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Public Transportation Fri Dec 20 2013

Ashland Bus Rapid Transit Woes

Conceptual rendering of Ashland BRT/ CTA

Today is the last day Chicago Transit Authority will be collecting public input and formal comments on the Ashland Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, as part of their Environmental Assessment, before moving on to the next phase of design.

City transportation officials say the BRT is a necessary modernization project that would meet a high demand by providing faster, more efficient and more reliable service than current Ashland bus lines.

Ashland was chosen for the BRT because it has the highest annual bus ridership in the city, with over 10 million boardings in 2012, CTA says.

Still, last week's open house meeting held by city transportation officials at Pulaski Park Fieldhouse was not without critical public sentiment.

How would BRT work?

The BRT system would run down the center of Ashland Avenue for 16 miles between Irving Park Road and 95th Street.

Two of Ashland's current four general traffic lanes would be dedicated as center running bus only lanes. This would leave one auto travel lane and one parking lane going in each direction on Ashland Ave. Most left-turns off Ashland would be eliminated, as would the ability to cross Ashland from many side streets.

CTA says Ashland's rapid transit buses would have limited stops, about every half-mile and at CTA stations, and traffic signal priority, making them much faster than current buses. Multiple wide doors, level boarding between bus and curb and ability to pay fares at stations before boarding will also speed up bus travel, officials say.

According to transportation officials, the Ashland BRT system would be twice as fast as current buses, with average speeds projected at 16 mph. This would make Ashland bus speeds almost as fast as average El train speeds at 20 mph.

The BRT would connect with major destinations and existing train networks, save travel time, improve reliability, improve streetscaping, enhance shelters and increase opportunities for economic development along the Ashland corridor, CTA says.

Thumbnail image for ashlandbrt_banda_chicago.jpg
Conceptual rendering of Ashland BRT/ CTA

So what's the problem?

Critics argue the $160+ million Ashland BRT project is a waste of money that would hurt local businesses and neighborhoods while further congesting already jam-packed north-south arterial vehicle traffic routes.

A number of local residents, schools, churches, businesses, social services and neighborhood groups have even banded together as the Ashland-Western Coalition to fight CTA's planned BRT.

Heather Egan, a member of the Ashland-Western Coalition, said the BRT threatens the livelihood of her business, Rickard Circular Folding Company, which has been operating for over 113 years.

"We're located at 325 N. Ashland and our loading docks are on Carroll," Egan said in an interview. "If they put this in with no left-hand turns, that means our semis will have to make either five or six right-hand turns through residential neighborhoods in order to get to our loading docks."

If trucks can't get to the store and trucking costs go up, suppliers might find other places to send their business, she said.

Suzann Wahl is an East Village homeowner and supporter of the Ashland-Western Coalition. Her family lives in a quiet neighborhood between Ashland and Western that would be ruined by the BRT, she said in an interview.

"The CTA's estimating that between Chicago and Grand, that 9,450 vehicles will be diverted from Ashland at that point because of the BRT," she said. "That westbound traffic is going to skedaddle over to Western and it's going to destroy our neighborhood as we know it."

Wahl's daughter attends Mitchell School on Ohio. She's concerned that cars are going to come speeding past the school to get from Ashland to Western.

"We've all been frustrated drivers at one time or another and I'll be the first to admit that I behave erratically behind the wheel when I'm running late," Wahl said. "And you're going to close an entire lane of Ashland for 16 miles? Those drivers who are diverting are going to be more than frustrated, they're going to be like practically postal careening down Ohio past our school."

John Polich, president of Gabriel Environmental Services on North Elston Ave., lives and works about two blocks from Ashland.

"Traffic is already bad and I cannot picture how bad it will be if this new bus configuration goes through," Polich said in an interview. "And not just on Ashland. That traffic's also going to spill over onto Elston, Clyborn and Damen, all streets that are already fairly loaded with vehicles."

"Ashland is a major north-south thoroughfare," Egan said. "If you try to take it down to one lane with one lane dedicated to buses, it will be absolute gridlock."

Egan also pointed out that with BRT's planned center-loading lanes, pedestrians are going to be running across traffic to catch buses. It's another hazard they don't need, she said.

Many critics say that Ashland BRT seems like an unnecessary project, especially considering the negative impact they say it would have on local neighborhoods.

Wahl, who said she is a big supporter of public transit in general, doesn't think Ashland BRT would actually serve the large number of commuters that city transportation officials claim it would.

