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Active Trans Wants Candidates to Commit to Working for Safer Streets

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Active Trans is asking mayoral and aldermanic candidates to support increased enforcement of traffic safety laws, including the state law requiring drivers to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Photo: John Greenfield

The Active Transportation Alliance released its 2015 election platform last week [PDF], featuring strategies to improve walking, biking, and transit in the region that they want candidates in the municipal elections to endorse. The Active Transportation Platform focuses on creating safer streets and providing better infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. The group hopes candidates will pledge to take action to reduce the number of pedestrian and bike fatalities in Chicago, increase transit funding, and address other key transportation challenges. 

There are 198 people running for alderman in 46 Chicago wards, according to the website Aldertrack, and at least four people are running for mayor. Active Trans plans to send a questionnaire [PDF] about the platform to every candidate. Hopefuls from the 43rd Ward will also receive a questionnaire [PDF] from the group BikeWalk Lincoln Park, which asks about the candidates ideas for making Clark Street safer and more vibrant, among other topics.

Active Trans based the questions on discussions with supporters, feedback from last year’s member meeting, and a public survey, according to staffer Kyle Whitehead. The first question quickly establishes the group’s priorities, asking if the candidate or a family member routinely walks, bikes, or rides transit to get to work or school, to run errands, or for recreation.

The platform states that there should be a sustainable funding source to pay for pedestrian infrastructure improvements, and bike lane and crosswalk maintenance. Whitehead said this plank came out of the Safe Crossings campaign, which identified the ten most dangerous intersections in Chicago for pedestrians. “Even when the alderman, residents, and the Chicago Department of Transportation all agree that there’s a problem in pedestrian movement [at an intersection], there’s not always funding to develop solutions,” he noted.

Each alderman has $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” funds, but “aldermen are being pulled in all directions as to where that money should go,” Whitehead explained. When there’s a pedestrian safety issue that needs to be addressed, there’s often a lengthy back-and-forth between the alderman and CDOT about how infrastructure should be financed, which delays improvements. “Pedestrian safety is critical, to the point where there should be a portion of the city’s annual budget dedicated to improving the pedestrian experience,” he said. 

The same thing is true for bike lane maintenance. CDOT usually only restripes bike lanes and when there’s a repaving project, or when an alderman wants to pay for the restriping via menu funds. Only a handful of aldermen, all from downtown and North Side districts, have chosen to do that, which contributes to the poorer quality of the bike network on the South and West Sides. Rather than having the visibility of a bike lane depend on which ward it’s passing through, dedicated funding would create a more functional citywide bikeway system for all cyclists.

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Faulty Signage Created Dangerous Situation for Peds by Lincoln Park Zoo

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Because “No Parking” signs by the zoo weren’t relocated after a curb ramp was moved, drivers parked in the crosswalk. Photo: Andrew Herman

Here’s a great example of the Streetsblog community making a difference by helping to get an infrastructure problem fixed.

On December 15, Andrew Herman from the group Bike Walk Lincoln Park contacted us about a crosswalk problem by the neighborhood’s zoo. Earlier in the year, as part of a project to repave Stockton Drive through Lincoln Park, the Chicago Department of Transportation relocated a curb cut for pedestrians on the west side of the street, across from The Farm-in-the-Zoo. CDOT built a new curb ramp several feet north, so that it would line up with the pedestrian ramp on the east side of the street, creating a shorter, safer crossing route, which they striped with a high-visibility, “continental” crosswalk.

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The old curb ramp was located just south of the new one. Photo: Andrew Herman

However, after CDOT built the new curb ramp, they failed to relocate the “No Parking” signs by the old ramp. As a result, motorists were parking north of the old No Parking zone, right in the middle of the new crosswalk. Drivers only seemed to pay attention to the signs, but were apparently oblivious to the presence of the curb ramps and zebra striping.

On July 2, Herman contacted 43rd Ward Alderman Michele Smith’s office about the problem, including tweeting Smith. Her office told me they immediately submitted a service request asking CDOT to fix move the signs.

Herman said he followed up several times over the summer, and the ward office resubmitted the request on multiple occasions, but the work was never done. “It’s not my job to defend CDOT,” Smith told me, but she added that the department has had its hands full with repaving work in 2014, in the wake of the brutal “Chiberia” winter.

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CDOT Puts Belmont on a Confusing, Dangerous “Binge Diet” At Western

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A CDOT rendering from the June meeting shows a plan to expand Belmont to six lanes for over 500 feet, across the intersection of Western Avenue and Clybourn Avenue.

