What Chicagoans Said About Ashland BRT at Tuesday’s South Side Hearing

BRT supporters march to the South Side hearing. Photo: John Greenfield

Proponents of effective public transportation made a strong showing at last night’s South Side hearing on the city’s plan for bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue. Dozens of people showed up for an Active Transportation Alliance rally beforehand at the Punch House tavern, 1227 West 18th in Pilsen. Then they marched to the open house at Benito Juarez Community Academy, 1450 West Cermak, where supporters seemed to far outnumber opponents of the plan.

A few speakers addressed the crowd at the bar. Dennis ONeill, director of the Near West community organization Connecting4Communities said his group endorses BRT because plenty of development is already slated for the area. “The Illinois Medical District has a lot of plans to develop the vacant land around the medical district, one of the largest medical districts in the country, while we have 90 acres in Roosevelt Square, one of the largest Hope VI redevelopments of federal public housing in the country,” he said. “Ashland Avenue goes right through both of those, so it’s very important to our community that we have efficient, innovative transportation.”

Michael Whalen speaks at the rally at the Punch House. Photo: John Greenfield

Pilsen resident Michael Whalen told the audience BRT will help him move around the city more efficiently. “I’m looking forward to a bypass to get around downtown when I’m trying to go visit people on the Northwest Side,” he said. “Getting to the Blue Line will be a lot faster. I have friends around Midway Airport – getting out there is going to be a lot easier too.”

William Duncan, the bar’s manager, told me BRT will bring more customers. “Anything that makes it easier for folks to get to other parts makes sense to me,” he said. “I think it will be great for our business. Pilsen is a wonderful community of cultural significance. There’s a lot of things to do here. Folks from the North Side to the South Side ought to be able to access our neighborhood easily. Rapid transit along Ashland would certainly help with that.”

Toby Schwartz with her husband Alan Robinson. Photo: John Greenfield

Attendee Toby Schwartz said fast buses will make it easier to explore new neighborhoods. “I feel like a lot of times we end up getting trapped in our own little neighborhoods, our own kind of tiny little spheres, mostly because it takes so long to get somewhere else, because transit can be such a hassle,” she said. “So to be able to get really quickly to a different part of the city is really exciting. You can go more places and see more things.”

Holding “Yes! BRT” signs aloft, the group walked a few blocks through the snowy streets to the high school. There, residents could peruse display boards about the project, page through weighty binders with graphs and charts, talk with CTA staffers, fill out comment sheets, leave notes about their concerns on a giant map of the entire corridor, and give testimony to a court reporter. Although the room was full of people, there seemed to be a relatively low turnout of civilians, probably due to the frigid temperatures rather than a lack of publicity, since the CTA did a good job of getting the word out. I didn’t notice any members of Roger Romanelli’s anti-BRT group the Ashland Western Coalition.

Courtney Cobbs. Photo: John Greenfield

Grad student Courtney Cobb, thumbing through one of the thick environmental assessment binders, said she supports the plan, which would nearly double bus speeds, even though it would reduce car speeds by ten percent. “BRT reduces travel times for commuters, so I’m all for anything that makes taking the bus faster,” she said. “I don’t really see any negatives, even though it would add a little bit of time to my commute, because I do have to drive for my work. I still support the project 100 percent.”

However, Erin Lowery, a doctor who lives near Ashland and Grand, said she’s apprehensive about BRT. “I’m very concerned with the plan being presented,” she said. “I think it needs a lot more vetting before they change major infrastructure in the city and upset the lives of many of our residents.” Her office is located in west suburban Maywood. “I don’t have the option of giving up my car and taking CTA, like what they’re proposing that people do once this is implemented.”

The hearing at Juarez Academy. Photo: John Greenfield

Of course, no one is suggesting that Ashland BRT is going to replace all car trips, certainly not east-west ones. But 31,000 people currently ride the Ashland bus every day, and that number is expected to increase by almost 50 percent once the system is implemented. Many of those will be folks who choose to leave their cars at home, since the buses will become comparably as fast as driving, minus the expenses and headaches. People like Lowery, who feel they truly need to drive, will still be free to do so, but fewer vehicles on the road will make it easier for everyone to get where they need to go.

