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Active Trans to Oak Park Trustees: Quit Stalling on Madison Road Diet

Madison St. Village Board 11.28.11-jbjm

Rendering of Madison in Oak Park after a “four-to-three conversion” road diet.

Active Transportation Alliance director and Oak Park resident Ron Burke says he’s tired of waiting for the village’s trustees to move forward with making Madison a safer and more economically viable complete street. A plan was proposed nearly three years ago to reduce crashes and make the street more walkable and bikeable with a road diet on the street between Austin and Harlem. A survey at the time found the overwhelming majority of residents support the plan, Burke said.

The suburb has millions of dollars in tax increment financing, as well as a federal grant, that could be used for the project. However, no action has been taken since the plan came out, because the village board has been deliberating on whether to use TIF money for a new school district headquarters, Burke said. Now that decision is largely resolved, Active Trans recently launched a letter writing campaign to let Oak Park leaders know they shouldn’t further delay improvements to Madison, garnering over 200 signatures in a week.

Currently, this stretch of Madison is a wide, four-lane street with a limited number of left turn lanes and too much capacity for the 18,300 cars it carries on average each day. As a result, it’s got one of the highest crash rates in Chicagoland, with about 235 collisions per year. That’s roughly twice the collision rate of Lake Shore Drive, which the Illinois Department of Transportation has said is one of the most crash-prone roads in the state.

The collisions on Madison are mostly car-on-car, but an average of seven pedestrians and cyclists are struck on this stretch per year. Active Trans recently included Madison/Harlem on its list of the 20 most dangerous intersections in the region.  Tragically, 92-year-old Suleyman Cetin was fatally struck while biking across Madison at Scoville last year.

Furthermore, Madison serves as a major barrier to people on foot and bikes, discouraging travel between the north and south sides of Oak Park. The car-centric street layout and high speeds have also contributed to a lackluster retail picture on the street, with a high number of fast food restaurants and empty lots, Burke said.

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South Siders Deserve Pedestrian Gates for Metra Grade Crossings Too

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How many deaths and serious injuries will it take before Metra decides that protecting pedestrians at South Side grade crossings is as important as protecting the motor vehicle occupants sitting next to them?

This week, 11-year old Alex Zepeda lost his leg when he was struck by a Metra train approaching the Blue Island-Vermont station at the Winchester Street crossing, which has automotive gates but lacks gates across the sidewalk. Several of his schoolmates, who were aboard the school bus he was running to, were traumatized by the sight. Alex saw the bus cross the tracks, then dashed under the gates blocking the road. A lower, sidewalk-level gate might have stopped him in time.

In 2012, a young mother was struck and killed by a Rock Island train at 95th Street and Vincennes Avenue, and a woman was fatally struck by a Rock Island train at 95th and Wood streets in 2010, a busy crossing that also lacks pedestrian gates. In fact, there is a collision nearly every week between trains and pedestrians or vehicles in this section of the Metra service area.

The number of grade crossings where pedestrians are at risk on the far South Side is staggering:

  • Metra Electric District, Blue Island branch: 24 grade crossings over 3.5 miles of track, from 121st and Michigan to Blue Island-Vermont station. No pedestrian gates, even at Union Street, where the Major Taylor Trail crosses the line.
  • Rock Island District, Beverly branch: 29 grade crossings over 6 miles of track, from 89th and Aberdeen streets to Blue Island-Vermont station. Of these, only one crossing (at 89th and Aberdeen) has pedestrian gates.
  • Rock Island District, main line: 16 grade crossings over 4.8 miles of track, from 95th Street and Vincennes Avenue to Blue Island-Vermont station. The crossing at 102nd Place lacks sidewalks, so the crossing gates for vehicle traffic double as pedestrian gates. This line carries heavy Metra and freight traffic, including high speed express trains.
  • Total: 69 grade crossings over 14.3 miles of Metra tracks, within the 16 square mile area bounded by 89th and 130th streets, and Michigan and Western avenues — and only one crossing has pedestrian gates.

Many other busy grade crossings across the Metra system have pedestrian gates, notably those at Riverside, Edison Park, Arlington Heights, and Wilmette stations. Sure, these locations have significant pedestrian traffic at rush hour, but that’s also true for 95th-Beverly Hills, Blue Island-Vermont, and other stations within the area discussed above. During the time I’ve lived in Beverly, I’ve witnessed near-misses at 95th every week.