"People mostly commute east to west and if someone was really going to travel 95th to Irving, they would hop on the El, the Red Line or something," she said.

Wahl said the BRT only appeals to a certain segment of young renters, not to the community stakeholders.

"There are a small number of people who will see a benefit from the BRT, but at what cost to everybody else?" Polich said. "For every one that benefits, eight, ten, twelve, twenty will suffer."

Polich said the BRT doesn't really make sense to him, particularly because there are viable, less destructive alternatives such as the Modern Ashland Bus project proposed by Ashland-Western Coalition.

"What it's really all about is the mayor wants this federal grant, and the federal grant has to be used for a BRT like system," Wahl said. "And he wants to shove it down our throats."

It's a "sexy" project that the mayor wants on his resume when he goes back to Washington, she said.

"In pictures it's going to look great and I'm sure it will be very beautiful and the stations will be very nice," she said, "but the impact to residents is going to be horrific."

For the record, CTA says the Ashland BRT is not the mayor's personal vision, but rather "a vision that reflects planning processes and community engagement undertaken in 2012."

Image/ Ashland-Western Coalition

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wow / December 20, 2013 6:33 PM

Biased much? I expect better from Gapers Block. There was just as much supportive public sentiment at the public meetings last week, and yet not one mention here of the other coalition of thousands of people and dozens of businesses and stakeholder organizations who have signed on in support of BRT. It pretty much makes Emily Brosious lose all credibilty on this topic if she lives in such a bubble that she isn't even aware that they exist (and certainly doesn't help Gapers Block's credibility either).

Emily Brosious / December 20, 2013 9:23 PM

WOW: I'm sorry you feel my piece was biased; I have no personal stake in this issue. The people I found and spoke to did not favor the project. That's what I reported. As the title suggests, this article was really a discussion of the BRT woes. I would welcome the opportunity to speak with you or any other supporters who would like to discuss the pro-BRT perspective as well.

Monica Reida / December 20, 2013 10:34 PM


As Emily's editor, I would like to say that coverage of Bus Rapid Transit for Ashland done by other publications, such as DNAinfo Chicago, have shown quite a bit of opposition from residents. We are not the first website to publish a piece showing the challenge facing implementation of BRT on Ashland.

Furthermore, if you do a search for pieces on BRT in Chicago, you will find we're not biased on the issue.

wow / December 20, 2013 11:51 PM

Monica -- Even if you were just reflecting the fear-mongering that other media is publishing, that would just be lazy journalism, not the independent perspective that is the reason I keep Gapers Block in my news feed. But you can't compare this piece to DNA, whose stories take the time to share diverse perspectives, representing more than one-sided pessimism:

Even the drivers' advocate Expired Meter (and DNA reporter), which has a clear agenda, consistently acknowledges the vocal support for BRT with less biased coverage than what's published above:

By comparison, your piece above is unbalanced, denying the existence of public support for BRT through exclusion in the story, and it is based only on the perspectives of one small group, the "Ashland-Western Coalition." You could maybe claim it isn't biased if it were titled "Sitting down with the Anti-BRT Coalition," but it's pretending to be a real story about the BRT project. If Emily didn't find any supporters, one could only guess it's because she only attempted to talk to the anti-BRT Coalition. Do a search for BRT in Chicago or spend a little time at a bus stop and you will find no shortage of people you can speak with to put the issue in perspective.

Emily Brosious / December 21, 2013 12:45 AM

WOW: This article is about public opposition to CTA's BRT project. Given the title of the piece, I don't believe I misrepresented that fact.

This isn't a denial of public support that does exist for the BRT. In fact, I think if one were simply to read the portion of the piece that describes CTA's vision for the BRT, the base assumption would be that everyone supports it. Who wouldn't want modernized, faster bus service? It sounds good to me.

That's why the remainder focuses specifically on critical perspectives from people who live and work along the Ashland corridor.

As Monica pointed out, Gapers Block has covered this issue from various angles over time and the spectrum of our coverage is well rounded.

Monica Reida / December 21, 2013 1:26 PM


The only thing pessimistic about the opinions expressed by those Emily interviewed would be fears of traffic worsening. That to me doesn't seem pessimistic as much as a genuine concern.

