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Mexico City’s Metrobús Offers a Preview of How BRT Could Work on Ashland

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A Metrobús station on Mexico City’s Avenida Xola, which has a similar layout to Chicago’s Ashland Avenue. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editorJohn Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

With a metropolitan population of 21 million, the largest of any city in the western hemisphere, Mexico City is often associated with overcrowding, air pollution, and traffic jams. But when I visited for the first time last month, I found it to be a place of beautiful Spanish Colonial and Art Deco architecture, intriguing museums, tasty chow, and warm-hearted people.

The Distrito Federal, or D.F., as Mexico City is called in Spanish, also has an excellent public transportation system. Its Metro is the second-busiest rapid transit system in North America, after New York City’s. While the train cars can be scary-packed during rush hour, they crisscross a large portion of the city and provide a fast, smooth ride compared to Chicago’s ‘L’ trains.

And over the last decade, Mexico City has supplemented its subway by developing one of the world’s leading bus rapid transit networks, the Metrobús system, which debuted on Avenida de los Insurgentes in 2005. With dedicated bus lanes and raised-platform stations, the system provides subway-like commute speeds at a small fraction of the infrastructure cost of underground transit. The sixth route opened in mid-January, and a seventh line is slated for completion later this year.

As a wide, mostly straight roadway that runs the length of the city and intersects with many rail lines, Insurgentes is not so different from Chicago’s Ashland Avenue, where Mayor Emanuel has proposed building our city’s first full-on bus rapid transit corridor. As such, there’s a lot that we can learn from Mexico City’s experiences with Metrobús.

The road to full-fledged BRT in Chicago has been anything but smooth. In 2012 the CTA rolled out the Jeffery Jump, a “BRT-lite” route serving the south side, funded by an $11 million Federal Transit Administration grant. It features dedicated lanes on a mere two miles of its 16-mile route, and only during rush hour.

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Oboi Reed: Colombia Offers Lessons for the American Bike Equity Movement

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A Ciclovía worker in Bogotá. Photo: Oboi Reed

Slow Roll Chicago cofounder Oboi Reed has traveled to a number of biking hotspots around the U.S. this year, to learn about how other American cities are working to promote bike equity, and talk about his group’s efforts to encourage cycling in communities of color on Chicago’s South and West Sides. But his latest fact-finding journey took him further afield, to Colombia, South America, where he recently spent 11 days checking out car-free Ciclovía events and meeting with local city planners, bike advocates, and activists.

“I’ve been watching the work Colombia has done for biking from afar, and I’ve been incredibly inspired by the Ciclovía movement and had a desire to see Bogotá’s Ciclovía for myself,” he said. While organizations like the advocacy group People for Bikes have funded trips for American politicians, planners, and advocates to bike-friendly countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, Reed’s trip was paid for by Slow Roll Chicago, a nonprofit organization.

“I felt like there was too much focus in the U.S. on European cities as models for how to make American cities more livable,” Reed said. “But European cities don’t really resonate with low-to-moderate-income, black and brown people. We don’t really connect with Copenhagen or Stockholm culturally or historically, and there’s not a big presence of people of color in those cities, although there certainly is a presence.”

Reed adds that while American conversations about European-style cycling tend to focus on biking as a form of transportation, that’s not Slow Roll’s focus. “We would love that in our neighborhoods as well, but we are most interested in bicycles as a vehicle for social change, as a way to improve health, reduce violence, and create jobs. If you have no job, or you’re overweight, or you’re concerned about safety, we have to address those issues before we can convince you that bicycling is a form of transportation.”

Reed said Latin America, and particularly Colombia, has a lot the U.S. bike equity movement can learn from. “There’s a connection for our members of Latino descent, and in many countries there’s also a strong presence of African-descended people, which is the case in Colombia,” he said. “That allows us to make this social and cultural connection to biking that doesn’t really exist with these European models. And in Colombia, they’re using bicycles to address the same issues we’re working on: safety, health, and economic opportunity.”

