There was a brief flurry of news two weeks ago when the CTA held meetings to show its latest designs for the planned Bus Rapid Transit corridors on Ashland and Western Avenues. But there hasn’t been nearly enough recognition of how important these decisions are for the future of our city, nor that one set of options is far superior to the others.
First, kudos to CTA and the City of Chicago for making a few core choices that are absolutely right. The detailed display boards show that all the possible options will include formal BRT stations – with shelters, landscaping and bus-tracker signs – plus off-bus fare collection that will allow buses to load and unload via multiple doors, avoiding the time-consuming queue encountered on current routes.
The CTA also eliminated from consideration the option that would have narrowed sidewalks so that Ashland and Western could become more like that horrid stretch of Cicero between I-55 and Midway Airport: a raceway for vehicles but no place for pedestrians or other living things. Hurray for that.
That leaves just four preferred alternatives, roughly as follows:
1. Center running BRT with travel lane removal – Two lanes for cars, two dedicated bus lanes in the center, stations in the landscaped median, parking on both sides, wide sidewalks. Left turns are eliminated.
2. Center-running BRT with removal of median and parking on one side – Four lanes for cars, two dedicated bus lanes, stations in the median, traffic running against the sidewalk on one side of street, parking on the other. Left turns eliminated.
3. Side-running BRT with travel lane removal – Similar to number 1 but with the bus stations along the curb. Left turns are allowed.
4. Side-running BRT with parking on one side of street removed – Similar to number 2 but with bus stations along the curb. Left turns are allowed.
Looking at the display boards gives anyone who has traveled these routes a clear image of what they represent. All options speed up the buses, a lot. All options represent a big step forward, especially if the stations include raised platforms to allow level boarding and if the new buses include three doors each to speed boarding, as is the norm on high-capacity BRT systems elsewhere.
But numbers 1 and 3 are the clear winners in terms of making Chicago a better city. It's obvious. Taking the auto lanes off of Ashland will allow the retention of all existing landscaped medians and the addition of 50,959 linear feet of new median. That’s nearly 10 miles of new greenery and a calmer, more pleasant environment, from Irving Park Road to 95th Street. That’s transformative for the people and businesses along that stretch.
What about Western? It’s bigger, rougher, more filled with trucks than Ashland, so perhaps we’ll have to settle for four lanes of autos and two lanes for buses, with no medians and traffic whizzing by next to the sidewalk on one side. But let’s hope not. That doesn't change the city for the better.
If we want to improve the transportation culture of this city, and make it easier for transit riders and drivers alike to get around, we should take two lanes of autos off of both Western and Ashland, plant green medians down the centers, and slow down the cars a bit. This will make it easier to walk and bike and ride sleek fast buses up and down those arteries, which link at numerous points to the radial rail systems of CTA and Metra.
If we want to move Chicago forward, to be competitive with world-class cities around the world, we want options 1 or 3.