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Once Again, the South Shore Line Is Standing in the Way of Bike Progress

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A man bikes across the South Shore tracks on Burnham Avenue. Photo: Active Trans

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Last August, the board of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transit District did the right thing by voting to dramatically reduce the wait until customers are allowed to bring bikes on South Shore Line trains. While NICTD had previously been talking about delaying the bikes-on-board pilot until 2021, they instead agreed to test the program this April. Their decision was surely influenced by the Active Transportation Alliance sarcastically giving them the Broken Spoke Award as “the least bike-friendly commuter rail service in the nation.”

But there’s another important bike issue that NICTD is still dragging their feet about. The 11-mile Burnham Greenway Trail will eventually connect Chicago’s Lakefront Trail with the growing network of multiuse paths in the south suburbs and Northwest Indiana, including the Cal-Sag Trail. However, there’s a two-mile gap in the trail in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood and the suburb of Burnham.

The gap forces cyclists to ride on wide roads with fast traffic, or else detour several miles out of the way. Although the needed two-mile stretch of trail is already designed, approved, and funded, the transit agency doesn’t want to let the trail cross its tracks at grade level. Instead, NICTD, along with the South Shore Freight Line, is insisting that a multimillion-dollar bridge be built, a project that would take years to complete.

The trail crossing in question would be on Burnham Avenue just south of Brainerd Avenue, near the South Shore’s Hegewisch station. “NICTD is worried about safety and liability,” explains Active Trans suburban outreach coordinator Leslie Phemister. “But right now there’s nothing to stop a pedestrian from walking onto the tracks when a train is coming.” There are currently crossing gates and warning signals for drivers, but not for pedestrians.

The planned trail crossing would involve widening the existing sidewalk to accommodate bikes, adding bollards to keep pedestrians and cyclists out of the street, and adding gates that would block the sidewalk when a train approaches. Phemister says the transit agency should welcome these improvements, which would benefit people walking to the station. “Safety is everyone’s concern,” she says. “No one wants to get hit by a train.”

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It’s Getting Real: $281M in Funding Earmarked for Red and Purple Rehab

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A northbound Red Line train at the Sheridan stop. Photo: Cragin Spring

The first phase of the Red and Purple Modernization Program – including the hotly contested plan for the Belmont flyover – took a step closer to becoming a reality yesterday. Officials announced that $281 million in federal funding has been earmarked for the initiative, which also includes rebuilding the track structures, viaducts, and stations between Lawrence and Bryn Mawr. That’s nearly 30 percent of the $956.6 million in federal funding the CTA is seeking for Phase 1, now estimated to cost $2.131 billion.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin and CTA president Dorval Carter, Jr. announced that Barack Obama’s proposed federal fiscal 2017 budget includes $125 million of funding in 2017 for RPM Phase 1. The money would come from the Federal Transit Administration’s Core Capacity Improvements program, which provides dollars for improvements to older “legacy” transit systems. This news isn’t a surprise, because last September the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning approved the project for the FTA funding.

Also announced on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation has allocated a separate $156 million in new funding provided by Congress for Phase 1. This money had been budgeted for in previous years but never appropriated. The CTA is currently seeking approval of a full-funding agreement from the USDOT. If this is OKed, the transit agency will get the $156 million.

Back in 2014, the CTA received a $35 million Core Capacity grant, which allowed the agency to complete the preliminary planning and engineering work for Phase 1 last year. In December, the modernization project passed its environmental review by the FTA, allowing the project to move on to its engineering phase, which would be followed by construction. Last month CTA officials said the rehab work on the nearly 100-year old train lines could start as early as late 2017.

But it’s important to keep in mind that the announced $125 million in Core Capacity funding isn’t a sure thing, since Obama’s budget is merely a proposal right now. And, of course, there’s a heck of a lot more federal and local money that needs to be found before construction can begin.

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Why Isn’t There a Crosswalk Here? A Pedestrian Desire Line in Wicker Park

Located just north of a Blue Line station, the North/Damen/Milwaukee junction is the epicenter of the Wicker Park and Bucktown shopping district and one of the busiest locations in town for foot and bicycle traffic. But it’s also one of the city’s most dysfunctional intersections in terms of traffic management.

