Except for Pawar, Ashland Aldermen Sit on the Fence When It Comes to BRT

Ashland and 18th Street bus rapid transit
18th/Ashland BRT station rendering. Image: CTA, Kevin Pound

Ashland Avenue BRT could be a transformative project for Chicago, demonstrating the benefits of re-orienting streets to prioritize transit and walking. Projected to nearly double bus speeds, improve reliability, attract new riders, and improve pedestrian safety, Ashland BRT could potentially be the first world-class bus project in America, designed to a standard that would receive the top BRT rating from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

First the busway has to get built. The first phase will convert two travel lanes to bus-only lanes from Cortland Street to 31st Street, linking wards 32, 2, 1, 27, 28, and 25 (using the 2015 map). Future phases will include other wards, including the 47th ward, where alderman Ameya Pawar enthusiastically supports the project.

aldermen waguespack moreno burnett
Aldermen Burnett, Waguespack, and Moreno.

While the project would make it easier and safer for their constituents to get around without a car, keeping thousands of dollars in their pocket, the aldermen Streetsblog spoke to are taking noncommittal positions so far. Except for Pawar, who remains strongly in favor of BRT.

Here’s what four aldermen told us about Ashland bus rapid transit.

Walter Burnett (27th)

Of the four aldermen who spoke to Streetsblog, Burnett was the least enthused about BRT. “At this time, I’m not” in support of the proposal, Burnett said in a phone interview. That could change, but he indicated that his support would be conditional. Burnett noted that businesses along the corridor are concerned with the left turn prohibitions, saying “it’s really gonna jeopardize those businesses.” Despite the dire predictions, trucks will still be able to access those businesses — in fact global delivery companies like UPS minimize the number of left turns in their routing to save time and gas.

Burnett also thinks bus rapid transit will interfere with events at the United Center. “When events at the United Center go on, they block off a lot of streets. The BRT would hinder all of that blockage that they do there,” Burnett told me. But Ashland BRT will provide the rapid transit to the United Center that many people have been calling for in the form of a Pink Line L stop, and it will cut down on game-day driving, reducing congestion and changing up how the temporary street closures are currently implemented.

While Burnett is open to the project, he did not mention that improving transit and creating a better pedestrian street is important. “I’m gonna let the CTA listen to these concerns and make some adjustments before I make a decision,” he said, “and so far they haven’t done that.”

Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st)

Moreno hasn’t taken a position yet, but his office refrained from criticizing aspects of the proposal. Matt Bailey, communications director for the 1st Ward, pointed me to a newsletter last week where Moreno wrote:

I am currently neutral on the plan. At this stage, I think it is helpful to let both sides discuss (and they do vigorously) and hopefully find common ground.

“We’re not really taking a stand right now,” said Bailey, even though “we have personal opinions on the matter.”

He did not mention specific benefits of the proposal. Notably, though, Bailey acknowledged the inherent challenge of changing the status quo on the streets. “People don’t tend to call if they support something.” He said there’ve been a lot of phone calls from residents opposing the project but recognizes that this isn’t “really a good metric to measure anything, necessarily.” (See also: Machiavelli’s thoughts on introducing a new order of things.)

Moreno might hold a ward-specific meeting, Bailey said, although the alderman and his staff members have been attending the community meetings hosted by neighborhood organizations with presentations from CTA officials.

Scott Waguespack (32nd)

Chief of Staff Paul Sajovec said that Waguespack has “pretty serious concerns about the business implications, primarily with their ability to do loading and unloading” and feels that there’s been little outreach. Sajovec said that “no one’s explained to the businesses how they’re going to get their deliveries in the alley” when Ashland is narrowed to one travel lane. He said that with only one lane of traffic, “trucks may not fit neatly into the parking lane and may shut down traffic.” The alderman would like to see some of the businesses’ input incorporated before CTA and CDOT make a decision on the final lane configurations, and define where loading/unloading should take place.

It should be noted that if Ashland BRT is built, curb access for deliveries will be no different than today’s conditions, when beer delivery trucks park in front of Ashland stores. Truck deliveries don’t cause chaos on two-lane streets like Halsted, Damen or Milwaukee. Curb access issues are surmountable and should be addressed with better enforcement and loading zone management, not forgoing gold standard BRT. Plus, while the rules governing use of the bus lanes have yet to be worked out, in other places, such as New York, drivers are allowed to use bus lanes to bypass stationary obstacles, just not slow traffic or garbage trucks.