Ted Orosz, director of long-range planning for New York City’s MTA, who flew in to work the display boards, said his city’s experience with implementing Select Bus Service, an express bus service on multiple corridors, should make Chicagoans feel more confident BRT will succeed here. SBS buses run in dedicated lanes and the system features prepaid boarding and double-long buses with multiple entrances. The Chicago system will inclide those features, but it will run even faster than SBS because the buses will be center running with level boarding platforms.

Select Bus Service on Webster Avenue in the Bronx. Photo: MTA

Orosz said that Webster Avenue in the Bronx, where a new SBS line was launched this summer, increasing bus speeds by about 30 percent, has a very similar layout to the Ashland plan. Webster has two bus lanes, two mixed-traffic lanes, and curbside parking, although the buses run curbside and left turns are permitted. “It’s the same width as Ashland, 70 feet,” he said. “When I drove Ashland with [CTA staffers] I just had this powerful Webster Avenue déjà vu. It was like, man, this is creepy. These two streets look a lot alike.”

However, unlike Ashland, Webster doesn’t have many parallel alternatives, and its bus ridership is lower at 20,000 boardings per day, which is why the MTA opted against doing center-running buses with left turns eliminated, Orosz said. “We don’t have a pure grid like Chicago in the Bronx,” he said. “Because it would be hard for motorists to go to the next north-south street, it was decided that we didn’t want to go with that radical a change to street operations… But if this street had twice as many buses I think we probably would have come down on the side of the center median.”

Mike Brockway, from the driver advocacy blog The Expired Meter, mentioned the Active Trans rally in a post about the event and reported that “supporters clearly outnumbered detractors” at the hearing. However, Rosalind Rossi from the Sun-Times, whom I observed angrily talking with CTA officials during the open house, didn’t mention the rally at all. Instead she devoted roughly half of her article to complaints from big box store managers who kvetched that they hadn’t received enough notice about the plan from the CTA. Rossi’s coverage of the pro-BRT viewpoint was limited to a single South Side rider, Derrick Williams, who received about three-and-a-half lines of text.

  • I’m just worried that if they really want to implement the ‘station’ model (like the grade-level bits of the brown line) they’re going to have to redo the entire design to add side-walls and boarding doors, because there’s no way that even metal pedestrian barriers are going to keep people from walking down the side and getting in. Bonus: more shelter from the elements. Massive problem: makes the stations a lot more expensive to build and maintain.

  • Roland Solinski

    I don’t think it will matter either way. The prepaid boarding will be done using Ventra readers, but no turnstiles. Would-be fare dodgers could just walk right past the readers. I suppose people might cut across traffic as a shortcut to the platforms, but they will be 14″ high, which is uncomfortably high to jump up.

  • Joseph Musco

    I guess Ted Orosz’s déjà vu didn’t include the costs of the two projects. The Daily News reported the cost of the entire 5.3 mile Webster SBS line is $10 million vs. $10M per mile for Ashland BRT. Such a deal!


  • Joe, you enjoy frequently bringing up the cost differences between SBS and BRT. While there are many similarities between the two systems, and we can thank SBS for laying the groundwork for BRT, the Chicago system will be a whole other ball of wax in terms of performance. 30 percent faster bus service on SBS is a nice perk for existing bus riders, and encourages new ridership. But the rapid transit-style median stations with level boarding, plus traffic signal prioritization, will boost BRT speeds to 83 percent faster. That plus the more reliable service and more pleasant amenities are what’s needed if we want to make the bus an truly attractive alternative to driving. Yes, these features cost more than simply paint on the road, signs and ticket kiosks, but it’s a very worthwhile investment.

  • BlueFairlane

    … but they will be 14″ high, which is uncomfortably high to jump up.

    If you’re 80, maybe.

  • Fred

    If you are a healthy, able-bodied person and can’t step up 14″, I would highly recommend taking a moment to re-evaluate your lifestyle.

    For reference, how high is the step onto a non-kneeling CTA bus, or the step over a Divvy bike?

