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Metra’s Strategic Plan: For Commuters, Or For The Railroad?

Metra Arriving at Barrington

Just missed a Metra train? You may have to wait two hours for the next one. Metra’s strategic plan should focus on its customers, not just its operations. Photo: Andy Tucker

Two years after launching its first-ever strategic planning process with a series of public meetings, Metra is at last finalizing basic goals for the plan. Our preview last month showed that the draft plan focused as much on administrative matters as it did on customers and services. That split focus remains, but board members are now debating whether the plan should shift in one direction or the other.

Metra’s director of strategic capital planning, Lynnette Ciavarella, launched a discussion about the draft plan’s ten goals and objectives at the board’s August meeting. The preliminary goals included “continuing to provide a high quality travel experience,” financial stability, “improving agency-wide efficiency,” integrating with regional transportation networks, and expanding the system “as resources allow.” Ciaverella then asked the board, “What’s missing?”

Some board members contended that the strategic plan doesn’t engage enough with the outside world, while one board member wanted Metra to stick to the basics. John Plante, a recently retired CTA manager who was appointed to Metra’s board last October, spoke up first. Plante wanted Ciaverella to add “innovative financing” – namely, public-private partnerships and land value capture, which could hopefully help fund expanded Metra service.

Don DeGraff, appointed in 2011, said he felt there was little coordination among the different transportation providers and planning agencies. He asked, “how does Metra fit with CTA, Pace, Illinois Department of Transportation, and the [South Shore Line], to make sure there’s an effective regional plan?” He continued, “we need a Daniel Burnham: someone to come up with a plan to allow us to be successful in the northeastern Illinois market.” He called on Metra to take on that coordinating role.

Ciaverella assured the board that the strategic plan was coordinated with the Regional Transportation Authority’s strategic plan and the region’s long-range GO TO 2040 comprehensive plan. Metropolitan Planning Council vice president Peter Skosey told me that “the region as a whole has a challenge connecting land use and transportation,” and that Metra can play a greater role in station-area planning “to ensure better connections to jobs and housing.”

One board member, by contrast, wants to throw out half the goals. Director Norman Carlson, appointed just before the CEO scandal came to light, explained that “so often planning doesn’t take into consideration operating perspectives.” Carlson cited his railroad consulting experience at Arthur Andersen to say “an organization can logically take on 3-5 objectives [to] make any measurable progress.” He said that Metra should take on just four goals, but list a fifth goal to be deferred.

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Thanks to Loophole, Cheerios’ Downtown Pedicab Promotion Was Unsinkable

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Why not promote your cereal with a vehicle whose wheels resemble it? Image: Cheerios

This morning, I was puzzled when I read a DNAinfo.com report that Cheerios was planning to promote its new line of high-protein cereals with a seemingly illegal activity: pedicab rides in the Loop during rush hours.

In April, City Council passed an ordinance regulating pedicabbers – and banning them from downtown streets. Under the new law, operators are prohibited from working in the Loop during rush hours, as well as on Michigan and State, between Oak and Congress, at all times. Pedicabbers say the restrictions are making it more difficult for them to make a living, and that the regulations are discouraging the growth of this environmentally friendly form of transportation.

Cheerios planned to have a crew of pedicabbers from local company Chicago Rickshaw offering free rides for people arriving at Union Station between 6 and 10:30 this morning. The commuters would line up on Jackson to be picked up by the bicycle taxi drivers on a first-come, first served basis, and then squired to any downtown destination. The pedicab operators would also be delivering free cereal to anyone who tweeted their location to @cheerios using the #CheeriosProteinChi.

Pedicabs are a great fit for this kind of event. Hiring the operators to make deliveries is probably cheaper than using motor vehicles, and companies want eyecatching vehicles for their promotions. And by placing its logo on the back of a pedicab, a company gets to associate its product with health, eco-friendliness, and good times. Meanwhile, Chicagoans benefit by having fewer cars and trucks on the street, and the passengers enjoy an unforgettable ride to the office.

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Divvy Is No Cautionary Tale — It’s a Model for Other Bike-Share Systems

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City officials unveil Bublr bikes at a ceremony in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park last week. Photo: city of Milwaukee

Yesterday, the Tribune ran an opinion piece slamming the Divvy funding model, written by Diana Sroka Rickert from the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. Rickert argued that Milwaukee’s brand-new Bublr bike-share system, named after the local term for a water fountain, used a superior method because much of the funding came from private donors, largely corporate sponsors.

Rickert claims it was foolish of Chicago to launch Divvy solely with public money. She quotes Milwaukee developer and Bublr sponsor Gary Grunau as implying that Chicago’s method of lining up funding was fiscally irresponsible. “Milwaukee is a little more conservative… which is probably explained in the fact that Illinois and Chicago have a much more unstable financial picture,” he said.

