Debating Bus Rapid Transit With the Ashland-Western Coalition

CTA rendering of bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue.

Guest contributor Lindsay Bayley lives with her husband in the Noble Square neighborhood, steps from the future Ashland bus rapid transit corridor, and is a year-round bicycle commuter. She works as a senior planner with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), specializing in parking policy. The views expressed here do not represent CMAP’s stance on BRT but rather Lindsay’s perspective as a resident.

Last Friday a friend and I showed up for a meeting of the Ashland-Western Coalition — a group that opposes plans for bus rapid transit — at the First Baptist Congregational Church, 1613 West Washington, which we assumed was open to the public. When we arrived, AWC leader Roger Romanelli recognized me from the last meeting I attended, and remembered me as a supporter of BRT. After some private consultation between Roger and the handful of other attendees, it became clear that no new coalition business would be discussed while we were present, but we did spend some time debating the merits of the Chicago Transit Authority plan to bring rapid bus service to Ashland.

Roger asked my friend and me why BRT supporters think the CTA’s plan is a good idea. We gave a myriad of answers. I told the coalition members that my husband and I don’t own a car, and BRT would improve our access to businesses in the city, conveniently connecting us to other neighborhoods and train lines. My friend told them about how she used to live in Cleveland, where they implemented BRT along Euclid Avenue and how it completely transformed the area for the better. Since BRT was implemented, ridership along Euclid Avenue has increased by 60 percent and the area saw $4.3 billion in real-estate investments.

Roger Romanelli at another AWC meeting last Wednesday. Photo: Mike Brockway, DNAinfo

As for their question, “Why Ashland?,” I referred them to the Metropolitan Planning Council report on bus rapid transit and the CTA’s fact sheet. Ashland is the most-traveled bus corridor in the city, connecting seven CTA ‘L’ stations and two Metra stations, and the street also includes several different business and retail corridors, plus the Illinois Medical District. Compared to Western Avenue, which was also under consideration for BRT, Ashland’s curb-to-curb right-of-way, 70 feet, is slightly wider overall. Also, the Ashland bus currently operates about one mile-per-hour slower than the Western bus, so BRT there provides the opportunity to make the most significant improvements for the largest number of people.

Roger argued that Chicago is not Cleveland, and that Ashland Avenue is “thriving.” He wanted more examples of BRT success stories, but no matter which example you cite — Mexico City, for instance — an opponent can always say, “But Chicago is not (insert name of city here),” since Chicago has no examples of true BRT yet.

The coalition members’ comments at the meeting made it clear that they’re ill-informed about the CTA’s plan and are spreading misinformation to other community members. AWC members told me that there will be no pedestrian crossings at intersections without traffic lights, and that the city is planning to build a wall down the middle of the street. However, Joe Iacobucci, the CTA’s manager of strategic planning and policy, confirmed that existing pedestrian crossings will remain in place. Crossing the street will in fact be safer and easier thanks to the addition of pedestrian medians.

Ashland bus stop sign in front of the church. Photo: John Greenfield

Romanelli claimed that Ashland is a designated truck route, but this is also untrue. IDOT’s Getting Around Illinois map indicates local north/south truck routes are Western Avenue (between I-290 and I-90/94), a small section of Halsted Street, and Cicero Avenue. The coalition members complained that much of the curbside parking along Ashland would be removed. I responded that the CTA has stated that 92 percent of the parking will be preserved, but the members don’t believe it will be.

The coalition folks told me that first responders will not be allowed to make left turns, which is also false. The BRT buses will yield to first responder vehicles with activated lights and sirens. The members are also worried about the loss of trees from the median plantings, but the CTA says all existing planted medians will be retained and 50,949 linear feet of new planted medians will be added.

Finally Roger told my friend and me that the AWC likes to keep their meetings to an hour (not what I’ve heard), and said thanks, goodbye. As we were heading out, he said he had additional business to talk about with one of the attendees. So my friend and I left, everyone else stayed, and then, I presume, the coalition members had their real meeting.

  • highvizguy

    Dead horse, meet bedhead1

  • Alex Oconnor

    You throws around words like “caba” with impunity and when you are faced with the fact that the city’s land area is between 25-30% turned over to personal property (cars) over its public ROW you claim I am the conspiracy theorist. You need a dictionary.

