Pro-BRT Chicagoans Need to Become as Visible as the NIMBYs

Ashland-Western Coalition leader Roger Romanelli at Orlando Glass. Photo: Mike Brockaway, DNA

The Ashland-Western Coalition, the anti-bus rapid transit group led by Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Fulton/Fulton Market Association, has gotten zero coverage so far in the daily papers, but it looks like that’s about to change. Today Romanelli sent out a bulletin to members that the Sun-Times will be running an article about the CTA’s Ashland Avenue BRT plan and taking a photo of AWC members this Monday, September 16, at 10 a.m. in front of Orlando Glass and Trim, 641 North Ashland.

“Now is the time to stand together,” Romanelli wrote. “We need at least ten people attending to support Orlando. If you don’t want to give your name to the photographer, you don’t have to. Just show up and bring someone with you.” As I’ve written, I don’t care for the fact that the coalition has an anonymous website, and the way Romanelli continues to deny being the group’s leader, although he has led every meeting and been the group’s main spokesman in almost every news article.

CTA Ashland BRT comparison
MEB would likely be slower than the old express bus. Click to enlarge. Chart by Steven Vance and John Greenfield.

More importantly, it’s wrong for the coalition to paint itself as a transit advocacy group and claim that its “Modern Express Bus” counter-proposal is a cheaper, more sensible alternative to BRT. They haven’t provided a cost estimate for the MEB plan, which would include numerous pricey infrastructure improvements as well as hiring onboard “bus marshals” to assist customers. The service would probably be even slower than the old #X9 Ashland Express buses, which averaged 10.3 mph at peak hours, including stops, since MEB would make almost three times as many stops. In contrast, BRT, which would feature dedicated, center-running bus lanes and prepaid, level boarding, would bring bus speeds up to 15.9 mph, almost twice as fast as the current 8.7 mph service.

However, Romanelli deserves some respect for running an effective NIMBY campaign. Although the AWC never put forward any sort of transit improvement plan until the city proposed the Ashland BRT, he was wise to create an alternative proposal, so that he can claim that the coalition is pro-transit, not just anti-BRT. The AWC has steering committee meetings every other Friday at 1 p.m. at First Baptist Congregational Church, 1613 West Washington, and they’ve held several larger forums. They group has garnered plenty of flattering press so far in publications like DNAInfo, The Gazette and Patch.

CTA rendering of bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue.

Meanwhile, little media attention has been given to the dozens of businesses and organizations that are official supporters of the BRT plan, or the 1,700-plus residents who have signed a petition supporting the plan or contacted their aldermen to endorse it. Sun-Times transportation reporter Rosalind Rossi has a penchant for writing David-and-Goliath stories about conflicts between residents and City Hall. If Rossi follows the template used by almost all local reporters so far, the responses to the coalition members’ claims will come from CTA officials, rather than the many business and community leaders, as well as everyday Chicagoans, who support the BRT plan.

It would be great to see pro-BRT folks stage a rally of their own sometime soon. The status quo of grindingly slow bus service on Ashland hurts a lot of people by making it harder for them to access job and education opportunities.

Meanwhile, Jim Merrell from the Active Transportation Alliance’s Riders for Better Transit campaign tells me they’ll be doing an outreach push in the coming weeks to spread the good word about the benefits of fast, reliable bus service on Ashland. Merrell says they’ll also be doing a BRT campaign activity at the Open Streets car-free event on Milwaukee Avenue between Division Street and Logan Boulevard this Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Active Trans will have a table at Paulina Street until 2 p.m. “We’re putting together a photo stand-in for folks to take their picture with a pro-BRT message and share on social media,” Merrell said. “Hopefully we’ll have a nice visual display of support from lots and lots of folks.”

  • Alex Oconnor

    Romanelli and his coterie of reactionaries must be confronted and stopped. Well done John

  • Anonymous

    This is more on a technical level, but if this site is going to advocate for the Ashland project, it might be wise to learn from SF’s experience with the very-similar Van Ness BRT project. They haven’t yet started construction, but they’ve finished the EIS and begun final design.