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Pedestrians heading north on Damen from the Starbucks to the Walgreens are currently required to cross to the Coyote Tower first, but few do so. Image: Google Maps

Case in point is the phenomenon illustrated in these videos, shot this evening between 4:45 and 5 p.m. from in front of the Walgreens at the northern corner of the six-way, looking south. Commuters heading north on from the train station who want to continue north on Damen are supposed to detour west and make two different crossings in crosswalks.

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An aerial view of the complex intersection. Image: Google Maps

Instead, most people choose to take the most direct route by making a beeline from the Starbucks to the Walgreens. It’s the most logical path but, because the intersection is set up to prioritize car traffic, this is an illegal, and risky, maneuver.

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Senior Killed at Location Where the City Chose Not to Mark a Crosswalk

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A senior crosses in an unmarked crosswalk at Surf and Broadway yesterday afternoon. That morning, a 69-year-old woman was killed in the same crosswalk.

Early yesterday morning, a 69-year-old woman was struck and killed by a driver in an unmarked crosswalk at Surf Street and Broadway in Lakeview. Less than two years ago, the city decided not to stripe a visible crosswalk at this location, which might have reminded the driver to watch for pedestrians. Why? Because the intersection was deemed too dangerous for a marked crosswalk.

Surf and Broadway actually meet at two different intersections. As you approach Broadway from the west on Surf, located about half a block north of Diversey, there’s a T intersection with crosswalks marked on all three legs. About 200 feet south, as you approach Broadway from the east on Surf, there’s a second T intersection, but there’s only a marked crosswalk on the east leg.

However, according to Streetsblog reader J. Patrick Lynch, who lives next door to the southern intersection, many residents, including plenty of seniors, regularly cross at this intersection in order to reach Walmart, T.J. Maxx, and other retail south of Surf Street. It is legal for them to use the unmarked crosswalks at the north and south legs of the T, even though the lack of striped crosswalks makes it less likely that motorists will be watching out for them.

Police News Affairs reported that Wednesday’s crash happened at Broadway and Diversey. However, an aerial photograph that accompanied a Tribune article about the case showed that police actually taped off the south leg of the southernmost Surf/Broadway intersection.

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The crash took place in the southernmost intersection of Surf and Broadway, in the south leg of the intersection. Image: Google Maps

According to Officer Anna Pacheco from News Affairs, the driver was making a right turn onto southbound Broadway at 6:05 a.m. when he or she struck the woman. This indicates that the motorist exited a parking garage on the west side of the T before striking the senior in the unmarked crosswalk in the south leg of the intersection. Pacheco did not state whether victim was crossing eastbound or westbound.

The woman was transported to Illinois Masonic Hospital, where she was later pronounced dead. Her identity has not yet been released, pending notification of next of kin. No charges have been filed against the driver, who stayed at the crash site.

Back in January 2014, Lynch emailed 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney to alert him that, due to the increased foot traffic at the intersection at the intersection generated by the then-new Walmart, a marked crosswalk was needed. “I am concerned about the safety of pedestrians who routinely cross at Broadway and Surf,” Lynch wrote. He recommended striping the crosswalk on the north leg of the T because it wouldn’t conflict with the garage exit or require the removal of metered parking.

Lynch’s request was forward to Sougata Deb, Tunney’s infrastructure specialist. When Lynch followed up that March, Deb acknowledged that the unmarked crosswalks at Surf/Broadway got plenty of use. “I cross here at least three times a week, so I understand the benefit of having a crosswalk here,” he wrote.

However, that April, after Chicago Department of Transportation staff surveyed the intersection, Deb told Lynch the engineers had decided against striping a crosswalk. They reasoned that the crossing would conflict with Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines because it would be too close to the garage exit and a light pole, which would block sight lines.

Lynch then asked Deb if the light pole could be relocated, or if a crosswalk on the south leg of the intersection might be feasible. Deb replied that the garage exit made it unfeasible to install crosswalks on either side of Surf. He also brought up a new argument against the crosswalks: since there’s a slight curve in Broadway between Diversey and Surf, drivers have limited visibility on this stretch.

