Correcting Cardenas: Better Buses Will Mean Better Access to Ashland

Appearing on Chicago Tonight last month, 12th Ward Alderman George Cardenas made a number of ill-informed statements about the plan to create fast, reliable transit on Ashland Avenue. Most egregiously, he painted BRT as an “expressway” where “no one’s going to stop,” when in fact the project is going to help more people access Ashland Avenue.

During the discussion with host Carol Marin and the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Peter Skosey, after Skosey outlined how BRT will mitigate congestion on Ashland, Cardenas argued that the CTA should have picked Western instead. The agency initially considered both streets.

“Ashland was the wrong choice,” he said. “It has less transit use, there are more businesses than on Western Avenue, and it’s… over seven or eight million dollars costlier than [building BRT on] Western.”

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Cardenas on Chicago Tonight.

These are made-up reasons for opposing the Ashland project. While Western would have also been a good street for BRT, and it’s a likely candidate for the next north-south BRT route, the #9 Ashland bus has the highest ridership of any CTA bus route, with more than 31,000 boardings per weekday. The abundance of businesses on Ashland is a strong argument for improving transit access for customers. And the estimated price tag for BRT on Western — $155 million — would have barely differed from the $160 million Ashland project.

Even if the CTA had picked Western, Cardenas likely would have opposed that project too, since he also said on the show that the prohibition of most left turns to expedite buses is a dealbreaker for him. “It’s a problem for a lot of the businesses in the area that depend on people being able to turn left and park,” he said. “We’re going to be creating an expressway, if you will, along Ashland, and no one’s going to stop and no one’s going to buy anything.”

This is absurd. As we’ve discussed here, it will be fairly simple for customers in cars and delivery drivers to plan routes to these businesses that don’t require lefts off of Ashland. The expressway comparison makes no sense, because the CTA projects that average car traffic speeds will be lowered a bit, from 18.3 to 16.5 mph, which means drivers will be more likely to notice local businesses and patronize them. Access for people in cars won’t change much at all, in fact, since 88 percent of curbside parking on Ashland would be preserved, and according to the CTA’s environmental assessment, parking is available on many side streets.

Meanwhile, the better transit, calmer car traffic, and wider sidewalks will improve overall access, bringing more customers to retail strips, as Skosey noted on the show. “In every major city that’s implemented BRT, the local businesses have seen increases in foot traffic and shoppers,” he said.

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A southbound #9 Ashland bus. Photo: John Greenfield

Cardenas dismissed that notion. “This is Chicago,” he scoffed. “Take these winters, for example. Who’s going to shop by the bus and take loads of stuff back to their house, which could be miles away?” Well, for starters, the people who’ll have an easier time shopping after BRT debuts include the one in four households within walking distance of Ashland that don’t even own a car. In Cardenas’s low-income South Side ward, which includes parts of Brighton Park, McKinley Park, Little Village, and Back of the Yards, it’s likely that an even larger percentage of constituents shop by transit.

Several times during the discussion, Cardenas complained about the cost of the project. Skosey explained that the CTA is likely to be awarded a grant from the Federal Transportation Administration’s Small Starts program, which funds rail and bus improvements, that would cover 80 percent of the tab. The 20 percent local match could be met through the CTA’s purchase of buses for the system through its existing fleet budget. Since the buses will have doors on both sides, they’ll work for both center-running and curbside operation, so they can be used on other routes as well.

Cardenas didn’t seem to hear Skosey’s explanation. “Based on what’s in front of me, I couldn’t possibly vote yes and go back to my constituents and tell them they’re going to have to pay more out of the city coffers,” the alderman concluded at the end of the show.

It’s not yet clear whether implementing Ashland BRT will, in fact, need approval from City Council, although city funding for the $32 million local match may require a vote. At any rate, the likelihood of the project happening will be much greater if constituents let misinformed naysayers like Cardenas know that they support the plan to nearly double bus speeds on Ashland rather than maintain the car-bound status quo. If you haven’t already done so, send a message to your alderman asking them to endorse the CTA’s plan.

  • Cardenas is clueless if he thinks the winter means people don’t shop using public transit. I see tons of people carrying their bags (of groceries, etc) on the bus and train all the time. The “look, it’s Chicago, we have cold” explanation is complete nonsense.

  • There are a lot of cities in this world a lot colder than Chicago. And there are a lot of cities in this world a lot hotter than Chicago. If the extreme weather is going to play a factor in someone deciding whether to go shop for groceries or not, then it’s probably not just affecting those people who use buses and trains. It’ll be affecting everyone.

