Don’t Be Fooled: Ashland-Western Coalition Is Against “Modern” Bus Service

Ashland.
CTA rendering of bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue.

While the CTA goes forward with the environmental analysis and conceptual engineering phase of designing the first 5.4-mile stretch of bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue, the NIMBY crowd is also on the move.

On August 1, the Gazette community newspaper ran their second tone-deaf anti-BRT editorial in two months. This time, they lumped the Ashland plan in with the Circle Interchange Expansion as examples of government run amok, destroying quality of life. The paper nailed the Circle Interchange issue, describing how this $475 million project, rammed through the planning process, will degrade the pedestrian environment and lower property values. But what that has to do with a transit project that will convert tens of thousands of car trips to bus trips, move people faster through the city, widen sidewalks, add green space and raise property values is anybody’s guess.

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A cartoon from the Gazette lumping BRT together with the Circle Interchange as an example of government run amok, bulldozing over quality of life.

The editorial complained that, while the CTA held a series of community meetings on BRT last fall, the agency had not held any public forums on the project since it announced its choice of Ashland in April. However, CTA Spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis says the agency held six design meetings with local groups, where details like loading zone placement were worked out, as part of the block-by-block analysis in June and July. Public meetings are scheduled for late summer and early fall. One was held Monday in the East Village neighborhood.

The design meetings included 18 different chambers of commerce, community groups, and businesses. Some of these merchant associations and businesses are members of the NIMBY group the Ashland-Western Coalition, which has floated a watered-down alternative proposal they’ve given the Orwellian name “Modern Express Bus” service. This would essentially just bring back the old, slow #X9 Ashland Express bus, plus a few BRT features and various bells and whistles. But make no mistake, the primary aim of the Ashland NIMBYs is to prevent the implementation of effective, center-running, dedicated bus lanes — the single most important feature to get bus service unstuck from traffic.

If there were no BRT project moving forward right now, the ideas coming from the Ashland-Western Coalition would have some merit. But the fact is that Chicago is serious about launching world-class bus service on Ashland, and the Ashland-Western Coalition has put out their MEB proposal as a ploy to stop that from happening. Killing center-running bus lanes on Ashland won’t give Chicagoans modern bus service. It will keep city streets stuck in the 20th century.

Like the proposed BRT service, the X9 stopped every half-mile, so it made roughly 75 percent fewer stops than the local buses, which generally stop every eighth-mile. While the center-running BRT buses, with their dedicated lanes, will travel 15.9 mph during peak hours, the X9 was blocked by the glut of private cars on Ashland, so it traveled 10.3 mph at peak hours, only slightly faster than the 8.7 mph locals. Meanwhile, MEB would only make 30 percent fewer stops, so it might actually be slower than the X9.

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The Ashland-Western Coalition's new, 1998-style website.

Recently, someone sent me a notice from the newsletter for the West Town Chamber of Commerce, one of the organizations in the anti-BRT group, for a meeting of the coalition. It was scheduled for Friday, August 2, at the First Baptist Congregational Church, 1613 West Washington. The notice included a link to the coalition’s website, AshlandWesternCoalition.com, which intrigued me, since the group has been active since at least last January, but I’d never been able to find a website via Google searches. It turns out the site only went live last month.

The website, which can also be accessed via the alarmist URL SaveAshland.com, includes an electronic petition asking Mayor Emanuel and the CTA not to install BRT on Ashland. Instead, it reads, “Chicago deserves common-sense solutions to modernize the Ashland bus.” A “No BRT Flyer” on the site warns that the BRT buses will only stop every half-mile, failing to mention that local service will be retained as well.

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The Ashland-Western Coalition's anti-BRT flyer

The website also includes a four-page “Executive Summary” and an eight-page “Official Statement.” But nowhere does it mention of the names of the business and community organizations behind the coalition, and there’s no contact info, save for an anonymous email address.

