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Norway or the Highway? Oslo’s Car-Free Plan Should Inspire Chicago


Madison Street, part of the Loop Link network, might be a good candidate to be a car-free street. Photo: John Greenfield

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

“I think we should look to countries like Denmark, and Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they’ve accomplished,” socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said recently. That statement surely gave the Republicans hives.

One area where U.S. cities like Chicago should definitely look to Scandinavia for inspiration is traffic management. Last month, the newly elected city council of Oslo, Norway, announced that it plans to make the central city free of private cars by 2019. It’s part of a plan to cut greenhouse emissions in half within five years, as compared to 1990 levels.

“We want to make it better for pedestrians and cyclists,” Lan Marie Nguyen Berg from the city’s Green Party told reporters. The party won the September 14 election along with its allies from the Labor and Socialist Left parties. “It will be better for shops and everyone.”

European cities like London and Madrid charge congestion fees to drivers entering their downtowns, and others have car-free days in their city centers, like Paris did last September. But Oslo’s plan is said to be the first total and permanent ban of private cars in the center of a European capital. Streetcars and buses will continue to provide downtown access, and accommodations will be made for deliveries and people with disabilities, the three parties said in a statement.

The politicians hope to reduce overall car traffic in Oslo by twenty percent by 2019, when the next election will be held, and thirty percent by 2030. “In 2030, there will still be people driving cars but they must be zero-emissions,” Nguyen Berg said.

The initiative involves a “massive boost” in transit funding, subsidies for the purchase of electric bicycles, and the construction of at least thirty-seven miles of new bike lanes by 2019. In comparison, Chicago has installed 103 miles of bike lanes over the last four years. But since Oslo has less than a quarter of our population, their goal is the equivalent of the Windy City installing 154 miles of lanes.

While I’m not suggesting that Chicagoans will be swapping Italian beef for lutefisk any time soon, we would do well to consider a similar strategy for reducing congestion and pollution. I’m not proposing that private automobiles be immediately banned from all streets in the entire central business district, or even the Loop proper. But, along with Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance, I’ve brainstormed a few ideas about how car-free and car-lite roadways could make downtown travel safer, more efficient and more pleasant.

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New Ashland, Western Express Buses Will Be Fast, But BRT Would Be Faster

Southbound Ashland bus

The current #9 Ashland bus. Photo: John Greenfield

Bus riders who take buses on Ashland and Western Avenues are getting faster, more reliable service. The Chicago Transit Authority is bringing back the old express bus routes on these streets, and they’re also adding transit signal prioritization and cutting little-used stops on the local bus runs. While these are welcome improvements, the city should move forward with its plan for full-fledged bus rapid transit service on Ashland, which would be much faster than the express buses.

The X9 Ashland and X49 Western expresses bus routes, along with all other X routes and other service, were cut in 2010. The new express buses will make about half as many stops as the local buses, which provides a significant time savings. Later, the CTA and the Chicago Department of Transportation will add Transit Signal Priority. By extending stoplights turn green faster as a bus approaches, or extending the green, TSP helps keep riders from getting stuck at intersections.

The local buses on Ashland and Western will also be faster because the CTA is removing some stops where few people board or disembark, so that buses will stop approximately every one-quarter mile instead of every one-eighth mile. It then makes sense for riders to simply hop on the first bus that shows up at an express stop, rather than waiting for an express bus, because waiting for the express might cancel out any time savings from fewer stops.

Daniel Kay Hertz charted the projected travel time gains of the Ashland and Western service on his blog City Notes. He compared the CTA’s estimates of the travel times for the current bus service, the new local service, the new express service, and the proposed Ashland bus rapid transit system. Hertz’s chart makes it clear that while consolidating stops on the local buses will result in a significant time saving, the new express buses won’t be that much faster than the new locals.

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Trib Launches War on Speed Cams, CDOT Releases Data Showing They Work

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Still from a CDOT compilation of cam footage of high-speed driving, showing a driver doing 99 mph by the Vincennes Avenue bike lanes on the Southwest Side.

The Chicago Tribune’s David Kidwell and his colleagues have written extensively about the city’s red light camera program. Some of that reporting has been constructive, including revelations about the red light cam bribery scandal, unexplained spikes in ticketing, and cameras that were installed in low-crash locations during the Richard M. Daley administration.

