Business owners question BRT practicality as project continues
August 1, 2013

By Jane Lawicki

Business owners in the Ashland Avenue and Western Avenue corridor continue to oppose Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), even as the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) moved into the engineering and environmental design phase for BRT’s initial portion on Ashland from Cortland Avenue to 31st Street.

While BRT will speed travel on Ashland buses, it also will remove one lane of traffic in each direction and eliminate left-hand turns, ten percent of parking, and five percent of delivery truck loading zones.

“Taking 50% of travel lanes for a bus that comes around every so often is not good for business,” said Jack Rickard, owner of Rickard Bindery, 325 N. Ashland Ave., and a member of the Ashland-Western Bus Service Coalition, a community group expressing concern over changes to one of the city’s most used northsouth corridors. The coalition recommends returning to express bus service instead.

“Some of the trucking companies, what are they going to do with no left turn?” Rickard asked. “If there will be no left turn on Ashland, then you have to go out of your way four or five blocks.”

“What affects business affects all the community as a whole,” said Eddie Winters, spokesman for the HOW United Community Group, which is part of the coalition. “When you take away the left-hand lane, you send traffic in all directions, forcing heavier traffic into the community. Side streets become major thoroughfares.”

Winters added the area counts many seniors; implementing BRT would require older commuters to walk longer distances.

CTA touts advantages

Although CTA documents identified spring and summer 2013 as a public engagement period, as of this writing, officials have held no public meetings since the City announced on April 19 that it would move forward with BRT running in a center lane that eventually will cover 16 miles of Ashland from Irving Park Road to 95th Street. On its dedicated webpage at the CTA touts BRT’s alleged advantages including providing reliable transportation for one in four households that do not have a car; access to nearly 133,800 jobs; connections to seven CTA el stations, two Metra stations, and 37 bus routes; and improved lighting, ramps, and other safety features. The website allows feedback via mail, e-mail, or phone.

“Had it not been for the Ashland-Western Coalition, there is not a business on Ashland or Western that would have heard about it,” said Louis Rago, owner of Rago Brothers Funeral Home, a family business at 624 N. Western Ave. “The way to stop this is to really get up in arms about it, but they’re [the CTA] counting that the business owners and vendors don’t have time to do it. On paper, it looks great—there are pretty pictures. It’s just not realistic.”

“It should be obvious to anyone that uses the street,” said Jay Goltz, owner of five small businesses employing 100 people in the Ashland Corridor. “Right now, at most, you have one-and-a-half lanes of traffic because there’s always somebody double-parked or something similar. If you take away one lane — it’s simple math — you have one lane working half the time. If we’re looking at one lane with parking, with one person trying to park a car—all traffic will stop.”

Adding that he fully supports being more green and more local while improving the city, Goltz nonetheless asked, “Why are they doing this? Are they concerned about people going to work? There won’t be any businesses if they can’t get their deliveries out.”

“Chicago is looking at BRT because the city is regaining population that it lost over the last 30 to 40 years,” said Christopher Ziemann, BRT manager for the Chicago Community Trust, Chicago Department of Transportation, and CTA. “In general, everywhere BRT has been implemented, bus ridership increases. While there will always be a certain amount of people who will take the bus no matter what or a certain amount of people that will drive no matter what, a large number of people don’t care how they get there. Those riders switch if they can.”

When introducing the BRT concept, the CTA said Western Avenue had the highest ridership, based on combining its #49, #49A, and #49B bus routes to total more than 11 million rides in 2012. After selecting Western for the BRT’s initial phase, however, the CTA touted Ashland as having the highest ridership, although it had slightly more than ten million boardings last year.

When asked about the discrepancy, a CTA spokesperson explained it now was comparing “apples to apples” by considering only the heaviest ridership areas of Irving to 95th Street on Ashland and 79th to Berwyn on Western.

“When you compare these core areas, Ashland has the highest ridership,” said Joe Iacobucci, CTA’s manager for strategic planning. “It also has more rail connections and slightly higher population density than Western.”

Ashland over Western

CTA spokesperson Lambrini Lukidis said that, while Western remains worthy of BRT, Ashland offers the best combination of options.

“Ashland has slower bus speeds than Western,” she said. “In addition, Ashland has several other key factors including the Illinois Medical District, University of Illinois at Chicago, and the United Center.”

Although many people, such as members of the Ashland-Western Bus Service Coalition, have recommended returning to express buses, Lukidis said the express bus—even with fewer stops—remains stuck in traffic. “Just because you have fewer stops doesn’t mean the bus will go faster,” she explained. “The bus is experiencing the same delays in mixed traffic. That’s why a dedicated bus lane is better.”

Concerning left turns, she said that, because Chicago has a grid system, local traffic can shift to other streets such as Western or Damen instead of Ashland. Heather Tarczan, director of communications and administration for the Illinois Medical District, said, “We are supportive of BRT with the growth and development of the land we’re going to develop. With 22,000 employees in the district, parking is scarce and BRT will be beneficial to reducing traffic and congestion.”

The IMD plans to develop a 9-1/2 acre parcel at 2020 W. Ogden Ave. for mixed use including coffee shops, a small convention center, a hotel, and parking. “We own 55 acres of land that we will be developing, and this is just the start,” she said, noting the organization had not planned any residential development for Ashland on IMD land.

Citizens Taking Action, a transit advocacy group, has come out in opposition to plans to install BRT. Kevin Peterson of Citizens Taking Action said, “CTA eliminated express buses on Ashland and other routes, claiming that they were not necessary, and not allegedly attracting enough ridership. So now CTA wants to spend money on new buses and stations for a service that it said was not useful to the public, by their own admission.”

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