The problem with Rickert’s thesis is that she’s making an apple-to-oranges comparison. The total startup cost for the first 475 Divvy stations and 4,750 bikes was $31.25 million, according to Divvy general manager Elliot Greenberger. $25 million came from federal grants, while local funds are covering the remaining $6.25 million.

Meanwhile, Midwest BikeShare, the nonprofit that runs Bublr, has raised about $3 million in public funds, plus roughly $1 million in private donations, which should pay for installing about 60 stations and 600 bikes, according to launch director Kevin Hardman. MWBS needs to raise another $3 million privately in the next two to three years to pay for operations for these stations, Hardman said. The system launched last week with ten stations and 100 bikes.

Obviously, it’s easier to cover the start-up cost of a small system than one that’s nearly eight times as big. To reach the same 1:3 ratio of private-to-public funding as Bublr, the city of Chicago would have had to raise almost $8 million in private donations prior to launching.

And Chicago did eventually snag a $12.5 million sponsorship deal for Divvy with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, about a year after the system launched. By that time, bike-share was already a proven success here, and the sponsor got an immediate payoff by getting its logo plastered on every Divvy bike and rebalancing van.

Rickert also writes that systems in Denver and Minnesota have a “better business model” because they’re run by nonprofits and were launched with private funding. Again these are much smaller systems than Chicago’s. Denver B-cycle has only 84 stations and 700 bikes, while the Twin Cities’ Nice Ride has 170 stations and 1,550 cycles.

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North Branch Trail Extension Inches Forward, Including Edgebrook Sidepath

Example side path on Harms Road in Glenview

The North Branch Trail’s southern extension will have a short side path along Lehigh and Central Avenues, much like this segment of Harms Road in Glenview. Image: Google Street View

The Forest Preserve District of Cook County is proceeding with plans to extend its popular North Branch Trail three miles further into the city limits, via a sidepath along Central Avenue. The extension has been planned since 1995, and has been shown as a dotted line on the Chicago bike map for several years. Some neighbors, though, worry about how the sidepath will impact cars traveling on or turning off Central Avenue.

Last week the Forest Preserve hosted a meeting at the Matthew Bieszczat Volunteer Resource Center about the extension, which would start from the trail’s current southern terminus at Devon and Lehigh avenues (one block short of downtown Edgebrook) and end at Gompers Park, near Foster and Kostner avenues, in the Mayfair neighborhood The 18-mile trail carries 250,000 users a year between the city and the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, where a northern extension to the Metra UP-North line opens September 13.

Extending the trail into the city won’t be a walk in the park, though. While most of the existing trail runs along the river, the extension must skirt both busy Devon Avenue and the existing Edgebrook Golf Course. To do so, it will run alongside existing roads instead: crossing Devon at Caldwell, then following Central past the three-block Old Edgebrook neighborhood, then crossing Central at a new stoplight placed at an existing intersection that serves the golf course and the Volunteer Resource Center.

Some residents feel that the new traffic signal will “snarl traffic,” DNAInfo reported. This is unlikely, since the new traffic signal would be on-demand, and only change when a motorist exits the parking lot or when a bicyclist or pedestrian pushes a button.

The Chicago and Illinois Departments of Transportation examined several alternatives proposed by neighbors and found them wanting. In particular, re-timing the lights at the complicated intersection of Lehigh, Caldwell, Central, and Devon would cost $1 million, and building a traffic signal at Prescott or Louise would make existing traffic backups even worse.

Old Edgebrook residents also worry about how the Central Avenue sidepath would affect vehicle turns into or out of their neighborhood. Brian Sobolak attended the meeting, and recounted that some residents thought that the sidepath’s crossings of Prescott and Louise would be unsafe, and might block residents driving in and out. Similarly, Nadig Newspapers reported that some residents believe “it would be difficult to see bicyclists” crossing these two streets, the only routes into Old Edgebrook. Yet Central already has a sidewalk at this location, so drivers at these two intersections already must watch for crossing pedestrians.

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Man Killed Sunday Was 4th Person Fatally Struck on North Avenue This Year


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The 2700 Block of West North Avenue.

A man killed by an allegedly drunk driver Sunday is the latest in a series of people fatally struck on speeding-plagued North Avenue, in 2014.

