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Posts from the "Policy & Planning" Category

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Effective “Stop For Pedestrians” Signs Worth The Minimal Replacement Cost

Stop for pedestrians in crosswalk sign installation

A city crew installs a “Stop for Pedestrians” sign on Diversey Parkway in 2012.

An article in Monday’s Tribune confirmed what we already knew: Chicago’s “Stop for Pedestrians” signs have been taking a beating from careless drivers. In 2012, the city began installing the placards by crosswalks at unsignalized intersections. The Trib reported that 78 percent of the 344 signs installed have been replaced after motorists crashed into them.

The Chicago Department of Transportation estimates that a total of $265,000 has been spent so far to install and replace signs. Material and labor for replacing a sign at one location costs $550. Usually, two are replaced at the same time, which costs $920. Even so, the amount the city has spent on sign replacement comes out to roughly five cents per Chicagoan.

CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld told the Trib that this minimal expense is worthwhile. “The signs have gone a long way in increasing driver awareness of the four-year-old state law” requiring drivers to stop for pedestrians, she said.

Deputy Commissioner Luann Hamilton said the same thing at a Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council Meeting earlier this month: “I think it’s worth $920 to put them out there, even at the frequency of every 6-12 months.”

The price tag for installing and replacing the signs pales in comparison to the price of losing life and limb to crashes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that pedestrian fatalities cost the Illinois economy $168 million in 2005. CDOT estimates the social and economic cost of each crash as $53,000 per injury, or $3.8 million per death [PDF].

48th Ward Alderman Harry Osterman endorsed the value of the placards, telling the Trib that his ward has “replaced our fair share of these signs, but people are slowing down and stopping” as a result. An Active Transportation Alliance study confirmed that signs are working. The report found that three times as many drivers stopped for pedestrians at Cook County crosswalks with the signs than at crosswalks without them.

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Montrose Green Planner: The Time Is Right for Transit-Oriented Development

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Rendering of Montrose Green, a proposed mixed-use, parking-lite development by the Brown Line.

Montrose Green is a new mixed-use, parking-lite building proposed for a vacant lot at 1819 West Montrose in Ravenswood. The location has all the transit access you could ask for in a development. The parcel sits just west of the Brown Line’s Montrose station, and is served by the #78 Montrose and #50 Damen buses. There’s a Divvy station across the street, and Metra’s Ravenswood stop is three blocks north. The lot sits on a bustling pedestrian-oriented retail strip, full of shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes.

Developer Harrington Brown plans to take advantage of the prime location, and Chicago’s 2013 transit-oriented development ordinance, to build a five-story building with 24 rental units and 10 parking spaces. That’s far below the city’s standard requirement of a 1:1 ratio. “People are seeking opportunities to live, work, shop, and dine near transit hubs,” said Harrington Brown owner David Brown. “This approach reflects where we are as a society — not every single renter has a car or needs a car.”

The building would mostly be made up of one-bedroom apartments, with a few two-bedroom units. The 5,300 square-foot ground floor space would likely be leased to a restaurant. A 3,000 square-foot, penthouse-like structure on the 5th floor is planned as office space for tech startups and other innovative small businesses. The developer hopes to start construction next spring.

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The development would be in a transit- and retail-rich location. Image: Google Streetview

Harrington Brown purchased the land during a CTA auction five years ago, during the depths of the Great Recession, and Brown said it was his intention to hold onto the property until the real estate market improved. In the meantime, the space has housed the Montrose Green community garden, as well as events like an outdoor Irish Christmas market, held last December. “That turned out to be more of a Polar Vortex street party,” he joked.

Brown said he’s not a developer by trade, but comes from a public policy and urban planning background, and that his strategy for the new building reflects his planning philosophy. “What we’re finding in neighborhoods today is that the demand for parking among renters is much lower than what was previously perceived,” he said. “If we’re wrong about that, we won’t be successful in renting the apartments.”

Typically, Chicago parking requirements mandate the construction of at least one parking spot per residence. The city’s TOD ordinance relaxes the rules near transit, requiring developers to provide one parking spot for every two housing units in buildings within one full block of a transit station, or within a two-block radius on designated Pedestrian Streets. Harrington Brown is also taking advantage of a provision that allows developers to apply for a variance to reduce the number of spots by an additional 20 percent. The 10 spaces would be located behind the building.

