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Metra Ridership Rising Unevenly; Development Could Maximize Its Potential

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Transit-oriented development has transformed downtown Arlington Heights. Photo: JB

Start with the good news: Ridership on Metra, Chicagoland’s main commuter rail service, has grown almost 14 percent over the last ten years. It remains near the all-time high it reached in 2008, just before the Great Recession. On any given weekday, Metra provides nearly 300,000 rides across its 11 lines, or roughly as many as the CTA’s Brown and Blue lines put together. Some lines have even continued to grow, surpassing their 2008 ridership, notably the North Central Service running northwest to Antioch, and the SouthWest Service through Ashburn and Orland Park to Manhattan. Of Metra’s more-established lines, the best performer since 2008 has been the Union Pacific Northwest line, which runs through towns like Arlington Heights (pictured above) and Des Plaines that have pursued Transit Oriented Development in their downtowns.

But in other ways, the picture isn’t so rosy. Overall, Metra ridership has stagnated for the last six years, even as CTA rail ridership has grown 16 percent over the same period. More alarming, ridership on several lines — including the Metra Electric and Rock Island, which have rapid-transit-like stop spacing every half-mile through large parts of the city that lack “L” access — was falling even before the recession.

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Ridership change on Metra lines from 2004-2014 and 2008-2014.

Unfortunately, Metra doesn’t provide up-to-date information on ridership by stop, which makes more thorough analysis impossible. (The freshest station-level data available is from 2006.) But the line data is enough to see some patterns. Unsurprisingly, many services lucky enough to go through high-growth neighborhoods and suburbs have the strongest ridership. Conversely, routes that pass mostly through parts of Chicagoland that have lost population are mostly struggling.

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Metra Electric trains run down the middle of 71st Street in South Shore, the densest community area on the South Side. Photo: David Wilson

That includes Metra Electric and Rock Island, which have the potential to serve as transit backbones through much of the South Side, but currently provide extremely spotty off-peak service. Both lines go through promising territory: Metra Electric’s main line runs from downtown through the South Side’s largest employment hub, Hyde Park, and one branch continues through dense neighborhoods along the south lakefront all the way to 93rd Street. Rock Island stops at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and then makes stops every half-mile at attractive and walkable commercial districts in thriving Beverly and Morgan Park. Read more…

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Eyes on the Street: Parked Bikes, Meet Stationary Bikes

20 bikes, or two cars? Photo by author.

If you’re looking for bike parking along trendy commercial streets in Chicago, it seems to be a lot easier to find around fitness centers than almost anywhere else. Surely this is no mistake: Either the gyms, or their neighbors, must be requesting many bike racks, and their patrons might be taking an active way to get to their indoor physical activities.

At the same time, many health clubs also seem to have a ton of “free” car parking. Some recently proposed (and approved) developments in Chicago neighborhoods – many of which have large fitness centers within their retail spaces – have a large amount of parking, which is sometimes touted by the developer as necessary for success. For example, Addison Park on Clark, a development with just 148 residential units but 493 parking spaces, may include an XSport Fitness center within its 170,000 square feet of commercial space.

Down the street, XSport is allegedly in talks with another developer to build a fitness facility alongside a Mariano’s grocery store – and 280 parking spaces. Both developers are working on a faulty assumption that fitness centers require hundreds of parking spaces.

Health and fitness clubs have their own section of the Chicago Municipal Code, 4-6-020, which states that no license for a health club may be issued unless there is off-street parking, either on-site or contracted, within 500 feet (about one block) of the premises, and that can accommodate ten percent of the capacity of the health club.

Chicago’s north and northwest sides have an abundance of gyms, many of them located near transit, Divvy stations, or near bike racks. At the same time, many of these gyms offer subsidized parking to members, either in the form of parking validation at nearby garages, or else in their own parking garages.

One of several bike corrals in Andersonville, in front of the Cheetah gym. Image: Jeremy Bressman, via Edgeville Buzz.

