A Progressive No More, Waguespack Compares BRT to the Parking Meter Deal

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32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack

Even when I’ve disagreed with him over his recent comments on transportation and public space issues, I’ve always used the word “progressive” to describe 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack, but it might be time to drop that adjective. He has been an important independent voice at City Hall, most notably in his opposition to Richard M. Daley’s disastrous parking meter deal and Rahm Emanuel’s fishy reboot of the contract. He’s a nice person and a regular bike commuter. But Waguespack’s statements in a recent article on bus rapid transit in Our Urban Times community newspaper reveal a strange hostility to building an effective, equitable surface transit system.

“Many of the people who supported the parking meter deal are supporting this project,” Waguespack told the paper. “They focus on one thing and they do not and will not look at the whole picture. In this case, it is not just that possibly eight minutes will be reduced on the travel time for someone, it is many other issues.” Here Waguespack is trying to tarnish good policy, a new bus route that will provide fast, reliable transit for tens of thousands of residents, by linking it to bad policy, a privatization contract that potentially cost the city billions and will negatively impact transportation for decades.

“Problems on side streets, due to the impact of Ashland BRT, will be something we alderman have to figure out and residents will have to cope with,” Waguespack said. “Congestion will not just be a problem in rush hour but probably throughout the day because traffic will be reduced to one lane and it will be like the other two-lane streets.” As we’ve discussed here, despite the conversion of two of the four travel lanes to dedicated bus lanes and the prohibition of most left turns, it’s unlikely there will be a major increase in traffic on any one particular side street, since Chicago’s robust street grid offers many alternatives to Ashland. The Chicago Department of Transportation can address any problems with excessive car traffic or speeding that may arise on a particular residential block with traffic calming infrastructure.

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In this map by Yonah Freemark from the Metropolitan Planning Council, the dark blue shows new areas that will become accessible from Ashland/Cermak by transit within 20 minutes once BRT is implemented.

The CTA’s environmental assessment does project that car traffic will see a relatively minor reduction in speed on Ashland from the current 18.3 mph to 16.47 mph, as well as small increases in traffic volume and congestion on parallel routes like Western Avenue. However, since bus speeds will be nearly doubled, from an 8.7 mph average to 15.9 mph, and reliability will increase by 50 percent, the share of people taking the bus on Ashland is projected to increase by 46 percent. That means thousands more people will opt to ride transit, and thousands of cars will be left at home, freeing up more space on the road.

“Developers want to develop along high-traffic streets,” Waguespack said. “This plan will reduce the three high-traffic north-south streets that go from one end of the city to the other to two.” This is probably the most wrongheaded of his comments. Whether he’s complaining that Divvy stations, People Spots, and on-street parking corrals will hurt businesses or grousing over the BRT plan, the alderman doesn’t seem to get that cars are not the most efficient way to bring shoppers and employees to commercial streets.

BRT will enhance access to Ashland. With a high-capacity bus route, more people will be able to reach destinations on Ashland compared to the status quo. They’ll just be coming on transit instead of making car trips. That will make the street more attractive to developers because good transit availability increases the desirability of housing, and the better access and enhanced pedestrian environment will bring more shoppers to the street’s retail districts.

Waguespack’s recent statements once again miss the big picture. BRT is not about saving eight minutes per trip. It’s about giving people the freedom to get around without driving, improving access to jobs, and helping Chicago grow without adding more traffic and congestion to the streets.