Choice is obvious for BRT on Ashland, Western

Choice is obvious for BRT on Ashland, Western
One of the options presented for BRT on Ashland, Western. (CTA rendering)

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.

For more in-depth discussion of the Ashland and Western BRT options, see comments at the Active Transportation Alliance, and Grid Chicago’s analysis and pros and cons page.


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  • Why not just bring back the X9 & X49, but equip them with signal priority equipment & move all the stops to the far corners?

    Far cheaper & you get to observe how well it's working at first without wasting money on big ticket construction.
    You learn what works, what doesn't & get to make simple & inexpensive changes as you go along.
    Then & only then, you make the serious modifications to the streets.

  • Just bring back the express buses. We know they work and that would be a lot cheaper.

  • In reply to Cheryl:

    Scooter and Cheryl, I was a big fan of the X49 Western Express, and watched it help build the route to today's high levels (about 35,000 weekday riders), and sure we should bring it back if we aren't going with BRT. But an express bus in mixed traffic is nothing like a pre-paid, fast-boarding, lane-separated, signal priority bus. It can't run as fast as the BRT would, and as the CTA's time comparisons show, the BRT routes have the potential of being almost as fast as the Red Line.

    Plus the dedicated bus lanes and removal of auto lanes change the very character of the street. For the better.

  • In reply to Patrick Barry:

    I have ridden what is easily the best BRT line in this country, the Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.
    All but a couple of short sections run on abandoned rail rights of way.
    There are no other vehicles on this private roadway, exclusively for the buses except for the adjacent bike path, plus there is signal priority at every street crossing. The buses are large & have triple bike racks on the front, instead of the double racks we have here.
    Unfortunately, Chicago doesn't have any abandoned rail lines that go where we could use as BRT.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    Well, Scooter, thanks for the opening. Chicago does indeed have abandoned rail right-of-way that goes where BRT might go.

    1. Most prominently, we have a below-grade cut on Carroll Avenue, running from the Chicago River east under the Merchandise Mart and over to where the Chicago Sun-Times was (now Trump Tower); it was used to deliver newsprint. That route has been suggested for light-rail transit from the Metra stations to Streeterville, and could still do that job, with buses.

    2. The Illinois Central cut east of Michigan Avenue already has a dedicated busway serving McCormick Place, using private buses to shuttle conventioneers from Michigan Avenue hotels to trade shows. This, along with Carroll, could become part of a full downtown BRT circulator that would beat the currently proposed Central Loop BRT in speed and reach.

    3. And then there's the elevated right-of-way just east of Cicero that's been discussed as a possible north-south link from O'Hare to Midway, or a truck-only route to serve as a "Crosstown" artery. This too could be a BRT route, especially if it linked the airports.


  • In reply to Patrick Barry:

    Carroll St. is a joke as it would require the reconstruction of that abandoned C&NW Ry bridge just south of Kinzie Street.
    As that bridge is so low, it would have to be opened & closed repeatedly all day.

    The IC busway is stupid, the trains already go there. Just add shuttles to the Metra Electric that go between McCormick & Downtown.

    As for the Belt Ry Line [Inner Belt] & C&NW Cragin Branch, the Belt Line is still in use as is a short section of the Cragin Branch.
    It would also require reconstruction of numerous bridges over several dozen city streets on the NW Side, West Side & SW Side. It ain't gonna happen!

  • In reply to Patrick Barry:

    In looking at the Apparel Center Building from the Lake St. L yesterday, it's apparent that when they built it they didn't want any bus line running under it.
    The openings under the building appear to be too low for a bus, just cars can get in.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    That space under the Apparel Center was tall enough for freight trains carrying newsprint, so it should be tall enough for buses. See photo documentation here:

  • In reply to Patrick Barry:

    Those photos are from 1999.
    It appears from the L that the openings have been altered since then & the clearances reduced.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    Uh, there's been no major changes except for Trump between Navy Pier and the C&NW.

  • actually, only option one adds new median, option three just doesn't tear out the existing median. given that, i feel like option one is the best choice (see page 22)

    also, is BRT being considered for any other roads?

