Lessons for Chicago from Colombian transit

September 16, 2011

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(Flickr/Gerardo Arevalo Tamayo)
Bogota's TransMilenio bus rapid transit system can move up to 1.7 million passengers per hour.

When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office this spring he laid out ambitious plans to remake public transportation in the city, including the promise of gold standard bus rapid transit (BRT) within 3 years.

The elements that make up true BRT guarantee shorter travel times when compared even to light rail: dedicated bus lanes, pre-paid fares, platform boarding, multiple entry and exit points on busses and limited stops. Although five U.S. cities have some form of BRT, no North American city meets the gold standard. Building gold standard BRT in Chicago would put the city on the global transit map, so to speak.

The city is exploring the feasibility of establishing a 21 mile corridor on either Ashland Avenue or Western Avenue running between 95th Street and Howard, but they’ll face obstacles wherever they decide to build. Although it’s much cheaper to build BRT than rail lines ($35 million per mile of light rail versus less than $15 million per mile of BRT, according to a study from the Metropolitan Planning Council) budget constraints are making any major public works project an even bigger challenge these days.  Municipal governments also generally encounter resistance from motorists any time lanes of traffic are taken away from cars, and from business owners who fear they’ll lose business. And in Chicago, the parking meter privatization deal struck during the Daley years necessitates keeping level the number of available parking spaces – adding one for every one they take away. With 565 metered parking spaces along Western Avenue, that could be a tall order.

Only two cities in the world have gold standard BRT – Guangzhou, China and Bogota, Colombia. Bogota’s former mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, helped develop his city’s TransMilenio BRT system and is a recognized public transit guru who now serves as the board president of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. 

When he came to Chicago this summer, he offered the following advice to Mayor Emanuel: If you want BRT to succeed, you need more than fast busses. You need savvy marketing, private management and good public space. Peñalosa talks tactics in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Enrique Peñalosa spoke at an event presented by the Metropolitan Planning Council in August. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.