  • Ron Burke, Active Trans

    BRT systems are up and running around the globe, including big cities like Mexico City with plenty of people who in theory could dodge fares. However, it’s not very common and BRT is financially healthy and expanding in Mexico City and elsewhere. This is our best chance in years to add a rapid transit line. It’s essentially a light rail train without tracks, with an average speed of 16 mph – not far from the red line’s 21 mph avg (these speeds include stops). Boston’s BRT is called the Silver Line and I like that name for Ashland, too. One of the few colors not already taken. Other name ideas for Chicago’s newest transit line? It doesn’t have to be a color. Maybe the Burnham Line, after Daniel Burnham. Crosstown Line?

  • BlueFairlane

    I don’t know the funding structure of Mexico City BRT, but I’ll take your word that it’s successful. That’s irrelevant, as its success is not without context. What I do know is that funding any sort of transit in the US is a challenge, and that a higher return is expected from transit in this nation. (Fairly or not … it doesn’t matter. It’s just reality.) I also know from observation that people in Chicago love free stuff, even if they know it’s not supposed to be free, and that for whatever reason, honor-system social contracts don’t really work here. If the Ashland BRT is to be successful, it needs to address this issue.

  • BRTis BAD

    this idea blows. BRT will completely gridlock traffic in Chicago. Western Avenue will become a parking lot and businesses along Ashland will wither and die without left-turn capability. The time savings is insignificant compared to the massive expense and myriad traffic logistics headaches. Ride your bike.

  • I was thinking the Indigo Line. Chartreuse, fuchsia?

  • Alex_H

    Do you have an example of an honor-system social contract that has not worked in Chicago?

  • Hmm, I doubt that Capitalinos are any more or less honest than Chicagoans.

  • BlueFairlane

    I could post a police report, but that’s a bit obvious. There’s also the obvious speeding epidemic, talked about so frequently here. An easy one, though, comes in the wake of the Ventra failure, specifically the Federal employees who knew they weren’t supposed to be using their ID badges for free rides, but did it anyway. There are plenty of examples. It’s silly to pretend otherwise.

  • BlueFairlane

    I don’t know what Capitalinos are or are not likely to do. I do know what Chicagoans are likely to do, though, and how their doing it will play with the people who determine the success or failure of the Ashland BRT.

  • Fred

    I vote for any option that does not include the word “Line” in it. In Chicago, ‘Line’ mean train. BRT, while train-like, is not a train. Lets not muddy that definition.

  • Fred

    Metra? I have heard many people say you could solve all of Metra’s funding needs by simply ensuring every passenger has a ticket. (Yes, this is purely anecdotal)

  • Jim Mitchell

    Riding the Mexico City BRT (Metrobus) costs 5 pesos per ride, which is about 38 cents U.S. The system is heavily subsidized to support such low ticket costs (as is the subway there (Metro), which is even cheaper – just 3 pesos per ride). I’ve never ridden the BRT, but have seen it in action, and it works great, for whatever that is worth. The Mexico City Metro (subway) I’ve used frequently, and if you can tolerate the insane crowding, it’s a very good system, too.

  • BlueFairlane

    Another one: Check the attendance history of any Streets and San employee, especially toward the end of the Daley era.

  • Of course you have to adjust for buying power, but that’s still a bargain.

  • BlueFairlane

    Which only emphasizes my point about the different funding structures. One, the higher cost here will only offer people greater incentive to try to buck the system. Two, Mexicans are obviously far more willing to subsidize transit than people in the US, so every free ride that subtracts from revenue will be a mark against the system, and will add just that much weight to those who argue for dismantlement.

  • Jim Mitchell

    BlueFairlane, I somehow deleted a sentence in my earlier post that made pretty much exactly the same point as your item One. I am certain that part of the continued success of Mexico City’s transit systems, including its ever-expanding BRT lines, depends on riders paying their share, and of course that is easier to do when the fare is so low. I don’t think Chilangos are inherently any more or less honest than Chicagoans; but the much higher fares paid by Chicagoans certainly could increase the temptation to cheat.

  • BlueFairlane

    Very well. We’re on similar pages, then.

  • Jim Mitchell

    I also agree with you that Mexico City obviously expects a much lower return from passenger fees than does Chicago. I am sure, however, that they do depend on rider compliance to pay the bills, and anticipated compliance and security/policing efforts are part of their decision-making on where to set ticket prices, just as they must be in Chicago. And, BTW, Mexico City did make changes to the structure — e.g., a few years ago, the price of a subway ticket leaped up 50% from 2 to 3 pesos; and they also clearly decided people would/should pay a lot more for BRT than for subway, as BRT fares are 67% more costly. I’m not sure how much of this difference reflects the need to pay for the BRT construction and how much is value pricing based on the perceived better service (e.g., the BRT in Mexico City is rarely as jam-packed with people as the subway, plus it makes more frequent stops, so probably is more pleasant and convenient for a lot of riders). CTA isn’t planning to charge extra to ride BRT, is it?

