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

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.

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.

  • I got the numbers from the CTA’s PR department.

  • Fred

    My response was to Michael Weiser’s Chinese elevated bus idea, not BRT.

  • Elliott Mason

    If I recall from stuff mentioned months ago, I think the plan is to put a bike lane on a parallel street a few over and encourage cyclists to not ride on Ashland.

  • Michael Weiser

    How easy or difficult is it to put the bikes in the buses?

  • Fred

    Currently bikes don’t go in buses. Every CTA bus has a front mounted bus rack. I’ve only used them 1-2 times when I got a flat but it was relatively simple. I would assume these BRT buses will also have them (the Jeffrey buses do) but they may not if they are trying to squeeze every second out of loading/unloading times. The regular buses will still have them either way. Even with level boarding I would assume there will be no bikes allowed on buses.

    On a related note, how will the seating/standing area on these buses compare to those of an el car? Will they be mostly seats like current buses, or more cattle car like the new rail cars?

  • BlueFairlane

    All things being equal, I’d say Vanderbilt’s statement would hold true. But all things aren’t equal, as Ashland’s capacity will be halved. And while there is some benefit to losing the fighting for position that extra lane gives cars, there’s still the very real matter that at least at first, the same number of cars will cram into half the space. That’s going to have more of an impact on the way this goes than you guys think. But that’s one of those things we’ll just have to see play out.

    I should hope CTA’s setting its public expectations low and that they’re going for much better than a 46% increase in mode share. I firmly believe if they’re going to do this, they need to go all out and invest big time. The articulated buses should just be assumed They need to make this the Circle Line, only with buses, as this won’t succeed otherwise.

  • Anonymous

    I’d like to know which businesses comprise this “Ashland-Western Bus Service Coalition”, though I’m torn on whether I’d want to boycott them or go in and rave about how amazing BRT will be.

    ETA: “boycott” probably means “repeatedly and publicly shame them online”

  • David Philippart

    Discouraging. Come on, people! We have to do better than this water-downed plan.

  • Don’t get discouraged. Contact your alderman and sign the Active Trans petition to support robust BRT on Ashland:

  • David Philippart

    Thanks, John Greenfield. Done!

  • Schweet!

  • Anonymous

    “since many people will choose to swap car trips for fast bus trips.”

    There is a term for this: garbage in, garbage out.

    This has to be one of the dumbest assumptions I’ve ever seen made anywhere, and yet this is the key assumption the CTA is relying on. Do they have some evidence that drivers will switch en masse to buses? Can they please show us where this is the case? Because I sure as hell dont know a single person who would switch.

    The solutions for improving bus speed are simple. 1) Make fewer stops. It wont kill anyone to walk two more blocks. 2) Put bus stops AFTER the intersections, not before them. Done, problem solved.

  • There are examples from many cities around the world where BRT has resulted in a big reduction of car trips and a big increase in transit trips. It’s just common sense: if you can take a bus that gets you where you need to go almost as fast as a car and you don’t have to worry about buying gas or finding and paying for parking, why wouldn’t you take the bus? I sure as hell know dozens of people who would much rather take a fast BRT bus than sit in traffic on Ashland in a car during current rush-hour conditions.

    As for your solutions for improving bus speed, didn’t you read the article?

  • John

    They really should have considered an express bus as one of the project’s alternatives from the beginning. If they had, then they could now show why it wasn’t chosen as the preferred alternative. Instead, it looks like nobody ever considered it.

  • I suppose that if they’d included an express bus as one of the alternatives, that would have made it more obvious why an express bus isn’t really an alternative. Since express buses without dedicated lanes are only slightly faster than regular buses, that would basically just be maintaining the dysfunctional status quo, which is only going to get worse in the future if we don’t take bold steps now to improve things.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Yeah. Me.

  • Anonymous

    “en masse”…a critical part of it that your sarcasm ignores. The reconfiguration will displace HALF of the car/truck traffic. If 40,000 more people chime in saying they too will switch then I’ll gladly admit I’m wrong.

