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Gettin’ Quigley With It: The Congressman Talks Transportation Funding

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Mike Quigley discusses transportation funding at a Transit Future event. Photo: John Greenfield

[This piece originally ran in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

If you’re not a transportation geek like myself, you may be most familiar with Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL 5th) from his hilarious segment on “The Colbert Report.” His North Side district includes Boystown, and he’s known as a strong ally of the LGBT community. Therefore, Stephen Colbert, in his persona as a conservative blowhard, baited Quigley by insisting that homosexuality is a choice:

Quigley: I don’t think you choose. It’s from birth. You’re gay, and it’s the rest of your life.

Colbert: Gay babies? I find that offensive, the idea that there are gay babies out there and they’re looking at me, and they’re sexually interested in me, as a man.

Quigley: You have a point. It’s not a good point, but it’s a point.

However, Quigley, a blue-collar dude, built like a fireplug, is something of a rock star when it comes to bringing home transportation funding to the Chicago region. He’s the only Illinois member on the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development, with the memorable acronym THUD. He helped secure funding for the federal Core Capacity transit grant program, which will help bankroll the CTA’s rehab of the North Red and Purple Lines, and the TIGER program, which funds various sustainable transportation projects in cities.

Quigley recently kicked off a lecture series to promote Transit Future, a campaign by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance to create a dedicated revenue stream at the Cook County level for public transportation. Transit Future was inspired by a successful campaign in Los Angeles, where voters approved a half-cent sales tax to raise money for several new subway lines. If we don’t do something similar in Chicago, we may get left in the dust by historically car-centric L.A.

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Express Train to O’Hare? We Already Have One and It’s Called The Blue Line

The Blue Line was analyzed by FiveThirtyEight to be faster than taking a taxi from O'Hare airport to downtown. Photo: Edward Kwiatkowski

The Blue Line was analyzed by FiveThirtyEight to be faster than taking a taxi from O’Hare airport to downtown. Photo: Edward Kwiatkowski

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and recently appointed aviation commissioner Ginger Evans have been calling for new, faster, premium train service from O’Hare to downtown in a bid to improve the airport’s standing among its domestic and international peers. They argue that the airport is causing the city to lose business. However, while O’Hare is a low-performing facility, the existing Blue Line service isn’t the airport’s limiting factor.

The idea of high-speed rail service to O’Hare is nothing new. Under former mayor Richard M. Daley, the CTA spent over $250 million to build a “super station” under Block 37 in the Loop for that purpose. Ultimately, the proposal went nowhere, and the empty station space currently sits unused, a monument to poor urban planning.

High-speed train service to airports – with fares that typically run several times the non-express rate – is becoming a emoree common amenity among busy, international airports. However, express service that runs directly to the center of town is uncommon. Chicago is unusual in that both O’Hare and Midway offer efficient train service to the Loop. According to the Blue Line’s schedule, it takes 38 minutes to travel from O’Hare to the Clark/Lake station, a respectable pace that’s often faster than driving.

Throwing more money at the O’Hare express idea that could otherwise be used for improving or expanding existing transit service is a bad idea. There are much more cost-effective ways that current O’Hare Branch ‘L’ service could be upgraded. Moreover, the CTA should work on improving travel times to the airport from many of Chicago’s densest neighborhoods that aren’t near the Blue Line.

The O’Hare express proposal has been endorsed by Tribune transportation writer and aviation buff Jon Hilkevitch, who recently referred to the Blue Line “old and slow”. While age doesn’t necessarily make a train line sluggish, deferred maintenance does. However, the CTA is currently in the midst of the $492 million Your New Blue project, which is rehabbing seven stations and removing slow zones from Grand to the airport. The agency estimates these upgrades will shave five minutes off the trip from downtown to O’Hare.

Despite the fact that a trip to the airport will soon take little more than a half hour, Evans recently told the Sun-Times that a premium train line to the airport is “essential infrastructure” because other peer cities have one. However, she also told the Tribune that other cities’ airports are “stealing traffic” from Chicago because O’Hare has many flight operations problems that put the airport at or near the bottom of on-time rankings, so perhaps premium train service shouldn’t be her top priority.