I attended the coalition’s first large public meeting at the church on January 24, and wasn’t able to attend the second on June 25 but did a write-up based on reports from BRT supporters who attended. When I arrived at the church last Friday, Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Randolph/Fulton Market Association and the de-facto leader of the coalition, unhappy about my coverage of the last meeting, told me I was not welcome to attend this one. After some discussion among the coalition members present at the small meeting, it was agreed that I could wait in the hallway for a half-hour, after which time I could interview the attendees.

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Roger Romanelli

As I sat in the hall working on another article, the half hour turned into nearly an hour-and-a-half. When attendees began filtering out of the room past my chair, they ignored me when I asked whether the meeting was ending. As Romanelli left the building, I asked him about our agreement that I could interview the members. He pointed toward a couple of attendees walking to their cars and also said he was willing to talk. Although I’d hoped to speak with a few members at once, I opted to interview Romanelli, the de-facto leader.

He told me much of the meeting was spent discussing whether to recommend bike lanes on Ashland, except for the industrial corridors, in the MEB proposal, and it was unanimously agreed that they should be included. The CTA’s plan does not include bike lanes because there’s not enough right-of-way on Ashland for them with median stations, bus lanes, travel lanes, parking and wider sidewalks, but that’s not a big loss, since Ashland is currently inhospitable and unpopular for biking.

“This group is not anti-BRT,” Romanelli told me. “This group would like CTA to look at streets that wouldn’t have the kind of impacts they’re talking about on Ashland Avenue.” In other words, they support BRT, just not in their back yards, which is why the label NIMBY fits them to a T. And like many NIMBY groups, the Ashland-Western Coalition is now trying to convince people that it’s actually in favor of the very thing it’s seeking to obstruct.

Romanelli said he felt it was unfair for me to call the MEB plan “anemic” in my articles. “It’s robust,” he argued. “It eliminates 30 percent of the bus stops in order to decrease the number of vehicles, to expand ridership, and get more people on the Ashland bus.”

Romanelli mentioned several other features of the proposal that hadn’t been mentioned in the Gazette or, apparently, any other local news sources. He said the MEB plan also recommends extending Ashland bus service north to Clark Street in Andersonville. BRT service would terminate at Irving Park Road, since this is where current bus service ends, the #22 Clark bus runs nearby, and there’s been opposition to extending bus service from residents on Ashland north of Irving Park.

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CTA rendering of typical layout of BRT stations on Ashland.

The MEB proposal also calls for buying heated bus shelters with security cameras for installation at every stop. Touchless fare boxes would expedite passenger boarding — of course, this is already in the works with the rollout of the Ventra system. Buses with front and rear entrances would be purchased to further speed boarding. Onboard “bus marshals” would be hired to deter crime and assist seniors, people with disabilities, and customers with strollers and bicycles.

The coalition has denounced the BRT plan, which will cost $160 million for the first 5.4 miles, including the purchase of left-boarding buses, and $10 million per mile for the remainder of the 16-mile route, as being unreasonably expensive. However, they haven’t provided a cost estimate for all of the elements they’re proposing. Instead, they’ve come up with a grab bag of features that won’t meet established standards for high-quality BRT, and when the CTA understandably declines to devote energy to engaging them, they complain that the transit authority is being unaccountable.

Despite all of these add-ons, “anemic” is still an apt description for the MEB plan. Since buses would continue to be mired in automobile traffic and blocked by vehicles entering and exiting the curb lane, rush hour speeds would still be slow, and new riders won’t be attracted to the service. Creating bus travel times that are competitive with driving requires a dedicated bus lane, but that’s a dealbreaker for the NIMBYs, who are against improvements to transit service that would entail changing their current routines. Beneath all the window dressing, MEB remains a plan whose chief objective is to undermine effective transit.

  • Thanks for the feedback. The WTCC was listed as a member of the coalition in an invite to the January meeting that was posted on the WTCC website: http://www.nearwestchamber.org/news/4833

    Unless something has changed since then, I don’t believe a correction is necessary.

  • Anonymous

    In practical terms, when public transit is not a viable choice for many trips, people are denied the ability to choose it.