Despite the overabundance of parking that’s resulted from almost 60 years of arbitrarily high zoning requirements, at least a few neighborhoods have made it easy to bike to the gym. Eco Andersonville, a program of the non-profit Andersonville Development Corporation, has sponsored several 10-bike corrals throughout the neighborhood. One of these corrals sits outside Cheetah Gym on Clark Street in Andersonville, and it (as well as the several traditional U-shaped bike racks) are often full in the evening.

Bike corrals aren’t the only way to make biking to the gym easier: the Lakeview Athletic Club has several blue- and orange-colored bike racks outside the Lakeview Athletic Center, which combined can hold 20 bikes. Even before the evening rush, these racks were largely full.

Finally, one more great example of a fitness center that has a ton of bike parking is the recently opened Mariano’s/LA Fitness complex in Ravenswood. It looks like there is room for more than 60 bikes in a space tucked under Mariano’s, but still visible from the street. While some of the racks are probably used by Metra commuters, that sort of sharing is all the more appropriate for uses with complementary hours.

So while there is still a lot to be done in terms of lightening up the city’s zoning requirement that fitness centers (and nearly every other land use) provide tons of parking, it’s great to see that many gyms also provide a large amount of bike parking, too. Being welcomed to the gym by dozens of your neighbors’ bikes might reinforce the message that being fit involves how you get to the gym, just as much as what you do inside.

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Central Loop BRT Will Skimp On Key “Rapid” Features

Station platforms would have level boarding, a feature that helps to decrease dwell time. Image: CDOT

Station platforms would have level boarding, a feature that helps to speed bus boarding. Image: CDOT/CTA

The Central Loop Bus Rapid Transit project will launch without key features that distinguish BRT from conventional bus service. The busways, which the Chicago Department of Transportation will begin building later this year, will include most of BRT’s concrete features, like high-level bus-boarding platforms and dedicated lanes. These features will undoubtedly speed up six Chicago Transit Authority bus routes as they traverse the Loop.

However, key service improvements, which have been proven to speed up buses elsewhere, will only be “tested” in 2015, and their eventual adoption is far from certain. The initial absence of these features, namely off-board fare collection and signal priority, will knock Central Loop BRT down to a mere “basic” BRT system, using the methodology behind a new international standard meant to encourage effective, quality BRT.

At a May event, sources said that CDOT and CTA will “test” off-board fare collection at only one of the system’s eight on-street stations. At all other stations, riders will pay on the bus, one at a time, just like they now do on all CTA buses. CDOT would not comment on what the test will entail, how long the test will run, or how it will be evaluated. A test involving just one station, out of hundreds of bus stops along the routes, could confuse customers even more than a test at all eight BRT stations — and will offer only minimal travel time savings.

Collecting fares at the stations, before passengers board the bus, has been proven in several other cities to substantially reduce “dwell time,” or how long a bus waits at stops. In New York City, BRT features were added one at a time along the M34 route across Midtown Manhattan, which runs past the Empire State Building and Macy’s. When just prepaid boarding was added, total travel time for the entire route fell 10 percent. On Manhattan’s first BRT route, off-board fare collection alone reduced dwell times on New York City’s M15 Select Bus Service route by 36 percent.

Even though San Francisco hasn’t yet implemented any form of BRT, the city’s transit agency recently adopted “all-door boarding” — allowing passengers who’ve already paid (and have a valid transfer slip) or who will pay with a Clipper card (a contactless fare card, like a Ventra card or ticket) to enter buses through the rear door. As a result, dwell times fell by four seconds per stop, on average.

Another key technology that keeps BRT routes moving through heavily congested areas like the Loop is transit signal priority. Signal priority takes many forms, but the most far-reaching forms won’t be part of Central Loop BRT. Last year, CDOT spokesperson Pete Scales said that full transit signal priority, which re-programs the signaling system to better accommodate buses, won’t be included in Central Loop BRT. The J14 Jeffery Jump has signal priority as it travels through the South Shore neighborhood, but Scales said this technology is more appropriate for neighborhoods’ bus stop spacing than in the “dense grid of the Loop.” Sources also say that signal pre-emption, which allows buses to override normal signals, also won’t be used in Central Loop BRT.

