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Posts from the "Beyond Chicagoland" Category

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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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Metra Can Follow Toronto’s Lead and Run All-Day, Frequent Service

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Metra Electric service is frequent, until you go south of the three-branch split at 63rd Street. Photo: Eric Alix Rogers

Toronto’s suburban commuter rail service, GO Transit, used to run its trains on a schedule that would seem familiar to Metra riders — bringing commuters from the suburbs in by 9 a.m. and shuttling them from the city after 5 p.m. Last year, though, it launched a new schedule that doubled mid-day frequencies on its two Lakeshore rail lines, from once per hour to every 30 minutes, “turning GO from a bedroom commuter service into full, regular transit,” said Ontario transportation minister Glen Murray. Their reward: a 30 percent increase in ridership on those lines in a year’s time.

Yonah Freemark, writing in The Transport Politic, identifies three characteristics that led to GO Transit’s strategy shift: high-level political leadership at the provincial (state) level, committed leadership and a new strategic direction within the agency, and the fact that GO owns most of its tracks.

Over here on the other side of the Great Lakes, commuter rail ridership on Metra has been growing much more slowly. Some lines are growing, but other lines are declining. Metra, like GO, could gain riders if it switched to “all-day” service that served people whenever they need to use transit — serving people on their schedules, instead of making people adapt to the train’s schedule.

Metra focuses on a central core system, mostly serving workers commuting to downtown Chicago from the suburbs in the morning and back in the evening. Even on the Metra Electric line, which before World War Two ran a rapid-transit like ten trains an hour past high-rises in Hyde Park and South Shore, just one train stops at most stations during the noon hour. It’s hard to use Metra for spontaneous trips – and trips for all of life’s purposes, not just work or carefully planned day trips – if you might have to wait an hour or two for a train.

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Buenos Aires: Building a People-Friendly City

Buenos Aires is fast becoming one of the most admired cities in the world when it comes to reinventing streets and transportation.

Just over a year ago, the city launched MetroBus BRT (constructed in less than seven months) on 9 de Julio Avenue, which may be the world’s widest street. The transformation of four general traffic lanes to exclusive bus lanes has yielded huge dividends for the city and is a bold statement from Mayor Mauricio Macri about how Buenos Aires thinks about its streets. More than 650,000 people now ride MetroBus every day, and it has cut commutes in the city center from 50-55 minutes to an incredible 18 minutes.

That’s not the only benefit of this ambitious project. The creation of MetroBus freed up miles of narrow streets that used to be crammed with buses. Previously, Buenos Aires had some pedestrian streets, but moving the buses to the BRT corridor allowed the administration to create a large network of shared streets in downtown where pedestrians rule. On the shared streets, drivers aren’t permitted to park and the speed limit is an astonishingly low 10 km/h. Yes, that is not a misprint — you’re not allowed to drive faster than 6 mph!

Bicycling has also increased rapidly in the past four years — up from 0.5 percent mode share to 3 percent mode share and climbing. Ecobici is the city’s bike-share system which is expanding to 200 stations in early 2015. Oh, and add this amazing fact: Ecobici is free for all users for the first hour.

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William H. Whyte in His Own Words: “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”

When I first got started making NYC bike advocacy and car-free streets videos back in the late-1990s on cable TV, I didn’t know who William “Holly” Whyte was or just how much influence his work and research had on New York City. A few years later I met Fred and Ethan Kent at Project for Public Spaces. I got a copy of Whyte’s 1980 classic, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, which in its marvelously-written, straightforward style is the one book all burgeoning urbanists should start with.

Recently, I read it again. With all the developments in video technology since his day, I wondered: How might Whyte capture information and present his research in a world which is now more attuned to the importance of public space? What would he appreciate? Are his words still valid?

So I excerpted some of my favorite passages from the book and tried to match it up with modern footage I’ve shot from all over the world while making Streetfilms. I hope he would feel honored and that it helps his research find a new audience.

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Quinn Borrows $1.1 Billion to Keep IDOT’s Steamrollers Going

Governor Quinn Signs $1.1 Billion   Capital Construction Bill

Governor Pat Quinn signs the bill in front of workers at the Circle Interchange construction site today. Photo: IDOT

Governor Pat Quinn signed two bills today that allow the state to issue $1.1 billion in general obligation bonds to spend on highway resurfacing, widening, and bridge repair. The bills explicitly exclude transit from the new funds, and while they don’t seem to exclude bike lanes, trails, or sidewalks, all of the funds are already obligated to car-centric road projects [PDF].

Erica Borggren, acting secretary for the Illinois Department of Transportation, said in a press release, “This construction program is the shot in the arm that our transportation system and our economy needs.”

What the economy and our transportation system also need is an efficient and sustainable way for users to pay the system’s ongoing costs — rather than a stopgap that socks future taxpayers, whether transit riders or pedestrians or drivers, with big loan payments. Keep in mind that today, Illinois has the country’s worst credit rating, and thus pays the highest interest rate of any state — 42 percent more interest than usual.

Springfield’s State Journal-Register reported that “the plan got overwhelming support in the final days of the legislative session, though some lawmakers were concerned that they didn’t have enough time to study where the money would go.” The answer, as with most anything related to IDOT spending, is “overwhelmingly Downstate.”

Just over four percent of the funds will be spent in Chicago, home to 22 percent of the state’s population. Most of that will go to reconstruct and replace the bridges and viaducts on the Stevenson Expressway (I-55), between the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-94) and South Lake Shore Drive. $700,000 will be spent to resurface 0.6 miles of South Michigan Avenue in Washington Park.

Just under 37 percent of the funds will be spent in the six-county Chicagoland area, and the majority of that will go to exurbs and rural areas. This might prove convenient for Quinn during an election year, especially given the dwindling fund balance in his signature “Illinois Jobs Now!” program. The program has just $115 million left to spend, according to IDOT spokesperson Paris Ervin.

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