The Gazette Provides a Windshield-View Update on the Stalled Ashland BRT Project

Rendering of the Ashland BRT corridor.
Rendering of the Ashland BRT corridor.

Here at Streetsblog Chicago, we make no bones about being advocates for safe, efficient, and equitable transportation. In contrast, the Gazette Chicago community newspaper claims to “tell all sides of the story in our unbiased news coverage.” But in reality the paper has shown a strong pro-driving bias in its coverage of the city’s Ashland Avenue bus rapid transit proposal. An update on the project published today by reporter Susan S. Stevens was essentially an anti-BRT op-ed masquerading as a news story.

The project, announced in spring 2013, would have converted the two center lanes of four-lane Ashland to center-running BRT between 95th Street and Irving Park Road. Thanks to time-saving features like car-free lanes; limited stops; prepaid, level, all-door boarding; and transit signal priority, the CTA estimated that the route would nearly double current bus speeds from 8.7 to 15.9 mph, including stops, which is comparable to the ‘L’. Meanwhile, the agency predicted that average car speeds on Ashland would only be reduced by ten percent, from 18.3 to 16.5 mph.

An anti-BRT cartoon that previously ran in the Gazette.
An anti-BRT cartoon that previously ran in the Gazette.

There was a strong backlash to the proposal from some residents and business owners, led by the Fulton Market Association’s Romanelli, who argued that the lane conversions, along with the prohibition of most left turns from Ashland, would lead carmageddon. In the face of this stiff opposition, the city indefinitely shelved the plan a couple of years ago.

In today’s piece Stevens reassures motorists and merchants that Ashland isn’t getting the major transit improvements. (The city did recently implement transit-friendly signal timing on Ashland and reintroduced express service, but these relatively minor changes don’t appear to be having a dramatic impact on bus travel times.) “Shoppers, shopkeepers, and residents can rest assured [emphasis added] that the middles of Ashland and Western Avenues will not become dedicated to buses any time in the foreseeable future,” she writes.

Stevens looked into the issue after anti-BRT types were alarmed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s June 22 announcement that the city would conduct a six-month study of whether to expand Chicago’s transit-oriented development ordinance to include high-ridership bus corridors, including Ashland, Western, Chicago Avenue, and 79th. Within TOD zones, on-site car parking requirements for new developments are essentially eliminated.

To make sure the Ashland BRT proposal isn’t still in the works, Stevens checked in with aldermen Daniel Solis (25th) and Jason Ervin (28th) who told her they haven’t heard of any movement on the project, and that it seems to be dead in the water.

She also talked to Romanelli and fellow BRT naysayer Charles Paidock from the grassroots group Citizens Taking Action, who also said they haven’t heard any news about Ashland BRT, and that it appears to be going nowhere. “It took a ton of hard work to win that issue,” Romanelli boasted.

For some reason Stevens also contacted former Chicago police chief and mayoral candidate Garry McCarthy for his opinion on the issue. Via a spokesperson McCarthy called the BRT proposal an example of Emanuel “rolling out shiny objects… at the expense of taxpayers.” The 16-mile rapid bus corridor is estimated to cost $160 million. By comparison, the car-centric Jayne Byrne Interchange project, currently underway in the west loop, is costing taxpayers $600 million.

Customers board a CTA bus on Ashland. Photo: John Greenfield
Customers board a CTA bus on Ashland. Photo: John Greenfield

Conspicuously absent from Stevens’ supposed attempt to “tell all sides of the story” is the pro-BRT viewpoint. She writes that the mayor’s office, the CTA, and other leaders declined to comment (the CTA didn’t provide a comment to me by press time either.) But apparently she didn’t bother to contact Chicago’s leading transit advocacy organizations for their perspectives, so I’ve done it for her.

Metropolitan Planning Council director of transportation Audrey Wennink argued that the city shouldn’t give up on the project, but should go back to the drawing board and “re-evaluate design options to see if different approaches to BRT on Ashland can work better for everyone.” She noted that it’s a pressing issue because Ashland buses have carried the highest ridership of any bus route in Chicago for the past five years straight – more than 8 million people per year, serving economically diverse communities and connecting with many rail routes. “Meanwhile, bus speeds throughout the city continue to decrease due to traffic congestion.”

Active Transportation Alliance director of governmental relations Kyle Whitehead echoed Wennink’s sentiments. “The city should continue to look at ways improve bus speed and reliability on Ashland and other high-ridership routes across the city, as we called for in our recent Back on the Bus report,” he said via email. “More transit signal priority, faster boarding (pre-paid and all-door), and dedicated lanes would get more people riding transit and make the road safer for everyone.”

