Getting Around: Bus rapid transit for Ashland Avenue hits road bump in Chicago

Critics raise traffic, funding questions about $160 million bus rapid transit proposal

Chicago is pushing to start by 2016 its boldest reordering of a major thoroughfare since the city first built roads for the automobile: a 16-mile stretch of Ashland Avenue fashioned around buses that travel in dedicated lanes at almost twice the speed of their regular CTA counterparts and make stops about every half-mile.

The idea, called bus rapid transit, comes with many advertised benefits, such as streets made safer by fewer accidents and less congestion, a rise in public transit use and increased economic development, all while maintaining most street parking and shaving 1 or 2 mph off speeds for cars and trucks along the same road.

But push-back on the estimated $160 million project, which lacks a clear source of funding, is as far-reaching as its ambition:

Proposals to eliminate most left turns and shoehorn other traffic into one lane each way has elicited an outcry among car-driving commuters, companies that rely on truck deliveries and residents who have told city officials they are concerned that shortcut-seeking motorists will bring more noise and danger to cross streets off Ashland.

Some people say bus rapid transit is a good concept, but one that should be built somewhere else, specifically, along Western Avenue, where it would help more working-class people who need it.

There are critics who point to what they see as a heavy-handedness from Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration and who question the accuracy of predictions about how the project would affect others who use Ashland.

"The mayor wants to see this project done at any cost, so I think it is going to move forward no matter what," said Ald. Scott Waguespack, whose 32nd Ward would be affected.

Martin Swift, a former taxi driver who has attended community meetings on the project, said, "The activists who are pushing BRT seem to feel that any resistance is unreasonable." But, he adds, "If a motorist just tries to remember the last time a busy four-lane thoroughfare was under construction and narrowed to one lane in each direction, it becomes quite simple to see why there is resistance."

CTA and city transportation officials acknowledge there are challenges, and they have promised the public will be involved in fine-tuning decisions — all the way until a final design is approved, probably late next year.

Bus rapid transit, billed as a thrifty alternative to constructing a new rail line, would be launched along a 5.4-mile section of Ashland between Cortland Avenue and 31st Street. It would eventually expand to 16.1 miles, between Irving Park Road and 95th Street.

Many destinations that draw great numbers of transit riders are along or near that corridor, including the Illinois Medical District, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Malcolm X College, the United Center, as well as manufacturing plants and dozens of public schools.

The ultra-express service would be served by articulated buses with doors on both sides, like on trains, so that the buses could provide traditional curb service when they are not in rapid transit mode on the buses-only center lane in each direction.

To speed the boarding process, passengers would prepay their fares at the BRT stations, which would be spaced about every half-mile and near CTA "L'' stops. The floors of the buses would be level with the bus station platform, just like they are on a rail car.

BRT buses would communicate with traffic signals to extend "green" time through intersections or when the buses are running late, according to the plan. Bus speeds would increase from an 8.7 mph average now for CTA buses on Ashland to 15.9 mph, and commuting times for each rider would be slashed by an average of 65 hours annually, according to preliminary traffic modeling. The modeling also predicted an increase in bus speeds during rush periods of up to 83 percent.

The assumptions are over the top to some people. They question how BRT, which by design dominates any street it operates on, would successfully fill critical gaps in transportation without gumming up traffic by transferring half of the four lanes on Ashland to the BRT fleet.

Cars, trucks and the non-BRT No. 9 Ashland all-stop local bus would all be crowded into the single right lane in each direction, likely resulting in most drivers being stuck behind the No. 9.

Alternately, those cars and trucks would be left to find other routes, which introduces the potential for drivers to weave through residential areas and past schools to reach other thoroughfares.

That tendency could be acute on the Near West Side, where owners of industrial companies warn that a ban on most left turns would bring more truck traffic into neighborhoods.

"If you are planning to turn left and you see you can't, you take the next available right turn. But if you do that on either the north or the south end of our industrial corridor, you will go right through a residential neighborhood and grade schools," said Steve DeBretto, executive director of the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago. "It will only be a matter of time before the neighbors say this isn't going to work. So we want to figure out a way to avoid that before it happens.''

The first phase of BRT construction calls for left turns to be limited to expressway entrances: northbound at Armitage Avenue, Robinson Street and Van Buren Street; and southbound at Congress Parkway, according to the CTA. It's unclear whether additional left turns would be eliminated by project's end.