Just How Slow Does the Ashland Bus Currently Travel?

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A southbound #9 Ashland bus. Photo: John Greenfield

[This article also runs in Checkerboard City, John Greenfield’s print column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

“It doesn’t matter what you do to the bus! I will never take a bus! I will drive until the state won’t give me a license anymore.” So said an otherwise nice-seeming lady from the anti-bus rapid transit group the Ashland-Western Coalition at a community meeting this summer.

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Map of the planned Ashland BRT route.

The CTA plans to build a BRT line on Ashland from 95th to Irving Park, providing an ‘L’-train-like experience on wheels instead of rails. Think of it as the Gray or Indigo Line. The buses will run in car-free lanes in the middle of the street, with stops located every half mile.

These traits, along with several other time-saving features, will bring speeds up to an estimated 15.9 mph, including stops, during rush hours. That’s almost twice as fast as the current #9 Ashland bus, which the CTA says averages only 8.7 mph, and it’s comparable to car speeds. That’s what’s needed if we want to make transit an attractive alternative to driving.

However, some residents and business owners are freaking out about the city’s plan to convert two of the four car lanes on Ashland to bus lanes and eliminate most left turns. The Ashland-Western Coalition, led by Roger Romanelli, is spearheading the opposition. They annoy me because they claim to be a pro-transit organization but, as that lady’s comments indicate, some members of the AWC really don’t care how fast the Ashland bus runs because they would never ride it.

They might feel differently if they were among the tens of thousands of Chicagoans who depend on the #9 every day to get to work, school and medical appointments. To get a better sense of the current service, on Wednesday of last week, I rode the entire sixteen-mile future BRT route during the evening rush. Here’s how my epic transit trip went down:

4:40 p.m. I board a nearly empty bus in front of Hassy African Hair Braiding & Weaving at Ashland and 95th in Brainerd. Traffic is flowing freely in both directions. After a slight delay by a Metra train at 89th, we pass a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witness at 85th.

4:52 p.m. By 83rd there are 20 passengers, and everyone but me is African-American. “Wheelchair coming on,” the driver announces, and people clear a space while the bus kneels to allow a senior to roll aboard. This process that takes a minute or two, time that would be saved on by BRT, which will feature bus-level boarding platforms.

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The bus stop where the journey began. Photo: John Greenfield

5:04 p.m. We catch up with fellow Ashland bus #1122 at 66th. Up the block at 63rd and Ashland, several passengers leave to board the Red Line, which has been rerouted to this station during the five-month track rehab. I notice a woman of short stature, not much more than three feet tall, departing with her young son in a stroller.

5:17 p.m. At Garfield we leapfrog the other bus again. The car-free BRT lanes will allow the buses to keep consistent schedules, eliminating the bus-bunching problem. We’re in Back of the Yards now and Spanish signs start appearing. The first of many Latino passengers, a mom with her son and daughter, board at 50th.

5:24 p.m. After we pass an arch by the Stockyards Industrial Park at 43rd, a drunk older man, with a white substance smeared across his face, illegally boards via the rear doors. “Hey you, you can step off my bus!” the driver shouts. As the man slinks back out, I notice he’s carrying a shopping bag containing a half-eaten birthday cake.

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The view from inside the bus. Photo: John Greenfield

5:38 p.m. We’ve been traveling in moderate traffic for the last few blocks as we approach the Stevenson Expressway and an Orange Line stop. Next we cross over the South Branch of the Chicago River, where we get a fine view of the skyline, as well as college students rowing crew below us.

5:48 p.m. After we pass by the attractive campus of Benito Juarez Community Academy at Cermak, featuring statues of key figures from Latin-American history, a group of slender, animated teenage boys board. One of them is wearing a sleeping mask around his forehead with a pair of closed eyes printed on it.

6:00 p.m. Having rolled past the Illinois Medical District, an official supporter of the BRT plan, the Ike, and the Teamster City union hall, by Madison we’re firmly lodged in northbound traffic, and right behind our old friend #1122. We continue north into Noble Square, and by Chicago Avenue the passengers are an even mix of African Americans, Latinos and whites.

Benito Juárez Community Academy
Campus at Benito Juarez Community Academy. Photo: Chicago Historical Museum

6:11p.m. Just south of Division the bus passes by the three neighboring burrito joints, all called La Pasadita. The southernmost one is beloved for its black salsa, made of charred jalapenos. At Cortland, a man panhandles with a placard that reads, “Here to survive, not lie and get high.”

