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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 an Englewood 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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At Last, the Bloomingdale Looks Like a Trail

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Beth White stands under a lighting arch on the Humboldt Boulevard Bridge. Photo: John Greenfield

In June, Steven Vance and I got a sneak peek at construction to build the Bloomingdale Trail, AKA The 606. On Tuesday, I went back up on the rail line for a tour with Beth White from the Trust for Public Land, which is managing the project, and saw that major progress has been made over the last six months. Work on bridges and utilities is largely complete, access ramps are in place, many blocks of railings have been installed, and most of the 2.7-mile route is paved.

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Much of the eastern portion of the trail now has railings. Photo: John Greenfield

The $95 million multiuse trail and linear park was supposed to debut this fall but construction delays, caused by the long, cold winter, have postponed the opening date until June. The upside of the delay is that more of the landscaping for the path and its access parks will be completed by opening time than was originally planned.

Almost all of the rail line, except for locations currently accessed by heavy trucks, now sports a 14-foot-wide ribbon of concrete that will serve as the walking and biking surface. Mile markers have been embedded in the pavement, and two-foot-wide rubber surfaces will be added to the outside edges of the path to provide a soft surface for running — a similar configuration as the Lakefront Trail.

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City Has 83 Miles of Better Bike Lanes, Will Surpass 100 Mile Goal in 2015

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Crews stripe Kinzie Street, Chicago’s first protected bike lane, three and a half years ago. Photo: Brandon Souba

The Chicago Department of Transportation has nearly reached Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s much-ballyhooed goal of building 100 miles of buffered or protected bike lanes during his first term. CDOT staff at last week’s Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting said that they’ve striped 83 miles of the better bike lanes so far, and plan to surpass the 100-mile mark next spring.

2014 saw substantial progress made on building out the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020. 34 miles of buffered or protected bike lanes were striped this year, and now such lanes exist in 38 of the city’s 50 wards. As in prior years, almost all of these bike lanes have been buffered, rather than fully protected: This year, 30.75 miles of buffered lanes, and only 3.25 miles of protected lanes, were installed. Another nine miles of streets saw sharrows or conventional bike lanes added in 2014.

An additional 31.5 miles of buffered or protected bike lanes have been designed, and are planned for installation by the end of spring 2015 — giving the city a grand total of 114.5 miles of buffered or protected bike lanes.

Additional greenways, curb separated bikeways, and other safety improvements continue to be coordinated with the city’s ongoing street resurfacing projects. Yet work on some street could always be coordinated better, as with the recently repaved stretch of Garfield Boulevard between King Drive and the Dan Ryan Expressway. That project also included bulb-outs and improved pedestrian crossings, but bike lanes remain only a future possibility. Garfield, from Western Avenue to King Drive, is marked as a “Crosstown Bike Route” in the Streets for Cycling Plan.

A neighborhood greenway is being studied along 97th Street, west of the Dan Ryan and the Red Line’s 95th Street station. If it’s completed, the greenway would include a contraflow bike lane along Lafayette, between 95th and 97th, to link the bikeway to the busy station.

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Bike Chicago May Open a New Bike Station in a Transit-Friendly Location

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The bike station in Millennium Park. Photo: John Greenfield

One of Chicago’s nicest bike amenities is one we often taken for granted, the Millennium Park bike station. Built in 2004 by the Chicago Department of Transportation, using $3 million in federal funds, this attractive glass structure offers indoor parking for about 300 bikes, plus showers, lockers, rentals, and repairs.

The main drawback of the facility is its location. Located at the northeast corner of the park, at the top of one of the city’s only hills, it gets good use from office workers commuting to nearby towers like the Aon Center, the Prudential Building, and the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois headquarters. However, the station is too far away from the central Loop to be useful for many downtown employees who want to bike, park and shower before heading to work. It’s also not very handy for the majority of people who want to store a bike for “last mile” trips from the Metra and CTA stations to their workplaces.

Bike Chicago, which operates the bike station (and has sponsored Streetsblog Chicago) is considering opening a new station that would better serve those needs. Yesterday the company posted on The Chainlink, a local bike social networking site with over 11,000 members, to ask where Chicago cyclists would like to see another location, and what amenities they’d like to see. So far, four respondents have voted for a bike station near Union Station, and one has requested a cycle center near the Merchandise Mart.

