Walking and Talking About BRT With Ashland Bus Riders

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Catching a #9 bus at 95th Street in Brainerd. Photo: John Greenfield

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

As I type this, it’s fourteen degrees in Chicago and snow is falling fast, but the battle over the future of Ashland Avenue is heating up. The city has put forth a bold plan to reconfigure the street by implementing bus rapid transit. Two of the four travel lanes will be converted to dedicated lanes for high-speed, center-running buses that will pick up passengers from platform stations in the median, providing an El train-like experience.

Scores of businesses and organizations, plus more than 2,500 individuals, have signed on to endorse the plan, and Alderman Ameya Pawar is an enthusiastic supporter, but there’s also fierce opposition. The Ashland-Western Coalition, an opposition group led by Roger Romanelli, is trying to kill the project, and they’ve received more than their fair share of mainstream media coverage. Aldermen George Cardenas and Scott Waguespack have also become outspoken naysayers.

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CTA rendering of bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue.

But what do people who actually ride the #9 Ashland bus on a regular basis think of the proposal? In early October, my blogging partner Steven Vance and I set out to walk the entire planned BRT route, from 95th to Irving Park, buttonholing CTA customers along the way to get their take. Let’s return to that still-balmy Monday to see what they said.

We start our hike at 11am from the south end of the route in Brainerd, by the Third Baptist megachurch. At 71st we encounter Jihad Mahdi, thirty-four, waiting for the bus to take him to a grocery store on 95th. He says he’s opposed to changes that would slow down cars on Ashland, even though the plan to nearly double current bus speeds from 8.7 to 15.9 mph, including stops, would benefit him as a frequent transit rider. The CTA projects average car speeds on Ashland would only be reduced by ten percent, from 18.3 to 16.5 mph.

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A #9 stop in Gresham. Photo: John Greenfield

“I know it would get people to ride the bus more often but who wants to take the bus everywhere?” Mahdi says. However, once the system is built and the bus becomes nearly as fast as driving, minus the costs and headaches, folks like him are likely to understand the value.

At 63rd Street, we talk to Elizabeth Ware, a healthcare worker who’s transferring to the #9 from the Green Line. She rides the bus every day on her commute from her home in Englewood to her job in Bronzeville, and she’s seen notices onboard about BRT. “The impression that I get from the ads is that they’re trying to make the bus better and faster,” she says. I explain that the two center lanes of Ashland would be converted to car-free bus lanes. “Oh, that’s a good thing!” she exclaims.

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The Ashland/63rd Green Line stop. Photo: John Greenfield

We continue on through Back of the Yards, Bridgeport and Pilsen with relatively few encounters with riders, but we come across Mike Johnson, forty-four, waiting for the #9 at Roosevelt, by the Illinois Medical District. The IMD is one of the official supporters of the plan because they understand it will make it easier for staff, students and patients to get there.

Johnson, who’s coming from a doctor’s appointment and heading up to Ravenswood to get something to eat, is enthusiastic about BRT. “People need to get to their appointments and work,” he says. “If you gotta be down there at 95th, right now it takes you an hour and a half to get there from the North Side. That’s because you’ve got all this going on.” He gestures to the car-choked street behind him.

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A bus approaches the First Congregational Baptist Church, 1640 West Washington, HQ of the AWC. Photo: John Greenfield

Since Steven is nine inches taller than me, his feet have been taking more of a beating, and he decides to bail at the Blue Line’s Division stop in Wicker Park. After he departs, I talk with a thirty-six-year-old accountant waiting for the bus at Polish Triangle. He commutes to the Loop every day from Lakeview via the #9 and the subway, but he’s skeptical that the $160 million BRT project will benefit him.

“It’s a lot of money for something that may or may not work,” he says. “You’ve got to have an exponentially larger number of people ride the bus to get enough cars off the road, so that the bus can actually move quicker.” However, when I explain that the buses will have their own lane so they won’t get stuck in traffic jams, he concedes that BRT will, in fact, speed his commute.

At about 8pm, I come to the northern terminus of the future BRT route at Irving Park. A #9 pulls up and Linda Carretero exits in a wheelchair. She commutes daily by bus from her home near Irving and Pulaski to her job at a clinic on the medical campus. Carretero tells me that BRT stations with platforms at the same level as the bus floor appeal to her, since she’d be able to roll right on. “The plan sounds interesting,” she says. “Hopefully they will have the kinks worked out before it launches, unlike the Ventra card.”

While responses to the project were a mixed bag, that didn’t come as a big surprise. Taking away space from cars and giving it to buses in order to move people through the city more efficiently is a concept that’s a little hard to wrap your head around. I was reminded of the answer I once got from Steve Schlickman, head of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center, when I asked what’s the best strategy for convincing people BRT is a good idea. “Doing it,” he said.