Whitehead noted that the reinstated Ashland express bus service alone does little to address bus bunching and congestion-related slow zones. “Thousands of people rely on the Ashland bus to get to work, school, healthcare centers, and other critical services every day,” he noted. “These riders deserve better.”

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  • Anne A

    On the weekends of major festivals and large events, taking Metra from Beverly towards downtown is increasingly unworkable due to their decrease in the number of open cars. It’s especially difficulty if I need to take a bike. On some of those weekends, the red line is not an option either, because they’re not allowing bikes.

    On those days, the Ashland bus is my lifeline because it goes all the way to 95th. The challenge is dealing with the incredible slowness of some of those trips. It took 50 minutes from 33rd to 95th on one trip, and often takes 40-45 minutes. In a car, that would take maybe 20 minutes.

    If BRT was a reality and shaved 10 minutes or more off a trip, it would be feasible for me to travel north for more events and get togethers with friends and I wouldn’t be shut out so many weekends of the summer. I would ride the Ashland bus a lot more if travel times were more reasonable and reliable.

  • Mcass777

    I live in Edgebrook and we are currently under a massively sewer project in Devon at the Metra tracks. It is stalled now due to construction issues. Our merchants on Devon, Caldwell and Central are suffering greatly without parking. Our local Nexdoor site is pleading with neighbors to walk into town and shop. This only can go so far. People commute to out restaurants and shops from further than a few blocks away. pleae be cautious with the removal of streetside parking and our local merchants

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The BRT project would have retained 92 percent of the parking spots. Many of the businesses in your area greatly benefit from the Metra stop. Some of them might not even exist without it. The benefits of having the equivalent of an ‘L’ stop within a block or two would outweigh the loss off a few parking spaces for many, if not all businesses on Ashland. That’s especially true when you consider that many of the existing curbside spots aren’t getting much use, and many of the businesses have parking lots.

  • Scott Avers

    John,
    Has CDOT provided performance stats for the Loop BRT project? If so, where are they located? Thanks!

  • Carter O’Brien

    Construction work is always bad for businesses. BRT is a more long game, sustainable solution.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The CTA would have those and, no, they haven’t released them.

  • david vartanoff

    The whole point of a train is easily adding capacity. Derwinski needs to clean up the closed car BS. In the longer term, RI division trains on the Suburban Branch or NB from Blue Island converted to POP via Ventra and honoring CTA passes as full fare.

  • david vartanoff

    As I have suggested before, onee way around Romanelli & co is to get TSP, declare POP/all door boarding w/Ventra at least for the expresses. It should also be possible to program the traffic signals to give a bus only proceed light (aka queue jump) . None of this should affect parking so the obstructionists have little to complain of. If, as brt theory suggests, Ashland Express buses gain MPH, then asking for dedicated lanes in rush hour should be next. If that path rather than an easy target for auto-centric dinosaurs had been proposed, we would likely have better service already. Of course, the big project ideal is ribbon cutting and contracts for…

  • Scott Avers

    That’s interesting. After spending millions on the Loop BRT you’d think they’d provide some analysis. Maybe in reality the Loop BRT isn’t showing the benefits they promised.

  • Jeremy

    A bus only green light doesn’t work if a car is stopped in front of the bus. That is why the bus only lane is necessary.

  • Mcass777

    I get it. Just reporting from the neighborhood.

  • david vartanoff

    correct as you stated , but if the bus is at the curb in the bus stop, then a queue jump can get the bus out ahead of both lanes of cars.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It isn’t going to until they implement, pre-paid boarding. It’s kind of mysterious why they’re dragging their feet on that. Probably time for me to look into the issue again.

  • Jeremy

    This is where curb extensions might be a good idea. Allow the bus to remain in the driving lane while passengers board.

  • Cameron Puetz

    I don’t mean this as a comment one way or the other on the Ashland BRT proposal, but the real solution to these problems is to unlock more Metra cars. There can’t possibly be a more cost effective to add capacity than unlocking a car that’s already making the trip. The fact that Metra can’t be bothered to open enough cars is poor justification for building new CTA infrastructure.

  • Cameron Puetz

    MPC’s Wennink is right, the plan needs to be reevaluated. The idea of BRT is good, but there were many problems with the proposed execution. The center running configuration was a terrible idea. It needlessly created a wedge issue by limiting left turns, while at the same time degrading the transit experience. Time and time again median platforms have been shown to be unpleasant to wait at. Additionally with side platforms half of the passengers will be able to walk directly to the platform, while half will need to wait for a light to cross Ashland. With center running busses, all passengers will need to wait for a light to cross half of Ashland.

