CTA Officials Share Details of the Plan for Gold-Standard BRT on Ashland

Kevin O'Malley, the CTA's general mager of strategic planning and policy, and CDOT Deputy Commissioner Luann Hamilton. Photo by John Greenfield.

It was exciting to wake up to the news that the CTA and Chicago Department of Transportation are planning to build center-running bus rapid transit with travel lane removals, since this is the most efficient and pedestrian-friendly of the four layouts they considered. Both Ashland and Western were possibilities for the route. They have decided to go with 16 miles of Ashland from Irving Park to 95th, starting with an initial segment running from the Orange Line at 31st to Metra’s Clybourn station at Cortland. You can read the basics of the proposal in Ben Fried’s earlier post about the announcement.

Soon after I received the good word, the CTA invited me to their downtown headquarters for a Q & A session with Kevin O’Malley, the agency’s general manager of strategic planning and policy, and CDOT Deputy Commissioner Luann Hamilton. They provided the following additional details about the plan.

Why Ashland instead of Western? Ashland is the highest traveled bus corridor in the city, connecting seven CTA ‘L’ stations and two Metra stations. Ashland also includes several different business and retail corridors, plus the Illinois Medical District. Its curb-to-curb right-of-way, 70 feet, is slightly wider overall than Western. “And the Ashland bus currently operates about one mile-per-hour slower, so we thought we could really move the needle to a faster and more reliable service for more people,” O’Malley said.

Cost The first 5.5-mile phase between 31st and Cortland is estimated at $116 million, including purchasing new buses with left-side doors, required for center-running BRT. In general the corridor will cost $10 million per mile for the street improvements and stations alone, so the entire 16-mile route will come to $160 million, not including buses.

CTA rendering of Ashland and Chicago before and after BRT.

Funding The city plans to apply for grants from the Federal Transportation Administration’s Small Starts program, which provides funding for capital costs associated with new rail systems and line extensions, as well as bus corridor improvements.

Schedule Depending on the availability of federal funding, construction on the first phase between 31st and Cortland could start as early as 2015 with service launching by the end of the year or in early 2016.

Vehicles While Ashland currently has standard 40-foot buses, the CTA is planning to buy articulated buses with a total of five doors on both sides, which are currently in use on Cleveland’s Health Line express bus corridor.

Features Ashland would be the first U.S. bus route to achieve the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s gold-standard rating. In addition to center-running buses and dedicated bus lanes, there will be sinal prioritization and pre-paid, level boarding. “Having people line up at [an onboard] fare box would defeat the point of faster service,” O’Malley said. The bus-only lanes will be colored and possibly camera-enforced. While Jersey walls won’t be used to keep cars out of the lanes, there may be other treatments like bollards or rumble strips.

Cleveland Health Line with 5-door, articulated buses. Photo by Larry Ehl.

Local buses While the BRT buses will only stop every half-mile, local buses will continue to run curbside, so they won’t slow down the express vehicles. Local service will likely become less frequent. “Service is always set by demand,” O’Malley said. “We anticipate that BRT will attract up to 29 percent more ridership to this corridor. But the local buses will remain as needed.”

Service to Andersonville? While community leaders in Andersonville had expressed interest in extending the Ashland BRT corridor north to their neighborhood and beyond, the line will stop at Irving Park, the northern terminus of the #9 bus. O’Malley said the CTA decided not to extend the BRT north of Irving Park on Ashland because it’s a residential section that doesn’t currently have bus service. “And when you get north of Irving, Clark Street [which has a bus line] starts to get very close [to Ashland] … so it would start to get kind of redundant.”

Cortland Stop This area, below the Kennedy and Metra tracks, is currently a dark, dirty space that may intimidate some riders. “We’ll be working within the context we have there,” O’Malley said. “It is a challenging one, but our goal is to make it an inviting place for people to make a transfer [to BRT] from the Metra or the east-west buses.”

View Larger Map

Likely location of the Cortland stop, in the median of Ashland, south of the intersection.

I also spoke with CTA spokesman Brian Steele about how the agency plans to convince residents and business owners that the BRT project, which will remove travel lanes and most left turns but retain almost all parking spaces, is a good idea.

