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NACTO to Take Safer Street Designs to Developing World Cities

Last year, the National Association of City Transportation Officials brought us the Urban Street Design Guide, and now it’s going global.

A Delhi traffic jam. Photo: Wikipedia

A Delhi traffic jam. Traffic collisions kill about 250,000 per year in India. Photo: Wikipedia

During the organization’s national conference in San Francisco last Thursday, NACTO chair and former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan announced that it will be developing a “Global Street Design Guide” to help developing nations set standards for safe, livable streets.

Executive Director Linda Bailey said the guide will take principles from NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide and adapt them for cities in places like India and East Asia. Streets and travel patterns in those nations are very different than in America, with much higher levels of walking and scooter use, for instance, as well as the looming threat of rapid growth in private automobiles.

“The U.S. is already influencing heavily many developing countries,” Bailey said. “The idea is to try to skip over any lag time… Under the same principles as the Urban Street Design Guide, how does this work in a country that has a very different mode split?”

The organization hopes to release the guide in early 2016. NACTO will also be working with a group of selected global cities interested in implementing safer street designs, much like the organization has done in the U.S., Bailey said. NACTO noted that 1.2 million people die globally from traffic collisions and that the guide is seen as an international public health tool.

“One of the things that’s exciting about working in an international context is you already have a high pedestrian mode share,” said Bailey. “Just making things more comfortable for pedestrians could make a huge difference.”

The design guide is being supported in part by the Bloomberg Initiative for Global Road Safety.

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Peter Norton: We Can Learn From the Movement To Enshrine Car Dependence

It used to be normal to play in the streets. We're just one revolution away from being able to do that again. Photo via Peter Norton

It used to be normal to play in the streets. Photo via Peter Norton

Yesterday, we published part one of my interview with Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. We talked about whether the push for infrastructure investment is always code for increasing car capacity, and how the Vision Zero campaign bears the legacy of 100-year-old movements to make streets safe for everyone.

Norton will be speaking on November 13 at the opening reception of Transportation Alternatives’ national Vision Zero for Cities Symposium in New York City.

Below is the audio of our conversation, which went on long after this written transcript. Feel free to take a listen, and forgive the background noise — we were talking in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, one of DC’s most iconic urban green spaces.

Here is a transcript of part two of the interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.

We keep calling [the current movement for Vision Zero and livable streets] a “fundamental restructuring,” and I’m curious whether you think that’s accurate. What you’re talking about at the beginning of the last century, which you wrote about in “Fighting Traffic,” was a much more fundamental questioning — because it was new — of the role of cars on streets and in cities. And I’m wondering if you think what’s happening now really gets to those questions or whether it’s just, “Oh, can we just have a little space; we just want some accommodation; we want the buses to be a little better, we want a little bike lane”?

Such an interesting question, because I think that dilemma that we’re in right now in 2014, between fundamental rethinking and just fixes here and fixes there, is the same dilemma that advocates of the automobile found themselves in, especially in the early- to mid-1920s. At first a lot of them said, “We need to take the street as it is and do some fine tuning, things like optimize the traffic signal timings–”

The same solutions we’re looking at!

Exactly! The first synchronized traffic lights for motor vehicles were timed in Chicago in 1926, and at the meeting I was just in, they were still talking about getting the timing right.

Then there were others who began to say, “Stop talking about just retooling the streets to make cars fit in them better; we need to actually re-concieve this.” There was an editorial in Engineering News Record in 1920 — Engineering News Record then and now is the journal of the civil engineers — and the editorial said, “We need a fundamental re-conception of what a city street is for.”

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Ad Nauseam: Use Any App You Want While Driving — Because Safety!

Here’s the latest in wishful thinking about distracted driving. A new application called “Drivemode” wants to make it easier for you to use all your mobile apps while you’re behind the wheel — but don’t worry it’s safe! Because, at least theoretically, you don’t actually have to look at your phone.

That’s the marketing message in this spot, which goes against study after study demonstrating that even hands-free devices still lead to a dangerous level of distraction while driving. Backed by “entrepreneurs from Zipcar and Tesla Motors along with various industry specialists,” Drivemode is still in beta testing and doesn’t appear to be in imminent danger of lulling millions of motorists into thinking they can safely drive and use Instagram, though it does have some slick marketing and won an obscure award for Android apps in September.

Meanwhile, an AT&T app that goes by a nearly identical name, DriveMode, is actually pretty great. The AT&T app can be set up to automatically respond to texts whenever you’re in motion exceeding 25 mph, with a message that says you’re driving and will respond when it’s safe.

