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Tell IDOT to Rehab LSD as a Complete Street, Not a Speedway

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This bus stop on Inner Lake Shore Drive at Addison is an unwelcoming space for riders. Image: Google Street View

On Thursday, the Illinois Department of Transportation kicked off the feedback process for the the North Lake Shore Drive rehabilitation’s future alternatives analysis, at the third meeting of the project’s task forces. During the previous two meetings, it seemed like IDOT would insist upon just another highway project, with minimal benefits for pedestrians, transit users and bicyclists. Yet as the process of determining the lakefront highway’s future has evolved, some hope that the project can be steered in a more positive direction.

When the city of Chicago began building LSD in the late 1800s, the road was designed to be a place where one could take a leisurely ride to enjoy views of Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan. Today, an average of 161,000 cars use the drive on a daily basis, few of them leisurely partaking in the view. IDOT estimates that 78 to 95 percent of drivers break the posted 45 mph (40 mph in winter) speed limit. In the highest-speed section, nine percent of drivers were doing more than 70 mph.

Several of the CTA’s busiest bus routes also use Lake Shore Drive. Around 69,000 passengers ride on the 970 local and express buses that ply the Drive every day, many of them residents of high-density lakefront neighborhoods. That’s almost as many passengers as the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch carries daily, and more than twice as many riders as dedicated busways in other cities, like Cleveland’s HealthLine and Los Angeles’ Orange Line.

Yet unlike those passengers, those riding LSD buses frequently get bogged down by car traffic. Northbound bus commuters who use stops along Inner Lake Shore Drive have to wait for the bus on narrow sidewalks, with only a thin fence and guardrail separating them from high-speed traffic on the main road. At intersections were buses get on and off the drive, there are complex interchanges with tight turns.

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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

SherMon Plaza proposal FINAL 2-11-13

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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Jefferson Parkers Can Vote for Bike Lanes, Metra Improvement in PB Election

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Conventional bike lanes on Lawrence could be upgraded to buffered lanes. Image: Google Street View

Last year, residents of the 45th Ward, made up largely of the Jefferson Park neighborhood, had the opportunity to vote for a number of outside-the-box transportation projects in the ward’s participatory budgeting election. Most of those proposals, including bike lanes on Lawrence and Milwaukee, and on-street bike parking corrals, didn’t win, but voters did opt to spend $125,000 of the ward’s $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” funds to install a new pedestrian crossing light at the Jefferson Park Transit Center.

This year, in the ward’s second PB election, there are fewer livable streets projects to choose from, but the proposal to stripe buffered bike lanes on Lawrence, from Cicero to Long, is back on the ballot. Voters can also opt to replace the fences on a pedestrian bridge over the Kennedy that serves the Gladstone Park Metra station.

Alderman John Arena’s chief of staff Owen Brugh says Arena decided to bring back the PB process this year because last year’s election succeeded in getting constituents more involved with their community – over 650 people voted. “This is the taxpayer’s money, and the taxpayers should have a direct voice in how we’re spending it,” Brugh said. “This really gives them the power to make important decisions that will affect the ward for years to come.”

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CNT and Active Trans Launch “Transit Future” Funding Campaign

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Map showing potential expansion of the local rapid transit system. Image: CNT

On Monday, Governor Quinn’s Northeast Illinois Public Transit Taskforce released its final report, underscoring the need for better funding for regional transit. Yesterday, the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance launched a new campaign, dubbed “Transit Future,” to raise that money via a new Cook County-based revenue stream that would help the region leverage federal dollars.

Transit Future calls on the Cook County Board of Commissioners to create a dedicated funding source for maintaining and expanding the transit system in Chicago and the rest of the county. Creating this revenue stream would allow the region to take advantage of federal funding sources like America Fast Forward, which provides long-term, low interest loans to cities for construction projects.

The campaign is inspired by the successful drive to raise $40 billion for public transportation in Los Angeles, which is bankrolling the largest expansion of transit in the region’s history. That campaign, called Move LA and spearheaded by former LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Santa Monica mayor Denny Zane, led to voters approving a half-cent sales tax increase in a 2008 referendum called Measure R. By 2013, four new transit lines had opened, with two more under construction.