Around 8:25 p.m. Sunday, a 55-year-old man was crossing northbound on the 2700 block of North Avenue near Cermak Produce, according to Officer Janel Sedovic from Police News Affairs. The man’s identity has not yet been released, pending notification of his next of kin, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

Sean Riley, 33, of the 1400 block of North Bell, was driving eastbound when he struck the victim. He stayed on the scene following the crash. The victim was transported to Illinois Masonic Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

Riley was found to have a blood alcohol content level above the legal limit of .08 percent, according to Sedovic. He has been charged with felony aggravated DUI resulting in an a death, operating a vehicle without insurance, and fail to exercise due care to avoid a collision with a pedestrian in the roadway. A bond hearing is scheduled for today.

The victim was the fourth person fatally struck by a driver on North this year. On April 21, Kim Kyeyul, 72, rear-ended a semi truck with his car on North just east of the Kennedy Expressway. After he exited his car to talk to the other driver, a second trucker killed him.

On April 24, Jennie Davis was crossing in the 5500 block of North Avenue in Austin when a speeding motorist fatally struck her – a similar scenario to this latest crash. And On Sunday, June 1, an out-of-control SUV driver fatally struck Charles Jones, 73, who was reportedly standing in the street just west of the Kennedy.

Most of these cases involved a too-fast driver and/or a difficult pedestrian crossing. In general, North is a five lane street with two travel lanes in each direction, a turn lane, and parking lanes. By Cermak Produce, the street is 76 feet wide, and that excess width encourages speeding and creates a long crossing distance for pedestrians.

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City Colleges Students Have New, Faster Transportation Option

CCC shuttle south route

The City Colleges of Chicago south route will be several minutes faster than taking CTA.

On Monday, the City Colleges of Chicago will launch four hourly shuttle bus routes to connect its many campuses to one another and to transit facilities. Students can sign up to ride the buses for free, and free onboard wifi will allow students to finish those last-minute homework assignments.

The inter-campus shuttles, according to a board of trustees ordinance [PDF], will “remove a barrier to cross-registration” and “potentially reduce the use of personal vehicles.” SCR Medical Transportation, which also operates paratransit vehicles for Pace, will run the shuttles through mid-2016 for up to $3 million. Students must sign up ahead of time to use the shuttle, and then can use their contactless ID cards to board the bus.

Four routes will offer full service on weekdays and limited service on Saturdays. They will run from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, with breaks between 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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Community Meeting Scheduled About Jeff Park P-Street Proposal

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The proposed Jeff Park P-Streets. Image: Google Maps

Interestingly, some of the city’s outlying wards are leading the way when it comes to creating pedestrian-friendly business districts. Last week, I reported how 33rd Ward Alderman Deb Mell has proposed an ordinance that would designate three Albany Park retail strips as Pedestrian Streets. Earlier this week, 45th Ward Alderman John Arena sent a letter to constituents announcing that he has filed an ordinance to do the same thing on two streets in Jefferson Park.

The P-Street designation is intended to preserve the existing walkability of business districts and foster future ped-friendly development. It blocks the creation of big box stores, gas station, drive-throughs and other businesses that cater to motorists by forbidding the creation of new driveways.

The designation requires that the whole building façade be adjacent to the sidewalk. The main entrance must be located on the P-Street, and at least 60 percent of the façade between four and ten feet above the sidewalk must be windows. Any off-street parking must be located behind the building and accessed from the alley.

Arena wants to create P-Streets on Milwaukee from Giddings to Higgins, and on Lawrence from Laramie to Long. Located just south of the Jefferson Park Transit Center, this X-shaped district is the heart of the local retail area.

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The Pros and Cons of Divvy’s New Expansion Map

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The new Divvy expansion map with new coverage areas in pink. View a larger version.

In mid-July, Alta Bicycle Share’s Mia Birk told Marketplace that, due to pipeline issues, new bikes for the systems Alta runs probably wouldn’t arrive until 2015. At the time, I predicted that the Chicago Department of Transportation would soon announce that it wouldn’t be able to expand the Divvy system from 3,000 to 4,750 cycles this year, as previously planned.

More than a month later, CDOT finally announced yesterday that Chicago won’t be getting new stations until early next spring, but they cleverly softened the blow by releasing the locations for the 175 docking stations that will be added to the existing 300. Roughly 3,100 additional docks will be added, according to Divvy general manager Elliot Greenberger.

In the news release, CDOT also boasted that, with 475 stations spread over 87 square miles and 31 wards, Divvy will have the largest number of stations and the widest coverage area of any North American city. However, New York’s Citi Bike system will still have far more bikes, with 6,000.

The delay in getting new bikes for Alta-run systems was caused by the bankruptcy of Montreal-based supplier Public Bike System Co., also known as Bixi. CDOT spokesman Pete Scales told the Chicago Tribune that the department is confident that the expansion won’t be further postponed. “Alta is in the final stages of vetting multiple supplier options, all of whom have committed to spring delivery time frames.”