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CMAP Seeks Its Own Dedicated Tax For Transit, Green Infrastructure

CMAP Board meeting

CMAP executive director Randy Blankenhorn says the region needs a new funding source for projects that cross jurisdiction and program boundaries. Photo: CMAP

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning last week floated its own proposal to fix the region’s shortfall in transportation funding. It launched FUND 2040, a campaign calling upon the Illinois legislature to fund sustainable infrastructure through a quarter-cent sales tax across the Chicagoland region. CMAP says this increase would generate $300 million annually, which it would use to advance projects that fulfill the goals of its federally-required plan for the region, GO TO 2040.

GO TO 2040 aims to sustainably accommodate population growth across the seven county region by steering investment to already-developed areas, doubling transit ridership, carrying more people on existing highways with more buses and with managed High Occupancy/Toll lanes, and absorbing more rainfall on sites rather than sending it into the area’s overwhelmed sewers.

FUND 2040 would align capital investments with GO TO 2040, and to give the region greater autonomy in choosing which projects to fund. CMAP would award funds to projects in existing plans, based entirely on performance measures — a marked difference from how the Illinois Department of Transportation spends money on politically favored projects like the budget-busting, ill-conceived Illiana Tollway.

The new fund would also put CMAP on surer financial footing. CMAP, as a federally recognized Metropolitan Planning Organization, is funded through the state’s DOT, and cash-strapped IDOT has delayed reimbursing CMAP’s operations costs on multiple occasions.

CMAP’s executive director Randy Blankenhorn said that, while the Illinois General Assembly has yet to write FUND 2040′s enabling legislation, the bill “would outline specific goals” instead of listing projects, places, or formulas to be funded. The legislation, he said, would outline project selection criteria because “it’s a long-term fund, and needs and funds can change.”

Emphasizing general purposes, instead of individual projects, is how the new fund would complement existing funding schemes’ sharp divisions. Existing “state and federal funds are very specific,” Blankenhorn said. “One will build a multi-use trail, but not flood control.”

In keeping with the broad goals of GO TO 2040, Blankenhorn said that CMAP settled on a sales tax, and specifically not a gas tax, because its projects – transportation, parks, and water infrastructure – benefit everyone, both on and off streets. “We admit the sales tax is not the preferred option for many things,” he said, “but this is a broad-based tax, that all users of all of the infrastructure pay into.”

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What Will It Take for Chicago Win Gold From the Bike League?

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CDOT recently added bike lanes on Lawrence between Ashland and Western as part of a road diet, filling in a gap in the bike network. More connectivity between bikeways will help our mode share. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday, the League of American Bicyclists announced that 55 new and renewing municipalities have won recognition in the group’s Bicycle Friendly Communities program, and there are now participants in all 50 states. However, even after all the strides Chicago has made in the last few years, we’re still languishing at the same Silver-level ranking we’ve been at since 2005.

The Bicycle Friendly Communities ratings serve as a useful carrot to reward cities for stepping up their bike game. Communities of all sizes may apply or reapply once a year by submitting info about the progress they’ve made in the “5 Es”: Engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation. The results of these efforts — in the form of ridership levels and safety performance — are also factored into the rankings. The league announces the results twice a year.

In the last few years Chicago has taken big steps to improve cycling, including establishing the nation’s second-largest bike-share system, building dozens of miles of buffered and protected bike lanes, and launching construction on the Bloomingdale Trail. Was that not enough to jump up a level in the Bike League’s eyes?

“Mayor Emanuel really set really ambitious goals for infrastructure,” noted Bill Nesper, who manages the Bicycle Friendly Communities program. However, Chicago’s newer initiatives — such as Divvy, the Bloomingdale and most of the city’s next-generation bike lanes — weren’t factored into the current LAB ratings because the city of Chicago hasn’t renewed its application since the spring of 2012. The city plans to reapply this February, according to Chicago Department of Transportation staffer Mike Amsden.

Even so, it’s no sure thing that Chicago will move up the ladder to Gold, Nesper said. Despite the new infrastructure, many locals and visitors still wouldn’t rate the Windy City as a particularly safe, comfortable, or convenient place to bike, certainly not compared to Gold-level San Francisco, Seattle, or Minneapolis, let alone Platinum-ranked Portland. Dangerous driving is common here, pavement quality is often lousy, and there are major gaps in the bikeway network. Our ridership levels and safety record reflect these shortcomings.