Bicycling up and over the Chicago River on Belmont, from Avondale to Roscoe Village, will soon be more comfortable once the Chicago Department of Transportation gives the street a “road diet” and replaces car travel lanes with new buffered bike lanes. Bicyclists shouldn’t get too comfortable, though: Once they’ve crested the bridge eastbound, they’ll be dropped into the middle of a six-lane highway. Yes, CDOT is narrowing Belmont from four lanes to two on one block, and then on the very next block widening Belmont to six lanes, while eliminating the bike lanes completely.

The road diet is planned between Western Avenue (2400 West) and Washtenaw Avenue (2700 West). Its buffered bike lanes will extend west to Kedzie Avenue and, eventually, east to Halsted Street in Lakeview. Not only will the road diet give bicyclists a rare chance to safely climb over the Chicago River, but it will bring Belmont into a consistent lane configuration — it’s two lanes wide both east of Western and west of Washtenaw. Two lanes is perfectly appropriate for Belmont’s light traffic: 14,000 cars per day were counted in 2010, which two lanes easily handle on similar streets like Milwaukee Avenue and Halsted.

Yet, at the exact same time, CDOT is continuing to advance another plan for Belmont that’s at odds with the goal of making it a comfortable street for bicycling and walking. As Belmont approaches Western, where a crumbling overpass is being removed, the street will balloon from two to six lanes wide. The planned intersection [PDF] will require condemning private property, demolishing the fronts of several buildings at the southwest corner, and halt the bike lanes hundreds of feet short of the intersection.

This widening project is eerily reminiscent of how Harrison Street was widened at Congress Parkway, an unsafe and unnecessary move that was finally undone last year. The situation didn’t improve traffic flow much, since it simply created bottlenecks on either side where several lanes had to merge into one. The widening is also at odds with CDOT’s current practice of striping bike lanes through intersections, and puts bicyclists at greatest risk right where they most need protection.

Before conditions on Belmont at Western Avenue

CDOT plans to demolish at least part of the buildings at right so that it can widen Belmont Avenue. Photo: Steven Vance.

Belmont is designated as a key Crosstown Bike Route in the city’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, and would be a great way for bicyclists to get between the north and northwest sides if only there weren’t a huge, crowded, high-speed intersection dropped right into the middle of it. Michelle Stenzel was a co-leader for the plan’s North Side district, co-chairs Bike Walk Lincoln Park, and is disappointed with CDOT’s plans for Belmont at Western.

A wider Belmont “will never, ever attract new bike riders, when people are left with completely no help, no protection, and no direction at a huge intersection like this,” Stenzel says. “It was supposed to serve as an important east-west route,” she said, but will prove too dangerous for many potential bicyclists. Stenzel took umbrage with using city funds to buy buildings and widen the road: “It’s infuriating” that, while “city planners have a blank slate [because of the flyover teardown]… there’s not a single inch of room to provide bicyclists a safe passage.”

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The 2014 Chicago Streetsies

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[Most of these entries also appeared in Newcity magazine's Best of Chicago issue.]

Best local universities to visit for that pedestrian-friendly, old-world feel

Loyola University and The University of Chicago

Nearly all Medieval-era cities in Europe, and countless other old cities around the world, are known for their pedestrian streets – markets and residential areas where driving is banned or limited. Two Chicago universities have recently turned streets into car-free spaces, and third has proposed a Dutch-style “woonerf” — a pedestrian-priority street. Loyola University transformed the 6300 block of North Kenmore  from a typical road into a sustainably-landscaped pedestrian and bike-only street, complete with permeable pavers that allow stormwater to drain into the ground. The University of Chicago similarly converted a block of 58th Street in front of the Oriental Institute, as well as a stretch of 58th west of Ellis. This extended the tranquil walkways of the main quadrangle into the greater Hyde Park neighborhood. Meanwhile, DePaul University has proposed building the woonerf on the block of Kenmore south of Fullerton in Lincoln Park.

Best place to see grown Chicagoans acting like little kids

The Chicago Riverwalk construction site

The less-than-incendiary Great Chicago Fire Festival made riverfront headlines, but if you wanted to check out a spectacle of different kind this summer, you could join the crowds oohing and aahing this as workers build the $100 million Chicago Riverwalk extension, slated for 2016 completion. This new segment will extend from State to Lake, incorporating six themed sections delineated by the bridges, ranging from “The Jetty” fishing area to “The Cove” kayak dock to “The Swimming Hole” water play zone. It was mesmerizing to watch towering cranes on barges driving long pilings and dropping huge loads of gravel to widen the shoreline. Sure, a barge sunk now and then, but that was part of the excitement.

