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KaBOOM Promotes Placemaking as a Way to Encourage Play

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Detail from a sketch of “The Playable City of the Future,” brainstormed during the summit in Pilsen.

Active, creative, and social play has a number of benefits for children, especially those in low-income, urban communities. However, nowadays many kids don’t get enough opportunities for healthy play, according to staffer Janine Kacprzak from the nonprofit KaBOOM. The organization has helped build over 2,500 playgrounds across the country, including hundreds in Chicago, Kacprzak said.

KaBOOM recently shifted its focus from simply building playgrounds to encouraging cities to provide “corner stores of play” — opportunities for children to recreate close to home. At the Playful City USA Summit in Chicago last month, leaders from around the country took a tour of the Pilsen neighborhood, brainstorming play-friendly placemaking ideas that could work in any community.

One of the main reasons why many kids don’t engage in healthy play as often as they should is the issue of proximity, Kacprzak said. A park or playground can feel far away because a family has to drive or take transit to access it, or walk to a different part of the neighborhood.

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Kacprzak points out faded murals along the 16th Street rail embankment that could be refurbished to brighten up the block. Photo: John Greenfield

Unsafe or unpleasant conditions for walking or biking, including poor street design, crumbling infrastructure, or concerns about crime, exacerbate the problem. As a result, the majority of low-income families KaBOOM surveyed tend to take their kids out to play on weekends, sometimes for several hours at a time.

If this kind of play is the equivalent of a weekly trip to the supermarket, the nonprofit proposes creating “corner stores of play” through placemaking – activating underused public spaces. “The idea is to make smaller play areas throughout the city, so it’s not this huge hassle of getting kids ready for an outing, but something nearby,” Kacprzak said. She added that cities who use this approach in all kinds of neighborhoods, and prioritize investing in parks and play in general, benefit economically by attracting and retaining families and businesses.

212 municipalities of all sizes are participating in KaBOOM’s Playful City USA program by using play as a strategy to address challenges in their communities. Representatives of 12 of the cities convened at Blue 1647, a tech incubator space at 1647 South Blue Island in Pilsen, for the summit.

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Effective “Stop For Pedestrians” Signs Worth The Minimal Replacement Cost

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A city crew installs a “Stop for Pedestrians” sign on Diversey Parkway in 2012.

An article in Monday’s Tribune confirmed what we already knew: Chicago’s “Stop for Pedestrians” signs have been taking a beating from careless drivers. In 2012, the city began installing the placards by crosswalks at unsignalized intersections. The Trib reported that 78 percent of the 344 signs installed have been replaced after motorists crashed into them.

The Chicago Department of Transportation estimates that a total of $265,000 has been spent so far to install and replace signs. Material and labor for replacing a sign at one location costs $550. Usually, two are replaced at the same time, which costs $920. Even so, the amount the city has spent on sign replacement comes out to roughly five cents per Chicagoan.

CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld told the Trib that this minimal expense is worthwhile. “The signs have gone a long way in increasing driver awareness of the four-year-old state law” requiring drivers to stop for pedestrians, she said.

Deputy Commissioner Luann Hamilton said the same thing at a Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council Meeting earlier this month: “I think it’s worth $920 to put them out there, even at the frequency of every 6-12 months.”

The price tag for installing and replacing the signs pales in comparison to the price of losing life and limb to crashes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that pedestrian fatalities cost the Illinois economy $168 million in 2005. CDOT estimates the social and economic cost of each crash as $53,000 per injury, or $3.8 million per death [PDF].

48th Ward Alderman Harry Osterman endorsed the value of the placards, telling the Trib that his ward has “replaced our fair share of these signs, but people are slowing down and stopping” as a result. An Active Transportation Alliance study confirmed that signs are working. The report found that three times as many drivers stopped for pedestrians at Cook County crosswalks with the signs than at crosswalks without them.

