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CTA Ridership Report: Train Use Hits Record Levels, Bus Ridership Still Falling

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A crowded Brown Line train at the Belmont station. Photo: John Greenfield

Today the CTA released some generally good news about ridership, heralding 2015 as the highest-ever recorded year for rail use. Meanwhile there was only a minor dip in bus ridership compared to last year, which means a three-year decline in bus use is leveling off.

The total number of rail and bus rides in 2015 was 516 million, up 1.6 percent from 514.5 million last year. This was the eighth year in a row that there were more than half a billion total rides.

As usual, in 2015 bus rides made up the majority of the ridership, with 274.3 million rides, down 0.6 percent from 276 million in 2014. That’s a much smaller decline from the previous year compared to the 8 percent drop that occurred in 2014, and the 3 percent dip that happened in 2013.

The transit agency blamed some of the bus ridership decline on the cold, snowy weather the city experienced in February of 2015, as well as downtown construction for projects like the Loop Link bus rapid transit system and the Washington-Wabash ‘L’ station. However, bus ridership increased on several routes, including ones in Evanston, near Midway Airport, and on the Far South Side.

In 2015 rail ridership hit 241.7 million, a 1.6 percent increase from the previous year’s record of 238 million rides. The CTA noted that this happened in spite of the shutdown of the Yellow Line for several months dues to an embankment collapse caused by a nearby construction project.

Thanks in part to the opening of the Cermak/McCormick Place station in February 2015, the Green Line South saw the highest ridership bump, with an 11.2 percent increase. The new stop had more than 390,000 station entries last year.

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Once Again, the South Shore Line Is Standing in the Way of Bike Progress

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A man bikes across the South Shore tracks on Burnham Avenue. Photo: Active Trans

Illinois Bicycle Lawyers - Mike Keating logo

Last August, the board of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transit District did the right thing by voting to dramatically reduce the wait until customers are allowed to bring bikes on South Shore Line trains. While NICTD had previously been talking about delaying the bikes-on-board pilot until 2021, they instead agreed to test the program this April. Their decision was surely influenced by the Active Transportation Alliance sarcastically giving them the Broken Spoke Award as “the least bike-friendly commuter rail service in the nation.”

But there’s another important bike issue that NICTD is still dragging their feet about. The 11-mile Burnham Greenway Trail will eventually connect Chicago’s Lakefront Trail with the growing network of multiuse paths in the south suburbs and Northwest Indiana, including the Cal-Sag Trail. However, there’s a two-mile gap in the trail in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood and the suburb of Burnham.

The gap forces cyclists to ride on wide roads with fast traffic, or else detour several miles out of the way. Although the needed two-mile stretch of trail is already designed, approved, and funded, the transit agency doesn’t want to let the trail cross its tracks at grade level. Instead, NICTD, along with the South Shore Freight Line, is insisting that a multimillion-dollar bridge be built, a project that would take years to complete.

The trail crossing in question would be on Burnham Avenue just south of Brainerd Avenue, near the South Shore’s Hegewisch station. “NICTD is worried about safety and liability,” explains Active Trans suburban outreach coordinator Leslie Phemister. “But right now there’s nothing to stop a pedestrian from walking onto the tracks when a train is coming.” There are currently crossing gates and warning signals for drivers, but not for pedestrians.

The planned trail crossing would involve widening the existing sidewalk to accommodate bikes, adding bollards to keep pedestrians and cyclists out of the street, and adding gates that would block the sidewalk when a train approaches. Phemister says the transit agency should welcome these improvements, which would benefit people walking to the station. “Safety is everyone’s concern,” she says. “No one wants to get hit by a train.”

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Man Fatally Struck After Falling Into Street During Altercation in River North

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The 400 block of North State Street. Image: Google Street View

A 32-year old man died Sunday after he fell into the street during an altercation and was struck and killed by a cab driver. At about 4:20 a.m., Marques Gaines was involved in an altercation near Hubbard and State in River North, according to the Chicago Police. After a man punched him in the head, he fell into the roadway.

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Marques Gaines

The driver of a Ford taxi then ran over Gaines, police said. He was transported to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and was pronounced dead at 8:14 a.m., according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

The cab driver stayed at the crash site and was not cited, police said. The person who punched Gaines fled the scene and has not been apprehended, according to police.

Although the medical examiner’s office reported Gaines’ residence as being on the 1400 block of West Chicago Avenue, friends told Loop North News he actually lived in Lakeview.

