Talking to a Concerned Mom About How Ashland BRT Will Improve Safety

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Wahl with Lilly, in bike trailer, at their home in Ukrainian Village. Photo: Suzi Wahl

Last week I dropped by the photo op and interview session the anti-bus rapid transit group the Ashland-Western Coalition helped organize for the Sun-Times at Orlando Glass and Trim in Noble Square. As I stood off to the side snapping photos for Streetsblog, it was a pleasant surprise when one of the BRT opponents walked up to me with a smile and introduced herself.

Suzi Wahl described herself as an “avid cyclist” who even used to pedal in Chicago Critical Mass, although she stopped participating after witnessing an enraged driver intentionally strike a group of cyclists, including a ten-year-old boy, during the monthly ride. She said she’d be interested in talking to me in the future about her perspective as a sustainable transportation advocate who opposes the CTA’s plan to convert car lanes on Ashland Avenue to dedicated bus lanes.

Until recently, coalition leader Roger Romanelli had been the main spokesperson for the anti-BRT movement. However, shortly before the interview session, Wahl and her husband Bill Dahms contacted multiple media outlets about their fears that the lane conversion, along with the prohibition of most left turns, will send aggravated drivers racing down side streets. Since then Wahl, a young mom who lives about half a mile west of Ashland in Ukrainian Village and doesn’t count herself as a member of the AWC but an ally, has emerged as a sympathetic face of the opposition, appearing in many news stories.

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Wahl, left, at the interview session with the Sun-Times. Photo: John Greenfield

During the interview, she told the Sun-Times that the benefits of BRT are “not worth the tradeoffs in quality of life.” Soon afterwards she appeared in an NBC story asking, “How many cars are going to be in my neighborhood? … You’re not really looking at typical automobile traffic, you’ll be looking at frustrated drivers.”

A DNAInfo writeup of a recent BRT info session quoted Wahl voicing her concerns about the side street issue to a CTA rep, noting that the agency estimates 35 percent of traffic on Ashland will be diverted onto other streets. “Where exactly will those vehicles shift to?” she asked. She also told an ABC news reporter, “As a mother, as a homeowner, as a landlord, I’m concerned with these frustrated drivers going through our neighborhoods.”

When we talked on the phone, Wahl, who works in sales for an airline, told me she herself rarely drives. She said she often rides a bicycle, and although she doesn’t feel comfortable transporting her five-year-old daughter Lily by bike on city streets, she walks her to school and they often ride CTA buses. “It’s so easy to get around with my daughter that way,” she said. “We only have one car, and the only time we really use it is in very inclement weather or to take our bikes to a bike path. If there was a way to do BRT where we could have two car lanes in each direction, the bus lanes, parking, and maybe bike lanes, I’d be all for it.”

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Lily, riding a CTA bus. Photo: Suzi Wahl

However, Wahl told me she fears that the planned reconfiguration of Ashland will lead to angry, erratic behavior from drivers, which will be bad for bicyclists on Ashland as well as nearby residents. I pointed out that few people choose to pedal on Ashland as it is because there’s so much car traffic and speeding. BRT will mean fewer cars, moving a bit slower, with less speeding, which will be safer for cyclists who opt to ride on Ashland, although nearby bike lane streets like Damen Avenue and Southport Avenue will still probably be a better choice.

Wahl’s fears of Ashland road rage, which she said are influenced by her Critical Mass experience, are common concerns before a major street redesign like this, but after implementation they tend not to be borne out. There will be a bit of a learning curve as people get used to the new road design, but many people will choose to take alternatives streets, such as Damen, California Avenue, Western Avenue, and Halsted Street.

She also worried about frustrated truck drivers making three fast right turns on side streets in order to go left for deliveries on Ashland. However, it also won’t take long for truckers to get used to the turning ban and simply choose routes that don’t require left turns from Ashland. Delivery companies like UPS already do their routing with as few lefts as possible in order to save time and gas.

Wahl said she’s especially worried about cars detouring west from Ashland on Ohio Street, past Mitchell Elementary, 2233 West Ohio, where her daughter goes to school, as well as Talcott Elementary, a few blocks east at 1840 West Ohiot, to get to Western. “If you stop by the schools around 3:15 on a school day, not only are there a ridiculous amount of cars but there are also buses,” she said. “That’s unavoidable, they’re school buses, and they’re only there for 15 minutes. But the traffic is already crazy, and then you’re adding displaced cars from Ashland. You’re looking at kids’ safety issues.”