John Greenfield: It seems that whatever configuration you choose, whether it was removing parking on one side of the street, or removing travel lanes, some people are going to be unhappy about it. I attended a meeting where business owners were really upset about the idea of losing parking or losing left turns.

Brian Steele: You were at some of the public input meetings and have heard some the concerns, and CTA and CDOT really listened to all that feedback and particularly those concerns. And that’s part of why center-running BRT was chosen. Center-running preserves 92 percent of the off-street parking and 96 percent of the loading zones. That was one of the biggest concerns that we heard at the public meeting, because business owners see that as being critical to helping their business. Of course, we believe that transit is just as, if not more, critical to their businesses. If you look at the most vibrant commercial and retail corridors in the city, almost without exception they have the common element of good transit access.

CTA rendering of BRT on Ashland.

JG: It’s definitely going to be tough for most Chicagoans to wrap their heads around the idea that taking out travel lanes is going to expedite transportation in general. It seems like a lot of people are going to panic when they hear the city is going to take out lanes. What’s the strategy to win them over to the plan?

BS: That was one of the issues that we heard about when we had the open houses last fall, the concern about what’s going to happen if you reduce capacity on Ashland, which is an arterial street intended to carry higher traffic volumes. The response to that is what you’ve seen at the meetings we’ve already had, and a lot of the details are going to come about in the analysis that we’re going to do moving forward. Based on some very preliminary traffic modeling that we’ve done using traffic data from [the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning], it’s suggested that vehicle travel speeds would only be impacted by one-to-two miles per hour.

We want to emphasize that the preliminary information shows that the impact will not be so significant that it has an overly detrimental impact on traffic flow and traffic volumes on Ashland. And in other cities, like New York’s Select bus service [which converted travel lanes into dedicated bus lanes], there were the same concerns voiced and it turns out that overall travel times were not greatly impacted.

Now that we’ve announced this vision there are going to be a lot of questions and concerns. That’s why we’re having this huge community outreach component. We’ve been meeting with community groups and elected officials, having open house, etcetera, for a year-and-a-half or so. Those are going to be continued and expanded as part of our education and outreach and feedback campaign.

  • Joseph Musco

    CTA is spending $116M on a 5.3 mile corridor. That’s $21.88 million dollars per mile, not $10 million a mile. You can’t operate a 16 mile corridor bus line with the same size bus fleet you use to operate a 5.3 mile corridor so there will be future BRT fleet costs that aren’t being mentioned here. The “$10 million dollar a mile” story is a nice round number but is it accurate?

    “The actual cost of the Euclid Corridor project was $197.2 million in year-of-expenditure (YOE) dollars, including an FFGA baseline cost estimate of $168.4 million and $28.8 million in streetscaping elements funded separately as a non-transit project. Aggregate unit cost of the transit project was $17.9 million per mile ($14.9 million per mile without the cost of BRT vehicles). Within this average, unit costs vary from $24 to $27 million per mile for intensive street reconstruction to $2 to $3 million per mile for station-only upgrades.” – FTA report to Congress, June 2012


  • Alan Robinson

    Service to Andersonville?

    While it’s true that the Clark St. local bus would be redundant with the Ashland local bus north of Irving Park, splitting express and local service between Ashland and Clark routes could make sense, especially if the Clark bus moves over to Ashland at Lawrence. There’s also the possibility of truncating the Clark route and continuing the Ashland route further north.

    I can see why the CTA would want to avoid potential community backlash in truncating the Clark route. If community members in Andersonville push for BRT with the understanding that the Clark bus would then disappear, the CTA may go for it.

  • Endless Mike

    I’d be curious as to when the next phases would go through. Having Phase 1 will be nice, but it will also be going through neighborhoods that are already fairly transit rich. I think the extension to the South Side to 95th is very important because that area generally is fairly transit-starved.

  • I also think the CTA is concerned about community backlash from people who live on Ashland north of Irving who might resist having a new bus line added to their street.

  • Anonymous

    The $10M/mile number is clearly stated to be for the street work and stations only, while the $166M number is also clearly stated to include the buses. I don’t see what your problem is.

