In A Nutshell…Why The Ashland Bus Rapid Transit Plan Is Insane

I’ve been ignoring this whole Ashland Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plan up until now since I was pretty sure that this was never going to get off the ground. But now I’m worried as it seems like the city is determined to make this happen come hell or high water or traffic jams of biblical proportions.
In case you haven’t been following this story the idea is to dedicate the left traffic lanes of Ashland Avenue, initially from Cortland to 31st street, in each direction to buses which will approach the death defying speed of 16 MPH as they zoom through traffic lights with extended green lights when the buses approach the intersections. Since Ashland is only 2 lanes in each direction through the bottlenecks that means they are going to dedicate 50% of the capacity to these buses. The plan also includes elimination of all of the left turns off of Ashland and 8% of Ashland’s street parking. I can’t be totally sure that they plan on eliminating ALL the left turns because the city’s plans don’t specifically say this anywhere (instead they say fewer left hand turns) but everyone who is writing about it says it is in fact all the left turns.

The Ashland BRT Plan Will Only Make Traffic Worse

I don’t see how this can make traffic better. First and foremost, according to the CTA’s own data the Ashland bus currently carries 14% of the Ashland travelers. So if dedicating 50% of the capacity is going to make sense then Ashland bus usage is going to have to increase by 257%. Is it possible? Who knows? Will they ever show us the data on how it’s actually working? I seriously doubt it.
Regardless, Ashland is already a nightmare at rush hour with 2 lanes open through the bottleneck. I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like with only one lane open in each direction. So this traffic will be somewhat diverted to other streets like Western, which is already another disaster, and Damen, which is only one lane in each direction. But obviously if people are currently traveling on Ashland that means that Ashland is their most direct route. So, forcing people to take indirect routes will INCREASE traffic. One of the problems contributing to Chicago’s traffic problems is the fact that a LOT of traffic is already diverted by streets that dead end or suddenly switch to one way.
The elimination of left turns is going to force people to go out of their way and make 3 turns instead of one. This will also INCREASE total traffic and divert that traffic through neighborhoods. What are they thinking?
And this one is really bad. The regular Ashland bus will still run in the regular traffic lanes. So when it stops every 3 minutes all traffic will come to a dead stop. Does this even make sense?
As for eliminating street parking…I’m less concerned about that. I grew up in Dallas where businesses had parking lots. I don’t understand this street parking thing. I thought the street was for driving.

What Assumptions Are They Making?

They keep throwing out statistics on what the results of this plan are going to be, referencing a “CDM Smith Western and Ashland BRT Alternatives Analysis, 2012”. Where the heck is this analysis and why can’t I find it? I’ve scoured the Internet and called CDM Smith to get a copy. I want to see what assumptions and calculations they made in coming up with these oft quoted statistics like this will only shave 1 or 2 MPH off the speed of car traffic. Yeah, right.
In response to my inquiry yesterday I received the following response from someone at the CTA:

There have been a number of studies performed as part of the planning process, and they will be included in a full Environmental Assessment of the project, which CTA and CDOT expect to release this fall for public comment, after review by the Federal Transit Administration has been completed.
The Environmental Assessment is the second phase of a three-phase planning process.  Final design decisions on the project have not been made and will be informed by public comments that we are continuing to collect.
As part of the public review of the Environmental Assessment, CTA and CDOT plan to seek comments on the current concept designs for the Ashland BRT project.  CTA and CDOT will consider the results of the analyses, potential impacts and strategies for mitigation, and all public comments before moving forward with final design.  In addition, there will be additional public input solicited as part of the final design phase.

What Is The Fallback Plan?

If and when this BRT plan is a total disaster are they willing to undo it? Or are we stuck with it for eternity? I suspect it’s the latter. Politicians do not like to discuss their failures. In fact, this thing will be positioned as a success whether or not it really is.

The Upside Of The Ashland BRT Plan

There is one upside to all of this. IF the new system works really well and is seen as a valuable service then it COULD increase property values in East Village where I live. Now THAT is appealing to me.
I also wonder if increased activity on Ashland might reduce the crime there. On the other hand there are parts of the city where the public transit stations are actually crime magnets, so I’m not so sure about this one.
So I’d love to see this plan succeed but I’m not holding my breath.

And Why Don’t They Fix The Bus Bunching Problem?

This has nothing to do with the Ashland BRT plan but since we are talking about buses…  bus bunching is a constant source of irritation for bus riders and my solution is so simple I can’t believe they aren’t employing it already: when bus A is being followed by bus B, which is scheduled for a later arrival, by less than 5 minutes then bus A should not stop to pick up passengers unless a stop is requested by someone on bus A. If you explain this to people I’m sure they will understand as a bus zips past their bus stop – especially with the bus trackers in use.
The way it works today bus A and bus B go down the street leapfrogging each other at one stop after another. It drives me crazy.
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