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Training for the Big Game: Why Is There No ‘L’ Stop at the United Center?

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The United Center and its parking moat, as seen from the Pink Line. Photo: John Greenfield

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

Every time I take the Pink Line to Pilsen and gaze out the window at the United Center, I’m struck by the apparent stupidity of train service that goes right past Chicago’s largest sports and music arena, but doesn’t stop there. The nearest existing stations, the Blue Line’s Illinois Medical District stop to the south, and the Pink and Green lines’ Ashland-Lake stop to the northeast, are both roughly twelve-minute walks to the stadium, long enough to discourage train use. But a new Pink station near Madison and Paulina would be a four-minute hop, skip and jump to the front doors.

As it is, the land use around the arena encourages driving to Bulls, Blackhawks and Bruce Springsteen events. While Wrigley Field, next door to the Addison Red stop, is surrounded by bars and restaurants where fans can spend money after games, the House That Jordan Built sits in a vast moat of parking lots.

Streetsblog USA took notice and included the United Center in its annual Parking Madness bracket, a competition between asphalt atrocities. The stadium made it to the Final Four before being defeated by a parking crater in Jacksonville, Florida. In fairness, the Bulls are currently building a $25 million practice facility on one of the lots east of the arena, and they’ve proposed building a $95 million entertainment complex nearby.

The funny thing is, there used to be a train stop near Madison/Paulina that served the arena’s predecessor, Chicago Stadium. According to the history site Chicago-L.org, the station was established in 1895 as part of the northwest branch of the Metropolitan West Side Elevated.

The Madison stop closed in 1951 when the northwest line was rerouted to the current Blue Line route. The old station house was eventually converted to a hotdog stand, and it was demolished in the 1990s. In 2006, this stretch of track, known as the Paulina Connector, was activated again when the CTA created the Pink Line. However, spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis told me the agency has no current plans to rebuild the Madison stop.

The United Center management didn’t respond to my request for a comment on the Madison Pink stop concept, but when I checked in with the Active Transportation Alliance, they were all over the idea. “It seems like such an obvious location,” says spokesman Ted Villaire. “The goal should be to reduce the number of car trips to a facility like the United Center. A convenient train station would encourage more people to leave their car at home.”

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Rogers Parkers Discuss Plans for Divvy Stations, Greenway

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Proposed 49th Ward Divvy locations — none go north of Touhy.

The city is gearing up to add 175 more Divvy bike-share stations this year, bringing the total to 475. On Thursday, 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore hosted a community meeting at Eugene Field elementary to discuss potential Divvy station locations within Rogers Park. The meeting also covered the proposed north-south neighborhood greenway that’s a ballot item in the ward’s upcoming participatory budgeting election. Joining Moore to discuss these projects were Chicago Department of Transportation deputy commissioner Sean Wiedel and bikeways planner David Smith.

Wiedel began by discussing the nuts and bolts of the bike-share system: how to join, pricing, station locations and the expansion plans. There are currently about 15,000 annual members, 2,675 bikes and 5,152 docks in the system. Assuming that the January bankruptcy of Bixi, which supplies the bikes and stations for Divvy, doesn’t throw a wrench in the works, there should be a total of 4,750 bikes available in Chicago by late 2014. When an attendee asked about crashes involving Divvy users, Wiedel replied that over the system’s nine month history, there have only been a handful of reported crashes, which have resulted in no serious injuries.

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A Huge Garage Doesn’t Belong on a Thriving Pedestrian Shopping Street

The proposed development, anchored by a Mariano’s, would pump more car traffic into the neighborhood, delaying transit and making streets less walkable and bikeable.

A parking lot at 3030 N Broadway in Lakeview, formerly the site of a Dominick’s grocery store, could soon be the home of a new development with a Mariano’s supermarket, an Xport Fitness health club, and four small retail tenants. This stretch of Broadway, designated as a Pedestrian Street by the city, is currently very walkable. The Active Transportation Alliance recognized this and included the street in its list of 20 Chicago thoroughfares that should be considered for pedestrianization. In the surrounding census tracts, 30 to 50 percent of the households don’t own cars.

Despite the car-lite nature of the neighborhood, Mariano’s is planning to build 280 parking spaces for the site. I was told this was the number required by the city’s zoning ordinance, but Mariano’s can request a zoning variance from local alderman Tom Tunney. So far they’ve chosen not to do so.

