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Big Marsh could be a terrific bike park, but it’s not yet safe to pedal there

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A winter Slow Roll ride to Big Marsh. Photo: Slow Roll Chicago

[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.]

Last week I rode the Red Line to 95th Street with my cruiser bike in tow, then pedaled about six miles to the future site of Big Marsh Bike Park, just east of Lake Calumet. Boosters say it will be a world-class, family-friendly venue for BMX riding, mountain biking, and cyclocross racing that will also provide recreational and economic opportunities for residents of low-income southeast- side neighborhoods near the park.

The bike park will lie within Big Marsh, a 278-acre expanse of open space that the Chicago Park District acquired in 2011. Environmental remediation is currently under way, since the area was formerly a slag-dumping site for steel mills, and the Park District expects the facility will open in late fall.

But my ride from the el station would have been traumatizing for novice cyclists. It was comfortable at first—a bike lane led south on State Street, then another took me east on 103rd. But after I passed under the Metra Electric tracks at Cottage Grove, the bike lane disappeared and 103rd ballooned into a four-lane highway with fast traffic, including several 18-wheelers.

Next I rode south on Stony Island toward Lake Calumet, but things weren’t much better on that stretch of road. Although Stony and Doty, the two streets that circle the lake, offer scenic views of the remediated landfill, with its tallgrass, ponds, and a variety of wild birds, they’re also frequented by fast-moving trucks headed to and from industrial businesses. I got spooked by a huge gas tanker thundering by even though I spent six years of my life working as a bike messenger on the mean streets of the Loop.

Getting to Big Marsh is equally arduous if you’re coming from the Roseland and Pullman communities to the west, the East Side, South Deering, and Hegewisch neighborhoods to the east, or the Altgeld Gardens housing project to the south. There is no direct transit access to the park, although several CTA bus lines terminate at a bus garage a 2.5-mile bike ride from the park.

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Shop by Bike and Win Prizes During the “Ride & Seek Lakeview” Promotion

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This sticker in a shop’s window means they offer a discount to cyclists.

Smart community leaders brainstorm ways to get more butts on bicycles. After all, more people traveling in the neighborhood on two wheels instead of four means less traffic congestions and pollution. And when more shoppers access retail strips by bikes instead of cars, there are similar (or even better) economic benefits for the area, with less need for car parking. Plus, when people travel at slower speeds, they’re more likely to notice local storefronts and consider patronizing the businesses.

Accordingly, the Lakeview and Lakeview East chambers of commerce are partnering this year on a Bike-Friendly Business District program that promotes shopping local and helps promote the Lakeview neighborhood as a great place to shop by bike. The Lakeview chamber originally launched the initiative in 2014 through a partnership with the West Town Chamber of Commerce and the Active Transportation Alliance. The program includes improved cycling infrastructure, promotional materials and bike maps, plus educational and encouragement activities like workshops and rides, plus a discount program for customers arriving by bicycle.

Both the Lakeview and Lakeview East chambers have installed dozens of branded bike racks on their business strips featuring the names of the neighborhoods, paid for with Special Service Area funds. The Lakeview East racks have temporarily been removed for refurbishing.

Last year the Lakeview chamber installed a fix-it station at the Southport Brown Line station with a pump and tools for simple repairs. Unlike the fix-it stations that West Town Bikes recently installed on the Bloomingdale Trail, which sadly were vandalized soon after installation, the Southport facility hasn’t seen major tool theft problems, according to SSA 27 manager Dillon Goodson.

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Indiana Will Fund Rewriting Faulty Illiana Environmental Impact Statement

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The Illiana’s high tolls would have driven motorists to use other routes instead. Photo: Tim Messer

The Illiana Tollway, a proposed highway boondoggle that would run through land south of the Chicago metro area, is the project that just won’t die. The tollway would be a joint project of the Illinois and Indiana transportation departments and cost Illinois taxpayers a minimum of $500 million. That’s $500 million that might otherwise be spent on necessary and financially viable projects like rebuilding the North Red Line, constructing the Ashland bus rapid transit route, and building Pace’s transitways.

