New York’s Experience Shows Ashland Bus Lanes Won’t Cause Carmaggedon

On stretches of First Avenue in New York City, one general traffic lane was converted to a bus lane and another was converted to a protected bike lane without affecting traffic volumes or speeds. Photo: NYC DOT

Converting a travel lane in each direction on Ashland Avenue to center-running bus lanes, greatly improving transit performance on the corridor, won’t lead to Chicago’s own version of Carmageddon (which actually never materialized).

Data from New York City’s Select Bus Service on First and Second Avenues – where two travel lanes gave way to bus lanes and bike lanes – shows myriad improvements. Trip times fell, crashes were reduced, and ridership increased — all goals that the Emanuel administration has outlined in the Chicago Forward Action Agenda.

Let’s check off the similarities:

  • The M15 bus runs on 1st Avenue (northbound) and 2nd Avenue (southbound) and carries more passengers than any other bus route in New York City and had long boarding times because of the high ridership. The 9/Ashland bus has the highest ridership in Chicago and also suffers from long boarding times. Check.
  • The M15 runs on streets that see huge traffic volumes, especially during rush our as car commuters enter and leave Manhattan. The 9/Ashland bus battles congestion at many choke points caused by clusters of retail, housing, and offices, and because of adjacent traffic backups caused by outdated intersection signal phasing and highway on-ramps (think Ashland/North). Check.
  • NYC Transit kept the M15 local route, which does not stop at the Select Bus Service stops. The 9/Ashland would also run but alongside and not in the 9/Ashland-BRT lane.

In New York, on some segments of these avenues, two general traffic lanes — not just one — were converted to more efficient modes. The left lane became a parking-protected bike lane or buffered bike lane, while the right lane became a bus lane for six hours each day.

So, how did it work out? Here are the results, courtesy of NYC DOT’s progress report [PDF]:

  • Travel times on M15 Select Bus Service are 15 percent faster than the old M15, and 18 percent during the peak period.
  • Ridership increased 12 percent on the M15 route.
  • The number of crashes and injuries decreased on First and Second Avenues, in part because of new pedestrian islands and protected bike lanes.
Ashland BRT renderings by CTA
Ashland BRT renderings by CTA.

We can expect even better transit improvements on Ashland, where buses will run in the center of street, instead of by the curb like in NYC. The Chicago Transit Authority projects the average bus speed will increase 83 percent [PDF], and the share of transit trips on Ashland will increase from 17 percent to 26 percent. While the Ashland BRT project won’t introduce bikeways to the street, there will be pedestrian islands at many additional intersections, reducing crossing distances. Additionally, left turns across Ashland won’t be allowed, bringing the potential for further reductions in car-pedestrian crashes.

As for Carmaggedon, it didn’t happen in NYC. What happened to the cars? The average speed, as measured by GPS in taxis, increased. Traffic volumes increased in some places and decreased in others. NYC DOT met its goal of increasing bus ridership (which had stagnated thanks to the slow speed of buses), while car traffic stayed more or less the same. Or, as NYC DOT put it, “traffic flow was maintained.”

I love the way traffic in Chicago works/doesn't work sometimes
A common occurrence at Ashland and North Avenues.

Many people assume traffic congestion will skyrocket on Ashland when general traffic lanes are converted to bus lanes. This might be the case the same number of people who drive there now continue to drive in one lane. But that’s not how traffic works. Because we’re human, we’ll spread ourselves around in order to seek the path of least resistance, and some drivers may even switch to the bus.

Improving transit reliability – and desirability – is what the Ashland BRT project is about. Based on the New York experience and CTA’s estimates, it appears that CTA and CDOT can increase ridership and improve the ride quality of the 9/Ashland bus without causing Carmaggedon.