    The extents of the route need to be thought about as well. Irving Park doesn’t have anything to recommend it as the northern terminus other than tradition. Stopping where the #9 stops because that was the end of the street car line didn’t help present this as a forward thinking project. It also cost the project support in traditionally transit friendly neighborhoods like Uptown and Ravenswood. A better option would have been to end the BRT route where it could connect with other transit options. The newly rebuilt Wilson Red/Purple Line Station would have been a good candidate.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Center-running BRT would have significantly faster service than curbside BRT due to the elimination of conflicts with drivers parking and making pickups and drop-offs. It would allow the CTA to maintain local bus service in the outside travel lanes (probably a bad idea, but possibly a political necessity) without slowing down the express buses. The median stations would double as pedestrian islands, which would compensate for the minor inconvenience of customers having to cross to the middle of the street. (And, come to think of it, this way everybody would only have to cross half of the street, whereas with curbside half of the passengers would have to cross all of it, so that issue is almost a wash.)

    Moreover, there’s no comparison between waiting on a Red Line platform is the middle of the Dan Ryan Expressway, with something like five lanes of high-speed traffic on either side, and waiting in the middle of a surface street with only two lanes on either side.

    Proximity of Ashland to Clark Street north of Irving Park is one reason why Ashland bus service doesn’t currently there, and why BRT isn’t proposed there. But another reason is opposition from residents on this mostly-residential stretch of Ashland. While they’ve offered dubious arguments about bus vibrations causing damage to building foundations, the main factor seems to be parking — they don’t want to lose curbside parking spots to bus stops. So that would be an issue with extending curbside BRT there as well. NIMBY resistance to making their area easily accessible to outsiders could be an issue too, whether the BRT line runs in the median or curbside.

  • Anne A

    Metra would be crowded on festival weekends regardless. I agree that not opening additional cars is idiotic, since the cars are already there, especially in a situation where they have only 1 car open, they have 2 conductors, and each conductor is supposed to cover up to 2 cars.

    I’m just giving another example of reasons why riders might want a faster Ashland bus.

  • Anne A

    The Rock Island situation is just plain dumb. It’s alienating a lot of actual and potential passengers and reducing ridership.

  • Chicago60609

    BRT is a stupid idea. It’s time for Chicago to undertake a major public works project – to wit, creating subway lines under Ashland, Western, and Cicero Aves. A world class city should be easy to get around. Let Elon musk build it for us, for free, like the imaginary bullet train to O’Hare.

  • Jennifer Melfi

    I used to live in this area and this would be amazing. The #9 bus gets a lot of traffic north and south, beginning with people going to the VA hospital, and then carrying people to the other stuff around the area. I think this would actually speed traffic in many ways because there wouldn’t be waiting for the bus as it makes stops.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The proximity to Clark should be a nonissue. Sharing Ashland with the #9 bus is far more redundant than having the #22 a few blocks away.

    The main delay with crossing the street to board is waiting for the light change, so there isn’t much difference between crossing the whole street or half of the street.

  • PP

    BRT would be a heck of a lot cheaper than adding subways to all those streets

  • david vartanoff

    That, however, slows traffic which is not useful per se. We invented bus stops originally to get cars past the bus doing its work at the stop. This becomes more critical as parents w/strollers, wheelchair users, riders using laundry carts as shopping carts, proliferate.

  • david vartanoff

    John, local bus service should be maintained. Widely spaced stops for expresses (marketed as brt because that is the transit industry nom du jour) is fine in nice weather and for riders in prime physical shape. As a former cyclist whose knees remind me I am 74, I WANT the closely spaced stops of a local for some trips, express stops for longer trips. One size NEVER fits all.

  • Chicago60609

    At first, yes; but the subways would be easier to maintain, wouldn’t screw up traffic, would lure more transit users; and would make the quality of life in this city vastly better.

    It was costly to build Millennium Park, too.

  • PP

    less cars on the road is a good thing….

  • Cameron Puetz

    The benefits of an Ashland subway on the north side could be had much cheaper by adding infill stations and upgrading the UP-N to RER style service. New corridor is really only needed south Cortland.

    Most of the length of Halstead on the north side is already well served by the Red Line and parts of the south side could be covered by upgraded service on the SWS. New corridor is really only needed between North Ave and 47th Street.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Maintaining the local service would mean that all drivers and the locals would share the same travel lanes, so local bus speeds would decrease somewhat. Since the BRT stops will be no more than a block or two from any given local stop, the vast majority of current riders will opt for the express service, which will be nearly twice as fast as current service.

