Dear Alderman Cardenas*:

*And everyone else who is skeptical about the Ashland BRT

Let me come right out and say: Cars are great. Some people on my side – I mean people who favor BRT – aren’t quite on board with that. But I’m on board. Without a car, it would truly be a pain in the ass to go see my parents, who live in Evanston, or my friends and their baby, who live at 79th and Homan. It would be a pain to go grocery shopping before a big get-together. It would be a pain to visit family in other Midwestern cities. Cars are great.

It would be silly, in a place like Chicago, to design roads without regards for cars. Cars go fast. They’re ready whenever you need them. They sit (almost) directly outside your home, and can take you (almost) directly where you’re going. They have multiple natural advantages over transit, walking, biking, and taxis, depending on what you’re trying to do. Cars are great.

But there is, unfortunately, a problem with cars. You are familiar with this problem already. It is that cars are big, and add up very quickly. They add up especially quickly in a place like Chicago, with almost ten million people revolving around a single, increasingly popular city center. Very quickly, cars fill up all the available space on the road, and then they become much, much less useful, because they don’t go as fast. They also fill up all the available parking spots, and then they become much, much less useful, because you have to drive around for a while to find a place to park, and then walk five or ten or fifteen minutes to the place you’re actually trying to go.

There’s not a lot to do about that problem. In an earlier era, cities tried to fix it by making more space, but unfortunately 1) that led to tearing down a lot of people’s homes and businesses, and 2) it turns out that in cities as big as Chicago, it’s basically impossible to make enough space for all the cars. I was in Dallas last summer. Dallas is only about 2/3 as big as Chicago, and it has gone all-out to try to create as much space as possible for cars. Any Dallasite will tell you – and I will back them up – driving in Dallas is one of the more hellish things you can do to yourself. There is still way too little space.

So at a certain point – a point we’re pretty close to already – everyone is miserable and you can’t fit any more people. That means no more growth. It means no more customers for your businesses; no more liveliness on your streets; no more residents; no more jobs.

This is where the bus comes in.

Buses can fit a lot of people in a relatively tiny amount of space. Since this is the Internet, here is a GIF (pretend that Canadian streetcar is a bus; it’s basically bus-sized):

streetcar-gif-toronto

It’s not complicated, so I won’t belabor the point: buses allow way more people to use the same amount of space. They allow all those people to move around much faster than if they were all in cars. In a word, buses are efficient. Efficiency in transportation means growth. It means – speaking generally – more people, more customers for businesses, more jobs.

You are not yet convinced. Maybe you agree that we should invest more in public transit, but wouldn’t trains be better? Also, how can we justify spending $160 million when the city is in such financial straits?

This, though, is the great thing about BRT: it will cost $10 million per mile. Do you know how much a mile of subway costs? Somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion. Not kidding. We can get 16 miles of rapid transit for something like the cost of two blocks of subway. On top of that, the federal government requires that cities pay for only small amounts of approved transit projects.

What I’m saying is this: You can still believe that we can’t afford BRT. But if you believe that, you believe we can’t afford any real investments in new transportation. Because this is by far the cheapest investment around. (That “modern express bus”? Almost no time savings, since it’s still stuck in traffic, and probably almost as expensive.)

So a point for BRT. But still: we would be taking two lanes from cars. We would be increasing congestion. Just a few paragraphs ago I was saying that it would be silly to design roads without regard for cars. So how do we justify this?

Well, I could start by pointing out that the official assessment predicts that driving times will increase by only 10%, max, so my 30 minute trip will take 33 – not the end of the world.

I could also point out that if you think those three minutes are a disaster for your driving constituents, you should probably know that it takes your bus-riding constituents about 60 minutes to cover the same amount of ground. Not in some terrible future, but right now. BRT would reduce that time by 80%.

But forget that. The real point is that roads should be designed so people can get around. When cars are the best way to do that, we should design for cars. When the road gets full and we need to be more efficient, we need to add something else. The point of BRT isn’t public transit; it’s movement. Accessibility. Growth. Jobs.

There’s also this: 25% of all trips made on Ashland are already done by bus. (That’s 30,000 people, the highest ridership of any line in the city.) And yet all six lanes are optimized for cars: four for traveling and two for parking. In fact, basically every lane in Chicago – all 9,000 miles of them – is optimized for cars. This in a city where the buses give about a million rides every day. Looked at that way, taking two lanes – one-third of one street – for buses isn’t so outrageous. In fact, it’s a tiny step towards fairness to the thousands upon thousands of your constituents who depend on buses to get them to work, to school, to shop, to visit family and friends.

Maybe you’re still not convinced. There are still things to work out: left turns, for example. We can write some angry letters about those.

And in the end, maybe you’re still not on board. But we should at least be clear about what the stakes are for the city. Our streets aren’t getting any bigger. The 30,000 people who ride the Ashland bus – and the hundreds of thousands more who take other buses – already face disastrous commute times. This is the cheapest way to move more people around the city, faster. We ought to make it work.

Yours,

Daniel

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2 thoughts on “Dear Alderman Cardenas*:

  1. Daniel, this is really great stuff. Have you sent a copy to the alderman directly? It’s been disheartening to hear such short-sighted thinking from policymakers with regards to BRT in recent months, but I’m hopeful that the tide is beginning to turn. Those of us in support of the project need to follow your lead in rejecting the idea that this is somehow an effort by bikers and the like to gang up on drivers. As long as the anti camp is allowed to perpetuate the idea that only a small portion of Ashland commuters actually stands to benefit, we’ve got an uphill battle in front of us.

    1. Thanks. I’m trying to figure out how best to get this kind of argument out there – I’m thinking about submitting an op-ed to the Trib or Sun-Times. We’ll see.

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