The idea of a West Loop bike station is nothing new. The city’s Bike 2015 Plan, approved in 2006, noted the success of the Millennium Park station and recommended establishing another facility near a popular train station, such as the Ogilivie Transportation Center, to encourage multi-modal trips. In the late 2000s, CDOT looked into the possibility of setting up a cycle center next to Ogilvie’s new French Market, but never sealed the deal.

Ryan Lawber, the general manager of Bike Chicago, said that his company is only putting out feelers at the moment, but launching a second bike station is a definite possibility. “We’ve been running a bike station for ten years now, and it’s very successful,” he said. “We’ve got it down, so we’d like to expand.”

The existing cycle center is managed by MB Real Estate, which supplies janitorial services. In 2006 McDonald’s Corporation bought the naming rights to the stations for $5 million, which has been used to fund maintenance. Bike Chicago pays a percentage of its earnings to MB Realty as rent, and charges bike station members $35 per month or $199 a year. Day passes are also available for $5 for shower and locker use with bike parking, $3 without. “The bike station has definitely been profitable,” Lawber said.

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Wicker Park Station Rehab Experience Shows Power of Transit to Boost Sales

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Stan’s Donuts is one of several nearby businesses looking forward to a sales boost when the Damen stop reopens. Image: Google Streetview

The old saying goes, “You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry.” That’s been the case with Wicker Park merchants during the two month closure of the O’Hare Branch’s Damen station for renovations.

They’ve learned the hard way how important proximity to transit is to their bottom line. DNAinfo reports that several independent businesses near the Blue Line stop are so relieved that the station will reopen next Monday, December 22, they’re offering customers freebies and specials to celebrate.

“We did not realize how much we depend on the traffic, being so close to the station,” Ulysses Salamanca, owner of Flash Taco at 1570 North Damen, told DNA. The tacqueria, located just north of the transit hub, will be handing out free tamales during rush hours on the first three days after the station reopens. “There is a great community of Blue Liners, and we want to show gratitude to the commuters,” Salamanca said.

Ridership on the O’Hare Branch has risen by 30 percent over the last five years, and the Damen stop handles about 12 million rides a year. It closed on October 20 for renovations as part of the CTA’s $432 million Your New Blue initiative, which includes rehabs to 13 stations.

The $13.6 million Damen facelift includes the removal of the stop’s concession space, which will increase space for customers within the small, crowded station house by 36 percent. The rehab also includes new platforms, lighting, signs, and bike racks, although the stop won’t become wheelchair accessible. An installation by LA-based artist Gaston Noques will be added sometime in 2015.

“Our sales have been down 20 percent since the station closed,” Ken Lubinsky of Lubinsky Furniture, located around the corner at 1550 North Milwaukee, told DNA. He said CTA commuters often browse his store after work. If 63 ‘L’ riders – the station closure is lasting 63 days – drop off business cards between December 22 and January 10, the shop will hold a drawing for a free recliner chair.

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Could Rauner Stop the Illiana Boondoggle? Sure. But Will He?

Rich guy Bruce Rauner running for Illinois governor

Rauner says he needs to “see the studies” on the Illiana before making a decision on whether it should continue.

The Illiana Tollway, a joint proposal by the Illinois and Indiana departments of transportation to build a 47-mile highway through thinly populated farmland about 40 miles south of Chicago, rolled over another hurdle yesterday when the Federal Highway Administration approved the project’s environmental impact study. FHWA’s approval allows IDOT and InDOT to proceed with soliciting bids for the highway.

In a press release, IDOT called the FHWA’s “record of decision” an endorsement of the project and process. IDOT, of course, is reading too much into this: FHWA didn’t endorse the project by awarding it a huge grant. Instead, FHWA merely acknowledged that the Illiana meets the federal government’s minimum justification standard for highways. Even though the Illiana might meet that bare minimum, the FHWA isn’t putting its own money on the line. Rather, FHWA has simply said that Illinois is now free to waste its own money on the project.

This monstrous boondoggle – one of the most wasteful road projects in the entire country – surely won’t be stopped by IDOT or by any agency, like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, dependent on IDOT. The federal government’s involvement concluded with the EIS review, so it’s now out of the picture. It’s up to governor-elect Bruce Rauner to put an an end to this travesty.

Stephen Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently told the Better Government Association that Rauner “has the authority to shelve [Illiana]. He doesn’t have to ask anyone.” Schlickman added that, because the Illiana is “moving so rapidly,” Rauner will need to act quickly and decisively. IDOT is just weeks, or months, away from formally issuing a Request for Proposals to its short list of bidders, and award contracts soon afterwards.

