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Posts from the Beyond Chicagoland Category

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Discussing TIFs, Trump and Boneheaded Road Users on “Chicago Newsroom”

Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining veteran newsman Ken Davis on his CAN TV program “Chicago Newsroom” to discuss recent local and national transportation stories. We had a spirited conversation that threatened to become a heated debate when the question of whether lawbreaking cycling is a bigger problem than reckless driving came up. But overall it was a fun dialogue with an insightful interviewer. If you’re short on time, here are some of the highlights.

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Black Leaders Discuss Their Efforts to Promote Equity in Mobility Advocacy

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Moderator Sahra Sulaiman with panelists Tamika Butler and Zahra Alabanza. Photo: Jean Khut

Editor’s note: Streetsblog Chicago sent writer Jean Khut to Atlanta last month to report on The Untokening and share lessons from the event that could be applied to transportation justice efforts in our city. We’ll be running another post on the main Untokening activities in the near future. 

In early November, mobility advocates from across the United States gathered in Atlanta for The Untokening, a “convening” to address equity issues in transportation and public spaces. The event was an extension of this year’s Facing Race Conference, held in Atlanta earlier that weekend.

In conjunction with the convening, The Untokening and the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition hosted a panel discussion called “LA X ATL Exchange: Race, Place & Justice,” featuring Tamika Butler, director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, and Zahra Alabanza, co-founder of the Atlanta chapter of Red, Bike, and Green. Sahra Sulaiman, a communities editor at Los Angeles Streetsblog, served as the moderator.

Walking, biking, and transit advocacy groups often struggle with how to define equity in their work. During the panel Butler said some bike advocates she knew felt there weren’t enough voices representing people who’ve been marginalized by systemic prejudices.

Since starting her position at the LACBC in 2014, Butler has become one of the most prominent voices promoting equity in active transportation. She grew up in Omaha and previously worked as a civil rights lawyer. Butler wasn’t into biking until a friend convinced her to do AIDS/Lifecycle, a fundraising bike ride from San Francisco to L.A. It was there where she met her wife Kelly and found her passion for bikes.

Butler said she has dealt with her share of of racism and sexism in the bike world. One common criticism she gets is that she isn’t “bikey” enough to lead an advocacy organization, which begs the question of what this term actually means. Are her critics saying she isn’t riding her bike enough for transportation and/or recreation to be a bike advocate? Butler doesn’t know the answer, but feels that she wouldn’t face the same criticism if she were a white male.

Likewise, Alabanza didn’t fit the profile many other Atlanta bike advocates were used to. She moved to the city fifteen years ago with a background in community organizing, focusing on LGBTQ issues and reproductive rights. Eventually, her interest in social justice and biking intersected. She saw the need to create spaces for people of color to use biking as a way to form relationships and build community.

RBG originated in Oakland, California in 2007, and Alabanza co-founded the Atlanta chapter in 2012. At first many in the Atlanta bike scene didn’t know what to make of RGB and were surprised that they didn’t address some of the issues bike advocacy groups have traditionally focused on, such as promoting bike lanes and helmets. The volunteer-run group, which describes itself as “exclusively Black,” uses biking a way to address economic, environmental, and mental and physical health issues that impact African-American communities.

Alabanza said her work with RBG allows her to be “unapologetically Black.” Even though she helped create a positive, empowering space for African-Americans, she has faced some backlash, especially during the group’s first year. Alabanza has been accused of reverse racism from people who didn’t understand the need for an all-Black space.

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Trump’s Infrastructure Plan: A Deal With the Devil for Illinois Leaders?

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Donald Trump

[Last year the Chicago Reader launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate a portion of the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print.]

As it was for the people behind virtually every other progressive cause, the election of Donald Trump was a sad day for those of us who want to see the U.S. move toward a more efficient, healthy, and equitable transportation system.

It seems like a foregone conclusion that, with Republicans in control of both the Oval Office and Congress, our country is going to become only more car dependent. The party’s 2016 platform calls for eliminating federal funding for Amtrak, mass transit, bike-share programs, trails, and sidewalks—basically any kind of ground transportation that doesn’t involve cars or trucks.

