Have No Fear, Ashland Residents, BRT Is a Good Fit for City Neighborhoods

Residents wait in line to comment during the Q & A session. Photo: Kristen Maddox

Bus rapid transit opponents may have made the most noise at Tuesday night’s community meeting about the CTA’s plan for fast, reliable bus service on Ashland Avenue, hosted by the Chicago Grand Neighbors Association at Talcott Elementary School in Noble Square. But when you’re familiar with the details of the proposal, as well as successful BRT and bus-priority routes in other cities, it becomes clear that the NIMBY arguments don’t hold water.

CTA Manager of Strategic Planning Joe Iacobucci outlined the plan to speed buses to 15.9 mph during rush hour by implementing dedicated, center-running bus lanes, prepaid, level boarding on buses with multiple doors, traffic signal prioritization, and other timesaving features. As part of the project, two of the four car lanes would be converted to bus lanes and most left turns would be prohibited.

CTA rendering of bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue.

CGNA President Lyn Wolfson had opened the meeting by saying, “Transportation is a major factor in quality of life,” but audience members who angrily grilled Iacobucci about the lane conversions and turn prohibitions during the Q & A session appeared less interested in how BRT will improve quality of life on the Ashland corridor than its impact on their driving habits. They didn’t seem to pay attention when Iacobucci shared examples of how other cities have used BRT to create safer and more livable streets, improve commutes, and boost the local economy.

It’s understandable that people are concerned about a change as significant as BRT on Ashland, but once you look at the very real benefits of prioritizing transit on city streets, there’s little to fear. The CTA predicts bus ridership on Ashland will increase by 30 percent. The experience of BRT in Cleveland, where the new Health Line route led to a 60 percent ridership increase in a few short years, suggests that there might be room for even more growth in Chicago.

At last week’s BRT roundtable hosted by Metropolitan Planning Council, staff from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy discussed how BRT is a strong economic development tool, since benefits like faster bus service, calmer traffic, and more walkable streets can unlock the value of nearby land. They also pointed out how Chicago’s grid system makes the city an ideal place for BRT, since motorists can easily choose alternative routes to Ashland, and drivers on Ashland who need to go left can simply make three right turns to do so.

Local resident Nora Beck speaks out in support of the Ashland BRT. Photo: Kristen Maddox

Local residents and CGNA members Nora Beck and Lindsay Bayley, a Streetsblog contributor, raised similar points Tuesday night when stating their support for BRT during the Q & A. In her comments, Beck also noted that good public transit was one of the main things that attracted her to Chicago in the first place. “I realized I didn’t need to buy a car,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons why I live here still.”

When Iacobucci explained the CTA’s design and site selection process to residents, the quality of life and economic advantages of BRT didn’t seem to register with some people in the audience. Accusations were hurled about CTA staffers being out of touch with community member’s needs, but a glance at other cities suggests that bus lanes are a better fit for urban neighborhoods than streets designed primarily for cars. After New York City’s Select Bus Service debuted along Fordham Road in the Bronx, for instance, retail sales at local stores increased by 71 percent — three times higher than the Bronx as a whole.

The Cleveland HealthLine. Photo: Greater Cleveland RTA

Despite attendee Dan Ryan’s claim that Iacobucci “raced through” statistics during his presentation, the CTA staffer’s talk was full of useful info for people curious about the project. He showed how BRT is a cost-effective form of transit when done right, and has generated big returns on investment. BRT costs about a third as much as light rail, and the Cleveland HealthLine, which involved an initial $200 million investment, helped spur $4.3 billion in real estate development on the Euclid Avenue corridor.

Once BRT is up and running, possibly as early as late 2015 for the first 5.4-mile stretch between 31st Street and Cortland Street, depending on the availability of federal funding, it will be the logical choice for speedy travel on Ashland without the expense and headaches of driving. The service will be 83 percent faster than the current buses, and it will offer seamless connections to other transit lines, as well as employment, education and entertainment destinations like the Illinois Medical Campus, UIC and the United Center. Just as there were plenty of naysayers when Divvy bike-share was introduced who changed their tune when the system turned out to be hugely successful, after the Ashland BRT launches and people start reaping the benefits, folks will wonder why we didn’t do this sooner.

Guest contributor Kristen Maddox recently spent a year in Copenhagen as a Fulbright fellow and worked with Copenhagenize Design Company.

  • Anonymous

    CTA predicts bus ridership will increase by 30%.

    Is it known how they get to that 30% number. What’s the breakdown between various modes? Drivers who switched to the bus? Cannibalization of other bus lines running parallel? (i.e. #50 Damen)? Bicyclists?