  • Annie F. Adams

    Thank you for posting this. I just sent this email to Alderman Cardenas:

    Dear Alderman George Cardenas,

    I am disappointed and frankly outraged about your opposition to the Ashland Avenue BRT. I own a car, live by Ashland and hate driving down Ashland. It is dangerous, slow and poorly design. I also refuse to take a bus down Ashland because the buses are stuck in car traffic and are unreliable and too slow to be useful as transportation.

    Frankly my neighbors and I would love to take a bus down Ashland. We are upset BRT is not coming as far as Andersonville.

    I beg you to stop your opposition to BRT.

    Thank you for your service to the city,

    Annie F. Adams

    P.S. My only addition to the BRT plan would be a protected bike lane. For years I have wanted to ride my bike down Ashland but the parked and moving cars make that an impossible choice.

  • SP_Disqus

    The weekend before the polar vortex hit the local Jewel was so busy that there were no parking spaces and there were 10 – 20 cars just circling the lot waiting for people to leave. Situations like that, along with streets that had just seen a foot of snow making driving very difficult, provide a very large incentive to find ways to the grocery store that do not involve driving in winter conditions.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    “The 20 percent local match could be met through the CTA’s purchase of buses for the system through its existing fleet budget.”

    Three questions:

    Does this mean the CTA will not be updating its fleet of regular buses because of the expenditure for the BRT buses? This would not bode well for the rest of the CTA users.

    Will BRT buses be able to kneel to collect elderly and handicapped when not used on a BRT route? This will make a very expensive bus.

    How will fare collections be handled if the BRT bus is run on a non-BRT route?

  • Jeff H

    Cardenas is certainly out of touch. I don’t own a car, I have to take groceries on buses for nearly all my shopping, sometimes up to 4 bags. I’m not alone here, I see grocery bags all the time on the bus.

    I’m only .4 mile from Ashland, so BRT would greatly extend my range as far as businesses I can frequent. As a new parent, it would give me a lot more options as far as daycares as well, especially since the Lincoln bus was taken away.

  • Adam Herstein

    Do these people all read from the same book? I don’t understand why whenever there is a new project that can help people – be it BRT, bike lane, etc. – opponents step in and all seem to repeat the same things. Meanwhile, when there is a new highway project that will cost hundreds of times more, these same people don’t bat an eye.

    Apparently, anything that challenges the status quo is bad. Some points they bring up are valid concerns, but when they aren’t going to listen to the reasoning why their concerns are not going to pan out, then why bother bringing therm up? Politicians don’t want to seem like “flip-floppers”, but there is nothing wrong with changing your opinion on something after being presented with valid data and reasoning.

    Also, If I hear one more person use “this is Chicago” as an argument, then I’m going to scream. You can literally use that argument for or against anything you want. It’s meaningless.

  • Fbfree

    The speedup provided by dedicated lanes on Ashland will mean that the CTA will be able to provide more frequent service with fewer buses overall. Since the BRT buses will be distinct from the rest of the fleet, they may order a larger number of spares for this route, but it shouldn’t increase the total number of buses the CTA has to order and thus won’t impact renewal of the standard fleet.

    This is my speculation, but there’s no reason to think that this should be a problem.

  • Fair questions. I’ll look into these.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    While you’re at it, figure out how many non-BRT bus stops will have to be reconfigured for the longer bus and the position of the doors. Lots of the bus stops are not well cleared at present, and wider doors towards the back could mean people climbing over seriously high piles of snow to enter a BRT bus running as a local.

  • It’s safe to assume the BRT buses would be used on other routes that already accommodate articulated buses. Of course, they’d primarily be used on the BRT route.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Well a lot of assumptions are being made, particularly by you, and stated as fact. If you have the facts, like BRT buses being used on other lines, why would you need to “look into these.”

    I am just confused. I’m just feeling the CTA is going to cannibalize funding for bus replacement for BRT, and then start cutting routes and services like the Damen and Halsted routes once BRT is in place.

  • It’s a fact that it’s an option to run the BRT buses on other lines, and it’s logical that they would use them on existing articulated bus routes, rather than have to modify bus stops on other routes to accommodate longer buses. However, I’m not certain about the details of how those buses will be deployed, kneeling and fare collection, which is why I’ve asked the CTA for this info.

  • Joseph Musco

    CTA announced $575M in bus fleet improvements in 2012 (Trib, 6/1/12). 425 new buses @ $330M, 100 new buses (from a cancelled Seattle contract) at $80M, and a refurbishment plan for 1030 other buses in the fleet at $165M. This is all budgeted and paid for. Yay!

    The unfunded Ashland BRT fleet costs are separate from the above items (federal grant anticipated to cover 80%).$44M of the initial $160M Phase I cost is for new left side opening BRT buses (per Kevin O’Malley, CTA in the Trib, 4/19/13). I don’t know the total number of BRT buses in the initial purchase and the number of BRT buses that will be operating. The numbers may be buried in the Environmnetal Analysis but I’d rather lick a frozen poll than look. CTA could share these figures (total # of BRT buses needed in Phase I, cost per BRT bus) if they are so inclined.

