Bus Service Coalition proposes alternative to Bus Rapid Transit on Ashland Avenue
June 7, 2013

By Jane Lawicki

Community residents propose bringing back express buses as an alternative to Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) plans to develop Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along 16 miles of Ashland Avenue between Irving Park Road and 95th Street. BRT would eliminate a lane of traffic in each direction and at least 10% of street parking at an implementation cost of approximately $10 million per mile.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the CTA, and the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) on April 19 announced plans to develop dedicated center bus lanes on Ashland Avenue that would have limited stops half a mile apart and at CTA rapid transit stations. Buses would have traffic signal priority to help increase speeds by more than 80% during peak travel times.

The result of a federally funded year-long study that also looked at Western Avenue, BRT’s initial implementation phase would cover Ashland Avenue from Cortland Avenue to 31st Street, with work to begin in 2016.

“Ashland Avenue has the highest CTA bus ridership, with more than 30,000 riders per weekday,” said CTA President Forrest Claypool. “By introducing BRT, we will be providing one in ten Chicagoans with access to faster and more reliable transit, allowing a rail-like experience at lower cost.”

A CTA drawing shows before and after renditions of the BRT station at Ashland Avenue at Polk Street.

Coalition concerns

Community members, including the Ashland-Western Bus Service Coalition, a volunteer group of residents, churches, schools, businesses, and community organizations, have expressed serious concerns over reduced parking and losing traffic lanes in both directions on one of the city’s most used north-south corridors.

“Our coalition is advancing our solution for improving bus service on Ashland and Western that has come from six months of volunteers analyzing BRT in Chicago and other cities; analyzing the current state of CTA service on Ashland and Western; and speaking with riders, community leaders, and business leaders,” said Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Randolph/Fulton Market Association, and a member of the coalition.

The coalition is encouraging the CTA to improve bus service on Ashland and Western by modernizing the popular express buses that operated along both streets from 2002 through 2010. Those buses stopped every half a mile and at CTA stations and ran concurrently with standard buses, which stopped about every 1/6 or 1/8 of a mile.

“By every measure, the X9 and X49 [express] buses were successful,” noted the coalition in its proposal. “CTA riders increased, bus speeds increased, and traffic coexisted with buses. However, in 2010, despite their popularity, CTA cut the X9 and X49 buses due to funding shortfalls but without community involvement to retain or improve these buses.”

Calling its approach Modern Express Buses (MEB), the coalition proposes reducing standard bus stops by 30% but retaining a center lane for vehicle traffic Like the BRT, the coalition proposes traffic signal technology to increase bus speeds as well as quick-scan bus passes and wider bus doors to allow faster passenger boarding. The coalition also wants to facilitate left turns while keeping most curbside parking, and it would retain curbside stops but proposes putting them on the far side of intersections to expedite vehicle right turns. In addition, the MEB calls for enhanced bus shelters and street amenities while maintaining existing center median planters.

Funding available

“While BRT would be funded through a Federal BRT fund, previous express buses were funded by the Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program, and there are numerous other Federal funding programs for bus service,” said Romanelli. “We are confident that MEB can be installed at a fraction of the BRT cost and without the historic disruptions and serious challenges demanded by BRT.”

The University Village Association (UVA) also expressed concerns regarding the Ashland BRT and possible negative effects on local business.

“Take away parking, and you take away business,” said Kathy Catrambone, UVA executive director, who added the BRT plan “as it is being presented does not appear to be good for traffic or residents either. We are lucky that Ashland Avenue in our area, from Roosevelt to the Eisenhower, does not have small business — but we think the plan, which is very expensive, needs much more study and input from the public.”

Some community organizations have endorsed BRT, praising its innovation that will lead to greater economic vitality for the community. In fall 2012, Active Transportation Alliance, a 7,000- member nonprofit that works to improve conditions for biking, walking, and transit in Chicago, obtained more than 1,300 signatures asking City officials to include bus-only lanes and pedestrian- friendly streets as part of its plans for Western and Ashland Avenues. The Metropolitan Planning Council, which promotes regional growth, also supports the BRT concept.

“Bus Rapid Transit is an exciting transportation investment that will connect our residents and businesses in Pilsen to other neighborhoods and jobs,” said Maria Saldana, chief operating officer for the Resurrection Project, another local community group.

“Improved public transportation is part of what is needed to stabilize the housing markets in our communities.”