CTA Releases Environmental Assessment for Ashland Bus Rapid Transit

CTA rendering of Ashland BRT.

The CTA has finally released the long-awaited environmental assessment of their plan to create fast, efficient bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue, and federal officials say they expect “no significant impacts” from the project. However, a few items from the report are likely to provide fodder for the anti-BRT crowd. We’ll provide a full review of the 113-page document in the near future.

The transit agency had previously projected that average car speeds on Ashland, currently 18.3 mph, would be decreased by 4.9 percent to 17.4 mph by the conversion of two of the four travel lanes to dedicated bus lanes, and other changes. The EA states that vehicle speeds would be reduced by ten percent, to 16.47 mph.

Ashland-Western Coalition flyer at a cafe in the East Village.

The report also states that up to 12 percent of curbside parking spaces on Ashland would be removed, while the CTA had previously projected that only eight percent of spaces would be eliminated. However, the EA asserts that the overall effect on parking will be negligible, since much of Ashland has low parking demand, and parking is available on side streets, so no mitigation for the loss of parking is needed.

The study also found that 13 intersections in the project area, from 95th Street to Irving Park Road, would provide “unacceptable levels of service,” i.e. traffic flow, after BRT is implemented. However, the report also found that six of these intersections are already problematic, and it recommends treatments that would actually result in less delay at the 13 intersections than currently exists.

I assumed that Roger Romanelli’s anti-BRT group the Ashland-Western Coalition would seize on these three points at a public meeting they’d planned for this evening in Andersonville. A call to the venue revealed that the event was cancelled, since the AWC has opted to simply pass out their flyers, which feature misinformation about the CTA’s plan, in the neighborhood instead. But I expect we won’t have to wait long to read Romanelli’s take on the EA in the local dailies.

Suzi Wahl, a coalition ally who opposes BRT because she fears it will increase traffic on side streets, has already spoken out against the 30-day public comment period for the document. She told the Sun-Times she is “appalled” and “disgusted” that residents are given a month to read and comment on the report, noting that Thanksgiving and Hanukkah take place during this period.

BRT opponent Suzi Wahl. Photo courtesy of Ms. Wahl

While it would be nice if Chicagoans had more time to digest this weighty tome, 30 days is the standard review period for this kind of document – more than that would unduly delay the project. Personally, the idea of curling up by the fireside after a turkey dinner to peruse the report sounds very appealing, and the Festival of Lights is a relatively minor holiday, although my brother does stage an elaborate Hanukkah puppet show each year.

Furthermore, CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis told the Sun-Times that the document is just one step in the continuing process of planning the BRT system and does not necessarily reflect the final design. “There will be continued public feedback and dialogue as we move into the design phase,’’ she said.

While the EA’s prediction of somewhat slower car speeds on Ashland than originally projected may seem to make it harder to convince Chicagoans that BRT is a good idea, it’s important to look at the big picture. The #9 Ashland bus has the highest ridership of all CTA bus routes with ten million boardings in 2012. If it were an ‘L’ line, it would be the seventh busiest out of nine, with higher ridership than the Pink or Yellow lines.

A southbound #9 Ashland bus. Photo: John Greenfield

There’s currently an enormous inequality between the 18.3 mph average car speed of cars and the 8.7 mph buses. BRT will increase bus speeds by 83 percent, to 15.9 mph, so the relatively small, ten-percent reduction in driving speeds will lead to a big improvement in travel times for tens of thousands of Chicagoans each day. Roughly a quarter of the city’s residents live within walking distance of the BRT route, and one in four of those households don’t own cars, so the much faster, more reliable transit service will have a positive impact on a huge number of people.

Members of the public can submit formal comments about the EA directly to the CTA or attend a public hearing to meet with CTA and Chicago Department of Transportation reps, who can provide additional info on the plans, and submit their views on the location, design, and social, economic, and environmental effects of the BRT proposal.

The community input meetings for the plan are scheduled for:

Tuesday, December 10
6 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Benito Juarez Community Academy
1450 West Cermak Road

Wednesday, December 11
6 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Pulaski Park Fieldhouse
1419 West Blackhawk Street

Written comments can be also submitted by emailing AshlandBRT@transitchicago.com or by mail to the Chicago Transit Authority, attn.: Joe Iacobucci at 567 West Lake Street, Chicago, IL 60661. To be included as a formal comment as part of the EA, comments must be submitted no later than 4:30 p.m. on December 20.

  • Mcass777

    Can you better explain the paragraph about the 13 intersections? I don’t understand the current status versus future status- or maybe it’s just me!