    So just about the only people riding the locals would be people with serious mobility issues, for whom an extra block or two of travel is a deal-breaker, and maybe a few able-bodied folks who just really hate walking. Perhaps the solution would be to run the locals on an hourly basis and/or provide better paratransit service for people along the corridor who need it.

    One thing that exacerbates the political issue here is that Chicago bus stops are spaced too close together — generally only 1/8 mile (one block) apart when they should be 1/4 mile (two blocks) apart. People are used to having a bus stop at the end of every residential street, even though that currently helps slow bus service to a crawl.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    NYC’s Second Avenue subway (granted, a worst-case scenario) cost $2.5 billion a mile. That’s more than five times the cost of Millennium Park ($475 million), so a 16-mile subway on Ashland could cost 80 times as much as the park. At $160 million, the BRT route would cost a third as much as the park.

  • david vartanoff

    Yes, the SAS was a contractors banquet proving NYC can behave more crookedly than Chicago. That said, a decently planned cut and cover (the easier, cheaper method) shallow subway could be built under either Western or Ashland.
    Elsewhere I have proposed restoring the Evergreen Paulina Connector as a start. In the long run, Chicago needs more robust transit N-S crosstown on the West Side.

  • Courtney

    I’d love to see BRT on Western from 95th all the way to Howard. Western could be transformed by having more residential and being less auto-centric. There’s currently so much wasted potential.

  • Chicago60609

    ..and nothing would take more cars off the road than subways on the streets I mentioned.

  • Chicago60609

    As I stated, let Elon Musk build them for free.

  • PP

    Elon Musk is not building his hair brained scheme for free.

  • Chicago60609

    [Shocked Face]

  • Chicago60609

    May I ask a question of you, Mr. Moderator, and get an honest answer? Do you ride the bus regularly?

  • Wade Johnston

    I do, what’s your point.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Do we have any solid numbers for the long term expense of operations and maintenance comparing BRT vs new subways?

    Most Circle Line schematics I recall had the total amount of track well under 10 miles, closer to 7, I think. At the end of the day the connectivity issue is the big one. It isn’t just about getting from point A to point B, it’s better integrating all of the existing lines and routes.

    And this always bears a bump: http://gapersblock.com/mechanics/2011/10/06/transit-2020-an-immodest-proposal-for-the-cta/

  • david vartanoff

    Actually Google maps show 2-3 blocks between stops on much of Ashland not every block, but my point is that a true express needs to stop far less frequently because its purpose is longer distance travel. A good example would be only at transfer points to other routes and major destinations such as hospitals, schools, major commercial centers. In SF, recently, Muni wanted to abolish a stop at a supermarket–really rider hostile for anyone (like me) who does grocery shopping by transit. Happily, there was enough pushback from riders that the stop has been saved.
    I should add that for several years the bus route nearest my front door had a “rapid” and a local during daylight M-F.
    The difference was significant, but by 7PM the local had no need to make every stop and was thus nearly as fast. Since the”rapid” was abolished, I have to allow longer travel time for daytime trips.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yep, the Clark and Montrose buses mostly. And I’d certainly ride more frequently if bus speeds were nearly doubled.

  • rwy

    I doubt you could build that many infill stations for $160M. And it would slow down commutes for people on the north shore.

  • FlamingoFresh

    I also recall hearing that at the state level they were looking at possibly being able to enforce BRT lane violators by camera enforcement. Any word where that is at?

  • FlamingoFresh

    I think the City can make a better argument for BRT on Ashland if they can show that a BRT line in Chicago is successful and works. The city should focus on the BRT downtown and figure out the best way to keep those lanes free from outside traffic (video enforcement for violations). If they can optimize that initial investment and prove it to be highly successful, then pushing for an Ashland BRT will be harder to argue, since we know there will always be opposition regardless of promised effectiveness.

    Basically the City should see their investments through all the way and not just through the construction of them but the implementation of them.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    From the CDOT spokesman: “Decreasing the number of infractions in the bus lanes, as well as other similar behaviors, like ‘blocking the box,’ could be assisted by camera enforcement. Under current law, these are moving violations that otherwise require a police officer to issue a violation. This would require state legislation to allow the city or CTA to implement such a system. We are not aware of any pending legislation, but it is a policy worth studying and supporting.”

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    There are countless thousands of relatively voice-less people who would benefit from this BRT route. Can cars just go back to the 20th century and stay there? Thanks,
    A millenial
    PS- Driving an SUV is more sinful than gay sex!

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