Bus on Shoulder Lets Cars Shoulder Congestion Alone

April 26, 2013
Bus on shoulder service continues to grow in popularity for agencies grappling with highway congestion

Like most suburbs in southwestern Chicagoland, Bolingbrook, Ill., isn’t a very old place.

The community is 46 years old and borders I-55, which is part of the old Route 66, one of the first expressways to service Chicago. Farmlands that bordered the road disappeared and now Bolingbrook is a city of 74,000 people—whom mostly work in Chicago or nearby Cook County. And while other nearby communities have direct train service into Chicago, the nearest stations to Bolingbrook are about 10 miles away in Joliet, Ill., and Aurora, Ill.

“When we had any kind of [city] meetings we wouldn’t start them until 8 p.m. for the people who commute so they could get home and spend some time some time with their family,” Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar said. “That’s a practice we still hold today because so many people here seek work in the city or Cook County.”

In 2011, Pace Suburban Bus System began a pilot program with the Illinois Department of Transportation to implement bus on shoulder service for two routes along I-55 in order to alleviate issues with buses getting to their destinations on time and to help encourage people to use transit. In just one year, Pace saw its on-time performance from the new bus on shoulder routes jump from 68 percent to 90 percent, while ridership on the two routes jumped 60 percent and 152 percent respectively.

BOS Grows in popularity

Bus on shoulder isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that’s growing. OC Transpo in Ottawa started using it on the Queensway on the west end the shoulder lanes stretch form Moodie Drive to Eagleson Road; and the east end bus shoulder lanes are on Regional Road 174 between Blair Road and Place d'Orleans.

Pace began the bus on shoulder pilot in November 2011, with most of the costs paid for with a $1.5 million Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) grant to finance road improvements, signage, restriping the lanes and relocating rumble strips. Large portions of I-55 have 12 feet wide shoulders prior to implementing the service, which allowed for a less expensive start to the program.

Dennis NewJahr, senior group manager of transit and rail for Atkins, said bus on shoulder service allows for buses to become more competitive with other modes of transit by letting it get there faster than a car and keeping pace with rail transit.

“Well I don’t see it as a stop gap solution,” he said. “I see it as — if you will — a menu of options that we need to look at. In south Florida, we have express lanes as well as bus on shoulder lanes, but it’s a menu. We were fortunate enough here to get some express lanes in several agreements with the tolling authority.”

Transit providers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in Minnesota have been using bus on shoulder service for 22 years in an effort to increase capacity while using existing roadways. The program exploded since its original inception and in 2012, the region reached 300 miles of roadway accommodating the service.

John Siqveland, spokesman for Metro Transit, said there’s an expansive amount of park-and-ride lots in the Twin Cities, so buses will take commuters in from the suburbs into the downtown areas of the cities. In downtown Minneapolis, he said two streets — Marquette and 2nd Street — also have bus-only lanes to increase travel times.

Siqveland said bus operators are trained to only utilize shoulder service when traffic is going slower than 35 miles per hour. Operators who then use the shoulder are only allowed to go up to 15 miles per hours faster than the rest of traffic, with a max speed of 35 miles per hour.

Growth in Ridership

NewJahr said agencies who start bus on shoulder service will see a bump in ridership because it makes it able to compete with cars.
“From the visual standpoint, there’s nothing better than seeing a bus go by while you’re stuck in traffic,” he said.

Richard Kwasneski, chairman of Pace, said the system has looked into bus rapid transit or another idea to overcome severe congestion on I-55, but they decided to try the bus on shoulder system because IDOT and the Illinois lawmakers had a willingness to do something to mitigate the traffic problem now. The success of the routes means Pace will add more routes in May to accommodate riders.

“The good news is that because of the success of bus on shoulder on I-55, we’re working with IDOT to look at other areas where there are high traffic areas, “Kwasneski said. “It has been kind of a learning curve for all of us and there was a lot of skepticism on a lot of people’s parts that it would be successful.”

Kwasneski said reliability is a big factor for transit riders, so by improving on-time arrivals to more than 90 percent, it has led to continued ridership growth. Between press about the improvements and the fact potential customers now watch the bus whiz by as drivers are stopped in traffic, Kwasnecki said it makes Pace a much more appealing option for commuters.
NewJahr said safety is always a concern when a transit district is contemplating bus on shoulder service. During one case of studying the implementation of bus on shoulder service in Miami, NewJahr said they did a test run and videotaped the trek to determine safety risks and issues raised by operators.

“There was a little bit of a push off from the operators about the concerns they had with how wide the lane was and getting the bus through some of the pinch points,” he said. “We went through extensive driver training sessions and we agreed the system would be a pilot initially, but now it’s considered an acceptable way of getting from the west side of Miami to the east side.”

Despite safety concerns cited by critics of bus on shoulder service, Siqveland said there has only been one major incident involving a bus using the shoulder in the Minneapolis area, which happened right after the service was first introduced.

“One thing is shoulder lanes have a cultural piece to it,” he said. “Transit agencies moving forward with bus on shoulder who have reached out to us, we’ve had to tell them it’s a cultural shift for users of freeways to see buses bypassing traffic on the shoulder lanes.”

Expansion of Bus of Shoulder Expected

Kwasneski said Illinois is also looking to do a reconstruction of I-90 out of Chicago, which is another major expressway into the city, and Pace is working with IDOT and the Illinois Tollway Authority on possible solutions for quicker bus service, which could also include bus-only lanes. Pace Spokesman Patrick Wilmot said in an email that cost projections haven’t been developed yet and right now Pace is concentrating on making the current bus on shoulder routes successful in order to make the case to make them permanent and expanded to other highways and tollways.

“Once we know what the future holds for the program, we can have more serious discussions with IDOT and the Illinois Tollway regarding bringing shoulder riding accommodations into their future reconstruction plans,” he said.

While bus systems using bus on shoulder are seeing ridership increases, leaders in suburban communities who have the service or may get the service, could see more benefits to their communities by having it available, especially if they’re not serviced by commuter rail or others transit options.

Claar said he doesn’t know what kinds of long term impact having quicker service to downtown Chicago will have on Bolingbrook, but having the bus on shoulder service has made mass transit an option more residents there want to consider for their commutes into the city.

“Quite honestly, it’s an innovation that makes a whole lot of sense,” he said.

About the Author

Joe Petrie | Associate Editor

I came to Mass Transit in 2013 after spending seven years on the daily newsbeat in southeastern Wisconsin.

Based in Milwaukee, I worked as a daily newspaper reporter with the Waukesha Freeman from 2006-2011, where I covered education, county and state government. I went on to cover courts for Patch.com, where I was the main courts reporter in the Metro Milwaukee cluster of websites.

I’ve won multiple awards during the course of my career and have covered some of the biggest political events in the past decade and have appeared on national programs.

Having covered local government and social issues, I discovered the importance of transit and the impact it can have on communities when implemented, supported and funded.