  • In reply to bonmots:

    There are very few streets in Chicago capable of it, then when you add the need, it's really not many.
    So King Dr. north of 51st could do it, but the L is just a couple of blocks away.
    Peterson/Ridge could do it, but the Peterson bus doesn't run that often except in rush hours. 20 minute headways most of the day.
    Cicero would be a great BRT street, but getting the suburb of Cicero to go along might be a problem.
    Harlem only has one traffic lane in each direction for much of it, but Cumberland/First Ave. might work, but that would involve a dozen suburbs.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    I think the biggest problem with all of the above streets (except for King, which is a city maintained street) is that the other 4 are all parts of state or U.S. highways for nearly their entire length, so you'd have to deal with IDOT on top of everyone else you've already mentioned.

  • There is one thing none of you note:

    Is any plan going to be funded that eliminates left turns on 16 miles of Ashland and 16 miles of Western????

    No to add:

    Is this a priority for 5309 funds over the Red Line extension?

    Does this even qualify for 5309 BRT funding at all?

    So, I see that everyone is deluded by $1.6 million of welfare for some consultant. Someone prove to me that this isn't that.

  • In reply to jack:

    But Jack, you forget that the CDOT & its insane traffic engineers "don't believe in left turns"!
    If you can find it, that's an actual quote from a City of Chicago traffic engineer in a Trib article 15-20 years ago.
    Considering that there are still many important intersections without left turn arrows [WB Logan at Elston is a disaster], I'm guessing that idiotic mindset is still dominant in that department.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    I'm not weighing an idiotic mindset one way or the other.

    I figure that this will turn out like the Yellow Line extension which was debated here a couple of years ago. Suddenly, a consultant put out a meeting notice that the "locally preferred alternative" was a station on the grounds of Niles North. The Mayor and the school board got a turnout saying that "we don't want it." Did you hear anything about that project since?

    Get some newspaper to run a story implying that there won't be a usable north-south artery between Halsted and Kedzie, and you'll have a similar reaction.

    Also, this isn't like the 11 and 145 buses where CTA can just shove something down everyone's throat--it will have to beg for money "when no funding source has been identified." I noted above that it is questionable whether this would qualify under the restrictive definition of "real BRT."

    This probably will turn out like some consultant trying to kill the Ill. 53 extension by calling for only a "tolled parkway" and instituting tolls on the free part of Ill.53, or basically the CTA consultants killing the Circle Line by delaying the study 3 years to kill Mayor Daley's Mid City Line, and not coming to any conclusion other than to build the Archer-Pilsen connector.

    The number of dead CTA projects would fill Rosehill Cemetery.

  • In reply to jack:

    Yeah, eliminating left turns won't happen, so option 3 is looking like the best possibility.

  • In reply to jack:

    Also, I went to the 1st Open House and there was no mention of the elimination of left turn lanes. This only came out in the 2nd set of presentation boards

  • In reply to chris:

    That was obvious at the top of the "Design Alternatives" on the CTA webpage for this project. Maybe the presenters thought they could keep it from the audience for a while, so not to start with a contentious item.

  • "As fast as a Red Line train" isn't much of an accomplishment.

  • In reply to Cheryl:

    Ha ha, Cheryl. Unfortunately, you are correct.

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    I know it's out of scope, but it would help on the north side to extend the Ashland bus to Edgewater Ave. instead of Irving Park. The CTA argues that Ashland is too close to Clark, but if you are making and extended trip and have to transfer from one to the other, you know how much longer that can make the trip.

  • In reply to Robert Eltzholtz:

    Good luck with that. They're eliminating the #11 bus that runs close to the Brown Line because getting rid of the bus will make the trains less crowded. Or so they say.

  • There's plenty of other cities where left turns are permitted in front of light rail or BRT with signal prioritization. People should really get out more and survey what other cities are already doing.

  • In reply to marktwain:

    The grade running section of the light rail in Seattle has this, the one in the middle of MLK Jr. Way. The left turns are at stoplights, on the arrow only, due to the transit signal priority. Seems to work just fine there.

    It does require a dedicated turn lane, though, which may be a problem with the Western or Ashland corridors.

  • In reply to bms2535:

    And before I forget, Portland as well, on Burnside St, east of I-205, through which the Blue LIne light rail goes. Same scenario as Seattle.

  • marktwain (here due to running out of reply buttons after your Trump post):

    Also, at the time they planned Trump Tower, they said they would leave enough space for the proposed circulator there.

    Thus, that's just another dead CTA project.

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