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CDOT’s Sean Wiedel Provides Update on Divvy Installation, Equity Efforts

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Divvy docking station parts are loaded onto flatbed trucks to prepare for installation. Photo: Divvy

“With all the challenges we’ve had with the equipment supplier, it’s gratifying to finally see the new Divvy stations on the ground,” said Chicago Department of Transportation assistant commissioner Sean Wiedel regarding the city’s current bike-share expansion. “People are obviously clamoring for Divvy, so it’s exciting to be able to meet that demand.”

CDOT began installing new docking stations last week in Bronzeville and Hyde Park. They’re planning on expanding the system from its 2013 rollout of 300 docking stations and 3,000 bikes to 476 stations and 4,760 bikes by early June, in time for the annual Bike to Work Rally. The service area will nearly double, from 44.1 square miles, or 19 percent of the city’s geographic area, to 86.7 square miles, or 40 percent.

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been quick to point out, this means Chicago will have more stations and a larger service area than any other North American city, although New York and Montreal will still have far more bikes. The number of Chicago wards served will grow from 13 to 33 out of 50. The portion of the population that lives in bike-share coverage areas will expand from about 33 percent to 56 percent, so most Chicagoans will live close to a station.

Crews are currently installing five-to-ten stations a day and working six days a week, Wiedel said. About 60 stations have been installed so far. Almost all South Side installations should be complete today, and then work will begin on the West Side, and finally the North Side. Downtown installations are being done on weekends.

The system was supposed to expand last year. However, the January 2014 bankruptcy of the equipment supplier, Montreal-based Public Bike Share System Company, put a wrench in that plan. PBSC has new ownership now, and Wiedel says the expansion is going much smoother than the original roll-out. “The previous round was stressful due to supply chain issues, but this time the process has been low-key. All equipment has arrived on time.” PBSC will also provide upgrade software for Divvy within the next six-to-twelve months, Wiedel said.

He added that the October 2014 sale of the former Divvy concessionaire, Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share, to NYC-based Motivate, also greased the wheels. “There has been much more corporate support for the Divvy employees like [general manager] Elliot Greenberger] and [operations manager] Jon Mayer.”

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Three Transit Campaigns: Do They Compete or Complement Each Other?

CTA: Let's not take our resources for granted

An RTA funding campaign poster from 2005 on the CTA echoes a similar message about raising funds for transit. Campaigns now are more focused on transit as a necessary component to population and economy growth. Photo: Salim Virji

As the Chicago region grows in population, we’re going to need to provide efficient and affordable transportation options in order to compete in the global economy, and that’s going to require more and better transit. People who live near transit pay less in transportation costs as a portion of their household income, and have better access to jobs, compared to those who don’t. GO TO 2040, the region’s comprehensive plan, calls for doubling 2010 transit ridership levels by the year 2040 as a means to support population growth and reduce carbon emissions.

Chicagoland has a large network of CTA and Metra rail transit routes, but the network’s mileage and ridership are lower than they were in the 1950s, even though the regional population has grown.  Compared to other metropolitan regions we spend less per person on transit service and our population is growing slower. Two years ago, a Center for Neighborhood Technology study found that more housing is being built far from train stations than near them, and that still appears to be the case today.

The CTA increased train service three years ago, but to fund this, the agency cut bus service dramatically. Metra added a significant amount of service in 2006 by launching new lines and extending existing ones, but there has been no increase in service since then. Pace, the suburban bus network, is the only local transit agency in Chicagoland that’s currently adding service. Their first Pulse express bus route will run along on Milwaukee Avenue from Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood to the Golf Mill shopping center in Niles.

While most people agree that the region needs expanded transit service and better-maintained transit infrastructure, and that we need more funding in order to accomplish that, there isn’t consensus on how to raise that money. In the last year or so, local nonprofits have launched three different transit-funding initiatives.

One year ago, the Active Transportation Alliance and CNT kicked off the Transit Future campaign, with a focus on extending CTA train lines by raising funds at the Cook County level. Transit Future is largely inspired by Los Angeles’ Measure R campaign, in which L.A. County voters approved a sales tax. The new revenue is used to provide local matches for federal grants that bankroll transit projects.