    Why are buses SO MUCH slower than cars? 1) Too many stops. 2) Stops that are placed before intersections. We dont need to make traffic more dysfunctional than it already is, plus spend tens of millions in the process, to fix the problem.

  • OK sw0, since you don’t seem interested in actually reading the article that you’re commenting in, here’s what you need to know:

    “The average rush-hour speed of the X9 was 10.3 mph, only 16 percent faster than the 8.7 mph local buses.”

    “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.”

  • Alex Oconnor

    So says a contributor to the problem. Change your mindset; change your result.

    Ironic that you clamor against my “sarcasm”; it was not; yet you utilize unfounded accusations and your ad hoc anecdotal predilections as a substitute for fact based analysis.

    Oh and as for en masse; I am just one member of an integral function that will approximate modal choice.

  • Anonymous

    As far as being part of the problem, for the record I commute to work on my bike and use my bike for plenty of other errands and getting around in general.

  • sw0, sounds like you’re a great candidate for living a car-free or car-light lifestyle. So I’m a bit confused about why you’re opposed to a high-speed bus system that will make it even easier for you to drive less. What’s the downside of replacing a large number of car trips on Ashland with bus trips, which the CTA, which has actually crunched the numbers on this, predicts will happen?

  • Anonymous

    I have read the article and both the BRT and MEB proposals are laughably optimistic and conveniently ignore every drawback. Using a 46% increase in usage for this route as the BASELINE to make multimillion dollar decisions on is patently insane. How they even arrived at this critically important figure is a total mystery, and yet you act like it’s a foregone conclusion. The CTA has no study available on their website that details ANY of the assumptions in this highly conflicted, self-serving proposal. The only case study they reference that has any relevance to Chicago is in New York (Eugene OR, and Cleveland hardly compare to Chicago for traffic) where the ridership increased a mere 10% and again, it completely omits the drawbacks to drivers, businesses, etc. All they ever want to talk about is how it will benefit the CTA.

  • Anonymous

    A huge part of the problem, as I’ve tried to note, is that there is an ENORMOUS conflict of interest by letting the CTA “crunch the numbers” on a project like this. It would be like asking a general contractor to design your house for you. It’s no wonder the CTA is advocating it, since the largest beneficiary will be the CTA itself. Taking the CTA at their word is just laughably naive, and the idea that 1/8 people driving on Ashland today will jump at the chance to ride the bus is unrealistic. And even if they did, noticeably absent from these studies are the effects on side street traffic, lost productivity from increased driving times, effects on businesses, etc.

    Btw, can I point out some simple math? If 25% of people ride the bus while 75% drive, and the bus riders gain 7mph but the drivers lose 5mph, overall we’re worse off than we were before. And that’s even using the CTA’s overly-optimistic assumptions!

  • Alex Oconnor

    It’s the mindset that is the problem; that and your self-righteousness.

  • Just because the dozens of robust, highly successful existing BRT systems are located in other countries doesn’t make them irrelevant to Chicago. Stateside, gains have been more modest because the systems have been less robust.

    But if you insist on focusing on NYC’s Select service, which lacks many of the features of the Ashland BRT, it’s pretty clear that’s been a win for all road users. Bus speeds are up 15-18%, not 10%, ridership is up 12%, crashes and injuries are down, and car speeds actually increased (OK, there had to be some downside to this.)

    Here’s some more info about the success of the select, and why BRT won’t cause carmageddon on Ashland:

  • That’s some simple, but inaccurate, math. I believe you misunderstood the 4.9% decrease in car speeds as being a 4.9 mph decrease.

    BRT is expected to increase bus speeds 83%, from the current average of 8.7 mph to 15.9 mph, so that’s a gain of 7.2 mph.

    Meanwhile, car speeds would only be decreased by 4.9%, from their current 18.29 mph average to 17.4 mph, so that’s a loss of only .89 mph.