Friends also disputed the police department’s characterization of the altercation between Gaines, who worked at a nearby hotel, and the other man as a “fight.” They told the website it was more likely the victim “intervened on behalf of someone who was being treated unfairly but it led to tragedy.”

Fatality Tracker: 2016 Chicago pedestrian and bicyclist deaths
Pedestrian: 4 (none were hit-and-run crashes)

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Experts and Advocates Weigh in on Rauner’s Proposal to Widen the Stevenson

Sunday morning Stevenson

The Stevenson, just west of the Dan Ryan. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

On Thursday, Governor Bruce Rauner announced a new proposal to address congestion on the Stevenson Expressway, aka I-55, by adding lanes. The construction would be financed via a public-private partnership, and the new lanes would be tolled. Revenue would go to the concessionaire, allowing them to recoup their investment.

The so-called “managed lanes” would be an option for drivers who are willing to pay a premium to bypass traffic, while the existing lanes would not be tolled. Some local transportation experts and advocates lauded the plan as a creative way to address congestion woes. But others argued that our region’s focus should be on providing better alternatives to single-occupant vehicle commutes, rather than simply building more capacity for them.

The proposed lanes would cover a 25-mile stretch of the Stevenson between the Dan Ryan Expressway and the Veteran’s Memorial Tollway, a segment that carries about 170,000 vehicles a day. The plan calls for adding at least one lane in each direction, at an estimated cost of $425 million. The P3 model would need to be approved by a majority of state lawmakers.

The new lanes would feature “congestion pricing” – the toll price would vary according to the number of cars in the managed lanes, as well as the rest of the expressway. Rauner said it’s possible that drivers with one or more passengers might be allowed to use the new lanes without paying a toll. The state hopes to finalize a design by this spring and start construction by late 2017.

The Metropolitan Planning Council pushed for several years in Springfield for legislation to enable this kind of public-private partnership, which passed in 2011. MPC executive vice president Peter Skosey said his organization applauds Rauner’s proposal, adding that adding capacity to I-55 is listed as a priority in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s GO TO 2040 regional plan.

“Experience shows that simply adding another regular lane will not ease congestion in the long term: once that capacity is there, it will just fill up,” Skosey said. “Putting a variable-priced toll on that lane lets you manage demand and keep it free-flowing. If you’re really in a time crunch, you have the choice to take that lane.”

Skosey argued that the new lane would also make taking the bus a more attractive choice. “[Pace’s] current Bus-on-Shoulder service has been incredibly successful, but it isn’t able to use the shoulder for the whole corridor and it’s limited to 35 mph. This lane would give it a continuous path and let it go as fast as 55 mph, improving reliability and opening the door to more frequent service.”

Steve Schlickmann, the former head of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center, agreed that the governor’s plan makes sense. “The combination of high congestion in regular travel lanes and insufficient growth in federal and state funding to maintain Illinois roads and transit, makes I-55 managed toll lanes a reasonable approach to address congestion and to help pay for I-55’s on-going maintenance needs,” he said.

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Senior Killed at Location Where the City Chose Not to Mark a Crosswalk

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A senior crosses in an unmarked crosswalk at Surf and Broadway yesterday afternoon. That morning, a 69-year-old woman was killed in the same crosswalk.

Early yesterday morning, a 69-year-old woman was struck and killed by a driver in an unmarked crosswalk at Surf Street and Broadway in Lakeview. Less than two years ago, the city decided not to stripe a visible crosswalk at this location, which might have reminded the driver to watch for pedestrians. Why? Because the intersection was deemed too dangerous for a marked crosswalk.

Surf and Broadway actually meet at two different intersections. As you approach Broadway from the west on Surf, located about half a block north of Diversey, there’s a T intersection with crosswalks marked on all three legs. About 200 feet south, as you approach Broadway from the east on Surf, there’s a second T intersection, but there’s only a marked crosswalk on the east leg.

However, according to Streetsblog reader J. Patrick Lynch, who lives next door to the southern intersection, many residents, including plenty of seniors, regularly cross at this intersection in order to reach Walmart, T.J. Maxx, and other retail south of Surf Street. It is legal for them to use the unmarked crosswalks at the north and south legs of the T, even though the lack of striped crosswalks makes it less likely that motorists will be watching out for them.