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A State DOT Designing a Protected Bike Lane? It’s Happening in Kalamazoo

Part of Michigan Avenue in Kalamazoo will get a road diet and a new protected bike lane, under plans approved this week. Image: Alta Planning + Design via Mlive.com

Part of Michigan Avenue in Kalamazoo will get a road diet and a two-way protected bike lane in a redesign put forward this week by the city and Michigan DOT. Image: Alta Planning + Design via Mlive.com

A tipster in Chicago sent over these images of an impressive street redesign planned for downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan. The treatment shown above — a two-way parking-protected bike lane with planted pedestrian islands — will apply to about a mile of Michigan Avenue, near Western Michigan University. Protected lanes would continue north on Rose Street and east on Water Street, linking up to the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail.

What makes this project especially unusual is that it is being led jointly by the city of Kalamazoo and the Michigan Department of Transportation. Generally, state DOTs have been obstacles to protected bike lanes, not leaders. Plans call for removing one traffic lane on Michigan Avenue, a state road, and 20 to 30 parking spots on Water Street, reports Emily Monacelli at the Kalamazoo Gazette.

The Michigan Avenue redesign is part of a larger bike network being developed with extensive public input. Planners told Monacelli that feedback since the design was unveiled has been very positive.

However, the project isn’t exactly on the fast track. Before implementation, it will undergo a two-year design phase, the Gazette reports.

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Revolt Against Illiana Undeterred By IDOT’s Latest Scare Tactic

Will County board member Regan Freitag

Board member Regan Freitag of Will County, telling the CMAP policy committee last year that the Illiana Tollway would destroy prime farmland in Will County and disrupt local access by slicing across many existing roads.

Local advocates are scoffing at the suggestion, made by an Illinois Department of Transportation representative last week, that striking the Illiana Tollway from the Chicago region’s long-term regional plan would jeopardize transportation spending across the entire region. Instead, advocates insist that deleting the costly, sprawl-inducing road would cause at most a brief procedural delay in other projects, and ultimately free up millions of dollars for more urgent priorities.

Bruce Carmichael from IDOT made this claim at a CMAP transportation committee meeting last week. He said that, if the CMAP board votes to delete the Illiana from the GO TO 2040 regional plan on October 8, the revised plan would need a fresh review. The entire plan would be temporarily invalidated while that “conformity analysis” and public comment period is underway. While Carmichael is correct on that point, the analysis would cause at most a brief delay that would not necessarily disrupt any projects in progress.

Carmichael said that, while the revised plan is being reviewed, the federal government would stop sending checks that pay for already-approved projects. For example, the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Chicago Transit Authority would be unable to be reimbursed for building new bike lanes and buying new train cars.

Metropolitan Planning Council vice president Peter Skosey confirmed with the committee’s Federal Highway Administration representative that the review would not, in fact, interfere with FHWA’s payments. The FHWA is scheduled to send its next round of checks just before the joint meeting on October 8, and “those dollars will continue to come to us,” Skosey told me.

Randy Neufeld, also a member of the transportation committee, said that the conformity analysis would take all of one day to ensure that the altered GO TO 2040 complies with federal air quality regulations. CMAP would then launch a 30-day public comment period. Skosey said that CMAP could complete the entire review in less than two months, and adopt the final plan in November — well before the next FHWA payment period.

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Does Chicago Deserve to Be Ranked the Nation’s Second Best Bike City?

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Biking in the Dearborn protected lanes. Photo: Steven Vance

When I heard that Bicycling Magazine gave Chicago second place in its “America’s Best Bike Cities” ratings, just behind New York and two slots above Portland, I was puzzled. However, I’m starting to warm up to the idea that our city and NYC deserve credit for taking bold action to improve cycling.

Few people would argue that Chicago, where dangerous driving and torn-up pavement are commonplace, is currently a more pleasant place to cycle than Portland, which fell to fourth place from its top ranking in 2012. Plus, our bike commute mode share — the percentage of trips to work made by bicycle — is only 1.3 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey. That’s less than a quarter of the Rose City’s 6.1 percent.

New York’s 2012 mode share was even less than ours, at only one percent. Minneapolis, with a mode share of 3.8 percent, took third place this year — down a notch from second in Bicycling’s 2012 rankings. Washington, D.C., whose mode share was 3.6 percent, dropped from fourth place to fifth. Chicago was in fifth place last time.

These kinds of magazine ratings largely exist to boost newsstand sales, and Bicycling’s current rankings shake-up has already succeeded in garnering plenty of ink from other publications. One could argue that the Best Bike Cities ratings are arbitrary, and a little silly, but they do have a purpose. They create competition between the leading cities, and encourage less bike-friendly towns to improve. For example, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has made cracking Bicycling’s top-ten rankings a signature goal.

