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Courtney Cobbs Comments on the CTA

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Courtney Cobbs.

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

Social worker and transit fan Courtney Cobbs moved to our city from Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2013, partly because she wanted to be able to live car-free. She has posted some thought-provoking comments on Streetsblog Chicago in the past about the need for better bus and train access on Chicago’s South and West Sides. I caught up with her by phone to hear more of her take on the equity issue.

John Greenfield: What’s the public transportation system like in Little Rock?

Courtney Cobbs: There really isn’t much of one. I actually had a brief conversation with the people there about, for example, how ridiculous it was that I lived about five or six miles from the community college that I attended and that, in order to get there, I would have to take two buses and it would take me 30 minutes, versus a ten-minute drive. The bus service is very infrequent and doesn’t run very late. It’s like not having a system at all, for the most part.

JG: You wrote a while ago that the transit system is one of the things that brought you to Chicago.

CC: Yes. I wanted to live in a city where I didn’t have to own a car, because I really care about the environment, and public transportation saves you money. I really like big cities, and I felt like Chicago was an affordable option versus New York or L.A., and I could live here without a car relatively well.

JG: Where do you work nowadays?

CC: I work for Thresholds Psychiatric Rehabilitation Centers, at their Ravenswood location. I work with adults with chronic mental illness, helping them with daily living skills and integrating them into the community. For example, I help them navigate the CTA.

JG: You live in Edgewater, near the Bryn Mawr stop. How far a walk do you have to the train station?

CC: Two or three minutes. It really just depends on if I have get walk signal or not. [Laughs.]

JG: So you’re really only about a block away. Is train noise an issue in your apartment?

CC: It isn’t, surprisingly. If it’s late at night and I have my window open, occasionally I can hear “Doors closing,” but that’s about it.

JG: Where did you live when you first came to Chicago?

CC: I lived in Kenwood, at 44th and Drexel. Transit service wasn’t as good. The best part about living there was the #4 Cottage Grove bus. That runs along Cottage Grove between the Illinois Center and Chicago State University.

JG: That was how you got downtown?

CC: Yeah. When I started with Thresholds, I would take the 43rd Street bus to the 47th Street Red Line station. My commute was about an hour, hour and fifteen minutes every day, which was really physically draining. Moving to the North Side has cut down on my commute time considerably.

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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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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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Advocates Request a Fair Share of Bike Resources for Black Communities

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A Slow Roll Chicago ride. Photo: John Greenfield

A group of African-American bike advocates says they want to do whatever it takes to make sure more black Chicagoans have a chance to enjoy the health, economic, and social benefits of cycling. They’ve called for the city and state, as well as other advocacy groups, to commit to a more equitable distribution of bike facilities and education to low-income, African-American communities on the South and West Sides.

“In the past, the city’s philosophy has been that the communities that already bike the most deserve the most resources,” said Oboi Reed of Slow Roll Chicago, Red Bike & Green, and Southside Critical Mass. “That just perpetuates a vicious cycle where cycling grows fast in some neighborhood and not others. Biking leads to better physical and mental health, safer streets, more connected communities, and support for local businesses. Black communities are the ones that need those benefits the most.”

As it stands, Chicago has a higher overall density, and better connectivity, of bike lanes downtown and in relatively affluent North Side neighborhoods with higher population density and bike mode share. Their South and West Side counterparts have received more miles of protected bike lanes, due to the fact that wide roads with available right-of-way are more common in these parts of town.

While a number of low-income communities of color, such as Lawndale, Little Village, Pilsen, and Bronzeville, have received Divvy bike-share, a majority of the stations have been installed downtown and on the North Side. The system is slated to expand to more South and West Side neighborhoods next year. The more bikeable areas of the city also have a higher density of parking racks, which residents can request via a Chicago Department of Transportation website.

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Active Trans’ Bikeways Tracker shows the distribution of protected lanes (green) and buffered lanes (blue). Red is proposed bikeways.

In an effort to win more bike resources for black communities, Reed has partnered with Peter Taylor, an Active Transportation Alliance board member and president of Friends of the Major Taylor Trail, and Shawn Conley, head of the Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago. On November 1, they met in a Woodlawn café to strategize with Eboni Senai Hawkins, founder of RBG Chicago and a member of the League of American Bicyclists’ Equity Advisory Council, Latrice Williams from Bronzeville Bikes, as well as black bike advocates from Minneapolis and Milwaukee.

