Last fall, Chicago Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld argued that CTA bus service needed to be made “sexy” to reverse eroding ridership tied to ride-hailing.

What Mayor Rahm Emanuel is delivering cannot be characterized as “sexy” — but it has the potential to be groundbreaking.

At a time when bus ridership is declining, Emanuel wants to expand the city’s transit-oriented development policy to include “high-ridership, high-frequency” bus routes.

Chicago’s 5-year-old transit-oriented development policy is confined to areas around Metra and CTA rapid transit lines. It increases the density of new developments and requires fewer parking spaces in those areas with the goal of reducing traffic congestion and car ownership, bolstering mass transit ridership and reducing carbon emissions.

Now, Emanuel wants to broaden the umbrella to include at least four bus corridors where ridership is highest and buses run more frequently.
“The four lines we identified to study — Chicago, Western, Ashland and 79th — are some of busiest bus lines we have in this city,” said the mayor’s policy chief, Chris Wheat.

“Nearly 7 million people took the 66 Chicago Avenue bus last year; 8.7 million people took the Western and Western Express bus last year. … People are already voting with their feet and their dollars. … The mayor’s proposal is recognizing that and figuring out: How do we build more housing and more development along those lines?”

Noting that the CTA plans to add electric buses on Chicago Avenue and prioritize signals along Ashland and Western, Wheat said: “We want to leverage those investments to recognize that people use both rail and bus to get around.”

City and CTA officials will start the process of including the bus routes in the development policy by working with local aldermen and community leaders over the next six months.

The goal is to: “right-size transit-oriented-development incentives for different segments” of high-ridership bus corridors; evaluate “bus-to-bus and bus-train connections;” develop “incentives to support affordability;” and consider “investments to enhance transit services” to accommodate that new development.”

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) argued that before expanding transit-oriented development to bus corridors, City Hall needs to make certain the concept “functions as intended” near rail corridors.

“We’ve seen examples where buildings have been built under the [transit-oriented development] statute, and then people who move in own cars anyway. That’s defeating the whole purpose. We have to address that,” Hopkins said.

Emanuel’s 2018 budget raised ride-hailing fees by 15 cents a ride this year and another nickel in 2019 to bankroll CTA capital improvements. But the CTA used the money to improve its rail system.

Hopkins wants to raise the ride-hailing fee even higher — he won’t say how much — to make bus service — which has suffered most from Uber and Lyft — quicker, safer and more frequent.

“If public transit is more convenient and more economical than ride-share, people will make that choice. Right now, they’re choosing ride-share because it’s so inexpensive and, as we continue to curtail CTA service, you have to wait longer for a bus. It makes it an easier choice to hail an Uber,” he said.

Without bus service improvements, Hopkins argued that transit-oriented development along those major bus corridors “won’t work.”

“More frequent service, more comfortable service, safety improvements so people don’t feel threatened when using public transit. All of those things are proven methods for increasing ridership,” he said.

Not all of those improvements cost money.

On the Chicago Avenue No. 66 route, Hopkins noted that travel times have increased dramatically — and much of that congestion is caused by ride-share drivers illegally parking and blocking the curb lane.

“We need better enforcement, better signage, better pavement markings — things that will let people know it’s not OK to block traffic with your four-way flashers on. That has a major impact on all traffic, but particularly buses that rely on the curb lane and can’t get to the next bus stop,” Hopkins said.

“We see travel times going up. That frustrates people. So they give up on the CTA.”

The Active Transportation Alliance has proposed a “back on the bus” plan that includes what spokesman Kyle Whitehead called “three relatively low-cost and efficient” ways to make bus service faster and more reliable.

They are dedicated bus lanes, either in full or portions of major routes; giving buses “transit signal priority” in the form of an early or longer green light at busy intersections; and faster boarding at the busiest stops by allowing people to board through the rear and front doors, and pay before getting on the bus.

“At a time of limited resources, we think the city could get a lot of return for some of these relatively low-cost investments,” Whitehead said.

“These are all things the city has done, [but only] to a limited extent.”

As for Hopkins’ proposal to raise the ride-sharing fee, Whitehead said, “We would have liked some of that [initial] revenue to be spent on making buses faster and more reliable, but the CTA’s initial plan was to use that money on rail. So if there’s an opportunity to increase the fee and use that new money to improve bus service, that’s something we would support.”

The CTA’s controversial $160 million plan to build 16 miles of dedicated bus rapid transit lanes down the center of Ashland Avenue has been put on the back burner in favor of a $30 million plan to use express buses and “smart” traffic signals to speed travel times on Ashland and Western.

Whitehead said the concept of dedicated bus lanes on Ashland should be revisited — particularly now that Emanuel has earmarked the corridor for transit-oriented development.

“We supported that proposal when it was first rolled out. But we’re always open to ways the proposal could be changed and improved in ways that the community could support,” he said.