Rahm Emanuel has taken notice of the new ratings. “Chicago is a national leader in building new and improved cycling facilities, and we are setting a new standard for other cities to follow,” he said in a statement today. “This new ranking by Bicycling Magazine demonstrates that Chicago is on the right path to becoming the best cycling city in America.”

Frankly, I was a little disappointed by this relatively humble response from the mayor who bragged two years ago that he planned to take all of Seattle’s bikers and tech jobs. Since the Emerald City came in at eighth place this year, Emanuel missed a chance to razz his former deputy transportation chief Scott Kubly, who recently defected to become Seattle’s commissioner.

While Bicycling’s rankings are subjective, they do have some quantitative backbone. New York and Chicago got credit for having steadily rising rates of bike commuting. Between 2000 and 2012, Chicago’s mode share rose more than 150 percent, from 0.5 percent to 1.3 percent, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, while Portland and Minneapolis’ mode shares have leveled off in recent years. The 2013 Census estimates, due later this month, are likely to show further improvement in Chicago and NYC.

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Quigley Pushes Pedals, Better Transportation Funding, on Bike Tour

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Quigley (center) with Merrell, 5th District staffer Emily Hampsten, Neufeld, and Amsden. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday, Congressman Mike Quigley (IL-05) took a spin on some of our city’s next-generation bikeways with a city staffer and local advocates, as part of his “Mike on the Move” campaign to highlight how federal funding can support Chicago transportation infrastructure.

Quigley’s district covers a large swath of Chicago’s North Side and a few inner-ring suburbs. He’s the only Illinois rep currently serving on the House Appropriations Committee, where he’s a member of the transportation subcommittee.

The congressman helped win a $35 million Core Capacity grant for the CTA’s Red and Purple Modernization project, and he pushed for increased funding for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program, which has bankrolled transit, bike, and pedestrian improvements.

Recently, Quigley successfully included language in the transportation subcommittee’s 2015 report calling on the Federal Highway Administration to create new safety performance measures for bicycle and pedestrian traffic. These would be used by states to track and reduce injuries and fatalities. He also fought against changes to legislation that would have blocked funding for transit, bike, and pedestrian projects.

Last month, Quigley kicked off his infrastructure campaign with a tour of Red, Purple and Brown Line infrastructure. Future excursions will highlight Metra, Chicago’s freight network, the Pace bus system, Divvy bike-share, and the Bloomingdale Trail.

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The route map.

Mike Amsden from the Chicago Department of Transportation led yesterday’s tour of North Side bike facilities, and the Active Transportation Alliance’s Jim Merrell and Randy Neufeld from the SRAM Cycling Fund came along for the ride. Starting at Milwaukee and Green in River North, Amsden showed Quigley the protected and buffered bike lanes that CDOT installed last year on Milwaukee. From there, they checked out new buffered lanes on Augusta, then headed north on the recently built neighborhood greenway on Wood.

After that, they rolled east on Cortland, where Quigley noticed the non-slip bridge plates on the bridge over the Chicago River. From there, they headed northwest on Clybourn, which is slated to become the first state-jurisdiction road in Illinois with protected lanes. Next they pedaled north on Damen to the Berteau Greenway, where Amsden showed the congressman how traffic calming and a contraflow lane transformed the street into a mellow, two-way bike route.

Before he got in the saddle, I asked Quigley a few questions about his crusade for better transportation infrastructure funding, as well as his biking habits.

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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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Oil-Laden Freight Trains Delaying Amtrak, Commuter Trains Across U.S.

Oil train running on BNSF tracks through Pilsen in Chicago

Tank cars roll through Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood on BNSF tracks.

Oil production is booming across North America, as new technologies make it possible to extract liquid crude oil from sources like the Bakken shale oil field in North Dakota and Montana, or Alberta’s tar sands. The ever-increasing volume of crude oil mined in remote Great Plains locations often finds its way to refineries via ”rolling pipelines” – freight trains that tow a million barrels of oil around the United States every day. Production of Bakken crude has tripled over the past three years, and 79 percent of it is shipped out by rail.

The number of rail cars carrying crude oil across the United States has been steadily increasing.

The number of rail cars carrying crude oil across the United States has been steadily increasing. Data from EIA, AAR, news reports.

The resulting sharp increase in rail traffic doesn’t just threaten communities along the line that are unprepared for their explosive cargo — a threat that the US Department of Transportation recently issued new rules to address. Growing freight volumes are also delaying millions of passengers aboard Amtrak or commuter trains, most of which share tracks with ever more freight trains. Nationwide, the number of delayed Amtrak trains has increased by almost 75 percent. As Tanya Snyder reported yesterday, that results from a court ruling that left Amtrak powerless against freight train interference. Around Chicago, hub of the continent’s railroad network, delays have multiplied on the region’s busiest commuter rail line – a Metra line operated by BNSF, which is also North Dakota’s biggest freight hauler.

