At the outset of Rahm Emanuel’s tenure as mayor, Chicago’s 800,000 daily bus riders had a high-powered ally. His early plans called for three projects that combined bus-only lanes, faster boarding, and traffic signal technology.

OPINION

While a project on Ashland Avenue ran into political opposition, the other two have proved successes. The “Jeffery Jump” express bus route has sped up trips by 23 percent, and the downtown Loop Link has increased bus speeds and improved traffic safety.

In the seven years since Emanuel took office, those are the only major bus projects the city has completed. The mayor now is focused on an express train between the Loop and O’Hare Airport, which, if feasible, would marginally improve service for a few business travelers. Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind The Boring Company, which was chosen by the city this week to build the line, says he can get the ride down to 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, average bus speeds in Chicago have steadily declined. Bus ridership also has fallen, from 310 million rides in 2011 to 249 million last year.

Yet in those same seven years, New York City has opened 12 bus priority corridors. Seattle, which has a quarter of the residents of Chicago, has opened four rapid routes.

How did those places run up the score on Chicago? My colleague Rosalie Ray and I conducted research on efforts to speed up bus service in six U.S. cities. We found that Chicago agencies weren’t given a strong mandate to create an ongoing transit streets program, and never collaborated as fully.

Building projects to speed up buses requires close coordination between agencies that often lack a history of working together. In Chicago, the Chicago Transit Authority operates buses but the city’s Department of Transportation has responsibility for streets, sidewalks and traffic signals. With the support of the mayor, both agencies were able to set turf issues aside to produce the “Jeffery Jump” and Loop Link projects. But collaboration more or less stopped there.

Meanwhile, agencies in New York and Seattle went beyond single projects and developed ongoing bus improvement programs. They figured out where buses were held up by traffic, created a regular pipeline of projects, and encouraged cross-agency decision-making. The New York City and Seattle Departments of Transportation also hired staff with transit expertise, and created internal teams focused on transit-first street designs.

As a result of failing to restructure the way that agencies conceive and deliver projects, Chicago now has just 4 miles of dedicated bus lanes — compared to 104 miles in New York and 35 in Seattle. Denver opened 4 miles of bus lanes in 2017 alone, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has announced plans to hire a city “transit team” focused on speeding up the bus.

Granted, Chicago faces unique challenges because of its 2008 parking-meter privatization. If the city wants to replace metered spots with a bus lane, it has to find replacement spaces or pay the company that operates meters. Despite these obstacles, Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance believes 50 miles of bus lanes are possible.

One promising sign is that the CTA and city’s Department of Transportation are now working together to identify the street segments where buses bog down the most. Their findings should serve as the basis for a pipeline of future bus priority projects. Mayor Emanuel should champion those projects, demand closer collaboration and allocate the resources to make them happen.

Setting up institutions to deliver a regular set of projects that improve life for the average Chicagoan is less headline-generating than building the O’Hare express train. But despite worsening service, bus riders still outnumber rail riders in Chicago, and they rely on buses to reach jobs, healthcare and their families. Emanuel’s first-term embrace of the bus was commendable. Riders are now stuck at the curb, waiting for what’s next.

Steven Higashide is director of research for TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation working to improve public transportation in U.S. cities. TransitCenter’s report, “A Path to Partnership,” is available at transitcenter.org.

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