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Dumping infill to build out the Chicago Riverwalk. Photo: John Greenfield

Best places to use protection

New protected bike lanes on Harrison and Broadway

It’s awesome that Mayor Emanuel is trying to build 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes within his first term, but a few of the locations are questionable. How many people really want to pedal on Lake Street, in the gloomy, cacophonous space below the ‘L’? However, new bikeways on Harrison in the South Loop, and Broadway in Uptown, are truly useful. The PBLs on Harrison, between Desplaines and Wabash, feature S-curves of green paint that help cyclists navigate the skewed Harrison/State intersection. PBLs and BBLs on Broadway, from Montrose to Foster, involved a “road diet,” which transformed this former four-lane speedway into a safer, more civilized place for pedestrians and drivers as well.

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Another 207 Parking-Lite Residences Sprouting In Wicker Park

The TOD building at 1237 N Milwaukee is currently under construction. Rendering by Jonathan Splitt Architects

A building currently under construction at 1237 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Rendering by Jonathan Splitt Architects

Way back in 2012, one developer proposed what was then a radical idea: tearing down what had been a cheesy restaurant and a moat of parking overlooking a faded corner, and replacing them with a gleaming tower housing 99 apartments, two shops, and just 16 car parking spaces. Ever since 1611 W. Division Street showed the way — both from a legal and a market standpoint, developers have flocked to the adjacent blocks of Wicker Park to try and replicate its success.

Last year, the original ordinance permitting 1611 W. Division to be built with so few parking spaces was expanded to encompass a broader array of sites in the city. Many of the newly permitted sites for these transit-oriented developments happen to encircle the Chicago Transit Authority’s station at Division and Milwaukee, an intersection better known as the Polish Triangle. This largely built-out area, adjacent to thriving retail corridors along both streets, has many small pieces of land where redevelopment had been hindered by city zoning that required many on-site parking spaces. Now, thanks to new rules, new apartments can be built without expensive and sidewalk-interrupting parking garages.

Out of 15 developments citywide proposed under the TOD rules so far, six – including 1611 W. Division – are in Wicker Park. Read more about five new developments below.

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Parking-Lite Residences Sprouting All Across Chicago

Proposed building at 830 N Milwaukee Avenue. Rendering by bKL Architecture

The resurgent downtown economy and the growing demand for car-lite living, both in Chicago and nationally, have spurred an apartment-building boom that’s transforming neighborhoods citywide. Many of these apartments are rising along the Chicago Transit Authority’s rail lines, partially thanks to a recent change to the city’s zoning ordinance that has made it easier to build parking-lite buildings near transit.

The city’s “transit-oriented development” ordinance, enacted in fall 2013, revises the zoning code to reduce minimum car parking requirements for new or renovated buildings within 600 feet (about one city block) of a train station. That radius extends to 1,200 feet, or about two city blocks, if that distance is along a city-designed Pedestrian Streets, which are streets where zoning rules also encourage developments that enliven the sidewalks. Instead of the usual rule that requires one car parking space for every single housing unit, the new law requires half as many spaces for housing and no spaces for shops or offices on site. Developers can ask the city’s Department of Planning and Development and Zoning Board of Appeals for an exemption to build even fewer parking spaces.

Parking requirements impose huge fixed costs on developments, making it difficult to build — especially on small city lots. The parking spaces that result are often leased or sold at a loss, and sometimes go completely empty — costs that get passed down to the building’s future occupants, whether or not they own cars.

The ordinance offers relief from parking requirements in mixed-use areas citywide, but another incentive that allows transit-oriented developments to build more small apartments rather than fewer large apartments only within a very small slice of the city. Not only do the sites have to be practically next to a train station, they must also be zoned “dash 3″ (e.g., a zone like B3-3 or C1-3), which are zones found only in a few areas that already have high densities. Developers who want to build transit-oriented small apartments outside a “dash 3″ zone must first apply for a zoning change to the right zoning, which requires approvals from the alderman, the Chicago Plan Commission, the city council, and possibly the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Despite the law’s limited applicability, 15 transit-oriented developments have been proposed just in its first year. Streetsblog has previously reported on six of these (see links at the end of this post), and profiles of four more across the city are included below. We’ll take a look at five more, all of which are in Wicker Park, in another post tomorrow.

Updated December 31, 2014 to clarify applicability of parking reductions and small-apartment regulation.

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Divvy Bike-Share Hopes Expanded Area, Outreach Also Expands Appeal

Damen/Pierce Divvy station being installed

Divvy installation crews will be visiting many more neighborhoods next year as the system grows by 75 percent. Photo: Steven Vance.