Sajovec also mentioned that some residents are worried about the impact on traffic: “How can you possibly go down from two lanes to one?” He added that people who drive on Ashland now may be affected because the number of turning movements is restricted and “we haven’t seen anything on where or how that’s going to happen.” While the full traffic analysis has yet to be released, the basic reasons traffic won’t be markedly affected have been explained at various public events. Some trips will shift to transit, others will be absorbed by Chicago’s robust street grid, and as ITDP’s Walter Hook noted at a recent forum, left-turn restrictions alleviate congestion, and the dedicated bus lanes will eliminate much of the bus merging that currently delays traffic on Ashland.

Sajovec did acknowledge that if a lot of people use the Ashland bus rapid transit line, that “will be a more efficient way to move people from A to B than everyone being in their cars.” That was the closest he came to saying that this project will benefit the city.

Ameya Pawar (47th)

Ameya Pawar, Ashland BRT supporter.

I summarized for Pawar over the phone what the three other aldermen said about BRT. “Those are all fair positions,” he said. “My position is that I’m really excited about it.” Pawar reiterated his thoughts, previously posted on his Facebook page, that Chicago has a lot of traffic congestion and long commute times, but “you can’t widen [Ashland].” He said “the only way you can help the city grow over the long term, address climate change, reduce carbon emissions… we’re going to need great bus rapid transit.”

He thinks that many people have rushed to judgment on the project. With many details still unavailable, he said he awaits the CTA’s upcoming environmental analysis. Pawar said the process must be respected, adding, “everyone’s opinion matters and ultimately what we want to get to is make the best BRT solution that gets people around the city quickly.” He said he’s looking forward to a plan that addresses spillover traffic and the left-turn concerns.

CTA spokesperson Lambrini Lukidis said the agency would continue its constant talks with aldermen and attending neighborhood-hosted meetings. “As we incorporate more feedback, that will influence the final design,” she said. A public meeting will be scheduled soon at which CTA will present its Environmental Assessment that explains all the data CTA and CDOT are using in their traffic, parking, and noise impact analyses.

The offices of aldermen Danny Solis (25), Jason Ervin (28), and Rob Fioretti (2), did not return calls for comment.

  • Anonymous

    But it’s only at stoplights that are the transfers with buses running along the cross street. So if you limited the near-near stops (ie stops before the light) to only stops with lights, it wouldn’t eliminate any of the problem. It’s the lights that are the problems, not the cross streets in between that dont have lights.

    I am shaking my head that someone can seriously argue that the pros of this kind of layout outweigh the cons.

  • I’m glad we can at least establish a cost for modernizing each intersection. I presume “economies of scale” apply here and the more you do the cheaper it gets (although this would make your network planning and scheme design take longer and be more complex).

  • Beth

    I notice that most of the other examples of RBT in NYC are on streets where there are still at least two lanes of car traffic. I have seen this in Europe and it also is usually with two traffic lanes in addition to the bus. I think that makes sense, but only leaving one car lane does not. And while I take transit whenever possible, everyone in my family and my business has to haul a lot of materials around in order to work on a daily basis. Ashland is our main corridor. Clark and Damen are not viable options as they are slow and clogged too, and I agree Western would add time to the commute and further clog that street. So some get to save time and others would be penalized. I feel like this plan assumes a certain type of user and forgets that others can not always travel by bus, or have things they must and can only do by car to have efficiency as well in their lives. I think there are still kinks to be worked out here.