  • Joseph Musco

    CTA has roughly 2000 miles of bus routes. The budget to replace the current bus fleet with 1500 new buses is roughly $575 million dollars per CTA Tattler. So is CTA spending the equivalent of 10% of their entire bus fleet purchase to buy new buses for 0.3% of their route mileage ($116M – (5.5x$10M per mile) = $61M)? Or are their public statements about the cost per mile of BRT inaccurate? I posted the Euclid BRT numbers as a reference. Does it make sense that we are hearing claims of superior Gold Standard BRT coming to Chicago but the advertised costs per mile are 1/3 less than we see in Cleveland?

    Note: Cleveland’s BRT vehicle cost per mile was $3M. Chicago’s initial announced corridor had vehicle costs per mile of $11.8M if we believe the $10M per route/mile claim. Does that sound right to anyone?

  • Anonymous

    Stop comparing apples and oranges. You’re comparing numbers from Cleveland from an FTA report that completely broke everything out with very early numbers from a press release/talking points that aren’t broken out. CTA will have the full proposal soon enough and you can do apples-to-apples at that time.

  • Agreed. The area between Irving Park and Andersonville is residential but is flanked by business districts (though smaller) on both sides. The 22 is also a pretty awful route when traffic is bad since Clark is a two-way street with one lane in each direction, and the buses bunch constantly. Even if a lot of buses run on Clark, the bunching sometimes causes long waits. I don’t think the Clark route should disappear up there, but they could run fewer articulated buses if the Ashland BRT ran up there.
    Andersonville also needs better transit. After Lawrence, the brown line is too far to walk to, and the red line is also a far walk.

  • Anonymous

    John, if you speak with CTA or CDOT again, could you suggest extending the north end of the BRT along Irving Park to the Red Line at Sheridan? This would add a minimal amount of time/mileage to the route while offering Red Line riders easy access to a whole swath of the North/West Sides.

    CTA can operate the rapid buses like a normal bus with curbside boarding on the Irving Park segment.

  • Sure, I can ask about that.

  • Anonymous

    The statement that the Ashland bus overlaps with Clark (which I have seen many times before) seems to imply that people going to/from Andersonville/Rogers Park are only interested in travelling in their neighborhood or to/from downtown. As someone who has lived in Ukranian Village and Roscoe Village with lots of friends in Andersonville, I get a little annoyed at the circuitous route and number of transfers I have to take to get there when the Ashland bus would do the job far better! Clark isn’t close to Ashland south of Montrose. Bus schedules that would allow for better transfers (or buses that run later or more frequently) would also help. The number of times that I have just missed the Clark transfer have also resulted in me frequently just deciding to drive or cab it to Andersonville on most occasions.

  • Alan Robinson

    I’m surprised that community members wouldn’t invite a new bus route. The traffic calming effects of BRT on Ashland north of Irving would be a boon to walkability. Especially since may people need to cross Ashland at unsignalized intersections to get to local commercial areas.

  • BlueFairlane

    So you’re saying the CTA numbers aren’t real? Why cite them, then? Examining the reality of cost projections is useful at this point in the discussion.

  • Carl

    Great news on all accounts except for the timeline. This is a big project and an important one, but with construction MAYBE starting two years from now it certainly isn’t moving at “Rahm” speed.

  • Brian

    Extending service to Andersonville

    “O’Malley said the CTA decided not to extend the BRT north of Irving Park on Ashland because it’s a residential section that doesn’t currently have bus service.” Wow, sometimes it absolutely amazes me how illogically the CTA goes about making its decisions. If the the CTA truly believes in the difference between BRT and a standard bus, then clearly a BRT extension running parallel to a slow, local, Clark bus is not redundant. Its a completely different service, one that would connect the extremely dense neighborhoods of Ravenswood, Uptown, Andersonville, and Edgewater. It would also be a valuable connection for anyone in West Ridge and Rogers Park, that needs an alternative to the Red Line. These neighborhoods already lack fast, reliable North / South connections as Mr. O’Malley so brilliantly pointed out, so does it not make sense to extend the line to the end of Ashland? Why go through all of this trouble only to do 3/4 the job and call it done, its a complete lack of foresight.
    The Andersonville Development Corporation will be working this week to put together another response to the CTA, and to ask to be included in future planning sessions. If anyone wants to help out or send me your comments please do. bbonanno@andersonville.org

  • There’s a lot of detailed planning work to be done. According to the CTA, “BRT on Ashland is moving onto its engineering and environmental design phase where the route and configuration will be comprehensively analyzed on a block-by-block basis.” Expect to hear the phrase “block-by-block” a lot in the near future…

  • Anonymous

    Is it going to take two years to do the planning? Could that be sped by hiring more planners? Or is part of that delay due to fundraising?

