The Suburbanophile: Renn Praises Chicago Big-Boxes, Pans Ashland BRT

Aaron Renn

Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal, writes the popular blog The Urbanophile, and sometimes his articles are right on the money. For example Streetblog NYC reporter Stephen Miller tells me Renn was justified in complaining about the high cost of New York infrastructure projects in a Daily News op-ed earlier this year.

However, the Chicago-centric piece that Renn published today in the urban planning site, cofounded by pro-sprawl guru Joel Kotkin, is a real doozy. He argues that our city’s Ashland Bus Rapid Transit project is example of wrongheaded one-size-fits-all thinking by car-hating urbanists that’s about “actively making things worse for drivers.”

Renn, a former Chicagoan, actually makes some good points about the benefits of transit-oriented development and protected bike lanes in the article. I even agree with his assertion that, for many residents, the fact that Chicago offers numerous sustainable transportation options, as well as the ability to own, drive and park a car relatively cheaply and conveniently, represents “the best of both worlds.” He argues that, along with more affordable housing prices, the fact that it’s easy to live with or without with a car in Chicago is one of its main advantages over peer cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston.

However, the article goes south when the author, who currently lives in Manhattan, argues that big-box stores with vast parking moats are one of Chicago’s finest features. He tells a harrowing tale of trying to whip up a batch of artisanal mayonnaise, only to discover that his local grocery store in the Upper West Side didn’t stock the right kind of olive oil.

“I can assure you in my old place in Chicago, one quick trip to Jewel or any of the other plentiful supermarkets would have taken care of that,” he writes. “Stores like that, or like Sam’s Wine and Spirits and host of others, only exist because they are able to draw from a trade area served by the car, and because people can buy large quantities best transported by car.”

A more serious problem with Renn’s piece is his assertion that the Ashland BRT project would be a case of transit advocates intentionally “degrading the urban environment” for drivers, which would make Chicago a less livable city. The plan calls for converting two of the four travel lanes on Ashland Avenue to dedicated, center-running bus lanes, which would require the elimination of most left turns off of the street.

CTA rendering of Ashland BRT.

“Fortunately, this [project] appears to be dying on the vine in the face of neighbor opposition,” he writes, linking to a Sun-Times article about the city’s recent announcement that express bus service is returning to Ashland and Western Avenue. Although that piece was titled “Ashland BRT Seems All But Dead With Return of Ashland, Western Express Buses,” its report of the BRT route’s demise was greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain might say. A CTA insider tells us that some agency staffers view the new limited-stop service with bus-priority stoplights as a step towards full-fledged BRT.

“Where Ashland Ave. BRT fails is not in its attempt to improve transit service or to accommodate those who choose not to have cars,” Renn writes. “Rather, the problem is that it is rooted in a vision… that believes car use should be deliberately discouraged and minimized – ideally eliminated entirely – in the city.”

There are a couple of problems with these statements. The Chicagoans who have the most to gain from the Ashland BRT are those are carless by necessity, not by choice. Ashland is the city’s busiest bus line. Roughly 25 percent of household within a half mile of the 16-mile BRT route don’t own cars, and many of the neighborhoods it would serve are low-to-moderate income communities on the South Side.

Dedicated lanes and prepaid, level boarding from median stations, plus other timesaving features, would roughly double bus speeds, from the current 8.7 mph to 15.9 mph. That would make it much easier for carless Chicagoans, including many low-income people, to access work, school, and medical appointments. The project would also include wider sidewalks and easier pedestrian crossings. These are some of the reasons why the project is endorsed by dozens of local community organizations and businesses, as well as more than 1,800 residents who signed an Active Transportation Alliance petition in favor of the plan.

Moreover, reconfiguring the street would not cause major hardships for drivers. The CTA projects that average car traffic speeds on Ashland would only be slightly reduced, from 18.3 to 16.5 mph. And the left-turn prohibition wouldn’t be a major imposition on motorists. Delivery companies like UPS already plan their routes to avoid lefts, in order to save time and fuel.