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Eyes on the Street: The Case of the Missing Bike Lane Bollards

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The Broadway protected lanes before and after bollard removal. Photos: John Greenfield

Uptown’s Broadway protected bike lanes, installed earlier this year, are a great example of the power of a road diet with PBLs. By converting a former four-lane speedway to two travel lanes, a turn lane, and protected lanes, the city transformed a hectic, dangerous stretch of Broadway into one that’s calmer and safer for pedestrians and drivers, as well as cyclists.

Recently, however, all of the plastic posts that separated the curbside bike lanes from the parking lane mysteriously vanished. This isn’t the first time that posts, also known as bollards, have disappeared from Chicago PBLs. They’re commonly taken out by careless drivers and construction projects.

Last winter, one of the snowiest on record, was particularly rough on the city’s protected bike lanes. Snowplows knocked out plenty of PBL posts on Dearborn and Kinzie. By springtime, every single bollard on Milwaukee, the city’s busiest bike lane street, had been obliterated.

But we haven’t even had significant snowfall yet, so what happened to the Broadway Bollards? A few theories sprang to mind. Broadway is one of the few retail streets in Chicago with protected lanes. Perhaps business owners complained about losing access for curbside deliveries, so the posts were removed to make it easier for truckers to temporarily park in the lanes?

On the other hand, crews recently filmed scenes for the movie “Batman Vs. Superman” in Uptown. They temporarily turned the Lawrence Red Line stop into a fictional “Gotham Transit Authority” station. Maybe the producers felt that bike lane bollards would look out of place in the Caped Crusader’s hometown.

While the bollard removals are puzzling, some feel that plastic posts are superfluous on parking-protected bike lanes. For example, the posts generally aren’t installed along parking-protected lanes in New York City.

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Why Did Divvy Stations Dance Around River West, Lincoln Square?

A station was moved from Lincoln and Eastwood to a Leavitt and Lawrence as part of the new streetscape and road diet on Lawrence.

A station was moved from Lincoln and Eastwood to Leavitt and Lawrence, as part of the new streetscape and road diet on Lawrence.

Divvy bike-share stations were designed to be easy to move around, with their modular construction and off-grid solar power. Sure enough, plenty of Divvy members have had their routines disrupted by station moves lately: 8,000 Divvy members received word this year that stations they’d recently used were on the move. One Divvy member forwarded two such emails to Streetsblog and asked why the stations had to be moved, since the new locations didn’t seem any more convenient than the prior locations.

Over in the heart of Lincoln Square, Divvy moved a station from Lincoln and Eastwood avenues, in the midst of a thriving retail district of small shops clustered around the Old Town School of Folk Music and the Davis cinema, one-third of a mile away to Leavitt Avenue and Lawrence Avenue. Even though the move will make Divvy trips to Lincoln Square businesses a bit less convenient, there’s another dock one block up Lincoln at the Western Brown Line ‘L.’ Plus, the move expanded Divvy’s reach into the neighborhood north of Lawrence, and gives a boost to a revitalizing shopping area on Lawrence Avenue.

Sean Wiedel, who manages Divvy for the Chicago Department of Transportation, said “we worked with the 47th ward office to better serve the new Lawrence Avenue streetscape and businesses that are opening in the corridor.” Winnemac Park residents were brought into the Divvy service area, he said, whereas before they would have to cross Lawrence – a mean feat before the diet – to access existing locations in Lincoln Square or at the Ravenswood Metra station to the east. Additional Divvy docks were added at the ‘L’ stop to accommodate potential new demand within the Square.

The second relocation moved a Divvy station from Milwaukee Avenue and Green Street in River West two blocks away, to Union Street and Grand Avenue. The previous location wasn’t perfect, since it was hidden behind a block of dilapidated buildings and all but invisible from the Blue Line station entrances half a block away – but the new location is even further from the Blue Line, and also across a busy six-way intersection.

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What Will It Take for Chicago Win Gold From the Bike League?