Additionally, I don't think we're really doing any fear-mongering. Emily did point out the benefits of BRT the CTA is touting, such as its speed. Reporting the concerns of residents is not fear-mongering, but giving a voice to people who have valid concerns.

Again, I urge you to read our other reporting on BRT as you will find it to be very well-rounded and unbiased.

John Greenfield / December 23, 2013 8:24 AM

Dozens of businesses and organizations, as well as 2,500+ individuals, have signed on a BRT supporters. "There are a small number of people who will see a benefit from the BRT" is a pretty absurd statement, since 31,000 people per day are already riding the Ashland bus, and that number will rise significantly one bus speeds nearly double in speed. It would be great for GB's next article on BRT to reflect some of this widespread support, rather than just be a list of grievances from the anti-crowd.

Gail Ogle / December 23, 2013 9:42 AM

i live off ashland and believe it will devastate the neighborhood. if you normally cross the street to go to a business, since barriers will be in place, you will have to walk to a street light to cross. i do not see how you do not view this as a chinese wall? cta is keeping the old buses that will block right turners,see cta site for chicago/ashland, and everyone will have to make right turns. that will back up the one lane of traffic. Wells school on augusta, will not have a stop, all the kids will have to walk 2 blocks in order to get on/off the brt. i have been to many meetings and the majority of the people are against brt, with a handful for. cta can't run their current system correctly. no one mentions the pollution from now having 4 buses running on ashland. the ashland/western coalition wants to modernize the current ashland bus route without the destruction to all the mature trees and beautiful planters. if you drive any street in chicago, people double park, stop to drop someone off, delivery trucks stick out into the ONE lane of traffic....this project is only helping a few at the detriment of many. you list that there is support for the brt, ask for the petition signatures against. side street are not meant to be main streets, where is the money to upkeep the side streets from the increased traffic? after seeing a mock-up from cta, the center islands are just a few inches off the ground, very easy for a car to jump in an accident, i do not feel that it is safe. i feel the article was fair and well written, and readers attacked the writer just because they did not agree with the article.

gail ogle / December 23, 2013 9:48 AM

i would like some of the supporter to tell me how fire and police will respond when barriers are in place.

Jack Ward / December 23, 2013 9:51 AM

This article and the defensive comments by its author below it either reflect extreme laziness or, more disturbingly, a complete misunderstanding of objective journalism. Stating that the CTA explanation speaks for the benefits by itself is absurd. Where are the interviews from not only supporters, but details of the many ways they expect the BRT to improve their lives for example?

Jeff Wegerson / December 23, 2013 10:46 AM

I came to the article expecting you to be biased against BRT from the get go. Instead I found a reasonable presentation of BRT in the first quarter of the article. After that yes it's biased and a platform for the anti-BRT view. Indeed Ms Brosious appears to be a stenographer for whatever they wished to say. I would hope that at least some of the outrageous unsupported statements that can come from any opposition group were consciously left out. But just looking at what was reported it seems to have not been edited.

Look at this comment: If trucks can't get to the store and trucking costs go up, suppliers might find other places to send their business, she said. There were not quotation marks so either Ms Brosious is making this quote up or your editor/proof reader was sleeping at the job. The statement makes no sense. What Someone is going to refuse to sell to you because you business has a difficult left turn. So by that logic if your business was too far from an expressway exit they wouldn't sell to you because of the extra time. That's why it looks made up. No responsible business owner would say that about suppliers.

What you all are reporting are simply knee-jerk responses from folks who are likely focused exclusively on the negative. Loss of a traffic lane! My God I can only imagine the traffic jams! Near my business! Near my house! Of course they won't be able to see or imagine that their property values might rise because the increase of that urban gem walk-ability. That the traffic might actually be slower and therefore also safer on all the streets around Ashland. They can't imagine that because there will be fewer cars that pollution will actually go down. Of course, they can't imagine these positive impacts that fewer cars will have.

Nor can they imagine that a more even flow of traffic through better timed lights because of the elimination of left turns and the extra green time caused by and for the BRT might also benefit the cars on Ashland. It could even speed total travel time even as actual top speeds decline.

It really is the job of a reporter to temper the outrageous things that they hear.

But I get it that Gapers Block may be an advocacy blog for particular points of view. The very name of the blog suggest such may be the case. It is a mild mocking of a common driving style. So one would make a perhaps unconscious even assumption that this site is pro-car and by implication anti denser transit modes as those required in denser urban settings.