The Chicagoland Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s FUND 2040 initiative proposes a small sales tax increase to pay for regional transit infrastructure projects: addressing the backlog of deferred maintenance and building new lines and stations. Priority would go to projects that meet multiple goals in the GO TO 2040 plan.

The Metropolitan Planning Council’s Accelerate Illinois campaign also calls for fixing our crumbling transportation infrastructure, but it’s a statewide initiative, and it also calls for better maintenance of roads. The campaign, which is endorsed by a diverse coalition of road builders, contractors, the three transit agencies, railroads and various businesses and nonprofits, doesn’t identify a particular funding mechanism. Read more…

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Active Trans Launches Campaign to Beef Up Illinois’ Safe Routes Programs

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Children walk to school in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Photo: John Greenfield

In the wake of new analysis that shows nearly five children are struck by drivers within a block of an Illinois school every day, the Active Transportation Alliance is spearheading a campaign to overhaul the state’s Safe Routes to School program. “We’re really hoping to highlight the program, and also emphasize the need to improve it and put more funding behind it,” said campaign manager Erin McMillan.

Between 2006 and 2012, almost 19,000 children were struck while walking or biking in Illinois. The Active Trans study found that 54 percent of these crashes took place within a block of a school, with a child being hit every five hours on average.

McMillan added that the rate of walking and biking to school has dropped sharply over the last few decades. In 1969, half of school children walked or biked to school, but only 13 percent reported doing so in 2009. Meanwhile, the national childhood obesity rate has tripled over the last three decades, and about one in three Illinois children is overweight or obese. Childhood obesity is particularly prevalent among African-American and Latino children.

In recent years, Safe Routes to School has emerged as a national movement to improve the safety and health of children by promoting walking and biking via educational programming and infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes. Since 2005, Illinois’ SRTS program has awarded nearly $49.5 million to 518 projects. However, unlike some other states that provide significant state funding for Safe Routes, Illinois only distributes federal transportation dollars.

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What’s Going on With Alderman Reilly and the Kinzie Protected Bike Lanes

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This part of the Kinzie Street protected bike lane, from the River east to Dearborn, is supposed to be removed during Wolf Point construction. Photo: masMiguel.

Alderman Brendan Reilly submitted an order to city council on Wednesday that would compel Chicago Department of Transportation Rebekah Scheinfeld to remove the Kinzie Street protected bike lane between Dearborn and the Chicago River because he says it conflicts with Wolf Point construction truck traffic.

In 2013, under former commissioner Gabe Klein, CDOT agreed to a development plan [PDF], which was approved by the Chicago Plan Commission and codified into law. The plan called for Hines, the Wolf Point developer, to pay for installing temporary protected bike lanes on Grand Avenue, Illinois Street, and Wells Street, before the temporary removal of the Kinzie Street bike lanes to facilitate the construction project.

In the long term, it makes sense for there to be bike lanes on both Grand Avenue – already identified as a “Crosstown Bike Route” in the Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 – and Kinzie Street. The Active Transportation Alliance recently launched a petition asking other aldermen to oppose Reilly’s order. “Ald. Reilly has proposed installing new bike lanes on Grand Avenue as an alternative,” the petition stated. “But the reality is, people will continue to bike on Kinzie because it is less stressful than Grand Avenue with fewer cars and no buses, not to mention it provides the most logical and direct connection to the central business district.”

CDOT appears to have changed its position about the development plan. Spokesman Mike Claffey underscored the importance of the Kinzie bike lanes in a statement to Streetsblog:

“CDOT has safety concerns about removing the protected bike lanes on Kinzie, which is the second most popular street for bicycling in Chicago. The protected bike lane is in place to reduce conflicts and the risk of accidents between bicyclists, motor vehicles, and pedestrians. We have been in discussions with the Alderman about these concerns and will continue to work with him on this issue.”

