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Prepaid bus boarding debuts on Belmont, but why doesn’t Loop Link have it yet?

Off-board fare collection would shorten travel times on the downtown bus corridor.

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Waiting for a westbound #77 Belmont bus outside the Blue Line’s Belmont stop. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • Waiting for a westbound #77 Belmont bus outside the Blue Line’s Belmont stop.

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arlier this month, when the CTA announced its plan to test a faster bus-boarding method on the #77 Belmont Avenue route, my first reaction was "huh?"

The six-month pilot, which started last Monday and is in effect from 3 to 7 PM on weekdays, has customers who catch the westbound Belmont bus from the Blue Line's Belmont-Kimball station paying their fares in advance. When the bus arrives, they walk right on via both the front and rear doors without having to pay onboard—just like getting on an el car.

Prepaid, all-door boarding is a key time-saving feature of fast bus systems around the country (including New York City's Select Bus Service lines and Seattle's RapidRide routes) because it shortens "dwell time" at the stops. So the decision to try it in Chicago was a no-brainer.

The head-scratcher for me was that the CTA has been planning to implement off-board fare collection along the Loop Link bus-rapid-transit corridor for years. But nearly six months after that route launched last December, prepaid boarding still hasn't materialized.

In contrast, there was no advance notice about the Belmont experiment until this month.

Why did the CTA decide to test prepaid boarding on the #77 before making this long-awaited upgrade to Loop Link?

The downtown BRT corridor already features red bus-only lanes, limited stops, raised boarding platforms, and special signals that give buses a head start at traffic lights—all of which help shorten travel times. But in 2014, before construction on the corridor began, the city revealed that it planned to implement prepaid boarding only at one of the eight Loop Link stations, located at Madison and Dearborn.

And in fall 2015, the city announced that prepaid boarding wouldn't even be in place at that station in time for the system's December debut. Instead, the CTA planned to pilot it at Madison-Dearborn sometime this summer.

But the transit agency says there are several reasons why the Belmont station, which is also served by the #82 Kimball bus, is a good location for the program's maiden voyage. The stop is one of Chicago's busiest rail-bus transfers—more than seven million rides were taken on the Belmont bus in 2015. The agency says boarding times on the Belmont bus can be as long as five minutes, which often results in "bus bunching," the hated phenomenon where customers wait an eternity for a ride only to have two or more buses appear at once.

CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman says the agency still plans to test off-board fare collection at the Madison/Dearbon Loop Link station later this year, in collaboration with the Chicago Department of Transportation. "While that location is different, the concept remains the same, and [the Belmont] pilot will help us to identify feasibility for any future opportunities."

“[Off-board fare collection on Belmont] has been working out great. This speeds the boarding process significantly, so I’m getting home earlier.”

—Anne Trainor, CTA commuter­

While there's no guarantee the Loop Link prepaid boarding pilot won't be pushed back again, Tolman did have one good piece of news about the BRT corridor: when the system debuted in December, the transit authority required bus operators to approach the raised boarding platforms at three mph so as to avoid smacking customers with their side mirrors. Along with the lack of off-board fare collection, the rule was a factor in why the $41 million Loop Link project initially seemed to have little effect on cross-Loop travel times. Tolman says they've finally gotten rid of this infuriating speed limit.

On Wednesday of last week, I checked out the prepaid boarding setup on Belmont. As you leave the subway, signs direct westbound bus passengers toward a fenced-off waiting area on the wide sidewalk on the south side of the station.

Two CTA employees, a young woman and an older man, were there to shepherd customers through the process. The man was standing by a battery-powered portable Ventra reader, mounted on a dolly at the cattle chute-like entrance to the waiting corral, and riders were required to pay their fare before proceeding.

Tapping a Ventra card on the portable reader to enter the paid waiting area. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • Tapping a Ventra card on the portable reader to enter the paid waiting area.

Each batch of customers formed a line to wait for the bus, but the woman encouraged them to create an additional queue. "We'll be boarding at the rear of the bus as well," she explained. The man kept an eye on a Transit Tracker screen, and if two buses were due around the same time, the employees would direct riders to form three lines.

I went around to the north side of the station, where a line of eastbound riders had assembled at a regular bus stop. When the eastbound bus arrived, it took two minutes and 35 seconds for everyone to file on through the front door and successfully tap their Ventra cards.

I returned to the prepaid boarding bullpen. When a westbound Belmont bus arrived, the female employee held the back doors open and customers swiftly walked on through both entrances, with no need to tap. It took only one minute and 15 seconds to completely load the bus.

Passengers board a westbound CTA #77 Belmont bus through both doors. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • Passengers board a westbound CTA #77 Belmont bus through both doors.

I talked to people from the next batch of riders. Everyone I interviewed was a daily commuter, so they'd experienced the new boarding protocol earlier in the week. They all spoke positively of it.

"It's been working out great," said Anne Trainor, who commutes from her home near Belmont and Austin to her job at a downtown insurance company. "This speeds the boarding process significantly, so I'm getting home earlier."

A Jehovah's Witness named Nick, who asked to be identified by his first name only, was nattily dressed in a necktie and porkpie hat, and stood proselytizing outside the station with some colleagues. He agreed the new system is an upgrade. He gives out literature at the stop every Wednesday, and because it previously took so long for buses to board, sometimes the lines of riders would wrap around the station, making it difficult to pass out copies of The Watchtower.

Religious differences aside, let us pray that the city implements this apparently successful prepaid boarding method on Loop Link sooner than later. That way the BRT system can live up to its potential to be a divinely efficient way to travel across downtown. v


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