And there-in lies the tension here. It comes from people who live and sell in a dense urban setting yet wanting to hold on to the privileges that come with the sprawl-mode of automobile transit. You locate your business in the city to save on driving time between customers yet you desire the expansive road network that destroys the very closeness of the benefit that comes form being in a city.

Look, if these businesses want to stay in the city, I have a building to sell on the west side that sits directly on an entrance ramp. Yes it is expensive to move, but it is cheaper for the urban economy for them to move to a better location while an new business that can really use the denser transit of BRT moves into their old space. And if the move is to a lower rent part of the city then it becomes a win-win-win. The business that moves, the neighborhood moved to and the BRT street moved from.

bs / December 23, 2013 10:47 AM

funny how all of you can berate an article but not come up with some solutions to problems that are brought to the discussion, i'm sure you are paid to bash any internet listings against brt. you might be more believable if you post your name and some constructive positive and negative comments on the brt.

Jacob Peters / December 23, 2013 11:30 AM

Dear Gail,

"if you normally cross the street to go to a business, since barriers will be in place, you will have to walk to a street light to cross"

False. Crosswalks will be maintained along with pedestrian refuge islands in the protected planted median. Those crossings currently require someone to navigate across 4 lanes of traffic with no refuge.

"cta is keeping the old buses that will block right turner"

False. All CTA bus stops will be moved to the far side of intersections as part of this project, making it easier for local buses to get to the curb side. This will eliminate both blocking of right hand turns and the blocking of travel lanes which can occur with existing bus service.

"Wells school on augusta, will not have a stop, all the kids will have to walk 2 blocks in order to get on/off the brt"

True. But as you have pointed out, local buses will still be running, so if walking less is desired over decreased travel time, then the students can still make that choice.

"I have been to many meetings and the majority of the people are against brt"

False. Unless you are talking about the fake public meeting charades the Ashland Western Coalition has put on. I have been to a majority of public BRT meetings, and the amount of outright anti BRT people is usually equal to those that are outright pro BRT. The majority of attendees have been somewhere in between. Wanting express buses, realizing that there is nothing express about a bus stuck in traffic, but skeptical of how it can be done on Ashland.

"no one mentions the pollution from now having 4 buses running on ashland"

Seriously? Emissions per passenger are significantly lower for buses than cars, so an increase in people taking buses will mean a decrease in emissions, not an increase.

"the ashland/western coalition wants to modernize the current ashland bus route"

"Modernize" is a misleading term. First off, the express buses on Ashland and Western were barely faster than the local bus during rush hour, since they were stuck in the same car traffic as everyone else, and MEB proposes no true way to ameliorate this problem. Secondly, there is no cost estimate for MEB. MEB proposes curb side stations, and twice as many stops. This means that the costs for stations would be a majority of the project, and the bus would still be constrained to rush hour traffic. MEB would be a true waste of money, because we would spend money without gaining any improvements.

"If you drive any street in chicago, people double park, stop to drop someone off, delivery trucks stick out into the ONE lane of traffic...."

You do realize that this is a problem of illegal traffic maneuvers, right? We need to improve the location, number and function of loading zones on Ashland because they are routinely blocked by parking scofflaws, or are not large enough for the deliveries being made. These problem has NOTHING to do with BRT, it has everything to do with enforcing our existing laws.

"side street are not meant to be main streets, where is the money to upkeep the side streets from the increased traffic?"

When looking at our street network, why would someone take a side street if they were not from the neighborhood? They require more stops at stop signs. They are cut off by major streets and diagonals. They sometimes change from two way to one way. Diversion of traffic from Ashland will occur to two different places. 1. People getting out of their car, and getting on BRT because it will be reliable, and faster than driving during rush hour. Just like the Blue Line is reliable, and faster than driving during rush hour. 2. Cars and trucks diverting onto parallel roads which in some cases are already more direct than the detours cars are taking in order to be on the unfettered highway Ashland can become.

"i would like some of the supporter to tell me how fire and police will respond when barriers are in place."
The same way they do on Ashland north of Fullerton, on Irving Park west of Ashland, and on any other street in the city with medians. The Fire Department will still have the turning radius needed for their vehicles, as well as the ability to drive in the bus lane when responding to emergencies.

