Citizens Taking Action Takes a Reactionary Stance on Bus Rapid Transit

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Citizens Taking Action’s Charles Paidock.

If you wanted to film a hit comedy based on Chicago’s transit advocacy scene, you’d definitely need to include characters based on the grassroots group Citizens Taking Action. They’re a small circle of colorful, wisecracking guys, who are always good for memorable quotes at Chicago Transit Authority hearings. They’re passionate about local transit history, and some of them have been speaking out against cuts to rail and bus service for decades.

While some of Citizens Taking Action’s ideas are charmingly eccentric, such as their push for Chicago monorail service, some of their more misguided statements can be downright harmful to the cause of creating a better local transit system. In general, they’ve got a “hang on to what we’ve got” mentality, which can be counterproductive when they oppose sensible new transportation projects.

Recently, the group came out against the city of Chicago’s proposal for bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue, as well as Pace’s plan for Pulse express bus service on Milwaukee Avenue. The group was featured in a Sun-Times piece on Rahm Emanuel’s August 18 announcement that express bus service will be returning to Ashland and Western Avenue, with the addition of transit-priority stoplights.

Reporter Rosalind Rossi, who has delivered consistently negative coverage of the Ashland project, prematurely danced on its grave with the headline, “Ashland BRT Seems All But Dead With Return of Ashland, Western Express Buses.” However, the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Peter Skosey said that’s not the case.

Skosey said that high-level sources at the transit authority and the Chicago Department of Transportation told him the Ashland express service is a “down payment” on BRT. “As far as I can tell, the timeline hasn’t changed at all,” he said. “Once Loop Link [downtown BRT] begins operations, we will have a clear example of the benefits of BRT to help propel Ashland BRT forward.”

However, Citizens Taking Action’s Charles Paidock backed up Rossi’s thesis that Emanuel has buried the $160 million, 16-mile Ashland BRT project, and applauded this supposed decision. “It makes no sense to spend $10 million a mile on some rock candy mountain gimmick,” Paidock said. “It’s a totally unnecessary infrastructure project that doesn’t enhance service.”

That’s a pretty absurd statement to make about an initiative that would nearly double bus speeds on the city’s busiest route, from the current 8.7 mph to 15.9 mph. However, Paidock does make one good point, that the original Ashland express should never have been cut in the first place.

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Most of the Pulse stops have 3/4-mile spacing.

In a recent press release, Citizens Taking Action also voiced a legitimate concern that the creation of the new Pulse express bus line shouldn’t result in the elimination of local bus service on Milwaukee. While the Pulse buses will generally run every 15 minutes, the #270 Milwaukee local buses will run at 30-minute intervals, 60 minutes on weekends.

However, the release, titled “Transit Group Opposes Pace ‘Pulse’ Project” contains a few misleading, or just plain false, statements. “This is the beginning of a conversion of the entire suburban bus system to a bus rapid transit type of operation,” Paidock claims, stating that BRT stops are often spaced a mile apart.

The Ashland proposal calls for half-mile spacing, and most of the Milwaukee stops will be spaced about three-quarters of a mile apart. That means that, in most cases, Pace riders wouldn’t have to travel any more than an extra three-eights of a mile, about a seven-minute walk, to catch an express bus. Most riders would have a much shorter additional walk to the nearest Pulse stop.

It is, in fact, important that some local service is preserved, so that seniors and people with disabilities don’t have to travel further to catch a bus. However, the majority of Pace riders will choose to walk a bit further to catch a bus that is significantly faster, so it makes sense to run Pulse buses more frequently than the locals.

Hilariously, the release ends with the completely erroneous statement, “In Chicago, the CTA announced… that it had made a determination to cancel plans for BRT services on two routes in the city, and will provide express bus service instead.” Someone had better tell CTA chief Dorval Carter what his agency is up to.

While it’s commendable that Citizens Taking Action wants to preserve local bus service, they shouldn’t fight progressive projects like Ashland BRT and Pulse, and they certainly shouldn’t be putting out misinformation.

  • david vartanoff

    So let’s do a tally of “express” versus “brt” as to the features that will actually improve service. Nothing except cash prevents CTA from installing TVMs at express stops and implementing POP/all door boarding starting tomorrow. Transit signal priority and 1/2 mile stop spacing are common to both plans, so what will riders gett for the $160 million? Exclusive use of a lane in each direction and cute center median “stations” (made for ribbon cutting photo ops at the cost of custom buses not useful on any other route) It would be far cheaper to paint direction of rush exclusive lanes for high traffic hours while retaining current curbside stops. Riders would benefit from the exclusive lane as they currently do in rush hour on the J14 Jeffery “Jump”. Painting the lanes and the delayed signal priority are all that distinguish it from the veteran 5x, later 6 Jeffery Express, but riders got 2, count them 2, “demonstration” bus shelters.) Surely the paint is cheap.