Central Loop BRT will, however, include queue jumps — bus-only signals that turn green a few seconds before the other signals, and give buses a head start on other traffic where there’s no bus lane ahead. These work somewhat like leading pedestrian intervals, which have been added to many intersections around Chicago and give pedestrians a slight head start before turning drivers get a green light.

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“People Street” to Pop Up, Activate Andersonville’s North End on Friday

This block of Olive St between Clark and Ashland will be transformed into a pop-up park. Photo: Google Street View.

Even though Chicago may not be getting any Open Streets this year, we don’t have to worry about any shortage of opportunities to enjoy car-free streets full of live music, local food, and beautiful summer weather. Chicagoans can instead turn to the city’s scores of summertime street festivals, including a new concept in Andersonville: two “Pop-Up Park & Market” events this summer.

During the event, one short block of Olive Street, between Ashland and Clark, will transform into “the neighborhood’s newest public park” — complete with trees, seating, and plenty of activities.

Brian Bonanno of the Andersonville Development Corporation said Olive was selected because it’s in the northern, less-trafficked part of Andersonville. The southern end of Andersonville, near Foster and Berwyn, has plenty of foot and bike traffic and dozens of shops hugging the sidewalks. That intense foot traffic wanes around Catalpa Avenue, where the large Jewel-Osco supermarket breaks up the parade of storefront windows with two blocks of parking lot and blank wall. The pop-up park will hopefully entice more people to wander past the Jewel-Osco, north of Bryn Mawr, and patronize the local coffee shops, restaurants, and home furnishing stores at Clark’s northern tip.

A large Jewel-Osco parking lot breaks up the cozy, storefront feel of Andersonville – but there’s more to see further north, too. Photo: Google Street View.

Olive was also selected for the project in the hopes that it will introduce local residents to the positive benefits of having more lasting public space in their neighborhood. Bonanno hopes that the pop-up park in Andersonville warms people to the idea, after local residents expressed skepticism last year about turning one block into a park or public plaza.

Bonanno cited Kempf Plaza in Lincoln Square as an example. Situated between busy Lawrence Avenue and quiet Leland Avenue, and perpendicular to the traffic-calmed oasis of Lincoln Avenue, the plaza was once a through street but was converted to a public plaza in 1979. At first, drivers complained that the plaza was an inconvenience, but nowadays, the city would have a very hard time convincing anyone that the popular space would be worth giving up in favor of a few parking spaces and some cut-through traffic. Like Kempf Plaza, Olive has relatively few entrances directly facing it.

The pop-up park, just around the corner from The Coffee Studio and its parklet, will feature places to sit and enjoy some grub from food trucks. Visitors will get a chance to play bocce ball and perhaps some other games, such as life-size chess. Musicians will also perform and a family friendly movie, “The March of the Penguins,” will be shown outside from 8-10 PM.

The event will take place on Friday, July 25th and Friday, August 29th, from 4-10 PM, on Olive Street between Ashland and Clark.

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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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Speed Cameras Issue 1.25 Million Warnings, Cut Speeding 43%

Speed camera near Gompers Park

The first speed camera, at Gompers Park, was turned on nearly a year ago.

The City of Chicago’s automated speed enforcement system continues to succeed in reducing dangerous speeding around parks and schools. The Chicago Department of Transportation issued a press release earlier this month, stating that the number of speeding cars observed by its 51 speed cameras has fallen an average of 43 percent ever since the first week of the cameras’ operation. At some locations, the number of speeders dropped as much as 99 percent.

These stats continue the pattern established early on — just three weeks after a handful of speed cameras started issuing tickets, the number of cars seen speeding had already dropped 65 percent.

The 11-month-old speed camera program started almost a year ago with one installation at Gompers Park, and since then the program has issued “more than 1.25 million warnings to motorists.” Written warnings are issued within a camera’s first 30 days of operation, as well as on the first instance that a motorist is caught speeding, in any zone. Tickets are only issued when drivers exceed the speed limit by 10 mph or more.

The release also said motorists received 230,000 citations. That five warnings are issued for every citation might indicate that many motorists receive warnings, and don’t speed through safety zones again.