  • The math behind this figure may be revealed when the CTA releases its environmental assessment for the project next month. But it’s common sense that there will be a significant ridership bump. BRT will offer a train-like experience at train-like speeds. If a CTA Chartreuse Line was built on Ashland, isn’t it fair to assume that a significant amount of drivers would opt to leave their cars at home and hop on the ‘L’ instead? BRT will have a similar effect.

  • Anonymous

    There isn’t anything wrong with giving riders a transit alternative superior to an existing one, either. That is a necessary step in creating an auto-competitive transit network.

  • BlueFairlane

    I support BRT, but I think the greatest weakness of CTA’s argument on this relates to numbers such as these. Personally, I get very suspicious any time anybody starts throwing numbers around without saying where they came from. If the person throwing around the numbers is connected to the city of Chicago, my suspicion increases two-fold. Revealing the methodology would go a long way in swaying people on the fence.

  • Anonymous

    At every BRT public meeting, homeowners gripe that traffic will be diverted onto congested local streets, and that trucks will barrel down side streets in order to make their left hand turns. There are two responses to these two complaints.

    1) there are many local streets which drivers and cyclists alike don’t use for local trips, because they detour to a major thoroughfare to save time. Taking Paulina, Noble, Wood, and other parallel streets to Ashland for trips to or from Wicker Park and Noble Square is a more efficient use of our street grid, and from my experience leads to less reckless driving on these non major streets.

    2) FedEx reduced left hand turns and improved fuel efficiency for their fleet, similar steps by truck drivers are not difficult. Businesses will take a minute to plan a trip knowing that there are limited points at which left hand turns can be made, and drivers will know whether Ashland is the best route for getting too and from their destination. Much as they make those decisions today between Elston, Ogden, and other streets which provide alternate access to industrial corridors throughout the city.

  • Anonymous

    Totally, 100% agree…this might be the single largest reason why my tone is so vitriolic when it comes to the BRT. In my line of work I frequently come across situations where people are less than forthcoming with information and keep transparency at a minimum…these situations usually end badly. People are typically opaque for a reason, and it’s almost never harmless. If CMAP and the CTA were completely transparent about everything and did more to communicate it all, I would be waaaay more open-minded about it. Promise. When Chicago manages to get involved in transit debacles like the Redflex scandal, I really dont see how it’s unreasonable to demand full transparency with these matters.

    Btw, look at the Redflex deal. The city *bought* almost 400 cameras for something like $40 million. Almost no other municipality in the US has purchased cameras from Redlfex, they’re always leased. The reason? Because the cameras pretty much dont work with another back-end service provider, which is exactly what Chicago is finding out now. We own a $40 million camera network, and while Redflex has lost the contract and ACS has won it, there is almost no way to transition it to ACS. So Chicago is stuck with $40 million worth of cameras the might literally need to be sold for scrap, then turn around and pay ACS for another 400 of them.

    The point is, I see clusters like this and shake my head about why anyone would NOT demand full transparency from groups like CMAP and the CTA BEFORE we spend all this money and undergo a major disruption to traffic? It just seems like common sense at this point. Again, it would go a long way towards convincing me and other skeptics that this could work out well.

  • Anonymous

    As much as I am in favor of BRT (and I really wish they started tomorrow morning instead of next year), this article reads as another preach-to-the-choir type of article. The tone is negative about opponents (“there is nothing to fear”, “accusations were hurled”) and dismisses their concerns that the CTA guy raced through the statistics.

    You can talk all you want about the economic benefits or increasing bus ridership, but that is not their (main) concern. Their concern is two-fold: Limited left turns, and traffic diverted to other (residential) streets. Why not address their concerns directly?

    To put it this way: How many people, after reading this article, have changed their attitude towards BRT from negative to positive.

  • Alex Oconnor

    No it isn’t. And no it wouldn’t. There is plenty of info out there that indicates demand elasticities of different transport options. They have been pointed out and you have dismissed them as magically inapplicable to the Chicago BRT. There is also plenty of info re mode shift they have been pointed out and you have also dismissed them as magically inapplicable to the Chicago BRT.

    You are not interested in evidence. We all know it.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Probably a little less. It is unclear I think how a modern BRT demand elasticity and the attendant mode shift stands up to Heavy Rail / LRT / Conventional Bus.

    It is certainly higher the conventional bus. Probably less than Heavy Rail (like the L) it may be similar to LRT. I think it is unclear.

    Decent introduction to concepts: http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm11.htm#_Toc161022593

  • All right, let’s play nice folks. Behead1, much of the info you’re seeking should be revealed when the CTA releases its environmental assessment next month.