  • Roland Solinski

    This seems unlikely. As a regular Metra rider, I get my ticket checked roughly 95% of the time, and I often forget to put my ticket in a holder. Unticketed passengers are really not a huge problem for Metra except in the case of special events (Blackhawks parade, etc), where the conductor can’t feasibly check everyone’s ticket because of crowding.

  • Roland Solinski

    Even on a non-kneeling bus, there’s still the 6″-8″ curb that makes the step easier. Obviously 14″ is doable for many able-bodied people but I think the appearance of height will deter people. The red asphalt in the lane and the flexible bollards should also deter any jumpers. Even if they do try jumping up on the platform, it’s merely a minor safety issue, as the stations will not have turnstiles according to the EA.

  • Fred

    Assuming the bus pulls all the way to the curb…

    I agree that most people are law abiding citizens and will pay the fare, but I flatly reject that if someone is willing to steal a ride on a CTA bus, a mere 14″ curb, red asphalt and bollards will even slow them down from doing so. You may as well put in a card reader with no turnstyle. Just let everyone swipe on their way in on the honor system. Either go full honor system, or enclose the entire platform. To me there is no middle ground. Anything less than full enclosure is just writing off some percentage (10%? 30%? 50%?) of riders as free.

  • Joseph Musco

    I didn’t bring up the topic the SBS comparison this time — you did by quoting Ted Orosz at length about the similarities between the two projects.

    If you can make a route 30% faster for X dollars and another route 83% faster for 5X dollars — don’t more people move more efficiently by making 5 routes 30% faster for the the same money?

    You feel that spending 500% more per mile is a “very worthwhile investment”. It’s my view that applying for a federal grant to build 25 miles of SBS level service is a better option than applying for a federal grant to build 5 miles of Gold Standard BRT. The ITDP standard is an irrelevant standard. What is relevant is what qualifies for a federal grant.

    Will there be federal grant money available in the future to complete Phase II if there isn’t a Chicagoan in office? How about if there is a Republican President? My position is there is a much greater chance of building an improved network of bus service across Chicago in the long run using the SBS model with SBS level costs than believing the transformative effects of Gold Standard BRT will be so self evident that the money to build more routes will simply appear. I’ve never seen the federal government behave that way outside of defense spending.

  • berkeleygirl

    Much as I want to get behind any improvements to mass transit, you state my reason for not getting behind the BRT, since Western is also a proposed route. Especially during commute hours, Western is already a parking lot. If the center of Western becomes a BRT line, it will be pure utter hell. (For the record, I do not own a car.)

    Moreover, I’m concerned about traffic being pushed to the side streets. Already, Oakley, Leavitt, Ainslie and Winnemac (at least to Oakley), have seen a large up-tick in traffic as drivers try to avoid Western and Lawrence. The large majority of drivers race through the neighborhood with little regard for stop signs and even less for pedestrians. In fact, I’ve increasingly started taking the bus to the Western Brown, just being tired of barely avoiding being hit, especially along Leavitt. (As I walk south, drivers aren’t looking for me, only north-bound drivers, even if I’m in the crosswalk.)

  • This. So much this. BRT, even really good BRT is not (as good as) a proper built train, and the line should not be muddied. To me, it’s like people calling buffered bike lanes ‘protected’ — it leaves the same slippery-slope-to-horrible-infrastructure taste in my mouth.

  • If there are no walls or fences on the edge of the platform, it may well not be intuitively obvious to people that they’re NOT allowed to jaywalk onto the middle of the platform. This is a new thing, and lots of people make all kinds of assumptions that are different than the designer’s intent.

  • Or have multiple Ventra swipe-stands along the length of the platform, that print receipts that can be checked upon entry to the bus. If you have enough of them you lose a lot of the “people clogged up at the entry unable to finish in time to board” issue, and also dilute the “but the printer didn’t work on that one and now I’m screwed!” issue. I’d say ten or fifteen per platform wouldn’t be excessive, spread along the length.

