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Kempf Plaza Has All the Right Ingredients for a Great Public Space

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Giddings Plaza is used in all types of weather. This photo was taken in early April. Image: Andrew Seaman, via Flickr.

There are few pedestrian spaces in Chicago that evoke the feeling of an old European city as well as Kempf Plaza (perhaps better known as Giddings Plaza) in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

Now that city, advocacy groups, neighborhood organizations, and individuals call for more public plazas throughout the city, it would be instructive to examine the history and design features that make some of the city’s existing public spaces successful. Kempf Plaza is often cited as an example to emulate. The plaza is a result of history and good design, 36 years in the making.

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Murals in the neighborhood depict the life of Old World European towns. Photo: Charles Carper, via Flickr.

The area around the Lincoln Square neighborhood was settled as early as 1836, before Chicago was incorporated. The establishment of a streetcar line along Lincoln Avenue in 1872, and subsequently the parallel Ravenswood elevated line in 1907, spurred more intensive development, especially as immigrants from places like Germany streamed into the North Side. Beginning in 1949, the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce began promoting itself as a commercial district, but it wasn’t until 1978 that a more European flair was sought for the neighborhood, in order to help a cluster of businesses struggling amidst the city’s then-declining economic fortunes. Any visitor today can attest that the area has a distinctly European feeling, including several Bavarian-style facades and painted murals of old European towns.

The Chamber’s 1978 goal to create a more prosperous business district spurred the reconstruction of the Western ‘L’ station, and the rerouting of Lincoln Avenue through the neighborhood. It was also at this time that Giddings Street was made into a cul-de-sac, establishing an open space for the Kempf Plaza. As with most projects involving the removal of free curb parking, there was opposition from the neighbors. Few specific complaints are listed in contemporary media, but I suspect the opponents feared asking drivers to divert to other streets, or removing a dozen or so free parking spaces.

Just closing half a block to residential traffic, and removing a few parking spaces, doesn’t suffice as a recipe for a successful public space. Several other public spaces, including some in Chicago, suffer a lack of vitality and are missing key elements necessary for a successful public place. What makes Kempf Plaza different?

Danish architect Jan Gehl written has several books related to the urban design of outdoor spaces. One of his books, Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, is a thorough rundown of what makes a quality public space. Giddings Plaza qualifies as a third place, one that is neither home nor work, and is a space for optional activities, as opposed to necessary activities like errands or commuting. Optional activities, Gehl writes, “take place only when exterior conditions are favorable.” What are some exterior conditions that make this a great place?

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Metra’s Strategic Plan: For Commuters, Or For The Railroad?

Metra Arriving at Barrington

Just missed a Metra train? You may have to wait two hours for the next one. Metra’s strategic plan should focus on its customers, not just its operations. Photo: Andy Tucker

Two years after launching its first-ever strategic planning process with a series of public meetings, Metra is at last finalizing basic goals for the plan. Our preview last month showed that the draft plan focused as much on administrative matters as it did on customers and services. That split focus remains, but board members are now debating whether the plan should shift in one direction or the other.

Metra’s director of strategic capital planning, Lynnette Ciavarella, launched a discussion about the draft plan’s ten goals and objectives at the board’s August meeting. The preliminary goals included “continuing to provide a high quality travel experience,” financial stability, “improving agency-wide efficiency,” integrating with regional transportation networks, and expanding the system “as resources allow.” Ciaverella then asked the board, “What’s missing?”

Some board members contended that the strategic plan doesn’t engage enough with the outside world, while one board member wanted Metra to stick to the basics. John Plante, a recently retired CTA manager who was appointed to Metra’s board last October, spoke up first. Plante wanted Ciaverella to add “innovative financing” – namely, public-private partnerships and land value capture, which could hopefully help fund expanded Metra service.

Don DeGraff, appointed in 2011, said he felt there was little coordination among the different transportation providers and planning agencies. He asked, “how does Metra fit with CTA, Pace, Illinois Department of Transportation, and the [South Shore Line], to make sure there’s an effective regional plan?” He continued, “we need a Daniel Burnham: someone to come up with a plan to allow us to be successful in the northeastern Illinois market.” He called on Metra to take on that coordinating role.

Ciaverella assured the board that the strategic plan was coordinated with the Regional Transportation Authority’s strategic plan and the region’s long-range GO TO 2040 comprehensive plan. Metropolitan Planning Council vice president Peter Skosey told me that “the region as a whole has a challenge connecting land use and transportation,” and that Metra can play a greater role in station-area planning “to ensure better connections to jobs and housing.”

