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Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Town

Busy No. 66 Chicago Bus Could Speed Up As City Plans $5 Million Upgrades For Popular Bus Routes

Designated bus-only lanes could be coming to "certain intersections" along the Chicago Avenue corridor, officials say.

CTA No. 66 riders prepare to board the Chicago Avenue bus. File photo.
Alisa Hauser/Block Club Chicago
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WEST TOWN —  One of the city’s most popular— and often congested— buses could soon be moving more quickly thanks to a city plan to eliminate “slow zones” on the crowded route.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office announced Sunday that the city plans to install designated bus lanes “on approaches to certain intersections” along the No. 66 Chicago Avenue bus.

The impacted intersections have not been announced yet, but adding a lane to certain stretches of Chicago Ave. could eliminate some street parking. The city did specify Chicago Avenue between Ogden Avenue and Lake Shore Drive as an area of interest.

The earmarked $5 million to improve the bus service is part of Emanuel’s proposed 2019 budget. The budget will go before the full City Council for a vote next month.

The upgrades would start in the spring and include new pavement marking and signage, “optimizing the location of bus stops” and curb extensions to support pedestrian safety, according to a news release.

Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld said in a news release that the goal of the targeted investments is “to speed up bus service, improve reliability, increase ridership and customer satisfaction and lower costs for the CTA.” 

The Chicago bus was selected due to its popularity, according to the mayor’s office. It saw 6.9 million rides last year, surpassed by 79th Street’s No. 79 bus, which saw 7.8 million rides last year. That bus line is also getting route upgrades. 

Credit: Alisa Hauser/Block Club Chicago
The No. 66 Chicago Avenue bus.

The updates for the two busy bus routes also support Emanuel’s plan to create more “transit-oriented development” on high capacity bus corridors – starting with the South and West Sides.

“Chicago has been a national leader in transit-oriented development, and these improvements will help make Chicago the first city to look at a citywide plan specifically around buses,” Mayor Emanuel said in a statement.

In June, Emanuel announced his plan to expand the city’s transit-oriented development policy and incentives for those building new housing within short distance of high-ridership, busy CTA bus routes. Emanuel’s full proposal to expand transit-oriented development incentives will be introduced to the City Council in December.

Related: No Parking? No Problem. Emanuel Considers Giving Developers Perks To Build Near Busy Bus Routes

According to a news release, the No. 66 and No. 79 buses were selected for the initial improvements based on CTA and CDOT studies that looked at a host of factors, including service coverage, ridership, operations, population/employment and feasibility. 

Chicago Avenue ‘Road Diet’

A proposal to put a stretch of Chicago Avenue in West Town on a “road diet” has been on the Chicago Department of Transportation’s exploratory docket this year, officials previously told the Sun-Times. 

The idea to reduce the number of traffic lanes from four to two and install bike lanes and a center turn lane were recommendations in a taxpayer-funded “We Are West Town” Master Plan completed last spring.

Katharine Wakem, program director for West Town Special Service Area No. 29, said that the group welcomes the slated improvements to the existing Chicago Avenue bus service.

“We are excited about the additional investment in Chicago Avenue’s transportation options. With the release of We Are West Town, A Five Year Master Plan, we recommended the City invest in making Chicago Avenue a Complete Street – one designed for pedestrians, bicycles, buses, and cars alike – that this investment would help address the various challenges Chicago Avenue is experiencing. We look forward to working closely with CDOT and the CTA to help make Chicago Avenue a safer and more pedestrian-friendly environment for consumers, residents and business owners,” Wakem said in a written statement on Monday.

In the We Are West Town report, planners identified the Ashland and Chicago avenues intersection as in need of an overhaul and suggested widening the sidewalks for pedestrians and adding curb “bump outs” for areas where pedestrians cluster en masse.

When asked about a potential removal of car parking to create a bus lane, Wakem said, “We can’t speak to the specifics of the project until plans are released, though we did receive concerns from the community about parking elimination while we gathered information for our Master Plan.” 

More Changes Ahead? 

In addition to 79th and Chicago Avenue bus route improvements, Emanuel’s office said that more targeted investments may also be identified on other busy bus corridors, such as Western and Ashland avenues.

A plan to bring a $160 million rapid-transit bus route to Ashand Avenue was introduced in 2013 and nixed after community opposition in 2014 and a lack of funding. The CTA brought back Ashland Avenue “express” bus service in 2015, with select buses only stopping every half-mile during rush hours to help speed up commutes. 

Credit: Alisa Hauser/Block Club Chicago
Riders wait to board the oft-packed CTA No. 9 Ashland bus near Ashland and North avenues.