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Altgeld Gardens Residents Campaigning for Sidewalk on 130th Street

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Deloris Lucas and Victor Maurice Flemings Sr. at Rosebud Farm Stand on 130th Street. Photo: John Greenfield

[This article also runs in Checkerboard City, John's column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Altgeld Gardens is really secluded,” Active Transportation Alliance community liaison Cynthia Bell recently told me. “It’s like its own city.” The area, which includes the housing project of the same name, plus the Concordia Place, Riverside Village and Golden Gate subdivisions, is located by a bend in the Calumet River on the Far South Side, surrounded by industrial land and isolated from other neighborhoods.

Bell has been assisting the local Safety Transportation Advisory Council, residents who want to improve conditions for walking, biking and transit use. “They have a lot of issues with the built environment, like missing sidewalks and crosswalks,” she said. “They’re really underserved.”

Deloris Lucas, a former Chicago Public Schools employee and longtime Golden Gate resident who’s spearheading the council, has been working hard to change that. In particular, she’s upset that 130th Street, the interstate-like roadway that walls in the community from the north, has no sidewalk. That forces people walking to Rosebud Farm Stand, the area’s only source for fresh produce and healthy groceries, from the west, to trudge along a narrow, muddy dirt trail by the side of the road. The store is located at 525 East 130th.

The path is a textbook example of a “desire line,” urban planning lingo for a trail blazed by pedestrians who want to walk somewhere, but haven’t been provided with a sidewalk that would allow them to do it in safety, comfort and dignity. To add insult to injury, drainage issues in the market’s parking lot create a permanent pond that pedestrians have to detour around.

Altgeld Gardens was built in 1945 to provide housing for African-American vets returning from World War II, and named after John Peter Altgeld, the Illinois governor who pardoned three of the Haymarket Affair defendants. “These communities were established decades ago,” Lucas told me when I met her at a local youth center last week. “It’s 2014, and you would think that the neighborhood would have been made safer by now. To me, it’s appalling that people still have to walk through the dirt to get to the store.”

To start organizing for sidewalks and other improvements, Lucas and her neighbors formed the STAC in August 2013, with the motto “Safety Is Our First Priority.” Last November, they partnered with Active Trans and the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children to do a walkability assessment in the neighborhood. The residents surveyed the area, taking inventory of unsafe walking conditions and brainstorming ways to improve transportation access.

In addition to adding a sidewalk on the south side of 130th between Indiana and Ellis avenues, the STAC members want to install “Stop for Pedestrians” signs at key intersections. They also hope to get more high-visibility crosswalks striped, especially near schools, plus speed humps, pedestrian-refuge islands and wheelchair ramps. And, in an area where many people rely on the bus in order to travel outside their neighborhood, more bus shelters are needed—right now there are only two.

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Alta Chief: Bike-Share Expansions Unlikely in 2014

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There was no shortage of Bixi bikes at this 2012 conference, but there is now. Photo: Dylan Passmore/Flickr

Despite continually growing ridership, Alta Bicycle Share-operated bike-share systems across America will probably not be adding bikes or docks this year. The bankruptcy of Montreal-based Public Bike Share Company, known as Bixi, which developed and manufactured the equipment that Alta’s systems use, has disrupted the supply chain that numerous cities were pinning their expansion plans on.

“New bikes probably won’t arrive until 2015,” reports Dan Weissmann at American Public Media’s Marketplace. Alta Bicycle Share’s founder and vice president Mia Birk told Weissman that the last time Alta received new bikes from Bixi “must have been pre-bankruptcy.” That puts expansion plans for cities including Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, DC on hold. Just those three cities had previously announced fully-funded plans to add 264 bike-share stations in 2014. New York and Boston are also looking to expand their Alta-run systems. Other bike-share systems that purchase equipment from Bixi, like Nice Ride Minnesota, have had no luck buying new kit this year.

The shortage of equipment also means that cities that had signed up with Alta to launch new bike-share systems — notably Baltimore, Portland, and Vancouver – won’t launch until 2015 at the earliest. Ironically, new launches that were planned later, like Seattle’s Pronto system, will proceed sooner, as they were designed with equipment not sourced through Bixi.

