Alderman Pawar: “I Can’t Wait for Ashland BRT”

image640x480

Alderman Pawar previously supported efforts to save the Lincoln Avenue bus. Photo: DNA Chicago

The bus rapid transit NIMBY group known as the Ashland-Western Coalition has been doing its darndest to get aldermen to sign on to its severely watered-down alternative proposal to the CTA’s plan for fast, reliable, “gold-standard” BRT on Ashland Avenue. Fortunately, response from local politicians to the coalition’s anemic “Modern Express Bus” proposition – essentially just bringing back the old, slow #X9 Ashland express bus -  has been lukewarm. Better still, 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar, who already has a good track record for promoting sustainable transportation, has thrown his hat in the ring as a strong supporter of the full BRT plan.

If Pawar hadn’t already done so, on Tuesday an open letter from a Lakeview business owner urging the him to back the CTA proposal caused the alderman to out himself as a BRT booster. Matt Nardella from the architecture firm Moss Design, which helped design Andersonville’s first “People Spot” mini-park, posted the letter on the firm’s website that day. Nardella noted that Ashland is currently a hostile environment for pedestrians and cyclists. “It’s not terribly comfortable to walk or bike on a street with six lanes of asphalt dedicated to automobiles, parked along the curb or zooming by at 45 mph.”

The architect noted that the BRT project, which would convert two of the four travel lanes on Ashland to dedicated bus lanes, could do more than just improve mobility:

The right-of-way (the zone between property lines) is in the public realm, therefore it belongs to all of us, whether we happen to get around by car or not. The future of Chicago’s right-of-way and every other urban area relies on how hospitable and sustainable we make our public space. For the past 100 years we have wrongfully prioritized cars over other methods of transportation (bikes, walking, buses etc) in our public space. This has created miles of impervious asphalt and turned over untold amounts of valuable acreage to a single use, to the detriment of a smoothly flowing, safe and sustainable transportation system citywide. It’s clear that a sustainable city must have overlapping and multi-functional zones which respond to the needs to all citizens.

Nardella closed the letter with a jab at the Ashland-Western Coalition, and a call to action. “I would suggest that instead of quibbling over details as a veiled effort to dismantle the entire project, let’s focus on the long-term benefits of the BRT, and how it could catalyze a public transit renaissance in Chicago.”

When the architect sent the alderman a link to the article via Twitter, Pawar tweeted a full-throated endorsement of the CTA’s plan:

I called Pawar’s office for details on the alderman’s position. “He’s very enthusiastic about BRT,” confirmed Bill Higgins, the ward’s expert on transportation issues. “We think it’s a great idea in theory, and we want to make sure it’s planned out properly so it’s as good in practice. We want [the Chicago Department of Transportation] and the CTA to have transparency and listen to residents’ concerns and try to address them.”

Higgins added that feedback on the BRT proposal from constituents has been mixed. “We’ve had a lot of people call and write us to voice support, and we’ve had other people contact us with concerns about the effect on traffic flow,” he said. “We know from data that the #9 Ashland bus is the most heavily used bus in the system, but some people who aren’t bus riders don’t see how much ridership there is and understand the benefits of BRT. A lot of their concerns will be addressed at [yet-to-be-announced] public meetings the CTA and CDOT will be holding. We’re directing people who support BRT, or have concerns about it, to get on the CTA’s mailing list.”

Higgins noted that, like the alderman, many 47th Ward residents would like to see bus rapid transit on Western Avenue as well. “In the early phases of planning [when the CTA was considering both streets for BRT] there seemed to be a stronger focus on Western. We’ve had a lot of people calling in with a stronger desire to have it on Western. If it works on Ashland, we hope it will be implemented on Western too.”

“BRT can be a superior mode of public transportation,” Higgins concluded. “The environmental and economic benefits are very attractive, and worth the effort.”

Alrighty. So that’s one alderman down, only 49 more to go. Who will be the next Chicago politician to boldly step forward and voice their support for BRT?