The Long, Hot Summer of Transportation Initiatives

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Bike rush hour on Milwaukee, torn up for repaving before the installation of protected bike lanes. Photo by John Greenfield.

[This piece also ran in Checkerboard City, John Greenfield’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the street in print on Wednesday evenings.]

Trust me, my friends, this is the year sustainable transportation blows up in Chicago. Say what you want about Rahm Emanuel’s record on education, crime and privatization. But since he took office in early 2011, joined by forward-thinking Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein and shrewd CTA President Forrest Claypool, the city has embarked on a number of bold projects to encourage walking, biking and transit use. I promise the next three months are going to be a tipping point as we make the move from the car-centric status quo to becoming a healthier, more efficient and more vibrant city.

Where to start? The elephant in the room is the south Red Line shutdown, or rehab, depending on whether you see the glass as half empty or half full. Launched on Sunday, May 19, this $425 million project has closed the entire line south of Roosevelt for an extreme makeover, featuring the elimination of slow zones through track replacement, plus station enhancements.

It’s true the work is forcing South Siders to dramatically alter their commutes for the next five months, but the alternative to a complete closure would have been four more years of weekend work and $75 million in additional costs. The CTA appears to have done a solid job of getting the word out about the overhaul, and is getting good reviews from customers for providing numerous alternatives, like free shuttle buses to and train rides from the Green Line’s Garfield stop. In October riders will be rewarded for their patience with a twenty-minute-faster roundtrip from 95th Street to the Loop.

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CTA rendering of the new Red Wilson station.

The South Side will also be getting a new ‘L’ station with the $50 million Cermak Green Line stop, a stone’s throw from McCormick Place, slated for June construction. And, starting this summer, the Wilson Red Line station, often cited as the system’s most disgusting facility, will undergo a complete reconstruction that will transform it into a transfer point between Red and Purple Express service, albeit at a jaw-dropping $203 million price tag.

The transit authority recently announced plans for high-speed bus rapid transit service on Ashland between 95th and Irving Park, as well as a central Loop corridor between Union Station and Navy Pier. There’s sure to be plenty of backlash as they move forward with these groundbreaking plans, since they will involve replacing car lanes with dedicated bus lanes. This summer the Chicago Architecture Foundation will announce the winner of a contest to design the BRT stations. Hopefully the winning entry will be as iconic as the futuristic, tubular bus stops of Curitiba, Brazil.

One summer transit initiative I’m less excited about is the debut of the Ventra payment system. While it should cause no problems for the majority of Chicagoans, I’m worried about the impact on low-income residents, since cash fare for ‘L’ rides will spike from $2.25 to $3. You can avoid this increase by buying a reusable fare card for $5, which is refunded to you as a transit credit if you register it within ninety days, but this requires having a five-spot in your hand, plus access to a phone, the Internet, or the CTA headquarters. Plus, when you register, you’ll be given the option of activating the card as a prepaid debit card with numerous hidden fees, a temptation that many unbanked folks can ill afford. Fortunately, last week the agency announced plans to roll back some of these fees.

Blue Line viaduct high over the Bloomingdale Trail
The Bloomingdale Line, soon to be an elevated greenway and "linear park." Photo by Steven Vance.

On a more positive note, this summer construction will start on the Bloomingdale, the 2.65-mile, $91 million elevated greenway and linear park that will have a huge impact on the Northwest Side. While it promises to be a gorgeous, Millennium Park-quality facility, unlike New York’s celebrated High Line it won’t just be a tourist attraction. The Bloomingdale will provide much-needed additional green space and a handy, car-free walking and biking route, since it will connect to a number of parks, schools and transit lines.

The city has been pushing for other innovative uses of public space – witness the 20-bike parking corral that replaced two car spots in front of Logan Square’s Revolution Brewing earlier this month – and more on-street corrals and “People Spot” mini parks are in the works. As part of efforts to improve Andersonville’s already thriving pedestrian retail district, the strip will be swapping multiple car parking stalls for two parklets and a gaggle of corrals this summer. Not to be outdone, Lakeview will be getting its second People Spot in front of Uncle Dan’s outdoor store, 3551 North Southport, featuring lush plantings and a groovy, undulating seating wall.

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Rendering of the new Southport People Spot by D Space Studio.

But the real game-changer this summer will be a massive increase in cycling. Klein has already made waves by installing dozens of miles of protected and buffered lanes, in keeping with Emanuel’s grand plan for 100 miles by 2015. Most dramatically, he turned a Dearborn car lane into a two-way protected bike lane, which immediately made the street feel less like a speedway and more like the civilized business, retail and residential corridor it was meant to be.

Now Milwaukee Avenue is undergoing a similar transformation. Two weeks ago the Chicago Department of Transportation began repaving the street to make way for long-awaited protected bike lanes that will be the missing link between existing PBLs on Kinzie and Elston. This gutsy project will involve relocating about half of the car parking spaces on the strip to side streets—expect to hear plenty of grumbling from motorists.

The map of planned station locations
Map of planned Divvy bike-share locations at Sunday's Bike the Drive. Photo by Steven Vance.

Milwaukee and other new PBLs, plus a “neighborhood greenway” bike-priority, traffic-calmed street debuting on Berteau between Lincoln and Clark this summer, are sure to encourage new folks to try urban cycling. But what’s really going to make biking explode is the Divvy bike-share system, a $22 million network of 4,000 vehicles at about 400 docking stations, which should launch by the Bike to Work Rally on Friday, June 14, in Daley Plaza.