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Reed in the La Candaleria district of Bogotá with a local professor and a staff member from the city agency that runs the Ciclovía. Photo: Oboi Reed

Before the trip, Reed did research on people and organizations to connect with in Colombia. Active Transportation Alliance campaign director Jim Merrell, who travels to the country regularly with his wife to visit family, helped put Reed in touch with bike community leaders in Bogotá, the capital and largest city, and Medellín, the second-largest city. Reed also got tips from the SRAM Cycling Fund‘s Randy Neufeld and Gil Peñalosa, the former parks commissioner of Bogotá who helped expand the Ciclovía and now runs the Ottawa-based livable streets organization 8 80 Cities.

While in Bogotá, Reed got to ride in the local Ciclovía twice, once with Oscar Ruiz, who’s the head of the city agency who runs the event. “He told me about the nuts and bolts of how it works,” Reed said. “The events draws more than 1.5 million people every Sunday and holiday in cities around the country.”

He also rode with Jaime Ortiz Mariño, a bike advocate who organized the very first Ciclovía in 1974, when the country was in the midst of a civil war. “He was concerned that a bomb would go off during the event,” Reed said. “But one of the leftist rebels was quoted in a newspaper saying, if there’s one thing we will never touch, it’s the Ciclovía, because that represents the people.”

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CNT Study of D.C. Parking Could Pave the Way for Better Chicago Policies

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A screen shot from Park Right DC development tool, which Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology helped create.

Chicago’s City Council recently passed a beefed-up transit-oriented development ordinance that eliminates parking minimums for new residential buildings near transit. However, new development outside of the TOD zones still are still generally required to provide a parking space for every unit.

A report co-authored by Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology provides more evidence that this kind of arbitrary parking mandate is inappropriate. It makes an argument that instead of parking minimums, evidence-based projections should be used to determine how many – if any – spaces should be built. The study, which focused on Washington, D.C., was honored last week as the best transportation and land use paper of 2016 by the Transportation Research Board.

CNT did similar research in the Seattle metro area about five years ago when King County Metro, the region’s transit agency, hired the nonprofit to look at parking use at multiunit buildings in the area, according to CNT’s chief research scientist Peter Haas. A subcontractor did parking counts at about 230 buildings in downtown Seattle, the neighborhoods, and suburban areas, tallying the number of cars parked late at night on weekdays, to get a sense of the total number of automobiles owned by residents.

The King County study also took into account the building size, income levels of the residents, transit access, and the density of people and employment in the surrounding areas. “We found that just about everybody had built too much parking,” Haas said. “Only about 60 percent of the spaces were being used.”

Using that data, the researchers developed the King County Right Size Parking Calculator, which provides estimated projections of the number of parking spaces per unit that are likely to be used at multiunit developments in different parts of the county. Seattle has since changed its zoning to allow for zero off-street parking in new buildings on transit corridors.

Leaders in Washington, D.C. who wanted to make an argument for reducing parking minimums heard about the King County study. The D.C. transportation and planning departments contracted CNT and other consultants to do the same thing within the city limits.

This time, the researchers looked at about 120 buildings and did a statistical regression for factors like transit access, job access (with a breakdown for retail jobs), and walkability. Once again, they found that parking was overbuilt by about 40 percent. “That seemed odd, but when we brought it up with the people in D.C., they said that’s what they had estimated anecdotally,” Haas said.

The consultants used the data to create Park Right DC, a similar tool as the King County calculator. The DC version lets you zoom in on a neighborhood, click on one or more parcels, and predict how many parking spaces would be needed for various kinds of developments on the site. The DC projections range from 0.3 to 0.9 parking spaces per unit.

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How Shared-Mobility Companies Learned From Their Mistakes

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Reps from Zipcar, B-Cycle, car2go, Lyft, Getaround, and Motivate with moderator Clayton Lane. Photo: SUMC

This week, civic leaders, entrepreneurs, and academics from around the country gathered in Chicago for the “Move Together” conference, hosted by the locally based think tank the Shared-Use Mobility Center. The organization was launched one year ago to brainstorm ways that bike-share, car-share, ride-share, and other new mobility tools can become a major force for increasing transportation access, fighting congestion, and improving air quality. On Monday, SUMC announced a new goal of taking one million cars off the road in the U.S. by scaling up shared mobility and transit in 15 regions, including ours.

