Business Owners Fail to See the Value of BRT

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32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack expresses interest in learning more about the BRT proposal. Seated: Reverend George Daniels, moderator Roger Romanelli from the Randolph/Fulton Market Association, CDOT's Scott Kubly and CTA's Joe Iacobucci.

The proposal by the CTA and Chicago Department of Transportation to create Bus Rapid Transit corridors along Ashland and Western Avenues promises to speed bus trips for tens of thousands of Chicagoans and spur development. But it’s going to take some work to persuade local merchants that better transit is good for their bottom line. A meeting hosted yesterday by the newly formed Ashland Avenue-Western Avenue Coalition, a consortium of five chambers of commerce and community development organizations on the Near West Side, was a case in point. At the forum, as CTA and CDOT staffers outlined the proposal, business owners expressed fears that changes to the roadways would wreck their livelihoods. Few seemed to understand how effective transit and more pedestrian-friendly streets would benefit them.

Four different BRT configurations are being considered for each roadway, with buses running either in the center lanes or curbside, plus different combinations of travel lanes, left-turn lanes, median space and parking removal to make room for the dedicated transit lanes. The design with center-running buses and car-lane removal has earned the endorsement of the Active Transportation Alliance, because it would be the most efficient and ped-friendly option.

In that scenario, bus stations would be placed in the median, curb parking on both sides of the street would largely be preserved, and sidewalks would be widened, while left-turn lanes would be removed. According to CTA studies, this configuration would boost the average bus speed on Western from 10.1 mph to 18.4, with a 50 percent increase in reliability and a 30 percent spike in ridership. Despite the removal of car lanes, the agency predicts average automobile speed would only drop from 17.9 to 16.3 mph.

A series of community meetings was held last fall to update citizens on the Western and Ashland project and ask which of the four proposed configurations they favor. The preferred alternative will be announced this winter, and later this year the CTA will design the routes and conduct environmental impact studies. These routes could be precedent-setting improvements for Chicago transit riders, but not if they get watered down by compromise.

The Ashland Avenue-Western Avenue Coalition tipped its hand a bit with the alarmist punctuation of yesterday’s meeting announcement. “CTA’s proposal to reconfigure these streets may remove curbside parking, for one side of the entire stretch of the addresses above, if not all parking,” it read. In reality, removing parking from both sides of the street is not being actually being considered as an option. “[BRT] would HISTORICALLY RECONFIGURE these streets and HISTORICALLY IMPACT businesses, residents and neighborhoods.” True enough, but the historic reconfiguration of these streets to prioritize transit and walking should be a reason to celebrate, not sow fear.

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CTA rendering of center-running BRT with travel lane removals.

About 60 people showed up for the afternoon meeting at First Baptist Congregational Church, located at Ashland and Washington, including several alderman and chiefs of staff. Joe Iacobucci, the CTA’s manager of strategic planning and policy,  CDOT deputy commissioner Scott Kubly and Chris Ziemann, the city’s BRT manager outlined the reasoning behind the proposed changes. “For the last 50 or 60 years roadways were designed with the automobile as the primary users,” Kubly said. “Transit, pedestrians, and cyclists played second fiddle. And what we’re trying to do as a department is look at all the new road projects that we’re doing and accommodate all the users.”

Louis Rago, owner of Rago Brothers Funeral Home, located nearby at Western and Erie, said he was opposed to any parking loss on the street. “We depend upon the parking that’s available on the side streets and on Western,” he said. “So you’re concerned about getting these people to where they want to go. We’re not going to be there for them. You’re going to put us out of business.” Iacobucci pointed out that half of the alternatives preserve nine out of ten on-street parking spaces. “Nine out of ten spaces? Gee whiz!” responded Rago sarcastically. The business owners present generally seemed unclear on the concept that BRT would significantly boost bus ridership, which would mean less need for car parking.

Another woman argued that removing the left-hand turn lanes would wreck her business by impeding deliveries. While truckers could alter their routes slightly to eliminate left turns off of these roads, she painted the restrictions as catastrophic. “If you take away the left-hand turn lanes, that means the semis cannot come into my business,” she insisted. “If my semis can’t come in, we’re out of business. So now you won’t have to worry about getting people to their jobs [by bus] because they’ll have no jobs to go to.”

Such statements were typically greeted by a chorus of approval from the other business owners present, but these skeptics should head over to Euclid Avenue in Cleveland if they don’t believe BRT could bring more people and jobs to Western and Ashland. There, the center-running HealthLine BRT system has boosted ridership and attracted a wave of new development, with $3.3 billion being invested in new construction and $2.5 billion for building rehab.