Other aspects of the Tribune’s red light coverage have been problematic. For example, the paper emphasized that the cams have led to an increase in rear-end crashes with injuries, while downplaying the fact that they have decreased the number of right-angle injury crashes, which are much more likely to cause serious injuries and deaths.

Throughout it all, Kidwell has shown a strong bias against automated enforcement in general. He has largely ignored studies from cities around the country and the world that show red light and speed cams are effective in preventing serious injuries and fatalities.

Yesterday morning, Kidwell and fellow reporter Abraham Epton unleashed a new assault on the city’s speed camera program, the product of a six-month investigation. In three long articles, they claim that the city has issued $2.4 million in unfair speed camera tickets, and argue that many of the cams on busy main streets are justified by small or little-used parks.

If there really is a significant problem with speed cams writing tickets when warning signs are missing or obscured, or after parks are closed, or in school zones when children are not present, contrary to state law, it’s a good thing that the Tribune is drawing attention to this phenomenon. If so, the city should take steps to address the problem, as they did in the wake of Kidwell’s red light cam series.

Most of these issues can be traced to the city of Chicago’s questionable decision to propose state legislation that only allows the cameras to be installed within the eighth-mile “Child Safety Zones” around schools and parks. Instead, the city should be allowed to put cams anywhere there’s a speeding and crash problem.

However, it appears this new series is written from Kidwell’s usual perspective that it’s unfair to force motorists to pay more attention to driving safely. For instance, the coverage discusses how Tim Moyer was ticketed on five different occasions for speeding past a Northwest Side playground that was closed for construction — speed cams in park zones are only supposed to be turned on when the park is open. After the Tribune contacted the city about these tickets, they were thrown out.

The Trib uses this as an example of how the speed cam program is dysfunctional. However, the cams only issue tickets to drivers who are going 10 mph or more over the speed limit. The fact remains that Moyer was caught speeding heavily on five different occasions at the same location. Even if the cam couldn’t legally issue him tickets, he deserved them.

The Tribune’s new anti-speed cam series seems to be largely about helping drivers like Moyer who speed by 10 mph or more get off on technicalities. But the city’s default speed limit is set at 30 mph for a good reason – studies show that pedestrians struck at this speed usually survive. Why is the Tribune putting so much effort into defending the right of drivers to go at or above 40 mph, a speed at which pedestrians crashes are almost always fatal?

I haven’t fully digested all three of the articles yet, but I plan to publish a more thorough analysis in the near future. In the meantime, let’s talk about something that Kidwell and Epton largely ignored: the positive effect the speed cams are having on safety.

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By Popular Demand, CTA Will Test Restored Lincoln and 31st Street Bus Lines

#11 Lincoln CTA Bus Route

Currently, the #11 terminates at Western Avenue. Photo: Jeff Zoline

At Monday’s Chicago Transit Authority budget hearing, politicians and residents implored the CTA board to bring restore the 31st Street bus and Lincoln Avenue bus routes. The #31 bus line was canceled in 1997, while the segment of the #11 Lincoln route between Western and Fullerton was eliminated in 2012.

At the hearing, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who has helped lead the charge for restored service, noted that the Lincoln bus was formerly a lifeline for seniors in his ward. Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) noted that a new development planned for Lincoln Park will bring over 1,000 residences to the neighborhood, increasing the demand for transit. Ald. Patrick Daley (11th) proposed a new 31st Street route that would connect the 31st/Ashland Orange Line stop, the Sox/35th Red Line station, and 31st Street Beach. A number of their constituents spoke up as well.

Despite this urging, it seemed unlikely the board could make a decision on the matter and revise their proposed 2016 spending plan in time for today’s scheduled budget vote. However, at this afternoon’s meeting, CTA President Dorval Carter made a surprise announcement that next spring the agency will conduct pilots of the restored #31 and #11 bus service.

Details are still being finalized, including the exact locations, days and times of the service, and the duration of the pilot, according to a source at the CTA. As soon as those details are known, the agency will work with the aldermen and their communities to promote the pilot tests. Depending on how much ridership the routes get, service may ultimately be restored on a permanent basis, the source said.