  • Anonymous

    I look forward to it, and as long as they’re not evasive about their process I promise I’ll keep an open mind about it – seriously. Thanks

  • Mark Twain

    What exactly does the Copenhagen Design Company due that it would lend accreditation to this reporters opinion?

  • Mark Twain

    What exactly does the Copenhagen Design Company due that it would lend accreditation to this reporters opinion?

  • Mark Twain

    So until then, you’ll continue to be a shill?

  • A hell of a lot. Copenhagenize is a the forefront of the movement to create European-style complete streets around the world. Their focus is on bike infrastructure, but a lot of their work involves transit as well. Check them out: http://copenhagenize.eu/

  • Mark Twain

    Unfortunately bicycle planning and transit planning are two different things. She’s one year out of college; come on, John, even you have more transit planning experience than her.

  • Although we don’t have all the details on the CTA projections yet, figures like the 15.9 mph BRT speed are likely very accurate, since there aren’t many X factors to consider. We know how fast the buses will travel and how many stops they’ll make, and there won’t be any car traffic jams in their lane to mess up their schedules. That and the successes of dozens BRT systems around the world make me very confident that BRT is going to work great on Ashland. Let’s put it this way: if you can find me a single example of a city where repurposing travel lanes for BRT has created carmageddon, I’ll buy you dinner at the Handlebar.

  • Peter

    Great questions and I have theory’s that I’ve previously stated as to where (some of) the ridership will come from, but will wait until the Enviro Assessment to comment further. I just hope the answers will be provided.

    I understand their is a federal grant involved in funding this potential project, but there is also a significant loacl component to that. Does anyone know where that chunk of change will come from? The CTA as well as the City, County, and State are not exactly swimming in cash.

  • Peter

    Until the Enviro Assessment is out, there is not “plenty of info out there” We have case examples that some (including yourself) feel show how BRT COULD be a good fit for Ashland. But please don’t construe case examples as concrete evidence, when the TRUE concrete evidence is still forthcoming.

  • Peter

    Can you make it Lou’s pizza :-) J/K

  • Anonymous

    “created carmageddon”

    Define ‘carmageddon’. No one other than LA tv news anchors seems to like that portmanteau much.

  • Anonymous

    “There are two responses to these two complaints”

    Neither of those diminish the complaints; you’re basically saying: “You bought on the wrong side street; too bad for you. You just have to deal with it, because it’s better for others.” Altho I *do* agree that any truck-related concerns are fairly overblown, at least wrt the Northside (again, I’ll freely admit to not enough first hand knowledge of south Ashland, esp south of the Ike).

    In many case of the ‘3 rights to go left’ routes, there will be a relatively small impact–as I noted w/r/t Division for example. But the same thing for North will have a significant affect on Burr Elem. And getting to Clybourn north of Fullerton will be convoluted and disruptive of narrow, fully residential, streets. And the folks in the 1500 block of Melrose will get to deal with “3 rights” *together with* the Target parking entrance.

  • Anonymous

    The point is that local car traffic on side streets is proper utilization of the street grid, and empty streets should not be a desired end goal. Keeping trucks and speeding vehicles off side streets is important. But slow local traffic is what local streets are meant to carry, is Wilson in Ravens wood a side street or main street? It carries a lot of slow moving traffic which is travelling to destinations within the neighborhood. Not utilizing similar streets parallel to Ashland leads to inefficient use of our street grid, and unnecessary congestion of our trucking routes by cars.

  • Like I said, Copenhagenize does plenty of work related to transit planning, and you don’t have to be a transit planner to report on public transportation. Next you’ll be saying Steven shouldn’t be writing about the Illiana Expressway because he’s never worked for a highway construction firm.

  • Mark Twain

    Steve actually has an education in it; what are your qualifications (beyond fan boy)?

  • Alex Oconnor

    Also for those unfamiliar or new to the concept I think this provides a nice intro to the idea of a modern BRT vis-a-vis the common bus many of us are familiar with.


    Buses really do have a perception problem. And I am an advocate.

  • As I said, you don’t need to be trained in a field to report on it, but yes, Steven’s background in urban planning is an asset to the website, as is my background in journalism. Both Steven and I also worked at CDOT and Active Trans for several years, something most of our readers are aware of, so I think are qualifications are pretty solid compared to other local transportation writers.

  • Alex Oconnor

    No. There is plenty of information out there. And there is plenty of evidence that supports the idea the BRT will be successful here as it has been elsewhere. And that evidence / information is quite widespread and readily available. That is of course unless you believe that Chicago is magically unlike anywhere else and Chicago’s peculiarities and idiosyncrasies make prior examples simply inapplicable. But that is magical thinking. I do not believe in magic. You are free to believe in magic.

