Skosey: Bus rapid transit plan puts a glimmer in developers’ eyes

Peter SkoseyRecently, Mayor Richard Daley and the Chicago Transit Authority made news by accepting a $153 million grant from the US Department of Transportation to relieve traffic congestion. The city plans to use the funds to develop a bus rapid transit system and implement “peak period pricing” for parking in the Loop.

This should come as welcome news to anyone who wants easier access to downtown attractions and developers seeking new prospects in untapped city markets.

Bus rapid transit is not your grandfather’s bus service – or your current service, for that matter. A key difference is that bus rapid transit systems have fixed stations, like ‘L’ and Metra stations, which attract new storefronts, increase the land value around stations, and bring new life to the streets and neighborhoods along planned routes. In Cleveland, Ohio, investment in the Healthline, a 6.7-mile bus rapid transit system, sparked 7.9 milion square feet of new commercial development and some 9,000 jobs.

Among urban home buyers, access to transit is among the top selling points. Bus rapid transit improves the reliability of mass transit by 25 to 30 percent and is also faster than buses, thanks to its dedicated lanes and signal priority. Some 5,400 new residential units have developed along Cleveland’s Healthline, a testament to transit’s draw.

It may seem counterintuitive that bus rapid transit will relieve traffic congestion when, by design, it brings new development to communities. Indeed, communities thrive when a certain level of congestion exists; bustling streets and sidewalks are a sign that a community has much to offer. On the other hand, bumper-to-bumper traffic, shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrians, and overcrowded buses and ‘L’ trains gum up the works. Bus rapid transit can help strike the delicate balance between too much and too little traffic by attracting new development while giving people faster, more convenient options for getting to, from and around their neighborhood.

Even for Chicagoans who won’t use bus rapid transit to get around, the system has benefits. Despite well-intentioned but miserably failed attempts to pave our way out of congestion, Chicagoans and visitors to our city have been living a traffic nightmare for years. The city recognizes the need to try a different approach, and fast. Bus rapid transit fits that bill: It is three times faster and eight times cheaper to build than a new rail network, but will take comparable numbers of people off the roads.

It’s getting results in cities in the U.S. and across the globe. Bogotá, Colombia, has an extensive system that moves 1.3 million people per day. Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe has eliminated parking lanes to make way for Le Mobilien, the French equivalent. Since taking office on his platform to reduce congestion by 40 percent, Delanoe increased transit use by 5.5 percent in just five years, while decreasing private auto use by 20 percent. Can’t be done in the U.S., you say? Think again. Los Angeles’ has the Orange Line, Boston, Mass. has the Silver Line, and Miami, Fla. has the South Miami Dade Busway, just to name a few.

The city’s congestion relief plan utilizes basic economics. Demand for our roadways is increasing, and they are in limited supply. Bus rapid transit, coupled with a small increase in parking rates, is a smart way to manage demand for this scarce resource. If just a few people choose to move by transit instead of drive during the peak hours, everyone will benefit.

Places that are successfully fighting traffic have one thing in common: They’re striking a balance between too much and too little traffic by trying new, cost-effective approaches to give people better options for getting around. Chicago’s plan is a smart, resourceful and essential first step to making Chicago more livable for generations to come.

Peter Skosey is vice president of external relations for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit civic group that advocates sustainable urban development policies.

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