6:22 p.m. It takes us several light cycles to get through the convoluted intersection of Ashland, Armitage and Elston. At Webster we pass by Dolphin dance club and cross the North Branch of the river, then come to another clogged intersection at Ashland, Fullerton, and Clybourn. I’m feeling a little nauseous from all the stop-and-go traffic.

6:30 p.m. By the time we get to Wellington in West Lakeview, the passenger demographic has transformed from nearly all African-Americans to almost completely Caucasian, a reminder of our city’s stark North Side / South Side divide. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper.

6:40 p.m. When we finally arrive at Irving Park and Ashland, a stone’s throw from the notorious Diner Grill greasy spoon, I’m thoroughly sick of sitting in heavy traffic. It’s exactly two hours since I boarded, so we’ve been crawling along at a pathetic average of 8 mph, even slower than the CTA’s 8.7 mph estimate. It’s clear that Ashland riders deserve better, and fast, reliable BRT service can’t come soon enough.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    Thanks for doing this, John!

  • Joseph Musco

    “Wheelchair coming on…the bus kneels to allow a senior to roll aboard. This process that takes a minute or two, time that would be saved on by BRT, which will feature bus-level boarding platforms.”

    Is this accurate? My understanding is the term level boarding as it relates to BRT actually means “level-ish” boarding — a term of art applied only to faster loading/unloading in general and reduced dwell times — not level boarding as ADA access. I believe the legal definition of level boarding for access is a 3″ horizontal gap and 5/8″ vertical gap. New Flyer BRT buses are built with the same flip ramp/squatting method of accessibility as the existing CTA fleet.

  • Anonymous

    L stations have ramps that the customer assistant puts out to bridge the gap, they could do the same at BRT stations

  • My pleasure. I always enjoy Chicago sustainable transportation adventures.

  • CL

    This is a good description of what it feels like to ride a bus in Chicago traffic for a long period of time. And the Ashland bus isn’t even as bad as some routes because Ashland has two lanes in each direction. If you did this with the 22 you’d probably grow old and die before you reached Howard.

  • Anne A

    I recently rode the Ashland bus from 33rd to 95th on a Saturday afternoon (not a lot of traffic) at a similarly slow speed. It actually made me wish for the red line – even pre-shutdown with all the slow zones. That would have been better than the bus.

  • BlueFairlane

    Which takes the same minute or two John suggests BRT will eliminate.

  • BlueFairlane

    On many a Saturday afternoon, I’ve gotten off the eastbound Fullerton bus at Ashland and beaten it to the Red Line walking.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    Wheelchair users boarding back up the curb-loading buses more than the ‘L.’ The ‘L’ always pulls in parallel to the station, while the buses often have to pull out and back in to get close enough and parallel with the curb. Then everybody has to wait to board the bus while the ramp comes down. On the ‘L’ or a BRT bus with pre-payment and multiple doors (three on the articulated buses), other riders can enter through other doors at the same time.

  • Anonymous

    You should have counted how many lights you got stuck at and how many stops it made in between the major cross streets every four blocks. You also should have had a friend drive the same route at the same time to see what the time difference was.

  • Adam Herstein

    Keep in mind that the CTA estimate is an average, and your sample of one is not enough to definitively say the CTA’s estimation is off.

    That being said, let’s build the BRT already. Chicago is in dire need of a new transit line to connect all the existing ‘L’ lines together (dare I say a Circle Line?), and which is not just adding to the hub-and-spoke model.

  • It would have been interesting to have someone drive the route simultaneously. Traffic was pretty thick from about Roosevel on, and got progressively worse as we approached Irving Park.

  • You’re correct: I may just have had bad luck.

  • CL

    Driving is about a million times faster. We know that already. The number of bus stops is part of it, but busses spend a very long time just waiting to be let back into traffic. Someone should run a stop watch every time the bus gets stuck waiting to merge back into traffic.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I think what would be really interesting for someone to use a stopwatch and time all of these bus-specific instances of slowness. Mostly stops in between major streets, missing lights, and waiting for cars to let the bus back in traffic. Categorize them and add em up to see how bad each issue is.

  • BlueFairlane

    I’ve never seen a bus have to back up and realign. Most drivers, I think, can see the need to get close to the curb when they approach a stop with somebody waiting in a wheel chair, and are good enough put the bus where it needs to be. And while other passengers don’t have to wait for the wheelchair to load up onto the el, the process is still fairly slow. I’d say the amount of time it takes is roughly the same in both cases. If there’s a different in average delay times, it’s negligible.