    CTA could say that some of this initial BRT fleet purchase is for future Phase II Ashland BRT ops — which makes it difficult to see clear fleet costs for BRT. Whether you should be buying buses for Phase II of a project that isn’t funded is another kettle of fish.

    On the back of my napkin, it looks like CTA wants to spend roughly 7% of its total fleet budget (44M/575M) on a 6 mile BRT segment (0.3%) in a 1,959 mile service grid (CTA Facts at a Glance). Whether operating costs moving forward will cause CTA to make some service choices that have positive/negative effects for BRT vs. typical bus service — people can make their own projections.

  • Phase 1 will only cost $116 million, including buses. The entire 16-million system, not including buses, will cost $160 million.

  • Joseph Musco

    Your correction about the details of the $116M is correct – thank you.

    If CTA would release the cost estimates for Phase I and the entire project in the same format (cost for the route + cost for the fleet) it would be more clear for everyone. If I scale up what CTA is reporting as costs for Phase I for the entire project I get $343M for a 16 mile corridor including the purchase of a BRT fleet.

    The EA lists Phase I as a 5.4 mile segment. Using your figures that works out to $21.48M per mile including bus purchases — a far cry from the “$10M per mile” figure parroted by city government again and again.

  • The $10 million per mile figure doesn’t include buses. The CTA is not considering the buses to be an additional expense, because they have to buy new buses for their fleet anyway. Looking at it that way, the entire project, including Phase 1, will only cost $160 million.

  • Joseph Musco

    What figures should I use for total BRT fleet costs for Phase I? For the entire 16 mile project? CTA could clear all this up by releasing a total project cost estimate with fleet costs (total # of vehicles, cost per vehicle) — with cost breakdowns for both Phase I and the entire 16 mile project.

    Actual Cleveland BRT costs (from invoices, not press releases) were $14.9 million per mile + $3M per mile in fleet costs. These are transportation costs only for a non-Gold Standard project. Streetscaping elements were an additional cost. Per the FTA study below, total project costs in Cleveland BRT look like $27M per mile including fleet costs and streetscaping. I’m all for CTA delivering more for less. It’s overpromising and underdelivering that is an issue.

    http://www.fta.dot.gov/documents/2012_Before_and_After_Studies_of_New_Starts_Projects.pdf

  • jeff wegerson

    Interesting. I was wondering how the Dominicks closing would affect Jewel in the short run.

  • Sara

    I think Western Ave would be the better choice

  • Billy W

    Look, the CTA has identified the definite need for a better, faster and more reliable mass transit west of the current el lines. But, that is something we all already knew. The question is whether or not this proposed BRT is a workable solution to filling that need without causing more problems than it intends to solve.
    Yes, the BRT with “speed” up buses, but how much? The BRT will do nothing to eliminate the
    horribly uncoordinated series of traffic lights at areas around Ogden
    and Armitage/Elston which are major culprits in slowing traffic on
    Ashland currently. While, buses may travel mildly faster in dedicated
    lanes, but they will still have to stop at all these lights. And,
    anyone who has used a bus for mass transit knows (traffic or no traffic)
    buses do not provide quick travel as they stop every couple of blocks
    for stops or lights.
    So, best case scenario, the buses will move a little faster, but not without any cost. The BRT closes one land of traffic, and would prohibit some left turns on the already congested Ashland Ave., a main N/S artery. Undoubtedly, the BRT would severely negatively impact the amount of vehicle traffic. The CTA dismisses the negatives by saying things like “cars with find alternative routes,” but that claim is disingenuous. The closest streets N/S to Ashland with at least four lanes are Western, a mile a way and Damen, a half-mile away.
    In addition, making Ashland a one-lane street would bring it to a crawl as cars parallel park, turn on and off Ashland, and wait through the multitude of traffic lights at areas around Ogden and Armitage/Elston.
    Furthermore, with the eliminated left turns, the small streets around Ashland will now become inundated with traffic making their series of right turns. These streets are not capable of being main thoroughfares in any way.
    The CTA is promising lofty goals of “better transit, calmer car traffic, and wider sidewalks” with the BRT line on Ashland Ave., and dismissing the negatives. But, all their studies which compared their current plan to other existing BRT’s overlooking the fact that those “other systems” have either at least twice as many lanes for regular
    traffic on their BRT street, or main parallel thoroughfares within one block.
    It’s great if the City addresses the need to provide better N/S mass transit, but doing so with buses, and simultaneously crippling one of the only main N/S routes, makes little sense.

  • You do realize that every single thing you just said has been argued out at essay-length in postings and comments on this site for well over a year, now?

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