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South Siders Spar Over Proposed Stony Island Protected Bike Lanes

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Elihu Blanks and Waymond Smith on Stony Island, a few blocks north of the Skyway access ramps. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

For much of its length, Stony Island Avenue is basically an expressway with stoplights. Located on the southeast side between 56th and 130th, it generally has eight travel lanes, the same number as Lake Shore Drive, although it carries half as many vehicles per day—35,000 versus 70,000. Due to this excess lane capacity, speeding is rampant.

The city has proposed converting a lane or two of Stony between 67th and 79th into protected bike lanes. Some residents, and Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston, fear the “road diet” would cause traffic jams, and argue the street is too dangerous for bike lanes. Other neighbors say Stony is too dangerous not to have them.

According to the Chicago Crash Browser website, created by Streetsblog’s Steven Vance, 53 pedestrians and 16 bicyclists were injured along Stony Island between 67th Street (the southern border of Jackson Park) and 79th Street (where access ramps connect Stony with the Chicago Skyway) between 2010 and 2013.

Two pedestrians and a person in a car  were killed in crashes on this stretch between 2010 and 2014, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation. Last year was unusually deadly, with two fatal pedestrian crashes and two bike fatalities.

The complex intersection of Stony Island, 79th, and South Chicago, a diagonal street, is particularly problematic. Located beneath a mess of serpentine Skyway access ramps, the six-way junction has terrible sightlines. It was the site of 444 traffic crashes between 2009 and 2013, the most of any Chicago intersection, according to CDOT.

Adding protected bike lanes could change this equation, making Stony, among other things, a useful bike route. Due to the Chicago Skyway and other barriers like railroad tracks, cul-de-sacs, and a cemetery, it’s one of the few continuous north-south streets in this part of town.

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Union Station Plan Moves Forward and Megabus is Moving Pick-Up Locations

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Union Station serves 120,000 riders each day. Photo: Metropolitan Planning Council

It looks like plans to renovate Union Station are on track. On Wednesday, City Council passed an ordinance that will move the Union Station Master Plan forward by authorizing an intergovernmental agreement between the Chicago Department of Transportation, Metra, the Regional Transportation Authority, and Amtrak.

The ordinance paves the way for the use of up to $500,000 of Chicago’s tax increment financing money to fund preliminary engineering and design work for the station. In addition, Metra is committing $1 million to the project, Amtrak is providing $3 million, and $1.5 million is coming from the RTA.

The city, Amtrak, Metra, RTA, and other stakeholders are collaborating on short-term improvements to Union Station that will increase passenger capacity by renovating and expanding the concourse and platforms. The project will also address safety, wheelchair accessibility, and general mobility issues at and around the station, according to the mayor’s office.

Passage of the ordinance comes weeks after President Obama signed into law the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Bill, aka the FAST Act. The bill expands the Railroad Rehabilitation and Infrastructure Financing program, which could be a key source of funding for the Union Station Master Plan, a long-term plan to redevelop the station and surrounding area.

“The ordinance approved today by the City Council represents an important step forward for our ambitious plan to modernize Union Station,” Mayor Emanuel said in a statement. “We want to improve the experience for everyone who travels through Union Station and tap the potential that the station has to serve as an anchor for further economic development of the West Loop and surrounding neighborhoods.”

Amtrak recently issued a Request for Information from real estate developers asking for proposals to redevelop the Amtrak-owned station and surrounding land parcels. The passenger rail service is also in the process of hiring consultants to conduct planning, historic review and preliminary engineering work for the short-term term improvements to the station that are outlined in the master plan.

The design work will determine how best to widen platforms and corridors that often operate at or beyond their design capacity during peak times. It will also develop plans for adding elevators, escalators, and/or stairs from the widened platforms to street level and creating new pedestrian tunnels to the Ogilvie Transportation Center and the Blue Line Clinton Station.

The consultants will also prepare design plans for improving access to Union Station’s passenger terminal, including the Great Hall waiting room, which features a 110-foot-high ceiling with a barrel-vaulted skylight. The addition of a passenger elevator at the Canal Street entrance will improve wheelchair accessibility.

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ITDP Says Patience Is the Watchword When It Comes to Loop Link Speeds

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A Loop Link station on Madison Street. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership will allow Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We’ll be syndicating a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

The city hopes the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor, a bold reconfiguration of street space, will double the speed of buses crossing the central business district from the previous glacial rush-hour pace of 3 mph. The $41 million project was designed to provide an express route for buses traveling between Michigan Avenue and the West Loop.

