CTA's bus rapid transit won't be so rapid

The slow start to providing faster bus service is intentional, even calculated, Iacobucci said.

"There is a lot of low-hanging fruit that we can use to speed up service with these improvements," he said. "When we do other projects, the testing we will be doing on Jeffery will be a huge advantage."

Transit officials plan to follow up with more robust BRT efforts in the central Loop in 2014 and in subsequent years on Western and Ashland avenues when money becomes available.

The big question is whether the initial taste of a world-class bus transit service on Jeffery, minus the bells and whistles, will be enough to whet commuters' appetite for more. One risk is that the CTA's watered-down, phased-in substitute could form the public misconception that BRT isn't much of an improvement over regular express bus service, except for the fancy packaging and higher cost.

Experts said that while it would be great to be able to marshal the resources to roll out a full-blown, "gold standard" BRT system like China has done in the city of Guangzhou, it's not uncommon for bus rapid transit to be incrementally constructed.

"I think the CTA is taking a smart approach," said Dennis Hinebaugh, director of the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute at the University of South Florida. "They are saying, 'Let's put what we think we need out there and see what happens.' That's one of the big benefits of bus versus rail, where you must build the whole system before you start any service."

If CTA officials decide the Jeffery BRT experiment doesn't provide the desired travel-time savings, options that include off-board fare payment at bus stops can be added later, Hinebaugh said.

But attention to some details cannot wait or be compromised, he said.

"One of the big things to make sure of at the start is police enforcement of the no-parking hours for the dedicated bus-only lanes," Hinebaugh said. "You don't want commercial vehicles that are making deliveries holding up the buses."

Travel times on the Jeffery BRT route will be reduced by five to seven minutes compared with current express bus times, which are already competitive with service on the nearby Metra Electric District and CTA Red and Green rail lines, CTA officials said.

Some riders on the route said current trip times aren't the biggest problem.

"The Jeffery buses are already fast enough. What the CTA needs to do is run the service later into the night for people like me who work late," said Denise Wilson, a South Shore resident who works in North Chicago and faces a long daily commute on the CTA and Metra. The last No. 14 bus of the day leaves downtown about 10:30 p.m. on weekdays and earlier on weekends.

There are already detractors in Chicago who say the CTA has no business messing around with BRT when it should be laser-focused on improving the performance and reliability of existing bus routes, which provide about two-thirds of the 1.7 million daily rides on the system. Bus-bunching and overcrowding on buses remains a big problem, particularly in the downtown area during peak travel periods.

"Bus rapid transit is a disastrous, nonsensical mistake. It's a gimmick," Charles Paidock, a leader of the transit group Citizens Taking Action, testified before the CTA board at this year's budget hearings. "The last thing we want is three types of bus systems within CTA."

The BRT experiment on the Jeffery corridor, where about 21,000 rides a day are taken, has citywide implications. The CTA's long-range plans call for the superexpress buses operating on 20 corridors covering almost 200 miles, creating a new transit grid that connects bus rapid transit to existing CTA bus and rail services as well as Metra commuter trains.

CTA President Forrest Claypool emphasized that the its BRT test is a first for the transit agency. He is careful to avoid calling it BRT, or even "BRT Lite" anymore, a term he initially adopted after taking office more than a year ago.

"I think it's important to understand that Jeffery is testing various elements of BRT, but it is not what I think what anyone would call BRT," Claypool said. "It will cut the commute times for our customers. It will provide a more comfortable and faster ride, but those lessons we learn from that then will be applied to, I guess, a broader BRT."

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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