Police News Affairs reported that Wednesday’s crash happened at Broadway and Diversey. However, an aerial photograph that accompanied a Tribune article about the case showed that police actually taped off the south leg of the southernmost Surf/Broadway intersection.

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The crash took place in the southernmost intersection of Surf and Broadway, in the south leg of the intersection. Image: Google Maps

According to Officer Anna Pacheco from News Affairs, the driver was making a right turn onto southbound Broadway at 6:05 a.m. when he or she struck the woman. This indicates that the motorist exited a parking garage on the west side of the T before striking the senior in the unmarked crosswalk in the south leg of the intersection. Pacheco did not state whether victim was crossing eastbound or westbound.

The woman was transported to Illinois Masonic Hospital, where she was later pronounced dead. Her identity has not yet been released, pending notification of next of kin. No charges have been filed against the driver, who stayed at the crash site.

Back in January 2014, Lynch emailed 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney to alert him that, due to the increased foot traffic at the intersection at the intersection generated by the then-new Walmart, a marked crosswalk was needed. “I am concerned about the safety of pedestrians who routinely cross at Broadway and Surf,” Lynch wrote. He recommended striping the crosswalk on the north leg of the T because it wouldn’t conflict with the garage exit or require the removal of metered parking.

Lynch’s request was forward to Sougata Deb, Tunney’s infrastructure specialist. When Lynch followed up that March, Deb acknowledged that the unmarked crosswalks at Surf/Broadway got plenty of use. “I cross here at least three times a week, so I understand the benefit of having a crosswalk here,” he wrote.

However, that April, after Chicago Department of Transportation staff surveyed the intersection, Deb told Lynch the engineers had decided against striping a crosswalk. They reasoned that the crossing would conflict with Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines because it would be too close to the garage exit and a light pole, which would block sight lines.

Lynch then asked Deb if the light pole could be relocated, or if a crosswalk on the south leg of the intersection might be feasible. Deb replied that the garage exit made it unfeasible to install crosswalks on either side of Surf. He also brought up a new argument against the crosswalks: since there’s a slight curve in Broadway between Diversey and Surf, drivers have limited visibility on this stretch.

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Chicago Joins Vision Zero Network While Pedestrian Fatality Rate is in Flux

AARP Illinois state director Bob Gallo questioned the efficacy of doing motorist outreach when red light running is "epidemic" in Chicago.

AARP Illinois state director Bob Gallo questioned the efficacy of doing motorist outreach (“High Visibility Crosswalk Enforcement”) when red light running is “epidemic” in Chicago.

At yesterday’s quarterly meeting of the Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council, Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld mentioned the “somber” statistics that there was a significant increase in Chicago pedestrian fatalities in 2015 compared to previous years.

There were 35 pedestrian deaths in the city in 2014, according to official Illinois Department of Transportation figures, and 46 fatalities in 2015, according to unofficial figures from the Chicago Police Department – a 24-percent increase. IDOT data for 2015 won’t be available until the fall.

“This is still a decrease if you look at the 10-year trend,” Scheinfeld said. “We are headed in the right direction for the long-term trend, but we still have our work cut out for us.”

As part of Chicago’s effort to eliminate traffic deaths, last month it was announced that the city would be joining the Vision Zero Network as one of ten focus cities this year. “Each focus city will have a multi-departmental effort,” Scheinfeld said at the MPAC meeting. “We will have reps from the Chicago Police Department, CDOT, Department of Public Health, and the Mayor’s Office.”

“Vision Zero is an international traffic safety movement guided by the principle that no loss of life on our streets is acceptable,” explained Active Transportation Alliance campaign director Kyle Whitehead in a blog post last week.

Nearly a year ago, the group noted that Chicago had already created several resources for analyzing what’s causing crashes throughout the city and determining how they can be prevented, including the Chicago Pedestrian Plan, the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 and Chicago Forward Action Agenda. However, they noted that there was no Vision Zero action plan at the time – which is still true today.

Scheinfeld noted two trends that CDOT has seen among last year’s pedestrian fatalities. Despite the growing number of speed cameras in the city, she said “we still saw a significant amount” of pedestrian fatalities “hit by motor vehicles that were moving at excessively high speeds.” And more than half – 56 percent – of the deadly crashes occurred in or very near intersections.