One board member, by contrast, wants to throw out half the goals. Director Norman Carlson, appointed just before the CEO scandal came to light, explained that “so often planning doesn’t take into consideration operating perspectives.” Carlson cited his railroad consulting experience at Arthur Andersen to say “an organization can logically take on 3-5 objectives [to] make any measurable progress.” He said that Metra should take on just four goals, but list a fifth goal to be deferred.

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The Small Indiana City That’s Embracing Livable Streets

Kokomo, Indiana, has put a lot of money and energy into developing streetscape features like bumpouts, Aaron Renn reports. Photo: Urbanophile

Kokomo, Indiana, has put resources and energy into developing streetscape features to calm traffic and provide more space for walking and biking, Aaron Renn reports. Photo: Urbanophile

With a population of about 60,000 and a formerly industrial economy, Kokomo, Indiana, is not the type of city that recent economic trends have favored.

But Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile says the city has embraced some tenets of urbanism as an economic and quality-of-life strategy, thanks in large part to the leadership of Mayor Greg Goodnight. When Renn visited recently, he was impressed with the new downtown bike trail and pedestrian infrastructure. And thanks to careful budgeting and prioritization, the city is making these improvements without taking on any debt. Renn says:

They’ve deconverted every one way street downtown back to two way, removed every stop light and parking meter in the core of downtown, are building a mixed-use downtown parking garage with a new YMCA across the street, have a pretty extensive program of pedestrian friendly street treatments like bumpouts, as well as landscaping and beautification, a new baseball stadium under construction, a few apartment developments in the works, and even a more urban feel to its public housing.

I think they’ve done a number of good things, and I especially appreciate the attention to detail that went into them. You clearly get the feel of them walking downtown streets. I would say the commercial and residential development lags the infrastructure, however. That’s to be expected. They do have an Irish Pub, a coffee shop, a few restaurants, and other assorted downtown type of businesses. This will be an area to watch as some of these investments mature.

When you look at the downward trajectory of most small Indiana industrial cities, the status quo is not a viable option. Kokomo deserves a lot credit for trying something different. And regardless of any development payoffs, things like trails and safer and more welcoming streets are already paying a quality of life dividend to the people who live there right now. It’s an improvement anyone can experience today just by walking around.

It’s hard to tell from Renn’s post if the city’s parking policies are aligned with the improvements to street designs, but it looks like an admirable effort. You can get a better sense of what’s happening (and of Mayor Goodnight’s urbanist library) by checking out the many pictures on the Urbanophile.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Bike League shares a post from a woman whose life was transformed by her introduction to bicycling and the dramatic weight loss she achieved. And Pedestrian Observations says hoping people will just move out of productive cities with high housing costs isn’t a reasonable affordability strategy.

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Today’s Headlines

  • State of Illinois Providing $10 Million to Expand Safe Passages Program (Tribune)
  • Sun-Times Is Bankrolling Free CTA Rides for CPS Students on First Day (RedEye)
  • 15 Injured After O’Hare Shuttle Bus Driver Crashes Into Median (Sun-Times)
  • Flooding Has Put a Damper on Riverwalk Construction Work (Curbed)
  • City Study Finds Taxi Drivers Make $12.14 an Hour, Cabbies Beg to Differ (Sun-Times)
  • Open Letter to Rahm From a Cabbie: Give Us Higher Rates, Lower Fees (Chicago)
  • How Transitized Moved From Chicago to Vancouver Via Amtrak
  • Ribbon Cutting & BBQ for Loyola’s New Kenmore Promenade 5:30 P.M. Today (DNA)

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Thanks to Loophole, Cheerios’ Downtown Pedicab Promotion Was Unsinkable

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Why not promote your cereal with a vehicle whose wheels resemble it? Image: Cheerios

This morning, I was puzzled when I read a DNAinfo.com report that Cheerios was planning to promote its new line of high-protein cereals with a seemingly illegal activity: pedicab rides in the Loop during rush hours.

In April, City Council passed an ordinance regulating pedicabbers – and banning them from downtown streets. Under the new law, operators are prohibited from working in the Loop during rush hours, as well as on Michigan and State, between Oak and Congress, at all times. Pedicabbers say the restrictions are making it more difficult for them to make a living, and that the regulations are discouraging the growth of this environmentally friendly form of transportation.

Cheerios planned to have a crew of pedicabbers from local company Chicago Rickshaw offering free rides for people arriving at Union Station between 6 and 10:30 this morning. The commuters would line up on Jackson to be picked up by the bicycle taxi drivers on a first-come, first served basis, and then squired to any downtown destination. The pedicab operators would also be delivering free cereal to anyone who tweeted their location to @cheerios using the #CheeriosProteinChi.