But it wasn’t all opposition at yesterday’s meeting. Burt Klein, president of PortionPac, a cleaning supply company at Ashland and Kinzie, said he’s open to creating a better way to get his employees to work car-free. “We’ve got bikers, walkers, people taking the train, taking the bus, taking Metra, or an assortment of those things,” he said. “We also have a nice, big parking lot, and when the price of gas goes up our parking lot gets kind of empty. But the [employees] that we’re attracting, either to the north of us or to the south of us, very few of them take the Ashland bus right now because it’s so slow.”

Kubly made a convincing argument why the status quo on Ashland and Western won’t work in the future. “We have a finite amount of roadway in the city,” he said. “We’re not going to be widening roads because that would mean taking out people’s houses. So if you want to reduce traffic [congestion] you’ve got two choices. You can reduce the number of people living, working and being active in the city, or you can try to figure out ways to get people out of their cars, walking and biking and taking transit.”

  • Looks like AARP IL is also supportive — here’s an EveryBlock conversation started by the group that organized this meeting where you can comment about why BRT will be great for communities in this corridors: http://chicago.everyblock.com/neighbor-events/jan24-special-meeting-future-western-and-ashland-5681473/

  • Joseph Musco

    The proposed Western and Ashland BRT routes have no provision for bicycle paths. Two of the initial CDOT/CTA proposals involved reducing the size of sidewalks. Many aspects of the current proposals include eliminating existing median greenery. I have a hard time seeing how pedestrians and cyclists are not still playing second fiddle in this plan.

    Second, the CTA’s lack of clarity on the elimination of local bus service on these proposed routes is troubling. I believe the speed calculations and time savings predicted use a model that eliminates local bus service. Will local bus service be eliminated if BRT is adopted along these routes? CTA/CDOT have never said. MPC proposed eliminating local service in their early BRT study, a study that used city resources for modeling.

    I also question the cost estimates given by CTA. A Cleveland.com story puts the cost of the Healthline at $197M for 6.8 miles of BRT completed in 2008. How is a 16 mile corridor in Chicago in 2013 going to cost $157M? Finally, the old X49 Express bus, improved bus shelters, and VENTRA would achieve almost all of the benefits of this BRT proposal at a fraction of the cost.

    I support the Jeffery Jump project and the most aggressive Central Loop project (aka just plain bus improvements) but I feel the Western/Ashland BRT project is headed for disaster. The project is either unpopular and poorly understood according to the initial response. Ald. Scott Waguespack isn’t some gloomy gus, he’s a guy who reads the fine print, and his initial response was skeptical according to DNAinfo. I’m a big believer in incremental improvements to transit systems that can be scaled up and distributed with equity and justice across the system. I just don’t see those qualities in this project.

  • Thanks for the feedback. As mentioned, centering running BRT with parking retained is the most efficient, ped-friendly option (it would involve widening sidewalks), but there isn’t enough road width for this layout plus bike lanes. That’s not a big loss, since these aren’t currently popular bike routes. Sidewalk reduction is off the table. The big difference between the express bus service you mention and BRT is the express bus bus had no dedicated lane so it got stuck in car traffic. Pre-paid boarding will also speed BRT buses.

    I don’t think you can argue that the proposed BRT routes wouldn’t be equitable and just. These corridors would span almost the entire length of the city, providing access for about one in four Chicagoans. They’d help level the playing field for bus riders and car owners. And after this pilot project proves successful, BRT can be introduced on other major streets.

  • Joseph Musco

    John – Thanks for your response!

    I think removing local bus service (the stops every 1/4 mile) is a decision made to attract choice riders (riders who have options, money, cars) at the expense of captive riders (the poor, the disabled, students, the elderly). To me that is an arbitrary decision made by BRT boosters that has a disproportionately negative effect on large numbers of Chicagoans and is therefore neither equitable nor just. The cost of attracting a small number of choice riders with BRT is not worth the social (or economic) costs of increasing the distance between stops and abandoning local service.The experience with the Las Vegas BRT was that seniors and the poor continued to ride the local system that continued to run when BRT was introduced. Seniors and the poor won’t have that option under the current Western/Ashland BRT models. The nature of transit trips is very different for somebody that is not commuting to work. Only 2/3 of people 15-64 actually work. Lots of people younger than 15 and older than 64 ride buses on top of these figures. So the entire project is basically targeted at the subset of choice commuters who are time sensitive and don’t take multidestination trips. This is a minority of actual bus riders in Chicago.

  • There’s not a final plan yet since the CTA is still collecting community input, which may be why you feel there’s a lack of clarity. But it’s better for them to listen to the community before developing final plans.

    To your point about initial response — this meeting was not an
    initial response, nor does it represent the tone of public response well. Public meetings and outreach for this project have
    been going on for about a year or more. The public response has been very positive so far —
    this meeting was very atypical. These are also not the initial proposals — these are narrowed-down and revised proposals based on the first round of public outreach and meetings.

