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Posts from the Policy & Planning Category


The ‘L’ Reduces Congestion on Highways More Than Widening Would

Blue Line on the Kennedy passing under Austin Ave. pedestrian overpass

A Blue Line train hits 55 mph on the way to O’Hare airport. Photo: Steven Vance

Yesterday, a road construction lobbying group tricked many local publications into promoting their highway expansion agenda.

In what’s become a common strategy for the road-building industry, the American Highway Users Alliance conducted a study called “Unclogging America’s Arteries 2015,” which reported that traffic congestion is really bad and, of course, adding more capacity for cars is the solution. Then they sent out a press release, counting on news outlets to spread the gospel. Since the report found that Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway has the worst bottleneck in the nation, The Tribune, Sun-Times, CBS, and WGN all took the bait and largely regurgitated the press release.

Time Out Chicago, in particular, accepted AHUA’s narrative hook, line, and sinker. Time Out went so far as to blame the CTA Blue Line, which runs down the median of the expressway, for standing in the way of fixing the traffic jam problem:

One immovable feature will force the road to be a bottleneck for the foreseeable future: the Blue Line. It prevents the Kennedy from expanding (the same applies for the Eisenhower Expressway on the West Side), which is a painful result of short-sighted 20th Century urban planning.

Time Out has it backwards. The real myopic urban planning was the decision to bulldoze hundreds of revenue-producing properties, displacing countless residents and businesses, to build the highway. Far from being foolish, the late-Sixties decision by planners and politicians to include a 55 mph rapid transit line in the median of the Kennedy was a savvy use of resources, since it was much cheaper than building a separate subway.

Granted, rapid transit is most useful when stops are located in the center of dense, walkable retail districts, and the middle of a highway isn’t the most pleasant place to wait for a train. But it’s fortunate that the powers that be chose to build new ‘L’ lines in the medians of the Kennedy, the Eisenhower, and the Dan Ryan, rather than not build them at all.

In the modern era, it’s short-sighted to think we can solve the traffic jam problem on urban highways by adding capacity, even though the road lobbyists would like us to believe otherwise. Time Out argued that the $420 million Jane Byrne Interchange expansion project and the $3.4 billion Elgin-O’Hare Expressway extension “will go a long way in reducing traffic on the North Side highway.”

On the contrary, highway expansion projects don’t reduce congestion in the long run. They provide temporary relief, but studies show that the extra capacity tends to encourage more car trips, a phenomenon known as induced demand, so the new lanes are soon filled with vehicles again.

The Blue Line deserves more far credit for fighting congestion than those costly road expansion projects because it provides commuters with an alternative to driving to and from downtown. That’s good for reducing traffic jams, good for the environment, and much healthier than a long, daily car commute.

Update 11/25/15 10:00 a.m.: After we pointed out the absurdity of the original Time Out post, they added the following text:

The Blue Line is a better option than a car for people traveling across the city. Chicago is one of three cities across the country where public transit to the airport is faster than driving. So if you can’t handle any more traffic on the Kennedy, consider trading in your car keys for a Ventra card.

Thanks to Streetsblog Chicago reader “objectathand” for alerting us.

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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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Could Longer Rental Times Help Divvy Appeal to More Chicagoans?


Vienna’s CityBike Wien system givers users twice as much rental time as Divvy. Photo: Michael Podgers

Illinois Bicycle Lawyers - Mike Keating logo

While visiting Vienna, Austria, I gave their CityBike Wien bike-share system a spin and found it has a couple of advantages over Chicago’s Divvy system. CityBike Wien is dirt cheap, with a one-time registration fee of only one euro, about a dollar, compared to $9.95 for a Divvy day pass. And the first hour of every ride on CityBike Wien is free, while Divvy users start racking up late fees after the first 30 minutes. That means you can practically ride across the entire city of Vienna without having to re-dock your bike.

My experience with CityBike Wien made me think about what Divvy could do to improve user experience and encourage more ridership. Offering a longer period before late fees kick in might make the system more convenient to use, and there are several other possibilities for making the system more user-friendly.

Bike-share is generally designed for short trips and errands, especially “last-mile trips” between transit stations and other destinations. When Divvy bikes are used this way, 30 minutes is plenty of time. Moreover, customers can take longer rides without accruing late fees by “dock surfing,” briefly checking in the bike at a station every half hour. If you have a membership key, this usually adds only a dozen seconds or so to your trip time.

On the other hand, there are other systems besides Vienna’s that offer a longer free rental period than Divvy. For example, New York’s Citi Bike and Paris’ Vélib’ allow annual members to use bikes for 45 minutes without late fees, although day pass holders can only use them for 30 minutes without extra fees.

