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Transit on the tollway?

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Yesterday, the Illinois Tollway Authority voted to increase tolls, effective Jan. 1. It wants to put $240 million of an expected $12.1 billion program to add an extra lane on the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90 from the Chicago city limits to the Wisconsin border*) and a widened shoulder; all of which could conceivably be used in the future for BRT with a dedicated bus lane and stations.

It’s heavily traveled
Currently, the 600, 606, 610 and 616 PACE (suburban Chicago) bus routes run via the tollway. The 606 (Northwest Limited) is the only all-day service along the route, linking the Rosemont Blue Line station, the Woodfield Mall/Corporate Center, the Northwest Transit Center and other destinations in the northwest suburbs; the 600 is an express and the 610 and 616 are commuter-focused, rush-hour routes.

In the short term, PACE hopes to add four new routes in the next three years. The four routes that PACE hopes to add would intersect the tollway. Route 604 would travel roughly north-south between Palatine and the Northwest Transportation Center in Schaumburg (so intersecting the Addams); routes 605 and 606 would knit together Elgin and the NWT or Elgin and Rosemont; and route 608 would travel between Addison to the NWT.

There’s no doubt that this is a heavily traveled area. Chicago’s northwestern and western suburbs are the “favored quarter” of the region; places like Schaumburg, Hoffman Estates and Naperville host a large share of the region’s jobs. A 2009 Brookings report claims that only 17.9% of Chicago’s 3,631,387 jobs, so roughly 650,000 jobs, are within three miles of the Loop, which is the second-largest central business district in the country.

The Tribune says that there are roughly 435,000 jobs along the route of the tollway, with bigwigs such as  Sears Holdings, Motorola, Woodfield Mall and AT&T, as well as the support service businesses for these areas. The tollway is essentially halfway between the two Metra commuter rail lines, which therefore do a good job of servicing places like Barrington’s and Arlington Height’s suburban downtowns, but a poor job of reaching the major office campuses clustered along the highways. The current transit share is at a meager 2 percent.

Tollway transit difficulties
But back to the Addams tollway transit proposals. In theory, this sounds amazing — build lanes that could conceivably be used for BRT service down the highway in a job-heavy area of the metropolis. Transit in highway ROWs and medians isn’t foreign to Chicago — three area expressways (the Kennedy, Eisenhower and Dan Ryan) already host CTA rail lines, so this isn’t something that is new to the area. So I’m excited about PACE’s efforts to knit together the northwest suburbs more effectively, but I think there are a number of issues.

First, I wonder how many riders they’ll attract who aren’t Chicago reverse commuters. The rush-hour commuter services now all depart westbound from Rosemont in the AM and return westbound in the PM. Chicago’s existing rapid transit and commuter rail service are heavily radial. The bus network is a grid in this most relentlessly gridded of cities, but they are slow (hence the proposal for bus rapid transit in the city!) and for those that live far enough east in the city, either getting to Rosemont or the L is so time-consuming that transit starts to become uncompetitive. In addition, much of the Northwest Side of the city — part of Chicago’s famous Bungalow Belt — is far from any sort of rapid transit and is therefore relatively more car-dependent.

Furthermore, a lot of the residents working in the northwest suburbs live out there, as well, in places like the Fox River Valley, Barrington, Inverness, Palatine, Naperville, Hinsdale, etc. A higher-up once commented to me that it was “more convenient” that Sears Holdings had moved from their eponymous Loop tower to Hoffman Estates. While I was initially baffled, I then realized that for many people, it is more convenient. To run daily errands in most of these areas requires a car already, and for many driving to these corporate campuses is easier.

Of course, poverty in the suburbs is increasing and there will always be those for whom being carless is not a lifestyle choice, but an economic choice. And ferrying people to and from their jobs isn’t transit’s sole job, although it is quantitatively certainly its most important role. But for many people, there’s a theoretical choice between private automobile ownership and transit (and transit, of course, wants them to choose the latter!)

Based on the June figures, the current PACE routes on the Addams (600, 606, 610 and 616) carry roughly 2,300 riders/a day. The Tribune says PACE estimates that the four new routes will take 1,000 automobile trips off the tollway. Car trips and ridership are not equivalent, but given that the majority of commuters out here are solo drivers, it’s a rough approximate figure. It’s adding something, but not a tremendous increase.

Second, I think that if the Tollway Authority hopes to eventually reserve a lane for rapid transit, they are going to face an uphill battle. Places like London, which has successfully implemented congestion charges and has a much higher transit share than Chicago, have seen exclusive bus lanes converted back to all motorist-lanes. It’s very difficult to fight the perception that a lane devoted entirely to BRT or buses is seizing a lane away from cars or a waste of space.

The big picture
The bigger picture, of course, is that there is going to be a lane increase on the Tollway. The Chicago metropolitan area, if not the central city, continues to expand and I’ve no doubt that there will be continued job growth in the northwest and western suburbs if the patterns don’t change. I’m intrigued to see what the Tollway Authority will do with an extra lane, but any sort of exclusive bus lane or BRT is almost certainly far in the future, and even if it isn’t so, I think it will face considerable difficulties if it does premiere.

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Written by Andrew ACG

August 26, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Posted in Buses, Cars, Chicago