    It is worth remembering that for as long as CTA has had buses, they have migrated from route to route (and service barn to service barn) when newer equipmentis purchased. A fleet useless on all other routes is not a brilliant financial move.

  • The group leaves me very conflicted since they bring up good points about keeping service levels high but the harsh rhetoric and outright lies push people like me away.

    Also can someone update their website? It’s like I’ve been teleported to 1998, coincidentally back when CTA had more services.

  • Annie F. Adams

    Holy Moly! That website is amazing: http://www.ctariders.org/ — you can’t fake something like that. That is for real. I sorta love it.

  • For me full on BRT is a potentially slippery slope to light rail. Your approaches, which I find compelling, do not have the same slippery slope effect. But I think they do prepare the ground for full on BRT.

    If BRT or all sorts are successful, then the follow on becomes light rail. As long as the stations are reusable with light rail then it would not be money wasted, should light rail happen.

    Another issue is that this is money that can be pried out of the federal government with BRT but not with express bus infrastructure. As regards to the feds it behooves us not to be penny wise but pound foolish.

    All and all, since your approaches are cheap enough they should still be done even if BRT is still on the table. Signal priority will increase car congestion. Countering with exclusive rush hour lanes will further increase car congestion. Extending the lanes to all day exclusive use further increases car congestion. Eventually the more casual users of Ashland find alternate routes and times which improves car congestion somewhat.

    By the time full length exclusive lanes are needed for BRT the effect on traffic congestion will be minimal.

    The CTA fleet is already split between two kinds of vehicles, trains and buses. A third type, BRT buses, which can be traded amongst a growing series of BRT routes is not un-reasonable.

  • So what percentage of the Pace budget goes to coverage routes and what percentage goes to ridership routes. That is what Citizens Taking Action needs to find out. Once they know that then they can begin to make intelligent arguments for or against Pace proposals, whether ART or regular bus.

    That is true as well for media reporters that cover public transportation.

    Any complaints about stop spacing affecting needy populations comes down to how much of a transit budget goes to coverage. In Chicago the questions of coverage versus ridership is somewhat clouded by the separation between the CTA and Pace and Metra. One could see the CTA as the ridership side of the budget and Pace as the coverage side of the budget. Metra could be seen as ridership as well, except they clearly need to get on the frequency bandwagon.

  • High_n_Dry

    OMG. That is perfect. It is like Homer Simpson’s website!

  • R.A. Stewart

    “Homer Simpson’s website”–the quote of the day and I haven’t even finished my first cup of coffee.

  • cjlane

    “A third type, BRT buses, which can be traded amongst a growing series of BRT routes”

    But the actually under-construction BRT can’t use the Ashland BRT buses.

  • david vartanoff

    I am a bit confused by your use of “slippery slope”. Usually this is applied to fear of a bad end result–light rail (correctly spelled streetcars) is a fine idea in some locations for example the median of Stony Island south of 67th as it was before the tracks were ripped out.
    That said, it seems clear that Chicago needs better West Side north-south transit. In other threads I have said that the old Paulina Connector should be restored along with extending it north at least as far as a copnnection to the Ravenswood (Brown) line,and south to the Midway (Orange). The point is to provide access to UIC/the Medical Center area fro both sides of town without having to go through the Loop. a further extension from the Orange Line connection to McCormick Place would give O’Hare users a straight shot to the convention/trade show center, again, skipping the Loop. These interconnections would also make commuting to either airport for ground service workers much easier. Active Transit has advocated for a north-south line closer to Western–probably both would be useful. Bottom line, I favorrail in many cases, but recognize that well designed bus routes also have a place. That does NOT however mean that I favor brt which I believe is usually a money grabfor little more than a good express bus but affords photo ops for the politicians and lots of money through contracts for their supporters.

  • Tommy Jackson

    As he always is, John was very fair and diplomatic in his critique of Citizens Taking Action. However, as anyone who has been to any one of their “meetings” (usually held in the back of a restaurant) can attest, referring to them as a “transit advocacy group” is generous at best. While I commend their sprirt (hey, who doesn’t want more transit, amirite?), their misstatements and outright manufacturing of “facts” calls their integrity into question. So does the fact that every year, one of their members shows up at a budget meeting and puts on an embarrassingly silly bit of theater, in which he suggests “corruption” (with no proof, of course), takes personal shots at CTA management and throws mini tantrums befitting a 13-yo. As an aside, has anyone noticed that the Sun-Times reporter is the *only* one who regularly goes to this group for comment on transit matters? Lastly–keep the website! It’s as entertaining as Frogger or Missle Command!