Rauner told the Tribune’s editorial board in September that he didn’t know if the Illiana should be built, and that he’d “have to see the studies” before making that decision. In the past, he’s hedged on the issue – both saying that the project “may have the potential to be an economic development engine,” but also that IDOT’s public-private partnership shouldn’t leave taxpayers “holding the bag.”

If Rauner does take a close look at the studies, he’ll find that the Illiana’s economic development “potential” lies entirely in Indiana, and that the state’s $1.3 billion would create just 940 jobs through 2040. The editorial board directly asked Rauner if he had seen the studies, and wrote then that “there is no upside” to the road.

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CDOT Tweaks Randolph/Michigan, But It’s Still Dysfunctional for Pedestrians

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The new right turn signal at Randolph/Michigan. Photo: John Greenfield

When you build a fabulous new attraction in the center of a bustling metropolis, you obviously want to maximize pedestrian access to make it easy for large numbers of people to walk there, right? That’s not what happened with Millennium Park.

A month after the music and art venue opened in the summer of 2004, drawing big crowds of pedestrians, the city actually took steps that made it more difficult to access the park on foot. After observing many conflicts between pedestrians crossing Michigan and motorists turning left onto the avenue, city traffic engineers solved the problem – by eliminating the pedestrians.

The Chicago Department of Transportation ground out crosswalks and barricaded corners at several intersections. Most egregiously, they removed the crosswalk at the south leg of Michigan/Randolph. At the time, a CDOT spokesman told me it was done because of safety concerns. Conveniently for motorists, however, eliminating this pedestrian movement also facilitated southbound turns onto Michigan by drivers heading west on Randolph.

The city spent $51,000 to install bollards and chains at the southwest and southeast corners of this intersection, deterring people from walking directly from the Chicago Cultural Center (which houses the city’s main visitor info center) to Millennium Park. Instead, pedestrians are now expected to cross the street three times to make the same move: north across Randolph, east across Michigan, then south across Randolph again. In addition to creating a major detour across 19 lanes of traffic, this made the remaining crosswalks more crowded.

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Formerly you could cross directly between the southwest corner and the southeast. Now it takes three crossings to make the same trip.

When the Emanuel administration took over in 2011, the appointment of forward-thinking transportation commissioner Gabe Klein suggested that this kind of cars-first planning might be a thing of the past. Shortly after he started at CDOT, I asked Klein if for his take on the Michigan Avenue situation, and the fact that the city had also taken out the midblock crosswalk between Buckingham Fountain and the lakefront in 2004.

“The Randolph/Michigan issue is interesting,” he said. “I don’t like it, from the standpoint that I would like to give priority to the pedestrians that we’re relying on to populate the park. Having said that, if the crosswalk was taken out because of safety concerns, then we really have to look at Michigan Avenue, which I think is just a problem.”

Klein added that he would like to reinstall the Buckingham crosswalk, and a few months later, CDOT did just that. Last summer, the department restriped the crossing at the north leg of Washington/Michigan, the main entrance to the park.

However, the Randolph/Michigan intersection has remained unchanged – until this fall. In October, CDOT installed a new right-turn arrow signal for drivers heading west on Randolph and turning north on Michigan. A recent newsletter from 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly, who bankrolled the project with ward money, claimed the new dedicated right-turn phase is reducing congestion.

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MPC Hopes “Transportation Woes” Survey Will Get Lawmakers’ Attention

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CTA bus bunching: A transportation frustration everybody loves to hate. Photo: Argonne National Laboratories

Have you had it up to here with crumbling sidewalks and faded crosswalks? Are you sick of pedaling over lousy pavement, or barely visible bike lanes? Fed up with CTA bus routes that have already stopped running by the time you need a lift home, or Metra trains that never seem to run on time? Frustrated that there aren’t more east-west and north-south rapid transit lines, instead of just spoke routes?

Don’t get mad, get involved with the “Illinois Transportation Woes” survey. Yesterday, the Metropolitan Planning Council launched the new questionnaire for Chicago and Illinois residents, to find out what people’s top transportation frustrations are and what they would be willing to pay to overcome those challenges. They plan to use the survey results, along with photo and video documentation provided by participants, to let legislators know their constituents are upset about the current state of transportation in Illinois, and that they support increasing taxes and fees to fund better infrastructure

“With all the issues state lawmakers are facing, transportation hasn’t really risen to the top of their concerns,” MPC spokeswoman Mandy Burrell Booth said. “But we think there’s a big pent-up demand for better Illinois transportation options. We want to inform our legislators about this during their January session. There’s a growing consensus among civic groups that our leaders need to hear this.”