Of course, the Ashland BRT project is all about getting cars off the street, and improved safety for all road users is one of its main benefits. While it’s true that some traffic may be diverted onto side streets instead of arterials, Chicago’s dense grid is more than capable of absorbing the extra traffic, which means that there will probably be no more than a few extra cars per hour on any particular residential block. Any issues with high traffic volume or speeding on side streets that emerge can be addressed with traffic calming measures like speed humps and mini traffic circles.

Ian Lockwood,  a transportation engineer who specializes in smart growth and traffic-calming projects at the firm AECOM, told me that while left-turn restrictions can divert some traffic, fears of large numbers of cars being diverted from Ashland onto residential streets are likely exaggerated. “The assumption is that traffic volumes are akin to water in pipes,” he wrote me. “The incompressible fluid has to go somewhere, so it follows that if lanes are removed motorists will use parallel neighborhood streets.”

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CTA rendering of bus rapid transit on Ashland.

“However, in real life, I’ve only seen the opposite effect when the whole arterial corridor is made less automobile-oriented, for example, going from four to two lanes,” he said. “In reality, the traffic volume on the side streets either doesn’t change or it drops slightly. The reason is less car traffic can use the whole corridor and, thus, the pressure to transfer to the local parallel streets won’t even be present. The whole corridor becomes less about the automobile.”

Concerns about extra cars on side streets shouldn’t obscure the fact that the Ashland BRT project is a huge opportunity to improve safety. In addition to providing much faster, more reliable bus service, the project will be make Ashland much safer for pedestrians. Along with less cars and calmed traffic, there will be wider sidewalks, and the median bus stations will double as pedestrian refuge islands. That could make the difference in whether parents allow their children to cross Ashland alone or not.

If we want less traffic violence and better streets for walking, making transit more appealing than driving is one of the most powerful things we can do. Look around at the global cities with lower rates of traffic injuries and deaths than Chicago, like London, Berlin, Tokyo, and even New York, and you’ll see they all have high transit mode-share. While the Ashland BRT may result in a few more vehicles on side streets, the bigger picture will be more transit ridership, less car traffic and a more humane street, and that’s nothing to be afraid of.

  • Oh, jeez. Where’s her source for these worries about drivers speeding down streets? There’s so much worry about traffic zooming down residential streets, maybe there should be a call for the aldermen to implement traffic-calming measures on those streets. How is keeping the same amount of traffic on Ashland going to help make the residential street quiet?

    I mean, if you look at a map of Ashland, and look at the residential streets paralleling it, there isn’t much continuity anyway. You can’t get very far in the first place without having to turn onto another street. Ashland will still be the fastest way to drive over there.

    Bottom line: If you want less cars and more useful transit options (overall and on your own street), don’t oppose projects that have that end goal in mind.

  • Mcass777

    Oh, jeez Shaun, you have a very one sided view on this. I think it’s good to hear rational comments from neighbors. Give her a break.

  • It’s not an irrational comment to make, I wouldn’t want all the traffic on my street either, but it doesn’t happen like that. Keeping the street just as busy isn’t going to do anything to reduce the number of cars, on the residential street or otherwise.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Uninformed and anecdotal commentary while it may be understandable does not mean her comments are rational.

    Mr. Lockwood has it right and most of the literature and evidence on the matter back him up.:

    “The assumption is that traffic volumes are akin to water in pipes……The incompressible fluid has to go somewhere, so it follows that if lanes are removed motorists will use parallel neighborhood streets….However, in real life, I’ve only seen the opposite effect when the whole arterial corridor is made less automobile-oriented, for example, going from four to two lanes,” he said. “In reality, the traffic volume on the side streets either doesn’t change or it drops slightly. The reason is less car traffic can use the whole corridor and, thus, the pressure to transfer to the local parallel streets won’t even be present. The whole corridor becomes less about the automobile.”

    So much of the discussion on this topic is based on entrenched habit and visceral certitude. That hardly makes for a rational conclusion especially when that conclusion does not gel with evidence and experience from analogous scenarios.

  • Alex Oconnor

    It is irrational if it is not based on the truth. That does not mean her commentary / concern is not understandable. Unfortunately the is discussion has become so factionalized that evidence to the contrary of what many people just viscerally feel must be the truth (and that often means conformity with the status quo) is far too often incapable of being overcome via evidence and rational argument.

  • Yikes, superfluous word alert.

    I’m just waiting to see how the CTA got all their numbers. Then it might make more sense. But from what I’ve read, repurposing car lanes for transit or otherwise usually does not result in this sort of mayhem people predict.

  • Mcass777

    I wanted to point out that we need to think about what we are saying with regards to an opinion that may not fall in line with your own. She lives there, let her have an opinion – nobody knows what will occur but she has kids, bikes on streets she knows so she has a stake in the game.