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CDOT recently added bike lanes on Lawrence between Ashland and Western as part of a road diet, filling in a gap in the bike network. More connectivity between bikeways will help our mode share. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday, the League of American Bicyclists announced that 55 new and renewing municipalities have won recognition in the group’s Bicycle Friendly Communities program, and there are now participants in all 50 states. However, even after all the strides Chicago has made in the last few years, we’re still languishing at the same Silver-level ranking we’ve been at since 2005.

The Bicycle Friendly Communities ratings serve as a useful carrot to reward cities for stepping up their bike game. Communities of all sizes may apply or reapply once a year by submitting info about the progress they’ve made in the “5 Es”: Engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation. The results of these efforts — in the form of ridership levels and safety performance — are also factored into the rankings. The league announces the results twice a year.

In the last few years Chicago has taken big steps to improve cycling, including establishing the nation’s second-largest bike-share system, building dozens of miles of buffered and protected bike lanes, and launching construction on the Bloomingdale Trail. Was that not enough to jump up a level in the Bike League’s eyes?

“Mayor Emanuel really set really ambitious goals for infrastructure,” noted Bill Nesper, who manages the Bicycle Friendly Communities program. However, Chicago’s newer initiatives — such as Divvy, the Bloomingdale and most of the city’s next-generation bike lanes — weren’t factored into the current LAB ratings because the city of Chicago hasn’t renewed its application since the spring of 2012. The city plans to reapply this February, according to Chicago Department of Transportation staffer Mike Amsden.

Even so, it’s no sure thing that Chicago will move up the ladder to Gold, Nesper said. Despite the new infrastructure, many locals and visitors still wouldn’t rate the Windy City as a particularly safe, comfortable, or convenient place to bike, certainly not compared to Gold-level San Francisco, Seattle, or Minneapolis, let alone Platinum-ranked Portland. Dangerous driving is common here, pavement quality is often lousy, and there are major gaps in the bikeway network. Our ridership levels and safety record reflect these shortcomings.

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Active Trans Plans 2015 Pedestrian Infra Campaign, Winter Bike Challenge

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Active Trans will be pushing for dedicated funding for pedestrian infrastructure next year. Photo: Suzanne Nathan.

Last Thursday at the Active Transportation Alliance’s annual member meeting, director Ron Burke announced plans for next year, including campaigns for better downtown bike parking and more funding for pedestrian infrastructure and Safe Routes to School programs. The advocacy group will also continue lobbying for bike access on South Shore Line trains, and launch a new winter bike commuting challenge.

At the meeting, attended by about 75 Active Trans members, Burke began by touting the group’s 2014 achievements. The new Kids on Wheels on-bike education program brought a trailer full of loaner bikes to suburban schools, and Active Trans recently secured funding for a second trailer. The group met with Metra to negotiate the loosening of restrictions on bringing bikes on board, including the elimination of most event-related blackout days and a new policy allowing cycles on early-morning inbound trains.

The Safe Crossings campaign announced the 20 most dangerous intersections in the city and the suburbs as a way to draw attention to pedestrian safety issues. “It’s really all about educating municipalities, and the Illinois Department of Transportation, frankly, about the importance of making our streets safe places for walking and biking,” Burke said.

This year, Active Trans worked with the Center for Neighborhood Technology to launch the Transit Future campaign, advocating for a new Cook County-based revenue stream to expand public transportation. “In Metropolitan Chicago, only one out of four people can get to work by transit in under 90 minutes,” Burke noted. “Our transit system is really from a different era. It really doesn’t work for where people live and work today. It hasn’t expanded — in fact it’s shrunk, a lot.”

Active Trans’ Family-Friendly Bikeways campaign is working to build more miles of advanced bike facilities — such as protected lanes, bike boulevards, and off-street trails – in the suburbs. The group has been pushing for light rail or bus rapid transit to be incorporated into plans for the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction, and is also lobbying for better separation of pedestrians and cyclists on the Lakefront Trail.

