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Posts from the State Policy 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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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.”

Read more…

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The Rebel Commissioner: “Start-Up City” Goes Behind the Scenes at CDOT


Gabe Klein toasts the new riverwalk with the SRAM Cycling Fund’s Randy Neufeld. Photo: Steven Vance

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

Ex-Chicago Department of Transportation chief Gabe Klein says that when he returned to Chicago earlier this month for his first real visit since he resigned almost two years ago, it was a highly emotional experience. He was finally able to see the Bloomingdale Trail and the Chicago Riverwalk extension, projects that he spearheaded as commissioner, filled with people enjoying themselves. “It reinforced to me that there’s such a huge demand, particularly in urban spaces, just for great places to hang out.”

Klein was in town for a conference on “shared mobility” tools like bike-sharing and car-sharing. He was partly there to talk up his new book “Start-Up City: Inspiring Private & Public Entrepreneurship, Getting Projects Done, & Having Fun” (Island Press), a primer on how to quickly make improvements to cities in the face of grinding bureaucracy. Disclosure: I contributed a photo for the pint-sized paperback, of the commissioner striding diagonally across Jackson and State during the ribbon cutting for the city’s first “pedestrian scramble” intersection.

Klein came to CDOT in May of 2011 as part of the Rahm Emanuel administration, following a stint as director of the Washington, D.C. transportation department. During his two-and-a-half years in Chicago he also launched the (highly controversial) speed camera program, built dozens of miles of buffered and protected bike lanes, created the Divvy bike-share system, and planned the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor. He says he quit the job to move back to D.C. for the birth of his daughter Simone, whose name was partly inspired by noted Chicagophile Simone de Beauvoir.

With all the accomplishments Klein tallied in his short tenure here, it’s fitting that he originally planned on calling the book “Getting S— Done,” his unofficial motto at CDOT. He even hung a sign in his LaSalle Street office with that profane slogan, plus the Emanuel-esque subheading “In Every Motherf—ing Ward.”

Klein said his new book, written with urban planner David Vega-Barachowitz, is for city staffers who want to apply start-up-style energy to the public sector, as well as entrepreneurs who want to serve the public good, not just line their pockets. Using anecdotes from his career, including stints in the bicycle retail, car-sharing and food-truck industries, he stresses the importance of goal-setting, creative financing, effective PR and risk taking.

One of the most entertaining aspects of “Start-Up City” is how Klein pulls the curtain back on some of the Machiavellian intrigue that went on behind the scenes at Chicago City Hall. A recurring theme is how the commissioner battled pushback from bureaucrats who were afraid of making waves, as well as short-sighted, car-focused aldermen.

Read more…


The Illiana’s Latest Death Blow: Feds Dropping Their Appeal of Court Ruling

Photo of the then-recently opened I-355, 127th St overpass

The Illiana’s high tolls would have driven motorists to use other routes instead. Photo: Tim Messer

A new legal development may represent the final nail in the coffin for the wasteful, destructive Illiana Tollway project. Yesterday, the Federal Highway Administration dropped its appeal of the court ruling that invalidated the Illiana’s key supporting document.

Back in June, U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso invalidated the tollway’s Environmental Impact Statement, calling it “arbitrary and capricious.” The EIS was jointly prepared by the Illinois and Indiana departments of transportation.

Alonso noted then that the FHWA shouldn’t have approved the EIS because the tollway’s purpose and need statement was based on “market-driven forecasts developed by [Illinois Department of Transportation] consultants,” rather than sound policy. The Illiana was a terrible idea that was heavily promoted by former Illinois governor Pat Quinn and state representatives from the south suburbs.

Illinois taxpayers would have been on the hook for a $500 million down payment for the tollway. They also would have been responsible for future payments to the private operator in the event that revenue from tolls came up short. One of IDOT’s studies showed that the Illiana’s tolls would be several times higher than those on other Illinois tollways, which would cause many drivers to opt for non-tolled roads in the same corridor instead.