Some leading Democrats have implied that Trump’s grand infrastructure plan could be a silver lining to the disastrous election. And some transportation advocates hope that, as a lifelong New Yorker, he might appreciate the importance of subways and city buses.

But within days of winning the election, Trump was already threatening Chicago’s roughly $1 billion in overall annual federal funding by promising to cut funds to all “sanctuary cities” that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. To make matters worse, the president-elect picked road-industry lobbyist Martin Whitmer to lead his “transportation and infrastructure” transition team. And former Reason Foundation analyst Shirley Ybarra, a toll-road champion who has called for defunding transit, is in charge of finding the next U.S. transportation secretary and may be in the running herself.

Under the Obama administration, our city won many federal grants and loans for CTA track and station improvements, as well as bike and pedestrian projects like the Divvy system, the Bloomingdale Trail, and the Chicago Riverwalk extension. But regime change will force advocates to shift from progress to defense, says SRAM Cycling Fund director Randy Neufeld.

“We will move from growing the bike, pedestrian, and transit shares of [transportation funding] to fighting to hang on to eligibility for these modes,” Neufeld says. “Treading water is the best we can do. We may drown. Cities will be punished at every opportunity.”

This may be why the CTA is hustling to line up about $1.1 billion in federal funding for the $2.1 billion Red/Purple Modernization project before Obama leaves office. For what it’s worth, though, CTA officials claim that the rush isn’t about fears that Trump will be anti-transit or anti-Chicago, but rather that any presidential administration change could delay the RPM grant by as much as a year.

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Why Is the South Shore’s Bike Program Getting Limited Use? It’s the Service.

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A common sight on South Shore Line bike cars: mostly empty racks. Photo: John Greenfield

Illinois Bicycle Lawyers - Mike Keating logo

In yesterday’s Tribune, an official from the South Shore Line commuter rail system, which runs from downtown Chicago to South Bend, Indiana, said that the line’s bikes-on-board program got less use than hoped for in its first season.

“We were probably looking for more people to take advantage of it,” said John Parsons, the railroad’s director of marketing and planning. “What we learned from this is that it’s important for bicyclists to have ready information on getting from the railroad stations to points of interest.” He promised bikes-on-board would be returning next year.

While that may have been a factor, there are more obvious reasons why participation in the program was underwhelming. While the plentiful onboard bike racks work great, the logistics of the initiative make it impractical for many kinds of trips.

Cycles are only allowed on weekends, which is useless for 9-to-5 commuters. Bike cars are only available on roughly every other weekend train run, which can put a crimp in day trip plans, forcing customers to depart later or come home earlier than they like.

And bikes may only be taken on or off the train at the high-level, wheelchair accessible stations. That includes almost all Chicago stations, but only four Indiana stations: Hammond, East Chicago, Dune Park, and South Bend, which obviously limits the usefulness of the program.

Parsons said weekday bike service is off the table for the foreseeable future because rush-hour trains are often packed with commuters. However, the railroad should consider allowing bikes on trains during non-peak weekday hours, as the CTA and Metra do.

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What the Lockbox Law — And Trump Win — Mean for Local Transportation

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Local leaders say don’t panic — yet — about how the Trump presidency will affect Chicagoland transportation.

It’s hard to predict what last night’s election means for the future of sustainable transportation in the U.S. But as Streetsblog editor-in-chief Ben Fried wrote this morning, the fact that the Republican party doesn’t rely on city dwellers for votes, and the president-elect’s rural base doesn’t include many fans of better transit and walkable, bikeable streets, is not a good sign.

Amid all the shock over the unexpected election results, news of another significant development for Illinois transportation got lost in the shuffle. Voters in this state passed the so-called Safe Roads Amendment ballot initiative by nearly 80 percent, far more than the 60 percent needed to make it law.

This controversial amendment to the Illinois constitution will require that all funds collected through gas taxes, tolls, driver’s license fees, and city stickers be captured in a “lockbox” to prevent them from being used for non-transportation purposes. The ballot question asked citizens if they supported earmarking this revenue for “administering laws related to vehicles and transportation, costs for construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, airports, or other forms of transportation, and other statutory highway purposes.”