Active Trans has also helped stage Play Streets events, block parties that open neighborhood streets to pedestrians for healthy recreation. Staffer Jason Jenkins has created clever instructional videos on bike commuting. And the group organized to nip in the bud an alderman’s proposal to license and register cyclists, and has responded to anti-cycling messages in the media, such as bike-baiting columns from Tribune columnist John Kass, Burke said.

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BOMA Misses the Memo on How Loop BRT Will Work

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Rendering of BRT on Washington at LaSalle.

File this one under “People unclear on the concept.” On September 29, the Chicago Department of Transportation announced it had launched the bidding process for the $32.5 million Central Loop BRT project and released final plans for the corridor. Yesterday, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago published an ill-informed op-ed piece in Crain’s, warning that the current design for Washington Street will create carmaggedon, including crashes caused by right-turning vehicles.

It’s odd that the article, written by BOMA vice president Michael Cornicelli, contains so many misconceptions about the plan. The city met with the association several times to discuss the project, according to CDOT spokesman Pete Scales.

“It’s difficult to imagine Chicago’s downtown traffic becoming worse, but that could be the result if the city of Chicago doesn’t steer its Central Loop Bus Rapid Transit plan in the right direction,” Cornicelli warns. He claims that the BRT project will reduce the number of lanes available to motorists on Washington from the current four or five to only two, in order to make room for the dedicated bus lanes, island bus stations, and a protected bike lane. “Reducing vehicular capacity by half on this heavily traveled route means a dramatic increase in congestion and delays.”

Actually, in addition to maintaining two through lanes for motorists at all times, the design provides left- and right-turn lanes where these turns are permitted, which means three or four lanes will be available to motorists. True, car traffic will move somewhat slower on eastbound Washington and westbound Madison after BRT is implemented on these streets, but there are plenty of parallel streets that can be used as alternatives.

Meanwhile, CDOT predicts the project will make an eastbound trip across the Loop 25 percent shorter, and a westbound trip 15 percent shorter. While cars and taxis occupy most of the downtown street space and cause most of the congestion, buses make up only four percent of motor vehicles in the Loop but move 47 percent of the people traveling in vehicles. BRT will speed commutes for an estimated 30,000 people per day, which more than justifies slightly longer travel times for a much smaller number of drivers.

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Eyes on the Street: New Bike Lanes on the North Side

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New buffered lanes on the 2300 block of North Elston. Photo: CDOT

This is the time of year when the Chicago Department of Transportation hustles to get the last of the new bikeways installed before it’s too cold to stripe thermoplastic. Since the threshold is 50 degrees Fahrenheit, this week’s cold snap could mean the end of the construction season. Hopefully, this year, CDOT won’t attempt to continue striping after it’s too cold, which has previously led to problems with quickly disappearing bike lane markings.

Yesterday, I took advantage of the nice weather to visit a few new facilities on the North Side. On my way out, I checked out the progress of the Lawrence streetscape in Ravenswood and Lincoln Square. It’s now largely finished from Clark to Western, save for a few details like bioswales and neighborhood identifier poles with “bike arcs” for locking cycles. Baby-blue metal chairs, an interesting alternative to benches, have been installed in a few spots.

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Street chairs on Lawrence Avenue. Photo: John Greenfield

Next, I checked out a 1.25-mile stretch of new buffered bike lanes on Kedzie from Addison to Logan in Avondale and Logan Square. Previously, there were non-buffered lanes on the street from Logan to Barry, just south of the Kennedy Expressway. The new lanes, striped on reasonably smooth existing pavement, are buffered on both sides.