  • Sandy

    As someone who lives in Chicago and went to college in New York (and supports the Ashland BRT project), I’m not sure this is a fair comparison. Ashland is one of just a few multi-lane north-south corridors in Chicago. The next arterial streets on the grid are half a mile away, and the next street with similar capacity is a mile away to the west, and at least that far to the east as well. Meanwhile, in Manhattan the extra traffic is being absorbed by parallel major avenues just a block away. I support the Ashland BRT project regardless of effects on traffic, but I also support honest comparisons (though, truth be told, I don’t think anyone can really predict what will happen until we get a pilot stretch built).

  • Anonymous

    Agreed. There’s a difference between taking 1 lane out of 4 vs taking 1 lane out of 2. The proposed loop BRT project taking a lane off of multi-lane parallel streets is more in line with the Manhattan example

  • Fbfree

    The 9 Ashland has the 3rd highest ridership in the CTA. The 79 (79th) and the 49 (Western) have higher annual boardings.

  • According to RTAMS, 9/Ashland has had the highest number of boardings in all of 2013.

  • Fbfree

    So it is. The 79 has been losing riders over the last few years.

  • Adam Herstein

    One difference is that since Ashland is two-way and not one-way like First and Second Avenues, there is only one car lane left in each direction. This makes the decision to keep the 9 local even more baffling.

  • J

    To be fair, on 1st Ave, the project removed 2 out of 5 lanes (40%). The street had lots of extra capacity, though, which is why the project was done with fairly minimal controversy.

    Keep in mind, if you make transit a more attractive option than driving (faster speeds and more reliable travel times), many more people will actually use transit. Since transit is more efficient at moving people in a given amount of space, if enough people switch, it will mean less traffic, overall. Granted these shift don’t happen overnight – it may take a few weeks or months.

    The other option is to continue to allow traffic to slowly grow as more suburbs are built and more people drive longer distances. Traffic will continue to get worse, bus speeds will continue to get slower, resulting in more people driving, meaning more traffic and slower bus speeds, resulting in more people driving, meaning more traffic and slower bus speeds…… The only real solution would be to demolishing more of the city to expand road capacity, narrowing sidewalks, which provides temporary relief to traffic, but is quickly consumed by more people making more trips…

    It’s a gamble either way, and the solution depends on what kind of city you want to live in.

  • Kevin M

    The Ashland BRT pictures appear to have two open traffic lanes in each direction. Perhaps the auto-parking lane/space will be removed?

  • Anonymous

    Lucky #9 is sniffing the winds of change, though.

  • Anonymous

    As a New Yorker, I can tell you that the M15 is fantastic. People who relied on taxis before now take it all the time because it is so fast and reliable.

  • Anonymous

    People find a way – oftentimes it may be to avail themselves of a new opportunity that is competitive with driving.

    Fear of carmaggedon has its roots in an understanding that the past dictates our future, i.e., that the American psyche includes an inescapable bias – an incurable addiction, really – to driving. Our regional transportation model is infected with the bias, as well, which leads to major investment decisions that are overly auto-oriented. The result is a miscalculation of mammoth proportions – one that severely limits the resilience of our transportation network, results in sub-optimal economic performance, and reinforces dynamics that contribute to income inequality.

    Ironically, when we forecast and analyze using a “past predicts the future” approach, the past is defined in terms of Interstate Highway Era choices and patterns of development. What about our past that favored compact urban forms and transit ridership?

    When the highway genie was released from its bottle, did it irrevocably alter the path of human transportation history or merely lead us down a lengthy wrong path?

  • Anonymous

    IDOT doesn’t get that.

    They believe – and their modeling predicts – that investing in transit results in declining transit ridership and increasing VMT. They argue that highway expansion is the only path. Yep, there’s only one real solution to urban transportation needs . . . pumping increasing numbers of cars into and out of the city using ever-increasing highway capacity.

    There’s a reason why they always refer to the highway as the “mainline” . . . because it fuels and addiction with deleterious impacts to individuals, families, and society.

    Yeah, we know what kind of city they want to live in.


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