    Design-wise, the project is a center-running plan that preserves left turns in some locations (mainly by removing near-side parking within 1/2 block of the given intersection) and removes a traffic lane in each direction.

    Advocacy-wise, the project successfully built community support by creating a Citizens’ Advisory Committee and responding to criticisms through design tweaks. In many cases, opposition is driven by a sense of being shut out of the decision-making; the critiques of opponents are uninformed because they haven’t been clued in.

  • Thanks for the input. The CTA has already held a number of meetings with business owners and neighborhood organizations and is holding a series of public meetings this fall.

  • Anonymous

    John, you wonder why I choose to remain anonymous? Alex Oconnor’s post below with a rather ominous tone to it is Exhibit A.

  • Oh, I don’t think anybody would count you among “Romanelli’s coterie of reactionaries.” If you’re going to continue being a frequent commenter on this site and would like to avoid the “troll” label, it would be great if you posted under your own name in the future. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    First of all, I agree with the majority of topics you and other contributors post about, in particular issues dealing with improving bike infrastructure. Second, of the issues that I disagree with – and obviously I vehemently disagree with BRT – I dont “troll”, I almost always try to present a reasonable counterargument, even though it has a way of falling on deaf ears. I dont care if people label me a troll simply for strongly opposing the BRT.

  • Peter

    Do you know if the BRT plan will lengthen right turn lane storage? As I was out running errands this weekend i happen to notice (somewhat to my surprise) that there was less traffic back up from left turns as there was from vehicles being held up from making a right hand turn by crossing pedestrians.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Opinion without evidence is not counter-argument no matter how ardently you feel it is.

    As for my “ominous tone” , politics ain’t bean bag; and this in the end is politics that some of us would like to see end in policy choices that improve the lives of thousands of people in this city, may of whom do not own or prefer to not use cars. I for one do own a car but try not to use it; and every time I do drive down Ashland I decry it as the auto-sewer that people like Romanelli and yourself advocate for.

    Romanelli’s reactionaries advocate policy choices that focus on the status quo; they hide behind a smokescreen of advocacy for a bus system that would harm many and make the traffic situation even worse for most if not all along the Ashland corridor.

    So yes they must be confronted with evidence and reasoned argument, and accurate information; not the disinformation campaign and appeals to fear of change Mr Romanelli and his coterie of reactionaries are running right now. And in doing so they will hopefully be stopped.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Thanks for that. More evidence in favor of BRT.

  • Al Lux

    In commenting on the wisdom (or lack thereof?) of keeping local bus service if BRT goes in, it dawned on me how utterly political the issue of BRT is:

    1) there is a BRT/progressive transportation advocacy, generally pro bike, ped, transit and rather anti-auto. To this group you can add not only streetsblog, but the big policy think tanks that are behind the BRT push – the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and Rockefeller Foundation, for example, who I suppose are in contact with the Mayor’s office and CTA and CDOT management.

    2) there is an auto advocacy, primarily auto users of Ashland Ave who don’t want to see capacity reduced.

    3) there is a business advocacy, namely the businesses on Ashland who want to retain parking in front of their stores.
    4) there is another business advocacy that doesn’t want to see capacity reduced because of trucks/loading issues/etc…

    5) there is the issue of the on-street parking meter deal and the consequences of taking away parking spots – that somehow fits into the equation as well. Enter the parking folks.

    6) there is a mobility impaired advocacy who wants to keep the local bus even if BRT goes in.

    This is a lot to juggle, and I guess I am missing a few, can you help me out?

  • Alex Oconnor

    As to #2 it is unclear given traffic evaporation and changes in modal choice that capacity will be reduced.

    As to #3 falls into the category of why I earlier said that groups / individuals such as Romanelli’s or bedhead1 need to be confronted with evidence, data that indicates the street parking is not optimal for local business. In fact, a range of mode choices such as BRT, bike, local bus, that also still includes the car likely yields a significantly higher churn in customers. Not to mention traffic calming has been shown to increase pedestrian traffic which is also very good for business.

    In the end groups like Romanelli’s and individuals like bedhead1 see the status quo and see any change to it as a threat. Our commercial streets used to be thriving business strips; the reasons that many of them went into decline are manifold. It is clear the catering to the car did not help them maintain their vibrancy.