“We’re thrilled about the news,” said Pawar’s community outreach director Dara Salk. “We’re very grateful to the board for listening to our concerns and taking action.”


Drunk Driver Who Killed Hector Avalos Sentenced to Only 100 Days in Prison


Hector Avalos. Photo courtesy of the family

At a hearing today, Judge Nicholas Ford gave Robert Vais, the driver who struck and killed cyclist Hector Avalos while drunk, a relatively light sentence of 100 days in a state prison plus two years probation. Vais must also perform manual labor as part of the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program once a month for two years, and undergo drug and alcohol treatment.

On December 6, 2013, Avalos, 28, a former Marine, was biking back to the South Side from his job as a cook at a restaurant in River North. Vais, now 56, an administrator at Stroger Hospital, reportedly attended a staff Christmas party in Little Italy prior to the collision. At 11:58 p.m., he was driving to his home in southwest suburban Riverside when he fatally struck Avalos on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park.

Blood drawn from Vais soon after the crash showed his blood alcohol level was 0.152 percent, nearly twice the legal level of 0.08. He was charged with felony aggravated DUI and two misdemeanor DUI charges. On September 16 of this year, Vais pleaded guilty.

30 to 40 supporters of the Avalos family, including members of the local bike community, attended today’s sentencing hearing, according to Active Transportation Alliance staff member Jason Jenkins, who has attended most of the hearings for the case. A comparable number of people were there in support of Vais.

At the hearing, Avalos’ mother Ingrid Cossio, stepfather Jorge Cossio, and younger stepsiblings Brandon and Brandi read victim impact statements. Vais’ sister, a childhood friend, and a coworker read mitigating statements. Vais was given an opportunity to make a statement and expressed strong regret and remorse, and apologized profusely to Avalos’ relatives while tears came to his eyes, Jenkins said.

According to Illinois law, aggravated DUI carries a jail sentence of three-to-fourteen years, at least 85 percent of which must be served in prison, plus fines of up to $25,000. Probation is generally not an option, except in extraordinary circumstances. Therefore, it’s noteworthy that Judge Ford gave Vais a sentence of only 100 days, plus two years probation, with no fine. The jail term will begin on November 30, which gives Vais time to put his affairs in order before he serves time.

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Residents and Politicians Urge CTA to Restore Lincoln, 31st Street Bus Service

They want their bus back

CTA riders have been donning yellow shirts to signify that they want the agency to restore bus routes on Lincoln Avenue and 31st Street.

During the public comment period of last night’s Chicago Transit Authority’s budget hearing, the only one the agency is holding this year, many politicians and residents urged the CTA board to restore the Lincoln Avenue and 31st Street bus routes.

The hearing opened with budget director Tom McKone providing an overview of the 2016 spending plan. It maintains virtually all current bus service and brings back the old express bus routes on Ashland Avenue and Western Avenue. As a strategy to avoid a fare hike, the budget includes layoffs for some management staff, plus eliminating some vacant positions.

When the floor was opened for comments, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said she was once again there to “respectfully request” that the board find a place in the budget to restore the full #11 Lincoln bus route. In 2012, as part of several bus line cuts to help fund the CTA’s “de-crowding plan” for additional train service, the agency cancelled bus service on Lincoln between the Brown Line’s Western stop and the Fullerton station. Smith said the strategy hasn’t been a success.

Smith noted that her Lincoln Park ward includes many college students, young professionals, and seniors – the most common demographics for frequent transit users, both locally and nationally, she said. Smith added new developments, including the redevelopment of the former Children’s Memorial Hospital site at Fullerton/Halsted/Lincoln, will bring over 1,000 new residences and over 150,000 square feet of retail to the Lincoln Avenue corridor.

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who has been leading the charge to restore the #11 ever since service was cut, was more somber when he addressed the board. Pawar said he wants his ward to include affordable neighborhoods where people can age in place. He added that, despite the increased capacity on the Brown Line, the elimination of Lincoln service makes it harder for many of his constituents to get to destinations within the ward.

Alder Ameya Pawar (47th) asking the board to reinstate the 11-Lincoln Ave bus

Ald. Pawar appeared again before the CTA board asking for them to reinstate the 11-Lincoln bus.