The Blue Line is already a competitive train service

As of April 24, 2015 [PDF], only 3.3 percent of the O’Hare Branch tracks were under slow zone restrictions, in which trains are limited to 35 mph. Some of the branch’s tracks are already in good enough shape to allow for speeds greater than the CTA’s systemwide speed limit of 55 mph, and all of its train cars are capable of traveling 70 mph. One reason for the current speed limit is that faster speeds would result in more wear-and-tear on the tracks and wheels, thus higher maintenance costs.

The Blue Line is already a great alternative to taking a taxi. FiveThirtyEight analyzed travel times between airports and central business districts in major cities and found that only in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Honolulu was it faster to take transit than a cab.

On weekdays, trains run between Clark/Lake and O’Hare every 2 to 8 minutes during rush hours, with ten-minute headways during non-peak times. Airport express trains in other cities typically have 15-to-30-minute headways. Waiting longer to catch a premium train to or from O’Hare might nullify any advantage from the higher speed.

The express would be an expensive project with limited benefits

The current push to create “world-class” train service to O’Hare is a distraction from actually fixing what’s wrong with Chicago’s transit system. In a recent Sun-Times op-ed, public policy consultant and former mayoral candidate Dr. Amara Enyia argued that spending money to create a premium train line would be a case of skewed priorities. Rather, she argued, the focus should be on improving transit for Chicago residents. “Maintaining our streets continues to be a challenge that affects transit time, quality, and safety,” she said, adding that CTA service cuts have made it more difficult for residents to access jobs.

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Police, Park District Still Disagree About Late-Night Travel on The 606

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Photo: John Greenfield

Some 80,000 people live within a half mile of the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, the 2.7-mile elevated greenway that connects Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Bucktown, and Wicker Park. Many of these residents regularly bike commute home from work or entertainment after 11 p.m. It’s only logical that these people should be allowed to use this car-free route to get home safely, rather than take their chances with drunk drivers on busy North Avenue or Armitage Avenue.

However, that’s not currently how things work. As it stands, Chicago police officers are enforcing the city’s 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. parks curfew by clearing the Bloomingdale at 11 sharp. When they encounter people commuting on foot or by bike on the path after hours, they politely (according to all accounts I’ve heard) order the trail users to leave. When I looked into the issue two weeks ago, Officer Janel Sedevic from Police News Affairs confirmed that this is the department’s current protocol.

However, the police policy contradicts that of the Chicago Park District, which owns the Bloomingdale. Two weeks ago, spokeswoman Michele Lemons told me that – as on the Lakefront Trail – nonstop walking and biking are permitted on the elevated path due to an ingress and egress provision in the park district code. “This allows commuters to use paths through our parks, including The 606, for transportation.”

When I notified Sedevic and Lemons that the two policies were in conflict, they said they would get in touch with each other and resolve the issue. I made several follow-up calls to both agencies over the last two weeks, and was repeatedly promised an update in the near future.

In the meantime, I checked in with community leaders in the surrounding neighborhoods about the issue. Alderman Scott Waguespack’s 32nd Ward includes the Bloomingdale east of Western Avenue, where the trail is bordered by upscale housing. Prior to the path’s June 6 opening, constituents had expressed concerns that heavy foot and bike traffic would lead to a spike in crime. That fear hasn’t materialized, but there have been complaints about noisy skateboarders.

Waguespack seems to endorse the police-enforced curfew. “From early planning stages, the word was that the Bloomingdale Trail would be open during regular park hours only, and the hours would be enforced by the police or park district security,” he told me. “I don’t think that rule has changed and likely won’t.”

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Roger That! Low-Stress, North-South Bike Route Planned for Rogers Park

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Greenview north of Touhy, looking north. Image: Google Street View

The Chicago Department of Transportation recently held a public meeting about their clever proposal to install a contra-flow bike lane on Glenwood, between Ridge and Carmen, in Edgewater. More quietly, CDOT and the 49th Ward have been moving forward with an equally promising plan for a neighborhood greenway on Glenwood and and Greenview in Rogers Park.