Greg Hinz recently eported in Crain’s that it appears the two states have reached an agreement that Indiana will spend money to rewrite the project’s Environmental Impact Statement, which a federal judge ruled invalid last June. This federally-required document was supposed to explain why the tollway is needed, and how all impacts – to people and their property, flora and fauna – would be mitigated. Since the Illinois still hasn’t passed a state budget, it’s unable to pay for updating the EIS. We don’t know how much Indiana would spend on this.

Last year, the Environmental Law & Policy Center represented Openlands and the Midewin Heritage Association in a lawsuit against the Illiana and won by pointing out that the original EIS used circular logic. The document argued the tollway was needed in order to provide transportation access new residential and industrial development. However, its projections were based on the assumption that the tollway would be built, and would therefore induce new development in an area of farmland and nature preserves.

There are many reasons why building the Illiana would be a bad idea. For starters, most American roads don’t even pay for their own maintenance, let alone construction. Illinois’ transportation infrastructure network already has a $43 million maintenance backlog.

Additionally, construction of the tollway would be funded through an extremely dubious public-private partnership scheme, requiring the state to compensate the concessionaire if the highway doesn’t generate a certain amount of profits. Since the plan calls for high tolls, many motorists were predicted to use alternative routes, so the Illiana would see relatively little traffic and not be a money-maker, leaving taxpayers on the hook for the revenue shortfall.

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How Friends of the Parks Saved a Parking Lot and Killed the Lucas Museum

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The original Lucas Museum plan called for building on Soldier Field’s south lot. Photo: Chris Riha, Chicago Reader

[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.]

As a sustainable ransportation advocate, I’m jazzed whenever land that’s been unnecessarily earmarked for moving or storing automobiles is put to more productive use.

So when Mayor Emanuel first proposed bringing the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts to Chicago two years ago, one of the potential benefits that most excited me was the prospect of replacing a 1,500-car parking lot with a world-class cultural amenity, plus four acres of new green space.

The ugly expanse of asphalt where the museum would have gone is Soldier Field’s south lot, located on prime lakefront real estate between the football stadium and McCormick Place’s monolithic Lakeside Center.

Granted, this blacktop blemish also serves as a spot for tailgating, an age-old Chicago Bears tradition. In addition, it accommodates other special events that generate revenue for the city. But the Lucas plan would have largely moved the surface parking off the lakefront, while providing new tailgating opportunities in other locations.

So I was bummed when the advocacy organization Friends of the Parks launched a legal battle against the south lot proposal. While the group said it supports bringing the Lucas facility to our city, it argued that building it on the parking lot site would violate the city’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which states that “in no instance will further private development be permitted east of Lake Shore Drive.”

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Eyes on the Street: Loop Link Lane Scofflaws Continue to Be a Problem

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A cab driver blocks a bus in the Loop Link lane.

It’s been four months since the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor launched downtown, but it seems like there are still some bugs to be worked out of the system.

The two main issues I’m aware of are bus speeds and private vehicles using the red lanes, which are marked “CTA Bus Only.” The city projected that the system, which also includes raised boarding platforms, and white “queue jump” traffic signals to give buses a head-start at lights, would double cross-Loop speeds from the previous, glacial rush-hour average of 3 mph to 6 mph.

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A private car blocks one of the red lanes.

However, not long after the launch, bus speeds still averaged about 3 mph, largely due to a rule requiring the operators to approach the stations at that speed in order to avoid crashing into the platforms or creaming passengers with their rear-view mirrors. The speeds seemed to improve a bit in subsequent weeks, although CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman told me today that the 3 mph platform restriction is still in place.

“Performance and ridership are trending in the right direction but we still don’t have enough data to draw meaningful conclusions,” Tolman added.

The fact that private bus lines, motorists and taxis drivers sometimes drive or stop in the lanes can’t be helping Loop Link speeds either. This is particularly common with the charter bus lines that ferry office workers to and from Metra stations. When I talked to staff from The Free Enterprise System and Aries Charter Transportation last month, they were fairly unapologetic, arguing that their drivers don’t have much choice but to use the lanes for pick-ups and drop-offs.

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What Could Chicagoans Learn About Rail Transportation From a Trip to Japan?

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A Streetcar in Hiroshima. Photo: Rick Harnish

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is hosting a train-focused tour of Japan that should offer Chicago residents a fascinating window on what’s like to live with truly world-class transit and railroad service. The trip, which takes place between September 27 and October 9, is an opportunity to check out how fast, frequent, and dependable trains help create vibrant communities.