    Therefore, a major increase in bus speeds in exchange for a small decrease in car speeds, along with a significant drop in car use and increase in bus ridership, is totally worth it.

  • Anonymous

    You’re correct, my hasty mistake on the speed/percent mix-up. Unfortunately the inherent conflict of the CTA making these claims remains the same, and this entire plan is still almost entirely predicated on the flawed assumption that 1/8 drivers will leave their car at home so that they can walk to a bus stop, brave the elements (lots of fun during winter), pay ~$4 round trip, endure the often unpleasant experience of public transportation, and oh by the way still travel SLOWER than they would’ve have if they’d driven (not even including the extra time it takes to get to/from stops, plus waiting for a bus). Where is the sensitivity analysis showing the travel times based on various bus share assumptions? Must have slipped their minds to consider anything other than the most optimistic scenario. Stuff like this gets people fired in the private sector.

    Ok, this has been fun, but I’m tapped out.

  • Thanks for commenting. I’ll just close by noting that BRT experience promises to be more pleasant than current bus riding conditions, since it will include conveniences like pre-paid, level boarding (no steps to climb or waiting in line for people to dip their farecards on the bus) and rapid transit-style, sheltered, possibly heated, stations.

    You’re also overlooking the obvious hassles and costs of driving: purchasing the vehicle, gas, insurance, maintenance, searching and paying for parking (which also adds to your travel time, so that a bus trip might be just as fast), the frustration of sitting in traffic, etc. And winter bus riding doesn’t require digging out a parking spot, heating up an engine and scraping off a windshield.

    Given the choice, it’s certain that many Chicagoans would rather be relaxing on a high-speed bus with an unobstructed lane, reading a book or sending text messages, than stewing in a traffic jam.

  • Anonymous

    I appreciate your point of view. You’re an advocate of the bus, and that’s fine – everyone has their things they cheer for. But the reality, whether you want to admit it or not, is that the overwhelming majority of current drivers either NEED to drive or PREFER to drive, and no amount of wishful thinking is going to change that.

  • I’m more an advocate for moving people safely and efficiently through the city, and clogging the streets with private cars ain’t the way to do it.

  • Anonymous

    One thing that this group is worried about is the lack of left turns, which seems – at first consideration – to be a real pain in the butt. But then I thought back to my GIS classes and the story about how FedEx and UPS use a mapping program to plan their deliveries and routes so as to eliminate as many left turns as possible. Why do they do this? Because it saves the drivers time and money, and uses less gas. So their argument (which I heard at a public meeting) was that the left-hand turn restrictions will increase GHGs, and I’m calling bullsh*t on that one. Here, check it out:

  • Mark Twain

    “Two more blocks” may be quite a bit to a disabled passenger. Transit planning ( at least in Chicago ) has dictated that a reasonable walking distance is 1/4-mile.

  • Mark Twain

    Personally, I’m shaking my head at this plan as it’s a lame replacement for the now-dead Circle line (at least in it’s central core). The Circle Line could have been built with express bus service feeding it on the north and south ends. There’s no reason to spend as much on infrastructure when traffic is going to be displaced to who-knows-where. No, a 46-percent gain in ridership is NOT worth the investment, especially when you consider the investment dictated will certainly run way over budget like everything else in Chicago does.

    As much as I’d like to support the shift of Ashland to a transit thoroughfare, I need to see the actual data on how *LINKED TRIPS* will be moved from private automobile to mass transit using the Ashland BRT line.

  • Local bus service, probably curbside, will be maintained.

  • peter

    First. Where can these reports be viewed please? I am very interested to see how cutting Ashlands vehicle capacity in 1/2 will only result in an average decrease of .89 mph. I am interested to see how the projections were developed that suggest increasing the bus speed with increase ridership. I predict any increase will be marginal. If you ride the bus you will continue to ride. If you don’t ride its likely because of another external reason (personal job requirements, where you are headed, need to transport belongings, you drive a car pool for your kids…etc), and you will continue to drive yourself.

    Second. Take 100 people and pass them through 2 doors, now take 75 people and push them through 1 door… it’s going to be slower.