The highway would have destroyed protected natural areas and heritage farmland. It also would have induced sprawl to new areas outside of the current Chicago metro region.

Read more…


High Speed Rail Association: Use Metra Tracks for O’Hare Express

map of CrossRail (condensed)

CrossRail would solve Mayor Emanuel’s initiative to run express trains to O’Hare airport by using Metra – not CTA – infrastructure, and bringing upgrades Metra sorely needs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and aviation commissioner Ginger Evans stated earlier this year that creating an express train to O’Hare Airport is a priority for this administration. However, the Blue Line is already a fairly speedy way to get to the airport, which could easily be upgraded via a few short-term improvements. Therefore, the city might be wiser to invest in neighborhood transit projects, rather than creating a premium service for well-heeled travelers.

Evans floated the rather fanciful idea of double-decking the Blue Line to create right-of-way for the express trains. However, if the O’Hare Express is going to happen, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association believes it should use the existing Metra infrastructure that’s located in the same airport-bound transportation corridor as the Blue Line and the Kennedy Expressway.

I recently sat down with executive director Rick Harnish to discuss MHSRA’s proposal for “CrossRail,” a package of Metra rail improvements that they say would increase the commuter rail system’s reliability and create rider-friendly service patterns. The plan calls for linking the Metra Electric tracks with Union Station, by way of a new flyover and river crossing at 16th Street. Harnish said CrossRail would make faster trips to O’Hare possible by upgrading ancient infrastructure that Metra is already trying to replace, as well as adding new elements.

Whether Blue Line or Metra tracks are used for the O’Hare express, the project would cost about the same, Harnish said. He estimates that CrossRail would cost $2.2 billion, and says he’s heard that a CTA solution would cost over $2 billion.” A business plan for the airport express created for the CTA in 2006 [PDF] estimated that a Blue Line-parallel service with separate tracks would cost $1.5 billion. Read more…


State Transportation Department Is Refusing to Provide Crash Data to Citizens

ghost bike

Ghost bike memorial to Blanca Ocasio who was fatally struck in 2007 while cycling at Kedzie and Armitage. Six months later, Amanda Annis was killed while biking at the same intersection. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Crash data from the Illinois Department of Transportation is important for the work we do here at Streetsblog Chicago. For example, we recently looked up statistics from IDOT’s Illinois Safety Data Mart crash database in order to investigate the Chicago Department of Transportation’s claim that they intend to close a street in Jefferson Park due to safety concerns. Although the database website has been offline for a while, Streetsblog’s Steven Vance requests the data from the state each year and uses it to update his website the Chicago Crash Browser.

The crash data is also crucial for transportation professionals in the private sector, since it’s a core component in analyzing any transportation network. For example, it’s next-to-impossible to create a quality pedestrian or bike plan without being able to identify crash hotspots. It’s also important for citizens to be able to find out circumstances around crashes in their communities, or find out how safe their streets are.

However, a source tells us that the state is no longer fulfilling crash data requests from nongovernmental entities – including planning firms and advocacy organizations – or the general public, and the state doesn’t plan to bring the Safety Data Mart website back online. “The thing is, in the past, we’ve gotten really good customer service from IDOT, with a fast turnaround,” the source said. “And the Data Mart was really useful – you could type in the location and types of crashes you were looking for and it would populate a map for you, or you could ask them to send you a spreadsheet with the data.”

Read more…


Eyes on the Street: The New Normal on Clybourn Avenue


Bicycle rush hour on a new curb-protected lane on Clybourn. Photo: John Greenfield

The Lakefront Trail. Milwaukee Avenue. The 606. And Clybourn Avenue?

The first three Chicago routes are known for having massive amounts of bicycle traffic during rush hours, and anytime the weather is nice. With the advent of its new curb-protected bike lanes, it looks like Clybourn is joining this elite club.

The Illinois Department of Transportation began building this new bikeway in May, with assistance from the Chicago Department of Transportation. It includes Clybourn from Hasted Street to Division Street, and Division from Clybourn to Orleans Street. Read more details about the project here.


