Sun-Times Article on BRT NIMBYs Not As Awful As It Could Have Been

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Rosalind Rossi interviews a member of the Ashland-Western Coalition. Photo: John Greenfield

When I heard that the anti-bus rapid transit group the Ashland Western Coalition was staging a photo op and interview session for the Sun-Times, I expected the worst. The NIMBY group hadn’t received any coverage from the daily papers before this, but they’d gotten plenty of flattering writeups in local publications like DNAInfo, The Gazette and Patch.

Sun-Times transportation reporter Rosalind Rossi has shown a pro-car bias in articles like this one about a public input meeting on the Milwaukee protected bike lanes, which focused on drivers’ gripes about bicyclists. Her writeup of a recent, wide-ranging sustainable transportation roundtable centered almost exclusively on her own question to Congressman Mike Quigley about whether people on bikes should be required to display license plates.

Rossi specializes in David-and-Goliath stories of citizens taking on the city bureaucracy, so in a post last Friday I fretted that all the pro-BRT quotes in her article would come from CTA staffers:

Little media attention has been given to the dozens of businesses and organizations that are official supporters of the BRT plan, or the 1,700-plus residents who have signed a petition supporting the plan or contacted their aldermen to endorse it… If Rossi follows the template used by almost all local reporters so far, the responses to the coalition members’ claims will come from CTA officials, rather than the many business and community leaders, as well as everyday Chicagoans, who support the BRT plan.

Maybe I’m flattering myself, but I’d like to think that Rossi saw my post and it encouraged her to write a more balanced article. I’m happy to report that her piece isn’t as terrible as I thought it would be.

Sure, the article includes plenty of factual errors and half-truths. Rossi reports that BRT buses will stop every quarter mile, when the stop spacing will actually be every half mile. She describes BRT bus boarding as “ground-level,” when it will really be from a raised platform at the same level as the bus floor, facilitating entry for people with disabilities and seniors, and speeding boarding and travel for everyone else. She notes that cars and trucks will share a single lane with curbside local buses, failing to mention that the locals will run far less frequently than they do today, mostly to serve those who can’t or won’t travel an extra block or two to the BRT stations.

Rossi describes the BRT opponents as North Side residents when the coalition is actually made up of businesses and organizations on the Near West Side, including several located south of Madison Street. It’s also puzzling that the reporter doesn’t mention the AWC until the second-to-last paragraph of the article.

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CTA rendering of bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue.

I dropped by the interview session the coalition organized yesterday morning at Orlando Glass and Trim, 641 North Ashland. It appears that all four of the residents quoted in the article as opposing BRT were among the dozen or so people who showed up for this pre-planned event. However, since the AWC isn’t mentioned until the end, the piece makes it seem like the opposition to BRT is coming from several different directions instead of just one noisy NIMBY group.

That said, Rossi also gave airtime to three pro-BRT individuals, and only one of them was a CTA spokesperson. In addition to quoting coalition members kvetching that the repurposing of car lanes and prohibition of most left turns on Ashland will create conditions “worse than carmageddon,” she also talked to Lee Crandell from the Active Transportation, who serves as a voice of reason.

“People say removing a traffic lane or prohibiting left turns will cause a traffic nightmare,” Crandell said. “A number of cities have done more transformation to their streets than this and none of the doomsday scenarios have come true.” He gave the example of a 2011 L.A. highway closure that was predicted to create vehicular mayhem but instead went smoothly.

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BRT supporters at Sunday's Open Streets on Milwaukee Avenue. Photo: Brenna Conway, Active Trans

Rossi also spoke with Matt Nardella, owner of the architecture firm Moss Design, an official supporter of the BRT plan, who pointed out that BRT will be good for businesses’ bottom line. “[By] making the street less car-oriented, you will make it a more hospitable place for pedestrians,” he told the reporter. “By making the street more hospitable, the more likely you are to improve the retail climate on the street.’’

Granted, Rossi didn’t interview any of the hundreds of everyday citizens who have endorsed BRT, let alone actually talk to someone waiting for or riding the grindingly slow, 8.7 mph #9 Ashland bus. But this article is a step in the right direction toward writing a conventional he-said/she-said treatment of the BRT story, not that that’s anything to brag about.