    Third. Once Ashland becomes a logistical nightmare for anyone needing to go left…. to say access the Kennedy for a commute to the burbs (this is a large portion of Ashland am and pm users), where are they projected to go? Circle the neighborhoods? This completely circumvents the whole design of the roadway system. The fact remains that roads are designed to be arterial raods and smaller collector roads to feed the arterials.

  • 1. I’m looking into whether the CMAP reports are available to the public, but it’s common sense that if transit service becomes virtually as fast as driving, minus the possibility of traffic jams and other headaches and costs, lots of people will make the switch. Otherwise, why do so many people ride CTA trains?

    2. The buses will feature prepaid, level boarding and multiple entrances so, even with the higher ridership, boarding will be much faster.

    3. The left turn prohibition is not going to cause serious inconveniences for drivers. Left turns will be allowed onto expressways. In fact, UPS has found that by planning their routes to eliminate left turns, their drivers save time and gas:

  • Ashland is not two freely flowing lanes of cars in each direction right now — statistically, there’s a lot of time in rush hour where (because of someone waiting to turn left where there isn’t a scoop lane, for example) it’s one lane of jerky traffic and one lane of stopped. They’re taking out the stopped lane and the jerkiness, which improves total throughput (counterintutively) while still losing a lane.

  • peter

    Since the CTA is already shifting traffic flow patterns for the sake of bus speed, they might as well close the Kennedy access at Armitage entirely. Whether turning right from the north or left from the south, that intersection (on Ashland) is always backed up during rush hours due to the high volume of people that use the expressway access ramps. According to what some have posted, commuters will come up with new ways to get on the Kennedy and more people will ride buses :-) (yes,that’s sarcasm).

  • There are definitely times when you need to look at the expressway on/off ramps as part of the congestion solution — but adding more lanes doesn’t always help.

    As witness the widening of the southbound on-ramp for LSD at Fullerton from 1 lane to 2 (requiring a reflow that took away a lot of east/west pedestrian and bike access): it’s caused a permanent stop-up on LSD in all slightly-rush-hour conditions, because so many cars are trying to get on all at once that there is no way to merge them expeditiously into the flow, so the entire highway goes bumper-to-bumper for nearly a mile.

    Sure, it meant Fullerton wasn’t ‘backed up’ as far, but it harmed a lot more commuters than it helped.

  • And to address your specific Armitage issue, maybe if people want to get onto the northbound Kennedy from northbound Ashland (which would need a left to get onto Armitage), they should instead turn right at North and do it there — there’s a full set of ramps both ways and lots of width and capacity to ‘warehouse’ cars waiting to get on. Makes more sense than stopping up the entire northbound flow of Ashland just so they can turn left and get on one exit further north …

  • peter

    Thanks John. I have actually inquired with the CTA myself and their traffic study data will be available but is not yet. I am on their email list when the info is available.

    In regards to the UPS article, UPS delivers to many locations, using many routes, and different routes everyday. By comparing the driving habits of a UPS driver to an everyday commuter is apples and oranges IMO.

    I see a large amount of commuters attempting reroute to Damen. The problem there is Damen does not have the capacity (based on my driving experience) to handle the additional load. Even with the proposed Elston realignment alleviating congestion at that location, Damen will become overloaded.

    Here is another question. The CTA currently charges extra for Blue Lines rides to/from O’Hare. How long before the new express bus route charges a premium for the added convenience being provided? If I recall correctly the CTA is running near broke?

    BTW.. I’m not completely against this idea. Some of the facets of the plan seem to be a little overkill without seeing the backup data to support such drastic changes to the current system.

  • Peter

    You obviously don’t drive that way. It’s backs up both east and west on Armitage and north and south on Ashland. It doesn’t matter.

  • Peter

    I never suggested adding lanes

  • No, but you’re against removing them, which relates. Or it seemed like it did when I wrote that post, but I was sleep-deprived, so I may be wrong. :->


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