So would it make sense to extend the Divvy rental period? Michelle Stenzel, co-leader of the grassroots group Bike Walk Lincoln Park, isn’t convinced that’s necessary.

“Although I don’t want to diminish the needs of users who truly want to ride a Divvy for 45 minutes…I have to ask whether those people have actually tried riding a Divvy for that long,” Stenzel said. “Those bikes are heavy!” She added that she avoids using Divvy for more than 20-25 minutes at a time, but that’s plenty of time for the kind of trips the system is intended for.

However, as the Divvy coverage area grows, customer may wish to take longer rides. This year the network expanded to 476 stations, covering 476 stations and 33 of Chicago’s 50 wards, making it the largest system in North America based on the number of stations and the geographic area served. Next year, Divvy is adding 70 new stations in Chicago, Evanston and Oak Park next year, so the the coverage area will grow significantly.

But Jim Merrell, a campaign director at the Active Transportation Alliance doesn’t think the larger service area will lead to a demand for a longer rental period. “Divvy’s great for the shorter trips, but I have a hard time seeing people using Divvy [for longer trips],” he said. He added that Divvy seems to be most useful for rides within neighborhoods, or when combined with transit. Still, longer rental times could make using Divvy a more relaxing experience by reducing the need to watch the clock and dock surf.

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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

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 10.28.12 AM

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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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…


Ald. Reilly Has a Responsible Approach to Off-Street Parking

Rendering of new building (right) in West Loop

The proposed building is on the right. The building on the left, K2 Apartments, has 30 percent less parking than the city’s standard 1:1 ratio, but only about half of those spaces are used. Rendering: Pappageorge Haymes

When it comes to parking management in Chicago, there have been a couple of encouraging developments recently. In September, City Council passed a beefed-up revision of the transit-oriented development ordinance, which makes it easier than ever to build dense, parking-lite developments near train stations. And, recently, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) made some very sensible statements about the fact that downtown buildings shouldn’t have tons of car spaces.

It’s not as if Reilly is particularly progressive when it comes to transportation and public space issues. While he has supported some bike infrastructure in his downtown district, he recently tried to pass an ordinance forcing the Chicago Department of Transportation to remove the Kinzie protected lanes.

He blocked CDOT from installing Divvy stations on the Magnificent Mile, and he was was the driving force behind a new law that severely restricts the use of pedicabs in the central business district. And, last week, he lobbied to ban food carts from portions of dozens of streets in his ward, even though the carts offer consumers affordable food choices and add vitality to the public way.

But Reilly might be one of the most forward-thinking City Council members when it comes to promoting residential buildings without an excessive amount of car parking. He has encouraged developers to only build the number of spaces that is appropriate for the location of the project as well as the expected car-ownership rate of the residents. He has noted that buildings with many floors of garage parking make streets less attractive, and most downtown renters don’t own cars.

For example, Cardiff Mason Development is currently pitching a 38-story residential building at 352 North Union Ave. in River West, near the Jewel-Osco at Kinzie and Desplaines. It would have 373 apartments and 158 tenant car parking spaces, for a ratio of 0.42 spaces per unit. However, DNAinfo reported, the developer originally proposed a “substantially higher” number of off-street spots but lowered the number after a meeting with Reilly.

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IDOT Finally Sees The Light, Stops Withholding Crash Data From the Public

106th Street roadside memorial

A crash memorial on the 106th Street bridge over the Calumet River in the East Side neighborhood. Photo: Curtis Locke

Back in August, a transportation professional who asked not to be named told me the Illinois Department of Transportation had stopped fulfilling requests from nongovernmental entities for crash location data. This information is crucial for analyzing any transportation network — for example, we often rely on crash data for Streetsblog Chicago stories. I have since heard the same complaint from other individuals.

In late September, the Active Transportation Alliance sent IDOT a memo urging them to rethink their new policy. More than two months after the problem first came to light, the state is finally providing the location data to the public once again. That will make it easier for transportation planning firms and advocacy groups to work on pedestrian and bike plans and come up with strategies for reducing crashes.

In the past, crash location data was readily available from IDOT’s Illinois Safety Data Mart database, but that website has been offline for some time. However, residents, planners, advocates, and journalists could still request the data from the state, and there was usually a fast turnaround. Pre-2014 crash data is still available online from Steven Vance’s Chicago Crash Browser.

