Deconstructing the Misleading Info in an Ashland-Western Coalition Flyer

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Ashland-Western Coalition flyer at a cafe in the East Village.

Here’s a flyer from the anti-bus rapid transit group the Ashland-Western Coalition, which I came across today at a café on Ashland Avenue in the East Village. The AWC is a consortium of business and community groups on the Near West Side, led by Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Randolph/Fulton Market Association. Let’s take a look at some of the information the group is putting out about the CTA’s plan to create fast reliable BRT service on Ashland.

At the top of the flyer, the AWC calls for “Modern, expanded bus [service] for first time in Chicago history.” OK, other than the fact that the Ashland bus was “modern” when it was first introduced decades ago, we’re on the same page here. By repurposing car lanes to create dedicated bus lanes, Chicago will be following the lead of dozens of forward-thinking cities around the world, from Paris to Bogota to Seoul to New York.

The flyer then lists some of the attributes of the CTA’s plan. Correct, BRT will eliminate one vehicle lane in each direction and most left turns, and it will feature “center-lane bus stops at center-streets stations every 1/2-mile.” And unlike another flyer posted on the coalition’s recently updated, but still anonymous, website, which uses the distance between BRT stops as a scare tactic, this one acknowledges that curbside, local service would be retained.

This flyer states the estimated the cost of BRT as $200 million, which is inaccurate, whether it’s referring to the first 5.5-mile phase or the entire project. The CTA has estimated the first phase, between 31st and Cortland, will cost $116 million, including purchasing new buses with left-side doors. The rest of the 16-mile corridor will cost about $10 million per mile for the street improvements and stations alone, so the entire 16-mile route will come to roughly $231 million, including the first batch of buses and excluding any additional bus purchases.

The flyer suggests that the cost of BRT is unreasonable, but it’s chicken feed compared to the $475 million Circle Interchange Expansion, which is sure to lower property values on the Near West Side. I don’t recall Romanelli speaking out against that project in his district.

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Boarding the #9 Ashland bus in the East Village. Photo: John Greenfield

Meanwhile, the flyer claims that the coalition’s “Modern Express Bus” alternative proposal would be cheaper than BRT, although that’s not necessarily the case. The proposal calls for purchasing buses with front and rear entrances, plus heated bus shelters with security cameras at every stop. There would be almost three times as many MEB stops as BRT stations, plus the coalition wants to expand service 2.3 miles north from Irving Park Road to Clark Street.  Onboard “bus marshals” would be hired, and there would be a variety of other bells and whistles. All these things aren’t free, but the coalition hasn’t provided a cost estimate. It’s entirely possible MEB would cost more than BRT.

The flyer states that MEB would feature “one modernized bus service stopping every 1/4-mile.” That might have actually been a sensible way to speed up the Ashland bus somewhat, if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s already political will to create BRT service that, at 15.9 mph during peak hours, including stops, will be comparable in speed to driving. And the MEB service wouldn’t actually only stop every quarter mile, which would eliminate 50 percent of stops. As outlined in the coalition’s “Executive Summary,” MEB would make additional stops at train stations, schools, hospitals, social services and churches, so it would only eliminate 30 percent of the stops.

The old #X9 Ashland Express buses, which stopped every half mile, eliminated 75 percent of stops but still crawled along at 10.3 mph, barely faster than the 8.7 mph locals, because it had no dedicated lane and got stuck behind the glut of private cars. Since MEB would make almost three times as many stops as the X9, it would probably be even slower but, understandably, the coalition hasn’t provided a speed estimate. That’s not “modernized bus service,” that’s a 20th Century solution to a 21st Century problem.

“We are excited to improve bus service on Ashland Avenue, Western Avenue and beyond,” the flyer promises, although it seems highly unlikely the coalition would continue to lobby for changes to bus service if the CTA dropped its BRT plan. If the AWC wants to oppose real improvements to Ashland bus service because they erroneously believe the removal of travel lanes and left turns will cause Carmaggedon, that’s their prerogative. But putting out flyers and other materials claiming MEB would be lower cost than BRT, and anywhere near as effective, when there’s no evidence to back up those claims, is deceptive. If you’re going to fight, fight fair.