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Pawar, and an Army of Seniors, Lobby the CTA to Restore Lincoln Bus Service

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Pawar testifies at last night’s CTA budget hearing. Photo: John Greenfield

Last night, local community leaders and dozens of senior citizens showed up for the CTA’s 2015 budget hearing, imploring the agency to restore the full #11 Lincoln Avenue bus route.

The Lincoln bus previously ran between Skokie and the Blue Line’s Clinton station in the West Loop. As part of the CTA’s 2012 decrowding plan, which added service to 48 bus routes and most ‘L’ lines, the agency partially or completely cut service on roughly a dozen bus routes. The heart of the Lincoln route, from the Brown Line’s Western stop to the Fullerton station, was eliminated as part of these cuts.

The #11 still travels between Skokie and Western, and a new #37 Sedgwick bus now runs between Fullerton and Clinton. However, the total bus ridership on Lincoln has dropped from the previous average of 5,489 rides per weekday to 3,152 rides, RedEye reported. Overall, CTA bus ridership has dropped over the past few years.

When the bus cuts were announced, the CTA stated that affected #11 riders could instead take the Brown Line, which roughly parallels Lincoln between Western and Fullerton. In the past two years, the CTA has added 15 weekday Brown Line roundtrips per day, and increased service on eight of the ten bus lines that serve the area, RedEye reported. The CTA says the Lincoln route cut is saving the agency $1.4 million a year.

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Some sections of the affected stretch of Lincoln are a half-mile walk from the Brown Line. Image: Google Maps

However, some locations on this stretch of Lincoln are a half mile away from the nearest Brown Line station – a ten-minute walk for able-bodied people, and a significant distance for seniors and people with disabilities. The Brown Line was overhauled in the late Nineties, and all stops are currently ADA accessible. 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar has said bus cut has increased travel times for his constituents. Some are now choosing to drive instead of taking transit, or are avoiding destinations on Lincoln, he said.

The CTA has said it doesn’t plan to bring the Lincoln service back, arguing that the affected area is still one of the most transit rich parts of the city. Pawar has offered to use Tax Increment Financing money to help restore the service, but TIF funds can only be used for infrastructure, not operating expenses. Frustrated with the agency’s refusal to reverse their decision, the alderman has said he’s pulling his support for the Ashland bus rapid transit project.

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The Parking Tax Benefit: A $7.3 Billion Subsidy for Traffic Congestion

Graph: TransitCenter/Frontier Group

Not only does the parking tax benefit pay people to drive during the most congested times of day, the whole system of commuter benefits functions as a gigantic transfer from poor workers to affluent workers, who have greater access to subsidized travel to work. Graph: TransitCenter/Frontier Group

The federal government spends billions of dollars a year on tax subsidies that make traffic congestion worse, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by TransitCenter and the Frontier Group. The culprit is the parking commuter tax benefit, which costs taxpayers $7.3 billion in foregone revenue each year, all while adding more than 800,000 cars to rush-hour traffic on the nation’s roads each workday, the authors estimate.

The parking tax benefit allows people to claim up to $250 in parking expenses as tax-free income per month. It originated in the late 1970s, when, in the name of fairness, Congress prevented the IRS from taxing the free parking perks that employers gave their workers, without any thought to the effect on transportation. The new report shows that not only does the parking tax benefit have a disastrous effect on traffic, it’s not even fair to car commuters — amounting to a gigantic transfer to the most affluent drivers.

Most advocacy efforts centered on commuter tax subsidies attempt to raise the transit benefit — currently capped at $130 per month. Last week, for instance, two members of Congress pledged to fight for an equal commuter benefit for transit and parking. TransitCenter and the Frontier Group argue that this is the bare minimum to strive for. The real impact lies in simply getting rid of the parking benefit.

The transit benefit, they write, is a “relatively inefficient tool for motivating changes in transportation behavior” and “only weakly counteracts the negative impact of the parking tax benefit” — and should be thrown out, as it were, with the bathwater. If commuter benefits are retained, however, they recommend some key reforms: equalizing the transit benefit, and mandating that employers who offer parking benefits also provide the option of receiving a cash equivalent instead.

TransitCenter and Frontier Group estimate that while most people don’t change their commuting behavior based on the incentives created by these tax benefits, about 2 percent do — and that 2 percent drives 4.6 billion additional miles per year.