  • Anonymous

    The closer the travel times between the bus and cars the stronger the case for the BRT. Of course according to the CTA, cars travel roughly twice as fast as the bus. It’s a huge difference, I think we all agree on that. But from my angle it simply looks like the bus is being mismanaged. With a 15-16mph average speed for cars, Ashland works pretty much just fine and serves its purpose as an important n/s thoroughfare.

  • Al Lux

    can you explain what you mean when you say the closer the travel times between bus and cars the strong the case for BRT?

  • Anonymous

    Sure, what I mean is that if both cars and buses travel very slowly, then it’s a sign that there are larger problems with the design of the streets vs how people travel and that it’s not working *at all*. That could mean a few different things, such as the road isn’t wide enough, or other n/s streets are even worse options, or there isn’t good access to rail, etc. In this case everyone, both drivers and bus riders, are suffering and change is probably called for to help fix the problems. Enter BRT.

    But if cars are traveling waaay faster than buses, it’s strong evidence that the roadway is generally not dysfunctional and is serving its purpose. This also means it could *potentially* be serving its purpose for the bus. Drivers here are basically fine, while the bus riders suffer (my condolences to John for sitting on the #9 for two long hours), not because the road is dysfunctional but because of something specific to the bus. So if drivers are doing okay and bus riders have it rough because of specific problems with the bus, figure out how to fix those problems first.

  • jared.kachelmeyer

    You rode it during rush hour, I’m sure if you ride it at other times it would be quicker than average.

  • Anonymous

    Nothing that has been said the CTA hasn’t done so already. I would be surprised if this wasn’t done already. Still it would be nice to see the data.

  • The CTA’s 8.7 mph estimate refers to rush hour.

  • Anne A

    When I rode it recently, it was Saturday afternoon – definitely NOT rush hour, and it was as slow as what John experienced.

  • Anne A

    There have been times when I’ve been riding or walking on either Clark St. or Milwaukee Ave. and reached my destination at the same time (walking) or faster (biking) compared to a bus running nearby.

  • david vartanoff

    Thanks for providing the data. Too bad we don’t have a similar report on the discontinued Ashland Express. Simply adding queue jumps and transit signal priority hardware should make both locals and expresses (or BRT) run faster without regard to the lane issue.

    About wheelchair boarding, (family member experience since 1988) the time eater on low floor buses is not the ramp deployment but the required(?) belting in of the chair. which the driver is required to do. As to general boarding speedup, all door boarding/POP with rfid card readers at all doors works on locals as well as expresses.
    And the “Gray Line” name should be the Metra Electric. see
    http://www.grayline.20m.com/

    Of course Chicago needs West Side north-south rapid transit.. The question is whether trated up budses are worth the investment as opposed to genuine rapid transit (that is spelled rail)

  • Scott Sanderson

    Title should read “How slowly does the Ashland bus travel.” “Slow” is an adjective, which can only modify nouns. “Slowly” is an adverb, which can modify verbs, e.g., travel.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience with the ADA access issue. Sure, we can reserve the Gray Line for that exisiting proposal, so maybe we should call this the Indigo Line, unless you’ve got an idea for another color.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Impossible….left hand turns speed up traffic didn’t you know that

  • Alex Oconnor

    Precisely why we need separate ROW for BRT and why it requires left turn prohibition.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Precisely why we need separate ROW for BRT and why it requires left turn prohibition.part deux

  • Alex Oconnor

    No.

  • Anonymous

    John: During your ride, did you happen to keep track of how many times there was a turnover off 100% (besides you and the bus driver) in passengers? Also, besides yourself, how long did the 2nd longest rider spend on the bus? I would hazard to make a guess that (despite it being rush hour), that there were very few riders that spent more than 20-30 minutes on the bus. Next, at any time (this being rush hour) was every bus seat taken? Was it ever standing room only?

    The reason why I ask these questions is to understand a faster bus may get you where you are going sooner, but in reality there are few daily riders that use the Ashland bus from one end of the line to another because there are alternatives like the CTA trains. Even in rush hour if you had transferred to the Red Line and transferred to the Brown line you would have ended up on Irving Park Road 1/4 mile from the Diner Grill in a lot less time.

    The way I see it, I would sincerely doubt that at Rush Hour the bus was fully loaded with passengers and the most boardings occurred near the medical district. (But according to your estimate you got from Benito Juarez HS thru the Medical District in less than 12 minutes is quite good even for auto, much less a bus.) Can you provide what is the current percentage of bus riders on the #9 that ride longer than 30 minutes? My conjecture is that most passengers ride less than 30 minutes so to knock possibly 10 minutes off a ride may really not make it a realistic financial investment of $160 million dollars (or more).