There is no excuse for Metra to fail to protect pedestrians at stations like Blue Island-Vermont, 95th-Beverly Hills, and others that serve hundreds of passengers each weekday. Pedestrian gates are a recommended practice for any crossing with “moderate” pedestrian volumes. Gates don’t even need to be expensive automated designs. Simple swing-arm gates with warning signs (see figure 77) have proven to be an effective deterrent in cities where light rail trains frequently cross city streets.

Installing gates would not eliminate pedestrian crashes, but they would significantly improve the odds that pedestrians would stop and not tempt fate by walking through the grade crossing — particularly for children who might not yet understand that they, too, must stop when the cars do.

Updated December 21 to clarify the alternate gate design.

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Oak Park Getting Children’s Bike Fleet, “Kids on Wheels” Is Expanding

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Kids get ready to ride a skills course at an Oak Park school. Photo: Active Trans

Last weekend, the Illinois Department of Transportation announced that Oak Park will receive a $12,000 federal Safe Routes to School grant to purchase a trailer, bicycles, helmets and supporting materials for its local Kids on Wheels education program. This will likely be the first time SRTS funds have been used for a fleet of training bikes, according to Active Transportation Alliance spokesman Ted Villaire.

The advocacy group created Kids on Wheels last spring, as a mobile program to bring bike-ed to municipalities across the region. “Since Oak Park will be buying their own gear, this will be a nice, natural transition to their program becoming all theirs,” said Active Trans education specialist Jason Jenkins.

The Oak Park grant is part of $5.9 million in new federal awards that IDOT announced for 58 different safe routes initiatives in many Illinois communities. “Students deserve to feel safe while traveling to and from school every day,” Governor Pat Quinn said in a statement. “The Safe Routes to School program will help communities improve public safety to keep students safe, and promote healthy habits like walking and biking to school.” The projects also include infrastructure improvements like sidewalk installation and repair, pedestrian countdown signals, speed feedback signs, pedestrian islands, and police speed enforcement equipment.

In May, Active Trans launched Kids on Wheels (originally Bikes on Wheels) with Oak Park as the pilot community. The advocacy group purchased a 20-foot trailer using using its own money, plus a donation from Oak Park’s Green Line Wheels, a local nonprofit that offers bike rentals and tours. Specialized Bicycles donated 30 single-speed kids’ bikes through a dealer grant via Chicago’s Kozy’s Cyclery.

In that first season, Active Trans staffers took the trailer to seven of Oak Park’s eight elementary schools and taught kids bike safety basics, assisted by teachers, local police officers, and parent volunteers, Jenkins said. The children were taught proper helmet use and how to do an “ABC Quick Check” to make sure their bike’s air pressure, brakes, chain, and quick releases are up to snuff.

The children practiced hand signals, turning, checking for traffic, and braking on a skills course. They also learned how to do a “Power Start,” positioning their pedals at the 2:00 / 8:00 position for maximum go. They even got to compete in a “Snail’s Race,” seeing who could ride the slowest without falling over.

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CMAP Seeks Its Own Dedicated Tax For Transit, Green Infrastructure

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CMAP executive director Randy Blankenhorn says the region needs a new funding source for projects that cross jurisdiction and program boundaries. Photo: CMAP

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning last week floated its own proposal to fix the region’s shortfall in transportation funding. It launched FUND 2040, a campaign calling upon the Illinois legislature to fund sustainable infrastructure through a quarter-cent sales tax across the Chicagoland region. CMAP says this increase would generate $300 million annually, which it would use to advance projects that fulfill the goals of its federally-required plan for the region, GO TO 2040.

GO TO 2040 aims to sustainably accommodate population growth across the seven county region by steering investment to already-developed areas, doubling transit ridership, carrying more people on existing highways with more buses and with managed High Occupancy/Toll lanes, and absorbing more rainfall on sites rather than sending it into the area’s overwhelmed sewers.

FUND 2040 would align capital investments with GO TO 2040, and to give the region greater autonomy in choosing which projects to fund. CMAP would award funds to projects in existing plans, based entirely on performance measures — a marked difference from how the Illinois Department of Transportation spends money on politically favored projects like the budget-busting, ill-conceived Illiana Tollway.