Pedicabs are a great fit for this kind of event. Hiring the operators to make deliveries is probably cheaper than using motor vehicles, and companies want eyecatching vehicles for their promotions. And by placing its logo on the back of a pedicab, a company gets to associate its product with health, eco-friendliness, and good times. Meanwhile, Chicagoans benefit by having fewer cars and trucks on the street, and the passengers enjoy an unforgettable ride to the office.

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Pittsburgh Business Leaders See Bikeways as Cure for Road-Space Shortage

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Along Pittsburgh’s new downtown bike lane, all intersections are signalized, but cyclists won’t receive dedicated signal phases and most crossings are unmarked. People will need to be on the lookout for turning conflicts whether they’re on bikes or in cars. All renderings: City of Pittsburgh

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Downtown Pittsburgh has a perfectly good reason to be running out of room for more cars: Its streets have been there since 1784.

“In Pittsburgh, we have too many cars chasing too few parking spaces,” Merrill Stabile, the city’s largest parking operator, said last week. “I am in favor of building a few more parking garages. But we’ll never be able to build enough to meet the demand, in my opinion, if we continue to grow like we’ve been growing.”

That’s why Stabile is among the Pittsburgh business leaders backing a plan announced Tuesday to reduce downtown’s dependence on car traffic by adding a protected bike lane to Penn Avenue.

Jeremy Waldrup, CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said the protected lane, which will return Penn Avenue to one-way motor vehicle flow by removing an eastbound traffic lane, will make it comfortable for most people, not just the bold few, to bike downtown.

“One of the most important things is that we have as a city developed this incredible trail system, many of them leading to downtown,” Waldrup said. “But once you’ve made it to the borders of downtown, you’re literally on your own to get into the city.”

Penn Avenue’s new one-mile bike lane, installed as a pilot project over the next few weeks, is part of a wave of protected lane projects in American central business districts.

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Boosting Transit Ridership With New Stations, Not New Track

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The CTA Green Line’s Morgan Station is a great example of how older transit systems can draw more riders with new stations in strategic locations. Photo: Steven Vance

Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic calls them infill stations: new transit stops built in gaps along existing rail lines. Current examples include Assembly Station just outside Boston in Somerville, DC’s NoMa Station, and the West Dublin/Pleasanton BART station.

Infill stations are a pretty brilliant method to get the most out of older rail systems without spending very much, Freemark says. He’d like to see more cities adopt the strategy:

The advantages of infill stations result from the fact that people are simply more likely to use transit when they’re closer to it — and from the fact that the older transit systems in many cities have widely spaced stations that are underserving potentially significant markets. Erick Guerra and Robert Cervero, affiliated with the University of California-Berkeley, have demonstrated that people living or working within a quarter mile of a transit station produce about twice as many transit rides as people living or working more than half a mile away. In other words, with fewer stations on a line, the number of people willing to use public transportation as a whole is likely reduced.

Assembly Station, which has been in the works for several years, promises significant benefits — 5,000 future daily riders taking advantage of a 10-minute ride to the region’s central business district, at a construction cost of about $30 million. The station fits in the 1.3-mile gap between two existing stations and is the first new stop built along Boston’s T rapid transit network in 26 years. When combined with the $1.7 billion Green Line light rail extension planned for opening later this decade, 85 percent of Somerville’s residents will live within walking distance of rapid transit, up from just 15 percent today.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Quinn and Rauner Discuss Viewpoints on Public Works Investments at Forum (Tribune)
  • Predictably, Motorheads Gripe About Quinn’s Veto of 70 MPH Speed Limits (Tribune)
  • Barrington Hills Board May Vote to Ban Bikeways From the Village Altogether (Herald)
  • Think 311 Is a Joke? City Hall Is Seeking Input on How to Improve It (Sun-Times)
  • Resident Gets Nonbinding Belmont Flyover Referendum Added to November Ballot (DNA)
  • Kamin Dubs the Batavia Woonerf a “Handsome Success” (Tribune)
  • Despite Loop Ban, Cheerios Sponsoring Rush Hour Pedicab Rides From Union Station (DNA)
  • CTA Tips for New College Students (RedEye)
  • Wrigley Renovation Work Will Involve Parking Restrictions, Traffic Headaches (DNA)
  • Vacant Lot is Being Turned into an Green Learning Center for Avondale Fest (DNA)
  • Routes Unveiled for Active TransFour-Star Bike & Chow, a Calorie-Neutral Bike Ride

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Divvy Is No Cautionary Tale — It’s a Model for Other Bike-Share Systems

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City officials unveil Bublr bikes at a ceremony in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park last week. Photo: city of Milwaukee

Yesterday, the Tribune ran an opinion piece slamming the Divvy funding model, written by Diana Sroka Rickert from the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. Rickert argued that Milwaukee’s brand-new Bublr bike-share system, named after the local term for a water fountain, used a superior method because much of the funding came from private donors, largely corporate sponsors.

