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Posts from the Chicago Category


The ‘L’ Reduces Congestion on Highways More Than Widening Would

Blue Line on the Kennedy passing under Austin Ave. pedestrian overpass

A Blue Line train hits 55 mph on the way to O’Hare airport. Photo: Steven Vance

Yesterday, a road construction lobbying group tricked many local publications into promoting their highway expansion agenda.

In what’s become a common strategy for the road-building industry, the American Highway Users Alliance conducted a study called “Unclogging America’s Arteries 2015,” which reported that traffic congestion is really bad and, of course, adding more capacity for cars is the solution. Then they sent out a press release, counting on news outlets to spread the gospel. Since the report found that Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway has the worst bottleneck in the nation, The Tribune, Sun-Times, CBS, and WGN all took the bait and largely regurgitated the press release.

Time Out Chicago, in particular, accepted AHUA’s narrative hook, line, and sinker. Time Out went so far as to blame the CTA Blue Line, which runs down the median of the expressway, for standing in the way of fixing the traffic jam problem:

One immovable feature will force the road to be a bottleneck for the foreseeable future: the Blue Line. It prevents the Kennedy from expanding (the same applies for the Eisenhower Expressway on the West Side), which is a painful result of short-sighted 20th Century urban planning.

Time Out has it backwards. The real myopic urban planning was the decision to bulldoze hundreds of revenue-producing properties, displacing countless residents and businesses, to build the highway. Far from being foolish, the late-Sixties decision by planners and politicians to include a 55 mph rapid transit line in the median of the Kennedy was a savvy use of resources, since it was much cheaper than building a separate subway.

Granted, rapid transit is most useful when stops are located in the center of dense, walkable retail districts, and the middle of a highway isn’t the most pleasant place to wait for a train. But it’s fortunate that the powers that be chose to build new ‘L’ lines in the medians of the Kennedy, the Eisenhower, and the Dan Ryan, rather than not build them at all.

In the modern era, it’s short-sighted to think we can solve the traffic jam problem on urban highways by adding capacity, even though the road lobbyists would like us to believe otherwise. Time Out argued that the $420 million Jane Byrne Interchange expansion project and the $3.4 billion Elgin-O’Hare Expressway extension “will go a long way in reducing traffic on the North Side highway.”

On the contrary, highway expansion projects don’t reduce congestion in the long run. They provide temporary relief, but studies show that the extra capacity tends to encourage more car trips, a phenomenon known as induced demand, so the new lanes are soon filled with vehicles again.

The Blue Line deserves more far credit for fighting congestion than those costly road expansion projects because it provides commuters with an alternative to driving to and from downtown. That’s good for reducing traffic jams, good for the environment, and much healthier than a long, daily car commute.

Update 11/25/15 10:00 a.m.: After we pointed out the absurdity of the original Time Out post, they added the following text:

The Blue Line is a better option than a car for people traveling across the city. Chicago is one of three cities across the country where public transit to the airport is faster than driving. So if you can’t handle any more traffic on the Kennedy, consider trading in your car keys for a Ventra card.

Thanks to Streetsblog Chicago reader “objectathand” for alerting us.

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New Ashland, Western Express Buses Will Be Fast, But BRT Would Be Faster

Southbound Ashland bus

The current #9 Ashland bus. Photo: John Greenfield

Bus riders who take buses on Ashland and Western Avenues are getting faster, more reliable service. The Chicago Transit Authority is bringing back the old express bus routes on these streets, and they’re also adding transit signal prioritization and cutting little-used stops on the local bus runs. While these are welcome improvements, the city should move forward with its plan for full-fledged bus rapid transit service on Ashland, which would be much faster than the express buses.

The X9 Ashland and X49 Western expresses bus routes, along with all other X routes and other service, were cut in 2010. The new express buses will make about half as many stops as the local buses, which provides a significant time savings. Later, the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation will add Transit Signal Priority. By extending stoplights turn green faster as a bus approaches, or extending the green, TSP helps keep riders from getting stuck at intersections.

The local buses on Ashland and Western will also be faster because the CTA is removing some stops where few people board or disembark, so that buses will stop approximately every one-quarter mile instead of every one-eighth mile. It then makes sense for riders to simply hop on the first bus that shows up at an express stop, rather than waiting for an express bus, because waiting for the express might cancel out any time savings from fewer stops.