The December meeting of the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee included lots of news about the future of the Divvy program. Ever since the bike-share program launched on June 28, 2013, 3.1 million users, including 23,177 annual members and many daily users, have biked over 6.6 million miles starting at 300 stations.

A previously planned expansion will bring the system to 475 stations, 4750 bikes and 31 wards. That will broaden the service area’s edges to Touhy Avenue (7200 North) to 75th Street (7500 South), from the lake to as far west as Pulaski (4000 West). State grant money has been allocated for an additional 50 stations, further extending Divvy north through Rogers Park into Evanston, and west through Garfield Park and Austin into Oak Park.

A new member survey will be going out soon. Last winter’s survey showed a disappointing lack of diversity among annual members, who were 65 percent male, 79 percent white, 93 percent college educated, and averaged 34 years old. Divvy hopes that a larger coverage area, continued outreach, and efforts to increase access for the unbanked will improve diversity among both annual members and daily users.

Divvy has launched an equity initiative that applies to station siting, public outreach, hiring, and youth training. In the first two years, station siting prioritized locations with perceived high demand. The priority now is being shifted to create a higher density network of stations throughout the Divvy service area, so that lower density neighborhoods of color (where current stations are sometimes a mile apart) will be better served. The goal for both infill and expansion of the service area is for stations to be no more than half a mile apart, putting Divvy within a five minute walk of everyone within the service area.

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Yellow Journalism: Tribune Panics Over “Risky” Stoplight Timing

The Tribune is trying to brew a storm of controversy over the city's red light camera program by pointing out that Chicago, like every other city, times its yellow lights differently. Photo: Jamelah

The Tribune is trying to provoke controversy over Chicago’s red light camera program by pointing out that the city times its yellow lights differently — just like every other city. Photo: Jamelah, via Flickr

Day in and day out for at least 30 years (and perhaps for almost a century), over 3,000 stoplights all across Chicago have whirred through tens of millions of cycles the exact same way: green, then yellow for three seconds, then red. Yet today, this three second cycle was suddenly declared a public safety emergency, with the Tribune’s front page fomenting panic about the crisis posed by “risky” and “too short” yellow phases.

The Tribune, of course, has long pursued a vendetta against the automated enforcement of red lights in Chicago, consistently whining about a program that penalizes criminals who blow through stoplights with deadly consequences. In its newest episode, the newspaper assembled a cadre of experts to inveigh against the long-established three second yellow phase, and arguing for a few tenths of a second more leeway. (This isn’t the first time the Tribune has zeroed in on fractions of seconds in arguing against enforcement.) Drivers, it seems, feel as if they’ve been “ambushed” by yellow lights that work exactly the same way they’ve worked for decades.

One example the Tribune cites approvingly is Maryland, where a 2004 law lengthened the minimum yellow signal phase to 3.5 seconds. Yet the story there was all about political perception, rather than engineering standards. Frank Murphy from Baltimore’s transportation department told the Tribune, “The reason the law was passed was because it was represented that there was an ambush situation, when yellow lights were set so low – even though they had always been set at three seconds previously.”

True, some recent engineering guidance recommends that cities assume that drivers are usually speeding when approaching traffic signals, and such formulas find Chicago’s yellow signals to be on the short side. For example, Institute of Transportation Engineers’ formula recommends that for situations like a citywide standard (where actual travel speeds can’t be observed), adding 7 mph to the speed limit across the board — thus assuming that drivers citywide are traveling at 37 mph.

Moving forward with that assumption would endorse and enable speeding, which is a far cry from the Chicago Department of Transportation’s recent push to eliminate all fatalities from our streets. David Zavattero is head of traffic safety programs at CDOT, and oversees the red light camera program. He said that Chicago uses a three second yellow light because “we don’t believe it is a safe environment to be [in], basing your signal timing on a 40 mph vehicle traveling through the intersection.” Plus, Chicago’s citywide three second phase has a long history: The federal government’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices first recommended a three second minimum back in 1935, and continues to do so today.

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Why Don’t the South and West Sides Have a Fair Share of Bike Facilities?

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Kids ride in the Franklin Boulevard protected bike lanes in the Garfield Park neighborhood. PBLs are the one type of bike infrastructure that is more common on the South and West Sides than on the North Side. Photo: CDOT

Black bike advocates Oboi Reed, Peter Taylor, and Shawn Conley recently started an important conversation about the need for more bike resources in low-income African American communities on Chicago’s South and West Sides. At a recent Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting, they presented an open letter to the city, state, and local advocacy groups, asking that bike infrastructure, education, and encouragement be provided in a more equitable manner. Read the full letter here.