    To illustrate, the RTA Travel Market Analysis completed for the Cook-DuPage corridor, an area starting around Ashland and I-290 and extending out toward the Fox River, found that the reverse travel market is underserved, i.e., people can’t reasonably take transit from places like Chicago’s near north to significant employment centers like Oak Brook, though many make that sort of work commute, the travel stats say.

    As a result, they drive. Not necessarily by choice, but because taking transit would entail too many transfers and far too much time.

    Transit, they found, not only fails to compete with driving for certain trips, but is not possible within the time constraints of a normal day. Another interesting observation is that the level of transit service on Ashland influences ridership on the CTA Blue lIne; as one increases, so does the other. That’s an important insight because the Forest Park branch of the Blue Line runs well under-capacity at certain times of day, and especially during the reverse commute period. Thus, the Blue Line can serve rides that Ashland BRT can deliver without increasing the Blue Line operating costs for doing so. Slam dunk, maybe?

    Back to the point, though: Many trips simply can’t be made by transit, which denies people choice – choice that has rippling impacts (or prospectively benefits) that extend beyond one’s individual travel convenience and costs. When a trip that can take as few as twenty minutes in a car takes between two and three hours (or more) due to a combination of transfers, transit is not competitive with driving and one can’t reasonably choose it.

    We all – including drivers that have no choice but to drive, and those that simply prefer to drive – pay the price for forcing a majority people to drive whether they want to or not.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll ignore the balance of what of what you’ve written because I think I was fairly clear in my initial reply, but simply can’t let this one go . . . So the comparison is heavenly glow BRT against rail with slow zones – really? C’mon, man – surely you’ve got better than that.

    In any case, at least we can agree that the proposed Ashland service is a worthwhile project that should be funded and built as designed (or better). :)

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps we simply don’t live in your reality – one that appears to be a bit clouded by lack of information and irrational fear.

  • Anonymous

    Uh, ok. Glad we agree on that. Sad you are unable to fairly interpret the rest of it.

  • You know full well that “qualification” in this context means expertise in transit planning, not “qualification to speak.” They’re welcome to say what they want, but it’s not good transit planning. It’s fearmongering.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the reply. I see what you’re saying and I agree to a point, but I think saying that people are being denied a choice is taking it too far.

    I live in Lakeview and my wife used to work in that big office park in Lincolnshire. She commuted there entirely via public transportation. It was available, even going out there. I will grant you this though – her commute sucked. Many transfers, a lot of waiting around for trains and buses. But the point is it was an option, and that’s what she chose because at the time we didn’t own a car. Btw, they offered her more money because they knew she would have that lousy commute…I realize not everyone is as lucky, but these things happen.

    I just looked on Google Maps to get directions from my house to the McDonalds headquarters in Oak Brook (it’s in that giant office park area out there). Trains and buses can get me within 276 feet of the building which isn’t bad. Of course, it’ll take 114 minutes vs 34 minutes (supposedly) in the car, so I see what you’re saying.

    I dont believe anyone is being denied a choice here. Like everything in life, it’s just a matter of tradeoffs. The farther out you’re going, the more inconvenient public transportation is going to be, and I think that’s true of most places in my experience, even cities with much more impressive public transportation. The expectations are just too high in cases like these.

    Besides, I think the BRT is mostly a separate issue from examples like these, mostly because we already have pretty good public transportation options in the city (admittedly, some are better than others, and none are perfect). The BRT would save people at most 16 minutes…we’re not talking about an oppressive amount of time here like those other examples. 16 minutes isn’t a back-breaker for anyone, which is partly why I’m totally unimpressed with what problem the BRT is supposed to solve.

  • There you go again bedhead1. I know you’re thinking of the first 5-mile stretch, but your statement is misleading to other readers. BRT would shave 26 minutes off the *one-way* trip from 95th to the Illinois Medical Campus.