  • Coolebra


    Chicago needs something other than colors for route names, as that is rail territory. I agree with Fred that Ashland BRT is a great and necessary project, but it is not rail (light or heavy).

    Tying routes to enduring landmarks, aspects of Chicago history, or high transfer locations all seem like decent ideas, e.g., MedCenter would be a parallel to the HealthLine label. Whatever the approach, it should be consistent and expandable to other future routes. The BRT brand name could be followed by the route name in italic.

    For instance, BRT brand could be representative of Chicago’s fortunate position on Lake Michigan through use of H2O (in blue) and GO (in green) – H2GO! The green GO could be a reference to fast and efficient bus service, sustainable transport, etc. It could be followed by an exclamation mark where the Hancock could be on tilt with a enlarged point beneath it, etc. Buses could also have a visual identifier associated with the route, like an image of the namesake high-volume stop along the route.


    H2GO! MedCenter

    H2GO! MuseumCampus

    Other brand names:

    Chi-Ride, BulletBus, CityStreak, etc.

  • Coolebra

    You forgot White.

  • Jim Mitchell

    Before I take a position pro or con, I’d like to know whether anyone has looked at the following issue (which berkeleygirl’s post, below, reminded me of). Specifically, although the theory is that many cars and trucks will bypass Ashland after the BRT is built and will find better/faster alternate north-south routes, including perhaps Damen, Halsted, and Western, what happens after the next BRT gets built on Western (or Damen, or Halsted)? I don’t believe I’ve seen anyone address whether projections have been made what impact it will have if two or more major north-south arterials – not just Ashland – were to get “squeezed” with respect to car and truck usage. And I do understand the CTA plans to add BRTs on other north-south routes; correct? (And I’m not raising these as “gotchas” or smart-aleck rhetorical questions; I really don’t have an opinion – I am agnostic on the Ashland BRT – because I am intentionally reserving judgment until I know the answers to these questions. I hope the answers exist.)

  • Western is not a proposed route. A study looked at Ashland and Western simultaneously to determine if a BRT should be implemented on one, both, or none.

    It was determined that a BRT would only be implemented on Ashland.

    CTA, CDOT, and DHED will continue to look at Western and other streets (for which MPC has already laid some groundwork for 10 other routes) on which to implement BRT in the future. You can expect a proposal to be a proposal when the mayor or CTA says, “We are going to pursue a BRT on X route” and then issues an environmental assessment for it.

  • The ITDP is not irrelevant. It’s a way for systems to be judged against another knowing that it’s a comparison of Fuji Apples to Gala Apples and not to Clementines.

    The cost of the Ashland BRT is not part of the controversy. The operations are what people are most concerned about so comparing the operations aspect of SBS (on Webster and 1st/2nd Avenues) is the most relevant part of our reporting.

  • Jim Mitchell

    Thanks. I was confused about this, and I think many others may have been, too. Following a theme we’ve been developing elsewhere this evening, can you link to the study you reference above? Thanks.

  • Yup, here’s Metropolitan Planning Council’s “BRT: A new route to opportunity”.


  • Jim Mitchell

    Steven, this study gives essentially equal recommendations to 10 potential BRT routes, including the entire length of Western from 95th to Howard. I don’t see where they preferred Ashland to Western or any of the other 8 proposed routes. What am I missing?

  • Jim Mitchell

    As an environmental attorney, I’m particularly amused that those federal employees were with EPA Region 5. But I don’t think they exploited it; they actually reported it so it could get shut down. Good on them.

  • Joseph Musco

    ITDP’s own manual says “Good data is rare and expensive: While the effect of the BRT corridor on a passenger’s door-to-door travel time is the ideal performance-appraisal metric, this data is extremely difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to collect, and nearly impossible to independently corroborate.”

    The ITDP manual is an ideological planning guide composed of subjective criteria chosen by ITDP, which produces a score. That score isn’t data, it’s an opinion.

  • Roland Solinski

    It WILL be “full honor system”. If you take the suggested path from the crosswalk up the ramp onto the platform, you will pass one Ventra reader on a post and one Ventra vending machine, but nothing requiring payment at any point.