Daniel Kay Hertz charted the projected travel time gains of the Ashland and Western service on his blog City Notes. He compared the CTA’s estimates of the travel times for the current bus service, the new local service, the new express service, and the proposed Ashland bus rapid transit system. Hertz’s chart makes it clear that while consolidating stops on the local buses will result in a significant time saving, the new express buses won’t be that much faster than the new locals.

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Trib Launches War on Speed Cams, CDOT Releases Data Showing They Work

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 10.28.12 AM

Still from a CDOT compilation of cam footage of high-speed driving, showing a driver doing 99 mph by the Vincennes Avenue bike lanes on the Southwest Side.

The Chicago Tribune’s David Kidwell and his colleagues have written extensively about the city’s red light camera program. Some of that reporting has been constructive, including revelations about the red light cam bribery scandal, unexplained spikes in ticketing, and cameras that were installed in low-crash locations during the Richard M. Daley administration.

Other aspects of the Tribune’s red light coverage have been problematic. For example, the paper emphasized that the cams have led to an increase in rear-end crashes with injuries, while downplaying the fact that they have decreased the number of right-angle injury crashes, which are much more likely to cause serious injuries and deaths.

Throughout it all, Kidwell has shown a strong bias against automated enforcement in general. He has largely ignored studies from cities around the country and the world that show red light and speed cams are effective in preventing serious injuries and fatalities.

Yesterday morning, Kidwell and fellow reporter Abraham Epton unleashed a new assault on the city’s speed camera program, the product of a six-month investigation. In three long articles, they claim that the city has issued $2.4 million in unfair speed camera tickets, and argue that many of the cams on busy main streets are justified by small or little-used parks.

If there really is a significant problem with speed cams writing tickets when warning signs are missing or obscured, or after parks are closed, or in school zones when children are not present, contrary to state law, it’s a good thing that the Tribune is drawing attention to this phenomenon. If so, the city should take steps to address the problem, as they did in the wake of Kidwell’s red light cam series.

Most of these issues can be traced to the city of Chicago’s questionable decision to propose state legislation that only allows the cameras to be installed within the eighth-mile “Child Safety Zones” around schools and parks. Instead, the city should be allowed to put cams anywhere there’s a speeding and crash problem.

However, it appears this new series is written from Kidwell’s usual perspective that it’s unfair to force motorists to pay more attention to driving safely. For instance, the coverage discusses how Tim Moyer was ticketed on five different occasions for speeding past a Northwest Side playground that was closed for construction — speed cams in park zones are only supposed to be turned on when the park is open. After the Tribune contacted the city about these tickets, they were thrown out.

The Trib uses this as an example of how the speed cam program is dysfunctional. However, the cams only issue tickets to drivers who are going 10 mph or more over the speed limit. The fact remains that Moyer was caught speeding heavily on five different occasions at the same location. Even if the cam couldn’t legally issue him tickets, he deserved them.

The Tribune’s new anti-speed cam series seems to be largely about helping drivers like Moyer who speed by 10 mph or more get off on technicalities. But the city’s default speed limit is set at 30 mph for a good reason – studies show that pedestrians struck at this speed usually survive. Why is the Tribune putting so much effort into defending the right of drivers to go at or above 40 mph, a speed at which pedestrians crashes are almost always fatal?

I haven’t fully digested all three of the articles yet, but I plan to publish a more thorough analysis in the near future. In the meantime, let’s talk about something that Kidwell and Epton largely ignored: the positive effect the speed cams are having on safety.

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By Popular Demand, CTA Will Test Restored Lincoln and 31st Street Bus Lines

#11 Lincoln CTA Bus Route

Currently, the #11 terminates at Western Avenue. Photo: Jeff Zoline

At Monday’s Chicago Transit Authority budget hearing, politicians and residents implored the CTA board to bring restore the 31st Street bus and Lincoln Avenue bus routes. The #31 bus line was canceled in 1997, while the segment of the #11 Lincoln route between Western and Fullerton was eliminated in 2012.

At the hearing, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who has helped lead the charge for restored service, noted that the Lincoln bus was formerly a lifeline for seniors in his ward. Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) noted that a new development planned for Lincoln Park will bring over 1,000 residences to the neighborhood, increasing the demand for transit. Ald. Patrick Daley (11th) proposed a new 31st Street route that would connect the 31st/Ashland Orange Line stop, the Sox/35th Red Line station, and 31st Street Beach. A number of their constituents spoke up as well.

Despite this urging, it seemed unlikely the board could make a decision on the matter and revise their proposed 2016 spending plan in time for today’s scheduled budget vote. However, at this afternoon’s meeting, CTA President Dorval Carter made a surprise announcement that next spring the agency will conduct pilots of the restored #31 and #11 bus service.