To make matters worse, they do that extra driving at peak hours, in crowded downtown areas, worsening congestion that the country’s transportation policy is supposedly oriented toward fixing.

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Active Trans Plans 2015 Pedestrian Infra Campaign, Winter Bike Challenge

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Active Trans will be pushing for dedicated funding for pedestrian infrastructure next year. Photo: Suzanne Nathan.

Last Thursday at the Active Transportation Alliance’s annual member meeting, director Ron Burke announced plans for next year, including campaigns for better downtown bike parking and more funding for pedestrian infrastructure and Safe Routes to School programs. The advocacy group will also continue lobbying for bike access on South Shore Line trains, and launch a new winter bike commuting challenge.

At the meeting, attended by about 75 Active Trans members, Burke began by touting the group’s 2014 achievements. The new Kids on Wheels on-bike education program brought a trailer full of loaner bikes to suburban schools, and Active Trans recently secured funding for a second trailer. The group met with Metra to negotiate the loosening of restrictions on bringing bikes on board, including the elimination of most event-related blackout days and a new policy allowing cycles on early-morning inbound trains.

The Safe Crossings campaign announced the 20 most dangerous intersections in the city and the suburbs as a way to draw attention to pedestrian safety issues. “It’s really all about educating municipalities, and the Illinois Department of Transportation, frankly, about the importance of making our streets safe places for walking and biking,” Burke said.

This year, Active Trans worked with the Center for Neighborhood Technology to launch the Transit Future campaign, advocating for a new Cook County-based revenue stream to expand public transportation. “In Metropolitan Chicago, only one out of four people can get to work by transit in under 90 minutes,” Burke noted. “Our transit system is really from a different era. It really doesn’t work for where people live and work today. It hasn’t expanded — in fact it’s shrunk, a lot.”

Active Trans’ Family-Friendly Bikeways campaign is working to build more miles of advanced bike facilities — such as protected lanes, bike boulevards, and off-street trails – in the suburbs. The group has been pushing for light rail or bus rapid transit to be incorporated into plans for the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction, and is also lobbying for better separation of pedestrians and cyclists on the Lakefront Trail.

Active Trans has also helped stage Play Streets events, block parties that open neighborhood streets to pedestrians for healthy recreation. Staffer Jason Jenkins has created clever instructional videos on bike commuting. And the group organized to nip in the bud an alderman’s proposal to license and register cyclists, and has responded to anti-cycling messages in the media, such as bike-baiting columns from Tribune columnist John Kass, Burke said.

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33rd Ward P-Streets Pass; Noon-O-Kabab Moving to Car-centric New Digs

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Noon-O-Kabab’s current pedestrian and transit-friendly  location. Image: Google Streetview

Albany Park just took a step towards a more walkable future. Last week, City Council passed an ordinance to officially zone stretches of Montrose, Lawrence, and Kedzie in the neighborhood as Pedestrian Streets, or P-Streets.

“This lets developers know what kind of vision we have regarding movement around the ward,” said 33rd Ward Alderman Deb Mell. On June 25, she introduced the ordinance to create P-Streets on Montrose from California to Kimball, Lawrence from Sacramento to Central Park, and Kedzie from Montrose to Lawrence. “We want to prioritize pedestrians, bikes, transit, and then cars, in order to improve safety and reduce congestion.”

Mell said the ward’s transportation advisory committee came up with the idea for the P-Streets after Walgreens proposed building a suburban-style drugstore across the street from the Kimball Brown Line stop. The designation will prevent this kind of car-centric development in the future.

The ordinance forbids the creation of new driveways, and requires that new building façades be adjacent to the sidewalk. Buildings’ main entrance must be located on the P-Street, and most of the façade between four and ten feet above the sidewalk must be windows. Any off-street parking must be located behind the building and accessed from an alley or side street.

Meanwhile, developers who build on P-Streets near transit stops can get an “administrative adjustment” exempting them from providing any commercial parking spaces. In effect, the designation ensures that future developments will be pedestrian-friendly, and blocks the creation of drive-throughs, strip malls, car dealerships, gas stations, car washes and other businesses that cater to drivers.

The ordinance passed City Council with no opposition. “I’ve heard from a lot of people in the ward who are really happy about this,” Mell said. That’s in sharp contrast to the nearby 45th Ward, where the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association unanimously voted to oppose a P-Street ordinance introduced by Alderman John Arena. That ordinance also passed the council earlier this month.

