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What Chicago can learn from Mexico City's bus rapid transit

Metrobús offers a taste of how robust BRT could work on Ashland.


A Metrobús station on Mexico City’s Avenida Xola, which has a similar layout to Chicago’s Ashland Avenue. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • A Metrobús station on Mexico City’s Avenida Xola, which has a similar layout to Chicago’s Ashland Avenue.

With a metropolitan population of 21 million, the largest of any city in the western hemisphere, Mexico City is often associated with overcrowding, air pollution, and traffic jams. But when I visited for the first time last month, I found it to be a place of beautiful Spanish colonial and art deco architecture, intriguing museums, tasty chow, and warmhearted people.

The Distrito Federal, or D.F., as Mexico City is called in Spanish, also has a kick-ass public transportation system. Its Metro is the second-busiest rapid transit system in North America, after New York City's. While the train cars can be scary-packed during rush hour, they crisscross a large portion of the city and provide a fast, smooth ride compared to Chicago's el trains.

And over the last decade, Mexico City has supplemented its subway by developing one of the world's leading bus rapid transit networks, the Metrobús system, which debuted on Avenida de los Insurgentes in 2005. With dedicated bus lanes and raised-platform stations, the system provides subwaylike commute speeds at a small fraction of the infrastructure cost of underground transit. The sixth route opened in mid-January, and a seventh line is slated for completion later this year.

As a wide, mostly straight roadway that runs the length of the city and intersects with many rail lines, Insurgentes is not so different from Chicago's Ashland Avenue, where Mayor Emanuel has proposed building our city's first full-on bus rapid transit corridor. As such, there's a lot that we can learn from Mexico City's experiences with Metrobús.

A rendering of the proposed Ashland Avenue BRT corridor. - CTA
  • CTA
  • A rendering of the proposed Ashland Avenue BRT corridor.

The road to full-fledged BRT in Chicago has been anything but smooth. In 2012 the CTA rolled out the Jeffery Jump, a "BRT-lite" route serving the south side, funded by an $11 million Federal Transit Administration grant. It features dedicated lanes on a mere two miles of its 16-mile route, and only during rush hour.

That year, the city also held a series of public meetings on what would become the plan for a robust bus rapid transit system on Ashland between 95th and Irving Park, with dedicated lanes for the entire route, center-running buses, median stations, and other time-saving features. This $160 million project has been highly controversial, because it would involve converting two of the street's four travel lanes into bus-only lanes, and eliminating most left turns from Ashland for drivers.

Aldermen George Cardenas and Scott Waguespack were critical of the proposal. Randolph/Fulton Market Association executive director Roger Romanelli formed the Ashland-Western Coalition, an anti-BRT group, in an effort to derail the plan.

By August 2015 , when Emanuel announced the return of regular express bus service on Ashland and Western, it was clear that the Ashland BRT plan had been placed on the back burner. "It's way off in the future," the mayor said. "The only bus rapid transit I'm focused on right now is . . . in the Central Business District."

Emanuel was referring to the $41 million Loop Link corridor, which opened in December, mostly on Washington and Madison. The route features red dedicated lanes and raised-platform stations, and serves six bus routes. So far the system's performance has been underwhelming.

While it was supposed to have doubled cross-Loop bus speeds from the previous, glacial, 3 mph rush-hour pace, that hasn't happened yet. Last week, a 0.8-mile trip I took on Madison between Michigan and Canal took 11 minutes.

Due to a horrific traffic jam on the Washington bridge, my eastbound return trip took a whopping 15 minutes. In addition, CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman confirmed last week that drivers are still required to creep cautiously towards the stations at 3 mph in order to avoid striking passengers with their rearview mirrors.

A Metrobús station on Mexico City’s Avenida de los Insurgentes. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • A Metrobús station on Mexico City’s Avenida de los Insurgentes.

During my trip to the D.F., I was impressed by how well the Metrobús system functions. To access the buses, you cross the street to the median stations, which double as pedestrian islands. After buying a pass from a kiosk, you swipe your card at a turnstile—each ride costs six pesos, or about $0.30.

Buses run at high frequencies, and when one shows up, there's very little "dwell time" at the station—passengers have already paid and can enter the bus through multiple doors. The platform is the same level as the bus floor, so it's easy to step into the bus or roll a wheelchair aboard. And since the dedicated lanes are car-free, the buses average almost 20 miles per hour.

While in Mexico City I dropped by the local office of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a global BRT authority, to talk with Ulises Navarro, the group's Latin American director for public transit. Navarro previously served as the project manager for the city's first BRT line.

As with the Ashland plan, residents and merchants along the Insurgentes corridor worried at first that converting a travel lane in each direction to bus-only use would slow down car traffic, which was already grinding along at an average of 7.5 mph at the time, Navarro said. Instead, by replacing the many privately run "Microbúses" on the street with a single bus line, the BRT system actually increased traffic speeds by 4 to 7 percent.

The new system also helped take automobiles off the road. Based on onboard interviews with customers, 15 to 17 percent of Metrobús riders formerly used cars to make the same trip. "So there's a modal change when you provide a quality system," Navarro said.

When the Insurgentes line was being designed, the street carried between 180,000 and 190,000 bus passengers a day. The planners expected that to rise to between 200,000 and 220,000 riders after the BRT launch.

Ulises Navarro - IDTP
  • IDTP
  • Ulises Navarro

"But within six months, the demand was over 300,000 and we needed to buy more buses," Navarro said. The line currently carries about 400,000 people a day.

After outlining the Ashland Avenue proposal to Navarro, I told him about the backlash the plan had received, for example, from business owners who feared than fewer cars on the street would mean fewer sales. "Merchants think that by having a lot of car traffic on their avenues, they're going to make more money," Navarro replied. "That's not true. We've had a similar issue when we've pedestrianized shopping streets. They start screaming, only to find out that by having more foot traffic, they have more business."

I asked Navarro what the best strategy is to convince Chicagoans that Ashland BRT is a good idea. "It's really a matter of policy," he said. "Do you want to keep having really car-oriented development, or do you want to change that and have more transit and sustainable development?"

Tolman said the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation are still working on planning the Ashland BRT corridor. Meanwhile, to enhance the regular express bus service that was restored in December, the agencies are working on adding bus-priority traffic signals on Ashland between Cermak and 95th. "These improvements are compatible with any future BRT service," he said.

Tolman added that in October 2011, two CTA employees and a few other city staffers traveled to Mexico City to check out Metrobús as part of a Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored BRT educational program.

The CTA projects that, if completed, the Ashland BRT would nearly double average rush-hour bus speeds from the current snail-like 8.9 mph pace to 15.9 mph.

After I flew back into O'Hare last week, I caught the Blue Line to Montrose, then transferred to the #78 bus to head home to Uptown. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon, and it was maddening to crawl along in pre-rush-hour traffic after I'd experienced the Metrobús system. As far as I'm concerned, fast, efficient bus service on Ashland and other Chicago streets can't arrive soon enough. v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.

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