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The Divvy Perimeter Ride: Checking Out Bike-Share in Outlying Communities

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A Divvy station outside Comer High in Grand Crossing. Photo: John Greenfield

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

This year’s Divvy bike-share expansion, beefing up the system from 300 docking stations to 476, has moved at warp speed. As of yesterday, 168 of the new stations have been installed since mid-April; The remaining seven are pending concrete pouring or other factors, and should be in by next month.

As Divvy grows, the city is also trying to make it more equitable. After the expansion, the portion of the population that lives in the service area will grow from about 53 percent to 56 percent, and several low-income communities are getting stations for the first time. Meanwhile, the Chicago Department of Transportation is working on a strategy to provide Divvy access for residents who don’t have credit cards, and they promise they’ll have a major announcement about this by early summer.

To get a sense of how the stations are working out on the terra nova, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, I set out to pedal the perimeter of the completed service area on a sunny afternoon earlier this month. I began my quest at the southeastern-most outpost of the system at Rainbow Beach in South Shore, a mostly African-American community. There was an eerie fog on the shoreline, and the sound of the waves mingled with birdsongs as I undocked my Divvy.

As I made my way clockwise, stopping at every station along the perimeter to snap a photo, plenty of residents approached me to ask about the system. From small children to seniors, the first question was almost always a variation on “How much does it cost to rent those bikes?” I explained that a day pass is $7, and an annual membership is $75, but you have to be careful to check in your bike within a half hour, or else you start racking up late fees.

Outside Comer College Prep, a nice-looking public school at 71st and South Chicago in Grand Crossing, little kids are using a Divvy station as a coat rack, playing with the bungees and bells, and using the cycles like exercise bikes. Diane Griffin, an adult who’s waiting for the bus, is curious about the giant blue cycles.

Like most people I’ve spoken with, she’s unclear on how the system works, such as the fact that you don’t have to return your bike to the same station you got it from. But after I explain, she warms up to the idea. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s good exercise, and it beats riding a crowded bus.”

Pedaling along the system’s perimeter turns out to be pretty comfortable, since the docks tend to be located along designated bike routes, many of which have well-marked bike lanes. I make my way west to Englewood, and north to a station at 56th and Halsted.

Bobbie Flowers, a healthcare worker who’s going to the adjacent hardware store, asks me about the system and is pleased to learn that you can use it 24/7. Although it’s been a while since she’s ridden a bike, she’s curious to try a Divvy. “It seems like a nice alternative to sitting in the car and burning gas,” she says.

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CTA: Belmont Bypass Necessary to Accommodate Current and Future Riders

The Chicago Transit Authority published on Tuesday its federally mandated environmental assessment for the Red-Purple Bypass project, better known as the Belmont flyover. The bypass is part of the Red-Purple Modernization project, which will rebuild all of the tracks from Belmont to Linden station in Wilmette, and reconstruct several stations to add elevators and other amenities.

This bypass would eliminate the intersection of northbound Brown Line trains with Red and Purple Line tracks north of the Belmont station in Lakeview, increasing capacity on the system’s busiest lines and reducing delays. The structure would allow the CTA to boost the number of trains they run each day – especially during rush hour – in response to the current growing ‘L’ ridership. It would also allow the system to accommodate new residents as more people move into North Side neighborhoods in the future.

The flyover is controversial because 21 buildings on 16 parcels of land would need to be relocated, demolished, or partially demolished. The buildings, an array of commercial, residential, and mixed-use structures, contain 47 homes and 18 active businesses. Per federal law, the CTA would pay “just compensation” based on fair market value for the properties, and pay for relocation assistance for all homeowners and tenants. While the EA mentions the number of residences, it doesn’t include the number of residents who would be affected.

Residents have also argued that the new concrete overpass would be an eyesore. Of course, this is a matter of opinion: One person’s blight is another person’s ride to work. The anonymous website Coalition to Stop the Belmont Flyover recently compared the structure to neighborhood-devaluing elevated freeways. However, while highways often take people past neighborhoods without stopping, transit always adds value to communities because it brings people to them.