Out of that meeting came an open letter to the city, state and other advocacy groups, asking for a more fair distribution of bike infrastructure and education, and that more consideration be given to the needs and concerns of black residents when allocating these resources. The letter makes seven specific requests. Among these are that the local governments make a public commitment to prioritize equity, and require contractors who work on transportation projects to do so as well.

The advocates ask the city and state to commit to spending a fair amount of tax dollars on bike resources between 2015 and 2020 in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. The city is also asked to provide an update on the status of recommendations made by community advisory groups for the city’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 – Reed and Taylor served as leaders for South Side advisory groups.

The black advocates gave a presentation on their campaign at last week’s Mayor’s Advisory Council meeting. At the assembly, CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld and Active Trans director Ron Burke acknowledged that more effort needs to be made to promote cycling in communities that don’t already have high ridership. Scheinfeld promised that equity would be strongly considered in prioritizing future projects. One of the 2020 Plan’s goals is to ensure that every Chicagoan lives within a half mile of a bikeway.

“CDOT has been focused on building a comprehensive bikeway network throughout Chicago and we are pleased to have advocates like [Reed, Taylor, and Conley] to partner with to help reach those goals,” said CDOT spokesman Pete Scales “We look forward to continuing to work with them to help determine the needs for cycling facilities in every community.”

“The equity statement delivered at MBAC is an outstanding example of the kind of grassroots leadership we need in Chicago,” said Active Trans’ Jim Merrill. He argued that the city is already working hard to equitably distribute new bike infrastructure. “We hope this call for a renewed look at bike equity in Chicago can amplify those efforts, and we look forward to collaborating with advocates throughout the city to build a bike network that serves all Chicagoans equally.”

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Montrose Green TOD Actually Fits Its Neighborhood Just Fine

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A year-old city ordinance could allow a neighborhood restaurant, not car parking spaces, to face the ‘L’ station entrance.

Developer David Brown wants to bring a neighborhood restaurant to a site right outside the the Chicago Transit Authority’s Montrose Brown Line station, along with 24 apartments, a small office space, and 10 car parking spaces. The city’s zoning ordinance would ordinarily require him to fill the entire ground floor of his proposed five-story Montrose Green building with 24 parking spaces. However, Brown has requested that 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar change the site’s zoning to permit more housing and less parking, under what the city terms transit-oriented development.

A meeting last week hosted by Brown and Pawar drew some of the usual complaints about the neighborhood having too many cars and too little on-street parking. For example, DNAinfo quoted Kristina Stevens saying, “Most of these people, I believe, are going to have cars and park on our streets. Taking the train does not mean you don’t own a car.”

In fact, many of Montrose Green’s neighbors in North Center take the train (and bus) and don’t own cars — and the new building would help even more make car-lite choices, and accelerate a neighborhood-wide (and nationwide) trend towards less driving.

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Montrose Green actually provides more car parking spaces per resident (but fewer per unit) than current zoning requirements. Image: David Brown

42 percent of households in the building will be able to store a car behind the building, a percentage that nearly matches the 46 percent of households in nearby Census tracts who own one car. Even fewer residents own cars in the tracts closest to the Brown Line.

Not only are there fewer cars than one might expect in the neighborhood, there’s also less vehicle traffic — and even less with every passing year. Vehicle counts on Montrose, between Western and Ashland, show 42 percent fewer cars (5,000 cars per day) between 2006 and 2010, the most recent data available. Car traffic also declined by 23 percent, or 2,400 cars, on Damen across Montrose. Since then, citywide miles driven people have continued to fall, dropping by 4.4 percent between 2010 and 2013.

Meanwhile, transit use in North Center has gone up across the board, even though the surrounding Census tracts have shown minimal population growth. Brown Line boardings at Montrose increased by nearly 20 percent between 2010 and 2013, across both weekdays and weekends — a sign that people aren’t just using transit for work, but also for errands and social trips. (Fully 47.5 percent of local residents do take transit to work.) Bus ridership on the #78 Montrose bus increased by over 10 percent over the same period, as well.

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