CDOT staff declined to discuss the proposal, referring me to 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore’s office. “Our main goal was to create some kind of route from Devon Street, the southern boundary of the ward, up to Evanston,” explained Bob Fuller, an assistant to Moore. Glenwood and Greenview are already popular bike routes in Rogers Park, with cyclists accounting for up to 25 percent of rush hour traffic. “Instead of high-traffic streets like Sheridan, Clark, and Western, it made sense to put the greenway on these residential streets,” Fuller said.

The draft plan is to have the route run along Glenwood from Devon to either Pratt or Farwell. From there, the greenway would jog west a block to Greenview and continue to either Howard or Jonquil. From there, cyclists could head west to Clark or east to Sheridan in order to get to Evanston. The roughly 1.7-mile route would work both northbound and southbound.

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Why Rolling on the River Is No Easy Task

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A bottleneck along The Marina section of the Chicago Riverwalk. Photo: John Greenfield

[This piece also ran in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Earlier this month, the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, grabbed the spotlight as our city’s latest fabulous public space. However, the Chicago Riverwalk extension, which partially opened on May 23, is another strong contender. The new two-block stretch between State and Clark takes you down to within a foot or two of the sea-green water, and there are unique, breathtaking views of the city as you round the bridge houses.

The roughly $100 million project, funded by a federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act loan that needs to be paid back in about thirty-five years, is slated to be extended all the way to Lake and Wacker by 2016. The now-open sections are the Cove, which features stone-like concrete seating units and kayak rentals, the Marina, with elegant teakwood banquettes whose tops double as bar seating for eating and drinking establishments, and The River Theater, featuring dramatic stair-step seating, criss-crossed by ramps. Upcoming amenities include a water play area, fishing piers and a boardwalk.

The new spaces are already a hit with Chicagoans from all walks of life, and you’ll see dozens of people strolling, lunching, catching carp and relaxing there on nice days. The one fly in the ointment is that, while the riverwalk extension was designed to be a transportation corridor, it doesn’t function particularly well as one. Narrow sections of the path create bottlenecks, and sharp turns in the route are tricky to navigate, making it difficult to walk—let alone bike—the route efficiently when it’s crowded.

Gina Ford, a landscape architect at Sasaki Associates, which helped plan the riverwalk, offered to discuss the reasoning behind the design.

John Greenfield: The Riverwalk’s been getting rave reviews overall, but please tell me what you guys had in mind with the routing for pedestrians and cyclists.

Gina Ford: One of the challenges that we had to deal with on the riverwalk was how to accommodate what we felt should be included in a really small space. Part of that has to do with the fact that the [landfill to extend the riverbank] required a permit, and it took many years and an act of Congress to permit it. The dimensions of our buildout zone were very fixed in order to maintain safe harbor on the river and making sure that barge traffic has the right clearances.

We were really limited with the underbridge connections, where you have a twenty-foot offset [the maximum amount of land that could be built out from the existing shoreline] and a twenty-five-foot offset in each “room” of the riverwalk. So part of the right-angle turn critique we agree with. It would have been lovely if there was a much broader space, but there were other factors that determined that boundary and that shape.

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Don’t Worry, Clybourn Merchants — The PBL Parking Issue Is Covered

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Much of the on-street parking in the Clybourn project area gets little use. Photo: John Greenfield

In an article posted on DNAinfo yesterday, business owners along Clybourn Avenue in Old Town said they were worried that parking conversions for upcoming curb-protected bike lanes on the street might scare off customers. However, the Illinois Department of Transportation, which is spearheading the project, and the Chicago DOT, which is consulting, have crunched the numbers on the parking issue, and it looks like everything will work out just fine.

This affected stretch of Clybourn, between North Avenue and Division Street, is under state jurisdiction. IDOT had previously blocked CDOT from installing protected bike lanes on state roads within the city. However, after cyclist Bobby Cann was fatally struck by an allegedly drunk, speeding driver at Clybourn and Larabee Street in May of 2013, IDOT agreed to pilot a protected lane on this stretch. It will be the city’s second curb-protected lane, after CDOT installed one on Sacramento Boulevard in Douglas Park last month.

Construction of the Clybourn lanes started on Monday. The bike lanes will be located next to the sidewalk and will be protected by three-foot-wide concrete medians. There will also be a short stretch of curb-protected lanes on Division between Clybourn and Orleans. To provide sufficient right-of-way for the lanes on Clybourn, car parking will be stripped from the west side of the street, with a net loss of 65 parking spaces.