  • The funding timeline probably has a lot to do with the two-year delay as well.

  • John

    Any bike accommodations?

  • Nope. Luann Hamilton said Ashland is not currently a recommended route and cyclists are encouraged to ride on Damen instead. Ashland would make a nice continuous bike route, however, since bike-friendly streets within a couple blocks east or west (Southport, Wood, Loomis, Ravenswood, Glenwood) are stop-and-start.

  • Karen

    Please don’t make supositions about people who live on Ashland. No one wants a bus route in front of their homes, and the people on Ashland are no exception. The strip of Ashland north of Irving is one of the only areas of the North Side where middle and working class people can still afford to live, please do not forget that your discussions about bus routes are not abstract when it comes to the BRT. People’s rights would be significantly impacted by noise, emissions, and vibrations from the buses. No one living on Ashland wants this. And we honestly feel bullied every time that we say anything about this on a website like this.

  • Thanks for your input Karen. You can count me as someone who be happy to have a BRT stop in front of my home, certainly more than I would want to have four lanes of car and truck traffic. The new buses, the same kind currently in use on Cleveland’s Health Line express bus system, will run on a diesel/electric hybrid system that produces 90% less emissions than regular buses. It seems the main danger of living along a BRT route will be the distinct possibility of rising property values.

  • Karen

    Thanks for being nice about your response. Whenever people on Ashland try to raise concerns about the new bus route the response is usually “you live on Ashland; you deserve it.” Sometimes I think that people fail to understand that people do not decide to live on busy streets because they love the noise; they live on busy streets because they cannot afford to live elsewhere.

    Although I appreciate that you did not treat me with disrespect. I have to disagree with your position on having a BRT in front of one’s home. Ashland is not currently a truck route, and we do not have the same level of vehicle traffic as they do south of here. Changing Ashland from a neighborhood arterial to a major public transportation route will significantly change our quality of life (for better or worse). Some of your posters are suggesting that the City decided not to go north of Ashland because political pressure from us, but that just is not true. We never have had any seat at the table, and that is really, really unfortunate. A lot of people on Ashland are really worried about this project.

  • They could only do this if the busses had doors on both sides — has to be in the initial plan/purchase, not retrofittable. Plus, that eats seats …

  • As you can see from the photo above of the Cleveland buses, the same ones the CTA is using, there will be doors on both sides.

  • Alan Robinson

    Thank you for clarifying these neighbourhood issues. I had lived in Bowmanville for awhile, so I find being able to cross Ashland at Berwyn without dodging 4 speeding lanes of traffic to be a boon, in addition to the greater transit access. I’ll definitely be pushing for BRT further north, as I see it as a great benefit to the city. My support would be conditional on an acceptable plan to minimize the amount of noise created, and documentation on the effect of the route on local pollution.

  • BRT can only have a positive effect on local pollution because the buses because the BRT buses produce 90% less emissions than conventional ones, and the high speed buses should encourage many people to replace car trips with transit trips, cutting vehicle miles traveled. Similarly, less vehicles on the road should equal less noise.

  • Anonymous

    I’m sure they will have doors on both sides. CTA will want the flexibility to use them elsewhere, such as the Loop BRT or the Jeffrey Jump. It doesn’t make sense to maintain separate fleets for each new busway, and some busways won’t be entirely left-side boarding.

  • Alan Robinson

    There’s also less stopping and starting for a BRT bus as compared to a local bus. This translates into less noise and vibration, the other key concerns Karen raised.
    I don’t think BRT would produce much of a problem, but the CTA would have to develop and show the numbers regarding local pollution and noise impacts to residents on Ashland so that an informed decision can be made and as many residents as possible can get on board.