Originally the Metropolitan Planning Council, the Active Transportation Alliance, and the Center for Neighborhood Technology supported the amendment, arguing that it would grow the overall transportation budget, which could mean more money for walking, biking, and transit. They also argued that the lockbox would help build support for raising the gas tax by insuring the revenue would go to transportation, not other needs or pet projects. Initially, I was a supporter as well.

But Chicago’s two major newspapers oppose the initiative, arguing that the campaign was fueled by cronyism between lawmakers and road-building and labor interests, and that politicians shouldn’t need a constitutional amendment to force them into fiscal discipline.

Other organizations and progressive commentators, including Streetsblog’s Steven Vance, pointed out other additional issues with the amendment. They argued proponents has misrepresented how much money had been previously diverted from the transportation fund, and that tying lawmakers’ hands on spending decisions could cause problems if a real financial crisis or natural disaster arises.

They noted that the language of the legislation didn’t specify whether walking, biking, and transportation funding would be eligible for funding, or whether local governments would be able to spend transportation revenue on things like streetlamps and snow plowing. Eventually the Center for Neighborhood Technology dropped their support for the amendment, as did I.

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Paved With Good Intentions: The Safe Roads Amendment Has Some Potholes

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Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images via Chicago Reader

[Last year the Chicago Reader launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate a portion of the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print.]

One of the TV ads put out to promote the Safe Roads Amendment is downright terrifying.

“Thousands of bridges crumbling,” says the ominous-sounding narrator over grim footage of crumbling viaducts and potholed streets. “Roads in dangerous disrepair. We already pay to make them safe, but year after year Springfield raids the road fund for their pet projects.” On the screen is a horrific image of the 2007 Minneapolis Interstate 35W bridge collapse, which killed 13 people and injured 145. “It’s not a matter of if disaster will strike,” the narrator warns gloomily, “but when.”

The proposed amendment to the Illinois constitution, which will be on the November 8 ballot, would require that all funds collected through gas taxes, tolls, driver’s license fees, and city stickers be captured in a “lockbox” to prevent them from being used for nontransportation purposes. The ballot question asks citizens if they support earmarking this revenue for “administering laws related to vehicles and transportation, costs for construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, airports, or other forms of transportation, and other statutory highway purposes.”

It’s no surprise that the binding referendum, which will pass only if 60 percent of voters support it, is mainly backed by the road-building industry, organized labor, and other entities that stand to profit if more money is funneled toward highway construction. The lobbying groupCitizens to Protect Transportation Funding has raised $3.7 million in support of the measure—including $1 million from the Fight Back Fund, a political advocacy group headed by labor leader Marc Poulos that isn’t required to disclose its donors—and has already purchased some $1 million worth of TV ads.

Both the Tribune and the Sun-Times have urged readers to vote no on the measure, arguing that the campaign is fueled by cronyism, and that politicians shouldn’t need a constitutional amendment to force them into fiscal discipline. In September the Tribune ran an editorial blasting the amendment as “diabolical,” asserting that it would serve as a gravy train for the contractors and unions who make campaign donations to politicians.

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CDOT Vets and Other Leaders Discuss the Future of Urban Transportation

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Mendoza, Tolson, Klein, Kubly, and Treat at the Shared Use Summit. Photo: Shared-Use Mobilty Center

Last week hundreds of civic leaders, entrepreneurs, and academics from across the U.S. convened in our city for the National Shared Mobility Summit, organized by the Chicago-based nonprofit the Shared-Use Mobility Center. This think tank focuses on practices and policies regarding bike-share, ride-share, car-share, and other mobility tools in an effort to maximize the positive impact of these new technologies.

The panel “Connecting the DOTs – City Commissioners on Shared Mobility” featured three former heavy-hitters from the Chicago Department of Transportation. The discussion was moderated by former CDOT commissioner Gabe Klein, now with the consulting firm CityFi and other transportation-related entities (including the board of OpenPlans, Streetsblog’s parent organization).