Photo: John Greenfield

The fact that the state is building it is particularly notable because IDOT previously blocked CDOT from installing protected bike lanes on state jurisdiction roads within the city of Chicago. After cyclist Bobby Cann was fatally struck by an allegedly drunk, speeding driver at Clybourn and Larrabee Street, the state announced they would pilot the curb-protected lanes at this location.

The curbs are already largely completed on Division and the northwest-bound side of Clybourn. The southeast-bound bike lane is partially finished. IDOT plans to wrap up the entire bikeway this month, according to a press release.

Read more…


Rauner’s Latest Weird Illiana Move: Pushing for Tax Breaks to Contractors

What is Bruce Rauner up to with contradictory movements on the wasteful Illiana Tollway?

Rauner has taken contradictory actions on the Illiana. Just what is he up to?

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has taken action to kill the wasteful, destructive Illiana Tollway, which his predecessor Pat Quinn championed. Lately, however, Rauner has made some odd steps that suggest he may be interested in keeping the project on life support.

In June, the governor ordered the Illinois Department of Transportation to remove the tollway from its multiyear plan, and said he would stop spending state funds on the project. But, earlier this month Rauner signed a bill authorizing $5.5 million in spending to “wind down” the project.

Recently, Rauner submitted a proposal to the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules that would give any Illiana contractors – should there be any – an exemption on paying sales taxes for materials they buy to build the tollway.

The Illiana is the epitome of a highway boondoggle. It would cost more to construct than it would ever collect in tolls, leaving Illinois taxpayers on the hook for $500 million in borrowing. It would also destroy valuable farmland and induce suburban sprawl. Quinn tried to steamroll the project forward in order to garner support from South Side and Southland politicians and residents for his failed reelection effort.

The governor’s spokesman Lance Trover insted that the tax break “is in no way an effort to revive a project that the Illinois Department of Transportation has pulled from its multiyear plan,” according to Crain’s. Terry Horstman, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Revenue, couldn’t explain why Rauner recently submitted the bill, but he said the new legislation is required by the 2010 law that authorized building the Illiana.

If Rauner is serious about not building the Illiana then the sensible thing to do would be to rescind any legislation authorizing its construction. The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules should also reject the tax break proposal.

The regional leaders at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning should also take action to ensure that the boondoggle doesn’t get back. Although Quinn bullied the CMAP board into putting the project on the organization’s high-priority projects list, the agency should demote it from the list.


Eyes on the Street: Clybourn Curb-Protected Bike Lanes Are Halfway Done

Construction of the Clybourn Avenue curb-separated bike lane

The northbound bike lane runs past the memorial to fallen cyclist Bobby Cann. Photo: Steven Vance. More photos.

Illinois Bicycle Lawyers - Mike Keating logo

Note: Keating Law Offices, P.C. has generously agreed to sponsor two Streetsblog Chicago posts about bicycle safety topics per month. The firm’s support will help make Streetsblog Chicago a sustainable project. Keating Law Offices is not involved in the Bobby Cann case.

Just over a month ago, the Illinois Department of Transportation started constructing curb-protected bike lanes in Old Town, on Clybourn Avenue between Halsted Street and Division Street, and on eastbound Division between Clybourn and Orleans Street. They’ve already made significant progress on the northbound section of Clybourn.

In most sections, the curbside bike lanes will be protected from motorized traffic by a three-foot wide curb plus a lane of parallel-parked cars. Even though the project is far from complete, cyclists are already taking advantage of the safer bikeway by riding in it.

Construction of the Clybourn Avenue curb-separated bike lane

A bus stop island is being constructed to the left of the bike lane on eastbound Division. Photo: Steven Vance

It’s notable that the IDOT is spearheading this project, with assistance from the Chicago Department of Transportation, because IDOT has blocked CDOT from installing protected bike lanes on state-jurisdiction roads within the city since 2011. That changed after cyclist Bobby Cann was struck and killed by an allegedly drunk, speeding driver at Clybourn and Larrabee Street in May of 2013. We’ll have an update on the criminal case against the driver, Ryne San Hamel, later today.