BRT with no left hand turns is an unworkable idea in my view, but BRT is the only way to move more people along this corridor without building a subway (which we don't have money for) or building a highway (which would do a heck of a lot more destruction). We need BRT to improve Ashland for the thousands who are stuck in traffic without a reliable option and for the hundreds of storefronts which are unfilled because Ashland is not a comfortable place to go if you aren't a car. We need to identify where we can maintain select left hand turns, and eliminate cut-thrus that people already use through some neighborhoods, like people using Huron as an off ramp from the Kennedy when they should be using Ogden and Grand. We need to maintain car access, because cars fill a need for many Chicagoans. But, we need to provide an attractive alternative to driving, so those who don't NEED to drive their car, aren't clogging up the streets for those who have no other choice.

Anne / December 23, 2013 1:12 PM

A more balanced piece would have been nice. One positive, which this article totally ignored, is that bus ridership is likely to increase with improved speed and reliability of bus service, which could make a noticeable dent in car traffic on Ashland.

Having pedestrian refuges in the median in places where left turns are eliminated could improve ped safety at those locations.

rohmen / December 23, 2013 3:33 PM

I am a BRT supporter, and definitely feel this article could be more balanced. It would have been nice to hear from some pro-BRT supporters rather than just lay out the CTA's pitch and then cut to the anti-BRT crowd.

I say this to fellow BRT supporters, though. You need to stop labeling any person or article that raises an anti-BRT argument as "fear-mongering."

A business owner on Ashland and a resident of an area neighborhood that voice concern on how this type of project may impact their daily lives are not engaging in "fear mongering." You may--as I do--think they are overstating the potential negatives or that any issues can be worked out once BRT is implemented, BUT the people are raising valid concerns. To label things as fear mongering just makes the pro-BRT crowd sound like they'll support his not matter what anyone else says about it, which is not a great way to convince people the anti-BRT crowd should not prevail.

Monica Reida / December 23, 2013 3:40 PM

Erm, everyone:

In the future, I'll try to push more for the writers to seek out the opinions of citizens in favor of BRT or even organizations in favor of BRT, such as MPC and Active Transportation Alliance.

Also, Jeff, the moment where Emily does not use quotes that you brought up in your comment was paraphrasing. This is acceptable as some quotes get to be long.

Another Anne / December 26, 2013 11:32 AM


The children will have to walk 2 blocks to school!! They will never learn again! They might as well die right there! This is by far the most ridiculous quote I've heard against the BRT and I agree that there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered. But complaining about walking 2 blocks!??! If you want to have your children never walk ever, please move to the suburbs.

Chris / December 30, 2013 5:24 PM

"I say this to fellow BRT supporters, though. You need to stop labeling any person or article that raises an anti-BRT argument as "fear-mongering.""

Many of them would have nothing left to say, if they can't pillory anyone who questions the wisdom of BRT.

Also: "False. Crosswalks will be maintained"

If there is a fricking crosswalk at every fricking existing intersection, it will be a fricking mess. Ditto the stupid retention of the twice an hour local bus. This is so half-backed, in order to avoid pissing off more people, that it's going to end up reflecting poorly on BRT in Chicago.

Now, if it's all smoke to hide the BRT going in in the loop, maybe it'll be ok.

D Money / January 9, 2014 7:55 PM

As a property owner who lives just off Ashland, let me say I am a *huge* supporter of BRT on Ashland. When I bought my place, I knew the city was considering some form of rapid transit on Ashland (back then the Circle Line) and that was a definite positive possibility.

People saying businesses will leave because trucks must make more right turns: you are spewing nonsense. UPS routes their trucks in precisely that manner because it saves time and fuel. Furthermore, the number of people who will forsake their cars for BRT is, in these neighborhoods, not ignorable.

Now, should we consider allowing some left turns? Sure, but that can be worked out later. To kill a project over a small issue like that (and yes, retiming traffic signals is a small issue) is like pitching a fit because the buses won't have pretty enough decals. Utter nonsense.

As a property owner who lives and works in this area, I'm tired of Romanelli claiming to speak for me; he doesn't. We need to look at adding some left turns, but that is no reason to kill a project that will give us effective rapid transit for very few dollars compared to the other options.

D Money / January 9, 2014 7:59 PM

Oh yeah: And I agree that Emily just regurgitating the arguments of detractors without any thought makes her a shill. Find proponents and talk to them; evaluate the arguments of both; look at research and studies from cities where BRT was also done. In short: use your brain. Otherwise, we're just reading a gussied-up version of PR Newswire.

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