  • Please refrain from personal attacks. Here is the Streetsblog comment policy in case you need a refresher.

  • HJ

    Im sure no one is taking them seriously.

    Who would you think will get more pull in a project like this? A few citizens with nothing to back their claims other than yelling over everyone else… or the AARP, MPC, The Illinois Medical District, The Rockefeller Foundation, Blue Cross Blue Shield, CMAP, Columbia College, Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, University of Illinois Chicago, AIA Chicago, etc

    Im guessing the one that represents the direct interests of tens of thousands of Chicagoans, that employs thousands of Chicagoans, and generates billions of dollars of economic activity for Chicago every single year.

  • HJ

    “conflict of interest”

    She lives within the project boundary, and as a resident she has every right to voice her opinion on a project that will directly impact her home and life the same way as this group of NIMBYs. Whether she is a professional with decades of experience in planning working at a government agency is meaningless as it is secondary to her rights as a resident.

    But, since you are so dead set on the conflict of interest route, couldn’t the same be said (using your definition that goes ONLY by occupation) about Romanelli and his goons? Is it not a conflict of interest that their businesses (trucking) rely on large, multi lane expanses of publicly owned roadway? And that the attempt to block a project by a public body, specifically for the public at large, using the same publicly owned roadway, by claiming to somehow be planning/transportation experts instead of truckers be seen as a conflict of interests? Or better yet, misleading the public by spreading uniformed propaganda?

  • Peter

    The BRT Project Sheet indicates that the BRT will save the average bus commuter 65 hours compared to current buses. This adds up to $820/bus rider/yr or a cumulative total of $17million annual for Ashland bus commuters.

    Does anyone have anyone have any information on the net cost/benefit for other vehicular travelers on the Ashland route. Time is money. There are many differing opinions on the effects of a 50% lane reduction combined with (most) left turns eliminated. If I understand correctly, the regular Ashland bus will continue to operate in the vehicular lane as well. Can anyone provide some data or additional info on the net effect to the non-bus commuter?

    While $17 million is an impressive number, the number that I feel is the most important to look at the the cumulative cost/benefit to ALL commuters. Lets look and the big picture and not focus exclusively on the bus aspect (and yes I DO understand it is a CTA improvement project and not an Ashland Ave improvement project)

    Thanks in advance.

  • Kevin M

    Wait..what? Ashland is going to be reconfigured for horse and buggy service? Is this in addition to BRT?

  • Great point, so why is the AWC getting all the positive airtime in the mainstream media?

  • Correct, the local buses will continue to run curbside, less frequently, mostly to serve people with mobility impairments. Since motor vehicle speeds would only be reduced by 4.9 percent, and it will be easy to plan routes to avoid left turns on Ashland, economic impact on car commuters should be minimal. I’m working on tracking down the CMAP/CTA technical report on the project, which may shed some additional light.

    As for the other main non-bus commuters on Ashland, pedestrians, the wider sidewalks and safer crossings that will come as part of the project, as well as additional greenery, which will provide more pleasant conditions for walking, will encourage more people to commute by foot on the street, which will be good for commuters’ (and merchants’) pocketbooks.

  • Kevin M

    John, how will Ashland BRT effect cyclists? Will Ashland become a more comfortable option than it currently is?

  • There will be no bike accommodations, which isn’t a big loss since Ashland is currently pretty unrideable and not popular with cyclists. On the other hand, it may become safer to bike on because it will be harder for drivers to speed.

  • Anonymous

    The Modern Era was roughly between 1620 and 1945. The “Ashland Coalition” seeks “Modern” bus service in a Post-Modern Era. We need 21st century transportation solutions, not more of the same solutions as existed prior to 1945.

    “Save Ashland”? Absolutely. Save it from the Ashland Coalition that would have the Ashland corridor stuck in a perpetual time warp of out-dated and ill-advised 1940s transit service levels and technologies.

    2:05 in the following clip appears to be Save Ashland’s vision of success – a throwback to Modern Era Bus:

    If you watch closely, you’ll even see the Save Ashland call to arms lady on one of the buses in the clip.

  • Roger Romanelli

    Regarding Ms. Bayley’s recap of the Ashland-Western Coalition 9/4/13 meeting:

    I am not the Coalition leader and have never identified myself as such. Everyone involved in AWC – – hundreds of residents, church leaders, businesses, neighborhood group representatives – – are all equal volunteers. I call for a retraction from Ms. Bayley.

