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Rapid transit buses not there yet

Artist's rendering AshlBus Rapid Transit.  |  Courtesy CTA

Artist's rendering of the Ashland Bus Rapid Transit. | Courtesy of CTA

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Updated: October 20, 2013 7:34AM

Chicago once had the world’s largest cable car system and, after that, the world’s largest streetcar network, but those grids were ripped out partly because — unlike the L — they interfered with cars.

Now planners are taking on cars again with a proposed bus rapid transit line, and they need to get it right if it is to be the model for public transit expansion in the Chicago area.

No one has enough money to build new rail rapid transit lines, so Chicago is turning to buses that will speed along dedicated lanes on Ashland Avenue, even though a bus line can’t carry as many people as trains. But that means eliminating two lanes now used by cars, along with left turns, some parking spots, some loading zones, bike lanes and through traffic on some east-west streets. Not everyone is happy, which is why “Save Ashland Avenue” signs are starting to crop up.

If it becomes a reality, the Ashland Avenue Bus Rapid Transit line will need to move lots of passengers efficiently to win converts among people who find the changes for cars inconvenient. The agency also needs effective outreach to residents and businesses, so that the problems they face can be addressed. A change like this requires extensive hand-holding.

The CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation, which have been holding community meetings to get public input, want a final design in place next year for a 5.4-mile stretch from 31st Street north to Cortland so that work can begin in 2015 if money is available. Special buses, which the CTA say would run 83 percent faster than regular buses, would use the two center lanes of Ashland with stops every quarter-mile.

Chicago is one of the most congested places in the country, and to ease that congestion and boost the city’s economy, public transit must be given priority over cars. But any BRT plans must respect the existing built environment, which isn’t easy. Business owners and residents along Ashland worry about traffic spilling onto side streets and wonder what will happen when a truck stops to make a delivery if there is just one lane of traffic in each direction and no alley, or an alley that isn’t big enough to accommodate trucks. The CTA estimates 35 percent of Ashland traffic would move to other arterial streets, which means those streets would get slower. Some business owners prefer resurrecting the express buses that once ran along Ashland, which wouldn’t require closing two lanes to cars. But express buses improve travel times only about 15 percent.

The city picked Ashland Avenue for a BRT line because it has the highest bus ridership of all CTA routes — 10 million boardings in 2012, more than 31,000 each weekday. The initial phase would connect the Orange Line on the south to the Blue Line on the north, and would serve the University of Illinois at Chicago, the United Center and Malcolm X College. Eventually, the CTA plans to run the line all the way from 95th Street on the south to Irving Park on the north at a cost of $160 million. But the CTA doesn’t have $160 million, or even the $60 million that the first phase is expected to cost. Even with federal dollars, the local share will be at least 20 percent. That’s a big hurdle.

The Ashland project also refocuses attention on the need for better regional transit planning. The Regional Transportation Authority should be providing a broader vision and a detailed comprehensive strategic plan that creates not only a vision for bus rapid transit but also other types of improvements.

As author Greg Borzo points out in his histories of Chicago transit, having large public transit grids helped the city grow and prosper. Bus rapid transit looks like the next step, and getting it right is key to the city’s future.

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