The heart of the system is on Washington and Madison Streets, where mixed-traffic lanes were transformed into red bus-only lanes and raised boarding platforms featuring huge, rakelike shelters and plentiful seating, plus a green protected bike lane on Washington. Six daily CTA bus lines that terminate in various corners of the city are now using the route, including the #J14 Jeffery Jump, #20 Madison, #56 Milwaukee, #60 Blue Island/26th, #124 Navy Pier, and #157 Streeterville/Taylor.

Immediately after the system debuted on Sunday, December 20, some bus riders and BRT boosters were disappointed that there seemed to be little or no improvement in trip times. This was partly due to a CTA policy that requires bus operators to cautiously creep into the platform stations.

When I rode the Madison bus downtown from the west side during the evening rush on the Tuesday after the system launched, it took a full 16 minutes to travel the 0.8 miles between Canal Street and Michigan Avenue. That’s 3 mph, the same speed as before Loop Link was established, when buses were stuck in car-generated traffic jams.

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Eyes on the Street: Many West Side Bike Lanes Are Snow-Blocked

Franklin Boulevard bike lane wasn't plowed

There was no evidence that the city attempted to clear snow from the protected bike lane on Franklin Boulevard, which normally has flexible posts, in East Garfield Park between Sacramento (pictured) and Central Park Avenue (3/4 miles).

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Biking on the West Side has been a mixed bag each time it’s snowed this winter. When it snowed on the weekend after Thanksgiving it took more than two days for the protected bike lanes on Lake Street to be plowed. With last week’s snowfall it’s been over a week, and the protected bike lanes on Franklin and Jackson Boulevards still haven’t been cleared as of Monday afternoon.

The conventional and buffered bike lanes in the area had varying levels of cleared snow. Some blocks on the same street were totally clear, others had snow from motorists clearing their own cars, and the remaining seemed like the plow missed a whole eight feet.

At the quarterly Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting last month, Mike Amsden, assistant transportation planning director for the Chicago Department of Transportation said “We are committed to maintaining our protected bike lanes year round so people can bike in them year round.” The goal, Amsden said, “is to get to each of the locations within 24 hours.” If you notice a bike lane hasn’t been cleared he said you can email cdotbikes@cityofchicago.org.

Lake Street protected bike lane was perfectly cleared of snow

The protected and buffered bike lanes on Lake Street were well-cleared from Kedzie, at a minimum, to the border with Oak Park last week, but it’s unclear if they were done within 24 hours of last Monday’s snowfall.

CDOT and the Department of Streets and Sanitation use myriad equipment to do this, including the normal large plows, pickup trucks, and smaller vehicles. To increase the number of protected bike lanes that could be cleared with the regular plows, Amsden said that CDOT would remove the flexible posts from streets with the two inch snow ban, or where there’s no on-street parking. He specified Broadway in Uptown, Jackson in East Garfield Park, Lake, Vincennes in Auburn Gresham, Franklin in East Garfield Park, and Halsted in Bridgeport.

The posts were removed from Franklin but not Jackson, and neither street was cleared. The other protected bike lane in the area, Lake Street, was cleared well from California Ave. to Oak Park, an about face from the Thanksgiving snowfall. East of California, though, snow banks, patches of ice, a frozen pond, and a string of garbage bins blocked the path this morning.

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New Wayfinding Signs on The 606 Are Also Needed for On-Street Routes

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New signs on the Bloomingdale Trail designed by IDEO show path users the names of nearby exits and amenities. Photo: Steven Vance

Last month, colorful new wayfinding signs were installed near all of the access ramps for The 606, aka the Bloomingdale Trail. They point trail users to the nearest off-ramp and access park. The relatively small text on the signs is a little tricky to read if you’re cycling past them at a moderate pace, but they’re a welcome addition to the trail. They’ll help people become more familiar with the street names in the four neighborhoods the elevated greenway passes through.

“We asked IDEO [a design company] to design a system that would provide necessary information without cluttering the landscape,” said Beth White, regional director at the Trust for Public Land, which is managing outreach and fundraising for the trail. “We think they struck a great balance between the two.”

Gap in street-level wayfinding

The new Bloomingdale Trail signage hints at what good wayfinding signs could do for on-street cycling. Prior to the path’s grand opening, the city installed additional bike route signs along nearby streets, telling people the distance and direction to the nearest access ramp.