  • carabara07

    That’s my point… you think the CTA is actually capable of being the shining example for the rest of the country? Reminds me of the “studies they did” about the aisle facing seats that everyone “loved”, so they spent the money on the new train cars and buses, but oh it turns out no one likes them and we’re changing it next time.

  • carabara07

    Also, I seriously doubt they were referring to the Modern Era. Any improvements to the buses would be “modern” compared to what they are now.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, CTA can be exactly that if the project is constructed as designed.

  • carabara07

    Hah. You give them too much credit, I think.

  • Anonymous

    They said Modern, not me. Also, it is a little more than ironic that Romanelli chose a 40’s-looking gal for his poster and took his photo in front of antique cars.

    Then again, maybe he used the same level of critical thought in orchestrating his messaging as he did in forming the lancepoint of his attack against Ashland BRT, i.e., no critical thought whatsoever.

    “Modern” compared to what they are now? Really? What he’s proposing has already been tried and discontinued. That, in effect is a “modern” proposal in post-modern times – a steep backwards.

    We should not fund strategies that have us retreading old worn out tires – we need new ones that will actually meet our current and anticipated needs moving forward.

    Modern Era Bus does not fit the bill in the Post-Modern Age.

  • Funny that you guys are debating postmodernism in a post that starts with “deconstructing.”

  • carabara07

    Can I see evidence of these successes, then? Because everything I’ve read about the US examples have been less than stellar… and I’m talking evidence that does not come from that city’s DOT, because I’m sure those studies are definitely unbiased and completely accurate. Perhaps testimonials of people who use the BRT and/or live near the route? Those are the opinions I care about… not the BS numbers some analyst sitting in an office that probably has never even seen the BRT route comes up with. And you can’t compare to many of the international examples that clearly have much more available space to work with and seems like were much more thoroughly planned.

    I guess in the end I just don’t really understand your motivations to constantly attack this group (I’m not a member, just my observation). People are allowed to have differing opinions, and always will, you have to deal with it. It seems all of your pieces in regards to this group have been attacking (and even name calling, which seems really mature), which is not productive for either side. All it does is detract from the actual topic at hand, that we should all be educating ourselves on more. In the end, if the CTA wants to make this happen that bad, I’m sure they’ll find a way to make it happen. In the mean time, those who oppose it are entitled to their opinion and I don’t think it is your place to tell them they’re wrong.

    If you seem so invested in everyone’s motivations, then why don’t you write a piece that investigates all of the CTA board members who are behind this project? Do you think all of them really care if the people will have shorter commute times? Or if it will benefit the community? Doubt it. I’m sure many of them are part of some company/industry that will benefit monetarily from this project. Wouldn’t it be responsible “journalism” to look into both sides of an issue, not just the one that helps YOUR personal argument?

  • Anonymous

    Well, according to the 2012 ridership stats, CTA handled the third highest average daily ridership of any transit system in the U.S.

    The primary barrier to climbing higher on the list? Well, that would be due to making sub-optimal transit investments, as would be the case with the Ashland Coalition’s Modern Era Bus proposal, combined with the fact that our state continues to try to build out and expand the best road network on the planet instead of investing in what we really need: A world-class transit network, to which the Ashland BRT service would be a valuable contribution.

    When given the funding and the opportunity, CTA can move its system into the 21st century. If held under the foot of yesteryear’s superhighway ideals, they perform at the level one would expect given such constraints.

    It’s time to release the choke-hold and to start building projects that the region needs, like the proposed Ashland BRT.