Details are still being finalized, including the exact locations, days and times of the service, and the duration of the pilot, according to a source at the CTA. As soon as those details are known, the agency will work with the aldermen and their communities to promote the pilot tests. Depending on how much ridership the routes get, service may ultimately be restored on a permanent basis, the source said.

“We’re thrilled about the news,” said Pawar’s community outreach director Dara Salk. “We’re very grateful to the board for listening to our concerns and taking action.”


Drunk Driver Who Killed Hector Avalos Sentenced to Only 100 Days in Prison


Hector Avalos. Photo courtesy of the family

At a hearing today, Judge Nicholas Ford gave Robert Vais, the driver who struck and killed cyclist Hector Avalos while drunk, a relatively light sentence of 100 days in a state prison plus two years probation. Vais must also perform manual labor as part of the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program once a month for two years, and undergo drug and alcohol treatment.

On December 6, 2013, Avalos, 28, a former Marine, was biking back to the South Side from his job as a cook at a restaurant in River North. Vais, now 56, an administrator at Stroger Hospital, reportedly attended a staff Christmas party in Little Italy prior to the collision. At 11:58 p.m., he was driving to his home in southwest suburban Riverside when he fatally struck Avalos on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park.

Blood drawn from Vais soon after the crash showed his blood alcohol level was 0.152 percent, nearly twice the legal level of 0.08. He was charged with felony aggravated DUI and two misdemeanor DUI charges. On September 16 of this year, Vais pleaded guilty.

30 to 40 supporters of the Avalos family, including members of the local bike community, attended today’s sentencing hearing, according to Active Transportation Alliance staff member Jason Jenkins, who has attended most of the hearings for the case. A comparable number of people were there in support of Vais.

At the hearing, Avalos’ mother Ingrid Cossio, stepfather Jorge Cossio, and younger stepsiblings Brandon and Brandi read victim impact statements. Vais’ sister, a childhood friend, and a coworker read mitigating statements. Vais was given an opportunity to make a statement and expressed strong regret and remorse, and apologized profusely to Avalos’ relatives while tears came to his eyes, Jenkins said.

According to Illinois law, aggravated DUI carries a jail sentence of three-to-fourteen years, at least 85 percent of which must be served in prison, plus fines of up to $25,000. Probation is generally not an option, except in extraordinary circumstances. Therefore, it’s noteworthy that Judge Ford gave Vais a sentence of only 100 days, plus two years probation, with no fine. The jail term will begin on November 30, which gives Vais time to put his affairs in order before he serves time.

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Residents and Politicians Urge CTA to Restore Lincoln, 31st Street Bus Service

They want their bus back

CTA riders have been donning yellow shirts to signify that they want the agency to restore bus routes on Lincoln Avenue and 31st Street.

During the public comment period of last night’s Chicago Transit Authority’s budget hearing, the only one the agency is holding this year, many politicians and residents urged the CTA board to restore the Lincoln Avenue and 31st Street bus routes.

The hearing opened with budget director Tom McKone providing an overview of the 2016 spending plan. It maintains virtually all current bus service and brings back the old express bus routes on Ashland Avenue and Western Avenue. As a strategy to avoid a fare hike, the budget includes layoffs for some management staff, plus eliminating some vacant positions.

When the floor was opened for comments, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said she was once again there to “respectfully request” that the board find a place in the budget to restore the full #11 Lincoln bus route. In 2012, as part of several bus line cuts to help fund the CTA’s “de-crowding plan” for additional train service, the agency cancelled bus service on Lincoln between the Brown Line’s Western stop and the Fullerton station. Smith said the strategy hasn’t been a success.

Smith noted that her Lincoln Park ward includes many college students, young professionals, and seniors – the most common demographics for frequent transit users, both locally and nationally, she said. Smith added new developments, including the redevelopment of the former Children’s Memorial Hospital site at Fullerton/Halsted/Lincoln, will bring over 1,000 new residences and over 150,000 square feet of retail to the Lincoln Avenue corridor.

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who has been leading the charge to restore the #11 ever since service was cut, was more somber when he addressed the board. Pawar said he wants his ward to include affordable neighborhoods where people can age in place. He added that, despite the increased capacity on the Brown Line, the elimination of Lincoln service makes it harder for many of his constituents to get to destinations within the ward.

Alder Ameya Pawar (47th) asking the board to reinstate the 11-Lincoln Ave bus

Ald. Pawar appeared again before the CTA board asking for them to reinstate the 11-Lincoln bus.