  • Michael

    I would love to see Rosalind Rossi go, or at least be reassigned.

  • It’s a lovely phrase, slippery slope. No reason to cede it the the negativists. I use it to remind anti-BRT types who think BRT isn’t good enough. Because if BRT is a money grab then rail transit is a money sink hole by comparison.

    Again the grab is getting money we sent to the feds back to us.

    But yeah your ideas seem sensible to me. The old bus grid, and I assume streetcar grid before that made for a perfect complement for the center and spoke heavy rail systems. But we have lost that grid usefulness to car caused congestion.

    As for the possibility of getting a quality bus route with a souped up model of the Express Bus model well, I am just afraid that the CTA is not going to be aggressive enough at grabbing lots of exclusive laneage around the congestion points.

  • Details.

  • david vartanoff

    Of course there will be pushback from auto users, but in fact whizzing by stores doesn’t generate business, walking by does at least if there are show windows. Yes, in is often fed money, but on any serious usage route (the 9-Ashland is claimed to be one of CTA’s highest ridership lines) the money is better spent on rail IMHO. Part of this is more riders per operator w/ a train of 2 or more cars, part that the implied permanence encourages both living and doing business along the route. In the instant case, having already established major destinations along the route and proposed connections should generate sufficient ridership to justify the investment. Somewhere FTA has a method IINM of calculating opportunity cost per potential rider.

    Transit projects in the US have become like Defense Dept purchases–rigged bidding, poor products, vast overpricing, and therefore hard to get funded. I see BRT as a wrongheaded attempt to rein in costs by foisting an inferior result on riders at prices that are less rapacious rather than reforming the system that drives the gouging and attendant corruption. To be fair, in some instances highway projects also fit the pattern of a dollar’s worth of end result, 5-6 dollars cost as maybe 2-3 dollars are simply siphoned off in the process. nd as we see in Illiana, andother cases, money for useless highway projects seems much easier to get through the gatekeepers.

    because on any heavily used route a single train operator moves a train w/many more riders the any bus can carry.

  • david vartanoff

    Loop BRT will use off the shelf right hand door buses–that is anything in CTA’s rubber tired fleet; Ashland is planned for left hand door buses, not only useless on other routes but also inconvenient in the event of any emergency reroute due to fire or other blockage of the normal route.

  • The Ashland BRT buses would have doors on both sides, so they’d work for both center-running and curbside operation. Therefore, they could be used on other routes as well, including ones that use the Loop Link route.

  • cjlane

    Ah, that makes more sense.

  • R.A. Stewart

    I wonder if it is not partly history with them. Yeesh, I was trying to find a “who we are” link to at least see who the leadership is, but the website made my eyes hurt. Anyway, if the membership and especially the most active members tend to be older people who have ridden the CTA for decades, as I suspect, that could have colored their views. (As it has mine, to be honest.) Their experience tells them that the CTA will cut service at every opportunity and that *any* change will ultimately prove to be a change for the worse.

  • Of course they could pull a northwestern railway on the Ashland brt and run the buses on the opposite side so the right hand doors can be used.

  • cjlane

    That would also act to discourage cars from using the bus lanes!

  • david vartanoff

    Or uuse the right hand lane and use joint stops w/ the local which is way more convenient for riiders–like you get to the stop and the bus predicting software says local 3, express 19, you take the local.

  • So would ticketing cameras mounted on the front of the bus! :-)

  • Kelly Pierce

    It seems you avoided the issue of prevailing wage laws and project labor agreements that jack up the cost of infrastructure projects by 20 to 30 percent. If we as citizens want to lower the cost of building transit, then we need to be discussing prevailing wage and other structural issues foisted on local government.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Loop BRT has to use off the shelf buses because the buses continue on local routes after leaving the BRT corridor.

  • cjlane

    But that would require Springfield to act. Ain’t gonna happen.

  • david vartanoff

    You mean wages someone can actually live on?

  • Not likely perhaps but possible.

  • cjlane

    Sure, and it’s also possible that the Legislature votes to terminate their own pensions. But it ain’t gonna happen.

  • I support you in your quest to remind people that the legislature can be dysfunctional. I hope you support me in reminding people that some issues have simple solutions.

  • The buses that CTA said they would buy would have doors on both sides so that the buses can be used on other routes.

    http://www.fta.dot.gov/documents/IL__Chicago_Ashland_Ave_BRT_Phase_I__FY15_profile.pdf

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