The bypass structure is shown without any redeveloped buildings. The CTA said it would work with Alderman Tunney and the city's planning department to create a redevelopment plan. Image: CTA

A CTA rendering of the flyover with no redevelopment. The CTA said it would work with Alderman Tunney and the city’s planning department to create a redevelopment plan.

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Eyes on the Street: Seeing Spots at the Lincoln Hub

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Looking southeast from the north side of the intersection. Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago’s first painted curb extensions are starting to take shape. Workers recently spray-painted the outlines of green and blue polka dots at the Lincoln/Wellington/Southport intersection as part of the “Lincoln Hub” traffic calming and placemaking projects. The street remix is part of a larger $175K streetscape project that Special Service Area #27 and the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce are doing on Lincoln from Diversey to Belmont.

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St. Alphonsus Church is on the left side of this rendering.

Flexible plastic bollards that extend the intersection’s six corners, planters, round seating units, and café tables and chairs have been in place for a few weeks now. These treatments have already improved pedestrian safety by shortening crossing distances by 34 percent, eliminating several slip lanes, and discouraging speeding. Residents have also been enjoying the additional seating on nice days.

However, now that the outlines of the dots are in place, it’s more obvious that the asphalt outlined by the posts is intended as space for walking and sitting, and it’s easier for motorists to understand the new configuration. The painting project had been delayed by recent rainy weather, according to SSA program director Lee Crandell. Pending warmer, sunny weather, crews will fill in the dots, creating an Oriental carpet-inspired design that will unify the intersection. After the paint is dry, additional seating will be added, completing the project.

DNAinfo reported that, at a recent South Lakeview Neighbors meeting, there were complaints that the new layout requires drivers to queue up behind left-turning motorists, since there is no longer space to pass on the right. I’ve hung out at the intersection a few times during rush hours and haven’t seen any major issues. “One of the goals of this project is to slow down cars to improve safety for pedestrians,” Crandell told me. “We think there are some significant improvements here for pedestrians.”

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The view from St. Alphonsus Church. Photo: John Greenfield

Crandell has talked to the Chicago Department of Transportation about the possibility of tweaking the design, including relocating bollards and adjusting signal timing for Southport to allow more drivers to move through the intersection. “But I’ve emphasized to the community that we need to see how this works when it’s completed,” he said. “After we let it settle in for a few weeks, we can make decisions based on what impact it’s having.”

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Sauganash Whole Foods Is Building Parking Where There Should Be Housing

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Sauganash Place. Image: Google Maps

Sauganash Place, a mixed-use development near Peterson and Cicero avenues, is a strikingly urban element in the eponymous Chicago neighborhood, a quiet, mostly residential community on the Far Northwest Side. Featuring several stories of condominiums with balconies, plus a Whole Foods Market on the ground floor, the building wouldn’t look out of place in denser neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Lakeview.

Although the supermarket already has a large underground parking garage, as well as a surface parking lot, the company recently announced it has purchased land to the north of the store — which was originally slated for more condos — in order to expand the lot. The plan is moving forward with little-to-no opposition, even though it would be much more productive to use this land for development, especially for more multi-unit housing.

The original proposal for Sauganash Place included two condo buildings with a total of 136 units, plus commercial space. The completed portion, built in 2007, includes the Whole Foods, 61 condo units, and 260 garage parking spaces in garages. Due to the housing market crash that occured shortly after that, the second building was never constructed. The site is currently a gravel lot, which Whole Foods is already using for parking.

The store’s plan to permanently convert the land to car storage was approved by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development and the Chicago Department of Transportation, as well as 39th Ward Alderman Margaret Laurino and local community leaders. “The Alderman is satisfied that the proposal is the right fit for that location,” said John Riordan, the ward’s director of economic development and business affairs.