One North Side resident testified that the Brown Line is often too crowded to be a satisfactory replacement for the Lincoln bus. Another asked that the existing #11 route be extended north from Fullerton to at least Belmont Avenue, so that she could access a nearby Jewel-Osco.

Bridgeport’s Ald. Patrick Thompson (11th), elected this year, spoke up in favor of restoring the #31 bus, which was cut in 1997. “A lot has changed in our community” since then, Thompson said, noting that there has been a new wave of development in recent years and better transit could help reduce congestion. He proposed a bus route that would serve the 31st/Ashland Orange Line station and the Sox/35th Red Line stop, ending at 31st Street beach. Read more…


Witness: Officer Drove Recklessly; Judge: Cyclist Probably Had Road Rage

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James Liu.

According to a witness, an off-duty police officer swerved in and out of traffic while chasing cyclist James Liu, driving in a “really dangerous” manner. However, at a hearing yesterday, Judge George Berbas upheld a charge of disorderly conduct against Liu. Berbas argued it was likely that the bike rider – not the officer – was guilty of road rage.

The incident occurred on October 14, around 8:15 a.m., when Liu, 33, was bicycling downtown on Milwaukee Avenue to his job as a bankruptcy attorney. After he turned south on Desplaines Street, he says, the driver of a silver SUV started edging into the Desplaines bike lane as he tried to illegally pass other vehicles on the right. Liu says the motorist was getting too close for comfort, so he knocked twice on the door of his truck to alert him of his presence.

Unfortunately for Liu, the driver was Officer Paul Woods, from the traffic administration department, who was also on his way to work. The attorney says Woods immediately began chasing him in the bike lane, then rolled down his window and yelled, “I’m a f—ing cop.”

UIC associate professor Rachel Havrelock was driving her daughter to school at the time. “I saw the SUV driver swerving in and out of traffic and he seemed to be going after the cyclist,” Havrelock told me. After Liu changed lanes to head east on Washington Street, Havrelock says Woods swerved across two lanes of southbound Desplaines to blockade the cyclist’s path. “I was very shocked by what I saw,” she said.

Woods then handcuffed Liu, called for backup, and had the attorney transported to a police station. Liu was ultimately charged with disorderly conduct.

At yesterday’s administrative hearing, Liu reiterated that he knocked on the SUV because Woods was driving in the bike lane, DNAinfo reported. However, the officer testified that he was stopped in traffic when the attorney banged on his vehicle and was not driving in the bike lane. He added that he was taken aback by Liu’s action, and that the attorney also extended a middle finger at him.

Liu told me today that it’s possible he did flip the officer the bird at some point during the incident, although he doesn’t recall doing so. However, he repeated that the SUV was moving towards him in the bike lane when he knocked on it, not stationary.

In finding Liu guilty of disorderly conduct, Judge Berbas asserted that the cyclist probably knocked on the SUV due to road rage or “overreaction to a traffic situation,” DNA reported. “If a Chicago police officer is in uniform on his way to work, he really just wants to get to work, check in and do his job,” Berbas said. “I don’t think that while in his personal vehicle he’s going to be looking to instigate or start anything.”

Liu told me the judge’s logic is flawed. “His statement seems to imply that an attorney who is just riding his bike to work is looking to start something,” Liu added. “What’s my motivation?”

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The New Ventra App Will Make Metra Easier to Ride For Millions of People

Update Nov. 18: The Ventra app is available half a day early. Download for Android and iOS

The Ventra app will be released this month, making it more convenient to pay your Metra fare, whether you’re an occasional rider or a daily commuter. The best thing about the app is that it allows you to buy tickets and passes via your smartphone. That means no waiting in line at a ticket booth, using an ill-designed ticket vending machine, or paying a surcharge on board. That’s a big plus if you’re rushing to catch a train and don’t have time to buy a ticket at the station.

Why am I so confident that the Ventra App will be convenient to use? I’m part of the app’s beta testing group, and I recently used the app during a Metra excursion to the South Deering neighborhood for a fried fish snack at Calumet Fisheries. Aside from some visual quirks that I find very annoying, including flashing screens and unpolished buttons and dialog boxes, I found that the app performs all functions flawlessly.

