Transform Cities

Nearly three-fourths of the world's population are expected to live in cities by 2050. This rapid urbanization threatens health and economic well-being of billions, and with many cities located in fragile ecosystems, puts more people at risk of climate change impacts and other shocks and stresses.

The Rockefeller Foundation takes a systemic approach to urban issues, including climate change, sustainable infrastructure, and innovation for informal economies, to ensure that cities continue to be places of enormous opportunity and growth. Click below to see one example of our work in 2012 – getting a bus rapid transit system up and running in Chicago – and see all of our work in the Transform Cities focus area.

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Five Stops on Chicago’s Route to BRT

For a commuter attempting to get from north to south on Chicago’s west side, options are limited: either take a bus that creeps along at about 10 miles an hour, or try the city’s subway, which will loop you back through downtown. For residents, primarily low-income, who live in parts of the city not served by public transit, these challenges are greater than just a bad commute — they limit the economic opportunity of entire populations.

In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel created an infrastructure bank to leverage private financing for public works projects to spur economic growth, including a bus rapid transit (BRT) system. BRT is distinguished from other bus systems by off-board ticketing, dedicated lanes and priority right-of-way, among other amenities.

Here are just five steps Chicago has taken — led by the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) with Rockefeller Foundation support — on the city's continuing journey towards BRT. 

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Show, Don't Tell

In the fall of 2011, the Rockefeller Foundation provided funding to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy to organize a visit to Mexico City for Chicago's transportation officials to experience its new BRT system — MetroBus. Not only were the benefits to Mexico City's poor and vulnerable commuters obvious, but the streets were similar enough to Chicago's that officials could see how the model would work in their local context.

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Frame the Opportunity

The Rockefeller Foundation then hosted a two-and-a-half-day workshop that brought together key stakeholders to identify the decisions that would need to be made and the barriers that might occur along the way. By “front-loading” the process, this workshop helped participants solidify their roles, guide the community engagement process and put together a plan with agreement and buy-in from all stakeholders — not an easy task in any city, particularly with a project as big as BRT. 

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Take It to the Community

One of the biggest challenges in implementing a BRT system can be getting community support for the project. It’s particularly tough when most of the community doesn’t even know what BRT is, much less how it would directly impact their lives and community. A Steering Committee put together by the Chicago Community Trust took the challenge head on, and the Active Transportation Alliance organized transit riders to sign petitions. The Chicago Architecture Foundation hosted an exhibition — “Bus Rapid Transit: Next Stop Chicago” — to educate visitors on how BRT has transformed cities around the world. The grassroots buzz began. 

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Get Business on Board

Another framing workshop focused on bringing BRT to the Western/Ashland corridor of the city, and convened influential business leaders who recognized the clear benefits of increased transportation options and would make it easier for the community to access health care, particularly for patients served by the major hospitals in the Medical District. Now the City is moving forward on plans for a small central loop of BRT to run along Ashland Avenue. The Chicago Transportation Authority calculates that the system will double average bus speeds, making the BRT nearly as fast as rail lines, but at a much more affordable price – about $10 million per mile.

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Dream Bigger

While the initial plan was to build three BRT lines, the City is now looking at a citywide system. Said Ngoan Le, vice president of programs at the Chicago Community Trust, “None of us three years ago thought we would see this day.” 

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