However, more space for people, rather than cars, would have been a much better community asset. The predominant housing type in Sauganash is single-family housing. Over 85 percent of all units in the Forest Glen community area – which includes Sauganash, Forest Glen, Edgebrook, and Wildwood — are single-family units, according to DePaul University’s Institute for Housing Studies. Condos and apartments located in buildings with six or more units only make up about six percent of the area’s total units.

Citywide, only about 25 percent of housing units are single-family homes. Even in other Far Northwest Side community areas, the percentage of housing units represented by single-family homes is much lower than in Forest Glen, which has one of the highest single-family home percentages of any community area.

DPD’s current housing plan, entitled “Bouncing Back: Five-Year Housing Plan” explicitly states, “People of all income levels, in all neighborhoods, should have a range of housing options.” It goes on to say “A commitment to diverse communities and…fair housing is essential to a healthy, vibrant Chicago.” Whole Foods’ plan to permanently convert valuable land to parking is in conflict with those goals.

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Sawyer Hopes State Street Road Diet Will Revitalize Struggling Business Strip

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A buffered bike lane and new diagonal parking spaces will reduce the road width, discouraging speeding.

State Street between 69th and 79th, in Park Manor and Chatham, is currently a pretty grim roadway. Located just east of the Dan Ryan, it’s essentially a frontage road, which drivers treat as an extension of the expressway. The pavement is a moonscape, and the street is lined with a motley mix of retail.

However, 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer is optimistic that a complete streets overhaul on State will jump start the business strip and bring positive activity to the corridor. “The alderman wants to slow down car traffic and make the area more friendly to pedestrians,” said Sawyer’s chief of staff Brian Sleet. “We’re trying to get the ball tolling to change the image of State Street from a barren ex-warehouse district to something that fits the residential nature of these communities.”

Sleet said the alderman asked the Chicago Department of Transportation to address the speeding problem, improve the pedestrian environment, and add more car parking spaces as part of a project to repave the 1.3-mile stretch. According to CDOT, this section only sees 5,000 motor vehicle trips per day, and the excess road capacity encourages speeding. There were 504 reported crashes on this section between 2009 and 2013, with seven serious injuries and three fatalities.

Meanwhile, the Red Line’s 69th Street and 79 Street stations, located next to the strip in the median of the Dan Ryan, see 5,177 and 6,931 average daily boardings, respectively. However, there are few accommodations for pedestrians at these crossings.

CDOT proposed converting one of the three travel lanes on State to a buffered bike lane in order to narrow the roadway, calm traffic, and shorten pedestrian crossing distances. On the extra-wide stretch between 76th and 72nd, existing on-street parallel parking will be converted to diagonal spaces, further slimming the roadway and adding seven or eight new spaces. High-visibility zebra-striped crosswalks and ADA ramps will be added at all intersections.

While CDOT’s Arterial Streets Resurfacing Program will pay for the construction, Sawyer chipped in $30,000 in ward money for a traffic study, Sleet said. “We figured, if they’re going do repave the street, why have them restripe it in a way that would remain ineffective?”

In the future, Sawyer is interested in adding curb extensions at 79th and 69th to further improve pedestrian access to the ‘L’ stops, according to Sleet. The alderman also wants to add a sound-dampening wall by the expressway. “By getting the noise down, that will help make State Street more friendly to pedestrians,” Sleet said. “We hope that will attract retailers and help make this a transit-oriented shopping area.”

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The Divvy Density Dilemma: Are Stations in Low-Income Areas Too Far Apart?

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This station by Kennedy-King College in Englewood is a 3/4-mile walk from neighboring stations. Photo: John Greenfield

Planning a useful, equitable, and financially sustainable bike-sharing system in a big, diverse city like Chicago is no easy task. You have a finite budget, and therefore a limited number of cycles and docking stations to work with. You want to provide access to the system for as many people as possible, and you’re certain to get complaints from residents and politicians whose neighborhoods don’t get bikes. However, if you spread the available stations across too large a service area, there will be poor station density and the system won’t be convenient to use.