You’ll be able to use the Ventra app to start, stop, and change auto-load preferences on your account, setting how much money you want drawn from your credit or debit card when it dips below $10. The Ventra app also has a built-in transit tracker. It shows the nearest Metra and ‘L’ stations, as well as bus stops, plus the predicted time the train or bus will show up or, in the case of Metra, the scheduled departure time.

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Cyclist Arrested by Allegedly Road-Raging Officer Will File Civil Rights Lawsuit


According to the police, cyclist James Liu was not actually arrested but merely cited. Photo: Ben Raines

[This piece also runs in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the street in print on Wednesday evenings.]

Picture yourself bike commuting downtown on Milwaukee Avenue, the city’s busiest cycling street. After you turn south on Des Plaines Street, the driver of a silver SUV starts edging into the bike lane as he tries to illegally pass other vehicles on the right in his rush to get to work.

The motorist is getting too close for comfort, so you knock twice on the door of his truck to alert him of your presence. Unfortunately, he turns out to be an off-duty police officer, and less than a minute later you find yourself sitting in the street with your hands cuffed behind you, and your orange fixie sprawled across the asphalt.

That’s what bankruptcy attorney James Liu, 33, says happened to him on October 14 at around 8:15am, while he was trying to make his way to the office. “As soon as I tapped on his side panel, he immediately started chasing me, driving in the bike lane,” Liu says. “Around Fulton Street he rolls down his window and yells, ‘I’m a f—ing cop!’ I just look at him and shrug my shoulders, and then we continue south at a normal speed.”

Liu says that when they came to a red light at Washington Street, he changed lanes to head east. The uniformed officer then zoomed across two lanes of southbound Des Plaines and stopped his SUV at a ninety-degree angle to traffic, blocking the attorney’s path. “It was a pretty dangerous move,” Liu recalls.

The officer then got out of his SUV and demanded that the cyclist stand in front of the vehicle with his hands up, the attorney says. When he complied, the cop handcuffed him and then called for backup. “I repeatedly asked whether I was under arrest and, if so, what I was being charged with,” Liu says, adding that the officer eventually told him he was under arrest for reckless conduct.

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Rapid Transit, One of Chicago’s Key Utility Bike Shops, Is Closing its Doors.


Chris Stodder and Justyna Frank, soon after the shop opened in 1994. Photo: Rapid Transit

It’s the end of an era. After 21 years, the store that helped launch Chicago’s transportation cycling revolution is calling it a day.

Rapid Transit Cycle Shop, with locations in Wicker Park and University Village, announced yesterday that they will be closing soon. “Since 2008, we’ve been affected by the downturn in the economy, and we don’t have enough cash on hand to get us through the winter,” said Chris Stodder, who owns the shop with his wife Justyna Frank. “We made this decision after we weren’t able to reach an agreement with our landlords. It was a double-whammy of soft sales this year and an inability to access new capital through loans.”

Back in 1994, when bike commuting was relatively uncommon in Chicago, and the city had few bike lanes or parking racks, Stodder and Frank had the novel idea of opening a shop that focused on everyday cyclists, rather than Lycra-clad racers and hobbyists. From their storefront at 1900 West North in Wicker Park, they sold bicycles that were hard to find at the time, including European-style city bikes, cargo cycles, recumbents, folding bikes and more. 15 years later, they opened a satellite shop at 1344 South Halsted, near the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Cycling is obviously exploding in Chicago, and we were doing tons of repairs this summer,” Stodder said. “But we weren’t selling enough big-ticket items to keep ahead of our overhead. Sales reps have told us that there has been a decline in wholesale business across the Midwest recently, but bike shops keep opening here, so it may be a case of more stores splitting a smaller pie.”

To cut costs, Rapid Transit reduced their staff and moved to a smaller space on Halsted last year, but Stodder says it wasn’t enough to stop the financial bleeding. They plan to close both stores within the next 60 days, after they’ve had a chance to finish all pending repairs, take care of special orders and layaways, and empty out both spaces.

I asked Stodder what accomplishments he’s most proud of from the last two decades. “It’s a weekly occurrence, but we change people’s lives,” he said. “We always encouraged people to ride no matter what their current physical shape or abilities were. We’ve turned people into cyclists when they weren’t before.”

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