Chicago: Ashland Avenue is the Next BRT Corridor, City Says

Bus rapid transit will come to Chicago’s Ashland Avenue by 2016, the city announced Friday, in a $160 million effort to boost transit efficiency and reduce congestion on the Near West Side.

Financed with a mix of federal and local money, the project will remove the interior lanes from Ashland, a major north-south thoroughfare, and replace them with dedicated bus lanes, stations, and timed light signals to create a 24-hour BRT line. The route will initially extend about 6 miles, from 31st Street to Cortland. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) hopes to eventually extend the terminus north to Irving Park and south to 95th Street.

The choice of Ashland was made at the expense of Western Avenue, another West Side arterial that was also under consideration. While both roads are wide enough for BRT and serve transit-deficient populations, a study showed that Ashland could better handle the loss of existing traffic lanes. It also serves higher-density areas, the study noted. Western, however, would have brought BRT to neighborhoods further west, farther from El lines and where transit needs are greater.

According to an alternative analysis performed by the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), a trip along the 12-mile core of the future route, from Fullerton to 79th, should take 46 minutes with BRT. This compares with 83 minutes on the current Ashland #9 bus and 33 minutes on the Red Line El, which runs about 2 miles to the east. City officials expect these time savings to bolster ridership, reduce congestion and carbon emissions, and spur investment alongside the corridor.

From a political perspective, it also helps that this corridor is uniquely representative of Chicago. The Ashland route, in its first phase, will cut a cross-section through the city’s West Side: it begins in heavily Hispanic McKinley Park, runs through the Illinois Medical Center and African-American neighborhoods near the United Center, and then transverses hip Wicker Park before ending near Armitage Avenue, an upscale stretch that extends to the lake. These diverse demographics, though, have practical similarities: they share high rates of transit usage and low rates of car ownership. The #9 bus currently serves 10 million boardings per year, second-highest in the CTA system.

But perhaps the project’s strongest feature is that it steers clear of the Loop and the greater downtown area. Chicago’s mass transit system is highly centralized, with all El routes and Metra lines, as well as most express buses, congregating in the central city. The result is a downtown accessible from all corners of the region  –  but a city where neighborhoods cannot connect without one going through the Loop, sitting on a traffic-choked bus, or navigating by car.

For many years, Chicago planners have promoted a “Circle Line” around downtown to alleviate this problem, even as severe budget shortfalls on a city and state level have kept it on the backburner. The Ashland project will largely follow the proposed Circle Line route. To the chagrin of promoters, this forecloses the possibility of a rail corridor in the foreseeable future. Yet it appears a necessary compromise in today’s economic climate.

The Ashland Avenue BRT stands to be the city’s third such line. It will follow the Jeffery Jump, which provides rush-hour bus lanes in South Shore, and the Central Loop plan, a chain of dedicated BRT corridors expected to open downtown next year.

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