The good news is that the troubled supply chain for Alta’s bike-share systems looks like it will be rebooted thanks to an infusion of capital. REQX Ventures, a company from New York City that had bid on Bixi, has been in talks to purchase a majority stake in Alta Bicycle Share, according to a report in Capital New York. This should inject new resources, allowing the bike-share operator to upgrade buggy software and overcome the hurdles imposed by Bixi’s bankruptcy in time for 2015′s equipment orders.

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Eyes on the Street: It’s On For Once-Missing Washington/Michigan Crosswalk

Crosswalk signal finally installed two months after markings

The crosswalk signal was working as of Monday evening.

To help make it easier to walk to the second busiest tourist attraction in Chicago, the Department of Transportation recently reopened a crosswalk across the north leg of the intersection of Michigan and Washington. The crosswalk provides an essential, direct link between the Cultural Center and Millennium Park’s many attractions, like next week’s Milton Suggs Big Band concert.

Crosswalk but no signal at Michigan/Washington

A man, ignoring the now-removed signs, waits for car traffic to clear before he crosses Michigan.

Earlier, Streetsblog reported that the crosswalk markings – which are quite narrow, at about five feet – were installed two months ago. However, the pedestrian signals were only activated this week. In the meantime, many pedestrians walked around the “sidewalk closed” signs and crossed there anyways because, well, people will go wherever it’s convenient. Since pedestrians may or may not have had the right of way during that interim period, there’s no telling who might have been at fault if a crash had happened. Next time, the city should consider installing the signals first — which, admittedly, is more complicated — and better coordinate their activation with the relatively simple task of painting the crosswalks.

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Cost Isn’t the Issue With Palmer Square Speed Tables, NIMBYs Are

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Midblock crosswalk on the north side of Palmer Square. Photo: John Greenfield

Last month, a DNAinfo.com article drew attention to a new campaign to improve pedestrian safety at Palmer Square by installing raised crosswalks, also known as speed tables. Unfortunately, factual errors in the piece left the impression that raised crosswalks would be an expensive solution that doesn’t have the Chicago Department of Transportation’s approval. It turns out that speed tables would be quite affordable, and CDOT first proposed adding them years ago. Other changes to the roadway could further discourage speeding and enhance the park – if only the park’s neighbors would allow them.

Ever since Palmer Square got new playground equipment and a soft-surface track in 2009, the green space has become increasingly popular with families and other Logan Square residents seeking recreation and relaxation. However, the current street layout encourages fast driving, which endangers people crossing to the park, as well as cyclists on Palmer Boulevard.

The eastbound portion of the boulevard runs south of the oval-shaped park, with two travel lanes plus a bike lane. Stop signs at the three-way intersections of Palmer and Albany Avenue, as well as Palmer and Whipple Street, help to calm motorized traffic.

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On the south side of the park, stop signs at Albany and Whipple help slow down cars. Photo: John Greenfield

However, on the north side of the green space, there are three westbound travel lanes, plus a bike lane. Albany and Whipple don’t continue north of the park, so there are no intersections or stop signs on the quarter-mile stretch between Sacramento and Kedzie boulevards, which makes it easy for drivers to pick up speed.

While there are marked, midblock crosswalks on the north side of Palmer Square where Albany and Whipple would be, the three travel lanes create long crossing distances and the so-called “multiple threat” scenario. Even if one driver obeys the law by stopping for pedestrians in the crosswalk, there’s no guarantee that the motorist in the next lane will do so.

Two churches near the square encourage their parishioners to park in the central lane on the north side of the green space during services and special events. That’s technically illegal, but has been condoned by the local aldermen in the past. This practice further endangers pedestrians, because it makes it more difficult for westbound drivers to see people crossing the street.

As DNAinfo reported, residents have launched an online petition calling for installing raised crosswalks on the northern portion of the boulevard at Albany and Whipple. “A park designed for and frequented by very small children, residential homes and a church borders this portion of the street,” the petition reads. “A school also borders the park and school children often utilize the park for physical education and after school programs. The speeding traffic on the street creates a grave safety hazard.”

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