    The goal is to maintain the local bus service alongside the BRT service, and riders should tell CTA that’s really important during the planning. The Jeffery Jump service that CTA just launched also maintains the original local bus.

    Regarding biking, the center-aligned option removing a travel lane would create a better environment for biking — it would be more like biking on a regular two-lane road vs. the current four-lane speedway. CDOT’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 also factors in these BRT plans, providing good parallel and cross-routes, as well as segments of bike lanes on Western where it’s a boulevard.

  • It makes sense to maintain local bus service for senior and folks with disabilities, but an express bus that stops every 1/2 mile instead of every 1/4 mile would require riders to walk at most two extra blocks (versus at most one extra block) out of their way. That shouldn’t be a hardship for the vast majority of riders, and an extra 2.5 – 5 minutes of walking to the express stop would be worth it for the time saving on trips of any significant length.

  • It’s frustrating that many of the business owners wrongly perceive that putting in BRT will be detrimental to their bottom line and apparently aren’t convinced by stats elsewhere, like those John linked to. I’m confident that our leaders and policymakers understand that there are tens of thousands of ordinary Chicagoans who will benefit from BRT on Western and Ashland, but who couldn’t attend the meeting on a Thursday morning to voice their support, because they were already in their classes or working their jobs after enduring a painfully slow bus ride to get there.

  • To go with what @facebook-763034858:disqus said, this meeting was initiated by those business associations, not by the CTA or CDOT, who organized the many public meetings last year. 

  • Joseph Musco

    Lee – Thanks for your info. I attended the initial BRT open houses last year and the frontline people I spoke to from CTA were indeed pleasant, helpful, and professional.
    I simply don’t see the ability to maintain local bus service with any of the models other than the Curbside BRT with median removal and parking removal on one side. The Curbside BRT model (6 lanes of motor vehicles, no medians, reduced greenery) may allow for local service but who wants to be a pedestrian crossing 6 lanes with no median in Chicago? This Curbside BRT model also has major issues with the parking meter deal as mentioned by Ald. Waguespack.I’d be all for a slight reduction of local service and the return of X buses in some kind of modified Jeffrey Jump type route. That’s not BRT though in anything other than an arbitrary branding sense and hooray for that. Improved and expanded bus service for community should be the goal, not trying to build something that looks like MPC’s Gold Standard BRT or excites BRT advocates from ITDP. New York’s Select Bus Service was given a failing grade as BRT by ITDP even as it produced 15% ridership gains with 95%+ customer satisfaction at a modest cost. Where is the failure in that? Doesn’t a modest success enhance the credibility and power of transit in cities, opening the door to more successes in the future? Let’s go with the Select Bus Service / Jeffrey Jump model in the short-term in these Western/Ashland corridors and then move forward to more successes.

  • Natalie Watson

    The answer to parking shortages is not more free or underpriced parking, it is gradually making existing parking more expensive, and using the money to locally increase the convenience and pleasure of walking, biking and transit. This ensures that there will always be enough parking for those who really need it. This strategy values urban public space as the precious real estate that it is, and will help us get more value out of our cities.

  • BlueFairlane

    It would be reasonable to expect that if these routes see a 30% increase in ridership, CTA should commit to a 30% increase in capacity. Does CTA intend to increase the number of buses running this route?

  • Yes, they would be adding more buses as ridership rises.

  • Rob Bielaski

    I agree with John’s reponse to this.  Asking people to walk at most two extra blocks for premium service is not ridiculous at all.  I think this project will be a disaster if we try to keep the local bus service.  If the only lane for cars/trucks is constantly blocked by a local bus stopping every block, that’s a surefire way to turn the public against the whole concept of BRT.

  • The problem is that it’s hard to envision a reality different from the one you live in. To someone like the funeral home owner who lives in an auto concentric transit dessert (over a mile from the closest El station, only served by one miserably slow bus route) where the CTA works poorly it’s hard to see eliminating car space for more transit as a good thing. Why would you want more of something that doesn’t work?

    I would expect there to be more support for the project in impacted neighborhoods like Logan Square/Bucktown and Lincoln Square that all ready have good transit and people are used to the CTA for a majority of trips. Until you reach that tipping point where service is good enough that people already like using it, it’s hard to get support for more service.

  • Another fertile proving ground for Jeffrey Jump / simple X routes would have been links along Cottage Grove, King Dr/Michigan Avenue, State/Wentworth, South Halsted and Ashland/Vincennes spanning from the southernmost points within Chicago up to corresponding Green Line stations while the Red Line is being repaired.

  • Liz

    Although I support BRT, I’d like to point out that local service on Ashland and Western stops every 1/8 mile, not every 1/4 mile as several people have claimed. A switch to stops every 1/2 mile does seem to be a significant reduction in accessibility for the elderly or those who have trouble walking. I’d be interested to hear CTA’s response.

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