The survey isn’t directly related to the Active Transportation Alliance and Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Transit Future revenue campaign, or the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s Fund 2040 proposal to raise money for smart infrastructure investments. However, all of these groups, plus the Transportation for Illinois Coalition, the American Association of Retired Persons, and the American Automobile Association, are teaming up with MPC to get the word out about the questionnaire.

Booth hopes that several hundred people will fill out the first half of they survey, which asks about participants’ transportation habits, their level of satisfaction with their commute, and their understanding of how state transportation improvements are funded. The survey then notes that the state gas tax is currently 19 cents per gallon, and only costs the average Illinoisan $8.25 a month. Respondents are asked if they’d be willing to pay more in gas tax in order to fund transportation enhancements and, if so, how much.

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Active Trans to Oak Park Trustees: Quit Stalling on Madison Road Diet

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Rendering of Madison in Oak Park after a “four-to-three conversion” road diet.

Active Transportation Alliance director and Oak Park resident Ron Burke says he’s tired of waiting for the village’s trustees to move forward with making Madison a safer and more economically viable complete street. A plan was proposed nearly three years ago to reduce crashes and make the street more walkable and bikeable with a road diet on the street between Austin and Harlem. A survey at the time found the overwhelming majority of residents support the plan, Burke said.

The suburb has millions of dollars in tax increment financing, as well as a federal grant, that could be used for the project. However, no action has been taken since the plan came out, because the village board has been deliberating on whether to use TIF money for a new school district headquarters, Burke said. Now that decision is largely resolved, Active Trans recently launched a letter writing campaign to let Oak Park leaders know they shouldn’t further delay improvements to Madison, garnering over 200 signatures in a week.

Currently, this stretch of Madison is a wide, four-lane street with a limited number of left turn lanes and too much capacity for the 18,300 cars it carries on average each day. As a result, it’s got one of the highest crash rates in Chicagoland, with about 235 collisions per year. That’s roughly twice the collision rate of Lake Shore Drive, which the Illinois Department of Transportation has said is one of the most crash-prone roads in the state.

The collisions on Madison are mostly car-on-car, but an average of seven pedestrians and cyclists are struck on this stretch per year. Active Trans recently included Madison/Harlem on its list of the 20 most dangerous intersections in the region.  Tragically, 92-year-old Suleyman Cetin was fatally struck while biking across Madison at Scoville last year.

Furthermore, Madison serves as a major barrier to people on foot and bikes, discouraging travel between the north and south sides of Oak Park. The car-centric street layout and high speeds have also contributed to a lackluster retail picture on the street, with a high number of fast food restaurants and empty lots, Burke said.

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Eyes on the Street: Goodbye to “Lake Kluczynksi”?

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Formerly home to a large divot, the stretch of the Dearborn cycle track just south of Adams is now glassy-smooth. Photo: John Greenfield

The Dearborn protected bike lanes are one of the gems of Chicago’s bikeway network, but ever since the two-way route opened, poor drainage has been a major fly in the ointment.

Two years ago, the bike lanes were installed curbside, on existing asphalt that had some rough spots. From the get-go, rain and slush accumulated in low spots. Large puddles at Randolph (by Petterino’s Restaurant) and Adams (by the John C. Kluczynski Federal Building) were practically permanent geographic features, which remained full of water for days after a storm. “Lake Kluczynski” was usually filled with cigarette butts left by office workers on smoking breaks.

These bodies of water, which often occupied most of the width of the bike lanes, might be a thing of the past. The Chicago Department of Water Management improved drainage at Randolph last year, which helped shrink “Lake Petterino’s.” This September, the Chicago Department of Transportation repaved problem sections along Dearborn, which may eliminate Lake Kluczynski as well.

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“Lake Kluczynski” was a major annoyance for cyclists. Photo: John Greenfield

CDOT resurfaced about 500 linear feet of Dearborn in the Loop, largely to address poor pavement conditions, rather than drainage, according to spokesman Pete Scales. All affected bike lane markings have been restriped with thermoplastic.

When roughly 200 linear feet of new asphalt was put in south of Adams, by the federal building, the contractor added a slight downward grade towards the curb. That will help water flow out of the bike lanes, towards the sewer catch basin, Scales said. This month, CDOT will do a little more grinding on that stretch to further improve drainage.

The eradication of that not-so-great lake will be cause for celebration by cyclists. And, who knows, maybe it will encourage the IRS employees to toss their butts in a real trashcan.