    We asked Ms. Bayley why she was quoted in an earlier blog calling our alternate Ashland plan “lipstick on a pig.” We asked, “Why are you referring to CTA’s Ashland 9 bus as a pig?” It is shocking that someone who works for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) – – the regional government planning organization for Illinois
    counties of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry, and Will – – would say something like that. We asked Ms. Bayley to clarify her comments.

    We asked Ms. Bayley why she falsely quoted someone from a previous meeting who never said that she would never take the Ashland bus and never said that she would only drive her car. We asked for an apology from Ms. Bayley.

    I never said that Ashland is a designated truck route. No one from AWC said that curbside parking on Ashland would be removed. No one said that first responders will not be allowed to make left turns, but someone did postulate that the proposed BRT median planters could obstruct neighborhood access for emergency responders, a fair concern. I call for multiple retractions from Ms. Bayley.

    Chicago deserves a civilized dialogue on the future of Ashland Avenue. Visit to learn directly about our Coalition’s call to improve CTA buses on Ashland, Western and beyond.

  • Anonymous

    Not following whether you’re looking for Lindsay to take some sort of action here.

  • Littleton Arts Uptown

    An easy fix would be heated “snowproof” platforms with an embedded heat element like a lotta folks install in their bath. It would cost more initially, not that much but save 1000’s O $’s over the years in labor. And it would actually work a lot better and dare I say….more timely then a CTA employee.

  • Peter

    Looks like Mr. Romanelli is just trying to set the record straight. It appears that Ms Bayley has posted some inaccuracies (in the opinion of Mr. Romanelli).

  • Thanks for commenting Roger. I’ll respond to your points shortly.

  • Thanks for commenting Roger. I encourage you to stay involved in discussions of BRT on Streetsblog Chicago.

    Since you have led every AWC meeting I’m aware of and have been the main member quoted in numerous articles, we will continue to refer to you as the leader of the group.

    As I explained in an earlier post, the “pig” in Lindsay’s quote is not the #9 bus itself, which is fine for what it is, but the AWC’s proposed Modern Express Bus service, which would be slower than the old, 10.3 mph #X9 express bus. The “lipstick” is the BRT-style features that have been tacked on to the MEB proposal for slow bus service.

    The “I will never take a bus!” quote from one of the AWC members was confirmed by a second meeting attendee. I’ll let Lindsay respond to your other claims.

  • Anonymous

    I am a resident of this corridor, and I want to see great things happen
    for Chicago’s transportation system. I also happen to work in the planning field; I’m one of those lucky people who is passionate about what I do and my personal life crosses over into my professional life. My intention in attending the AWC meetings was to get a better understanding of the group’s concerns and discuss them. I think that we did that, and overall the meeting was civil.

    There was more in my original draft that was edited out for the final version, including a couple things you mention. I would suggest that future meetings of the Coalition be recorded (by the Coalition and/or by attendees). I quoted Lucille directly from the first meeting, can’t apologize for that.

    When you suggested that BRT would be better on Western Avenue, I said, “But that’s a truck route.” And I recall you and Gwen both saying, “So is Ashland.” [It is possible that Mary and Gwen both spoke at the same time, and I thought that it was Roger.] I responded, “No. Ashland is not a designated truck route, but Western is.” There was no further discussion on that topic.The other points addressed in this article were brought up by Gwen, who seems to have an active role as a volunteer for the Coalition.

    I don’t plan to attend any more of your meetings, so we won’t have to go back and forth on who said what.

  • Anonymous

    I attended this meeting as a resident, and my employer allows me to participate in local planning discussions. My employer is CMAP, who produced GO TO 2040. We have employees who are pro-car, and the agency would not do anything to stop them from participating in this discussion on the other side. But those employees don’t live along Ashland. I do, and this is my opinion.

    You’re right; I didn’t mention GO TO 2040, and GO TO 2040 is much broader. Part of GO TO 2040 includes the prioritization of major capital projects, but that only includes capacity additions to expressways and rail systems (per federal definition of major capital projects). Projects like Ashland BRT are considered systematic improvements, and aren’t called out by name in GO TO 2040. For these types of projects, which are typically smaller than major capital projects, GO TO 2040 provides general guidance and priorities, but individual decisions on what to pursue are made by local governments and other transportation implementers – in this case, CDOT and CTA. We typically don’t get involved as an agency in commenting on them.

