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Chicago’s Big Bet on the Bus

Cross-posted with special permission from Foundation grantee CityLab.

Just ten years ago, living in Chicago without an automobile was considered eccentric behavior. In 2002, a food writer friend moved there from New York and attempted bravely to get by using public transportation, taxis, and her own feet. Her colleagues at the Tribune thought her quite mad, and assigned her pieces in the suburbs (“part of my hazing,” she says). Being from Indianapolis, I often described Chicago as what would happen if my home town and New York had a baby: Chicago is Midwestern but urbane, approachable but grand — and somehow both car­-oriented and transit-­friendly.

Ten years has made a lot of difference. We now live in the age of bike-share and car-share, and today Chicago attracts plenty of people, mostly young and single, who would probably rather carry a flip phone than own a car. Yet the late 20th century remains baked into the city’s landscape — there are drive-­thru banks a ten minute walk from Michigan Avenue downtown, and big box stores and a strip mall with suburban-sized parking lots around the corner from the Steppenwolf Theatre.

Chicago’s transportation split­-personality explains a great deal about how its recent plan for bus-rapid transit along Ashland Avenue could become controversial. And it has. In January, I met separately with opponents and supporters of the proposal, and both sides used the word “transformational” to describe the city’s BRT plan. One side meant it as a compliment, the other as a slur. As cities across the country debate the merits of sacrificing car lanes for transit, many eyes are on the Midwestern metropolis, where a proposal touted as a sensible way to improve commutes has become a referendum on how drastically the city should evolve.

Ashland Avenue is one of Chicago’s few continuous north-south thoroughfares, and its virtues as a transportation corridor have a lot to do with both this continuity and its position in the city. Thanks to the curve of the lake shore, the avenue runs as close to downtown as a north-south arterial can while also reaching the northern neighborhoods, which happen to be, on the whole, the most affluent on the Ashland corridor. It intersects with seven Chicago Transit Authority “L” stations, two regional Metra stations, and 37 bus routes.

The planned 16­-mile Ashland BRT would affect a cross­-section of Chicago that contains all of the city’s ethnicities, income levels, and zoning types. It slices through neighborhoods that are Polish, Mexican, African ­American, and white. It cuts through retail, residential, and industrial. More than 30,000 people ride the buses on Ashland every day, and they go very, very slowly: about 8.7 miles per hour.

In 2012, shortly after Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor, he and then-Chicago DOT Commissioner Gabe Klein got to work on a progressive transportation agenda that aimed to create 100 miles of protected bike lanes, a number of rail improvements, and a trio of BRT lines. (Here’s where I should note that Klein told me that the Rockefeller Foundation, which provided support for this series of articles, contributed $2 million in grants to advocate for Chicago BRT.) The first BRT line, known as the “Jeffery Jump,” has already begun daily service, running from the loop downtown via Jeffrey Avenue to 103rd Street on the south side. The second BRT line will run along two east­-west streets in the Central Loop; construction on this Loop BRT, which has not been particularly controversial, is scheduled to begin this spring.

Ashland is the third line, and its planning began in 2012. A north­-south transit corridor near Ashland had been studied for years as a way of connecting the L lines so commuters could move between corners of the city without passing through downtown. Not long ago, the plan was for a new rail link, the “Circle Line,” which would have required new subway and elevated track at a cost of over a billion dollars. In the face of federal budget battles and cuts, such a figure could prove insurmountable, and BRT has become popular among transportation planners and advocates because its dedicated lanes, traffic-signal priority, and prepayment system mimic the benefits of rail at a fraction of the cost. The Ashland BRT is estimated to cost $160 million, or $10 million a mile.

When you rule out subways and elevated trains, public transit must travel by streets, and in the case of Ashland, this means giving half of the local roadway capacity to BRT buses. In the preferred design alternative chosen by the city, car and truck traffic would be limited to one lane in each direction. And while the stations for the Jeffery Jump and Loop BRT lines are curbside, the Ashland buses would run in the center of the road, with stations in the median — eliminating left-hand turns. (Many of the proponents I spoke with believe the final design will restore left turns onto major east­-west arterials, however.)

This dramatic reshaping of Ashland is a bit scary for some. Roger Romanelli, executive director of the Randolph / Fulton Market Association, an organization of local businesses, has led the charge against the BRT proposal. “Ashland is an industrial corridor with 700 businesses throughout,” he said. “They invested in our corridor because they had reasonable expectation that Ashland would run the way it does today.”

Indeed, Ashland in the central city has more than its fair share of auto body garages, and the street is thick with parking lots and drive­thrus belonging to businesses that clearly cater to drivers. Representatives from a number of these, including a new Costco, came to public meetings in December to speak out against the BRT plan. “You don’t go to Costco in a bus,” the store’s general manager told the Sun­Times.

Romanelli’s criticism of the BRT plan is made more compelling by the fact that in the past he’s often advocated for better transit access. “I’d been working as an economic development practitioner for years. We’ve been pro-transit-oriented development, and pro-bus service,” he said. “We helped bring express buses to Ashland, and a new L station at Morgan and Lake.”

Romanelli’s group has put forward an alternative plan for improving the corridor’s bus service. Their Modern Ashland Bus plan maintains the open traffic lanes for cars while implementing a number of the features of BRT. He thinks these improvements should be instituted across Chicago. “We want to revolutionize bus service around the city,” he said. “If we can do it on Ashland Avenue — heated bus shelters, streamlined stops, signal priority — we can do it throughout the city. The current bus service in this city is substandard.”