The new fund would also put CMAP on surer financial footing. CMAP, as a federally recognized Metropolitan Planning Organization, is funded through the state’s DOT, and cash-strapped IDOT has delayed reimbursing CMAP’s operations costs on multiple occasions.

CMAP’s executive director Randy Blankenhorn said that, while the Illinois General Assembly has yet to write FUND 2040′s enabling legislation, the bill “would outline specific goals” instead of listing projects, places, or formulas to be funded. The legislation, he said, would outline project selection criteria because “it’s a long-term fund, and needs and funds can change.”

Emphasizing general purposes, instead of individual projects, is how the new fund would complement existing funding schemes’ sharp divisions. Existing “state and federal funds are very specific,” Blankenhorn said. “One will build a multi-use trail, but not flood control.”

In keeping with the broad goals of GO TO 2040, Blankenhorn said that CMAP settled on a sales tax, and specifically not a gas tax, because its projects – transportation, parks, and water infrastructure – benefit everyone, both on and off streets. “We admit the sales tax is not the preferred option for many things,” he said, “but this is a broad-based tax, that all users of all of the infrastructure pay into.”

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Active Trans Plans 2015 Pedestrian Infra Campaign, Winter Bike Challenge

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Active Trans will be pushing for dedicated funding for pedestrian infrastructure next year. Photo: Suzanne Nathan.

Last Thursday at the Active Transportation Alliance’s annual member meeting, director Ron Burke announced plans for next year, including campaigns for better downtown bike parking and more funding for pedestrian infrastructure and Safe Routes to School programs. The advocacy group will also continue lobbying for bike access on South Shore Line trains, and launch a new winter bike commuting challenge.

At the meeting, attended by about 75 Active Trans members, Burke began by touting the group’s 2014 achievements. The new Kids on Wheels on-bike education program brought a trailer full of loaner bikes to suburban schools, and Active Trans recently secured funding for a second trailer. The group met with Metra to negotiate the loosening of restrictions on bringing bikes on board, including the elimination of most event-related blackout days and a new policy allowing cycles on early-morning inbound trains.

The Safe Crossings campaign announced the 20 most dangerous intersections in the city and the suburbs as a way to draw attention to pedestrian safety issues. “It’s really all about educating municipalities, and the Illinois Department of Transportation, frankly, about the importance of making our streets safe places for walking and biking,” Burke said.

This year, Active Trans worked with the Center for Neighborhood Technology to launch the Transit Future campaign, advocating for a new Cook County-based revenue stream to expand public transportation. “In Metropolitan Chicago, only one out of four people can get to work by transit in under 90 minutes,” Burke noted. “Our transit system is really from a different era. It really doesn’t work for where people live and work today. It hasn’t expanded — in fact it’s shrunk, a lot.”

Active Trans’ Family-Friendly Bikeways campaign is working to build more miles of advanced bike facilities — such as protected lanes, bike boulevards, and off-street trails – in the suburbs. The group has been pushing for light rail or bus rapid transit to be incorporated into plans for the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction, and is also lobbying for better separation of pedestrians and cyclists on the Lakefront Trail.

Active Trans has also helped stage Play Streets events, block parties that open neighborhood streets to pedestrians for healthy recreation. Staffer Jason Jenkins has created clever instructional videos on bike commuting. And the group organized to nip in the bud an alderman’s proposal to license and register cyclists, and has responded to anti-cycling messages in the media, such as bike-baiting columns from Tribune columnist John Kass, Burke said.

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Cook County Forest Preserves Seeking Vendors to Offer Bike Rental Services

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Cycling in a Cook County forest preserve. Rentals for trail riding would encourage more people to ride, which could help build support for on-street bike improvements. Photo: FPDCC

Automated bike-share and bike rental is sweeping the nation, from New York City to Seattle to Chicago to… the Cook County forest preserves?

Divvy-style automated stations are one possible outcome of a recent request for proposals issued by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. They’re looking for one or more concessionaires to operate rental services in local natural areas. “We envision opportunities where people would not have to bring their own bikes, but would have places across the county where they could rent a bike and get right on the trail,” said Daniel Betts, director of permits, concessions, and volunteer resources.

