Why Chicago needs bus rapid transit on Ashland

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Proposed Ashland Avenue Bus Rapid Transit line. CTA/Active Transportation Alliance

Some candidates for local office and others in Chicago have raised reasonable concerns about a proposed rapid-transit bus line on Ashland Avenue. They wonder how limiting left-hand turns would affect car traffic and whether paying for the new line would divert money from the many other CTA improvements needed.

But let’s not lose sight of why Chicago needs its first rapid-transit line — bus or L — that doesn’t go downtown, one that connects west side communities and CTA’s Orange, Blue, Brown and Green lines: it’s because not everyone works downtown or is going downtown, which is the outdated premise behind the CTA’s hub-and-spoke system. 

If we were naming the rapid transit bus line, we would call it the Ashland Community Connector because it will connect 12 communities between 95th Street on the south end and Irving Park Road on the north end. More than 232,000 Chicagoans live within a half-mile of Ashland, and one in four of those households do not own a car. Nearly 100 schools, and countless small businesses, restaurants and hospitals, are within walking distance of Ashland.

The Ashland Community Connector would have transit stations and operate in its own right-of-way, like a train, but with rubber wheels on the pavement. It would be nearly as fast as the Red Line and much faster than the local bus, helping working-class Chicagoans who struggle to access jobs located outside of downtown, students who can’t get to school on time because their bus gets stuck in traffic, and anyone who would have a quicker trip by bypassing the Loop.

Currently, the only transit option for many people in these neighborhoods is the #9 Ashland bus, which — with 10 million boardings annually — has the highest CTA ridership of any bus route. Although the bus often moves slowly because of traffic congestion and frequent stops, the line should be continued for those who need this bus service, and the CTA has said it would.

The traffic-flow concerns will require some compromise, without a doubt, but they’re manageable in the spirit of creating a badly needed rapid transit line for Chicago that connects neighborhoods and the CTA’s rail lines.

With bus service cuts, fare increases, slow zones and other pressing problems facing the CTA, we do not support robbing Peter to pay Paul to build this line. The reality is that the CTA’s finances are so strained that it cannot do this on its own without new funds even if it wanted to. This is the formula used in cities like New York City, Denver and even Los Angeles that are currently building new rapid-transit lines. Chicago, unfortunately, is last among our peer cities in transit expansion.

Expansion projects like this can help attract new federal funds that the CTA is hard-pressed to come by otherwise. In addition, the Ashland Community Connector Line is a key element in our Transit Future proposal to the Cook County Board for a bond program that would improve and expand transit.

Although there are reasonable concerns being voiced, some residents simply believe that preserving all four lanes of car traffic and every left-hand turn on Ashland Avenue is more important than expanding the city’s rapid transit network for the millions of Chicagoans who use it every day. They are entitled to their opinions, but our elected officials shouldn’t buy the false populism they are selling. Downtown Chicago is important, but so is every other Chicago community. It’s time to support our communities and everyday Chicago transit riders by connecting Chicago’s neighborhoods with rapid transit on Ashland.

Ron Burke is executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance. Jacky Grimshaw is vice president for Policy at the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

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