  • Anonymous

    She brings up concerns that may have merit. It is very disappointing then that the only real example she gives is 6 school more than 6 blocks west of Ashland. I’m not buying the argument that there will be a measurable increase in traffic that far from Ashland

  • cole

    “If you stop by the schools around 3:15 on a school day, not only are there a ridiculous amount of cars but there are also buses,” she said. “That’s unavoidable, they’re school buses, and they’re only there for 15 minutes. But the traffic is already crazy, and then you’re adding displaced cars from Ashland. You’re looking at kids’ safety issues.”

    Is there evidence to show that increased traffic, like that during rush hour, or around a school when it lets out increases the chances of injury or accidents?

  • Rob

    Define: NIMBY

  • That term doesn’t appear in this post, but NIMBY stands for “Not In My Back Yard.” It can be used as a noun or an adjective for a person or organization that says they don’t have a problem with something per se, like BRT, but they just don’t want it in their community.

  • Peter

    2 points/questions.

    1. As the City/CTA is evaluating potential measures for traffic calming on side streets. Can they evaluate other measures besides speed humps? Something I have seen done in the suburbs (I don’t have any info on the effectiveness) is creating narrow pinch points (hour glass style) on a block to reduce the road width. I understand you might loose a couple parking spaces, but these pinch points could be landscaped and potentially be a nice alternative to humping down the road.

    2. Based on my life experience I would like to respectfully disagree with the assessment of Mr Lockwood in that traffic does not behave like fluid flow in a pipe. In addition, the following dialog taken from the comments of yesterdays headlines also seems to refute his claims. This dialog is in reference to effects of the road/lane closures on the Chicago and Grand Ave bridges. I realize the circumstances are somewhat different, but a the same time shows that traffic does work its way to places it previously might not have existed and can be worse then anticipated.

    “Katja Alex_H
    • 21 hours ago
    I take Milwaukee to Des Plaines, so I can’t speak to what happened on Kinzie. I think it was probably nutso on Kinzie over the river, as well. It was just remarkable how many motorists were going left on Kinzie at Kinzie/Milwaukee/Des Plaines, compared to the usual. Normally it’s about half and half cars turning left onto Kinzie and cars continuing straight-ish onto Des Plaines. Today it was like 95% were going left onto Kinzie, which caused a huge backup of cars on Milwaukee, but Des Plaines was nearly empty.1

    Reply
    Alex_H Katja
    • 21 hours ago
    Ah, I see. Yeah, I just saw on the Chainlink that Kinzie was pretty rough this morning. (There has been some construction on the Kinzie bridge recently, too; if still going on I’m sure it didn’t help.)

  • Peter

    One more question (sorry for the extra post), is there any information on how Ashland will transition from 2 lanes to 1? As you travel southbound I am picturing long backups resulting from the merge… I’m thinking Edens Spur ramp style backups…

  • Fred

    It terms of those comments: this closure was sudden and not necessarily well advertised. I’m guessing a large number of people did not know about the closure until they got there yesterday morning and therefore did not have the opportunity to adjust their route. Traffic was bad, but not as bad this morning. This is likely due to people adjusting their routes after a day of mess. It is not fair to assume that every single day will be like that. I’d bet that traffic will be back closer to normal by the end of the 2 week project.

    BRT will not just pop up suddenly on a Monday morning. It will take time to implement so daily users should be aware and have the opportunity to adjust their routes before it opens. Even so, its likely that there will be a traffic mess immediately after it opens, but over time people will adjust and it will normalize.

  • Doesn’t seem like that will be a big issue. There are multiple places in Chicago where streets alternate between four lanes and two.

  • Clark, between North and Armitage, going south is the better example.

  • Anonymous

    In phase 1 where the SB transition is between Armitage and Cortland, it would seem sensible that the lanes would start around the Metra viaduct. ie, SB traffic would have to use the outer lane. The BRT buses could use the inner lane (maybe with a gate of some sort?) if they were coming down Ashland from the turnaround or the garage, with the first stop being on the south side of Cortland.

  • Anonymous

    She mentions her particular school 6 blocks west, with concerns that drivers will use Ohio to get to Western, past that school. She also mentions a school 2 blocks west of Ashland as well.

  • Anonymous

    You’re right. But that detail was added after I posted. Initially it said “a school closer to Ashland” without being specific as to what school

  • Anonymous

    It does need to be handled well though. The intersection just north of it (Armitage) is a mess due to a large number of cars turning right on Armitage to get on the Kennedy. That right turn is often backed up to/through Elston.

  • One solution would be to make the second lane (the one on the curb) a right-turn only lane.