Specifically, the development plan, identified as Planned Development 98, calls for:

  • Temporary removal of the protected bike lanes on Kinzie from Dearborn to Milwaukee
  • Eastbound and westbound PBLs on Grand from Milwaukee to Wells
  • Westbound PBL on Grand from Dearborn to Wells
  • Eastbound PBL on Illinois from Wells to Dearborn
  • “An improved bicycle accommodation on Wells Street for cyclists traveling, between Grand Avenue and Illinois Street”

The Kinzie bike lanes are indeed important, but it’s unclear why Scheinfeld is now pushing back against the plan. Reilly told City Council that Scheinfeld cited an internal study that supported keeping the bike lanes on Kinzie. We asked for a copy of this report but Claffey said he didn’t have one. The development plan also says that all of the developer’s designs for these temporary bicycle accommodations are subject to Scheinfeld’s departmental review.

CDOT could propose retaining the Kinzie Street protected bike lanes throughout the construction project, which started over a year ago. If that’s not feasible, and the bike lanes must come out, the agency should bring back their support for the original plan that temporarily relocates the bike lanes to Grand. However, it’s important the the Kinzie lanes be reinstalled, because Kinzie is the direct and route between the popular protected bike lanes on Milwaukee and bike lanes on Desplaines, Canal, Wells, and Dearborn.

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Like TOD Ordinance, Less Restrictive Zoning Can Help Lakeview Businesses

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The number of housing units near the Paulina and Southport Brown Line stations has decreased from 2000 to 2011. Image: CNT, SSA 27

The Lakeview Chamber of Commerce is concerned that restrictive zoning, car parking requirements, and changing household types may hinder growth in the high-demand neighborhood and negatively affect local businesses. The chamber, along with Special Service Area #27 (map), published a report this week [PDF] that shows that not only is Lakeview’s housing supply failing to keep up with population growth, it’s actually decreasing.

The North Side neighborhood is attractive because there are diverse amenities within walking distance and it’s possible to meet all your needs without leaving the neighborhood, according to SSA director Lee Crandell. The eight CTA ‘L’ stations and multiple east-west bus routes are a major asset. “We’re highly dependent on transit and it’s one of our greatest strengths,” Crandell said.

The number of households in Lakeview decreased by one percent between 2000 to 2011, but the population increased 11 percent, with most of the growth attributed to an increase in families with children. Having more families in Lakeview is a good thing, Crandell said. “It means we’re the kind of neighborhood where people want to have and raise kids.”

However, as a result of the increase in families, and the resulting conversion multi-unit buildings to single-family homes, the neighborhood is losing housing that’s suitable for single people, couples, and renters. “We’re trading one type of population for another instead of accommodating all,” Crandell said.

The SSA is worried that the change in household types in Lakeview, from renters to owners, and singles and couples to families, means there could be reduced consumer spending at local businesses. “That shift has a big impact on how much extra money people have to spend in the neighborhood,” Crandell said. “People with disposable income have been significant to businesses [here].”

“We have heard anecdotally from some businesses, particularly hospitality – bars and restaurants – that they’ve noticed a shift in demographics in the neighborhood,” Crandell added. “Their target base isn’t as present in the neighborhood as it used to be.”

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More Steps Emanuel Should Take to Reform Chicago’s Traffic Cam Program

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Photo: John Greenfield

Even if you voted for Chuy García, if you know how effective automated enforcement has been for preventing serious crashes in other cities, you may be relieved he didn’t get a chance to shut down all of Chicago’s traffic cameras. However, García and the other challengers did residents a service by drawing attention to ways that the Emanuel administration has mismanaged the program, which forced the mayor to take steps to reform it.

In early March, a few days after García said he would abolish the cams, Emanuel announced he would remove 50 red light cameras at 25 intersections that saw one or fewer right-angle crashes in 2013. He also promised to install pedestrian countdown signals at the 42 out of the city’s 174 red-light camera intersections that don’t currently have them, by June 1.

Emanuel proposed giving drivers a “Mulligan” on their first red light violation by allowing them to take an online safety course instead of paying the $100 fine. And he promised that community meetings will be held before red light cameras are installed, moved, or removed. Here are some more steps the mayor should take to make automated enforcement more effective, transparent, and fair.

Monitor cameras more carefully to make sure they are working properly. While the Chicago Tribune has delivered consistently biased coverage of the program, the paper deserves credit for exposing irregularities in enforcement, such as unexplained spikes in ticketing. For example, one North Side camera issued only a dozen tickets for rolling right turns over six months, and then put out 560 tickets for rolling rights within 12 days. The city needs to be vigilant about ticket spikes in the future and immediately address problems that emerge.