  • Thanks for the feedback. Here’s an image of BRT in Mexico City on a street with a similar layout as Ashland: http://www.flickr.com/photos/90214320@N00/5773590817/in/photolist-9Ncapg-4TR4NF-bDmXVs-bDn245-bDmTPs-bSgKyz-bDmTdE-bSgzKk-bDn6FS-bSgHgH-bDpqk3-bSiUTK-bDpas1-bSihuP-bSiCnV-bDpoWY-bSfC44-bSimbt-bSfHM8-bSgjMF-bSieyg-bDmKoG-bDkvM9-bDoDub-bDmJcA-bSg78P-bSi3Qc-bDpAgw-bSj5kB-bSiB9g-bDoobw-bDpHLf-bDm615-bDkQSy-bDpz4C-bShBTv-bSi5oT-bDpdkq-bDox33-bDkvaC-bShVKH-bSi8v8-bDmpQ1-bDmyhN-bDpivY-bDm8SA-bDkPvb-bSjsqx-bSfYXn-bDkLpC-bDpGy9

    You are correct that some types of trips truly require a car. The goal is to convert unnecessary car trips to fast transit trips so that everyone can get where they need to go more efficiently. Right, transit riders would move almost twice as fast, and cars would move a bit slower – the CTA is saying only 4.9% slower. But right now it’s transit riders who are being penalized because there are too many cars blocking the buses. I rode the entire BRT route by bus last week, and the trip averaged 8 mph – that’s unacceptable. We need to level the playing field and make transit ridership as attractive a mode as driving.

  • atsee

    You folks may be missing an angle of discussion here. It’s not about trucks blocking Ashland as much as it is trucks not being able to service the businesses on Ashland. A full-size semi, the type that serves grocery stores, paint stores, dollar stores, factories, auto dealers, etc, won’t be able to turn left into the businesses for deliveries. And because these vehicles can’t travel through neighborhood residential streets (both undesirable and because of road width, turning radii and speed bumps), they can’t do the three-rights-make-a-left move that other motorists can. This problem could seriously debilitate neighborhood businesses such as major grocers, dollar stores, furniture stores, mattress stores, auto dealers, Wal-mart-type large retailers, etc., that exist on the proposed corridor.

  • atsee

    Alex, businesses help to create community. This project, and especially the approach and lack of public process, will alienate and possible kill many currently thriving businesses. How will the Jewel grocery on Ashland near Diversey operate well if persons traveling northbound can’t turn into the store? And how does Jewel get it’s delivery trucks to the store. Similarly, how does the adjacent US Post Office – Graceland, get it’s mail in and out of the post office, since it uses semi trailers to move mail. Same concerns about customer and delivery access for all sorts of small shops, gas stations, restaurants, clothiers, furniture shops, etc that line the subject Ashland corridor. And now I’m wondering if the proposed new Target at the NEC of Ashland & Belmont would want to be there if no left turns. Same for the Whole Foods across the street. These businesses SERVE AND PROVIDE for the community and also pay BIG property and sales taxes and support the constituency through the provision of well-paying service and management jobs. The RTB project as proposed is entirely inconsiderate to these interests.

  • Alex Oconnor

    No. You are wrong. The evidence in the literature and analogous implementation in other cities indicates that you are dead wrong. Putting your words in caps just makes the fact that you are wrong more evident for all to see.

  • atsee

    Shaun, have you considered a retailer’s perspective and the need for reasonable transportation to replenish inventory to and remove waste from store-specific addresses along Ashland Ave?. I don’t think many residents would like a 53′ semi trailer running down their quiet street, trying to make three right turns because they couldn’t make a left. Such trucks are standard vehicles in inter- and intra-city commercial transportation. In fact, the infrastructure dimensions and on-street parking would prevent truck movement on all but a few side streets. The alternative is three rights on major arterials only, greatly increasing trucking distance, fuel consumption, emissions, etc, Without continued ability to service a retail address, the retailer cannot survive, the community loses a business (and important tax revenue and employment) and the slippery slope begins toward retail decline.

  • atsee

    Alex. It’s undeniable that Ashland Ave businesses serve and provide the community and pay big taxes. Caps emphasize that; no shame ther. Businesses need to be involved in this discussion, just like transit riders. As for evidence supporting your notion that the government post office and large-premises businesses with parking lots and high-volume, high-turn inventory would benefit from restricted access for both patron and delivery vehicles, please point me to it. Thanks. And good luck building consensus with your entirely-disagreeable personality.

  • Anonymous

    John:

    That stop you highlight in Ciudad Mexico is at Avenida de los Insurgantes and Ohio (yes, really). The BRT runs on los Insurgantes, and los Insurgantes has *THREE* travel lanes in each direction there.

    The street may have a similar layout to Ashland, but the planned end result on Ashland is not similar to los Insurgantes.