The commissioner credited speed cameras for reducing crashes and injuries near parks and schools. She said that in locations where cameras were installed in 2013, there were 18 percent fewer injury crashes in 2014, compared to only a four percent reduction citywide. The total number of crashes in 2014 at locations with speed cameras fell two percent, while crashes were up by six percent citywide.

Deputy commissioner Luann Hamilton said that speeding violations dropped an average of 53 percent in the first 90 days after camera installation, and that most vehicles issued a citation aren’t cited again. “So [drivers are] learning from having this violation imposed on them,” Hamilton said. “That’s the intention in the first place, to teach people it’s not acceptable to speed.”

CDOT pedestrian program manager Eric Hanss shared his analysis of pedestrian crash and injury data for the ten-year period of 2005-2014. “When we look at the ten year [interval, pedestrian crashes are] down, but when we look at five years, it’s flatter.”

Hanss said that nowadays in Chicago, fewer than 3,000 pedestrians are struck annually, and the decline in pedestrian crashes is occurring at a faster rate than the city’s overall decline in crashes.

Because people on foot are more likely to die if a crash occurs than any other type of road user, CDOT is focusing its efforts on reducing pedestrian crashes, Hanss said. Fourteen percent of pedestrians involved in collisions are seriously injured or killed, compared to only 1.2 percent of all people involved in crashes.

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The Belmont Flyover Has Federal Approval But Still Faces Other Hurdles

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A crowded Red Line train during the morning rush. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a 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 after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

When I recently rode the Red Line downtown during the morning rush, my rail car was as packed as a sardine can by the time we left the Belmont stop. Damon Lockett, a copywriter who commutes daily from Edgewater to River North, told me that overcrowded trains are typical during peak hours nowadays.

“They don’t run enough trains,” said Lockett, who moved here from New York City about a year ago. “You’re waiting ten or 15 minutes for a train, while the platform’s just loading up with people.”

The CTA is planning to address overcrowding on north-side el lines with the upcoming Red-Purple Modernization project. This multibillion-dollar initiative will completely overhaul the nearly 100-year-old Red Line from Belmont to Howard and the Purple Line from Belmont to Linden, in suburban Wilmette.

The agency says the project’s single most important time-saving and capacity-building element is the Red-Purple Bypass, better known as the Belmont flyover. This $570 million proposal would unsnarl the junction north of Belmont—where Brown Line trains cross Red and Purple Line tracks—by building a roller-coaster-like overpass.’

The flyover, and the rest of the modernization plan, recently got the federal go-ahead after passing an environmental review by the Federal Transit Administration. Construction could start as early as late 2017. But hurdles to the project remain: the CTA still needs to find $1.9 billion in funding for the first phase of plan, and many central Lakeview residents are bitterly opposed to the flyover, which would require the demolition of 16 buildings.

Local transit experts and advocates argue that the flyover is essential for meeting future demand. Ridership along the Red Line corridor north of Belmont grew by 40 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase.

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Eyes on the Street: Eight TOD Buildings Under Construction Along Milwaukee

500 N Milwaukee: The Kenect building overlooks a busy intersection

The “Kenect” pair of buildings at 500 N Milwaukee Ave, photographed last Thursday, will have 227 units and 88 car parking spaces. View all the photos in this gallery.

The Chicago City Council passed the first comprehensive transit-oriented development ordinance in 2013, and the first buildings to take advantage of that law, which reduced the minimum parking requirement and allowed smaller or more units in buildings near CTA and Metra stations, are now being built. Some of them will open to new residents this year.

The Milwaukee Avenue corridor is replete with construction. There are eight buildings at various stages of construction on Milwaukee, or one block away, between the Grand Blue Line station at Halsted and the California Blue Line station, a distance just over three miles.

Collectively the buildings have 1,146 units and 572 car parking spaces, for an average parking space to unit ratio of just under 0.50 spaces. That’s a savings of 574 parking spaces, and hundreds of fewer drivers in a pedestrian, bicycle, transit, and retail-heavy corridor.

2211 N Milwaukee: "The L" building really grabs that corner with Talman

“The L” at 2211 N Milwaukee Ave. (at Talman Ave.) will have 120 units and 60 car parking spaces, but also 120 bike parking spaces with an exclusive bike entrance.

The TOD ordinance at the time allowed a reduction of the normally required 1 parking space per unit to 1 car space per 2 units. City Council revised the ordinance on its two-year anniversary last year to extend the distance a building can be from a train station, and to allow a 100 percent reduction in the number of required car parking spaces for residential buildings. Developers can now build 51-100 percent fewer parking spaces than the 1:2 ratio if they go through an additional zoning process.