I respect the the fact that the Chicago Department of Transportation has had to make some tough decisions in implementing the Divvy bike-share system. However, a new study from the National Association of City Transportation Officials suggests that the city may have made a mistake by placing Divvy stations too far apart from each other in many neighborhoods, especially low-income communities. The report, titled “Walkable Station Spacing Is Key to Successful, Equitable Bike Share,” argues that cities don’t do residents any favors by creating sprawling service areas that cover large numbers of neighborhoods, but don’t provide a useful network.

Low station density discourages use and undermines equity

The NACTO paper notes that, while bike-share can be an inexpensive, time-saving form of transportation, low-income people are underrepresented among American bike-share customers. In the U.S., poor neighborhoods tend to have a relatively low density of people and destinations, and when bike-share planners respond to this by putting a lower density of stations in these communities, it exacerbates the usage issue.

The study argues that, just as people usually aren’t willing to walk more than ten minutes to a rapid transit stop, if bike-share stations are located more than a five minute walk from a person’s starting point or destination, that person will generally choose a different mode. That jibes with my personal experience. I’m fortunate to live a quarter mile away from a Divvy station, but I find the five-minute walk to and from the station a little annoying, and if it was another block away I’d probably use it less often.

NACTO’s analysis of several different North American systems supports the five-minute rule theory. They found that the number of rides per day to or from a given station increases according to its proximity to other stations. For example, bikes in New York’s Citi Bike system, with 23 stations per square mile, got more than three times as much use as those in as the Twin Cities’ Nice Ride network, with only four stations per square mile.

Therefore, NACTO recommends that stations be placed no more than a five-minute walk from each other, which they define as 1,000 feet, for a density of 28 stations per square mile. I’d argue that average walking speed is a 20-minute mile, so placing stations every quarter-mile (two standard Chicago blocks), for a density of 25 per square mile, should be sufficient.

Low-income people tend to have less spare time and disposable income than wealthier folks, so they are even more likely to be deterred from paying to use bike-share if the station locations aren’t convenient. The study argues that, while efforts to increase bike-share use by low-income people have focused on offering discounted memberships and providing access to unbanked individuals, the density issue has largely been overlooked.

NACTO recommends having a consistently high station density across the service area, including poor neighborhoods with relatively low population densities. Rather than reducing the number of stations in these communities, the number of docking points at the stations should be adjusted according to demand.

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New Type of TIF District Would Increase Funding for Transit Projects

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Transit TIFs in Chicago would send a majority of revenue to specific transit improvement projects. Photo: CTA

A new bill that passed the Illinois Senate last week would create a new class of tax increment financing district that could only be created around Chicago transit stations and lines to capture the property value that being near transit generates. Most of the revenue generated by these TIFs would be earmarked to pay for construction of rapid transit lines, stations, and other transit-related facilities.

In case you’re not a follower of Ben Joravsky’s TIF-centric column in the Chicago Reader, a Chicago TIF district is a designated area in which the amount of property tax revenue that goes to taxing bodies like Cook County, the Chicago Public Schools, and the Chicago Park District is capped when the district is created. Any additional tax revenue from rising property values can only be spent in that area. Chicago TIF money is currently often used to provide a local match to win federal grants for transportation projects.

The new state law, which would only apply to Chicago, would allow City Council to create transit TIFs district that would include the area within a half-mile of the following projects:

The Chicago region spends less money on building and running transit than its U.S. peer cities, and gas tax revenue has been a declining source of funding for transit infrastructure. The Illinois gas tax has been stuck at 19 cents per gallon since 1990 so, due to inflation, the buying power of the revenue it generates has dropped in recent decades. This revenue source is also impacted as cars become more fuel-efficient and driving rates fluctuate.

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Pritzker Park Sale Is a Chance to Create New Transfer from ‘L’ to Subway

A skybridge could connect the Harold Washington Library-State/Van Buren station to the new development on the Pritzker Park site, creating an enclosed transfer to the Red and Blue Line stations on Jackson.

