changes,” activists worry infrequent service and scofflaw motorists will undermine the changes.

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The No. 66 bus runs along Chicago Avenue, from Austin Avenue to Navy Pier. Here, an electric bus used on that route recharges at the pier.

The No. 66 bus route runs along Chicago Avenue, from Austin Avenue to Navy Pier. Changes being added to the route will include permanent bus-only lanes along Chicago Avenue between Western and Ashland.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

After months of Chicagoans calling for changes to public transit and pedestrian walkways, the city announced a slew of projects on Friday, including plans for permanent bus lanes on Chicago Avenue.

On both sides of the street, the outer, curbside lane will be “bus only” from Ashland to Western avenues. That change had been temporarily introduced in 2020 to prioritize bus service during the pandemic.

“By making these temporary measures permanent, we are cutting several minutes off the typical commute for those traveling through the corridor, and further improving service reliability across the entire route,” said CTA President Dorval R. Carter, Jr. in the release. 

The changes would mostly impact the No. 66 bus route, which serves more than 12,000 riders on an average weekday, a nearly 11% increase compared to last year, according to data published by the CTA in July. 

Additionally, Chicago Avenue is slated to get curb bump-outs — which extend the sidewalk into the parking lane at the end of blocks — and left-turn traffic calming, which consist of installing “rubber speed bumps, vertical posts and hardened centerlines,” with the goal of making crosswalks safer. 

The work is a joint venture between the city’s Department of Transportation and the CTA called Bus Priority Zones.

The other projects include adding a bus lane to Western Avenue, between Logan Boulevard and George Street, during “peak hours,” as well as bus lanes and other improvements on 79th Street near Kedzie and Columbus avenues. 

“This full-time bus lane on Chicago Avenue, combined with ongoing pedestrian safety investments, will create a more transit and people-friendly street,” Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi said in a statement Friday, adding that the goal is to create more “walkable” streets.

The city also says more projects to “calm vehicle traffic” and “improve pedestrian safety” are on the way, though details were not provided. 

This all comes in the wake of Chicagoans calling for better public transit service after being “ghosted” by buses that appear in online trackers but never show up. Pedestrian safety organizations also have been demanding changes to improve safety for bike riders and pedestrians after several cyclists and pedestrians — including several children — have been killed in recent months. 

Luca Harsh, a founding member of Commuters Take Action — which describes itself as a collective of “frustrated Chicago commuters” — applauded the steps, calling it “great” progress. 

But Harsh had concerns about enforcement, however, and the fact that cars may still use the lanes regardless of the changes. Harsh suggested Chicago adopt practices similar to New York City’s transit system, which has installed automated cameras to ticket motorists who park or drive in designated bus lanes. 

“The lanes can only do what they need to do if people are following the rules and it’s properly enforced,” Harsh said. 

Enforcement aside, Harsh still had concerns about how frequently buses will run, given staffing problems that can lead to “ghost buses,” noting that the changes announced Friday may not have an actual impact on transit times if the CTA doesn’t increase the number of buses on its routes. 

“These are all important changes, but if they don’t have the frequent service to match them, they’re still going to fall short,” Harsh said.

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