  • urbanleftbehind

    Not necessarily. My recollection of SF is that Van Ness had 6 lanes in each direction and had an arterial class street one block eastward (Polk Street). My immediate Chicago comparison was if Stony Island Avenue was paralleled by Commercial Ave.

  • Al Lux

    I remembered another group that forms part of the “politics” of BRT that I was thinking of before I wrote the post above: homeowners/residents who live in streets adjacent to Ashland who fear they will see more vehicular travel in front of their homes.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Evidence in favor of does not equal nor does it have to be a perfect analogue.

  • Anonymous

    Homeowners on streets near Ashland may also see an increase in property values. The research shows that it exist, but that it drops off quickly once you move away from the BRT line.

  • Al Lux

    that’s possible, but I didn’t include them in my “politics of BRT” list because so far I haven’t noticed a group of homeowners in support the BRT because it will raise property values. Is there such a group?

  • Anonymous

    How about pro-BRT business and the tens of thousands jobs and customers they represent? i.e. the IUC hospitals and surrounding areas

  • Anonymous

    Van Ness has arterial streets one and two blocks east and west, running parallel the full not quite 2 mile length of the BRT.

    Note that the posted image does not show the actual accepted plan wrt stations, which will be right-hand boarding, so that specialized buses won’t be required, and there will be no local service on that stretch.

    Really, the Geary plan is more parallel to Ashland, as the intent is to maintain local service, too:

    Geary has the advantage of being a 100′ r-o-w all the way to the end of the proposed line. Note that they do propose to retain certain left turns, but severely limit them

  • Kelly Pierce

    I like how John is asking for people to identify
    themselves. I feel the comments section
    here is like an in-person community meeting.
    People there know each other and understand their backgrounds. When
    Bedhead1 refuses to identify himself, he has the pleasure of not being personally
    responsible for his opinions. I realize
    that because of particular individual issues, some people can’t make public
    statements on particular topics and need to be anonymous. However, Bedhead1 hasn’t explained his need
    for anonymity. I remember the Internet of 20 years ago. Everyone was identified. Discussions were collaborative and engaging. If
    someone wasn’t civil, their account might be limited. Now cyberspace seems very crowded.

    Al suggests that those advocating for the car free lifestyle
    are part of another Rockefeller conspiracy.
    In full disclosure, John has openly stated that Streets Blog is funded
    in part by the Rockefeller Foundation.
    Al fails to ask the larger question of why this organization’s
    leadership is interested in this topic. Solutions
    to congested global cities is yet another of transformational projects tackled
    by the Rockefeller fortune. The many
    projects include colonial Williamsburg, the United Nations, modern medicine,
    and developing food sources for an exploding world population. In late July, I
    had the pleasure of meeting a retired United Airlines pilot and his wife in an
    airport lounge in Dallas. This Houston based pilot could afford to live
    anywhere after retiring. The couple decided to move to Chicago, take up
    residence in the massively new Lake Shore East development and ditch their car.
    This couple went car free Al not because anything the Rockefellers said or did
    but because of the many benefits of a pedestrian oriented community. They like being in walking distance of so many
    things, including shopping, arts, culture, recreation, and quality health care.
    Growing numbers of people who can afford cars are living without them and
    finding a more convenient way of life.

  • Anonymous

    I am a homeowner just off Ashland, at Greenview, and I support BRT and more transportation options in general. I worry that the increased property value might lead to higher taxes. But I guess I could just sell and reap the benefits.

  • Al Lux

    I have absolutely no issue with people choosing to live a car-free lifestyle – the more the better.

    I also agree that problems of congestion and pollution from urban transportation are issues of global importance

    I never suggested that Rockefeller was behind some nefarious conspiracy, I was merely pointing out the politics of BRT: I find it fascinating that there are so many interests involved in the little old Ashland corridor: from the Rockefeller foundation to Orlando Glass to the Investment banks who put money into the parking meter deal, to homeowners on streets adjacent to Ashland. I find it impressive.

  • Anonymous

    The politics of BRT pale in comparison to those of road building and campaign financing. Transit advocates need to study-up and catch-up.


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