There are several pros and cons of the city’s controversial plan to sell the Pritzker Park site for development. One important and urgent aspect is that it would be an unparalleled – and potentially free – opportunity to create the first enclosed, wheelchair-accessible transfer between the CTA’s Loop elevated lines and the Red and Blue Line subways.

A skybridge could be built between the Harold Washington Library-State/Van Buren station, which serves the Brown, Pink, Orange, and Purple elevated lines, and the new building. A concourse and elevator within the building would take CTA riders to the Jackson Red Line stop’s below-ground ticketing mezzanine. From there, customers could stairs or an elevator down to the Red Line platform, or take the existing, ADA-accessible transfer tunnel to the Blue Line platform.

On Tuesday, the city’s Department of Planning and Development announced that it is seeking proposals to redevelop a one-acre, L-shaped parcel of land bounded by Plymouth Court, Van Buren Street, and State Street, which is currently occupied by the park and a city-owned parking garage. The city’s request for proposals is light on specifics and essentially asks developers to come up with a mix of uses “that will complement the ongoing revitalization of the Loop.”

However, now is the time for the planning department to specify that the developer must integrate the ‘L’ transfer into the new building. Once the building is constructed, it would be next to impossible to get the developer to retrofit it with the concourses and elevators.

The site is already zoned to allow over 700,000 square feet of retail, commercial, and residential uses. The city last appraised the property’s value at $14 million, and the property has the potential to be very lucrative for the future developer. Therefore, it’s very reasonable for the city to require that the new building include the transfer, and they should add that requirement to the RFP immediately.

CTA riders would reap several other benefits benefits from the new transfer:

  • A station with direct access among all ‘L’ lines, except the Green and Yellow lines
  • The first enclosed transfer between the Red and Pink Lines
  • An enclosed transfer from the Orange and Green lines to the Red Line within the Loop. Right now, the only place to make an indoor transfer is the Roosevelt station, located more than half a mile south.
  • An accessible, enclosed transfer from the Brown Line to the southbound Red Line for customers who board the Brown Line south of Fullerton. The current downtown transfer between these lines is the State/Lake stop, which isn’t accessible.
Riders transfer between elevated and the Red or Blue Lines at Jackson by exiting the fare zone and walking outside. A new building at Pritzker Park could build the vertical circulation and a tunnel to connect to the Red Line station, to which riders would also gain enclosed access to the Blue Line station.

Riders currently transfer between Loop Elevated and the Red and Blue Lines’ Jackson stations by exiting the system and traveling around the corner via sidewalks. The new library transfer would allow riders to directly access the Red Line station, and travel to the Blue Line via an existing, accessible transfer tunnel, without going outdoors.

The city’s announcement is upfront about the fact that Pritzker Park – one of the Loop’s few green spaces – would be eliminated. However, the RFP stipulates that the developer must provide up to 12,000 square feet of multi-purpose recreational space that is accessible to the public.

The park was created in 1992, during the construction of the library, on a site formerly occupied by a single-room occupancy hotel. The green space currently has few amenities, except for a low seating wall. As a result, the park seems to get relatively little use from downtown workers and visitors, although the Chicago Loop Alliance has recently tried to activate the space with temporary seating and special events. If the city moves forward with its plan to eliminate this rare downtown open space, it’s important that Chicagoans get a better public facility out of the deal than what currently exists.

Friends of the Parks has already come out against the city’s plan, stating in a press release this week, “The elimination of Pritzker Park would leave this community unserved by proximate public open space.”

“The site was originally cleared in anticipation of its redevelopment as part of a Washington Library plan, and the interim use as public open space has only been marginally successful,” DPD deputy commissioner Peter Strazzabosco told DNAinfo last month. “We believe it should be developed for more people-intensive uses that align with the evolving role of State Street for new retail, commercial, and institutional uses.”

Here’s one more thorny aspect of the city’s plan. The RFP calls for the development to house a new Chicago Park District headquarters, with up to 80 car parking spaces. The site is well served by every other local transportation mode, including the ‘L’, Metra, buses, taxis, city fleet vehicles, car-share, and bike-share. This begs the question of why the park district – an agency whose mission is to preserve the environment – feels it’s appropriate to warehouse dozens of private cars in the heart of the Loop.