Mohammad Rafiq, owner of New Zaika, a Pakistani restaurant at 1316 North Clybourn, told DNA he understands that the street need to be made safer, but he’s worried that the loss of parking spots will drive him out of business. The eatery is popular with cab drivers, including many Muslim people who visit several times a day to use the basement prayer room. “If they don’t come, who am I going to serve?” he asked.

Marcus Moore owns Yojimbo’s Garage, a bike shop at 1310 North Clybourn, across the street from a memorial to Cann. He’s a longtime bike advocate who recently won an award from the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council for saving the South Chicago Velodrome, and he witnessed Cann’s fatal crash. However, DNA quoted him as saying the parking conversions could hurt business. “It’s going to be a big experiment,” he said. “I’m kind of neutral. I’m not sure what to expect.”

Obviously, creating a low-stress bikeway on Clybourn is going to attract more cyclists to the street and more two-wheeled customers to Yojimbos. That, plus a safer, more relaxing environment for walking due to less speeding by drivers, could also bring some additional diners to New Zaika.

Moreover, the flaw in the otherwise-solid DNA article is that the reporter didn’t check in with IDOT and CDOT about the parking issue. According to IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell, the agencies did a parking utilization study of the corridor to gauge the impact of the proposed design. They found that much of the parking on this stretch of Clybourn, which has relatively little retail, is underutilized.

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Calgary Opens a Downtown Protected Bike Lane Network All at Once

A city map of Calgary’s pilot project.

pfb logo 100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

One of North America’s unlikeliest and most ambitious protected bike lane projects is now on the ground.

Calgary, the arid Alberta prairie town and natural gas capital, agreed last year on a novel strategy: Instead of upgrading one street for biking at a time, as most cities do, it would pilot a connected protected bike lane network on four downtown streets at once.

The stakes are high, and Wednesday’s official opening is obviously too soon to declare a success or failure.

But something’s working so far, reports CTV News:
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Surfing the Green Wave: CDOT Pilots Bike-Friendly Signal Timing on Wells

Here’s another clever new idea from the Chicago Department of Transportation. This week, they re-timed the stoplights along Wells Street between Huron Street and Wacker Drive in River North, so that southbound bicyclists who maintain a 12 mph pace get an unbroken series of greens.

Known as a “green wave,” this kind of signal timing has been common on main streets in Copenhagen since 2007, and San Francisco has recently implemented it on several roadways. Not only does it make bicycling more efficient, it also reduces the chances that bike riders will endanger themselves by blowing red lights.

Wells was a logical place to pilot a green wave in Chicago, according to Mike Amsden, CDOT’s assistant director of transportation planning. “After Milwaukee Avenue, it’s probably the second most popular on-street bike commuting route in the city,” he said, noting that cyclists account for up to 38 percent of all traffic during the morning rush. The street has buffered bike lanes and is classified as a Crosstown Route in the city’s bike plan, and several Divvy stations are nearby.

Previously, the stoplights were timed so that a cyclist pedaling at 12 mph starting from a green at Huron would hit a red light at almost every intersection. “I think there was a lot of frustration with the number of lights you’d hit and have to wait at, and hopefully that’s changed,” Amsden said. Note that the Wacker Drive stoplight is not part of the wave, so you’ll tend to get a red when you arrive there after a series of greens.

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Scheinfeld Lauds City’s Bike Wins at Rally, Burke Urges Crowd to Ask for More

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Scheinfeld, Reed, Slow Roll Chicago cofounder Jamal Julien, Moore, Burke. Photo: John Greenfield

The gorgeous weather – and the promise of a free breakfast – drew hundreds of cyclists to Daley Plaza this morning for the annual Bike to Work Rally. There, Chicago Department of Transportation chief Rebekah Scheinfeld delivered the traditional state of the union address on the city’s efforts to improve cycling.

“We share the common goal of making bicycling a safe, fun, and practical option to travel throughout Chicago, for commuting, running errands, or just to enjoy the ride,” Scheinfeld said. She noted that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has essentially accomplished all three of the ambitious goals for biking he set before taking office. CDOT has built 90 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes, the Divvy bike-share system has been a huge success, and the Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway opened two weeks ago.

