Chicago Already Has a “Traffic Disaster” – Transit and Bikes Are the Solution

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Traffic jam in the Loop. Image: Ruth Flickr

John McCarron, a freelance writer, adjunct lecturer at DePaul University, and contributing columnist for the Tribune, suffers from Jeckyll-and-Hyde syndrome when it comes to writing about transportation.

Back in November 2011 he wrote a clueless opinion piece for the Trib accusing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein of waging a “war on cars.” Among the dubious assertions were that the Kinzie protected bike lanes are full of tumbleweeds, the Jeffery Jump bus lanes would be clogged with parked cars, and that Chicago’s bike-share program would be a miserable failure. In each case, he turned out to be dead wrong.

Recently, I was shocked to come across an informative, well-written article on cycling initiatives in Chicago’s low-income communities on the website for the community development nonprofit LISC Chicago, credited to someone named John McCarron. The piece covers the good work of organizations like West Town Bikes, Red Bike and Green, Bronzeville Bikes, and Blackstone Bicycle Works. I couldn’t believe these two articles could have been written by the same person, until one of McCarron’s colleagues assured me they were.

North Lake Shore Drive rendering by Thom Greene

A vision for Bus Rapid Transit on Lake Shore Drive and two Lakefront Trail paths. Drawing: Thom Greene

However, this morning McCarron was back to his old tricks again, trashing the city’s forward-thinking, sensible transportation initiatives, in another tone-deaf Trib column with the not-alarmist-at-all title, “The creation of a traffic disaster.” “Chicago is trading away its transportation future for a mess of bicycles, bus lanes and balmy boulevards,” he warns. In other words, repent ye sinners, for Carmaggedon lies before us!

Now that Divvy has proved wildly successful, he seems to have warmed up to the bike-share concept. But he takes pot shots at the city’s plan for fast, reliable bus rapid transit on Ashland Avenue and a proposal by a coalition of 15 civic organizations for rebuilding Lake Shore Drive with BRT lanes, as well as plans for high-speed rail service from Chicago to St. Louis.

McCarron provides a laundry list of CTA, Metra, Amtrak and freight rail improvements that he implies are being overlooked because too many resources are being used for bike and bus lanes that will bring car traffic to a grinding halt. “My hunch is that our mayor and others in the know realize that this is simply a public works palliative,” he writes. Funny, he mentions the $475 million Circle Interchange Expansion, which will degrade the pedestrian environment and lower property values, as a rare example of a big, useful infrastructure project that’s getting done.

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This poster shows how buses and bikes save room on the roadway. Image: city of Muenster, Germany

A particularly egregious case of McCarron’s failure to do his homework: “Instead of the substantive improvements that we really need — things like … a downtown circulator … long-suffering motorists and train riders are being bamboozled with dreamy visions labeled ‘green’ and ‘sustainable.’” Uh, John, we are getting a downtown circulator. It’s called the Central Loop East-West Corridor.

However, McCarron accidentally hits the nail on the head when he writes, “The Chicago region has major catching up to do when it comes to transportation.” If he’d done some research, he’d have found that Chicago is following the lead of vibrant cities like New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris. The repurposing of car lanes to give more street space to bikes and buses is what you’ll see in just about every competent global city these days.

The real “traffic disaster” is the status quo on Chicago streets. Residents can’t get where they need to go efficiently because our roadways are choked with private automobiles. The bold sustainable transportation projects he ridicules are the way out of Chicago’s traffic nightmare.