  • Anonymous

    “. If aligning all stoplights to perfectly allow free-flow traffic were as easy as you seem to think it is don’t you think the city would have done that by now?”

    CDOT never applied for any funding for ‘signal synchonrization’ under ISTEA or ISTEA II. CDOT had had 50s-era attitudes toward signal automation for decades. I’m unclear on the ‘official’ and ‘on the job’ attitudes *today*, but any modernization of attitudes is pretty well hidden from where I sit.

  • Anonymous

    “So if you limited the near-near stops (ie stops before the light)”

    (unless I’m thinking about it completely incorrectly) There isn’t going to be a situation where it’s ‘near-near’ to have the two stops on the same corner–it would always be the case that *one* of the buses is on the ‘far’ side and one on the near.

    Of course, what we now have, in most circumstances, is ‘near-near’ AND everyone needs to cross a street to make a transfer. Worst of both worlds.

  • Anonymous

    “Street parking is critical, irrespective of the parking deal or commercial interests, because it creates a buffer for pedestrians.”

    So, if the alternative were true buffered bike lanes and wider sidewalks, you *still* think that street parking is “critical”?

    Interesting.

  • Anonymous

    “The left turn issue is a red herring.”

    I love the certitude of the BRT supporters. Is it safe to assume that you’d support one-way-ization of the possible ‘true sidestreets’ to *prevent* it from being a problem, if you’re wrong?

  • Actually, that’s Avenida de los Insurgentes.

    Sorry, I’m recalling now that I promised you I’d provide some more examples of existing BRT systems with similar layouts as Ashland, but somehow that slipped off my to-do list. I’ll try to post on that later this week.

  • Anonymous

    Seriously appreciate it, as I have said, I looked a lot and did not find.

    And I do think that, if you have a *genuine* parallel layout, then you have something no one can say “but there are 3 travel lanes!!” about, and it helps *everyone* understand the proposal better.

  • Right, this is totally something I’ve been meaning to do. As I said, I don’t expect we’ll find the exact same layout anywhere, but there are examples where various aspects of the Ashland proposal have been successful.

  • Anonymous

    Yep. I expect that the local bus element will be the hardest to find. And there are a couple I found with non-curbside parking and a single lane of travel. But could not find curbside parking plus single travel lane.

  • Anonymous

    “two miles west to Western from Ashland”

    Western is only 1 miles west of Ashland.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Back at you re the “certitude” about left-turn bans causing insurmountable auto-Armageddon. Simple graph theory and the fact the the agents moving with in that graph can choose alternative paths based on their knowledge are all the “certitude” I need. You have the “certitude” of your gut feelings. I’ll take mathematics.

  • Anonymous

    “left-turn bans causing insurmountable auto-Armageddon”

    Never said it Alex.

    Read everything I’ve written here.

    Never. Said. it.

    Indeed, if you look around enough, I’ve said *the opposite*.

    “Simple graph theory and the fact the the agents moving with in that graph can choose alternative paths”

    Linky to a proof, please. Since it’s soooo obviously provable, with maths.

  • Alex Oconnor

    I am not reading everything you wrote. You are not that important. As for the proof you can google I am not here to do your work.

    As for never writing it; it was implicit in your snide response.

  • Anonymous

    No, you’re just paranoid.

    What was explicit in my snide response is that y’all just assume everything positive and dismiss every objection as ‘nimbyism’ or not important.

    “As for the proof you can google I am not here to do your work.”

    You and Glenn Beck. Match made in “you can look it up” heaven.

  • Anonymous

    No, you’re just paranoid.

    What was explicit in my snide response is that y’all just assume everything positive and dismiss every objection as ‘nimbyism’ or not important.

    “As for the proof you can google I am not here to do your work.”

    You and Glenn Beck. Match made in “you can look it up” heaven.

  • Anonymous

    I think I am getting confused. My only point is that people needing to – GASP – walk across the street to transfer to another bus (oh the horror) doesn’t come close to to justifying having the entire system have this horrible design where buses get caught at lights.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed, but I’m just saying that where there is a setup with having both stops on the same corner (that is, no need to cross the street to make a transfer) one of the stops *must* be ‘far’ side. And having 50% of stops on the far side is more than we have now.

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