Remove cameras from other low-crash locations. It was definitely a step in the right direction to remove cameras from those first 25 low-crash intersections. When cams are installed at locations that don’t have a significant crash problem, it suggests that these sites were chosen with revenue — rather than safety — in mind. According to a Tribune study, there are 61 other intersections that had three or fewer injury crashes before cameras were installed. The mayor should shut down those cams as well.

Don’t include ticket revenue as a projected funding source in the city budget. If the red light and speed cams are doing their jobs to reduce violations, the number of tickets issued should drop within a few months of installation, which has been the case in Chicago. As a result, revenue from the cams has been lower than projected. Fines should be treated as a way to deter lawbreaking, not as an end in themselves, so the city should not count on them to balance the budget.

Be transparent about changes to the program. It’s a common misconception that the Emanuel shortened yellow light times in order to increase ticket revenue. That wasn’t the case, but the city did quietly change its policy to allow tickets to be issued after yellow phases that were a fraction of a second shorter than 3.0 seconds, to allow for minute electrical fluctuations. That move was legal under state law, and the motorists who ran reds after minutely shorter yellows deserved tickets. However, it was politically foolish to make the change without announcing it in advance, because it was only a matter of time before people noticed, which fueled mistrust for the program.

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Our TOD Bike Tour Showcased Chicago’s Parking-Lite Building Projects

Discussing the 1611 West Division building with developer Jamie McNally. View more photos. Photo: John Greenfield

A score of Streetsblog Chicago readers joined John Greenfield and me last Saturday to pedal to 12 sites where developers are taking advantage of proximity to train stations by building dense housing with fewer parking spaces than usual. The buildings, in different phases of approval and construction, are all near Chicago Transit Authority ‘L’ stops.

In general, the Chicago zoning code requires new construction to include one parking space per residential unit. However, in September of 2013, the city council passed a transit-oriented development ordinance, which cuts that requirement in half for buildings within two blocks of a rapid transit station. And in certain circumstances, the new law also allows developers to build more square feet of floor space at these locations.

High-density, low-parking developments near the CTA attract residents who are interested in getting around by transit, walking, biking, cabs, and car-sharing. They’re less likely to bring their own cars into a neighborhood, which means a lower impact on traffic congestion. And when developers aren’t forced to provide parking spaces that residents might not use, it reduces construction and housing costs.

The tour group, including architects, real estate brokers, policy analysts, planning students and lay people, met up at Daley Plaza. We cycled northwest to the Grand/Halsted/Milwaukee intersection, at the south end of the burgeoning “TOD building corridor” along the CTA Blue Line’s O’Hare branch. Over the past two weeks, workers demolished a building at 500 North Milwaukee, next to the Grand station. Two new mixed-use buildings are planned for the site.

Rolling north on Milwaukee, we visited TOD project sites at every Blue Line between Grand and California. Just east of the Chicago Avenue station, the recently sold Gonella bread factory, 1001 West Chicago Avenue, will be replaced with 360 residential units and 300 parking spaces. A little north of the train stop, we met up with Brad McBride, an architect at bKL Architecture, who told us about his company’s plans for a 47-unit building with 24 parking spots that has been approved for 830 North Milwaukee.

We stopped at Polish Triangle plaza at Division/Ashland/Milwaukee in Wicker Park and checked out two projects. Jamie McNally of Henry Street Partners told us about 1611 West Division, an 11-story tower with 99 units but zero residential parking, built in 2012, which is now almost completely occupied. Work has also started on a mixed-use building with 58 units and zero parking spaces, located behind the Bank of America at 1237 North Milwaukee.

Up the road in Logan Square, we stopped at a vacant lot at 2211 North Milwaukee, around the corner from the California stop. A new building slated for the site is dubbed “L,” after the train system, as well as the neighborhood. Developer Ben Brichta from Property Markets Group met us here to discuss the project, which will have 120 units and 60 car spaces. There will also be 216 bike parking spaces, bike repair and washing stations, and a separate entrance for bike riders.

One tour goer asked Brichta why there is often community opposition to dense, parking-lite, transit-friendly projects like this one. Brichta replied there has been misunderstanding about the purpose of the TOD. Some neighbors are worried that providing fewer parking spaces means new residents will compete with them for on-street parking.