Rossi also got the scoop on a couple of new details about the plan, which the CTA’s Joe Iacobucci confirmed are accurate. She writes that the first 5.4-mile phase of BRT between 31st Street and Cortland Street will allow northbound left turns onto expressway ramps at Armitage, Robinson and Van Buren, and southbound left turns at Congress. She also noted that the environmental assessment for the plan will be released in mid-October, a couple of weeks later than previously projected by CTA officials, followed by 30 days of public comment.

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Ashland-Western Coalition leader Roger Romanelli at Orlando Glass. Photo: Mike Brockaway, DNA

Annoyingly, AWC leader Roger Romanelli gets the last word in the article, touting the coalition’s “Modern Express Bus” counter-proposal, which would maintain the status quo for drivers, but would provide even slower service than the old 10.3 mph #X9 Ashland Express. BRT will provide 15.9 mph rush hour service, including stops, a comparable speed to driving, which is what’s needed if we want to coax people out of their cars.

BRT is “potential carmeggedon, but it’s also a huge opportunity for change in our city if we choose a different approach,’’ Romanelli told Rossi. “For such a major change, Chicago deserves a choice.’’

He’s right about that last bit. Instead of continuing to prioritize driving, so that this inefficient, destructive mode is the only way to travel fast on Ashland, we need to give Chicagoans a choice. By providing the option of speedy, reliable BRT, we’ll allow people to choose a more affordable, healthier, smarter way to get where they need to go.

  • Anonymous

    John, if you find me an example of buspocalypse, I’ll give you a million dollars.

    Define what constitutes “carmaggedon”.

  • Well, if we need to quantify it, how about finding news stories from three different publications in a city stating that the repurposing of car lanes for BRT in that city caused serious traffic problems? It seems like if three different news sources in the same town agree that there was a problem, then there might have been something to the claims.

  • Anonymous

    So, given that most of the extant BRTs are in non-English speaking countries, literacy in at least one more language is necessary to prove a carmageddon. Got it.

    John, can you point out any BRT, anywhere, were the remaining street had-(1) only one remaining travel lane, (2) local buses using that travel lane and (3) curbside parking? I’ve looked (non-exhaustively, but rather extensively) and could not find one and am genuinely curious.

  • Well, most of the extant anything is in non-English-speaking countries. If there really was a major snafu, it shouldn’t be that hard to track down English-language reports or use Google Translate. Let’s say two news reports will be sufficient from a non-Anglophone country.

    We’re probably not going to find those three elements in the same BRT line, and no other street is going to have exactly the same parameters as Ashland so, yes, there are some X factors here. However, the local buses aren’t going to be that much of an impact on traffic flow, since they’re going to run infrequently. I’m guessing once every half hour during business hours, maybe once an hour otherwise.

    As for two travel lanes plus parking, I believe Mexico City’s BRT has a similar configuration as Ashland, and I’ve seen photos of similar-looking streets in Paris. Let me do a little research and get back to you.

  • Anonymous

    Has CMAP’s model for traffic speed taken into account that the local #9 is still going to run?

    I would beg to differ about the impact of this. Obviously, the local is going to create a HUGE bottleneck for auto traffic, and because it’s one lane, cars will be subjected to the same stupid dynamics as the bus whereas before they just went around it. Now EVERY car will have to effectively pick up passengers and miss half the lights because they’re loading/unloading passengers. How in the world can someone say it’s not going to have much of an impact? Again, it just goes back to this main problem where every single flaw with it is coincidentally instantly dismissed as not a problem at all.

    This also got me thinking and I realized another thing about it that reinforces that something is amiss with CMAP’s model. Serious question here. They say the #9 runs at something like 9 mph currently, right? Yet their forecast has auto traffic cruising at something like 15 mph. Ummm, how? How does the speed of the local increase by almost 70% when it still makes all the same stops and misses lights? None of this makes any sense.

    The single-file line makes keeping the local impossible. There has to be SOME give and take here, and getting rid of that #9 would need to be part of it.

  • Local buses don’t create traffic nightmares on two-lane streets like Halsted and Damen, so there’s no reason to believe that local buses on Ashland, which would run much less frequently, would cause problems once Ashland is essentially converted into a two-lane street.

  • Anonymous

    So will auto traffic be able to go around the local at every stop?