  • david vartanoff

    for the money (and wasted commute hours) until the “Gold (plated) Standard BRT is implemented, the most useful features could be done more or less immediately without EIR. CTA does not need an EIR to put signal priority hardware in place and turn it on. Restoring the Express service trequires a new “pick” by drivers so could have to wait 3-6 months, and implementing curbside TVMs/Ventra readers at the Express stops also require no EIR. Thus all of those features can and should be done ASA practicable.c Once they are deployed and service improves, opposition to the lane takeover will be easier to beat.

  • Such an enhancement still needs funding. And the transit signal priority that would be “immediately” installed would need to be designed to complement the future Ashland BRT. That would probably happen at the same rate as Ashland BRT is being design and constructed now.

  • With BRT, 13 of the 89 intersections would operate at “unacceptable Level of Service”, where LOS is a measure of delay to automobile drivers.

    6 of these 13 currently operate at LOS “E” or LOS “F” while the remaining 7 operate at LOS “D”. (The only intersections that operate at LOS “A” are the ones in your neighborhood only used by people who live there.)

    Mitigation measures have been proposed for all 13 intersections that would bring their LOS to a level better than current.

  • Joseph Musco

    My quick take on this report is that Gold Standard Ashland BRT generates almost all of its tangible benefits to Ashland transit riders by displacing and degrading the performance of other transit routes.

    1) The real positives for Ashland transit looks to be almost completely eaten by a 29% increase in Congested Vehicle Miles traveled on Western and a 30% increase in Vehicle Hours traveled. The Western bus is the #3 CTA bus route for ridership – roughly 85% of the ridership of Ashland. The marginal benefits on Ashland that are left after the deterioration of Western bus service are eaten up by the 7 additional East-West intersections (pg 36) that back up (mitigating “treatments” aren’t freebies) and the 5%+ increase in Congested Vehicle Hours traveled on 1) Kedzie, 2) California, 3) Damen, 4) Racine/Southport, and 5) Halsted (pg 27). To sum up, people take transit on these other routes and that transit will now be in more traffic.

    2) The Environmental Report shows these parallel and cross street traffic effects but the Air Quality Appendix measures only effects on air quality along Ashland. Traffic jams on Western still count for the air quality of Chicago. I’m sure this Air Quality report meets all the FTA requirements but there is a bureaucratic disconnect here. Congestion is congestion and mitigation is mitigation. If congestion is being displaced outside of the area being measured and reported, you win on paper only. You don’t breathe on paper.

    3) A quick look at the Environmental Justice report confirms my initial impression that the Phase 1 area is less diverse and more wealthy than the city as a whole. In the Phase 1 area (Logan Square/Lincoln Park to Lower West Side/Bridgeport) 47% of the population is minority vs. 68.3% citywide (45% lower) and 13.8% of households are in poverty vs. 17.2% citywide (25% lower). If you look at the stop placement for Phase 1 (which is quite sparse in the poverty heavy south end of the 5.4 mile stretch), BRT looks even less equitable. Phase 2 would balance a lot of these figures but I think don’t think the equality of $200M projects (route + fleet) should be funded with future promises when the inequality is being built first with real dollars. Bird in the hand and all that.

    4) If you look at cost/benefit of this Gold Standard BRT project, it’s hard to see any real value from the standpoint of any government funding agency looking to improve transit for all. Compared to total traffic signal integration in LA or the now six Select Bus Service routes in NY, where’s the benefit here?

  • Ryan Wallace

    It’s also important to know that *vehicle* LOS is beginning to lose favor quickly as an effective measure of service. I wonder what the results would be if they recalculated based off of *person* LOS.

  • I’m pretty sure the biggest benefit will be having something to point to that’s concrete and Chicago-based when future NIMBYs complain about, say, an Irving Park BRT or a North Avenue one or whatever. Fight the biggest fight once on a good prospect to pave the way to get better transit rolled out across the city.

  • SP_Disqus

    It’s easy to pick a subset of large numbers from a chart to make an argument, but if your argument is that the Ashland BRT will make travel on all the surrounding roads much worse, you did not address the fact that the estimated decrease in travel speed is only 2% on Western, 1% on Kedzie / California / Halsted, and 3% on Damen/Racine/Southport. The numbers you picked essentially say that driving at an already bad time to drive is estimated to become somewhat worse, but that does not encompass the entire time that people will be driving and they are predicting the impact on that to be very minimal.

  • guest1

    but most people don’t drive at 4:00 AM…or 11:00 PM on a weeknight. Most people drive when they go to work or when they come home from work, and our economy is structured in a way that most people do this at the same time, over roughly 2-3 hours in the morning and 2-3 hours in the evening. No?