  • Anonymous

    Oh please, you are citing the single-most extreme example (end to end) and treating as the BASE case just because it suits your goal. Besides, instead of splitting hairs over whether it’s a 5, 10 or 20 minute difference, maybe you could actually respond articulately to the broader points.

  • Anonymous

    Btw, out of curiosity I checked what the #9’s route was from 95th to the medical center. It’s a 10.4 mile distance and takes a little over an hour by bus. Painfully slow? Yes. Do you know why? The bus makes 52 stops along the way!! 52!!! That’s a stop every .18 miles, or every block-and-a-half. It’s madness. According to Google Maps, driving along the same route as the bus would take less than half the time – shocking. We could have perfectly fine bus service if we wanted to, but no one wants that because it’s boring and not considered progressive…people would rather have some slick new toy.

  • Logan Square Driver

    Thanks for pointing that out. I’m sick of saying that all preferences are equal. Just like some people prefer to have their kids be able to safely to school, I prefer to drive my muscle car as fast as I can. I could go to a racetrack, but I prefer to use the neighborhood to home my speed-driving skills. Some people prefer quiet at night while they try to sleep, but I prefer to use the empty streets at night to do burnouts and see how much I can get my tires to squeal. Some people prefer to breath clean air, but I prefer to use leaded gasoline in my car (I have my own private stash) because it gives the best performance! Thank you for pointing out that all these preferences are equally valid!

  • bedhead1, you wrote, “The BRT would save people at most 16 minutes.”

    It’s not splitting hairs to request that you stop posting totally inaccurate info that will confuse other readers.

  • bedhead1, we’re in agreement that 1/8-mile stops make no sense for anyone except those with mobility impairments.

    So what’s your solution for speeding up the bus – having the bus stop only every 1/2 mile, with no dedicated lane? That’s the old X9 Express bus and it ran 10.3 mph, about the speed I bicycle when I’m feeling lazy. Sure, adding features like prepaid boarding and signal prioritization might get you another 1 mph or so faster, but the bus will still be mired in the glut of private autos, and it won’t be able to compete with driving.

    So, maybe you can should stop stating the obvious about the current bus being ridiculously slow and concede that there will never be bus service that’s “perfectly fine” enough to make people switch modes until we give the bus its own lane and bring it up to 15.9 mph, close to driving speed.

  • Anonymous

    John, these speeds are cherry picked. The 10.3mph of the X9 was its average speed during RUSH HOUR. The 8.7mph of the current #9 is its plain old average speed. The CTA, and you, are picking the slowest possible time that the X9 ran so that by comparison the BRT looks a lot better. It’s totally disingenuous.

  • Anonymous

    Less Cars ≠ Less people. Busses currently carry 32,000 a day on ashland Ave. cars carry about 40-45,000. Now, this is a guess, but I’d assume about 5% of vehicular traffic is busses. The tiniest portion of vehicles carries the vast amount of passengers, and after speeding that trip up by 10 minutes, and making it clearer, cleaner, and generally more pleasant and safe, more people will move to taking the bus, plus if its branded right, it could become a version of the circle line that people can transfer between rail lines along instead of going all the way into the loop. That could bring plenty of new people down ashland ave.

  • bedhesd1, rush hour is the most important time for good bus performance, because that’s when the most people need to commute, so that’s why we’re discussing speeds at peak hours.

    Odd that you’re accusing me of mental inflexibility when just about every post you make includes a statistical error: “You can stop trying to call me out by saying the time saved by the BRT will be … 26 minutes. That is the MAXIMUM amount of time that could be saved.”

    No, 26 minutes is the saving from 95th to the Illinois Medical Campus, Ashland and Polk (800 South), 10.4 miles. On a trip from 95th to Irving Park, 16 miles, 1.54 times as far, BRT would save you a whopping 40 minutes.

    For the umpteenth time, please stop posting misinformation on this website. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Not that I expect you to understand this, but statistical errors are something entirely different. What I’m doing is taking your numbers and interpreting them with some normalcy. So no, I will not go around repeating that the BRT will save everyone 26 minutes, 40 minutes, or whatever, because that is propaganda of how beneficial the BRT is. Most people will see much less benefit.

