Chicago Bus Shelters

By Yonah Freemark

From North to South and from the Lakefront to Oak Park, Chicago’s bus stops stand out as the single most prominent elements of the streetscape. Designed by noted architect Robert A. M. Stern, they feature six classically inspired black columns holding up a domed roof and the city’s seal engraved on the protective glass. They include a bench and are lit at night. The structures offer shelter and a degree of comfort for those waiting for a bus.

The Metropolitan Planning Council’s (MPC) Innovative Infrastructure Financing program recognizes the limitations on public dollars and the importance of identifying new ways to pay for our essential infrastructure. The Chicago bus stops illustrate the benefits of one such mechanism—they were funded through a public-private partnership.

The stops—there are a total of more than 2,000—have graced the city’s streets for a decade, and they are maintained meticulously. Defacement of the glass or metal is rare and quickly dealt with. Trash is rapidly picked up.

In exchange for these bus stops, the city’s taxpayers have paid nothing. In fact, they have been paid.

That is thanks to an innovative financial arrangement between the City of Chicago and JCDecaux, an international firm that specializes in outdoor displays. In 2002, JCDecaux agreed to pay the city $307.5 million over the course of 21 years in exchange for the right to advertise on the bus shelters and similar “city information panels” (which provide maps) and newsstand kiosks. The city agreed to pick up the cost of the electrical hookups and electricity costs.

JCDecaux was selected by a panel of public officials and Mayor Richard M. Daley after a competitive bidding process that took 14 months to complete. There were several other bidders, but JCDecaux, which had considerable experience in other cities, was selected. The process included an evaluation by accounting firm Deloitte & Touche.

The bus stop contract included more than just the construction of the bus shelters. JCDecaux is required to fix damaged shelters (due to graffiti or other problems) within 24 hours. And any broken glass must be swept up and replaced within an hour. The company’s commitment has been fulfilled; Chicagoans know that their bus stops are generally clean places to be.

In the past few years, the Chicago Transit Authority has taken advantage of a space on the top of the stops to install bus tracker displays, which indicate when the next buses are expected to arrive. These displays were added thanks to a cooperative relationship between the transit agency and JCDecaux.

The bus stop contract demonstrates the potential benefits of well-designed, well-executed public-private partnerships. An effective deal that allows a private partner to profit from ads also provides a generous benefit in the form of an improved—and better maintained—public space.

Photo Credit: Chicago Bus Shelters/shutterstock