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Eyes on the Street: Albany Park Divvy Replaces Cars Parked on Sidewalk

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Before the Divvy station went in, it was too easy for people to park their cars on the sidewalk. Photo: CDOT

A new Divvy station next to the CTA’s Francisco Brown Line stop in Ravenswood Manor, one of several installed yesterday in the Albany Park community area, replaces parkway car parking spots – which often resulted in cars blocking the sidewalk – with 11 public bike-share docks. Streetsblog Chicago reader Jim Peters gave us a heads-up about the swap.

After: A Divvy station will keep the sidewalk for pedestrians. Photo: CDOT

Now the sidewalk will remain clear for pedestrians. Photo: CDOT

Chicago Department of Transportation assistant commissioner Sean Wiedel, who manages the Divvy Program, said motorists would often drive so far up on the pad that their vehicles would completely block the sidewalk. This forced pedestrians to walk in the roadway. Peters, who lives a block away, said he’s even watched parents pushing strollers in the street. “Seeing open sidewalk and bikes, instead of parked cars, is truly a beauteous sight,” he said.

Wiedel added that removing the car parking here also prevents a potentially hazardous situation. Previously, drivers backing out of the parkway obstructed through traffic, which meant it was possible for waiting motorists to get stuck on the ‘L’ tracks.

Thanks to this smart repurposing of the parkway, instead of warehousing private cars which inconvenienced and endangered residents, the space now houses a handy and affordable public transportation amenity. As of this morning, the Divvy system featured 406 stations, the largest number of stations in any U.S. city. By June, Chicago should have 476 stations, the most in North America.

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Mega Mall Developer Adds Housing, Reduces Number of Car Parking Spots

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Motorists driving into and out of the parking garage would disturb people walking up and down the street. Rendering: Terraco/Antunovich Associates

The company that’s redeveloping the Discount Mega Mall site in Logan Square has released a reworked proposal that adds much needed housing and dials back the number of car parking spaces, which makes the project a better fit for the walkable, transit accessible neighborhood. Terraco Real Estate and 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack are hosting a public meeting on the development, dubbed Logan’s Crossing, at the Mega Mall on Thursday, May 7, at 6:30 p.m.

Terraco originally proposed a low-rise building for retail use, including a medium-sized grocery store and a two-story fitness center, zero residences, and 426 parking spaces at the site, which is located one long block southeast of the Logan Square Blue Line stop. The latest proposal adds several stories to the development to make room for 268 residences, and has 387 parking spaces – 39 fewer than before.

In general, the city’s zoning rules require a 1:1 ratio of car parking spaces to housing units for new buildings, but the 2013 transit-oriented development ordinance reduces this to a 1:2 ratio for developments within 600 feet of a rapid transit stop. However, Logan’s Crossing will be about 1,000 feet from the ‘L’ station, so it’s not eligible for the parking requirement reduction. This means there will need to be one parking space per unit, regardless of whether the occupants own a car.

Terraco’s first proposal provided more car parking than required, and the addition of 268 residences and the reduction in parking spots means the ratio of people to cars on the site would be much improved. However, 387 car spots may still be excessive for this location, in a walkable, bikeable area with the lowest car ownership along the Blue Line, the sixth-busiest Blue Line station, and good bus access.

The TOD ordinance has generally been working out well – it has spurred the development of nearly 20 multi-family buildings near CTA stations. However, the short distance threshold is problematic, since 600 feet is less than one standard city block. Most people are willing to walk several blocks to access rapid transit, and a couple of blocks to get to a bus stop.

The ordinance hasn’t been updated to reflect that reality. It doesn’t even offer a smaller reduction in the number of required spaces for developments located more than 600 feet from rapid transit. An exception to the 600-foot rule, however, is made for developments on Pedestrian Streets – these projects can be up to 1,200 feet from stations and still be eligible for the 1:2 ratio.

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