    I don’t even know if the machine will print proof-of-payment receipts; everybody may be required to purchase a Ventra card before boarding. CTA will probably allow riders to tap the Ventra reader on the farebox aboard the bus, if they missed the one on the platform while in a rush.

    The corollary to this is that CTA will have to hire fare inspectors like most light-rail systems have. I’m not sure whether these will be CPD officers or not, although CPD already has a transit division. Plainclothes would work better.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    On page 22, the MPC study identifies Western and Ashland as the routes with the highest modeled ridership demand.

    The CTA’s “How We Got Here: Western and Ashland Corridors Bus Rapid Transit Project Alternatives Analysis Summary” explains the side-by-side comparison of Ashland and Western. On (print) page 21, it says Ashland has been “prioritized”:


  • Alex_H

    Jim, it’s a good question. I’m sure I am not alone on this site in drooling at the prospect of a robust, citywide BRT network (Ashland, Western, Cicero, Irving, North, etc. etc. etc. etc.).

    Where will the cars go? I think part of the idea is that a citywide BRT network would allow significantly more people to view public transit as a viable commuting option, as people who live near the El and work downtown generally already do. So, this could mean fewer one-person cars on the road, leaving room for trucks, necessary car trips, etc.

    But I’d be interested in others’ thoughts.

  • Jim Mitchell

    Thanks, Steven and Anna. Am I correct that this means CTA only plans to build BRT on Ashland at this time, but they would build Western at some undetermined future time? Or is it what Steven seems to be saying above – CTA has abandoned the idea of BRT on Western? Because the CTA study Anna links to is ambiguous about that; it just indicates, as Anna says, Ashland has been “prioritized.” My reading of that word “prioritized” is “first in line” not “first, last, and only.” Has CTA delivered a clear statement of its intent for a Western BRT, yea or nay?

  • Assuming Ashland BRT proves successful, the CTA will look into implementing the system on other streets, and Western would be a prime candidate. The CTA has said Western is a possible location for a future route, but has not announced plans to implement BRT on Western.

  • Fred

    Thanks for the graphic. This is the first I’ve seen of anything other than a rendering.

    So we’ve doubled the most expensive part of the operation (labor) to implement this? Just seems to me like there has to be a better way.

  • Fbfree

    Hi Jim,

    I had talked at the open house to one of the people in charge of the economic analysis of the plan. I asked him about how the Ashland BRT would act as a start to a BRT network. He mentioned that just getting the Ashland BRT up and running is a big first step and that the future network, from CDOT and CTA’s perspective, is quite a ways in the future. He also specifically mentioned that he’s doubtful a Western BRT would be a next step and that another corridor would rather take its place.

    This is just one viewpoint from one part of the team putting it together, but it indicates that there is no plan to just ram in BRT everywhere at the exclusion of automotive connectivity. The traffic modeling projections that indicate a 30% increase in congested vehicle travel on Western (and other streets) are worst case scenarios where absolutely all the trips that are currently taken by car continue to be taken by car. We won’t know what the full effect will be until we build the BRT. If this worst case scenario takes place, then I don’t believe we will ever see this style of BRT on Western. If traffic changes modes, then this will be both a proof of the concept and a huge boon for the city.

  • Jim Mitchell

    Thanks, that’s very helpful. Sounds like a rational approach. Personally, I was surprised to hear Western was even under consideration as a potential second route; it seemed odd to develop two, parallel routes so close to each other before looking at some east/west routes that could feed into the Ashland route. I know I keep bringing up Mexico City to the point of annoyance for some, but that is the pattern of their BRT development, and it has been very successful for them. First, Mexico City covered the largest north/south thoroughfare with BRT (Insurgentes), then they built the second BRT route on east/west thoroughfares that intersect the first line … and then they were off to the races. Here’s a map of their system for Alex_H to drool over: http://www.mobilemaplets.com/showplace/2865

  • Little Nipper

    Engineer: Ashland Avenue transit project won’t work
    Chicago Sun-Times – Under the CTA plan, cars, trucks and the regular No. … CTA officials are putting their faith in Chicago’s street grid system to absorb a projected 35 … http://www.suntimes.com/news/transportation/25000242-418/engineer-ashland-avenue-transit-project-wont-work.html


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