  • Yep, the local bus will operate just like it does now, pulling up to the curb at the designated bus stop. If cars are illegally parked in the bus stop, the bus may be forced to pick up passengers while in the travel lane, which would delay car traffic. But that worst-case scenario is also a possibility on current two-lane bus routes like Damen and Halsted, and it doesn’t seem to be a big issue.

  • Anonymous

    Why wouldn’t it be?

  • Anonymous

    Alright, it’s not the end of the world but it still sucks.

  • Anonymous

    Btw, there is a broader point here. How great is the BRT if we cant even replace the old local service which even you admit is horrible in its current form (and will get even worse as traffic slows)? The broader notion that we cant even manage to eliminate the #9 after installing the BRT is odd to say the least.

  • Fred

    It’s not that BRT CAN’T replace local service, its just that making the lives of the elderly and mobility limited more difficult is a major no-no in current society. The local bus is intended to serve those people. A vast majority of people will switch to BRT + added walking.

  • Anonymous

    I knew this point was coming. I just disagree on it. For one single bus line in the entire city, on a route where there will be a BRT, is it seriously unreasonable to require people to walk an extra MAX of two blocks? This ONE line?? We dont require the El make a stop every block for elderly riders for a reason, so I’m not sure why it’s necessary to keep the #9. Do we even know what percent of bus riders are so mobility-impaired that the additional two blocks would literally not be doable??

  • It is a bit of a dilemma for the CTA, I’ll grant you. Running the the local buses doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, except that we don’t want to shut out the very small minority of riders for whom an extra block or two of travel would be a hardship, and it could be politically unpopular to do so. It’s similar to the situation on the north Red Line where there there are stops a five-minute walk from each other, but it would be tough to eliminate any of them to speed the train because there would an uproar from some residents.

    That said, having the locals running as well as the BRT won’t be a big deal. They’ll run only occasionally and won’t unduly delay cars, and if it becomes clear that almost nobody is choosing to ride a bus almost twice as slow as the BRT, they’ll be eliminated. That may inconvenience a few mobility-impaired folks, but overall that’s nothing compared to the thousands of Chicagoans who are currently being hindered by grindingly slow Ashland bus service.

  • Fred

    It only takes one single story of an old person slipping on ice in the winter while walking those extra 2 blocks to make a whole lot of people look really, really bad. Fighting social mores is a losing battle.

  • Alex Oconnor
  • I’m in agreement with you that eliminating the local bus might be a good idea. However, the CTA, which has a better sense of the political ramifications, decided against this.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    The idea isn’t necessarily to replace the #9. The idea is to offer faster, more reliable train-like service along the same route, similar to how the Orange Line hasn’t replaced the #62 Archer bus (and how the Stephenson hasn’t replaced Archer Avenue for motorists).

    The #9 can’t be eliminated right away. Once the first phase of BRT implementation is complete, between 31st and Cortland, the CTA will need to continue to run local buses to serve riders from 95th to 31st and from Cortland to Irving Park. Once all phases of BRT implementation are complete, the CTA will have the data to justify keeping or eliminating the local buses.

    Also, going by the preliminary BRT service maps, BRT won’t replace the #9’s service to 104th/Vincennes and the N9 Night Owl service from the Red Line at 95th/Dan Ryan to North/Clark. Center-running BRT will be awesome in its own way; it won’t do all the things the #9 and N9 do.

  • Anonymous

    You’re probably right and I probably overreacted initially. The idea of keeping the local still seems very strange nevertheless.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks. It really is a genuine question, and I really did look. Closest I found was one of the lines in Curitiba, but (1) didn’t see any evidence that there was still a local bus, and (2) they moved the parking to between the BRT line and the traffic lane, which seems sensible to me, altho it would be very ‘foreign’ (heh) to Chicagoans, for several reasons.

    Also, still curious how pedestrian crossings (if they are actually going to be maintained–which I think they should *not* be) at non-signalized intersections will be designed. Of course, if those crossings are not maintained, that alone would be a good basis for a consolidation/reduction in local bus stops–as one would only want to have the stops where they can be safely utilized from both sides of Ashland.

    And, again, if the likely frequency of the local is 30 minutes and up to an hour, there is just no way that the ridership numbers would support maintaining that route. Dead Route Running.

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