  • carabara07

    You don’t think there’s a correlation between your stats and Chicago being the 3rd largest city in the US? I don’t really see how that is relevant. Just because they can handle it, doesn’t mean they do a great job at it, or makes them any more capable of successfully implementing such a major endeavor like this.

    Where is the CTA getting funding from? Because last article I saw said that they’re in debt. Are they getting it from the city? The state? hah. Do you have an examples of any recent projects they have pulled off that have been especially successful? I ride the CTA every day (buses and trains) and if they can’t even get their shit together on what we have now, I don’t see how they can pull this off.

  • Anonymous

    Looks like Active Trans has it (kind of) covered, with mobilization of BRT supporters in September: http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/50110/p/salsa/web/common/public/signup?signup_page_KEY=8358

  • Anonymous

    Well, as usual there’s a little more to the stats that elementary school analysis would suggest.

    It should be noted that the leading city’s MSA has a population roughly double that of Chicago, yet the transit ridership is 10 times that of Chicago. The second place city’s MSA has a population roughly 1/2 that of Chicago’s, yet has average weekly ridership roughly 25% higher than that of Chicago’s. it should also be noted that an MSA not appearing in the top three, one with a population roughly 35% higher than Chicago’s, had only one third the average daily transit ridership as Chicago; that city is embarking on an ambitious transit expansion plan, having recognized the problem with its historic over-investment in highways (and all the problems they have because of it).

    Now, in light of middle-school analysis, a different picture emerges than the one you jumped to in your correlation between population and transit ridership:

    The size of a city, alone, is not the primary factor influencing transit ridership. Suprise, it may be the quality and quantity of transit alternatives. Given Chicago’s population and relative ridership deficit when compared against both larger and smaller MSAs, it becomes clear that we need to invest differently to cultivate increased transit ridership.

    The proposed Ashland BRT is a step in the right direction, but only a baby step when compared to our competitors nationally and internationally. Chicago is falling farther and farther behind as we continue to debate whether we should invest properly in transit maintenance and expansion.

    It’s a backwards march toward global irrelevance led by the likes of the Ashland Coalition.

  • carabara07

    Thanks for the smart ass response… I know how data works, I spent 6 years in school learning about it and analyzing it is a daily part of my job. That is the point – you can’t just take numbers and throw them into any situation and try to make them apply. Again, I don’t see how it is relevant. Also, your responses still don’t answer how your lovely little stat shows the CTA’s ability successfully to execute this BRT project. On the contrary, I’d say everything you just said shows that the CTA hasn’t been on the forefront of innovation and has lacked the foresight necessary to have a truly successful public transit system.

    But by all means, continue to skate around all of the real issues and post random “facts” that aren’t really that relevant and don’t help make your point at all.

  • Anonymous

    OK, then put some of that data analysis and interpretation skill to work. Given your depth and breath of experience with data, both academically and in practice, you can surely see that what I provided you was not random, but rather on-point.

    I acknowledge that CTA doesn’t have any completed BRT projects in its back pocket. It is equally clear that they do not have any recent rail expansion projects that we can discuss.

    What we do have is data indicating that regional transit ridership is not what it should be. We also know that we severely under-invest in transit compared to the cities that out-perform us in transit ridership. Along with that we have data indicating that our region has invested billions in expanded road capacity, yet our roads are still congested and we are planning to spend billions more on yet more road capacity in a myopic death spiral.

    If all we do is invest in ever-increasing road capacity while allowing transit to suffer from disrepair, let alone fund improved or expanded service, then our hopes for the future can be no better than the experience of our past, and likely worse as the adverse consequences of our blind ambition to accommodate every car and truck during peak travel periods leads us down a hopeless path where only those building added road capacity benefit, and in a huge way.

    Let’s see what some forward-thinking investments can do. At least with a couple recent good ones on-the-ground we can have a reasonable data-driven discussion of the relative merits and drawbacks of something like a Red Line extension or an Ashland BRT.