    As I said in an earlier Blog, you laud the Cleveland BRT, but it goes from Downtown Cleveland to Case Western University with a two major medical institutions in the middle. There is nothing on either end of the proposed Ashland BRT that would make me want to ride it out to either end of the line car or bus. And I sincerely doubt that the Cleveland BRT would be nearly as successful as it is if it were not for its ability to link up some of the major employers in the Cleveland area. The Ashland BRT basically goes to no-where. (Even the Diner Grill is not a big enough draw on the northside).

    Also I was most surprised to read that online magazine Urban Land May/June 2012 issue that in Cleveland 49% of the BRT was Federally funded and 51% came from Cleveland and the State of Ohio. How do you know for certain that the CTA is going to receive 80% funding?

    And there will certainly be cost overuns. Who will pay for the cost overruns and will the CTA cannibalize dollars dedicated to other bus routes to patch the holes in its budget to cover Ashland BRT?

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    That’s awesome, but I’ve been on multiple buses that had to back up and realign.

    Between 35th and 32nd, the #8 bus dives into short bus stops on the near side of the light, often pulling in at an angle – especially if someone has parked in the bus stop. My guess is they can’t see the wheelchair users because of the parked cars and traffic, but in any event they wind up pulling in and then realigning. It’s like when you find a parking space and pull in to get out of traffic, but then back up and realign to get parallel to the curb.

    On the #95 at Ashland, the driver tried to put the ramp down three times, realigned, and had to move several feet past the bus shelter to find a piece of flat sidewalk where the ramp would come down flat instead of one side down and another side hanging in the air. That’s a sidewalk infrastructure issue, but it’s a delay the ‘L’ or similarly level-boarding transit wouldn’t encounter.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    Why must people ride the bus end-to-end in order for BRT to be worthwhile? If most people are riding it for 20 minutes, isn’t it worthwhile to make their rides 10 minutes? If people are driving or biking because the bus ride is 40 minutes, wouldn’t it be cool to offer them a rapid transit option that’s 20 minutes?

    Ashland has been selected for BRT because it has the highest bus ridership of all CTA routes. We don’t need to have Disneyland at one end and the Eiffel Tower at the other. People are already traveling this route. BRT will allow us to do it faster.

  • BlueFairlane

    Why stay in the visible spectrum? I say we go with the Infrared Line, because that line is hot!

  • Anonymous

    But I want Disneyland at the end :)

  • And, of course, ridership will spike once the buses start traveling at speeds comparable to driving. The CTA estimates that bus mode share will increase by 46 percent.

  • BlueFairlane

    Your experience vs. my experience suggests this is a location-specific issue. I’ve never ridden the entirety of the Ashland route, but I do ride between, say, Harrison and Webster with some frequency and have never seen this. Unless this is a problem at some location along the route, it’s not a problem this round of BRT will solve.

  • Anonymous

    Auto-competitive service is the key, and neither regular #9 nor defunct express #9 could deliver; needs to be dedicated lane and BRT improvements.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    You’re right, it is a location-specific issue. I can’t remember if I’ve seen this problem on the #9 bus. Honestly, I bike or take Metra for my destinations on Ashland because the #9 bus is so terribly slow and crowded.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Yes & Yes. Hold on somewhere BRT opponents heads are exploding.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Yes & Yes. Somewhere BRT opponents engage in self-immolation.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I disagree with the commenter who expressed his condolences–it sounds like a fun trip to me! :)

  • Anonymous

    Todays headline in the Chicago Sun-Times:
    CTA ‘nowhere close’ on Bus Rapid Transit on Ashland: Mayor Emanuel
    The CTA is, however still interested in building BRT from Union Station to Navy Pier. (Sounds like Disneyland to me because Navy Pier is Illinois #1 tourist attraction).

    I believe the money the CTA, RTA, City of Chicago has to contribute is a lot more than the 80% people here speculated the project will get. Considering the budget impass in Washington, program will be cut. Earlier I said Cleveland only received 49% funding.

  • Chicago sustainable transportation projects are usually funded by federal transportation grants that involve an 80/20 federal/local funding split.

  • Brian S.

    On CTA buses. a different type of securement is used; one of the big wheels is backed into a lock that holds the chair in place. It still requires the seats occupying the wheelchair space be lifted up, but that’s it. Most Pace buses I’ve been on also have these but they use additional securement at the front of the chair.

    Back in, lock your brakes, and the bus goes. It’s the same for the wheelchair spaces on the ‘L’. I speak from personal experience as a wheelchair user.

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