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Union Station Study Will Look at Ways to Increase Capacity, Fight Congestion

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EPA chief Gina McCarthy displays a device that will be used to test air quality at the station. Photo: John Greenfield

This morning, local politicians heralded $7 million in new funding for a terminal planning study and service development plan that will help increase capacity at Chicago’s 90-year-old Union Station and on the rail lines that lead to it. This comes in addition to the $12 million that Amtrak pledged back in January for rehabbing the historic terminal. The city of Chicago eventually hopes to work with the United States Department of Transportation, the state of Illinois, Metra and Amtrak to undertake a complete overhaul of the station, which would take several years and cost an estimated $500 million.

Union Station is the nation’s third-busiest station, serving over 300 trains per weekday, with about 115,000 Metra commuters and 10,000 Amtrak customers using the terminal each weekday. It’s the busiest railroad station in the Chicago region, which see more than 700 commuter and passenger rail trains and 500 freight trains on a daily basis.

The study will help coordinate routes and operations for rail service approaching Chicago from the east, south, and west, officials said. It will also look at strategies for improving air quality, pedestrian flow, and retail space inside Union Station. The funding includes $3 million from the Federal Railroad Administration, $2 million from the state of Illinois, $1 million from Metra, and $1 million in tax increment financing from the city.

“Not only do we want to make sure the passengers get here on time, we want Union Station to be a first-rate station,” said U.S. Senator Dick Durbin at a press conference in the station’s Great Hall. “For visitors coming from long-distance Amtrak trains, Union Station is their first glimpse of Chicago. This magnificent hall is a testimony to that glory day in American history when trains were really considered to be the center point for economic activity. That day is coming again.”

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Other Issues Aside, It Was a Good Election for Transportation

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Rahm Emanuel and Chuy García. Photos: John Greenfield

Whether you were rooting for Mayor Rahm Emanuel or Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, I think most Streetsblog readers will agree that there were some positive outcomes for sustainable transportation in yesterday’s municipal runoff election. Regardless of how you feel about Emanuel in terms of the economy, education, crime, transparency, ethics, and other issues, it’s safe to say he was the more progressive candidate when it comes to walking, biking, transit, and traffic safety.

For all his faults, the mayor has racked up an impressive list of transportation achievements during his first term, which got little airtime in the election coverage. These include the successful south Red Line reconstruction, many new and rehabbed ‘L’ stations, and the start of the Loop Link bus rapid transit project. We’ve seen an increased focus on reducing pedestrian fatalities, including plenty of new safety infrastructure. Big projects for bicycling have included dozens of miles of buffered and protected lanes, Divvy bike-share, and the Bloomingdale Trail.

García’s transportation platform, which voiced support for the Transit Future campaign for a dedicated funding at the county level, as well as for winning a fair share of state transportation dollars for the Chicago region, suggested that he understands the need for a high-quality transit system. When I interviewed him for Newcity magazine, the commissioner also said he was interested in creating a line item in the city budget for pedestrian infrastructure, and he praised Emanuel’s bike initiatives.

However, there were indications that the rate of transportation progress would have slowed down under a García administration. He told me he’s in favor of road diets and protected bike lanes, both of which became common over the last four years. However, he said that a more extensive community input is needed for road diets, and he would only install PBLs “where there’s good support for building [them.]”

Worse, the commissioner’s positions on automated traffic enforcement and the city’s plan for BRT on Ashland Avenue were downright reactionary, and seemed calculated to attract votes from disgruntled drivers. García and the other mayoral challengers deserve credit for drawing attention to ways that the Emanuel administration mismanaged the traffic cam program, including questionable locations, malfunctioning cameras and more. As a result, the mayor recently pledged to remove red light cams from low-crash intersections and make other changes to help rebuild Chicagoan’s confidence in the program.

However, García threw out the baby with the bathwater by promising abolish, rather than reform, automated enforcement if elected, even though numerous studies have shown that well placed cams have been very successful in reducing serious crashes and fatalities in other cities. Although he argued that the program unfairly targeted low-income and working-class Chicagoans, there’s actually a higher density of cams in the city’s more affluent neighborhoods. Moreover, Chicago’s worst intersections for pedestrian crashes involving children are located in low-income neighborhoods and, from my experience scanning news stories for Today’s Headlines, it appears that the majority of serious traffic crashes take place on the South and West Sides.