MHSRA president Rick Harnish has previously led rail-focused tours of Spain, France, Germany and China. Highlights of the Japan trip will include riding the Shinkansen bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka – the world’s first and busiest high-speed line. Participants will tour a maintenance facility for JR Central, which runs the line.

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The Nagoya Railway Museum. Photo: Rick Harnish

They’ll also check out a Nippon Sharyo railcar factory – In 2012 the company opened a branch in Roselle, Illinois, to fulfill a contract for 160 “Highliner” railcars for Metra Electric Line service, plus orders for other American rail lines. The group will travel to a number of other Japanese cities by rail, including Kyoto, Hakodate, Nagoya, and Hiroshima, visiting various rail museums and cultural attractions and, of course, riding the local Metro systems.

Through out the trip, there will be opportunities for rail experts and enthusiasts to discuss what they’re seeing and relate them to potential American high-speed rail systems, such as proposed lines from Chicago to St. Louis and Detroit. “Every time I have ridden high-speed trains in other cities, I’ve gone, ‘Oh, I get it,’” Harnish says. “So we’re trying to get more people to see these things up close and see how they can work.”

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Cast Your Vote for the Milwaukee Avenue Bike Counter Design

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Wicker Park/Bucktown

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Comic Book

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1st Ward

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a chance to have your say on what Chicago’s newest piece of bike infrastructure will look like.

The real estate company LG Development, in conjunction with the Chicago Department of Transportation, is planning to install a bike counter in front of a transit-oriented development they’re building at 1241 North Milwaukee in Wicker Park. They received three different proposals for the image panels of the counter, a vertical, rectangular device called an Eco-TOTEM, manufactured by the Montreal-based company Eco Counter, and they’ve asked Streetsblog to host the poll to pick the winner

The proposed designs include “Wicker Park/Bucktown” by Transit Tees, “Comic Book” by J. Byrnes from Fourth is King, and “1st Ward” by Clemente High School. You can cast your vote by clicking on one of the buttons below. The poll will be open until Saturday, April 30.

A display at the top of the bike counter will show the number of cyclists who have passed each day. A vertical display will show the total number of bike trips on the stretch for the year. As in other cities, the nearly real-time data will be posted on a website, and CDOT will also have direct access to the info.

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MPC: Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax Makes Sense, Won’t Happen for a While

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Cullerton: This guy is partly to blame for falling gas tax revenue. Photo: Frank Hebbert

Earlier this month the Metropolitan Planning Council released a report that found Illinois needs to raise $43 billion in revenue over the next decade to get our roads, bridges, and transit lines in a state of good repair. They called for raising the state gas tax, which has stayed flat at 19 cents since 1991, as well as raising vehicle registration fees. That idea got a mixed reception from state politicians, some of whom viewed a gas tax hike as political Kryptonite.

Interestingly, Senate President John Cullerton came out with his own infrastructure funding plan this week. He proposed implementing a vehicle miles traveled tax as a way to deal with falling gas tax revenue due to the growing popularity of more fuel-efficient hybrid and electric cars. Cullerton noted that even so-called “green” cars inflict wear-and-tear on Illinois roads, so It’s necessary to develop a more effective way to tax them.

“If all the cars were electric, there would be no money for the roads,” Cullerton told the Daily Herald. “The Prius owners are the reason we need the bill,” he said.

There are a several ways the VMT tax could potentially be collected, ranging laughably simple to high-tech. The first would be have drivers simply agree to pay the 1.5-cent per year based on the assumption that they’ll drive $30,000 miles a year, for an annual total of $450. Of course, that would be a great deal for Illinoisans who drive much more than that each year, and a terrible for those who drive much less.

A second option would be to have citizens self-report their mileage on a paper form. What could go wrong?

A third alternative would be an electronic device that would hook up to your vehicle’s odometer to provide an accurate count of how many miles you drive. However it might not know when you’ve left the state or are driving on a private road and therefore arguably shouldn’t be taxed by the state for those miles.

