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”!

  • MarytM

    A blog post about another blog post about another blog post. It’s like the blogger version of Inception.

  • Jim Mitchell

    It’s bloggers all the way down!

  • Michael

    I’m one of the people Dellinger interviewed, and he asked about the impacts BRT would have on both my daily commute and my overall mobility in the city. I’m surprised and slightly disappointed that he didn’t include much from our interview.

  • Matt F

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

    They are in the picture taken by steven vance. duhh

    I find your slanted reporting much like Fox News. You report half the issue and victimize yourself to emotionalize the issue.

    Here’s a BRT bus rider: “Suzi Wahl, a neighborhood resident who works at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, joined our meeting as well… Wahl too has good transportation credentials: she takes the bus routinely, and she used to participate in Critical Mass bike rides…When you take away Ashland as a driving arterial, she worries that thwarted through-traffic will inevitably divert to the smaller streets nearby, such as her own. “I see this as destroying the neighborhood,” she said.”

    Oh wait…Suzi Wahl didn’t fit the narrative you designed? Well, she doesn’t count then! Let’s just show the picture of the BRT supporters and claim we are the victims by not having pro-BRT quotes.

  • Here’s an article we ran giving airtime to Wahl’s concerns about the BRT plan: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/09/24/talking-to-a-concerned-mom-about-how-ashland-brt-will-improve-safety/

  • Matt F

    thanks for that article. def gives Wahl a different perspective.

  • madopal

    What gives with Wahl, anyway? Are all the journos just pouncing on her because she’s a cyclist who opposed BRT? I was surprised to see her interviewed again in the Atlantic Cities piece. Maybe she’s got a really good agent or something…

  • jeff wegerson

    keep whinging and we will force you against your will to read more

  • cjlane

    When someone else does “gives airtime” like that, you accurately refer to it as a “critique” or a “debunking”. You basically said she was wrong, John, which just reinforces Matt’s comment above (not that I necessarily agree with Matt’s main point).

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    Did you get any notice that the article was posted? I did not, but that may have to do with Dellinger spelling my name wrong, which would’ve led him to spell my email address wrong.

    I’m disappointed but not surprised that Dellinger’s article reflects his preconceived notions of Chicago and our transportation system.

  • Michael

    I didn’t, but I had been checking Atlantic Cities daily. Too bad he spelled your name wrong :/


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