Likewise, García’s opposition to the Ashland BRT plan, which would nearly double bus speeds via dedicated lanes and other time-saving features, appeared to be a case of pandering to motorists. “This project cannot be approved in its current form, and frankly may never be appropriate for approval,” he told the Sun-Times.

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What Would Jesús Ride? Talking Transportation With Jesús “Chuy” García

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García with CTA customers at a Woodlawn bus shelter. Photo: John Greenfield

[The full text of this interview runs in Newcity magazine.]

For most of the campaign, mayoral hopeful Jesús “Chuy” García has been relatively quiet about transportation issues, except for his vocal opposition to Chicago’s automated traffic enforcement program. Most recently, following the revelation that a former top aide to Mayor Rahm Emanuel lobbied for awarding the latest red light contract to Xerox, García announced that he would shut down all of the city’s traffic cameras on his first day as mayor.

The Emanuel campaign has noted that, before the Cook County commissioner joined other candidates in criticizing automated enforcement, he supported it. On March 11, 2014, García was part of a narrow majority of commissioners who approved an intergovernmental agreement that allowed Safespeed, LLC to install a red light camera on County property in suburban Forest Park.

Campaign finance records show that Citizens for Jesús García received a $1,500 contribution from Safespeed one day before the vote. When I asked about this issue, a García spokeswoman stated that the donation was from Safespeed president and CEO Nikki Zollar, a “thirty-year-old friend” of the commissioner, and it did not influence his decision.

Shortly before the February 24 municipal election, García, who has a master’s degree in urban planning from UIC, broke his relative silence on other transportation topics by releasing a transportation platform. The document suggests that he is well informed about transit funding and transit-oriented development, although there’s little mention of pedestrian and bike issues.

The platform endorses Transit Future, a campaign by the Active Transportation Alliance and the Center for Neighborhood technology to create a dedicated revenue stream at the county level for public transportation infrastructure (as does the Emanuel campaign). García says he’s interested in the possibility of raising the state gas tax to fund transit, and/or creating a transit-impact fee for new developments.

The candidate called for building more housing near train stations and reducing the parking requirements for these developments, in order to reduce car dependency. He also stated that he wants to secure a larger percentage of state and federal transportation funds for the Chicago region, which contains seventy percent of Illinois’ population but only gets forty-five percent of state transportation funds.

On March 7, I caught up with García at his Woodlawn campaign office to talk about sustainable transportation and safe streets issues in advance of the April 7 runoff election. We discussed his positions on pedestrian infrastructure, bike facilities, road diets, bus rapid transit and, of course, traffic cams. I’ve edited the conversation for brevity and clarity.

John Greenfield: I was impressed that your transportation platform endorsed Transit Future and transit-oriented development.

Jesús “Chuy” García: I’m a transit rider, a Pink Line guy. We fought for the reconstruction of the Pink Line, which used to be the Blue Line, the Douglas [Branch], back in the nineties, when they were going to eliminate it. We fought back and got it renovated. We even engaged in some civil disobedience to force the contractor to hire some folks from North Lawndale and South Lawndale. We got arrested for blocking the entrance to an office of the contractor because they weren’t hiring any minorities.

JG: Interesting. I just wanted to double check, on the Active Transportation Alliance’s transportation survey, you checked a box that said, yes, you would be in favor of dedicated funding for pedestrian safety infrastructure. These are things like speed humps, crosswalk striping, curb bump-outs and pedestrian islands. If elected, would you, in fact, propose a line item for safety infrastructure in the city budget, instead of requiring aldermen to pay for that stuff out of menu money?

CG: I’m leaning toward doing that. I say that with some hesitancy, recognizing how the financial straits of the city seem to be worsening, with the [credit] downgrade that we suffered, the park district downgrade, and now yesterday’s Chicago Public Schools downgrade. I would want to do that, but I’ve got to have a better picture of exactly what the finances are going to be, in terms of the city budget. But if I had it my way, yes, I would do that.

Read the rest of the interview at Newcity magazine’s website.