But the source I spoke with in August said they had contacted the IDOT’s Division of Traffic Safety to ask for crash data, including locations, they were referred to IDOT’s law department. Via email, a representative from the Office of the Chief Council cited a clause in the Freedom of Information Act law as a justification for not providing the data:

Pursuant to FOIA Section 7(1)(a), traffic crash reports, as well as data extrapolated from those reports, such as the location of crashes [emphasis added], in the possession of the Department are exempt from inspection and copying pursuant to Illinois Vehicle Code, 625 ILCS 5/11-408 and 625 ILCS 5/11-412. Therefore, the Department is precluded by law from furnishing copies of crash reports (or any attachments or personal information contained therein). Under these provisions of the Vehicle Code, accident/vehicle crash reports are for the confidential use of the Department and State and federal agencies conducting safety studies.

“So IDOT is saying they’re precluded by law from providing copies of crash reports due to privacy concerns,” the source told me. “But, prior to this, they’ve just sent us the data scrubbed of information that would identify the people in the crashes. It doesn’t make any sense.” The source speculated that IDOT’s new policy might be motivated by the state budget crisis, since money might not be available to bring the Safety Data Mart back online.

At the time, IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell implied that the department had not changed its policy. “The Illinois Vehicle Code has always precluded us from furnishing all of the information contained in crash reports [to the public],” he stated. “I can tell you that the Illinois Department of Transportation is in the process of reviewing its policies and past practices in regard to the tabulation and publication of motor vehicle crash information. We continue to release summary crash data that does not contain any identifying information of those involved in accidents to the public upon request.”

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CDOT Promises the Miró-Obscuring BRT Station Won’t Be an Art Faux-Pas


The Rake’s Progress: The new bus shelter, which doesn’t yet have glass panels, is currently making the inconspicuous sculpture even harder to notice. Photo: Steve Marsala

Don’t worry art lovers, the city assures us that the project to bring faster, more efficient bus service to the Loop won’t permanently upstage one of Chicago’s most beloved public sculptures. The Chicago Department of Transportation says they have plans to use lighting and signs to highlight a statue by the famed Spanish artist Joan Miró, which is now located behind a giant Loop Link bus rapid transit shelter.

The sculpture, officially titled “The Sun, the Moon, and One Star,” but better known as “Miró’s Chicago” or “Miss Chicago,” was installed in 1981under Mayor Jane Byrne. It already had less-than-stellar placement in Brunswick Plaza, a dark nook sandwiched between the Cook County Administration Building and the Chicago Temple Building.

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Photo: Steve Marsala

The Miró statue, which looks something like a lady in a dress with a fork coming out of her head, is located across the street from Daley Plaza. There, the lion-like “Chicago Picasso,” by Miró’s colleague Pablo Picasso, is much more prominently displayed.

The Loop Link project, expected to wrap up by the end of the year, is creating dedicated bus lanes on Washington and Madison Street in the Loop, plus protected bike lanes on Washington and Randolph. CTA customers will wait for a ride at eight 14-foot-tall bus shelters, averaging 90 feet in length, with a design that’s reminiscent of an upside-down rake.

Originally, the Chicago Department of Transportation planned to build fully enclosed stations that would have provided good weather protection. However, after merchants expressed concerns that their storefronts would be blocked, CDOT is instead building giant canopies with glass backs that stop several feet before the roof, so they may not offer much protection from blowing rain and snow. However, a concrete bench will run the length of each shelter, so there’ll be plenty of room to sit.

Despite the department’s efforts to make the canopies relatively unobtrusive, the shelter that they recently erected in front of the Miró makes the previously inconspicuous sculpture even harder to notice from the street. Karen R. Nussbaum, a classical singer who performs at the Chicago Temple, wrote a passionate letter to the Sun-Times decrying the situation:

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Once Again, the Construction of a Mariano’s Creates a Hazard for Pedestrians

People walking in the road on Broadway

People walking the street on Broadway past a sidewalk closed for the construction for the parking-rich Mariano’s development. Photo: J. Patrick Lynch

Broadway is a city-designated Pedestrian Street between Diversey and Cornelia in Lakeview. But during the construction of a new car-centric development, people on foot are encountering a decidedly pedestrian-unfriendly situation.

A massive new complex featuring a Mariano’s grocery store and an XSport Fitness gym, plus 279 car parking spaces, is currently being built at 3030 N. Broadway. For the past several weeks, the sidewalk on the west side of Broadway has been closed to accommodate the construction.

Streetsblog Chicago reader J. Patrick Lynch sent us photos of the situation, which is all-too-common in Chicago. Since the sidewalk closure signs are located mid-block, people who encounter them are supposed to backtrack half a block to the crosswalk in order to detour to the east sidewalk. Lynch tells us that many people simply opt to walk in the street.

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