This do-it-yourself public transit system, featuring comfy cruisers for short trips and errands, will eliminate barriers to cycling for thousands of residents and visitors. As has been the case in other bike-share cities, we’ve already begun to hear business owners griping as CDOT sites docking stations in front of their property, but once they understand how the facilities attract customers and tenants they’ll be begging for the stations. There’ll be hand-wringing about the many new, helmet-less riders on the streets, but this will actually make cycling safer by forcing motorists to watch out for bikes and think twice before opening their doors. Mark my words, after this summer there’ll be no turning back.

  • Roland Solinski

    Thanks for the summary. Since I don’t live in Chicago at present, I’m glad to hear that there’s a tangible energy in the air.

    Do you think there’s any possibility that suburbs might adopt Divvy? Suburbs in the DC region have slowly been rolling out Capital Bikeshare stations in the more walkable areas. Evanston and Oak Park seem like natural fits for bike sharing.

  • Ted King

    Re : Bike corral
    Suggested edit – s/in from of/in front of/

  • Good question. It looks Capital Bikeshare basically exists in the
    District, and Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia, which are just across the Potomac from downtown, so that’s not much of a stretch.

    Chicago’s suburbs are farther away from the Loop, but bike-friendly inner ‘burbs like Oak Park and Evanston are likely candidates for expanding Divvy. Evanston would particularly make sense, because it’s only a couple miles north of the planned coverage area.

  • Marcus

    This is one darn bold, enthusiastic, and news-packed article! LOVE it. I also think it’s great you threw your knowledge-based opinion in at strategic locations. Well done, and thanks so much for sharing it all. I’m certainly looking forward to this turning point like many others.

  • Anonymous

    Great article, John.
    A few things that you missed that I think are worth mentioning:
    – The extension of the North Branch trail to Foster. Construction is slated to start this summer.This should make it easier and safer for casual cyclists to use the North Branch trail
    – A pedestrian/bike bridge over the North Shore Channel at Lincoln.

    P.S. Remind me to skip Johnny Sprockets the next time I need a bike part. The owner sounds like a petty little person.

  • Thanks Duppie! Good point – there’s so much going on this summer it’s hard to keep track of it all. Here’s an article about the North Branch extension: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/01/23/branching-out-the-north-branch-trail-to-extend-further-south-east/

    That’s great news about the funding for the Stone Bridge. I’ll try to get an update on the construction schedule.

    The owner of Johnny Sprockets asked Alderman Tunney not to approve a bike-share station near his store, so Tunney but the kibosh on it: http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20130528/NEWS02/130529844/bike-sharing-starts-with-a-bang

  • Thanks a lot Marcus! I am pretty stoked about the changes in store for this summer…

  • jared.kachelmeyer

    Evanston seems like an ideal location. As it stands now it can be a bit of a walk from the CTA or Metra to Northwestern.

  • Anonymous

    Oak Park has explored bike share concepts over the past several years having first checked into Vélo’v some years back (maybe 9, or so) as a potential CMAQ project. Since that time, they’ve completed a bike plan and will soon be updating that plan. Perhaps it’s a good time to think about bike sharing again with Chicago’s deployment.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting observation that Oak Park – also sharing a border with Chicago – is not a couple of miles from the planned coverage area.

  • Roland Solinski

    Thanks for the tip about Oak Park. I hope they can find a way to get some Divvy stations.

    If you’re trying to make a dig at planners for ignoring the West Side, I think the South Side has a similar gripe. It’s a shame but the program is focused on the densest, most walkable parts of the city.

  • Guest

    Yeah, slight dig.

    It seems that bike sharing access for concentrations of low to moderate income families and individuals exhibiting low vehicle ownership rates might be a good idea.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, slight dig. I acknowledge it can expand to other areas as a proven transportation strategy, though.

    Of course, it seems that bike sharing access for concentrations of low to moderate income families and individuals exhibiting low vehicle ownership rates might be a good idea.

  • Anonymous

    /

    oops. my [duplicate] post.

  • Anonymous

    The Bloomingdale!

  • Gregory Jay Valent

    A sawbuck is $10.00, a fin is $5.00.

  • Payton Chung

    Two systems in gestation will test whether bike share can work in corridors, rather than in a contiguous network. Stations will start arriving in Montgomery County, Md., not just adjacent to DC but ~10 miles out in Rockville. When the Bay Area launches a system, bikes will be not just in downtown SF but along the CalTrain.

    Speaking of which, I’ll be curious to see how people use the initial north side stations — almost all are along “L” lines, where people already have the “L” to get them to other “L” stops.

  • Yes, since most of the planned docking stations will be within a couple miles of the lakefront, Oak park is about five miles from the nearest planned station.

    In terms of geographic equity, there’s a pretty good North Side / South Side split – the coverage area goes to 6400 North and 6300 South, although blocks are a bit shoerter on the Near South Side, so it’s not quite equal. However, the density of planned stations is much higher on the North Side.

    Here’s the explanation the Divvy website gives for this: “We know from studying bike share systems globally that to successfully launch, we must start in the area of highest use. That way stations will be densely populated, leading to a system that is financially self-supporting.”

    The North Side is a lot more densely populated than the South or West sides, and there’s higher existing bike ridership. So this strategy may have been necessary for the initial launch, but hopefully one Divvy is off the ground more stations will be added in low-income communities.

    Otherwise we will wind up with the homogenous ridership demographics that have been a problem in other cities. CDOT has said this issue is on their radar: http://gridchicago.com/2012/bike-share-not-white-share-can-chicagos-program-achieve-diversity/

  • Good catch, thanks. You obviously read more gangster novels then me!

  • Roland Solinski

    My guess is that bike share will be used for trips between the Northwest and North Side neighborhoods, which are connected decently by bus but are really unpleasant to walk because of the Kennedy and the River industrial areas.

  • Yes, Divvy will be great for that, also because while it’s only a 20 minute bike ride from Wicker Park to Lakeview, for example, right now Google Maps is saying it’s a 40-minute transit trip.