Of course, Cook County municipalities should be developing safe, family-friendly bikeways that allow residents to pedal comfortably from their homes to their local nature area. However, the opportunity to rent a bike at a forest preserve and ride on car-free trails could serve as a gateway to cycling for many people who don’t currently ride at all. That would help build support for creating low-stress, on-street bike routes as well.

The Forest Preserve, which maintains over 300 miles of paved and crushed limestone trails, turns 100 on November 30. The bike rental idea ties in with its Next Century Conservation Plan, a blueprint for what the upcoming 100 years should look like, Betts said. “This strategy fits in with our goal of getting more people to visit the preserves,” he said. The idea also came up during the recent public input process for the FPDCC’s recreational master plan. “People asked why we don’t already offer rentals.”

The RFP identifies seven primary sites for rental services: Busse Woods Trail, I & M Canal Centennial Bike Trail, Dan Ryan Woods, Bunker Hill Forest Preserve, Poplar Creek Trail, and Schiller Woods. The forest preserve district will work with successful bidders to identify 16 other pilot locations across the county, Betts said.

This is actually the second time an RFP for bike rentals has been issued. The first RFP, released in June, focused on automated rental stations, but there was only one response. That company, which Betts declined to name, went out of business during the negotiation process.

As a result, the Forest Preserve district decided to widen the parameters of the RFP to allow for staffed rental operations as well as automated ones. The service could be run by one large contractor, or several smaller businesses. “That way, it doesn’t exclude John’s Neighborhood Bike Shop, if they decide they’re interested in expanding their business to include rentals on our property,” Betts said.

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CTA Bus Ridership Bouncing Back; Faster Service Would Spur Greater Gains

The CTA forecasts a slight rise in bus ridership next year, after years of sharp declines. Image: Chicago Tribune

In its proposed budget for 2015, the Chicago Transit Authority didn’t take much of a leap of faith when forecasting continued growth in the record crowds boarding its trains. However, CTA also optimistically forecasts that a multi-year slide in bus ridership, which accounts for 57.6 percent of the system’s total ridership, will end — and that instead bus ridership will “stabilize” with a 0.4 percent rebound.

CTA spokesperson Tammy Chase said that bus ridership has “fluctuated in the past five years,” and that some of the key factors that depressed ridership, like fare hikes and unemployment, are starting to wear off. In the long run, she said, “bus ridership is flat,” and “these trends mirror what’s been seen nationally among major U.S. transit agencies.”

Chase said that bus ridership grew from 2006 to 2008, then fell in 2009 and 2010 because of service cuts, a poor economy, and fare hikes — fares went up 25 cents, and discounts for Chicago Card users were eliminated.

Ridership rebounded in 2011 and 2012 as gas prices and employment both rose, Chase said. But even as the city’s economy continued its rebound in 2013 and 2014, bus ridership slid as CTA significantly raised pass prices. She said this would prove to have only a short-term impact, and that passes “were deeply discounted, compared with peer transit agencies.”

Other factors that Chase cited as potentially contributing to the recent slump in ridership include population shifting toward rail stations, service changes associated with the Red Line South reconstruction in summer 2013, a shortened school year in 2013, and last winter’s polar vortex. Essentially, she said, bus ridership should stabilize given “an absence of what brought prior decreases.”

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Oak Park Will Take a Step Backward by Reinstalling Pedestrian “Beg Buttons”

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The Oak Park Village Board and their ironic wallpaper. Photo: Village of Oak Park

The walls of the Oak Park Village Board’s chambers are emblazoned with environmental buzzwords like “Bicycle Friendly,” “Mass Transit,” “LEED Certified,” “Energy Efficient,” and “Clean Air.” So it’s pretty ironic that the board recently voted, in that very room, to make walking harder in order to make driving easier.

Back in 2011, the suburb did the right thing by removing existing walk-signal request buttons at major intersections along Lake Street. Push buttons that make a walk signal appear faster – similar to “induction loops” in the pavement that tell a stoplight when a driver is waiting – are a good thing. But when pushing a button is the only way to get a walk signal at all, as was the case on Lake, the device is disparagingly known as a “beg button,” because it requires pedestrians to ask for permission to cross the street.

Beg buttons are problematic in a number of ways. Unless someone has pushed the button before you arrive at an intersection, you will always have to wait at least a moment before being given the opportunity to cross. If you fail to notice the button, you may wait in vain for a walk signal for a cycle or two before you realize what’s going on. And, since the main purpose of beg buttons is to maximize the length of the green phase for drivers, they send the message that pedestrians are tolerated on the public way, but the real purpose of streets is to move cars.