One North Side resident testified that the Brown Line is often too crowded to be a satisfactory replacement for the Lincoln bus. Another asked that the existing #11 route be extended north from Fullerton to at least Belmont Avenue, so that she could access a nearby Jewel-Osco.

Bridgeport’s Ald. Patrick Thompson (11th), elected this year, spoke up in favor of restoring the #31 bus, which was cut in 1997. “A lot has changed in our community” since then, Thompson said, noting that there has been a new wave of development in recent years and better transit could help reduce congestion. He proposed a bus route that would serve the 31st/Ashland Orange Line station and the Sox/35th Red Line stop, ending at 31st Street beach. Read more…


The New Ventra App Will Make Metra Easier to Ride For Millions of People

Update Nov. 18: The Ventra app is available half a day early. Download for Android and iOS

The Ventra app will be released this month, making it more convenient to pay your Metra fare, whether you’re an occasional rider or a daily commuter. The best thing about the app is that it allows you to buy tickets and passes via your smartphone. That means no waiting in line at a ticket booth, using an ill-designed ticket vending machine, or paying a surcharge on board. That’s a big plus if you’re rushing to catch a train and don’t have time to buy a ticket at the station.

Why am I so confident that the Ventra App will be convenient to use? I’m part of the app’s beta testing group, and I recently used the app during a Metra excursion to the South Deering neighborhood for a fried fish snack at Calumet Fisheries. Aside from some visual quirks that I find very annoying, including flashing screens and unpolished buttons and dialog boxes, I found that the app performs all functions flawlessly.

You’ll be able to use the Ventra app to start, stop, and change auto-load preferences on your account, setting how much money you want drawn from your credit or debit card when it dips below $10. The Ventra app also has a built-in transit tracker. It shows the nearest Metra and ‘L’ stations, as well as bus stops, plus the predicted time the train or bus will show up or, in the case of Metra, the scheduled departure time.

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Ald. Reilly Has a Responsible Approach to Off-Street Parking

Rendering of new building (right) in West Loop

The proposed building is on the right. The building on the left, K2 Apartments, has 30 percent less parking than the city’s standard 1:1 ratio, but only about half of those spaces are used. Rendering: Pappageorge Haymes

When it comes to parking management in Chicago, there have been a couple of encouraging developments recently. In September, City Council passed a beefed-up revision of the transit-oriented development ordinance, which makes it easier than ever to build dense, parking-lite developments near train stations. And, recently, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) made some very sensible statements about the fact that downtown buildings shouldn’t have tons of car spaces.

It’s not as if Reilly is particularly progressive when it comes to transportation and public space issues. While he has supported some bike infrastructure in his downtown district, he recently tried to pass an ordinance forcing the Chicago Department of Transportation to remove the Kinzie protected lanes.

He blocked CDOT from installing Divvy stations on the Magnificent Mile, and he was was the driving force behind a new law that severely restricts the use of pedicabs in the central business district. And, last week, he lobbied to ban food carts from portions of dozens of streets in his ward, even though the carts offer consumers affordable food choices and add vitality to the public way.

But Reilly might be one of the most forward-thinking City Council members when it comes to promoting residential buildings without an excessive amount of car parking. He has encouraged developers to only build the number of spaces that is appropriate for the location of the project as well as the expected car-ownership rate of the residents. He has noted that buildings with many floors of garage parking make streets less attractive, and most downtown renters don’t own cars.

For example, Cardiff Mason Development is currently pitching a 38-story residential building at 352 North Union Ave. in River West, near the Jewel-Osco at Kinzie and Desplaines. It would have 373 apartments and 158 tenant car parking spaces, for a ratio of 0.42 spaces per unit. However, DNAinfo reported, the developer originally proposed a “substantially higher” number of off-street spots but lowered the number after a meeting with Reilly.

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UIC Bike/Walk Project Didn’t Get the $17 Million in Federal Funds It Needs

Screenshot 2015-11-02 15.37.50

UIC has proposed eliminating the cul-de-sacs to create a pedestrian plaza, streamlined walking path, and a bike path at Morgan Street and Vernon Park Place between the library and Behavioral Sciences Building.

Unfortunately, a transportation project that has the potential to positively transform the University of Illinois at Chicago’s campus was passed over for federal funding. The $29.3 million initiative, called Crossroads & Connections, would make significant changes to campus streets in order to make walking and biking safer and more convenient.