  • Anonymous

    What did the CMAP models say about Ashland traffic volumes? Given minimal anticipated speed reduction and a 50% reduction in lane capacity, it seems volume must be shifting to other streets, which could benefit folks like Karen despite added “BRT” (ART?).

    I also suspect #9 will fade away. At 1/2 mile intervals, one would likely only have to walk a maximum of 1/4 mile either direction to catch the bus – a couple blocks, or so, at most. I can’t see local service as anything but redundant in that scenario.

  • Anonymous

    It’s all about the money.

  • A significant amount of car traffic on Ashland will evaporate due to many people choosing to take fast, frequent, reliable BRT over driving.

    The locals will still be important for seniors and people with disabilities, for whom an extra block or two of travel may be a big deal. However, these will probably become less frequent as the majority of people opt to take the express buses.

  • I didn’t know about Paulina and Wood as a side street between Cortland Avenue and 18th Street until last year. It’s pretty awesome – so low traffic.

  • “If the the CTA truly believes in the difference between BRT and a standard bus, then clearly a BRT extension running parallel to a slow, local, Clark bus is not redundant. Its a completely different service…”

    I wholeheartedly agree.

  • Karen

    Just to clarify, there currently is no bus and are no trucks north of Irving on Ashland. It is considered a boulevard, and is a nearly 100% residential street. Sometimes I feel like people here are offering opinions before doing any research, and it makes me a little sad. Changing the street to a bus route WILL significantly change our lives. I know that people on this blog have called the street ugly and nasty, but a lot of people live on Ashland. It is the most densely populated street though Ravenswood and Andersonville. Thanks for letting me know that the City would have to consider noise and other nuisances. Every time a truck does go by on Ashland, my 1890s building shakes.

  • I wasn’t aware Ashland is a boulevard north of Irving Park and, I assume you mean, south of the junction with Clark around Rosehill. Thanks for the info. Along with your comment about trucks going by your house, I did see a few trucks on that stretch in Google Streetview, so apparently that rule is not perfectly enforced.

    I’ve always thought it’s silly that the boulevard designation of Kedzie in Logan Square south of Logan Boulevard prevents buses from traveling on it, since that stretch connects to the Logan Square Blue Line stop.

    No doubt, changing Ashland to a BRT route will significantly change the lives of everyone who lives, works and shops along the street.

  • Anonymous

    Did the CMAP models predict mode shift of that magnitude? If so, that would be really interesting – I can’t imagine their model spitting out significant mode shift. Rather, it seems a lot more likely that they’re saying the cars just went somewhere else.

    To illustrate, using the CMAP model as a base, IDOT indicates that extending the Blue Line to Mannheim, adding new BRT service between Naperville, Oak Brook, and Schaumburg, with a transfer hub at the new west Blue Line terminus combined with instituting variable rate pricing on all existing I-290 lanes to encourage mode shift and generate operating/capital revenue, results in two bad things:

    1. An overall *decrease* – yes, a decrease – in transit ridership over time, *and*

    2. Huge amounts of cars diverting to arterials (even those that are already congested during peak). So many that they use this as the reason to classify the alternative as not viable.

    It seems unlikely that the same model would predict significant mode shift in response to Ashland BRT (though I like the project, this is modeling question). If it is generating different mode shift results in the Ashland example, I’d like to know why.

  • FG

    You guys commenting about the Ashland bus ending at Irving realize (at least according to Chicago’s Greatest Former Alderman, MAS of the 48th) that the CTA truncated bus service due to complaints by a priest at one the RC churches further north not liking his masses interrupted by bus noise.

  • According to the CTA the Ashland BRT conversion is expected to lead to a 46% increase in bus ridership on the corridor, so that 26% of all trips are made by transit: http://www.transitchicago.com/asset.aspx?AssetId=6949 That could take a lot of cars off the road.

  • O’Malley said there has never been bus service on Ashland north of Irving Park. Mary Ann Smith did some cool sustainable transportation stuff as alderman, but that sounds like a tall tale.