Dan Farrell, vice president of retail estate at Mariano’s, told DNAinfo that even though this location is easy to get to without a car, the supermarket and gym need “ample” parking. However, offering large amounts of free parking encourages people to drive, which fuels the demand for more parking and makes conditions worse for transit, biking, and walking.

Maureen Martino, director of the East Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, told me that while Mariano’s stores have already been well-received in several Chicago neighborhoods, this particular location in a dense, residential area calls for a more urban design with less parking, she said. In a community like East Lakeview, many people are doing their shopping on foot or arriving at stores by other means, such as bicycle or transit. Hopefully Mariano’s can be convinced that this location doesn’t require the same amount of parking as their other stores.

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No 5th Ward PB Election This Year, But Residents Still Have Input on Budget

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A display board at a 5th Ward participatory budgeting expo last year. Photo courtesy of the 5th Ward

As we recently reported, 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston experimented with participatory budgeting process in 2013 but won’t be holding a PB election this year. However, it turns out that Hairston will still allow constituents to have some input on how the ward’s $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” funding is spent. Last year, only about one in 500 ward residents  voted in the budgeting election.

In a January Hyde Park Herald article, one constituent who helped organize the process attributed the low turnout on the relatively remote poling place location. A rival candidate said dissatisfaction with Hairston’s leadership was to blame. Another possible factor in the low turnout that wasn’t mentioned in the article was Hairston’s decision to exclude several outside-the-box ideas for promoting biking and transit use from the ballot. Instead, she designated these proposals as “service requests” that should instead be funded by city departments, the CTA or the park district.

When I spoke with 5th Ward Chief of Staff Kim Webb yesterday, she said the main factor in the decision not to hold a budgeting election this year was complaints from residents that the PB process was too time-consuming. “People were happy about the transparency of the process, and they liked being involved in the decision-making process, but they thought there were too many meetings,” she said. Hairston is allowing residents to provide input on how $1 million of the menu money is allocated, a process she’s calling the “infrastructure improvement program.”

Four committees, representing the neighborhoods of Hyde Park, South Shore, Grand Crossing and Woodlawn, are each tasked with making recommendations on how $250,000 should be spent. Committee members will mostly be surveying the condition of streets, alleys, sidewalks and lighting in their communities, with a focus on fixing potholes in the wake of the harsh winter, Webb said. If residents feel there’s enough money left over after addressing infrastructure repairs, they can also recommend spending menu money on neighborhood enhancements like murals, community gardens and dog parks. Webb said it’s also possible that ideas that were excluded last year, like new bus stop benches and bike lanes, could be included in the committees’ recommendations.

The committees will turn in the results of their surveys on April 25, and Hairston will submit her budget to the city the following week. It would be great if, along with the usual meat-and-potatoes infrastructure repairs, the committees advance some innovative transportation projects into the 5th Ward’s budget this year.

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Alderman Beale Opposes Extending Red Line South on Halsted

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95th Street Red Line station. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday’s Sun-Times update on the CTA’s proposed South Red Line extension included some interesting details about the project, as well as a few misguided comments about transit from 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale, who is also the chair of City Council’s transportation committee.

The CTA is considering two rail routes for the $2 billion, roughly five-mile extension. Bus rapid transit is a third possibility under consideration. One rail alternative would follow existing Union Pacific Railroad tracks, initially paralleling Eggleston, a half mile west of the current terminus at 95th and State.  After continuing south for a few miles, the route would gradually make its way southeast to 130th and King, by the Altgeld Gardens housing project. For this option, the CTA plans to build new stations at 103rd, 111th, 115th, and 130th. View a map of the route here. The agency selected this scenario as the “locally preferred alternative” in 2009 based on initial analysis and public feedback.

The other rail option would travel down Halsted, through a more densely populated area. From the 95th station, it would travel in the median of I-57 until reaching Halsted, where it would operate as an elevated train and continue to Vermont Avenue, just south of 127th. Stops would be located at 103rd, 111th, 1119th, and Vermont. View a map of the route here.

While several Metra lines serve this part of the South Side, the proposed station locations for both rail options would mean that the ‘L’ stops would generally be several blocks from the nearest Metra station. That way, the Red Line service wouldn’t necessarily be redundant, but would instead provide convenient transit access for new areas of the city.

However, a total of up to 2,000 parking spaces is proposed for the four new Red Line stops, which seems excessive. The potentially valuable land around the stations shouldn’t be largely used for warehousing cars. Instead, the focus should be on developing housing, retail, and other uses that take advantage of the proximity to rapid transit.