“Chicago has historically been a hub for transportation innovation,” director Sharon Feigon told me. “We wanted to showcase the great things happening here and bring in innovators from across the country so they could see the potential of expanding here, too. At the same time, we also wanted to bring attention to the major issues that Chicago still faces regarding inequality in many of our communities, the difficulty of accessing jobs and how shared mobility can help meet these challenges.”

Feigon added that although Chicago has an extensive fixed-route transit system, travel patterns have changed over the years and there are service gaps to fill. “Shared mobility can help address these issues, reduce transportation costs and make it possible to live well without owning a car.”

During the panel “From the Trenches: What It Takes to Move Up,” reps from six different shared-mobility companies discussed how they were able to expand their business models to many different cities. Clayton Lane, board chair for SUMC moderated. One of the most interesting parts of the discussion was when Lane asked the panelists to talk about mistakes that their companies made that others could learn from.

Car2go, a one-way, point-to-point car rental service that exclusively uses two-seater Smart cars, was represented by business development manager Walter Rosenkranz. “With all start-ups, you go through growing pains and learn lessons,” he said. “Since we’re talking about scale, with a point-to-point system, you can’t really tiptoe into a market. You have to be able to provide services where people are and where they want to go.” He added that it’s necessary to offer enough vehicles within that area to make it convenient for customers to find them.

B-Cycle, a bike-share company partly owned by Trek, with systems in 29 U.S. cities and Santiago, Chile, was represented by company president Robert Burns. He said over the years he’s learned that strong support from politicians is key for setting up successful bike-share networks. “You need the mayor to say to the city workers, ‘This is coming, and I’m putting in, so give them the permits [for the stations].

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The Illiana’s Latest Death Blow: Feds Dropping Their Appeal of Court Ruling

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The Illiana’s high tolls would have driven motorists to use other routes instead. Photo: Tim Messer

A new legal development may represent the final nail in the coffin for the wasteful, destructive Illiana Tollway project. Yesterday, the Federal Highway Administration dropped its appeal of the court ruling that invalidated the Illiana’s key supporting document.

Back in June, U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso invalidated the tollway’s Environmental Impact Statement, calling it “arbitrary and capricious.” The EIS was jointly prepared by the Illinois and Indiana departments of transportation.

Alonso noted then that the FHWA shouldn’t have approved the EIS because the tollway’s purpose and need statement was based on “market-driven forecasts developed by [Illinois Department of Transportation] consultants,” rather than sound policy. The Illiana was a terrible idea that was heavily promoted by former Illinois governor Pat Quinn and state representatives from the south suburbs.

Illinois taxpayers would have been on the hook for a $500 million down payment for the tollway. They also would have been responsible for future payments to the private operator in the event that revenue from tolls came up short. One of IDOT’s studies showed that the Illiana’s tolls would be several times higher than those on other Illinois tollways, which would cause many drivers to opt for non-tolled roads in the same corridor instead.

The highway would have destroyed protected natural areas and heritage farmland. It also would have induced sprawl to new areas outside of the current Chicago metro region.

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High Speed Rail Association: Use Metra Tracks for O’Hare Express

map of CrossRail (condensed)

CrossRail would solve Mayor Emanuel’s initiative to run express trains to O’Hare airport by using Metra – not CTA – infrastructure, and bringing upgrades Metra sorely needs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and aviation commissioner Ginger Evans stated earlier this year that creating an express train to O’Hare Airport is a priority for this administration. However, the Blue Line is already a fairly speedy way to get to the airport, which could easily be upgraded via a few short-term improvements. Therefore, the city might be wiser to invest in neighborhood transit projects, rather than creating a premium service for well-heeled travelers.

Evans floated the rather fanciful idea of double-decking the Blue Line to create right-of-way for the express trains. However, if the O’Hare Express is going to happen, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association believes it should use the existing Metra infrastructure that’s located in the same airport-bound transportation corridor as the Blue Line and the Kennedy Expressway.