    Until then, there’s absolutely no basis upon which to suggest Ashland BRT is a bad investment. To the contrary, modeling using the “highway model” down at CMAP – not CTA’s own analysis using their transit model – indicates the project is a big win.

    Even a validated highway model wildly skewed in favor of highway solutions likes Ashland BRT, a lot. There’s more data in the model than I can put my head around and it tends to spit out results that undermine major transit investment, which is part of the reason why the projects in the adopted regional comprehensive plan are nearly all highway expansion projects. Thus, it is sort of ironic that it expresses such heavy favor for a transit alternative.

    What math or data do you have that contradicts what CMAP’s model indicates? Your dislike for CTA as an agency doesn’t even hit the qualitative analysis mark.

  • carabara07

    All I see is a lot of words here and still not many answers. And no, I still don’t think your point was relevant in answering my initial question of how that proves they’re capable. All it does is show that there’s a problem (duh) and that we need a solution (also duh). Of course you’re not going to have any examples of completed BRTs because they don’t exist… I said show me anything, ANYTHING at all that they’ve done recently that has been successful/not a waste of money.

    Never once here have I said I’m against improving public transit in Chicago, so I don’t know why you assume I’m trying to contradict anything… my issue here is that this whole project doesn’t seem as well thought out/explained as it needs to be, and that I am not completely confident in the CTA (or any government agency, at that) to have the best interest of EVERYONE in mind or be able to successfully implement anything they propose.

  • Anonymous

    “All I see is a lot of words here and still not many answers.”

    Must be reading your own thoughtless responses, carabara07. Hopefully you’re not impressed with them, as I’m sure not.

    Maybe that is few enough words for you to grasp.

  • Anonymous

    Frequency information is third only behind service span and routing in terms of transit importance. A failure for the CTA to provide frequency info is a failure to provide enough evidence to allow the public to make an informed decision. As such an important element in transit planning, frequency should not be glossed over, as you did in your second paragraph.

    Your third paragraph construes a “No True Scotsman” fallacy, and is an ad-hominem attack.

    In the fourth paragraph, you touch on fares. Fare policy is independent from service policy. Additionally, a potential option would be to apply the CTA fare system to all intra-CTA boundary Metra trips.

    In the fifth paragraph, you touch on transfers. The CTA (and many transit systems) are based on a grid, and grids implicitly require transfers for “L” shaped trips. It is likely that a BRT/local split would increase transfers for those unable to access a BRT stop, as they would be required to transfer yet again to a local route to access their destination.

    Your sixth paragraph shows the failure of the CTA to conduct a scientifically valid analysis of their proposed improvements. In a nutshell, variables should be eliminated except for the one tested. I attempted to do just that in my reply to the earlier post, where I broke down each improvement and how much time it would save. As a large transit agency with access to more advanced resources than a calculator and a computer, the CTA should do the same type of analysis.

    While I fully and openly admit to not living in Chicago, where I live is immaterial to the topic at hand. In my comments, I try to interpret how different proposals can be applied elsewhere. As a arrow-straight street with a wide ROW, hosting a single, high-ridership transit service within a grid system, the debate on Ashland could easily be occurring on Geary in San Francisco, Colfax in Denver, Broadway in Vancouer, etc.

    In closing, while the Ashland BRT project does not affect me in any material way, the lessons applied here can be applied to other transit discussions, and thus I have contributed what I can. I trust that ultimately, an informed Chicago citizenry can make the decision as to what project, with what features, best addresses their concerns and suits their needs.

  • Anonymous

    John,
    Thanks for the factual rebuttal and the polite tone. This is a much better article than some of your previous ones on the subject, which excelled in ridiculing the members of the AWC, but not provide much factual counterpoints.

  • Thanks, but I strongly disagree with you that we haven’t provided factual counterpoints to the AWC’s arguments. For example, here’s my previous BRT post, with plenty of stats: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/08/29/why-the-anti-bus-rapid-transit-arguments-dont-make-sense/

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