  • John

    I’m not sure your sarcasm is helpful or interesting. I drive my kids to school, I don’t speed or burn out my tires. I am unclear, do you hate cars or is your name/thumbnail supposed to be ironic?

  • Anonymous

    The presence of an option does not make it a legitimate option, of course. Also, Goroo times often provide a severe under-estimate of actual transit times, as trips often include routes with service on the hour and transfers are not nearly as seamless as their estimates suggest.

    On the issue of BRT on Ashland, we need to begin making forward-looking investments that chip away at the backlog of transit and biking needs that have accrued over decades of under-investment. There isn’t any transit parallel to the Federal Aid Highway Act on the horizon, so it has to be done one piece at a time. We need to think and act strategically rather than simply doing the same thing we’ve always done.

    What we’ve been doing isn’t working. We have fifty years of congestion-solving investments under our belt, yet we are still stuck in congestion. Adding lanes and building new expressways isn’t helping.

    Ashland BRT is a necessary and important step in the direction of making transit a more viable and attractive alternative to driving.

  • Look, you said, “26 minutes. That is the MAXIMUM amount of time that could be saved.” I’m just pointing out that that’s a false statement, one of many that you’ve posted on this site. Please stop doing this.

  • Anonymous

    Well, we have congestion because there are 10 million people here. That will exist with or without the latest and greatest public transportation.

  • Congestion will exist when transit is better, that’s true enough. But fewer people will have to waste their time in it.

  • Anonymous

    We have congestion because we keep trying to serve 10 million people with the ultimate in bottleneck recipe: Concrete, asphalt, and cars.

    Now I lay down the gauntlet, man.

    I challenge you to a contest.

    We both get a pickle bucket full of gumballs. We also both get a three foot section of 1.25″ ID PVC pipe. You get a funnel that you can use if you wish and I don’t; however, I get to pre-load my gumballs into 1″ diameter tubes.

    You get to pour all of your gumballs into a funnel, drop them in one-by-one, a handfull at a time, or however you think you can get your loose gumballs down the tube the fastest. I simply drop my pre-loaded gumball tubes into the pipe.

    Which of us clears the pickle bucket full of gumballs the quickest?

    Of course, I win by a wide margin because I use the space in a much more organized and efficient manner by loading many individuals into one vehicle while you struggle with traffic jams because too many individuals are all trying to be first getting through the bottleneck, or it takes so long taking turns.

    I walk with the blue ribbon while you’re still struggling to get your gumballs through the pipe.

    That’s why everything is congested … because we define the problem incorrectly and invest in the wrong solutions.

    Ashland BRT is a right solution.

  • John

    Oh I see. That’s cute. Maybe he can get his own TV show one day. I am sure it will be good! I still don’t think its necessary to attack and make fun of other people, even drivers who you seem to loathe so much. I support the BRT, but will continue to drive places no matter how much you dislike it. I hope the BRT doesn’t cause overflow traffic on my street at put my family at risk. More to come hopefully.

  • John

    p.s I LOVE Divvy. It is fantastic.

  • I do find it reassuring that even BRT skeptics like John and bedhead1 are fans of Divvy.

  • John

    I am not a skeptic of BRT. I like the idea. I just don’t want traffic to get bad on Ashland, or on the side streets. I will personally be fine either way the little amount that I drive (and will continue to do so regardless).

  • Anonymous

    Keep in mind that Peoria is home to a forward-thinking former USDOT Secretary – Ray LaHood; they also received a TIGER grant for a warehouse district livability project.

  • Peoria is also the birthplace of the late, great comedian Richard Prior!