Rickert claims it was foolish of Chicago to launch Divvy solely with public money. She quotes Milwaukee developer and Bublr sponsor Gary Grunau as implying that Chicago’s method of lining up funding was fiscally irresponsible. “Milwaukee is a little more conservative… which is probably explained in the fact that Illinois and Chicago have a much more unstable financial picture,” he said.

The problem with Rickert’s thesis is that she’s making an apple-to-oranges comparison. The total startup cost for the first 475 Divvy stations and 4,750 bikes was $31.25 million, according to Divvy general manager Elliot Greenberger. $25 million came from federal grants, while local funds are covering the remaining $6.25 million.

Meanwhile, Midwest BikeShare, the nonprofit that runs Bublr, has raised about $3 million in public funds, plus roughly $1 million in private donations, which should pay for installing about 60 stations and 600 bikes, according to launch director Kevin Hardman. MWBS needs to raise another $3 million privately in the next two to three years to pay for operations for these stations, Hardman said. The system launched last week with ten stations and 100 bikes.

Obviously, it’s easier to cover the start-up cost of a small system than one that’s nearly eight times as big. To reach the same 1:3 ratio of private-to-public funding as Bublr, the city of Chicago would have had to raise almost $8 million in private donations prior to launching.

And Chicago did eventually snag a $12.5 million sponsorship deal for Divvy with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, about a year after the system launched. By that time, bike-share was already a proven success here, and the sponsor got an immediate payoff by getting its logo plastered on every Divvy bike and rebalancing van.

Rickert also writes that systems in Denver and Minnesota have a “better business model” because they’re run by nonprofits and were launched with private funding. Again these are much smaller systems than Chicago’s. Denver B-cycle has only 84 stations and 700 bikes, while the Twin Cities’ Nice Ride has 170 stations and 1,550 cycles.

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Are There Any Affordable Cities Left in America?

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When you factor in both housing and transportation costs (H+T) as a percent of area median income, the car-dependent cities in the right column look expensive. But are DC, SF, and NYC that much more affordable, even if you count the benefits of transit? Source: Citizens Budget Commission

Are Washington, San Francisco, and New York the most affordable American cities? A new report from the New York-based Citizen’s Budget Commission [PDF], which made the rounds at the Washington Post and CityLab, argues that if you consider the combined costs of housing and transportation, the answer is yes.

But a closer look at the data casts some doubt on that conclusion. Between the high cost of transportation in sprawling regions and the high demand for housing in compact cities with good transit, very few places in America are looking genuinely affordable these days.

The CBC report uses a better measure of affordability than looking at housing costs alone. Transportation is the second biggest household cost for the average American family, and looking at what people spend on housing plus transportation (H+T) can upend common assumptions about which places are affordable and which are not. Regions with cheap housing but few alternatives to car commuting don’t end up scoring so well.

There are some problems with the CBC’s methodology, however. While abundant transit is absolutely essential to keeping household transportation costs down, and it provides a lifeline to low-income residents of major coastal cities, the report still tends to exaggerate overall affordability in these areas.

According to the report, for example, New York City ranks third in affordability among 22 large cities. A “typical household” in New York City, the CBC finds, spends 32 percent of its income on housing and transportation combined. Part of the reason New York comes out looking good, though, is that CBC used a regional measure of income but looked at typical rents only in the city itself. Because median incomes in the whole region are higher than median incomes in the city ($62,063 vs. $51,865, respectively, according to 2008-2012 Census data), NYC appears more affordable than it really is.

Another issue, flagged by Michael Lewyn at his CNU blog, is that by looking at average rents, which in some cities include many rent-stabilized units, the calculation doesn’t necessarily capture what someone searching for shelter is likely to pay. If you’re trying to find an apartment in New York now, getting a place for the average rent would probably be extremely difficult.

What really stands out in the CBC report isn’t that New York, San Francisco, and DC are affordable — it’s that car-dependent areas that may have cheap housing turn out to be so expensive once you factor in transportation.

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