  • Shlabotnik

    This sounds crazy, and it probably is, but I think I have an idea that would appease most people on all sides (not all but most). Here it is: Make every arterial road at a half mile increments (Ashland, Damen, Western, E-W or Division, North, Armitage, N-S, for ex. a one way street in alternating directions. On this street you have: a dedicated bus lane with BRT, a bike lane, two lanes of auto traffic and a parking lane. (might even have three lanes of auto traffic or parking on both sides of the street depending on the width of the street. or if you want to keep the bigger streets at two lanes of auto traffic, you could do big improvements to the sidewalks).

    I realize this has 0.01% chance of happening, but I think it makes for an interesting thought experiment. I would appreciate your comments on the advantages or disadvantages of such a system.

  • Adam Herstein

    One-way streets are bad for walkability because they essentially speed up cars. With no oncoming traffic, people tend to drive faster; plus having to drive around the block typically results in more traffic. If you want to see this first-hand, try biking down State and Clark Streets between Chicago Ave and the Loop. Both are approximately the same width, but traffic on one-way Clark moves much faster (and therefore is more dangerous) than the more manageable two-way State.

  • Guest


  • Yes. Unless you’re creating more lanes someplace, anything you do that moves more people through the same constrained space is going to have to impact vehicle LOS somewhere in the system. What I wish the EIA had included was a “future no-build” scenario that projected what the same study area would look like in ten years if they did nothing at all.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    Would the BRT and bike lanes also go one-way or would they go both directions?

  • Shlabotnik

    I think BRT would be one way most of the time, although on the bigger streets (Ashland, Western, Irving Park) it might be possible to have two BRT buslanes in opposite directions (on top of three travel lanes and a bike lane).

    Bike lanes would probably only go one way, although the same logic probably applies for the bigger streets – you could probably have bike lanes in opposite directions.

    BTW this is idea is purely me having fun with thinking up different ways to configure the road and transit network in Chicago.

  • Shlabotnik

    Point well taken. For what it’s worth, it should be possible to engineer a reasonable speed with traffic signal integration. For instance you could make it so that a green wave is set for 35 mph or something like that (or slower or faster).

    And there would be parked cars next to one sidewalk and a bus lane next to the other, so cars won’t be whizzing by at arms length (for pedestrians).

  • Shlabotnik

    I’m not sure that it’s entirely correct to say that “anything you do that moves more people through the same constrained space is going to have to impact vehicle LOS somewhere in the system.”

    When you increase the performance of the road network, with a city-wide traffic signal coordination program, for example, you are essentially making it possible to “move more people (or cars ) through the same constrained space at a lower *cost* where cost is total travel time.

    At least that is my understanding, but I could be wrong, I’m not an engineer.

  • david vartanoff

    What is so complicated about stretching green lights for an approaching bus that such systems cannot be implemented without years of planners/consultants churning paper? There are numerous vendors, there are systems in place to emulate. As to funding, some of it should be from highway monies.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    My problem is those one-ways would add a lot of extra shlepping, time, and frustration to my bike and transit commutes.

    For instance, next week I’m traveling from my home at 35th and Morgan to pick up my Thanksgiving pie at Hoosier Mama, on Chicago just west of Ashland, and then back home with the pie.

    Using your one-way BRT system, I would walk over to Ashland, jump on the northbound Ashland BRT, and then walk a couple blocks to the pie shop. But then I couldn’t simply retrace my steps for the return trip. Instead, I’d have to walk all the way over to Damen (with my pie) to get on the southbound Damen BRT. Whereas I could walk from Ashland to Morgan, Damen to Morgan is a long walk, so I’d have to wait for and pay a transfer for the #35 bus to get home.

    If I figured out how to safely carry a pie on my bike (suggestions welcome), I could take the northbound Ashland bike lane up there quite easily. Then I’d have to shlep over to Damen to come back down. Actually, before I hit the United Center I’d bike over to another southbound street (Halsted? California?) to avoid (1) United Center traffic, (2) the death tunnel, and (3) the I-55 death overpass. If I could take Halsted south, that’s fine, but if I have to go all the way over to California, that’s an extra three miles (1.5 going west, 1.5 coming east) compared to retracing my steps down a two-way Ashland Avenue.

    This is just one example that’s top-of-mind for me this week, but I think the points are illustrative of the inherent system problems.

  • Guest

    And let’s not forget that induced demand works both ways. By making transit faster and car travel slower, some of those car trips will convert to transit trips, others might not be taken at all. I strongly doubt the magnitude is enough to completely mitigate the negative traffic impacts, but it’s not as if every trip taken today will also exist in the same form (or at all) when BRT is built.

