New Ashland, Western Express Buses Will Be Fast, But BRT Would Be Faster

Southbound Ashland bus
The current #9 Ashland bus. Photo: John Greenfield

Bus riders who take buses on Ashland and Western Avenues are getting faster, more reliable service. The Chicago Transit Authority is bringing back the old express bus routes on these streets, and they’re also adding transit signal prioritization and cutting little-used stops on the local bus runs. While these are welcome improvements, the city should move forward with its plan for full-fledged bus rapid transit service on Ashland, which would be much faster than the express buses.

The X9 Ashland and X49 Western expresses bus routes, along with all other X routes and other service, were cut in 2010. The new express buses will make about half as many stops as the local buses, which provides a significant time savings. Later, the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation will add Transit Signal Priority. By extending stoplights turn green faster as a bus approaches, or extending the green, TSP helps keep riders from getting stuck at intersections.

The local buses on Ashland and Western will also be faster because the CTA is removing some stops where few people board or disembark, so that buses will stop approximately every one-quarter mile instead of every one-eighth mile. It then makes sense for riders to simply hop on the first bus that shows up at an express stop, rather than waiting for an express bus, because waiting for the express might cancel out any time savings from fewer stops.

Daniel Kay Hertz charted the projected travel time gains of the Ashland and Western service on his blog City Notes. He compared the CTA’s estimates of the travel times for the current bus service, the new local service, the new express service, and the proposed Ashland bus rapid transit system. Hertz’s chart makes it clear that while consolidating stops on the local buses will result in a significant time saving, the new express buses won’t be that much faster than the new locals.

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A trip on the Ashland bus between Brown Line at 3500 N and Orange Line at 3100 S would take 18 percent less time on the express service and 43 percent less time on the BRT.

The CTA plan calls for the express buses to only run during rush hours as “supplementary service,” but Hertz suggests an alternative. “If people are just getting on whatever the first bus is, then it may make more sense to make the express the basic service, and the local the supplementary.” Of course, that might not be so popular with people whose local bus stop would see fewer buses per hour than the express buses.

Moreover, the CTA plans to maintain the current number of local buses. But Hertz says it would be ideal to have both types of buses operating all day, with twice as many express runs as locals.

Hertz is quick to note that, while the new expresses and faster locals will be an improvement, you can’t beat BRT when it comes to speedy bus service. The city’s Ashland plan calls for center-running buses with dedicated lanes, pre-paid, level boarding, multiple doors, plus other time-saving features. As you can see from the above chart, the Ashland BRT would dramatically shorten trip times compared to the new local and express buses.

The new local bus service is comparable to the “Modern Express Bus” proposal floated by the anti-BRT group the Ashland-Western Coalition. MEB would have had about 30 percent fewer stops than the current locals, but the times saving would have paled in comparison to BRT. “You can see in this chart just how much less convenient that [consolidated stop local] service is than BRT—on the order of 30-50% longer trip times,” Hertz wrote.

When the return of the express bus service was originally announced back in August, the Sun-Times prematurely danced on the grave of the BRT plan, claiming that it seemed “all but dead.” However, CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld has stated that these short-term improvements aren’t a sign that the BRT plan is off the table.

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  • Seeing the times laid out like that really drove home the effects of the various flavors. It would be interesting to see the same graph with the effects of left turns on the BRT. I wonder if with signal priority and the time for a left turn signal then taken away from forward automobile progress whether there might be little net effect on bus times at all? That would then have the net result of pitting drivers against themselves over which options they would prefer.

  • YogaSex Master

    I support Ashland BRT, but NOT the configuration that they had. I want the BRT bus (and protected bike lanes) to be in the right hand lane, and follow the exact same configuration that is being used in the Loop (I envision, that eventually, there will be a city-wide BRT grid/Protected Bike Lane grid).

  • Neil Clingerman

    At the very least Chicago should have an LA style rapid/local configuration with its buses – with the rapids running mroe frequently – Chicago is way too big a city for buses to stop every single block and the system would be far more efficient if there were more express buses, it may even make ridership go up :)

  • YogaSex Master

    Personally, I think what caused the Ashland BRT proposal to be unpopular, was the configuration…the “No Left Turn” concept was a poor decision. The reason they had the BRT lane planned for the left lane, was because the city needs to retain a parking lane for the private company that bought the rights to that, years ago. So instead, what the city should do, is reconfigure the plan….the auto lane should be in the left hand lane (allowing for left hand turns). So, the correct configuration should be sidewalk > protected bike lanes > BRT lane > parking > auto transit lane > Landscaped median. This configuration would give the city a BRT lane on Ashland, plus have the ability to park, plus have the ability to turn left.

  • mrsman

    A curbside BRT would just change the problem from restrictions on left turns to restrictions on right turns, unless you let people who want to turn right access to the bus only lanes. Most bus lanes on the right in other cities in the US allow right turners and those who want to access driveways and curbside parking into the lane.

    Median BRT is better because only the buses have the right to use the lanes. People who want to park won’t use them. People going straight ahead won’t use them. The only issue is to accommodate those who want to turn left.

    Cleveland’s Health Line accommodates left turns at many intersections. The way this works is by prohibiting parking near the intersection, bring thru drivers into the right lane and carve out a left turn lane from the remaining space.

    See this page for an example:

    https://www.google.com/maps/@41.5026828,-81.6667373,3a,75y,232.46h,74.82t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1smXhK88sjNVQt5OqSLVO0ZA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

  • JacobEPeters

    The main problem with this would be that it would require more right of way than exists on Ashland or Western. It would require at least 84′ if there was only a 1′ wide barrier of protection. This is 14′ wider than either street. It additionally would include no room for drivers of parked cars to safely exit their vehicles. So increasing that width to a minimum of 4′ (to allow for walking to the nearest intersection & crossing the Bus land and the bike lane, provided no one was opening their car door) would expand the street width to 90′.

    Even in this layout, few drivers exiting their vehicle would walk to a crosswalk before walking to the sidewalk due to the high speed bus lane they would be walking next to. So instead it would be a nearly 20′ game of Frogger.

    The real solution would be to have a center running bus lane but reduce the number of intersections that left turns are allowed at. At the limited intersections where left turns are allowed, have right side boarding island platforms after the intersection in both directions and a barrier between the left turn lane and the bus lane. This would allow for left hand turns in both directions and bus stations in both directions. Parking would have to be eliminated for a substantial section approaching the road in each direction to accommodate the turn lanes and the bus stops. But these would have to be in areas where the left turning movements are deemed important enough by the surrounding community to eliminate that much parking.

    The streets of Chicago aren’t wide enough for everything on every street. But that doesn’t mean that they should be designed solely for drivers as they are now.

  • JacobEPeters

    LSD and the Boulevards are the only streets outside of Downtown with enough width to accommodate BRT, and protected bike lanes without reducing turning movements or parking spaces. We need a grid of both to service the city, but they don’t have to be, and in most cases cannot be on the same streets.

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