Community groups polarize over proposed Ashland BRT
November 1, 2013

By Jane Lawicki

Community groups continue to oppose or advocate for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Ashland Avenue as the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) prepares traffic count data and analysis and environmental impact reports.

“It’s been a continuing process all along,” said Christopher Ziemann, Chicago BRT project manager at the Chicago Community Trust. “The CTA is still collecting comments.”

While Active Transportation Alliance, a member-based transportation pro-BRT advocacy organization, celebrated 2,000 BRT supporters on a petition and a “BeeRT” pub crawl on Oct. 15, the Wicker Park Committee, Ashland-Western Bus Coalition, and Ashland Avenue business owners continue to express deep skepticism over the BRT proposal that eliminates left turns and one lane of traffic to accommodate center running bus service, initially between Cortland Street and 31st Street and, eventually, from 95th Street to Irving Park Road.

“Chicago’s economy is at stake since thousands of retail and industrial businesses that rely on Ashland’s superior four-lane access and left turns for deliveries and regional customer access will face significantly higher travel times and obstructed access,” according to an Ashland-Western Coalition statement.

“Neighborhood safety is at stake since frustrated Ashland drivers will descend onto residential streets for traffic and turning relief if two of Ashland’s vehicle lanes and left turns are eliminated.”

Eliminating left turns may cause local businesses to relocate, according to Bob Webb, controller for Battaglia Distributing Corporation. The $171 million, 150-employee wholesale food distributor sends out or receives more than 90 trucks daily from its location at 2500 S. Ashland Ave. “Businesses have to do business. The street reconfiguration just wouldn’t be conducive to business,” Webb said.

Because the company has buildings on both sides of the street, Webb said no left turns would require “a three-mile journey” using all right turns. “Rather than Ashland, 22nd and Blue Island would all be jammed up with our trucks,” he continued. “Such a situation would lead to a business decision to move.”

Yet, according to Ziemann, while many have voiced concerns over no left turns, other groups support banning left turns because they are one of the most common and dangerous causes of accidents. “Eliminating left turns controls traffic and thus improves pedestrian safety,” he said, adding that implementing BRT has had a positive impact in many cities around the world, offering benefits such as lower vacancy rates and higher rents for landlords, easy transportation access for the disabled and those who cannot drive, and less localized pollution.

BRT “is the kind of transit improvement that Chicagoans have wanted for years,” said Ron Burke, executive director of Active Transportation Alliance. He said proposed plans for Ashland would improve bus reliability by 50% and save the average commuter nearly 65 hours each year compared to local buses. He cited a recent survey commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation that noted 59% of Chicagoans support bringing BRT to the city and 73% said they would take BRT instead of driving or taking other forms of public transit if it made their commute faster.

“We respect the Rockefeller Foundation for wanting to promote public transit in Chicago,” said Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Randolph/Fulton Market Association and a member of the Ashland-Western Coalition. “We would like to talk with them. Our surveys show 100% of Chicagoans want better CTA services citywide and we are dedicated to working with the CTA to make that happen.”

To meet that need for enhanced transit, the Ashland Western Coalition instead proposes modernizing the existing Ashland bus route with an extension to the Ravenswood, Uptown, and Andersonville neighborhoods, which currently have little bus service.

“This is a historic opportunity for Chicago,” Romanelli said. “We want to sit down with the CTA and look at options before we rush forward.” The coalition proposes heated and lit bus shelters, traffic signal responders for faster buses, extended service to Andersonville, marshals for bus safety, and other affordable improvements. To support the modernization alternative, the coalition will host a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 20, at Andies Restaurant, 5253 N. Clark Street.

For more information, contact Roger Romanelli at the Randolph/Fulton Market Association at rfma@juno.com.