However, many streets that intersect the trail, like Kimball, which would benefit from wayfinding signs, don’t have them. And, currently, some signed bike routes to the trail are counterintuitive and hard to follow.

For example, Kedzie Avenue is a handy way to get to the trail from Logan Square and Humboldt Park, and it has a buffered bike lane. But it’s tricky to find your way to the nearest access ramp, located between Albany Avenue and Whipple Street in Julia de Burgos park, due to the proliferation of one-way streets near the park.

If you’re pedaling south on Kedzie towards the trail, a bike route sign directs you to turn east onto Cortland Street. The next intersection is Albany, but you can’t turn south towards the park there because Albany is one-way northbound. However, there’s no signage indicating you need to head another block east to Whipple, which is southbound. It takes less effort and distance to continue south and turn east onto Moffat St. to access the park. Read more…

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Why the North LSD Rehab Should Swap Mixed-Traffic Lanes for Transit Lanes

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Buses and cars on Lake Shore Drive during the evening rush. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership will allow Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We’ll be syndicating a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

Earlier this month at a hearing on the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction study—dubbed “Redefine the Drive”—officials assured the public that all options for rebuilding Chicago’s coastal highway are still on the table. But the Illinois Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the drive, isn’t seriously considering the simplest way to help more people travel more efficiently: trading existing mixed-traffic lanes for bus-only lanes.

Immortalized in the eponymous song by local rock group Aliotta-Haynes-Jeremiah (R.I.P. bassist Mitch Aliotta, who passed away in July), the northern portion of Lake Shore Drive is 60 to 80 years old, and way overdue for a rehab. IDOT and the Chicago Department of Transportation are collaborating on the plan to rebuild the seven-mile section between Grand and Hollywood.

They expect to get approval for the design from the feds by 2018, with construction starting as early as 2019, pending available funding. The project could cost more than $1 billion and will take years to finish.

Starting in July 2013, the city and state transportation departments hosted a series of community meetings, where residents shared their ideas for the overhaul. In October 2014, the planners released a list of the 20 most popular ideas for the rehab, based on more than 1,600 comments from 330-plus attendees. “Improve transit service” came in second, after “Separate bike/pedestrian users on the Lakefront Trail.” Maintaining or improving driving conditions didn’t make the list.

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A vision of North Lake Shore Drive with rapid transit corridors and separated walking and biking paths published by 15 local civic organizations in July 2013. Image: Thom Greene

During the recent hearing at the Chicago History Museum, planners from IDOT noted that North Lake Shore Drive sees 70,000 transit trips a day on nine routes, accounting for one-fifth of all passenger trips on the drive.

IDOT projects that the population of the study area, bounded by Touhy, the Kennedy/Dan Ryan, and the Stevenson, will grow 15 to 20 percent by 2040, based on a state analysis of Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning data. The department predicts the number of transit trips on the drive will increase by the same amount during this period. However, they project the increase in car trips will be negligible, because new Chicagoans will mostly commute by transit, and some current residents will switch from cars to other modes.

To meet the growing demand for transit, the LSD project team is considering options for the drive like bus-on-shoulder (which already exists on some Pace lines) and bus-only lanes, possibly with rapid transit-style stations along the route. Light rail is even in the mix, although it would likely be cost-prohibitive.

Liberating transit riders from car-generated congestion via dedicated lanes is a no-brainer, since buses are exponentially more space-efficient than automobiles. The planners said cars on the drive carry an average of 1.2 people. Meanwhile, a 60-foot articulated CTA bus seats about 50 people (not counting standees) and takes up less room on the highway than two average-size cars, when you factor in the necessary distances between vehicles.

During the hearing, planners stressed they haven’t yet ruled out any options for reconfiguring the drive. But afterward, IDOT project and environmental studies section chief John Baczek told a different story to Charles Papanek, who reported on the meeting for Streetsblog .

Baczek said it’s unlikely any of the drive’s existing travel lanes will be converted to transit-only use, because this would reduce capacity for drivers, and the number of car trips isn’t expected to decrease. Therefore, he implied, adding dedicated bus lanes would probably require widening the highway.

Read the rest of the article on the Chicago Reader website.