While the state hasn’t fully lifted their ban on PBLs, in response to the Cann tragedy, they agreed to “pilot” the new bikeway. This will be only the second location with curb-protected lanes in the city – CDOT installed a similar facility on Sacramento Boulevard in Douglas Park in May of this year.

Crews are also currently working on the curb-protected bike lane on eastbound Division. This section includes a bus stop island – CTA riders cross the bike lane to access the bus stop. It appears that this is Chicago’s first bus stop island, but CDOT is also building a handful of island bus stops adjacent to a protected bike lane on Washington Street as part of the Loop Link bus rapid transit project in the city center.

Read more…


More Ideas for Improving Rail Service at O’Hare Right Now

O'Hare airport CTA station problem areas

Long lines and crowding around CTA fare vending machines doesn’t impart a pleasant welcome to Chicago visitors arriving at O’Hare airport.

Last week’s Streetblog Chicago post about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s O’Hare express train proposal struck a chord with readers, with dozens of retweets and almost 100 comments. Lots of people agreed that the existing CTA Blue Line run between the Loop and “the world’s busiest airport” is already a relatively fast, high-quality service. Many readers also concurred that an airport express would be costly to build and expensive to ride, which makes the project a bad use of taxpayer money that could be better spent improving neighborhood transit.

Few U.S. cities have a better rapid transit connection from its main airport to downtown in terms of capacity, speed, and frequency. Much of Americans’ rail access to airports is in the form of light rail with 15-minute or longer headways, and service often shuts down before the last flights of the night. In contrast, the O’Hare Branch’s headways are as short as every two to eight minutes during rush hours, and trains run 24/7. In the previous post, I listed several inexpensive, short-term strategies for improving Blue Line service for all kinds of users.

After riding the ‘L’ to and from O’Hare last week for a trip to Los Angeles – which, surprisingly, has a very useful transit system – I’ve got more ideas the CTA should immediately consider to improve rider experience and make the system more user-friendly for visitors.

Provide a staffed booth selling CTA passes

Long lines often form at the Ventra vending machines at the Blue Line’s O’Hare station. This may be partly because the machines’ user interface is confusing, or because people are aren’t sure which type of fare card or transit pass they need. Last Thursday, when I returned home from my trip, seeing the crowd at the machines brought to mind how much simpler it used to be to buy CTA passes at retail stores like Walgreens. You simply asked the cashier for the type of pass you want, handed over the cash, and the cashier gave you an already-activated pass. With Ventra it’s still simple, but there is an extra step of activating the card. 

A staffed booth advertising “1-Day Unlimited Ride Transit Passes, $10” could help reduce confusion and shorten the lines at the vending machines during peak hours. The employee would provide visitors with an unregistered Ventra card, preloaded with the 1-day pass, along with a brochure with info on the benefits of registering the card and instructions on reloading the in case the visitor decides to use transit on additional days. 

This would be in addition to any necessary software design changes that would improve the customer experience. Another tip to decrowd the vending area would be to scatter the machines into pods, like at London Heathrow.

Make it easier to board the train

After you’ve bought a ticket it’s time to enter the turnstiles and board. Here you may encounter an odd problem: some of the turnstiles are two-way, so that customers exiting the system may block you from entering. Red, “do not enter” symbols appear on these, with a similar sign above, to discourage exiting here. Sometimes the CTA sets up moveable barrier belts to direct exiting passengers to the exit-only turnstiles. The CTA could use these belts more often and experiment with floor designs that subconsciously guide exiting passengers to the right-side, exit-only turnstiles.

The CTA is planning to install Train Tracker displays at all stations in the system but, strangely, O’Hare doesn’t yet have them. In addition to letting customers know how long they’ll have to wait for the next train to depart, the displays also provide an estimate of how much time is left to board, or walk down the platform to a less-crowded car. With that advance warning, visitors won’t panic when they hear “[Ding dong] Doors are closing.” Read more…