That’s basically the statement that the village board made yesterday when they voted to reinstall the beg buttons on Lake between Marion Street and Oak Park Avenue. At the meeting, acting village engineer Bill McKenna told the board that bringing back the beg buttons would “decrease traffic congestion,” the Chicago Tribune reported.

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Quinn Talks Good Game On Active Transportation, But Does He Deliver?

6.24.13 Governor Quinn and Indiana Governor Mike Pence Open Business Development Forum in Rosemont

Governor Quinn supports active transportation policy in spirit, but his administration has lavished funds on wider roads and the Illiana Tollway. Photo: Governor Quinn

Governor Pat Quinn, who is up for re-election next week, shared warm words about sustainable transportation with the Active Transportation Alliance in response to their candidate questionnaire [PDF]. His words haven’t always been matched by actions from his five-year-old administration — but unlike opponent Bruce Rauner, at least he’s talking to advocates.

Quinn’s written response stated that, between eight options that Active Trans listed to improve the public’s ability to to get around Illinois, “All are priorities for my administration… with the exception of widening existing roads.” He added that Illinois is a “Complete Streets” state, “where we believe in accommodating the transportation needs of all residents.” Indeed, Illinois was the first state to adopt Complete Streets as law, back in 2007.

Yet under Quinn’s administration, the Illinois Department of Transportation has demonstrated that its priorities include widening existing roads, rather than bus rapid transit, congestion pricing, or the other options Active Trans outlined. IDOT has widened dozens of miles of roads throughout the suburbs, and even widened Harrison Street through the South Loop in 2012 — a move that the Chicago Department of Transportation partially reversed this year with a road diet and buffered bike lanes.

Quinn has also championed the expensive and unnecessary Illiana Tollway as his top priority for IDOT, thereby depriving all other priorities of crucial state funding. That’s even as support for the road continues to diminish: although the state has repeatedly claimed that the road is necessary to support truck traffic, major trucking interests have soured on the proposal.

According to Active Trans, IDOT’s own survey “identified Protected Bike Lanes as the most preferred treatment for making roads safer and comfortable for biking,” but the department currently bans cities from installing protected bike lanes on state roads. Quinn pledges that, during his next term, he’ll install 20 miles of PBLs on state roads. He also took credit for IDOT’s newly cooperative stance regarding a curb-separated protected bike lane on state-administered Clybourn Avenue, after an allegedly drunk driver hit and killed Bobby Cann while Cann was bicycling on Clybourn.

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New Ventra App Takes Small Step Towards Transit Fare Integration

CTA and Globe Sherpa provided this image showing a potential app design.

CTA and Globe Sherpa showed off one potential app design.

The forthcoming smartphone ticket app for Metra will also make it possible for Chicago Transit Authority and Pace customers to manage their Ventra transit accounts on their phones, the CTA announced last week. Even though the three agencies will spend $2.5 million on the app (plus nearly $16,000 in monthly fees), the Ventra app won’t at first offer customers many more functions than the existing Ventra website.

CTA communications manager Tony Coppoletta pointed out to Streetsblog that the 80 percent of CTA customers who have smartphones could use the app to skip the lines at station vending machines or at Ventra retailers, and have easier on-the-go access to their Ventra accounts. Bus passengers, who currently have to go out of their way to reload their Ventra accounts, may find the app particularly useful.

As we’ve reported before, the app will also help occasional Metra riders by finally making it possible to instantly purchase Metra tickets from anywhere. For example, an individual who loads $130 every month in pre-tax transit benefits into into a Ventra account could purchase a $100 monthly CTA/Pace pass, and still have $30 each month to spend on Metra tickets.

Yet many transit riders won’t benefit from the app. The 20 percent of CTA riders who don’t have smartphones, and others who don’t use bank cards, add up to hundreds of thousands who won’t be able to use the app. Many more CTA riders automatically deposit funds into their Ventra accounts, using Ventra’s auto-load function or pre-tax transit benefits. Similarly, any Metra riders who don’t have smartphones will still have to buy their tickets by mail or in person.

Two more crucial technologies that would further simplify transit payments are still set for the indefinite future. Read more…