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Where Are the Bus Riders in the Atlantic Cities Piece on Ashland BRT?

Boarding a #9 Ashland bus. Photo: John Greenfield

On his blog City Pages, Daniel Hertz has an effective critique of yesterday’s Atlantic Cities piece on the Ashland bus rapid transit plan. The story by Matt Dellinger is a fairly standard “two sides to every story” report on the issue, giving roughly equal weight and credibility to the project’s advocates and opponents. And the piece does contain a few astute lines about Chicago’s schizophrenic nature as a city that is both transit-friendly and car-centric:

The late 20th century remains baked into the city's landscape -- there are drive-­thru banks a ten minute walk from Michigan Avenue downtown, and big box stores and a strip mall with suburban-sized parking lots around the corner from the Steppenwolf Theatre… Chicago's transportation split­-personality explains a great deal about how its recent plan for bus-rapid transit along Ashland Avenue could become controversial.

But Hertz points out that the piece is written from the perspective that using transit as one’s primary way to get around Chicago is unusual. It begins: “Just ten years ago, living in Chicago without an automobile was considered eccentric behavior." Hertz responds:

Was it? Really? The one out of four people who didn’t own cars back then, they were eccentric? Is that what “eccentric” means? Things that 25% of the population does?

Hertz notes that the Atlantic piece, and the debate about Ashland BRT and better transit in general, are affected by “selection bias”: most journalists, politicians, and businesses owners occupy the middle range of the income spectrum or higher, and mostly know people like themselves. Since riding transit is a choice for them, not a necessity, they’re less inclined to see the benefits of slowing down cars a bit to greatly increase bus speeds. Hertz says this viewpoint informs a quote from BRT opponent Suzi Wahl in the Atlantic piece, “[Take] a bus to the ER? Are you kidding?"

Hertz points out that a quarter of Wahl’s fellow Chicago’s don’t have the choice of driving to the hospital because they don’t own cars -- they need to ride the bus to get to the ER:

I’m not under the impression that people like Suzanne Wahl are going to be convinced by facts like this, of course. But at the very least it behooves journalists -- whose job description is, literally, providing accurate depictions of reality to the general public -- to take details like that into account in pieces like this...

As with most stories from the Sun-Times and Tribune, this Atlantic Cities piece pretends that this is a debate between, on the one hand, neighborhood residents who drive, and on the other, government transportation planners and their transit-nerd friends. There is literally not a single quote from a person who just happens to ride the bus about what their commute is like now, what it would be like after BRT. Because why would we want to include them? They’re “eccentrics”!

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