  • Anonymous

    Irving Park goes from 4 to 2 lanes at Ashland. It’s not a huge problem but it does get backed up some.

  • Peter

    Good call. Thanks

  • Anonymous

    Wait, so this lady is saying that it’s more sustainable to be afraid of cars than to give people a real option not to drive? I’m a dad, and I’ve been hit by a car on my bike, so I’m very keen on traffic safety. But the answer isn’t to say “Let Ashland act like a highway so people won’t drive on my street.” We need to be saying, “we want people driving less overall, and BRT is how we get there.”

  • R

    A design question about how a user like the Suzi Wahl, in this article, can cycle and use BRT. Will BRT have front rack loading for bicycles or something cooler like what Portland does with its light rail as well as its commuter rail?? (always dreamed of something like this in Chicago)

    http://trimet.org/howtoride/bikes/bikesonmax.htm

    http://trimet.org/howtoride/bikes/bikesonwes.htm

  • Good question. It would expedite things if bikes didn’t go on the front rack but rather inside the vehicle like a train car.

  • Adam Herstein

    Oh look, another “avid cyclist”…

    Won’t somebody please think of the children?!

  • Adam Herstein

    What’s about BANANAs? Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

  • Adam Herstein

    Maybe if more people walked their kids to school, there wouldn’t be so much car traffic.

  • Peter

    Or maybe people should stop having kids (smh)…..sheesh

  • Anonymous

    You beat me to it :)

  • Anonymous

    Actually, it goes from 4 to 3 at Ashland (striped for 2 west bound lanes, with 4 supposedly in AM rush (no parking not enforced by towing) for Eastbound) to Southport, is 2 lanes from Southport to Clark, is functionally 4 lanes from Clark to the El (where a speed camera is coming soon), 2 lanes from the El to Sheridan, functionally 4 lanes from Sheridan to B’way, a huge mess bt B’way and Clarendon, a 2 lanes (supposedly 3, reversing, for rush hour, but no again no towing, despite bus volume) from Clarendon to LSD.

    The only two things (non-construction, non-weather) thing that cause any significant backup are (1) cars parking in ‘rush hour’ zones, especially in the AM (tho PM rush ends too early–still a lot of westbound traffic from 6 to 7) without fear of being towed, and (2) Cubs games. If the city aggressively towed the stretch from Clarendon to LSD in the AM, so that buses would not have to deke around illegally parked cars, sometimes 3 times in under 1/2 mile, there’d be minimal issue.

  • Claire

    I actually want to point out that this part of her concerns do not make sense to me. I think drivers would prefer to take either Chicago or Grand rather than divert to Ohio if they are seeking an east-west route. I live in this neighborhood and often drive from Ashland to Western and vice versa. Grand and Chicago are much faster routes than Ohio, and better known routes. I don’t think changing the number of lanes on Ashland will cause drivers to want to drive on Ohio.

  • Wildflowerchicago

    This is a total waste of taxpayer money….. It will go the same way as the State Street Mall and the barricade the former Alderman Stone once erected on Howard Street. To reduce traffic, down to one lane is moronic! Any fool can see two lanes on Ashland is vital to properly conduct commerce and general transportation. This is a totally dumb idea! We are about to create a traffic nightmare! When you get all those garbage trucks, delivery trucks, USPS trucks along with regular motorists…. Think of the bottleneck this will create! Do area taxpaying residents really want this?

  • Wildflowerchicago

    What’s needed here is a simple adjustment of the traffic lights…. Ashland Ave. carries a large volume of garbage trucks, semi trucks and buses, not to mention all kinds of delivery vehicles ….. The lights on Ashland need to be longer to allow larger, slower trucks time to get going and clear the way…. I look onto Armitage and 9 times out of ten there is no line of cars as is on Ashland…. A fool can see this unfortunately, our stupid city needs to do a study before it can act quickly… spending more money we do not have!

  • Wildflowerchicago

    Speed bumps are horrible for any vehicle… They should be implemented in the suburbs, not in the city….

  • Wildflowerchicago

    Or maybe as in my day…. kids learned to grow up…. after kindergarten you walked your little butt to school by yourself! ….
    What happened to that concept? … Or did the media scare parents to death thinking some child molester was lurking around the next row of privet hedges!

  • Wildflowerchicago

    The cry of the wolf today… the children… mention children and the national guard is suppose to coming running to your aid!

  • JanetMeegan

    This is correct. Ashland is almost a mile from Mitchell. If drivers are on Ashland they are very far from Mitchell. No chance this will affect the school at all. And Suzi is not a young mom. Her daughter is young.

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