Villaraigosa and Zane, as well as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook Count Board President Toni Preckwinkle, showed up to support Transit Future at a launch party last night at the University Club of Chicago, 76 East Monroe. A map on display at the event showed the potential for expanding the local rapid transit system.

In addition to well-publicized projects that will extend the South Red Line and build bus rapid transit on Chicago’s Ashland Avenue, the map shows other line extensions and new routes outlined in the region’s GO TO 2040 plan. Existing lines could be expanded to suburban destinations like Old Orchard, Schaumburg, Oak Brook, and Ford City, while new north-south lines could parallel Cicero Avenue and connect O’Hare and Midway airports.

Jacky Grimshaw, vice president for policy at CNT and director of Transit Future, emceed the event. “Building a world-class transit system requires a steady, long-term investment,” she told the crowd. “We’ve been falling short. There are over $20 billion in potential projects that are just sitting on the shelf that will help us to expand and improve our system, so that we can’t afford to fall short any longer.”

Emanuel told the audience that a coordinated effort between the city and county to create dedicated transit funding could unlock the region’s economic potential. “Our ability to recruit new companies, our ability to see companies expand, our ability for families to go from where they live to work, is dependent on a 21st Century public transportation system,” he said. “Because people years ago made a great investment, Chicago had the opportunity to become the city it is. For us to become the city we want to be, we have to continue to make that commitment to our public transportation system.” He noted that the city is already taking advantage of federal transportation loans for projects like the Red Line’s 95th Street station rehab and the Chicago Riverwalk extension.

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Rogers Park Participatory Budgeting Ideas Include a North-South Greenway

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Discussing proposals at a 49th Ward participatory budgeting meeting in 2011. Photo by John Greenfield.

Chicago aldermen traditionally use their $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” money for basic street, sidewalk and lighting improvements. However, this year a handful of wards are holding participatory budgeting elections. These often result in money being set aside for innovative transportation projects, and walking and biking infrastructure is a relative bargain. 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore, who five years ago became the first U.S. elected official to pioneer the participatory budgeting process, is once again holding a PB election, and a few walking, biking, and transit projects may be on the ballot.

The ward has hosted two community events so far, where residents have had the opportunity to discuss proposed projects. The final meeting takes place this evening at 7 p.m. at St. Paul’s Church by the Lake, 7100 North Ashland. PB committee members will draw upon feedback from constituents to narrow down the candidates to a final ballot, according to Moore’s aid Bob Fuller. Early voting will take place from April 26 to May 2, with the final election happening on May 3. “We’ve been doing this for five years now, and by all accounts things are going smoothly this year,” Fuller said. “But it’s certainly a challenge finding consensus in a neighborhood of 56,000 people.”

The ballot will have a section where residents vote on what percentage of menu money should be spent on street and alley repaving, sidewalk repair and streetlights, from zero to 100 percent. The results are averaged – last year it was 62 percent – and the remainder of the money is awarded to nontraditional projects, according to how many votes they garnered.

The winning proposals in 2013 included funding a $30,000 pedestrian safety engineering study on hectic Sheridan Road, exploring whether bumpouts, signal timing improvements and other strategies could make the street more walkable. Voters also opted to spend $75,000 to install bike-and-chevron shared lane markings on Clark from Albion to Howard. Other proposals that won funding the restoration of cobblestones on Glenwood, and cherry blossom trees and a new water fountain at Touhy Park.

None of the above projects have been finished yet. “It definitely takes more than a year for some things to get done,” Fuller said. The traffic safety study and sharrows are pending the completion of gas line work on Sheridan and Clark.

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Blue Line Construction Strands Shuttle Bus Riders Amid Detoured Traffic

Heavy traffic in Logan Square

Two southbound shuttle buses took about six minutes to travel 500 feet through Logan Square’s traffic circle.

Last weekend’s Blue Line track work, just one week of the months-long Your New Blue project, pushed rail riders onto shuttle buses that ran along Milwaukee Avenue — and right through a traffic jam created by the very same track work. Instead of following the designated detour, drivers diverted from Fullerton and Sacramento Avenues under the Blue Line piled onto Milwaukee Avenue and slowed buses to a crawl.