Suzi Wahl, a neighborhood resident who works at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, joined our meeting as well. Her main concerns were not industrial in nature, but residential. When you take away Ashland as a driving arterial, she worries that thwarted through-traffic will inevitably divert to the smaller streets nearby, such as her own. “I see this as destroying the neighborhood,” she said.

Wahl too has good transportation credentials: she takes the bus routinely, and she used to participate in Critical Mass bike rides intended to “take back the streets of our city” and remind people of the right to assemble. (She stopped riding after she became pregnant.) One night in October, while canvassing businesses on behalf of BRT opponents, Wahl felt a pain in her stomach and went to the emergency room at the University of Illinois Medical Center on Ashland. She was fine, but the adventure highlighted what she sees as a major drawback of removing traffic lanes and increasing congestion.

“If that was post­-BRT, I’d have my husband driving in the BRT lane. If that was my daughter, I’d be driving on the sidewalk,” she said. “A bus to the ER? Are you kidding?”

The medical center’s administrators, meanwhile, have come out in support of the BRT plan, saying it would enhance access for employees and patients. But Romanelli and Wahl note that the medical center also happens to be a major landholder and could stand to benefit from development opportunities along the BRT line. They point to an online map tool created by the Metropolitan Planning Council — showing zoning, vacancies, and median income along Ashland — as proof that some advocates have their eye on more than just faster buses.

“Is the BRT also a Trojan horse for developers? To skyrocket taxes on Ashland Avenue, take these buildings from these family-owned businesses who are struggling while mini­-malls are being constructed in our city?” Romanelli mused. “Is this transit improvement, or is this a forced gentrification project?”

Chris Ziemann, project manager for Chicago BRT, freely admits that redevelopment is a secondary goal.* Its primary goal, he says, is to help buses run faster and continue Chicago’s transition toward what’s known as “complete streets.” “The more transformative a project is, the less easy it goes down. And Ashland is extremely transformative,” he says. “But there’s growth pressure on the corridor anyway. We see car ownership decreasing. So this is to respond to those future trends. This is transformative because it needs to be.”

Ziemann had organized a lunch with a handful of supporters at a Polish restaurant near Division and Ashland, and over blintzes and sausages, the group tried to make the case for the BRT, unafraid to describe the future Chicago they envisioned and the bold action required to facilitate it.

Burt Klein, a board member of the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago, an organization not unlike Romanelli’s local business association, admitted that board colleagues were starkly divided on the issue of the Ashland BRT. But he dismissed the arguments against the project as coming from a knee-­jerk fear of change. “I don’t think they have a vision of the future,” he said during the lunch. “‘I drive my car, therefore I want car lanes.’ It’s not people who don’t own cars. It’s the view that roads are made for cars. They’re upset about bike lanes. Upset about bus-rapid transit.”

Brenna Conway, the transit campaign coordinator for the Active Transportation Alliance, pointed out that a quarter of households in the Ashland corridor were carless. “And I imagine many more are families that have just one car,” she said. “A significant number people live here and are already dependent on transit.”

“I think there’s something else,” added Klein, “which is all of these cities are competing for young people. And you compete for young people because if you grab them when they’re young, they end up settling in the area. And that’s how cities stay vibrant. Again, the younger generation is looking for livability. They’re not looking for a way to drive.”

“We understand that people have gotten used to things. But that doesn’t make them good, you know?” said Conway. “You can’t not do something because it might be uncomfortable.”

As agreed as they were about the need for BRT, when I asked those around the table if there was anything they would change about the project, they all had peeves.

Anna Shibrowsky, a copywriter who works at home and spends much of her break time commenting on transportation blogs, said she would remove the parking from Ashland and replace it with protected bike lanes. Conway and Michael Whalen, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago studying urban planning, both said they’d prefer the city tackle the entire 16-mile route at once rather than phase the construction. Klein admitted that his industrial group was concerned about doing away with left turns, and the effect it might have on truck access.

“But really I only care about one left turn,” he said, referring to one near his company. The table laughed. “I make a joke of it, but that’s what matters to us.” He expected that his left turn would be restored in the final design phases, and he hoped the city would move quickly to finish the project. “I look at Ashland, and this is already five to ten years late,” Klein said. “By the time it’s built, Western [Avenue] will be overdue for BRT.”

As we walked out of the Polish restaurant, Ziemann showed off the recently completed eleven-­story residential tower on the corner of Division and Ashland. He said it had replaced a boarded­-up Pizza Hut and its parking lot. There were 99 units in the new building, yet no resident parking. Before this building was approved, a developer had come forward with a proposal for an apartment tower with a drive-­thru bank on the ground floor, but the neighborhood association nixed the idea. It would have brought too many cars to the area.

Almost everyone agrees that the fate of the embattled Ashland BRT will be decided in February of next year, when Rahm Emanuel is reelected, or not. The mayor has been quiet about the plan lately, but proponents have faith that he’ll see the new line through if he holds the mayor’s office.

Romanelli is wise to this reality. “There are some lawyers involved,” he says, looking at whether the city’s environmental assessment of the project might be worth challenging in court, “but really we’re looking at a pure political mobilization.” Romanelli is targeting local officials along Ashland, several of whom have come out publicly with concerns about the BRT’s transformative nature.

If it were up to Gabe Klein, the former DOT chief, the city would fly some of the critics to a city where BRT is already working. This winter, Klein says, he went to Nantes, France, and rode the BRT there. “It’s amazing. I’m a huge advocate for BRT, but even I need to ride it to be reminded how amazing it can be,” he said. “People in Nantes can’t imagine the city without it. Just like most Americans — most people — can’t imagine something they haven’t seen before.”

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