  • CL

    I didn’t realize that the design would allow wheelchair users to roll right onto the bus — that’s a cool benefit. I just read a blog post by a wheelchair user who was saying that he doesn’t like when employees have to stop what they’re doing and assist him in order for him to access a space — it makes him feel self-conscious, and people often get annoyed by the interruption. I thought immediately of how boarding CTA busses can be a bit of an ordeal for wheelchair users, while all of the other passengers wait and stare. It sounds like the BRT stations will make boarding go more smoothly for these riders.

  • Adam Herstein

    It’s a welcome change to hear actual residents give input on this project instead of lobbyists and politicians.

  • Joseph Musco

    There is still a flip down ramp with BRT to span the curb gap.

    The squatting time is eliminated with BRT “level boarding” (a plus!) but there is still a ramp deployment. BRT buses do not operate with the tolerances of level boarding rail. It gets confusing because level boarding has a legal definition in rail uses related to accessibility and no such definition with BRT. With BRT, “level boarding” refers to speeding boardings & alightments, not the size of the gap and accessibility laws.

    See image for example: New Flyer BRT w/ramp vs. Dallas’s light rail

  • World traveler

    It’s easy to think the way things have always been done is the right way, when one has never experienced anything better!

    The NIMBY and naysayer complaining will follow a similar trajectory of the Whine-o-Meter graph:

    http://www.copenhagenize.com/2013/05/bike-share-graph-gauging-public-opinion.html

  • There are some examples of BRT systems that have level boarding without the ramp in the image and where the bus can aide the driver in pulling very, very close to the platform.

    http://www.nctr.usf.edu/jpt/pdf/JPT%209-3S%20Kantor.pdf

  • Ms Carretero commutes by bus because the Irving Park/Pulaski blue line station is emphatically not ADA-compliant. Otherwise she could take the train from up there to the medical campus, easy-peasy.

  • Joseph Musco

    I think we talked about the study you cite a few years ago – Las Vegas BRT abandoned their optical docking. Lots of BRT lines use mechanical docking to help drivers put a moving bus very close to a concrete platform safely — but I don’t think any US operator has rampless BRT boardings. The European systems are interesting but the same caveats apply when looking at cool European trains — the regulations are different in the US.

    A Washentaw County, Michigan transit blog compiled an excellent summary of the BRT curb docking systems with images and video just last month. This is the state of the art blog post on BRT docking as far as I can tell ;) http://goo.gl/0rXPAV

    A March 2011 FTA study on Cleveland BRT docking concluded “The mechanical guide wheel is a relatively low cost tool that can assist with bus docking at elevated platforms. However based on the results of the evaluation, it cannot be considered a substitute or replacement for deployable ramps.”

    http://goo.gl/rVugFJ

    The rail standard for level boarding is 3 inches horizontally and 5/8 inches vertically. That is a high standard to meet but necessary if you want to be able to “roll right on” to a transit vehicle.

  • I don’t understand. Why is a ramp like the one you pictured needed if all buses are the same height, all platforms are the same height, and buses can raise and lower themselves?

  • Joseph Musco

    The deployed ramp acts as a bridge to span the horizontal gap between the platform and the bus, not the vertical gap between bus and platform height. The height of the bus and platform may be level but the gap in-between is too large to wheel across so the unfolding ramp acts as a bridge/plate to span the gap.

    I found a better picture of the New Flyer BRT ramp/bridge from King County’s bus service. I’m not saying the level boarding has no value, it’s an improvement in many respects. But transit riders in wheelchairs still have to wait for a ramp/bridge plate to deploy, then roll across, then the driver takes back up the plate. That ramp deployment experience is going to feel similar to existing practice for wheelchair users.

  • Joseph Palmer

    I get it that bus and train travel isn’t Tre Chic, but damn, sometime i think people are way too hard on themselves and those that prefer public transit. I can honestly say YES, I want to take public transit everywhere. If everyo e had a more positive attitude about it, then a lot more would get done and over time everyone would be happier for it.

  • Peter

    Engineer: Ashland Avenue transit project won’t work
    By ROSALIND ROSSI Transportation Reporter January 18, 2014 12:28AM

    http://www.suntimes.com/25000242-761/engineer-ashland-avenue-transit-project-wont-work.html

  • James

    (Crickets)

  • Thanks. I understand now. I wonder if the ramp can be built into the platform.

  • bedhead1

    I will be shocked if StreetsBlog even so much as acknowledges the existence of this.

  • We’ll have a response to this story this week. (We were off Monday.)

  • Anne A

    I rarely use the Ashland bus now because, when I do, it’s usually for a distance and takes forever. If it moves twice as fast, I’d be much more likely to use it. I’m guessing that a lot of folks are in that boat.

  • MattGeb

    I would think this could be added to the platform (it would operate just like a loading dock that has those platforms that kick out to span the gap between the truck and dock) however that would require someone to be at the station to operate or to have the driver do it.

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