An alternative approach that I’d suggested earlier would have set up diverters on Milwaukee, preventing through traffic while still allowing access to all businesses and parking spaces. Since there were no diverters to keep Fullerton drivers off Milwaukee, many drivers continued on Fullerton and then — at the last minute — turned onto northwest-bound Milwaukee, adding more traffic to a stretch that’s already plenty busy during weekends. The resulting traffic jam paralyzed not only the Blue Line shuttle buses, but also the heavily used 74-Fullerton and 56-Milwaukee bus routes.

CTA Blue Line traffic detour

This diagram shows the intended detour in blue, designated by signs on the street, and the more commonly used detour in orange that slowed buses. Image: Adapted from Chicago Transit Authority

A small sign on Fullerton directed drivers to turn onto California, but the road ahead was wide open, and barriers didn’t force a turn off Fullerton until Milwaukee. Forcing a turn at California would have kept Milwaukee relatively clear for the many shuttle buses needed to carry Blue Line passengers, minimizing their delay and keeping the “rapid transit” service at least a little bit “rapid.”

Traffic jam on Milwaukee Ave. during Blue Line track work

The little detour sign that most westbound drivers on Fullerton ignored.

Gareth Newfield, a longtime Logan Square resident I interviewed while we both watched crawling, bunched-up shuttle buses from inside the Logan Square Comfort Station, noted that “the CTA always provides complete service” during construction projects, “but it doesn’t provide good service.”

Newfield suggested shifting priorities. “How about we say, ‘Getting people to the airport is such a priority that we’ll shut down a [traffic] lane to run express buses’ ” and maintain adequate service for Blue Line riders traveling through Logan Square. “The city isn’t taking [that trip] seriously, but the CTA does.” Newfield added that the few personnel dispatched to a site aren’t thinking about traffic jams as a system: “even a cop… isn’t thinking about it – ‘hold on folks, this bus needs to go first’ — or limit[ing] turns.”

Traffic jam on Milwaukee Ave. during Blue Line track work

Drivers line up to turn onto Milwaukee from Fullerton, instead of making the recommended detour earlier.

Even where there were additional lanes, for example through the square, no space was dedicated for transit; instead, both lanes were filled with cars. The CTA didn’t respond by press time to a request about shuttle bus speed data.

He later tweeted that “[I] probably could have walked faster.”

Police officers or Traffic Management Aides were not on scene to change or hold traffic signals, or to prevent turns onto Milwaukee when they saw a shuttle bus coming.

Erin Borreson was biking northwest on Milwaukee to the Comfort Station; she had to get off her bike and walk on the sidewalk because there was too much traffic. “Buses were [driving] so close to the parked cars,” she explained, “and there’s no way a biker could have gotten through.” Borreson said she was not only more comfortable on the sidewalk than in the jammed street, but added “I was faster on the sidewalk.”

The next Blue Line bus bridge along an equally congested stretch of Milwaukee will start Friday, April 4, replacing Blue Line service at Damen and Western. The shuttles will run a much longer route than the first weekend — from Western Avenue to the Clark/Lake station –  because it’s the only way to provide fully accessible service.

The same problems may recur that weekend, unless there are appropriately enforced detours. Whenever there are more buses on the road, that means more traffic. The city has a lot of options at its disposal to live up to the spirit of its Complete Streets policy, and to put transit riders first.

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At Long Last, Stony Island May Get Protected Bike Lanes

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CDOT rendering of a protected bike lane on Stony Island.

Years ago, under Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Chicago Department of Transportation proposed piloting the city’s first protected bike lane on Stony Island between 69th and 77th. By February 2011 they’d received a $3.2 million federal grant to build it. However, construction wasn’t slated to begin until 2014.

We all know what happened since that grant was awarded. Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor in February 2011 and soon announced a plan to build 100 miles of protected lanes in his first term. That July, the first PBL opened on Kinzie, and things have moved quickly since then. CDOT has built more than 16 miles of protected lanes and more than 31 miles of buffered lanes within three years.

Today DNAinfo reported that there’s finally movement on building protected lanes on Stony Island. It’s not yet clear whether this is the same project that was originally funded, and I haven’t heard back from CDOT yet on this subject. Either way, the resulting road diet could go a long way towards improving safety on this highway-like, eight-lane surface street.

