BRT Doubters Interested in Working With City to Tweak the Plan

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Rendering of BRT on Ashland.

The city of Chicago has been pretty quiet on the subject of its Ashland bus rapid transit plan lately, but recently there have been encouraging signs that even some skeptics are warming to the concept.

During a presentation about the project to the Wicker Park Committee neighborhood group last week, WPC member Alan O’Connell, an urban planner who works at a shipping logistics company, encouraged BRT doubters to work with the city to improve the plan rather than fight it, DNAinfo reported. The committee had previously voted against the plan, which would nearly double bus speeds on Ashland between 95th and Irving Park by converting two out of four travel lanes to dedicated bus lanes, building ‘L’-style median stations, and adding various other time-saving features.

“This isn’t something you should all be scared of,” said O’Connell, a Cleveland native who has witnessed the success of that city’s Health Line. “It’s really good when done right.”

Some Chicago residents have opposed the Ashland plan on the grounds that the lane conversions will create gridlock – the CTA predicts car speeds will be reduced by only ten percent – and that the prohibition of most left turns off of Ashland will drive traffic onto side streets. In reality, it will be fairly simple for drivers to plan routes that don’t require lefts off the street.

Not all attendees were persuaded by O’Connell’s words. “It will destroy our community totally,” said Mitchell Hutton, a Wicker Park resident. Hutton worried that pedestrians could be struck by cars as they cross to the median stations. Commenters on the DNA piece pointed out that people are already crossing Ashland to access bus stops on the opposite side of the street, and the BRT stations will improve pedestrian safety by doubling as refuge islands.

O’Connell said the city should fine-tune the plan, to make it more acceptable to residents. Allowing more left turns at main intersections is a possibility, although this would delay the BRT buses and other through traffic. He added that the city should come up with strategies, such as traffic calming, to keep vehicles off residential streets. And while the Ashland plan currently calls for retaining curbside local bus service, he argued the CTA should discontinue it, so that it doesn’t cannibalize BRT ridership.

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A southbound Ashland bus in West Town. Photo: John Greenfield

After hearing O’Connell’s presentation, WPC president Leah Root said she now believes it might make sense for the group to work with the city on a compromise, rather than simply opposing the plan. O’Connell hopes to get more community groups to provide constructive input on the plan, instead of fighting it.

On Monday, the nearby East Village Association community group also voted against Ashland BRT, but by a razor-thin margin of eleven to nine, DNA reported. Furthermore, much of the opposition was due to concerns about additional traffic on side streets, which could be addressed with traffic calming.

“As a guy who lives on Winchester, that lives in a 120-year-old house, and I’ve got two kids on the street, and I’ve already got a street that’s filled with vehicles,” said EVA president Neal McKnight. However, member Robert Schnickel, who said he originally was against BRT, pointed out that speed humps, traffic circles, and conversion of some streets to one-ways, could help prevent excessive traffic volume and speeding on side streets. In order to reassure residents, the city should commit to installing traffic calming where needed.

Other attendees lauded the many potential benefits of the plan, noting that the $160 million BRT system would be a fraction of the cost of adding a new rail line, and that faster buses will provide better access to job centers like the Illinois Medical District. McKnight said that if the city alters the plan to address members’ concerns, the group might take another vote on the issue in the future.

City Notes blogger and Streetsblog contributor Daniel Hertz argued yesterday that the EVA deciding against BRT by a mere two votes represents a kind of backhanded endorsement:

So the neighborhood from which the most vitriolic opposition to Ashland BRT has come had its formal vote, and only opposed the project by the narrowest margin possible. Moreover, only eleven people actually cared enough to come out and actually vote against it. Eleven people. The idea that there is a huge groundswell of strong opposition to BRT was dealt a really serious blow here.

It’s good to hear that even some of those who have been opposed to BRT are discussing the possibility of supporting it, if the city is willing to work with them to address issues like left turns and traffic diversion. It appears that the plan is gaining momentum.

  • Wait, Hutton’s not worried about pedestrians getting hit crossing Ashland now, with 4 lanes of traffic that rarely stop for pedestrians in the first place?

    Just go look at Steven’s crash browser… click on any intersection along Ashland and there’s pedestrian injuries. I doubt that narrowing the street to one car lane is going to increase pedestrian crashes.

  • Davidrenfroe

    Just doing the back of the envelope math, the center lane station configuration, while yes, will require everyone to cross some lanes to reach the station, it will reduce the actual overall number of lanes that must be crossed by 1/3. (I weighted turn lanes and bus only BRT lanes as 1/2 a lane, if you count them as full lanes you still get a 20% reduction in overall lane crossings, which is still decent.)

  • I suppose he could be thinking of people who would run across the street against the light to catch a bus that’s arriving. However, that’s probably already happening on streets with buses. I know I’ve seen it happen, especially if the bus is a low-frequency one.

  • rohmen

    One thing I haven’t seen reported here yet (that I know of) is Scheinfeld herself specifically came out and said the City may tweek the BRT plan to allow more left turns when she first started as commissioner: http://www.suntimes.com/25362730-418/new-transportation-boss-city-may-alter-ashland-bus-rapid-transit.html

    I think adding in left turns at major intersection would be a very reasoned compromise (assuming it happens), and one that is likely to push many people on the fence regarding BRT into supporting it.

  • rohmen

    EDIT: Never mind. I responded before I saw your follow up comment, which I think accurately captures what Hutton was more likely getting at.

  • I thought it was funny that the dailies reported it as a news story when Scheinfeld said that, because CTA staffers had publicly mentioned that as a possibility months earlier.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Not to mention that if in fact there is a 10% reduction in automobile speed the kind of pedestrian – car impacts that occur will be more survivable.

  • Peter Debelak

    I think it is funny that all of the opposition to the BRT is because cars are dangerous and kill people. Maybe we should focus on the problem instead of complaining about buses.

  • JacobEPeters

    or if it is the last in a bunch of three that you already see ahead of it. Which usually means a 20+ minute wait for the next herd.

  • cjlane

    “I think adding in left turns at major intersection would be a very reasoned compromise”

    The near elimination of left turns is one of the things I *like* about the proposal. If it becomes “left turn ok at 24 ‘major’ intersections”, that’s something else I would not like about the plan. If it’s adding 4 or 5 more places (Lincoln or Clybourn, Elston as part of the “Kennedy” left, somewhere (maybe 2) b/t Chicago and the Ike, Cermak, Garfield), that seems reasonable.

  • rohmen

    And speaking for myself, by contrast, the near-total left turn ban was one of the few things I didn’t like about the plan.

    And I agree that you do not need to add back in all of the major grid intersections, but my guess is that it will be more than 4 or 5 in the end.

  • rohmen

    Well, I don’t exactly remember you guys ever commenting on the CTA staffer’s public comments either, but maybe I missed it.

    And I get that you guys are an advocacy blog rather than news reporters, but the fact that the CTA itself expressed a willingness to be more flexible on the left turn element of the plan months ago seems pretty relevant to several of the conversations that had taken place here.

  • In their very first Ashland BRT story, back in the day, I remember it being mentioned that adjustments were anticipated, including explicitly the possibility of adding back in more lefts.

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