The most high-tech solution would be a GPS-powered gadget that can accurately keep track of exactly how many miles, on what roads, you’ve driven. Of course, there’d be privacy issues. What guaranteed would there be that a technician wouldn’t blackmail you after they observed you driving to a hideaway with your secret paramour? But that’s merely a hypothetical at this point.

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Dozens of Residents Showed Up for This Week’s South Side Bikeways Meetings

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Tuesday’s meeting. Photo: Anne Alt

After poor turnout from locals at last month’s two West Side bikeways hearing, with a total of only five area residents attending, there was a much better turnout at the two South Side meetings this week. The input sessions are part of a strategy by the Chicago Department of Transportation to improve bike equity for these parts of the city, which have historically gotten sparser bike lane coverage than the North and Northwest Sides, where more residents have advocated for them.

Monday night about 20 people attended a hearing at the Vodak-East Side Library in the East Side neighborhood, according to CDOT officials. I went to Tuesday’s meeting in Pullman where about 40 people showed up, including a staffer for 9th Ward alderman Anthony Beale. Many Pullman residents were there, along with people from the Riverdale community area, Beverly, and South Shore. Both meetings focused on the area roughly bounded by Vincennes, 91st, the lake, Indiana, and the Calumet River.

CDOT’s Mike Amsden of CDOT did a presentation explaining the planning process for the city’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, which was released in 2012. “What happened to the Bike 2015 Plan?” asked one attendee. Amsden explained that Bike 2015 was all about policy, while Streets for Cycling focuses on building a citywide bike network.

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The South Side study area

Prior to these meetings, CDOT reps met with Beale, 10th Ward alderman Susan Sadlowski Garza, and staff for aldermen Carrie Austin (34th) and Greg Mitchell (7th). Aldermen Howard Brookins (21st) and Michelle Harris (8th) were notified but did not schedule meetings.

Additional meetings were held with community organizations and institutions, including Southeast Environmental Task Force, Southeast Chicago Commission Pullman Civic Organization, Chicago State University, LISC Chicago, and Beverly Area Planning Association.

CDOT is taking public input on a draft of the proposed route map and weighing it along with technical criteria (route and feasibility analysis, as described in the presentation) in order to prioritize which routes should be built next.

Funding for route design is available now, although construction funding is not available for all mapped routes. Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds can be used, but planning and approval for CMAQ-funded bikeways takes a few years. Locally funded projects can be built faster, but city and state budget issues limit that option.

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CDOT’s 2015 Bikeways Report Highlights Last Year’s Many Innovative Projects

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CDOT tried lots of new stuff this year, including this treatment at Washington/Franklin, inspired by Dutch “protected intersections.” Photo: CDOT

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The Chicago Department of Transportation’s new report “2015 Bikeways – Year in Review” showcases the fact that the CDOT bike program got a heck of a lot of stuff done last year. It quantifies the significant progress that was made in 2015, the year the city debuted curb-protected bike lanes.

All told, CDOT installed about 20 miles of new buffered bike lanes and roughly three miles of protected lanes, as well as restriping some 19 miles of existing, faded lanes. The city has put in a total of 108 miles of bike lanes since Mayor Emanuel took office in 2011, including many miles of existing conventional lanes that were upgraded to buffered or protected lanes. Currently there are 87 miles of buffered lanes and 21.35 miles of protected lanes.

The city’s first curb-protected lanes went in on Sacramento, Milwaukee, Clybourn, Washington, and 31st Street. Concrete protection represents a big step forward towards creating a bike network that so-called “interested but concerned” types will feel comfortable using.

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The Clybourn curb-protected bike lane. Photo: John Greenfield

The new curb protection on 31st represents an upgrade from the old PBLs, which were chiefly separated from car traffic by plastic posts. “This project exemplifies the strategy of installing bike infrastructure quickly and then upgrading the project through future inprovements,” the report states.

CDOT also built the city’s first raised bike lanes on the north sidewalk of a short stretch of Roosevelt between State and the Grant Park skate park. Green “crosswalks for bikes” still need to be marked to shepherd cyclists through the cross streets.

While the Roosevelt bikeway is more of a demonstration project than a particularly useful route, hopefully the city will build a longer raised bikeway in the near future. It would be great to see Chicago pilot Copenhagen-style facilities, where the bike lane is located above the street level but below the sidewalk, which helps keep walkers out of the bike lane.

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