Beale, who was briefed on the two options Tuesday, was enthusiastic about the UPRR route, but expressed a strong distaste for building ‘L’ tracks on Halsted. “Halsted Street is wide open,” he said. “Putting elevated tracks down the middle of the street would disrupt the integrity and cosmetics of Halsted. It would hurt existing businesses.

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New Law Could Pre-Empt Parking Lots Along Albany Park’s Main Streets

A proposal to build a suburban-style Walgreens at the busy corner of Lawrence and Kimball avenues in Albany Park, across from the Brown Line’s terminus, has sparked a proposal to introduce Pedestrian Street designations to the lively, diverse neighborhood.

The most recent available rendering from Centrum Properties.

33rd Ward Alderman Deb Mell has expressed her disapproval of the design, requesting a more walkable store more in keeping with the neighborhood. Mell has stalled construction by asking CDOT not to issue permits for the parking lot’s new curb cuts, and has also requested that Walgreens and the developer meet with her and her staff to come to a better design for the neighborhood. So far, Walgreens has not agreed.

In the meantime, Alderman Mell’s office has asked CDOT to study and provide recommendations for a Pedestrian Street, or P-street, designation along several corridors in the ward. A P-street designation would not only prevent this particular development from building new driveways, but would also require all new buildings along these corridors to have pedestrian-friendly street frontages.

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BRT Doubters Interested in Working With City to Tweak the Plan

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Rendering of BRT on Ashland.

The city of Chicago has been pretty quiet on the subject of its Ashland bus rapid transit plan lately, but recently there have been encouraging signs that even some skeptics are warming to the concept.

During a presentation about the project to the Wicker Park Committee neighborhood group last week, WPC member Alan O’Connell, an urban planner who works at a shipping logistics company, encouraged BRT doubters to work with the city to improve the plan rather than fight it, DNAinfo reported. The committee had previously voted against the plan, which would nearly double bus speeds on Ashland between 95th and Irving Park by converting two out of four travel lanes to dedicated bus lanes, building ‘L’-style median stations, and adding various other time-saving features.

“This isn’t something you should all be scared of,” said O’Connell, a Cleveland native who has witnessed the success of that city’s Health Line. “It’s really good when done right.”

Some Chicago residents have opposed the Ashland plan on the grounds that the lane conversions will create gridlock – the CTA predicts car speeds will be reduced by only ten percent – and that the prohibition of most left turns off of Ashland will drive traffic onto side streets. In reality, it will be fairly simple for drivers to plan routes that don’t require lefts off the street.

Not all attendees were persuaded by O’Connell’s words. “It will destroy our community totally,” said Mitchell Hutton, a Wicker Park resident. Hutton worried that pedestrians could be struck by cars as they cross to the median stations. Commenters on the DNA piece pointed out that people are already crossing Ashland to access bus stops on the opposite side of the street, and the BRT stations will improve pedestrian safety by doubling as refuge islands.

O’Connell said the city should fine-tune the plan, to make it more acceptable to residents. Allowing more left turns at main intersections is a possibility, although this would delay the BRT buses and other through traffic. He added that the city should come up with strategies, such as traffic calming, to keep vehicles off residential streets. And while the Ashland plan currently calls for retaining curbside local bus service, he argued the CTA should discontinue it, so that it doesn’t cannibalize BRT ridership.

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Hairston, Cappleman Pass on Participatory Budgeting This Year

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Proposed design of SherMon Plaza, which won funding last year in the 46th Ward.

As we’ve recently reported, the 49th Ward is holding its fifth participatory budgeting election this year, the 45th Ward is holding its second, and the 22nd Ward is taking the process for a spin for the first time. However, the 5th and 46th wards, which experimented with PB last year, won’t be taking part.

It’s no shock that Alderman Leslie Hairston’s 5th Ward, on the south lakefront, isn’t holding a PB election: last year, only about 100 out of the district’s 50,000-plus residents voted. In Alderman Joe Moore’s 49th Ward, largely made of Rogers Park, a whopping 1,400 people cast ballots. John Arena’s 45th, largely Jefferson Park, and James Cappleman’s 46th, largely Uptown, drew 650 and 390 voters, respectively.

Hairston’s office didn’t return my call, but in January, the Hyde Park Herald reported that the alderman decided not to stage an election this year because of the low turnout. She also cited the expense of running the election, which she said included $60,000 for a staffer to administer the program, plus money out of her own pocket for materials and refreshments, and added that some constituents found the PB process too time-consuming.

A resident who helped organize the election blamed the low turnout on the location of the poling place, in a relatively remote corner of the ward. A candidate who ran against Hairston in the last election attributed the lack of participation to constituents being unhappy with the alderman’s leadership.