  • Guest

    Yeah. And that’s exactly the point – everyone’s driving during those hours, which is precisely why traffic is already bad on all of the alternate routes during peak hours. It’s not like Western is a model of efficiency at the moment. It appears Ashland BRT will make things marginally worse, but not catastrophically so.

    To put it in perspective, if you spend 30 minutes driving on Western now, you would expect to add a half minute to your drive time. (30 min x 2% = 36 seconds)

  • That may very well be. I don’t know either, but if you could get that kind of performance impact from signal timing, I’d think a lot of places would be doing it.

    But if you’re removing two congested travel lanes from a near capacity (at peak hour) system, at least in the short term those vehicles are going to use some other route in the system. That’s the problem with using LOS as the main measure of road performance. It looks at how good the road is at letting automobiles move freely, and that’s it.

    Looking at the project as a whole, it’s going to add 30% more transit ridership on Ashland, moving those riders a whole lot faster, and it’s going to decrease driving in the entire study area (not just on Ashland) by about 32K VMT a *day*. I haven’t added up what the ridership increases would mean in terms of trips, but there’s your induced transit demand at work.

  • BlueFairlane

    This is just me thinking, but pies aren’t hard to make. Seems baking a pie would be preferable to running all the way to Chicago and back.


  • Anna Schibrowsky

    Obviously you have not enjoyed a Hoosier Mama pie!

  • Joseph Musco

    What is the fight? I went out of my way to say that transit riders on other routes are going to be stuck in displaced traffic from Ashland. “Build a BRT demonstration project on Ashland” might be the goal of some people but my wish is for an improved transit system. I don’t see spending $111M on a 5.4 mile route that isn’t handicapped accessible at the Damen or Metra, a route that slows buses on almost every intersecting and parallel street — as a winner.

  • Joseph Musco

    Why does travel speed matter in the abstract? Did you ever call work and tell them you are going to be 5 mph late? People can read the entire chart (pg. 27) and make their own judgment. CTA chooses to focus on the rush hour speed of BRT in their sales pitch. This blog has certainly shared the rush hour speed of the old X9 on multiple occasions. I think I’ll follow CTA’s lead and use rush hour and congestion in my own arguments content that I am not cherry picking – especially now that there is a more complete data set in public view that can be seen by all.

  • SP_Disqus

    Percent decrease in travel speed is much less abstract than percent increase in vehicle miles traveled and vehicle hours traveled. VMT and VHT do not apply to an individual driver, they’re just a sum of all of the users of the roadway, whether that is people who are already driving on the roadway or people that are expected to be driving on it if BRT is implemented. Unless you have more information, trying to figure out how that affects an individual driver is impossible without making assumptions. If you’re attempting to apply the information given in the report to individual drivers, percent decrease in MPH is far less abstract because it tells you how each individual driver is affected. While it would be helpful to have statistics on rush hour MPH decreases, even if they could give that to you a single number might not be very meaningful since rush hour traffic flows vary largely from day to day. Also, congested also does not necessarily mean rush hour even if that is when it usually happens.

  • The “Don’t take away my parking/left turns/chance to make a bus wait behind me” fight. :->

    The Ashland BRT will demonstrably make the commute better for a majority of the current users of Ashland, with knock-on effects for the rest of the city, but the fact that it will give Chicago a real working BRT (or brt-esque, I’m dubious they’ll implement it to the hilt) testbed to look at and fiddle with will be a game-changer for Chicago transit for decades to come, even for people who live nowhere near Ashland.

  • The signals are not plug and play. They need to be programmed – this is a specialty job. Then you run into the situation: are they going to be interconnected (over a network) or stand alone? Well, most signals are yet the kind that are interconnected so their control boxes need to be replaced.

    I could go on and on. Do you want time and money diverted to this interim halfway there solution, or spent on the best solution?

  • 2) Are you inferring that the air quality change on Western Avenue wasn’t considered?

  • You drastically reduce connectivity for people taking transit or bicycling by having alternating one-way roads.

  • When I need to transport a cake (I don’t bake pies): my front basket is large enough to hold a 13×9 baking dish and I place it on top of a double-folded towel to absorb up-down shock. The basket fits the baking dish nearly perfectly so the dish doesn’t shift side to side.

    My basket: double milk crate.

  • Joseph Musco

    My quick impression is the traffic model for the air quality assessment ( CAL3QHC (EPA)) looks to be a less robust than traffic model (CMAP) used to predict traffic. If you look at Figure 1 (pg. 7 on print in pdf) in Appendix E Part 5 Air Quality Technical Memorandom the intersections being model appear to be about 3/8th of a mile on either side of on Ashland (a .75 mile linear corridor). In the CMAP model, they are modeling congestion all the way to Kedzie which is 2 miles away. The way I’m reading it CAL3QHC looks at a line segment and CMAP looks at a grid. It would be a good question to ask — was traffic on Western modeled in the CAL3QHC air quality model in Appendix E Part 5?