The American Association of Railroads reported an 8.5 percent increase year-to-date in the number of American freight trains carrying oil across the country, and a 9.1 percent increase reported from Canadian trains. Since 2011, the number of cars of crude oil shipped nationwide has doubled.

Oil is having a particularly heavy impact on rail operations along certain companies’ lines, and none more so than BNSF. Its transcontinental trunk line spans North Dakota, and its branches serve 21 of North Dakota’s 25 oil-producing counties. As a result, BNSF hauled more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil in 2013, “up from practically none” just four years ago, NPR reported.

The boom has strained what used to be isolated stretches of railroad. Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder train spans the country’s northern tier, from Chicago to Seattle and Portland via North Dakota and Montana, using BNSF’s Great Northern route almost all of the way. “The Builder” now has the dubious double distinction of being both the most popular of Amtrak’s transcontinental routes and its most delayed route nationwide, arriving on time about once a week. Delays have become so routine that Amtrak recently padded its schedule by three hours. BNSF’s quarterly report [PDF] shows growing volumes across all business lines, but notes that increased industrial shipments in the second quarter of 2014 are “primarily due to increased shipments of petroleum products [and] frac sand.”

Derrick James, Amtrak director of government affairs for the Midwest, told Streetsblog that national on-time performance has seen “a dramatic decline,” dropping “from 80 percent in February 2013 to 55 percent through April 2014.” James said that as reliability has dropped, ridership on both long-distance and short-distance lines has also dropped by 4.9 percent.

Amtrak “conductors produce delay reports,” James points out, “and these delay reports pinpoint a dramatic increase in rail traffic — especially trains connected with hydraulic fracturing, sand trains and oil trains.” On the Empire Builder in particular, Amtrak conductors cite “train interference” as the principal cause of delays.

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Leave Traffic Behind With These 6 Car-Free, Carefree Beach Trips

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The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, easily accessed by train. Photo: Tom Gill via Flickr.

If, like me, you optimistically view the summer as lasting until September 22, we’ve got more than five more weeks of beach season left. Still, time is running out for fun in the sun, so you should make a beeline for the shoreline as soon as possible. While people often gripe that Chicago has limited access to natural beauty, our city’s status as a rail hub actually makes it easy to reach the beach without a car.

Rainbow Beach is one of the gems of the South Side, and it’s only a stone’s throw from the Metra Electric Line’s Windsor Park station in South Shore. Named in honor of the U.S. Army’s 42nd Rainbow Division, the beach is also shaped like an upside-down rainbow, and it offers a stunning view of the skyline. A large fieldhouse features futuristic, Eggo waffle-shaped canopies. It’s a roughly half-hour ride from Millennium Station, and the fare is $3 each way. From Windsor Park, walk five minutes east on 75th to the beach; the fieldhouse is another eight minutes southeast. You can also get there via the #75 and #79 buses, plus three bus lines that run on South Shore Drive.

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Aerial view of Rainbow Beach, via Google Maps.

Like Rainbow, Loyola Beach in Rogers Park is a quiet, serene place to swim because it’s located more than a mile from a Lake Shore Drive endpoint, and it’s easy to get to via transit. This nearly mile-long beach also offers great views of the Loop from a pier at its south end. Every June, community members gather during the Artists of the Wall festival to paint new images on a 600-foot mural by the shore. From the Red Line’s Morse stop, walk eight minutes east on Morse to the beach. The Loyola station is close by as well, and the beach is also accessible via the CTA’s #96, #147, and #155 buses.

Metra’s bikes-on-trains policy opens up a galaxy of options for car-free road trips, and one of the easiest is taking the Union Pacific North Line to Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. Note that bikes are prohibited this Saturday and Sunday due to the Air and Water show, the last blackout dates of the season. From the Ogilvie Center, it’s about an hour-and-a-half train ride; roundtrip fare is $7 with a weekend pass. From the Zion station, it’s a two-mile pedal (or hike, if you’re so inclined) to the park, which features a pebbly beach, camping, a lodge, and plenty of scenic hiking and biking trails.

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Car-free camping at Illinois Beach State Park. Photo: John Greenfield

For a bike-and-train trip to a coastline of a different sort, take Metra’s Milwaukee District North Line to Chain O’ Lakes State Park. From Union Station, it takes roughly an hour and forty minutes to get to the town of Fox Lake; from there, it’s a 6.7-mile pedal to the park offices. Located just south of the Cheddar Curtain, the Chain O’ Lakes region features a number of good-sized glacial lakes, popular for fishing and boating. The park has a pleasant campground and an extensive trails network, and you can rent a canoe to paddle out to Blarney Island, a floating Parrothead bar in the middle of Grass Lake, or use the bar’s boat-taxi service.

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