  • Anonymous

    That is exactly what has been debated with the IDOT – that people will mode shift if given the opportunity.

    IDOT’s model (a variation of the CMAP model), and reportedly the work completed by CMAP using their own model, indicates that is not the case — people will stay in their cars and simply go somewhere else.

    Of course, would one expect the model to say anything else where IDOT is pushing a highway expansion over other forms of potential investment?

    Maybe they need to use whatever model (or set of base assumptions) that CTA is using . . . not debating whether people will leave their cars behind and use Ashland BRT, just wondering how modeling is producing seemingly conflicting commuter response to major transit investment.

  • Alan Robinson

    Hi Karen,

    Ashland is not a boulevard until north of Pratt, after Clark St. crosses Ashland. Also, John, I do not believe the boulevard designation restricts the use of CTA busses. There are many boulevards in Chicago with bus service. The case against busses on these streets has to rely on local environmental impact rather than existing regulation.

  • That’s an interesting map in your link. I see that streets like Diversey east of Logan Square, which do have buses, are designated as boulevards. If that’s the case, do you know offhand what the significance of the boulevard designation is?

  • Alan Robinson

    I believe they are owned by the parks district, and trucks are banned. I’d have to dig through city ordinances to understand the details.

  • “No one wants a bus route in front of their homes”

    What an idiotic comment.

  • Alan Robinson


    Disagree with comments, do not judge them, and certainly don’t shoot someone down without adding anything to the conversation.

    Secondly, while the original comment was hyperbole (I wouldn’t mind a bus route), there are strong reasons not to want a bus route in front of one’s home. I’m glad they were brought up as it was not a consideration I had immediately thought of, I learned something from the comments, and I think the problems require consideration and mitigation.

  • It’s true lots of people (myself included) would psyched to have a bus route in front their homes, especially a BRT stop.

    But, yes, let’s please keep things civil and refrain from name-calling.

  • Guest

    This is one of the dumbest ideas the city has ever come up with. Ashland already blows pretty much all day…it’ll be a blast with 2 less lanes. Is there really even a market for a bus line running that far north/south? You can’t even really use it to get to an El stop. Furthermore, it’s ugly. The landscaping on the northern part of Ashland was just redone 10 years ago or so, and the trees are just getting nice and big. I’m glad I’m moving off of Ashland. I’ll come back in 5 years and laugh about how stupid this worked out.

  • I completely agree with you that Ashland is congested most of the day, which is why bus rapid transit is so important. An Ashland Avenue jammed with single-occupancy vehicles is not an efficient way to transport people across town. BRT will give people the option of taking a fast, reliable bus with it’s own car-free lane, so they can avoid the current traffic mess. Meanwhile, many drivers will choose to leave their cars at home and take the bus instead, so the impact on motorists won’t be as bad as you think.

    Yes, there is a market for BRT buses running that far south – 95th to 63rd is currently the busiest segment of the Ashland bus route. The plan calls for making Irving Park the northern terminus of the line, so don’t worry about any trees being removed. But there’s also a market for bringing BRT further north. The Andersonville Development Council has been lobbying to extend the route, and several people have commented on Streetsblog to support the idea.

    No, you won’t me able to use the BRT line to get to a single ‘L’ stop. You’ll be able to use it to get to seven ‘L’ stops and two Metra stations.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I think BRT buses and stations look good, and folks in Cleveland seem to agree. The Health Line bus system is credited with attracting $3.3 billion in new construction and $2.5 billion for building rehab along its corridor.

    Sure, come back in five years and see how gold-standard BRT has worked out on Ashland. I’m confident you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  • Luis

    I can’t wait to ride this! Finally! Chicago is along with cities around the globe that dedicate to its people, not the car like other cities. I’ve taken the Métrobus in Mexico City, it is so fast, well organized, and every bus comes every 2 minutes! Here is a promotion video from Cali, Colombia. Its their BRT system called “MIO” I like the way how Cali promoted, its a salsa music video on their BRT, perhaps might get you dancing of your seat lol, also, a glimpes on how will the system will look like on Ashland, ¡Saludos! http://youtu.be/BtNBPZe5dmQ


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