Joining Klein for the talk were his former CDOT deputies Leah Treat and Scott Kubly, who currently lead the Portland and Seattle DOTs, respectively. Earlier this decade, the three of them launched the Divvy bike-share system, as well as initiatives like the construction of 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes, the Bloomingdale Trail, and the Chicago Riverwalk. Rounding out the panel were Richard Mendoza, Atlanta’s transportation commissioner, and Clarena Tolson, deputy managing director for the city of Philadelphia.

“Connecting the DOTs” (get it?) focused on the new challenges and opportunities facing cities as we enter a brave new world of shared mobility, autonomous vehicles, and other emerging technologies. During the discussion, Klein and the city officials also talked about what they’ve learned as they’ve dealt with issues like aging infrastructure, changing regulatory demands, and current trends like ride-share that are disrupting traditional taxi and public transit models.

The officials started out by discussing some of the new shared-mobility and transit initiatives in their respective cities. Treat discussed Portland’s new BIKETOWN bike-share system, title-sponsored by Nike. Although the locally based sports-gear manufacturer is not known as a bike company, Treat said their sponsorship was probably the largest per-bike investment for bike-share at the time. One feature of the system that Chicago’s Divvy should consider emulating is the option of buying a single bike ride for $2.50, comparable to a transit ticket.

Treat also mentioned the new Portland Aerial Tram, a gondola service that carries commuters between the city’s South Waterfront district and the main Oregon Health & Science University campus, located on top of a hill. The university subsidizes 85 percent of the cost of the line, an investment that proportionate to the percentage of riders who are affiliated with the school.

Tolson discussed Philadelphia’s Indego bike-share service, which has been cited as an example of a system that was planned with equity in mind from Day One. The membership of American bike-share systems, including Divvy, have tended to skew white, male, affluent, and well educated, an issue CDOT began to address last year with the Divvy for Everyone equity program, which offers one-time $5 annual memberships to low-income Chicagoans.

Tolson said Indego was designed to be inclusive from the get-go, with early planning input from community groups and social justice advocates. Individuals who are eligible for public assistance can pay only $5 a month for use of the system instead of the usual $15 rate. Local media outlets have partnered with the city to promote the system to their audiences. As a result, Tolson said, Philadelphians have “embraced this as their own.” Over 900 residents have signed up for discounted memberships so far.

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The Lockbox Amendment Would Hinder the State Government

Metra over traffic

A proposed constitutional amendment on election ballots right now may go too far in restricting state transportation funding because its language doesn’t address multimodal needs.

Note: Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance and John Greenfield have different opinions about the lockbox amendment. Read John’s take here.

On every ballot in Illinois right now – early voting and mail-in voting has begun – there’s a question asking if the Illinois constitution should be amended to ensure that money that comes from gas taxes, vehicle licensing fees, and similar transportation taxes and fees, goes only to pay for transportation infrastructure and projects. The purpose of the so-called “Safe Roads Amendment” is to prevent lawmakers from using the state’s various transportation funds to pay for other state needs.

Adopting the amendment will create a new problem of inflexibility while failing to resolve the state’s actual problems. There is insufficient funding in Illinois for all of the transportation projects communities and legislators want completed, and too often car-centric initiatives are prioritized while projects that would reduce car dependency are back-burnered. The amendment doesn’t address that problem.

The Safe Roads Amendment is being pushed by the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, made up of highway construction industry and labor lobbying groups, as well as nonprofits like the Metropolitan Planning Council. The coalition has run ads suggesting that roads and bridges in Illinois are in danger of falling apart and causing injuries and fatalities because transportation funding has been diverted to non-transportation uses due to Springfield’s waste and mismanagement. That’s misleading.

The coalition is claiming that $6.8 billion was diverted from transportation projects, but that number is inaccurate. That money paid for various state needs, which often included, depending on how the diversions are tabulated, actual transportation-related payments. Also, the state’s structurally-deficient bridges are being monitored and repaired as needed using money that the Illinois Department of Transportation budgets each year.