One possible factor in the low turnout that wasn’t mentioned in the Herald is Hairston’s decision to exclude several nontraditional ideas for promoting biking and transit use from the ballot. Unlike the other three aldermen who held elections, Hairston designated these proposals as “service requests” that should instead be funded by city departments, the CTA or the park district. However, street, sidewalk and lighting repairs, which can also be paid for by city agencies, were left on the PB ballot. The winning three projects were an urban garden, street lamp improvements, and new lighting in Metra viaducts.

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Elston Has a Speeding Problem — A Safe Bike Lane Can Help

Without protected bike lanes on Elston, bicyclists will continue to get the truck route squeeze

Without protected bike lanes on Elston, bicyclists will continue to get squeezed between trucks.

To reach Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s goal of having five percent of trips under five miles made by bike, bicycling will have to appeal to a much broader base of people than it does today. CDOT’s bikeway projects will only succeed at that goal if new cyclists feel safe and comfortable while riding in these lanes — which, in turn, largely depends on whether they feel safe from nearby traffic.

Elston Avenue, where a proposal for buffered bike lanes has proven contentious, is a good place to measure how fast people are driving — and whether bike lanes provide sufficient separation from speeding cars. CDOT has proposed a buffered bike lane from North Avenue to Webster Avenue, and, at some point in the future, an extension further north through Avondale and beyond. The North Branch Works business association isn’t pleased with the proposal, saying that it will impede truck traffic.

John Greenfield and I spent last Tuesday morning measuring drivers’ speeds at two different locations on Elston. We used our new radar speed gun — donated by Streetsblog readers — to collect data on northbound drivers on Elston at Blackhawk/Magnolia, where Elston bends slightly, and on Elston at Willow, next to the Creative Scholars Preschool. The Blackhawk/Magnolia intersection is part of the stretch of Elston that has a bike lane separated from traffic by flexible posts, and the Willow intersection is part of CDOT’s new project area.

The proportion of speeders was high at both locations. At Blackhawk/Magnolia, 37.6 percent of drivers exceeded the 30 mph speed limit, and at Willow, 32.3 percent of drivers were speeding. We measured vehicle speeds for 15 minutes at each location, capturing 100 drivers apiece. While ideally a larger sample would be collected to gauge the extent of speeding, our measurements suggest there is a higher proportion of speeders on Elston than on other bike routes known for high speeds, like Marshall Boulevard and 55th Street.

High motor vehicle speeds not only pose a danger to people who bike, they also discourage people from biking in the first place by increasing the perception of risk. Likewise, bikeways that provide greater separation from speeding traffic not only reduce the risk of injury, they also lead more people to bike by increasing the perception of safety. To compensate for the high level of speeding on Elston — and the preponderance of truck traffic — the street should have the safest bicycle infrastructure available.

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Chicago Building Four Miles of Protected Bike Lanes This Year

Can you believe this road was expanded from 4 lanes to 6?

CDOT will install a buffered bike lane on Harrison Street through this asphalt monstrosity built for the Congress Parkway interchange expansion.

The City of Chicago announced a new slate of bikeway projects today, outlining about 15 miles of new buffered bike lanes and a little more than four miles of protected lanes to be built in 2014.

Under the plan for this year, protected bikeway construction in Chicago would continue to outpace every other American city except perhaps for New York. But the city still embellishes its progress by counting buffered lanes as protected lanes, saying that it is already halfway to the goal of building 100 miles of protected lanes by 2015. (In fact, just under 17 miles of protected bike lanes have been built.)

It’s unfortunate that the city continues to mislabel buffered bike lanes, not only because it’s misleading but because it cheapens the substantial progress being made in Chicago — often in the face of difficult obstacles like the Illinois Department of Transportation ban on protected bike lanes on state jurisdiction streets, including Clybourn Avenue and parts of Elston Avenue. (The ban has now been lifted on a trial basis on Clybourn.)

This year, about 4.25 miles of new bike lanes will be physically protected from traffic by parked cars and/or flexible posts. CDOT Assistant Director of Transportation Planning Mike Amsden said in December that the city is considering using curbs for protection on Clybourn Avenue from Division Street to North Avenue — a stretch that traverses the intersection where cyclist Bobby Cann was fatally struck by drunk driver Ryne San Hamel — and State Street south of 26th Street. The news release says this is still being designed. (CDOT said at the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting in March that curb separation was “still on the table.”)

The new protected bike lanes are:

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