NIMBYs Fear Ashland BRT, Propose Watered-Down Express Bus Alternative

Ashland.
CTA rendering of bus rapid transit on Ashland - the curbside lane is parking.

At a meeting in January about the city’s bus rapid transit proposal, hosted by a consortium of chambers of commerce and community development groups on the Near West Side, business owners panicked that the elimination of car lanes for BRT, as well as most left turns, would destroy their livelihoods. Now that consortium, re-christened as the Ashland-Western Bus Service Coalition has come up with a watered-down alternative plan they’re calling Modern Express Buses, which would keep transit riders and drivers alike mired in the same old traffic mess.

MEB would merely involve bringing back the old X9 Ashland Express, with traffic signal prioritization and bus stops located at the far side of intersections to facilitate right turns by cars, plus a few cosmetic changes. The group, led by Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Randolph/Fulton Market Association, claims it spent six months analyzing BRT in Chicago and other cities before coming up with its weak-sauce proposal. If that’s really the case, the group is being willfully ignorant about the huge improvement BRT will be over the old express buses.

Like BRT, the X9 made limited stops, but that was the only difference from conventional bus service. During peak hours the express buses were also bogged down by the glut of private automobiles on Ashland and, since they ran curbside, they were delayed by parking cars, taxis picking up and dropping off passengers, and double-parked vehicles. The average rush-hour speed of the X9 was 10.3 mph, only 16 percent faster than the 8.7 mph local buses.

The Ashland BRT will be an entirely different animal than the X9. In addition to limited stops and signal prioritization, the dedicated, center-running lanes mean that buses will have a clear path, unobstructed by private autos. Prepaid, level boarding of passengers from rapid-transit-style stations in the median, plus the elimination of left turns, will further speed the buses.

As a result, the CTA is projecting an 83-percent increase in average rush-hour bus speed over the locals, to 15.9 mph, along with a 46-percent increase in bus mode share, to 26 percent of all trips. And while those bus lanes will replace general traffic lanes, the agency is predicting only a 4.9-percent decrease in average speed for other vehicles on Ashland, since many people will choose to swap car trips for fast bus trips. The turning prohibition won’t be a hardship for drivers, since it will be easy to plan routes that don’t require left turns from Ashland.

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Nope, this cartoon is not from The Onion satire newspaper; it's from the Gazette.

The Gazette, a local community newspaper, gave airtime to the half-baked MEB proposal with a full-length article. The piece only touches on the broad support for the city’s BRT plan from a wide range of civic organizations and community groups, including more than 1,700 signatures from residents on an Active Transportation Alliance petition.

Worse, the paper also ran a clueless anti-BRT editorial, entitled “Traffic congestion, reduction of parking likely legacies of Bus Rapid Transit.” The op-ed is illustrated with a particularly lame political cartoon that shows people on the BRT platform griping about the project’s cost, the parking removals and the impact on traffic. That’s pretty bizarre, since these folks are about to board a speedy bus that will be entirely unhindered by traffic.

The author of the editorial seems unclear on the concept of how city streets work. Encouraging tens of thousands more Chicagoans to choose transit by providing fast, efficient service will greatly reduce the need for motor vehicle lanes and car parking. For example, the BRT plan retains 92 percent of all parking spaces. The loss of the other eight percent will be compensated for many times over when you factor in how many car trips will be replaced with transit trips.

Regarding traffic signal prioritization for BRT, the op-ed states, “There will be longer green lights on Ashland, forcing east-west drivers to fume sitting at long stoplights.” Of course, elsewhere the paper describes the coalition’s MEB proposal, which includes signal prioritization, and the editorial praises that as “viable and inexpensive.” 

“BRT will encourage drivers to stay off Ashland and away from its businesses,” the editorial laments. In the main article, Kathy Catrabone, director of the University Village Association warns, “Take away parking, and you take away business.” What these statements fail to take into account is that the most important thing for promoting retail is not transporting and parking cars, it’s transporting people. Fewer cars on Ashland means more people will be able to patronize businesses via fast, efficient buses.

Perhaps the most absurd line in the editorial is, “All this within the Illinois Medical District on the Near West Side — the largest, busiest medical district in the world, with the most traffic, which will be backed up even more than it is now.” The Illinois Medical District Commission is registered as an official supporter of the city’s plan because they realize that better bus service will make it much easier for employees, patients, and students to commute to the medical complex.

“We call on the CTA to hold more community meetings and to examine the coalition’s Modern Express Bus (MEB) alternative,” the editorial concludes. “And we call on local aldermen and the mayor to pressure the CTA to do so.” It would be a waste of time to seriously consider an anemic plan like MEB, but in a way the coalition and the Gazette have done the transit agency a favor.

Their NIMBY-ism provides a preview of the larger-scale opposition to the BRT plan that surely lurks just around the corner. This is a wake-up call to BRT advocates and grassroots supporters that they need to continue to mobilize for great transit. Nothing is assured and the pro-transit crowd needs to be at least as visible and vocal as the anti-BRT faction.

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