There are still no TOD buildings near Metra stations.

2237 N Milwaukee: Crane in the sky

The unnamed two towers development in Logan Square one block from the California Blue Line station was probably the most controversial. View all the photos in this gallery.

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Developer of Bucktown TOD Grilled Over Lack of On-Site Affordable Housing

1st Ward Alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno gracefully – given the circumstances – moderates the meeting.

1st Ward Alder Proco “Joe” Moreno speaks in 2014 about a TOD proposal in his ward in Logan Square that would include affordable housing units.

Yesterday, the Chicago Plan Commission approved River North-based developer Vequity’s proposal for a new transit-oriented development in Bucktown. This puts the plan for a six-story building with 44 units and ten car parking spaces at 1920 N. Milwaukee Ave. on track for approval by the full City Council. However, it didn’t happen without a heated debate about the lack of on-site affordable housing in the project.

The architect, David Brininstool of Brininstool and Lynch, seemed to succeed in persuading the commissioners that the building would successfully reactive the southeast corner of Western and Milwaukee Avenues, currently a shuttlered title loan store. He argued that the new tower would “celebrate the corner” with more foot traffic and transit-oriented retail. But the developer doesn’t plan to include required affordable units in the building, and the developer wasn’t able to convince all the members of the commission that this decision is justified.

According to the city’s affordable housing law, developers that request a zoning change or receive a subsidy from the city, including tax-increment financing, are required to provide ten percent of the units – 20 percent if they get a subsidy – at an affordable sales price or monthly rent. Those details are managed by the city and adjusted annually based on Census figures, and represent what should be affordable to an individual or family of different sizes earning 60 percent or less of the region’s median income.

The developer can either build the affordable units on-site, pay a fee into the city’s low-income housing trust fund to build the affordable units elsewhere, or do a combination of the two. Before the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance was revised last year, simply paying into the trust fund was always an option, unless the local alder insisted on on-site affordable units.

Now, however, developers must build at least a quarter of the require affordable units on-site, or else in a different building within one mile of the development getting the zoning change or subsidy. The other three-quarters of the affordable units can be bought out for a fee per unit. The fee depends on the building’s location.

Vequity, like all of the other developers that had their projects approved at yesterday’s plan commission meeting, applied for approval before the new affordable housing ordinance took effect. They’ve opted to pay $100,000 into the trust fund for each of the five affordable-designated units they’re not building, a move that was condoned by local alder Scott Waguespack (32nd).

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South Siders Spar Over Proposed Stony Island Protected Bike Lanes

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Elihu Blanks and Waymond Smith on Stony Island, a few blocks north of the Skyway access ramps. Photo: John Greenfield

[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.]

For much of its length, Stony Island Avenue is basically an expressway with stoplights. Located on the southeast side between 56th and 130th, it generally has eight travel lanes, the same number as Lake Shore Drive, although it carries half as many vehicles per day—35,000 versus 70,000. Due to this excess lane capacity, speeding is rampant.

The city has proposed converting a lane or two of Stony between 67th and 79th into protected bike lanes. Some residents, and Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston, fear the “road diet” would cause traffic jams, and argue the street is too dangerous for bike lanes. Other neighbors say Stony is too dangerous not to have them.

According to the Chicago Crash Browser website, created by Streetsblog’s Steven Vance, 53 pedestrians and 16 bicyclists were injured along Stony Island between 67th Street (the southern border of Jackson Park) and 79th Street (where access ramps connect Stony with the Chicago Skyway) between 2010 and 2013.

Two pedestrians and a person in a car  were killed in crashes on this stretch between 2010 and 2014, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation. Last year was unusually deadly, with two fatal pedestrian crashes and two bike fatalities.

The complex intersection of Stony Island, 79th, and South Chicago, a diagonal street, is particularly problematic. Located beneath a mess of serpentine Skyway access ramps, the six-way junction has terrible sightlines. It was the site of 444 traffic crashes between 2009 and 2013, the most of any Chicago intersection, according to CDOT.

Adding protected bike lanes could change this equation, making Stony, among other things, a useful bike route. Due to the Chicago Skyway and other barriers like railroad tracks, cul-de-sacs, and a cemetery, it’s one of the few continuous north-south streets in this part of town.

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