    But employees are not forbidden from having opinions. Yay, America.

    As for the modeling, CMAP often handles requests for modeling, as was done in this case, when CTA asked for it. There are no conclusions made and model adjustment to change results. It’s been like that for 50 years (previously as the Chicago Area Transportation Study), but the models have been improved over the years.

  • Anonymous

    CMAP supports efforts to modernize our transportation system and improve public transit, and that includes BRT in general. But CMAP has not taken a position on the Ashland BRT, and it would be unusual for CMAP to do so, as this is a local planning issue, not a regional issue. CMAP provides modeling of all types of projects, when local governments or agencies request assistance.

  • Anonymous

    Lindsay, I hope you’ll forgive me if I dont believe that your efforts with CMAP aren’t exactly done in 100% good faith. Anyone whose short bio, such as yours, proudly introduces themselves as someone who lives without a car, seems to be too heavily invested in alternative transportation to view all of this objectively. When one of the focal points of your identity is that you dont own a car, I just dont see how you’re in much of a position to be relied upon to provide accurate analysis.

    I commute to work on a bike. I do most of my errands on my bike. It does not define me as a person nor does it somehow make me righteous or moral. If you asked me to write three or four sentences about myself, this would certainly not be in the mix. That you include this in your own brief description of yourself suggests you feel the opposite. And that’s okay, except you work at a place that needs more objectivity when it comes to these matters.

    I also hope you’ll forgive me if I have trouble believing you that there are CMAP members who are “pro-car”. First of all, I am not “pro-car”, I am just for projects that I believe make sense. The BRT does not. Second and more importantly to your point, if CMAP has employees who are supposedly “pro-car”, it sure isn’t apparent to me, because I dont see any of them hitting the streets like you are, turning into advocates after they punch out the clock at CMAP. If you can show me the publicly visible counterbalance to your own views, I’ll be impressed. How many of your colleagues were at this meeting, arguing against you? None. Were any in the past? Nope. How about in the future, should I expect to see any CMAP employees showing up to AWC meetings in support of that group. No way.

    My fear is that CMAP is basically no different than the echo chamber that is StreetsBlog. It’s a self-selecting process whereby only alternative transportation enthusiasts are attracted to the job, and then the public is subjected to highly biased “analysis” that coincidentally happens to support any and every project that promotes anything other than automobiles.

    You are 100% free to have whatever views you want and I am in no way trying to say otherwise. But knowing we have folks like you at CMAP, the organization in charge of transportation modeling and planning, frankly scares me.

  • Bedhead1, it’s inaccurate to call Streetsblog an echo chamber since we get plenty of comments from readers like you who have opposing views. We appreciate having dissenting opinions voiced here, since it keeps things interesting.

  • Anonymous

    And civil discourse ends with “I don’t believe you.” -from the guy operating under anonymity with no real name given and no profile pic.

  • Anonymous

    What an incredibly disappointing response.

    I took time to explain some issues I have. I explained why I have such trouble believing some of the claims you make, and why I have some worry that you are deeply involved in CMAP’s forecasting. I didn’t just leave it at, “because I said so.” I said there are reasons I dont believe some of the claims you’re making, usually because there is little action supporting it.

    You say there are “pro-car” people at CMAP. Where? They are not visible to me in any way. Would you mind showing me the instances of CMAP employees vehemently supporting anti-BRT groups (or other similar things) on their own time? This was *your* claim, not mine. Hell, I dont even want “pro-car” people at CMAP, nor do I want “pro alternative transportation”, I just want unbiased people who are far less likely to let their ideals creep into their work, which will end up affecting all of us. I dont see how you fall anywhere close to being in that category.

    Instead of bothering to respond to *one single thing* I said, you found some tangential, irrelevant reason to blow it off. My anonymity is 100% irrelevant to this, and that you are trying to somehow cite it as a reason to not respond is just another log on the fire of why I am distrustful of CMAP.

  • bedhead1, as our commenting policy states, we do prefer that people post under their real names. Since you’re a frequent commenter on the site, please consider posting non-anonymously in the future. This would do a lot to stave off accusations of trolling. Thanks.


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