  • Anonymous

    Yup, let’s keep trusting the CTA’s analysis of the BRT since they seem to be so good at forecasting: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-officials-cta-facing-10m-budget-hole-20130814,0,7348846.story

  • Per CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis: “Both travel speeds for buses and vehicles [in the CTA’s BRT analyis] are calculated by the [Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s] Highway Model. During the time when CTA and CDOT were conceptualizing various BRT alternatives, the CMAP model is the best method for predicting travel times when various scenarios were applied to the model. CMAP models are used in all highway traffic projects and studies.”

    CMAP is pretty good with numbers, unlike a certain Streetsblog Chicago commenter I know.

  • Anonymous

    “CMAP is pretty good with numbers”

    Evidence, please.

  • Boy, you’re quite a stickler for someone who is constantly posting incorrect numbers on this site.

  • Anonymous

    I have since corrected myself, admitting where I was wrong. You, on the other hand, refuse to concede anything no matter how obviously distorted or wrong it is.

  • bedhead1, you may feel my opinions are “distorted or wrong,” but you haven’t provided any examples where I didn’t get my facts right. On the other hand, I’ve pointed out several instances you’ve posted erroneous statements. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.

  • Anonymous

    I have, you ignore them. For example, I explained that 26 minutes is not a fair representation of the benefits because it’s the max, not average, but you dont care because it doesn’t fit your view. Or that the model is based on over 100 miles and a vast network of BRT routes throughout the city. Again, just silence.

    There is a reason you were tossed out of that coalition meeting, it’s because you cant be trusted to accurately report or assess anything someone says that isn’t in complete agreement with your own beliefs. Talking to you about this is a waste of my time so I’ll stop now.

  • I never claimed that 26 minutes was the average amount of time that could be saved, but you incorrectly stated, and are repeating that erroneous statement now, that 26 mph is the maximum amount of time that could be saved. In reality, one could save 40 minutes on a trip from 95th to Irving Park.

    Since we know how often the buses will be stopping, assuming cars are kept out of the dedicated lanes, which shouldn’t be too hard to do with physical barriers and camera enforcement, 15.9 mph is an accurate estimate for BRT speeds. That has nothing to do with whether BRT runs on one street or a 100-mile network.

    Feel free to stop commenting, although I’d prefer you keep posting, since dissent keeps things interesting. But if you do choose to continue commenting, kindly refrain from posting incorrect statements.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting that a highway model would be used to model transit benefits. Why not model transit agency investments with transit models, which would presumably be informed by decades of transit investment experience?

    Highway model? Highway traffic projects and studies? What?

  • Chicago Motorist

    OK…lets look at some real numbers and facts. Leave all of the PROJECTIONS out of consideration, because they’re not REAL (unless one of you has a crystal ball that you’re not telling anyone about). The numbers I’m using here come from the CTA annual ridership report for 2012.

    2012 actual ridership, #9 Ashland bus:
    10,266,516 = 10.27 million boardings

    2012 actual ridership, system-wide bus:
    314,423,578 = 314.42 million boardings

    2012 actual ridership, combined bus and rail:
    545,577,917 = 545.57 million boardings

    #9 Ashland bus accounts for only 3.3% of all system-wide bus ridership and only 1.9% of combined bus and rail system-wide ridership.

    Now…please honestly consider the aging (well over 100 years in some cases) and deteriorating condition (rusted through columns) of the elevated infrastructure, the need for more modernized equipment system-wide in both bus and rail, and the very real negative impact this proposal will have on all other traffic on Ashland Avenue.

    I respectfully submit that an expenditure of $320 million to purchase an expensive “world class” toy for the politicians and 1.9% of the transit-using public is NOT serving the GREATER good. There are better ways we could (and should) spend this money in improvements on the ENTIRE transit system!

    A final note: on June 18, 2013, the Chicago Sun Times reported on a 2012 federal bridge study citing the Ashland Ave. bridge on the Kennedy expressway as being the busiest “structurally deficient” bridge in the 6-county area. IDOT plans to spend $1.7 million to conduct some patchwork repairs. How fast would your BRT run if that bridge were to suffer a catastrophic failure as some other interstate highway bridges done in recent years? There ARE better ways we could be spending $320 million!

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