I recently sat down with executive director Rick Harnish to discuss MHSRA’s proposal for “CrossRail,” a package of Metra rail improvements that they say would increase the commuter rail system’s reliability and create rider-friendly service patterns. The plan calls for linking the Metra Electric tracks with Union Station, by way of a new flyover and river crossing at 16th Street. Harnish said CrossRail would make faster trips to O’Hare possible by upgrading ancient infrastructure that Metra is already trying to replace, as well as adding new elements.

Whether Blue Line or Metra tracks are used for the O’Hare express, the project would cost about the same, Harnish said. He estimates that CrossRail would cost $2.2 billion, and says he’s heard that a CTA solution would cost over $2 billion.” A business plan for the airport express created for the CTA in 2006 [PDF] estimated that a Blue Line-parallel service with separate tracks would cost $1.5 billion. Read more…

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The 6-Year Wait for Bikes on the South Shore Has Been Reduced to 9 Months

Mike Noland, general manager for the South Shore Line commuter rail, demonstrates a bike rack from SportWorks, the same company that makes bike racks for CTA and Pace buses. Photo: Carole Carlson

Mike Noland, general manager for NICTD, demonstrates a bike rack for trains from SportWorks, the same company that makes racks for CTA and Pace buses. Photo: Carole Carlson

Last week, the board of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transit District voted to dramatically reduce the wait time for a bikes-on-board pilot for South Shore Line trains. A consultant had previously recommended delaying the trial until 2021, when new cars might be added to the system, allowing older cars to be modified to accommodate bikes. Thanks to an outcry from board members and advocates against this ridiculous foot-dragging, the board unanimously voted to move the pilot up to April of next year.

NICTD has been way behind the curve on this issue. Even Metra, which is far from a cutting-edge commuter rail system, has had a Bikes on Trains program for over a decade. The South Shore Line management has been looking into accommodating bikes since 2013, around the time I launched a petition for bike access on the South Shore, which 731 people signed.

After the absurd 2021 pilot date was proposed at a NICTD board meeting in uune, board members Michael Repay from Lake County, Indiana, and Mark Catanzarite of St. Joseph County said they weren’t willing to wait that long. They asked for an immediate bikes-on-board option to be presented at the next meeting.

At a July open house on the subject hosted by NICTD, citizens voiced support for getting bikes access sooner than later. The Save the Dunes Council and the National Parks Conservation Association lobbied for an earlier pilot. And the Active Transportation Alliance sarcastically gave the South Shore a Broken Spoke Award as “the least bike-friendly commuter rail service in the nation,” since all other systems allow bikes.

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Rauner’s Latest Weird Illiana Move: Pushing for Tax Breaks to Contractors

What is Bruce Rauner up to with contradictory movements on the wasteful Illiana Tollway?

Rauner has taken contradictory actions on the Illiana. Just what is he up to? Image creator unknown. 

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has taken action to kill the wasteful, destructive Illiana Tollway, which his predecessor Pat Quinn championed. Lately, however, Rauner has made some odd steps that suggest he may be interested in keeping the project on life support.

In June, the governor ordered the Illinois Department of Transportation to remove the tollway from its multiyear plan, and said he would stop spending state funds on the project. But, earlier this month Rauner signed a bill authorizing $5.5 million in spending to “wind down” the project.

Recently, Rauner submitted a proposal to the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules that would give any Illiana contractors – should there be any – an exemption on paying sales taxes for materials they buy to build the tollway.

The Illiana is the epitome of a highway boondoggle. It would cost more to construct than it would ever collect in tolls, leaving Illinois taxpayers on the hook for $500 million in borrowing. It would also destroy valuable farmland and induce suburban sprawl. Quinn tried to steamroll the project forward in order to garner support from South Side and Southland politicians and residents for his failed reelection effort.

The governor’s spokesman Lance Trover insted that the tax break “is in no way an effort to revive a project that the Illinois Department of Transportation has pulled from its multiyear plan,” according to Crain’s. Terry Horstman, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Revenue, couldn’t explain why Rauner recently submitted the bill, but he said the new legislation is required by the 2010 law that authorized building the Illiana.