Interestingly, Mell originally planned to schedule a zoning committee hearing on her ordinance in early September, but she pushed the hearing back a few weeks to accommodate a local eatery’s plans to move into a car-centric new location. Noon-O-Kabab, a popular Persian restaurant at 4661 North Kedzie, is planning to relocate across the street to the former location of a Kentucky Fried Chicken with a drive-through.

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BOMA Misses the Memo on How Loop BRT Will Work

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Rendering of BRT on Washington at LaSalle.

File this one under “People unclear on the concept.” On September 29, the Chicago Department of Transportation announced it had launched the bidding process for the $32.5 million Central Loop BRT project and released final plans for the corridor. Yesterday, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago published an ill-informed op-ed piece in Crain’s, warning that the current design for Washington Street will create carmaggedon, including crashes caused by right-turning vehicles.

It’s odd that the article, written by BOMA vice president Michael Cornicelli, contains so many misconceptions about the plan. The city met with the association several times to discuss the project, according to CDOT spokesman Pete Scales.

“It’s difficult to imagine Chicago’s downtown traffic becoming worse, but that could be the result if the city of Chicago doesn’t steer its Central Loop Bus Rapid Transit plan in the right direction,” Cornicelli warns. He claims that the BRT project will reduce the number of lanes available to motorists on Washington from the current four or five to only two, in order to make room for the dedicated bus lanes, island bus stations, and a protected bike lane. “Reducing vehicular capacity by half on this heavily traveled route means a dramatic increase in congestion and delays.”

Actually, in addition to maintaining two through lanes for motorists at all times, the design provides left- and right-turn lanes where these turns are permitted, which means three or four lanes will be available to motorists. True, car traffic will move somewhat slower on eastbound Washington and westbound Madison after BRT is implemented on these streets, but there are plenty of parallel streets that can be used as alternatives.

Meanwhile, CDOT predicts the project will make an eastbound trip across the Loop 25 percent shorter, and a westbound trip 15 percent shorter. While cars and taxis occupy most of the downtown street space and cause most of the congestion, buses make up only four percent of motor vehicles in the Loop but move 47 percent of the people traveling in vehicles. BRT will speed commutes for an estimated 30,000 people per day, which more than justifies slightly longer travel times for a much smaller number of drivers.

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Actually, Logan Square’s Neither Traffic-Choked Nor Overcrowded

Caption. Image: Wheeler Kearns Architects

Rendering of a proposed development near the California ‘L’ stop. Image: Wheeler Kearns Architects

Late last month, over 100 people crowded into a public presentation to hear about a proposed development of 254 housing units, plus 72 car parking spaces and retail, on what’s now a vacant lot around the corner from the California Blue Line ‘L’ station in Logan Square. The number of parking spaces proposed is 182 fewer than the city’s zoning would typically require, but recent changes to city laws make it possible for exceptions to be granted on sites near transit, and an adopted plan for this area encourages taller buildings with less parking.

Many attendees echoed the auto-centric concerns commonly heard at such meetings. Some said that the car parking proposed will prove completely insufficient, or that 300 or more new residents would result in unfathomable congestion. A flyer distributed door to door in the neighborhood sternly warned that in “High Rise City,” “They will make it impossible to drive on California or Milwaukee.”

Here’s the rub, though: Traffic volumes on major streets near the development have dropped substantially, and so has the local population. If there are fewer people and fewer cars, how could it be that some perceive traffic congestion to be worse than ever?

Between 2006 and 2010 (the most recent year available), the Illinois Department of Transportation reports that the number of drivers on Milwaukee Avenue and California Avenue declined by 17.8 percent and 28.6 percent, respectively. Traffic volumes on both streets fell by thousands of cars per day: approximately 2,600 fewer cars on Milwaukee and 4,600 fewer cars on California.

Population loss in the area has also been dramatic, since household sizes are rapidly declining. The population in the area around this proposed development declined by over 3,000 people, or 16 percent, from 2000 to 2010. The number of housing units increased by 316, but that was more than offset by an average household size that dropped from 2.7 to 2.2. It’s unlikely that the population trends have changed much since 2010: Census estimates project that the development’s Census tract added fewer than 100 people from 2008 to 2012.

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