Chicago’s new map of planned stations was influenced by hundreds of suggestions residents made via a station request website. The new coverage area will stretch almost to 79th Street on the South Side, as far as Touhy Avenue on the North Side, and a bit west of Pulaski Road. Infill stations will also be added downtown, and on the Near South Side, the North North Side, and in Hyde Park.

In order to ensure the system would be financially viable, CDOT officials said the first round of 300 stations was concentrated in areas with a high density of transit stops, retail, employment nodes, and other destinations. Although low-income communities like Little Village, Pilsen, Bronzeville, and Oakland did get stations, some commenters and residents argued that the system was overly focused on affluent parts of town, and that too many poor neighborhoods were overlooked.

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“Walk To Transit” Targets 20 CTA Stations For Quick Safety Fixes

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Passengers arriving at the Clinton Station often can’t find the Greyhound, Union, or Divvy stations.

A new “Walk To Transit” initiative by the Chicago Department of Transportation will target 20 CTA stations for a slew of simple pedestrian infrastructure upgrades. People walking to several Blue Line stations on the west side and along Milwaukee Avenue, along with stations on the south and north sides, will see safety and usability improvements like re-striped zebra crosswalks, curb extensions, repaired or widened sidewalks, and new signage.

Suzanne Carlson, pedestrian program coordinator at the Chicago Department of Transportation, said at the Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council meeting to weeks ago (theme: connectivity) that construction on a first phase of ten stations should begin in the spring of 2015. CDOT has grant funding for another ten stations, yet to be identified. She said that the designs [PDF] were published in March “at 30 percent,” but only one minor design element has changed since then. 

Some stations will get new and improved wayfinding signage. New signs outside the Blue Line’s Clinton station, hidden underneath a Eisenhower Expressway overpass, will direct CTA riders to Metra, Amtrak, and Greyhound, and vice versa. Even among the majority of American adults who carry smartphones, figuring out where to go from the Clinton station can be a puzzle: The other stations aren’t immediately visible from any of the station’s four dark exits. Adding “breadcrumb” sign posts along the way would help. CTA and CDOT managing deputy commissioner Sean Wiedel have had conversations about adding Divvy wayfinding signs within stops like Clinton, where Divvy is similarly hiding around the corner from the station entrance, “but we haven’t reached a definitive agreement at this point.”

This is where Divvy signage should be displayed

Signs within the Clinton Blue Line station point CTA riders to Greyhound and Metra, but not Divvy — and once above ground, no further clues are available.

Above the Blue Line station at Grand-Milwaukee-Halsted, CDOT proposes reprogramming the signal with “leading pedestrian intervals,” which will give people walking across the street a green light before drivers can make a turn. New curb extensions (bulb-outs) at Ohio Street, between the station and Milwaukee’s bridge over the Ohio Street Connector, will slow down drivers and prevent them from driving down Milwaukee’s faded bike lane.

Around the Pulaski Blue Line station in West Garfield Park, which is within the median of the Eisenhower Expressway, recommended improvements include curb extensions to slow turning drivers at all corners of Harrison and Pulaski, a pedestrian refuge island within Pulaski at Van Buren, and signs that will direct bicyclists to and from the station from Keeler Avenue — a nearby “neighborhood route” under the Streets for Cycling 2020 Plan.

Outside the 63rd Street Red Line station in Englewood, new trees will enliven a dull corner at Princeton Avenue — and also replace a dangerous gas station driveway, which eliminates the conflict between cars turning across the sidewalk into the gas station, right by a bus stop. Such dangerous curb cuts are not forever, since they have to be renewed annually.
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Pedestrian Fatality Tracker: More Deaths This Year Than Last

pedestrian fatalities in Chicago

Pedestrian fatalities from January to July 2014 are up over the same period last year. Data: IDOT, CDOT via Chicago Police Department

More people were killed while walking in Chicago in the first seven months of this year, compared to the same time period last year. Chicago transportation commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld pointed out to the Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council last week that “this is the first increase since 2009.”

21 people on foot died in car crashes between January and July of this year, versus 18 who died in the same months in 2013. Scheinfeld said that major injuries to pedestrians have also increased, by eight percent over last year’s rate. She noted that the number of miles that people have driven in Chicago has also increased, and suggested that may be a factor in the increase this year.

The 21 deaths this year are still fewer than the 2008-2012 average, Scheinfeld said – and far below the unusually high number of deaths in 2012, when 47 pedestrians were killed in car crashes. Last year’s 29 pedestrian deaths were one-third fewer than the five-year average, and 40 percent below 2012′s death toll.

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