    Now the available evidence may not be conclusive ( and I do not believe I ever claimed it was; instead critics like yourself seem to claim it magically is not at all applicable); but nonetheless explain to me how such evidence is magically inapplicable to determining that BRT will be successful in Chicago as it has pretty much in most places it has been implemented on a scale similar to what is being proposed here.

    As for the idea of “concrete evidence”…whatever that term is supposed to mean…..even an Environmental study is based on a model. Much of the info out there that indicates BRT will be successful are too models. The Environmental study will just apply similar models to the specific instance in Chicago.

    Critics will then assail the model as they are now with the models and case studies and analogues already available.

    This is a political argument and largely (not exclusively) the critics of BRT will not be transformed into advocates by the introduction of a new study based on a model. The likely response will be more cynicism and conspiratorial nonsense and dismissal of the study as aiding whatever illusory special interest they already feel are being foisted upon their entitlement to a subsidy of using private property over a public ROW.

    And capitalizing true as “TRUE” and appending it to “concrete evidence” does not transform the environmental study into conclusive evidence. Evidence exists, it may not be conclusive, but it is at the least persuasive.

    The info / evidence available certainly does not indicate BRT will fail. The Environmental study will just be more evidence that indicates that BRT will be successful and beneficial.

    Unfortunately, with critics such as yourself, though you will claim otherwise, the study when it comes out will not change your mind. It will likely merely harden those opposed despite the conclusions that BRT will be successful.

  • BlueFairlane

    … so I think are qualifications are pretty solid compared to other local transportation writers.

    I love irony. ;-)

  • Alex Oconnor

    And what are yours beyond random asshat

  • Alex Oconnor

    Shill? Your tin cup is dinging.

  • Alex Oconnor

    They are; thanks for clarifying that. Trenchant analysis is what we all need here and distinguishing bicycle transportation and what is commonly referred to as public transportation is Newtonian in its revolutionary commentary. Congratulations; you are a seminal genius.

  • Seriously? If you can’t make your point without devolving to ‘asshat’ in single sentences I’m completely unimpressed with you.

    Slinging schoolyard insults like 2-year-olds is not a way to raise the level of discussion (which you claim to be interested in doing).

  • Peter

    Since you have all of the answers… Can you explain to me where the local portion of the funding can come from for this project? The CTA, the City, the County and the state are not running heavy in the green. In addition there are many facets of the cta’s existing network that are in need of maintenance and repair. While I see the importance of expanding mass transit options, shouldn’t a priority be placed on maintaining existing facilities… Especially as these entities are running cash strapped.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Seriously, am glad I do not impress you but thanks for the imperiousness When Mark Twain wants to be be constructive instead of just insulting John who is trying to run a decent blog; then I’ll refrain from insulting him.

  • Alex Oconnor

    Show me where I claimed to have all the answers. It is the critics like you who claim to know a priori that BRT must or at least is likely to fail. Despite of the “concrete evidence” that undermines your acts of faith.

  • Alex Oconnor

    We seem to have enough money to pave roads. And we have enough money to re-pave roads we paved only a few years ago every single year. It must feel nice to feel entitled.

  • Alex Oconnor

    And yes. The entire region needs a capital infusion of probably 10 billion dollars to bring the entire PT network to where it should be.

  • The word ‘trolling’ is used nowadays for shouting insults, but the defining characteristic about a classic troll is that they want to turn every online discussion from its topic into being about THEM. When he doesn’t have anything substantive or useful to add to the conversation, it’s actually most useful to avoid replying to him at all; replying makes him reply back to YOU and clog up the thread some more with his barefaced inaccurate assertions.

    Come talk to me and everyone else instead; we’re nicer. :->

  • Anonymous

    What a shock, another ultra-obnoxious and egotistical Alex Oconnor post. I learned this a couple weeks ago, but just ignore him completely. Dont respond to anything he says, he’s a troll who just comes here to shout insults at people and proclaim his higher intelligence. It’s a waste of time to engage with him.

  • Gentlemen, lively debate is welcome on SBC, but please refrain from personal attacks. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    “unnecessary congestion of our trucking routes by cars.”

    Who gets to define what is a ‘trucking route’ versus a ‘proper’ car route? Do bikes need to stay off of our ‘trucking routes’ too?

  • Alex Oconnor

    You don’t say http://www.itdp.org/documents/ITDP_MORE_DEVELOPMENT_924.pdf

    Just more evidence of who the troll really is and who bases their opinion on evidence versus what they so ardently feel.


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