At a 5th Ward community meeting yesterday, CDOT officials discussed plans for a $3 million streetscape project on Stony Island from 67th to 79th. They presented several different options for reconsidering the street. One possibility is converting a northbound travel lane into a two-way bike lane, protected from traffic by narrow landscaped medians. Another scenario would convert both a northbound and a southbound travel lane into wide, one-way bike lanes protected by medians.

Some attendees feared that converting travel lanes would cause rush hour traffic jams on the route connecting Lake Shore Drive to the Chicago Skyway and I-90. However, CDOT project manager David Smith pointed out that Lake Shore Drive, which also has eight lanes, carries 70,000 vehicles a day. Stony Island only carries 35,000 per day, half as many as LSD, and that excess capacity encourages speeding. Converting a lane or two to PBLs would also benefit motorists and pedestrians, because it would calm traffic and shorten crossing distances.

Residents were also incredulous that bike lanes on Stony Island would actually get used, but Smith said traffic counts show cyclists are already pedaling on the massive street to connect to 71st, which they ride east to the southern terminus of the Lake Front Trail.  Safety improvements are clearly needed. Stony Island has seen 45 bike crashes in the last five years, perhaps partly because of high car speeds.

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Loop Station Consolidation Will Offer Quicker Ride for Straphangers

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Rendering of the Washington/Wabash station.

Currently, the Green Line’s Morgan station, with its sleek green glass canopies, has my vote for the most attractive CTA stop. That’s about to change, as the Chicago Department of Transportation gets ready to build a new superstation at Washington and Wabash featuring dramatic undulating awnings, designed by Teng + Associates. The city says the faceted skeletal steel and glass structures refer to the curving forms of the lakefront and Grant Park, as well as the historic Jeweler’s Row district on Wabash; I think they resemble a ribcage. Either way, they’ll be a striking addition to the city.

The new $75 million station is bankrolled by a federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grant, plus a 20 percent local match. It will replace the existing Randolph/Wabash and Madison/Wabash stations, which date back to 1896 and stand little more than one full city block from each other.

Consolidating the two into a single stop will improve train times and decrease operating costs. And, unlike the old ones, the new station will be fully accessible for people with disabilities. The Randolph and Madison stops currently serve about two million riders each per year, and the city predicts the Washington station will get over four million, making it the fifth busiest in the system.

Construction is slated to start in August and last 18 months. The Madison stop will be closed during the work, but the Randolph station will remain in service until the new station opens. Sections of Wabash will be closed to car traffic during parts of construction, but sidewalks will remain open throughout the entire project.

On Thursday, CDOT held an open house about the new station at the Chicago Cultural Center. Citizens were invited to check out display boards, talk to staff about the project, and provide feedback on the environmental assessment document, available online here, to a court reporter. Paper copies of the EA are available for review at the Harold Washington Library’s fifth floor municipal reference collection. Written comments on the EA can be sent to CDOT by 5 p.m. on Friday, April 4, 2014 via email at WashingtonWabashEA[at]CityofChicago.org, or in writing to Public Information Officer, Chicago Department of Transportation, 30 North LaSalle, Suite 1100, Chicago, IL 60602.

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How Do We Divvy? Data Challenge Winners Find Out

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Rodney Louie found that 25 percent of Divvy trips are taken in groups.

Divvy announced the Divvy Data Challenge‘s six winners this morning on its website. I talked to three winners to learn how they created their submissions, and what they learned about Divvy users in the process. The Data Challenge began February 11, when Divvy released data about 759,788 trips taken in 2013 and asked the public to create visualizations of numbers and patterns about bike-share in Chicago.

Most creative

Divvy data challenge: winner of Most Creative

Serendivvity reveals where and when men and women use Divvy bike-share.

This category had two winners since, as Divvy says, “Serendivvity and Sound of Divvy were both so creative, we couldn’t pick just one winner!” Serendivvity is a “parody of a dating website based on the gender and age data aggregated” from Divvy members. It was created by designers Alex Killough, Craig Clark, Sabella Flagg, Stephen Menton, and Theresa Stewart of gravitytank.

Serendivvity visitors are asked if they’re looking for “dames” or “dudes,” and in which neighborhood. In other words, Serendivvity is a map that can tell someone when to show up at which Divvy dock to “meet a rider of their preference.”

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