The university was seeking $17.2 million in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery funding. This discretionary grant program from the U.S. Department of Transportation finances “transformative” projects that would have at least a citywide impact on safety. The remaining funds would have come from UIC’s parking revenue, because the project would have included replacing asphalt in some parking lots with permeable pavers to reduce the amount of runoff sent to the city’s sewer system.

The only Chicagoland TIGER application to win funding this year was a railroad bridge over the Fox River near Elgin used by Metra trains. A new pedestrian bridge at 35th Street over railroad tracks and Lake Shore Drive that’s currently under construction is also funded by TIGER.

Crossroads & Connections would have addressed many dangerous and annoying situations for people walking and bicycling on the UIC campus, including several pet peeves I accumulated while studying there for four years. It would create smoother cycling connections, build new pedestrian plazas, and legitimize walking routes that weren’t being accommodated before.

The university also wants to reduce crashes and injuries by modifying high-risk intersection and crossing points. The plan notes that that 252 people were injured in crashes with people walking and bicycling, from 2008-2012 on the eastern and western portions of the campus, and while making their way between the two areas.

Ever since the Student Recreation Facility opened at Halsted and Polk Streets in the mid-2000s, people have been crossing the streets diagonally and mid-block to access dorms or student center buildings. Some of them walk over planted medians to do so.

The C & C plan calls for creating a wide mid-block crosswalk on Halsted by cutting a gap into the median and adding a “High-Intensity Activated Crosswalk Beacon,” aka a HAWK signal. When pedestrians press a button on the signal, drivers would get a red light. While this is a “beg button” of sorts, it would make mid-block crossing here safer and more convenient.

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In Some Ways, The 606 Isn’t as Good as the High Line — It’s Better

Ridgeway from the air on Opening Day

According to Renn, The 606 is not “a project of citywide significance, nor a bona fide tourist attraction.” Photo: Trust for Public Land

Nationally known urbanist and ex-Chicagoan Aaron Renn recently threw shade on our city’s beloved new linear park with a blog post titled “How Chicago’s 606 Trail Fell Short of Expectations.” He wrote that the new path, aka the Bloomingdale Trail, doesn’t hold a candle to the High Line in Manhattan, where he now resides. However, I’d argue that The 606 is superior on a few different levels.

During a recent visit to Chicago, Renn checked out three of the city’s new public spaces and was wowed by the new riverwalk extension and Maggie Daley Park. However, he was unimpressed with the 2.7-mile trail-and-parks system on the Northwest Side:

The problem with The 606 is not that it’s bad. In fact, it’s a nice, eminently serviceable rail trail. I won’t do a full writeup since Edward Keegan had a good review in Crain’s in which he asks, “Is that all there is?’ that I think gets it basically right… What I will do is highlight three areas that I think contribute to Keegan being underwhelmed: inflated expectations, financing problems, and an odd lack of attention to design detail.

What Keegan, actually wrote is that visitors to the new path might ask themselves “Is that all there is?” because it lacks the show-stopping design elements of the High Line or Millennium Park. But Keegan himself wasn’t underwhelmed – he argued that The 606’s relative minimalism is appropriate. “It’s an example of simple, clear and modest design being almost the right answer.” The “almost” is there because he thinks the designers should have been bolder with a few elements, such as the trail’s “clumsy and inelegant” Milwaukee Avenue bridge, and he wishes there were more places to sit and linger.

However, Keegan noted that “the designers deftly move the path from side to side and up and down to the extent possible to provide as interesting a path as possible for its users.” He also praises the wide plaza at Damen, the stadium-style seating area at Humboldt Boulevard, and the poplar grove between St. Louis and Drake, as well as the thoughtful trail lighting.

In his own post, Renn notes that the city of Chicago set up expectations that The 606 would surpass the High Line, but he argues that it isn’t even in the same class:

The 606 is not even remotely another High Line, nor a project of citywide significance, nor a bona fide tourist attraction for the masses. It’s a neighborhood-serving rail-trail that is elevated above the streets with some nice features like lighting that you don’t see often.

While the Bloomingdale may never be the tourist attraction that the High Line is, it certainly draws people from many different parts of Chicago, and it beats the NYC facility in three different departments. It’s nearly twice as long as the 1.45-mile Manhattan path. Unlike the High Line, you can bike on the Bloomingdale, and it provides direct access to many public schools, so it functions as a very useful transportation link.

Thirdly, The 606 is more democratic. The High Line runs through some of the nation’s priciest real estate and, during the three times I’ve visited it, the crowd seemed to be pretty homogenous.

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