The letter pointed out that downtown and relatively affluent, North Side neighborhoods have generally received a higher density of bike lanes, racks, and Divvy stations than South and West Side communities. The advocates also asked for more input and participation from African-American residents, organizations, and businesses in the planning and implementation of bike infrastructure and programming.

Reed argued that the city has tended to focus bike resources on neighborhoods that already have high levels of biking. This creates a vicious cycle where low-income African American communities get left behind as bicycling continues to grow in wealthier areas, he said. “It just cuts us off from all the benefits, and our communities are the ones that need those benefits the most.”

Judging from statements from the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Active Transportation Alliance, plus comments from Streetsblog readers and on social media, city leaders and advocates agree that more work is needed to achieve bike equity in African-American neighborhoods. There’s a consensus that strong leadership from within the black community, as embodied by Reed, Taylor, Conley, and others in the five black-led bike groups they represent, is a key piece of the puzzle to reach that goal. The groups include Slow Roll Chicago, Red Bike and Green Chicago, Southside Critical Mass, the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago, and Friends of the Major Taylor Trail.

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Oboi Reed (right) and other riders from Slow Roll Chicago on a bike tour of the Millennium Reserve on the Southeast Side. Photo: Slow Roll

As part of this dialogue, it’s important to discuss what has contributed to the relative lack of  bike infrastructure on the South and West Sides compared to some parts of the North Side. In the near future, Streetsblog plans to publish a piece from Reed addressing the “personal, emotional, cultural, structural, and systemic reasons for why we don’t bike much as adults in black, brown and low- and middle-income neighborhoods, and why we don’t have infrastructure in our neighborhoods.”

In the meantime, here are some of the political and geographic factors I’m aware of that help explain the lower density of bike lanes, Divvy stations, and bike racks in Chicago’s African American neighborhoods.

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Why the Tribune’s Red Light Camera Story Is Garbage Journalism

The Chicago Tribune’s reporting ignored the human toll of car crashes at intersections with red light cameras in failing to consider the severity of injuries in right-angle crashes. Image: Wikipedia

In a huge front-page story Friday, the Chicago Tribune published yet another installment in its long-running vendetta against the city’s photographic traffic enforcement program. Because the Trib chose to obscure key information about the severity of crashes, the story is worthless as an evaluation of the city’s red light camera program.

The article lavishes attention on a $14,000 study “commissioned by the Tribune [that] concluded the cameras do not reduce injury-related crashes overall.” But if you manage to get 2,000 words into the article, authors David Kidwell and Alex Richards acknowledge that nine years ago the Federal Highway Administration also commissioned a study on red light cameras. And if you take a close look at the FHWA study, it debunks the entire premise behind the Tribune’s analysis.

The FHWA employed a methodology that closely resembles the Tribune’s, with one all-important difference: The feds incorporated the severity of crashes into their calculations. Both studies found that red light cameras tend to prevent right-angle crashes, while rear-end crashes increase. But since FHWA also acknowledged that right-angle crashes are more severe and impose higher costs on society than rear-end crashes, it found that even with increases in one crash type, the benefits of red light cameras outweigh the costs.

On its website explaining the FHWA study, the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center clearly states: ”Since the angle and rear-end crashes are of different severities, you must combine both the change in frequency with differences in severity in the analysis. This is why looking… just at changes in total crash numbers is not correct.” While the Trib interviewed a UNC researcher about camera site selection, it failed to note this basic conclusion that upends the paper’s own methodology.

Put simply, the Tribune’s methodology ignores the most important factor – the number of people killed and the severity of injuries sustained at intersections with red light cameras.

The FHWA didn’t make that mistake. Factoring in “the lesser severities and generally lower unit costs for rear end injury crashes” the agency concluded that red light cameras achieved $14-18 million in savings to motor vehicle occupants in urban and rural intersections in seven municipalities. Only thousands of words into the piece, when mentioning the FHWA study, does the Tribune admit that there is a difference in severity of different crash types.

The Tribune also drew unwarranted conclusions from its own study, which found that the change in total crash numbers was not statistically significant. The study itself says “the increase in crashes may not necessarily be because of [adding red light cameras], but may just have happened by chance.”

But the data the Tribune collected is sufficiently robust to bolster the conclusion that red light cameras reduce right-angle crashes.

“[The] Chicago Tribune’s study confirms that these cameras help to reduce dangerous angle crashes that are more likely than rear-end crashes to cause serious injury or death,” Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld said in a statement today. They’re less severe because they’re slower – drivers are decelerating, and going the same direction, during rear-ends – and cars have crumple zones in the front and rear, but not the sides. Read more…