  • Joseph Musco

    The total benefits of BRT in the CMAP model area shows a 1% decrease in VMT (Table 3-3 in main report). There is no net change to Vehicle Hours Traveled. There is a 5% net increase in Congested Miles Traveled and a 6% net increase in Congested Vehicle Hours.

    I don’t see the logic in spending money to take 1% of the cars off the road but with the caveat that the 99% of cars remaining will go slower, put out more emissions, and slow the normal bus routes in the CMAP study area. Buses without bus lanes swim in the sea of traffic. More traffic, buses swim slower. Why is it OK to speed an Ashland BRT rider during rush hour at the expense of a 12 Roosevelt or 49 Western rider trying to get to work?

  • david vartanoff

    Actually, I believe the measures I cited ARE the most important, and they are easier to do w/o endless studies/comment periods. I am not impressed by specially dual side door buses or having the locals and expresses/rapids use different boarding platforms at transfer points. I seriously doubt CTA plans the rapids in late evening or Owl service. (please correct me I am wrong)Thus, the sidewalk stops will remain. Where I live (Oakland CA) there is a Rapid lite overlay of a local route daylight M-F only. The non functional signal priority is only claimed for the rapids even though over a full week locals outnumber rapids. The off bus fare collection even if only implemented on the rapids will shorten a major delay factor.

  • Damen… Do you mean the Division Blue Line station?

  • What about mode shift? CTA says that bus ridership will increase 29% on the Ashland corridor. Where are those new riders coming from? Biking, walking, or driving? Does the EA consider these fewer car trips?

  • The report has conflicting information: in one part it says they modeled 24 hour BRT service and in another part it said that the BRT service would run 4 AM to 11 PM, with non-BRT service at the other times. I don’t think it specified if the non-BRT service meant that the bus would not use the bus lanes.

  • CTA projects a 29% bus ridership increase on the Ashland corridor. That’s 8,700 more bus riders!

  • Joseph Musco

    Yes, a little brain freeze there. Thanks for the correction.

  • Joseph Musco

    The 2011 MPC BRT report showed 7,000 drivers a day shifting to BRT if all 10 BRT corridors were built and 71,000 extra transit trips in total across the region due to “livability” improvements — with livability defined numerically as some combination of appeal related to connectivity, employment, population, and existing transit ridership.

    CMAP ran the ridership model for that MPC study using a combination of “Emme/2 travel demand software, ArcInfo GIS, and SAS”. I don’t know where CTA gets their numbers for Ashland BRT but I think it is a similar model, only for Ashland BRT alone.

  • Aaron

    That ridership comparison to the Orange, Purple, Pink, and Yellow lines doesn’t look right.

    Boardings by line from the CTA’s 2012 annual ridership report:

    Orange: 17.5 million
    Purple: 12.1 million
    Pink: 9.6 million
    Yellow: 1.8 million

    (Train line boardings are on last page)

  • outerloop

    Check these out Anna- http://www.piebox.com/

  • Thanks for bringing this to my attention. It turns out numbers were also taken from that document, but the ‘L’ ridership counts exclude Loop station, the Orange count exclude the Roosevelt stop, and the Purple count is for the Evanston Branch only. Granted, the comparison between Ashland ridership and these lines is less impressive with that in mind, but the bus still has higher ridership than the Pink and Yellow lines. I’ve edited the post accordingly.

  • Aaron

    Thanks for checking.

  • Thanks for bringing this up – I looked at the end of the page and then realized that the CTA is *estimating* how many people at the Loop stations are boarding each route.

  • david vartanoff

    So on the route I most use, (1R on Telegraph Ave Berkeley-Oakland) after the Rapid quits (7-8 PM) the local is often just as fast because riders are not using every stop. In this case (highest ridership in the agency) there is thus no need for the Rapid in the evening. Sadly the agency has refused to install traffic signal equipment on any buses other than the “specially branded” fleet which due to low MDBF often have to be substituted with buses from the regular fleet. As I noted elsewhere, the TSP mostly doesn’t work, so we don’t get the benefits anyway. From my visits to Chicago (staying right off Ashland near Addison) traffic seems heavy in the early evenings, but later light enough that even the locals can move easily. Does anyone have time of day breakouts for the MPH ##? or for that matter, by segments?

  • Brian

    We can only hope this project will never happen. It is nothing but a disaster waiting to happen.


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