The Civic Federation, a watchdog organization, reviewed which monies have been transferred out of the various transportation funds since 2002. They wrote, “which spending counts as a transportation diversion has been a thorny issue for many years.” For example, it’s debatable whether it’s counts as a transportation diversion when money from the funds goes to pay for pensions and health insurance for Illinois Department of Transportation employees.

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Active Trans Wins $150K Grant to Help Accelerate Slow Chicago Bus Service

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Prepaid boarding is currently being tested at Madison/Dearborn — riders swipe their fare card at a portable reader before the bus arrives. Photo: John Greenfield

There was some good news for Chicago straphangers last week. TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation dedicated to improving urban mobility, awarded 16 grants, totaling more than $17 million, to civic organizations, universities, and municipalities, and the Active Transportation Alliance was one of the winners. The Active Trans proposal, called Speeding Up Chicago’s Buses, involves working with the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation to eliminate some of the roadblocks to faster transit and higher ridership.

Like many large U.S. cities, Chicago has seen an increase in rail ridership but a decrease in bus use in recent years. In 2015, ‘L’ ridership hit record levels, with 241.7 million rides. But, while buses still accounted for the majority of the rides last year, bus use dropped for the third year in a row, falling by 0.6 percent from 2014 levels to 274.3 rides.

“Declining bus use is not acceptable,” said Kyle Whitehead, director of government relations for Active Trans. When bus ridership falls, he noted, it can lead to reductions in the hours and frequency of service, which in turn can reduce ridership, creating a vicious cycle.

“That has an equity impact,” Whitehead said. “Many parts of town without easy rail access are low-to-moderate-income communities of color. If bus service declines, it disproportionately affects people in these neighborhoods.”

Whitehead said Active Trans will use the grant to expand on the transit advocacy they’ve done over the last few years, including outreach on the city’s Ashland Avenue bus rapid transit proposal. That project is currently on hold due to backlash from residents and merchants against plans to create bus-only lanes and limit left turns from the avenue. But if the downtown Loop Link BRT corridor, which opened last December, is ultimately judged a success, it could lead to renewed interest in the Ashland proposal.

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Days After Drivers Kill and Maim Cyclists, Trib Op-Ed Calls for Bike Crackdown

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Ron Grossman

After Anastasia Kondrasheva, 23, was fatally struck on her bicycle by a right-turning truck driver in Roscoe Village on September 26, the Tribune ran an editorial noting that this tragedy should remind motorists to watch out for bikes on the road. This reflects the paper’s evolving coverage of traffic safety issues, which has generally improved during the last year.

However, the Tribune continues to run irresponsible “bikelash” opinion pieces from time to time. For example, in early September the paper ran an op-ed by DePaul communications teacher John McCarron in which he suggested that drivers shouldn’t be required to check for cyclists before making right turns.

The timing of the latest of the Trib’s latest anti-bike screed is especially poor. Four days after Kondrasheva’s death, and a week after Danielle Palagi, 26, was struck on her bike by another trucker near the Illinois Medical Campus, leading to the amputation of her foot, the paper ran an op-ed by Ron Grossman that portrayed bicyclists as a safety menace.

It’s not the first time Grossman has written an ill-informed bikelash article for the Tribune. Two years ago he proposed periodically giving pedestrians a holiday from the perceived bike threat by closing Chicago streets to cyclists. What would a day without bikes actually be like? It would be even louder, more congested, and more dangerous than a typical day.

In last Friday’s article Grossman called for a police crackdown on lawbreaking cyclists. “I live around the corner from Wells Street, with its heavily traveled bike lanes,” he writes. “Yet I’ve never seen a cop pull over a bicyclist who pedaled right through a nearby stop sign, and there are plenty. I’ve yet to see a biker ticketed for running a red light, a common sight anywhere in Chicago.”

Of course, Chicago drivers also do their fair share of running stop signs and blowing stoplights. The difference is, when you do these things while piloting a 3,000-pound vehicle, rather than a thirty-pound one, it’s easy to kill other people. That’s one reason why local police officers usually don’t view ticketing relatively harmless behavior by cyclists as a worthwhile use of their time.

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