“The no-car philosophy as the norm, not just an option, would undermine one of the greatest strategic advantages of Chicago,” Renn argues. In doing so, he ignores the fact that the vast majority of the city’s 4,000-plus miles of streets were designed with an overwhelmingly pro-car philosophy. Leveling the playing field for transit riders and pedestrians on 16 miles of roadway certainly isn’t going to do much to make the city less appealing for people who choose to drive.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    Bad news. The streets were NOT designed for cars. Most of the large streets did have trains running on them at some point in the past. We just stupidly ripped them out.

  • Roland Solinski

    Renn generally focuses on how cities can run themselves like a business. I think he actually make a strong case that the option to own a car in a dense urban environment is a selling point for the city.

    Unfortunately, those two things are in tension. If the city keeps adding residents and cars, it will degrade the dense urban environment until we look like Los Angeles. The key here is moderation – I support the Ashland BRT because it would expand the core area of the city where car-free living is convenient. I don’t necessarily want to see BRT on every major arterial in the city, but Ashland is a good place for it.

  • People like Renn can’t help themselves, their arrival and the lifestyle habits they bring end up disrupting
    everything they claim to love about living in a big city.

    I’m pretty sure I read that he lived on the 1600 or 1700 block of Belmont is one of those
    suburbanized townhomes. That’s about a 5-10 minute walk from the Jewel or
    Whole Foods, if that’s too challenging of a walk for his artisanal
    mayonnaise, he really just belongs in one of the many suburbs that don’t even bother creating sidewalks.

    He never quite saw the irony in moving into an old
    commercially zoned strip rezoned into residential, all the while
    complaining vociferously about the lack of businesses within a “walkable” distance (apparently a
    few hundred feet) of his home… can’t walk to places that the
    government & developers collude to remove. Belmont is probably the poster child for terrible development and spot zoning changes.

    “I can assure you in my old place in Chicago, one quick trip to Jewel or
    any of the other plentiful supermarkets would have taken care of that,”
    he writes. “Stores like that, or like Sam’s Wine and Spirits and host
    of others, only exist because they are able to draw from a trade area
    served by the car, and because people can buy large quantities best
    transported by car.”

  • High_n_Dry

    Owning a car in Chicago is cheap? Maybe with Manhattan currency.

    (Off topic: Ha. I thought the bit about mayo was a joke, then I read his blog post. Difficult to take yuppies seriously sometimes. Demographically I am a yuppie so can say that.)

  • Katja

    Agreed. Plus, why use for an example Sam’s Wine and Spirits, that was bought out by Binny’s in, what, 2009? 2010?

  • I really don’t get it. Last time I was in NY I was staying in Manhattan on the mid West Side somewhere sorry I really don’t know the city. Anyway, nearby was a supermarket style store that was built out of a bunch of regular sized stores glommed together. I’m sure they had his Mayo. But the point is that that model could be replicated often enough that one would be close enough for a cab ride if not a bike or walk. The cab would not need a parking lot at either end of his trip. He does not sound like a person that needs a car constantly so really a city where most of the limited street parking were car-shares would likely work for him as well. That he can’t see these perfectly good urban options calls into question his “urbanist” credentials.

  • 1976boy

    Drivers have the luxury of switching their routes at whim. If Ashland is harder to navigate due to the bus lane intervention, they can take Damen, Western, Halsted, the expressway, or local streets in between depending on where they are going. Transit riders do not have that option without going way out of their way. How terrible would it be if one main artery with the highest share of riders was made more functional for all? I really don’t get it.

  • Miles Bader

    As a large portion of my extended family lives in Chicago, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the city (95% of that time car-free), I feel free to tell Renn to go fuck himself, pardon my French.

    Car-oriented development has done immeasurable damage to Chicago, but the city still has far better transit bonafides than most American cities. However there’s obviously ample room for improvement, and the last thing the city needs is idiotic screeds encouraging them to move in the wrong direction.

  • johnaustingreenfield