If Rauner is serious about not building the Illiana then the sensible thing to do would be to rescind any legislation authorizing its construction. The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules should also reject the tax break proposal.

The regional leaders at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning should also take action to ensure that the boondoggle doesn’t get back. Although Quinn bullied the CMAP board into putting the project on the organization’s high-priority projects list, the agency should demote it from the list.

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Rauner Authorizes More Illiana Spending to “Wind Down” Project

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Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the Illiana “gravy train” needs to end. Photo: ELPC

Governor Bruce Rauner signed a bill last week that authorizes spending $5.5 million more on the Illiana Tollway, a month after he announced he was suspending the project.

The Illiana would have been a new highway a couple miles south of the existing Chicago metropolitan region that would have encouraged suburban sprawl. Tolls would have been high enough that the road would have likely seen little use, but taxpayers would have been on the hook for covering revenue shortfalls as part of a public-private partnership. Ex-governor Pat Quinn, who was fighting for his political life at the time, pushed hard for the Illiana, hoping that support from Southland legislators and voters would help him win reelection.

Crain’s Chicago columinst Greg Hinz reported that the $5.5 million is for to pay consultants to “wind down” contracts and for covering litigation fees. A Rauner aide told Hinz that the fact that Rauner has authorized the expenditure doesn’t necessarily mean the Illinois Department of Transportation will spend the money.

While this development doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a backroom conspiracy to keep the Illiana on life-support, some of the text in the measure is a bit fishy. The bill says that the money is going to IDOT to “enable the Illiana Expressway to be developed, financed, constructed, managed, or operated in an entrepreneurial and business-like manner.”

Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which has sued IDOT twice over the Illiana, told Hinz that Rauner is not keeping his June 2 promise to “[suspend] all existing project contracts and procurements” related to the project. “It’s time to bring the wasteful Illiana tollway gravy train for consultants to an end,” Learner said. “These public funds should instead be used to meet our state’s high-priority needs.”

The most recent stake in the heart of the tollway was when a district court ruling invalidated the project’s federally required Environmental Impact Statement. The judge noted that IDOT’s justification for the highway was based on circular logic. The department argued that more road capacity is needed because new residents will be moving to the area. However, IDOT’s projection was based on the assumption that the tollway would be built, which would have encouraged development sprawl. However, IDOT could potentially rewrite the EIS to pass muster.

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Gettin’ Quigley With It: The Congressman Talks Transportation Funding

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Mike Quigley discusses transportation funding at a Transit Future event. Photo: John Greenfield

[This piece originally ran in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

If you’re not a transportation geek like myself, you may be most familiar with Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL 5th) from his hilarious segment on “The Colbert Report.” His North Side district includes Boystown, and he’s known as a strong ally of the LGBT community. Therefore, Stephen Colbert, in his persona as a conservative blowhard, baited Quigley by insisting that homosexuality is a choice:

Quigley: I don’t think you choose. It’s from birth. You’re gay, and it’s the rest of your life.

Colbert: Gay babies? I find that offensive, the idea that there are gay babies out there and they’re looking at me, and they’re sexually interested in me, as a man.

Quigley: You have a point. It’s not a good point, but it’s a point.

However, Quigley, a blue-collar dude, built like a fireplug, is something of a rock star when it comes to bringing home transportation funding to the Chicago region. He’s the only Illinois member on the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development, with the memorable acronym THUD. He helped secure funding for the federal Core Capacity transit grant program, which will help bankroll the CTA’s rehab of the North Red and Purple Lines, and the TIGER program, which funds various sustainable transportation projects in cities.

Quigley recently kicked off a lecture series to promote Transit Future, a campaign by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance to create a dedicated revenue stream at the Cook County level for public transportation. Transit Future was inspired by a successful campaign in Los Angeles, where voters approved a half-cent sales tax to raise money for several new subway lines. If we don’t do something similar in Chicago, we may get left in the dust by historically car-centric L.A.

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