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New buffered lanes on Kedzie make it a little safer to ride under the Kennedy. Photo: CDOT

The BBLs help provide safer passage through viaducts under the expressway and nearby Metra tracks. Green paint has been added to the northbound bike lane by the Kennedy onramp, to remind drivers to look for cyclists before merging right. The buffered lanes also run right by Revolution Brewing’s production brewery, 3340 North Kedzie, which has a pleasant malt aroma. Aside from the Kinze protected lanes, located by the Blommer Chocolate factory, Kedzie may be the best-smelling bikeway in Chicago.

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Actually, Logan Square’s Neither Traffic-Choked Nor Overcrowded

Caption. Image: Wheeler Kearns Architects

Rendering of a proposed development near the California ‘L’ stop. Image: Wheeler Kearns Architects

Late last month, over 100 people crowded into a public presentation to hear about a proposed development of 254 housing units, plus 72 car parking spaces and retail, on what’s now a vacant lot around the corner from the California Blue Line ‘L’ station in Logan Square. The number of parking spaces proposed is 182 fewer than the city’s zoning would typically require, but recent changes to city laws make it possible for exceptions to be granted on sites near transit, and an adopted plan for this area encourages taller buildings with less parking.

Many attendees echoed the auto-centric concerns commonly heard at such meetings. Some said that the car parking proposed will prove completely insufficient, or that 300 or more new residents would result in unfathomable congestion. A flyer distributed door to door in the neighborhood sternly warned that in “High Rise City,” “They will make it impossible to drive on California or Milwaukee.”

Here’s the rub, though: Traffic volumes on major streets near the development have dropped substantially, and so has the local population. If there are fewer people and fewer cars, how could it be that some perceive traffic congestion to be worse than ever?

Between 2006 and 2010 (the most recent year available), the Illinois Department of Transportation reports that the number of drivers on Milwaukee Avenue and California Avenue declined by 17.8 percent and 28.6 percent, respectively. Traffic volumes on both streets fell by thousands of cars per day: approximately 2,600 fewer cars on Milwaukee and 4,600 fewer cars on California.

Population loss in the area has also been dramatic, since household sizes are rapidly declining. The population in the area around this proposed development declined by over 3,000 people, or 16 percent, from 2000 to 2010. The number of housing units increased by 316, but that was more than offset by an average household size that dropped from 2.7 to 2.2. It’s unlikely that the population trends have changed much since 2010: Census estimates project that the development’s Census tract added fewer than 100 people from 2008 to 2012.

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Eyes on the Street: Metra Renovates 18th Street Electric Station

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A Metra Electric train passes the renovated 18th Street station on Sunday.

The South Loop-focused blog Sloopin reported last month that more residents in the Prairie District are using the Metra Electric service’s 18th Street station to catch a fast, on-time ride into the East Loop. A trip from 18th Street to Van Buren or Millennium Stations costs $2.75 and takes 10-15 minutes. A similar ride on the Chicago Transit Authority’s 3-King Drive bus would take over 20 minutes and cost $2.00, and no CTA rail stations are currently within walking distance.

The growing crowd using the previously rickety station will undoubtedly appreciate its recent facelift. Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis said they’re replacing the station’s wooden platform, shelters, and stairs. “We expect to be done,” he said, “by the next home game for the Bears on November 16.” The work appeared to be complete as of yesterday.

Chicago Bears football fans use the 18th Street station to walk to Soldier Field. Trains from 18th Street continue through the South Side and south suburbs, through Hyde Park, Pullman, University Park, Riverdale, and Blue Island.

During rush hour, the Metra Electric’s “main line” between downtown and Hyde Park – before the line splits into separate branches – runs with rapid transit-like frequency, with trains arriving downtown every 2 to 8 minutes. Few of these trains, though, stop at 18th Street. On weekday mornings, only four inbound trains will pick up passengers at 18th, but 30 trains always bypass the station. Sloopin’ is asking its readers to email Metra and request to have more trains stop at 18th, even if only as a “flag stop.” (Trains will only stop at flag stops if a passenger, either on board the train or on the platform, requests so.)

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