In keeping with Chicago’s “Windy City” nickname, Scheinfeld’s speech contained a couple of blustery half-truths about the city’s bicycle gains. She stated that all 90 miles of bike lanes are protected, when only 18.5 miles of them offer physical protection – CDOT refers to buffered lanes, which are merely paint on the road, as “buffer-protected.”

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Cyclists packed Daley Plaza for the rally. Photo: John Greenfield

She also called Divvy “the largest bike-share system in North America,” which is only true if you’re going by the number of docking stations. Chicago does hold that title, with 476 stations. However, while Divvy has 4,760 cycles, Montreal’s Bixi system has 5,200, and New York’s Citi bike has 6,000. That said, Emanuel and CDOT certainly deserve major kudos for completing these three huge cycling projects in only four years.

Scheinfeld also gave out the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council awards to several key players in the local bike scene. She recognized Oboi Reed, cofounder of Slow Roll Chicago, noting that he has created “a diverse coalition of people, organizations, and businesses, all working together to increase bicycle usage across the city regardless of race, income, or geography.” She added that Reed has been a valuable partner to CDOT.

The Trust for Public Land got a shout-out for doing yeoman’s work in managing the Bloomingdale project. Marcus Moore, owner of Yojimbo’s Garage bike shop, was recognized for his successful campaign to save the South Chicago Velodrome through crowdfunding. And police lieutenants Joe Giambrone and Joe Andruzi Jr. won awards for partnering with CDOT to do bike safety outreach, and working to get more officers on bicycles.

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Is Late-Night Commuting on The 606 Kosher? Police, Park District Disagree

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Photo: John Greenfield

The Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, is a 2.7-mile walking and cycling corridor that connects many destinations across the Near Northwest Side and intersects with several key bike routes. Some 80,000 residents live within a half mile of the path. As such, it’s a no-brainer that people should be allowed use it for commuting 24/7, just like on Lakefront Trail.

However, that’s not currently the case. Steven Vance and I have heard several reports of people who were biking on the Bloomingdale after 11 p.m. being stopped by police officers and asked to leave. “The elephant in the room regarding the Bloomingdale Trail is its operating hours,” one reader told us.

He said he was recently biking home on the trail around 11:30 p.m. when he was flagged down by officers. They checked his ID and told him the linear park is closed between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., like other Chicago Park District properties. The police were polite and friendly, and they let him continue home on the path, but warned him he would be ticketed next time, the reader said.

I dropped by the Bloomingdale after dark for my first time last night around 10 p.m., when there were plenty of people taking advantage of the balmy weather by cycling and strolling, including entire families walking with kids and grandparents. Officers were patrolling the path on bicycles. It was heartwarming to see so many residents out for exercise and relaxation in the safe, car-free space.

As I was leaving the trail just before 11, I asked the police whether commuting on the trail on foot or bike is permitted after the park officially closes. They politely told me that, currently, it is not. “The rule might be revamped in the future but, right now, while the trail is still new, you have to leave after 11,” one officer said.

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Police officers patrol the Bloomingdale Trail. Photo: John Greenfield

After speaking to a contact at the 14th Police District, which is responsible for security on the Bloomingdale, Police spokeswoman Janel Sedevic told me that this is, in fact, the police department’s current policy. “Officers go through the park at 11 p.m. to make sure it is empty, and if there’s a call with a complaint after 11, they’ll go check it out,” she said.

The thing is, that doesn’t jibe with the policy of the park district, which owns the trail and its access parks. Spokeswoman Michele Lemons told me that – like the Lakefront Trail – nonstop walking and biking is allowed on The 606 after hours due to an ingress and egress provision in the park district code.

“This allows commuters to use paths through our parks, including The 606, for transportation,” Lemons said. “In other words, if someone is on a bike or walking and they are actively moving during [curfew] hours, then they are free to use the trail without questions from the park district or officers.”

When I notified police and park district representatives that their policies are in conflict, they promised to look into the issue. Hopefully I’ll be able to provide an update in the near future. In the meantime, keep in mind that if you are walking or biking on the Bloomingdale after 11, you may be ordered to amscray.