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Eyes on the Street: Broadway’s Keeper

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I took took protected bike lane snow clearance into my own hands this afternoon. Photo: Justin Haugens

Steven Vance and I have been touched by the many shout-outs and well-wishes we’ve received on social media in the wake of last week’s shutdown of Streetsblog Chicago due to funding issues. We’ve heard a collective groan from everyone from our readers, to transportation blogging colleagues around the country, to other Chicago media outlets like Gapers Block, Chicagoist, and Chicago Magazine. We’ve even heard from local elected officials bemoaning the loss of the city’s daily source for sustainable transportation and livable streets news:

 

The good news is that we’ve made significant headway in the effort to raise funds so that Steven and I can return to producing original reporting. Readers have responded generously to my request for donations, with over 80 individual donations made within a few days.

If you value Streetsblog’s hard-hitting reporting and haven’t already done so, please consider making a contribution to the Streetsblog Chicago Resurrection Fund. I still need to raise a significant chunk of money from small-to-medium donations as part of my fundraising strategy, which also includes major donors, ad revenue, and foundation grants. Donations are not tax-deductible at this point, but all donors will receive an email stating that their money will be returned if daily publication of original articles has not resumed by April 8, three months from the start of the hiatus.

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The northbound PBL on the 4400 block of North Broadway before shoveling. Photo: John Greenfield

I took a break from my fundraising work this afternoon for a little direct intervention to improve Chicago street safety. Ever since Mayor Michael Bilandic lost reelection following the brutal Blizzard of ’79, Chicago mayors have done an excellent job of keeping the streets clear of snow for drivers. However, they haven’t always done such a great job of making sure bike routes get plowed. Last winter, many of the city’s protected bike lanes were often unrideable because they were filled with snow or slush.

To their credit, the Chicago Department of Transportation has been trying harder this year to make sure the PBLs are maintained. They temporarily removed the flexible posts that delineated several protected lanes along snow routes, to make it easier for the department of Streets and Sanitation to plow the entire street.

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Streets and San did a good job of clearing the southbound PBL on the same block of Broadway. Photo: John Greenfield

However, I recently heard that the PBLs on Broadway, between Montrose and Wilson,  have been impassible this month due to poor snow clearance, so that some cyclists have been taking Clark as an alternative. That means the Broadway lanes, which People for Bikes recently rated the nation’s tenth-best new PBLs, are actually deterring bicycling instead of encouraging it. That’s not right.

I went over to Broadway with a shovel in hand to investigate. While some portions of the lanes were well plowed and people were riding in them, other stretches were choked with slush, forcing cyclists to instead share the narrow travel lanes with cars. I didn’t have time to clear the entire bikeway, but I spent about 45 minutes digging out the northbound side of the 4400 block. I was rewarded by the sight of cyclists immediately taking advantage of the clear, protected passageway.

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The northbound PBL, after my guerrilla intervention. Photo: John Greenfield

I’d like to think that the blockage in the Broadway lanes was mostly due to property owners pushing their sidewalk snow into them, rather than neglect by the city. Either way, it would be great if CDOT and Streets and San could take additional steps to ensure that PBLs around the city enable, rather than thwart, cycling.

In the meantime, I invite concerned cyclists from around the city to grab a shovel and join me in the fight to keep Chicago’s protected lanes rideable. Feel free to tweet your guerilla PBL shoveling experience at #AdoptABikeLane.

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Why I Fight: How Biking Saved My Life and Can Help Other Black Chicagoans

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Oboi Reed and Jamal Julien from Slow Roll Chicago. Photo: SRC

[Streetsblog invited Olatunji Oboi Reed, president of Slow Roll Chicago, to share his perspective on our city’s bicycle equity challenges.]

Let me explain why I’m aggressively advocating for bike equity in Chicago.

About ten years ago, when I was 30 years old, I took an extended medical leave from my job at Citibank when work, family and relationship stresses brought on a severe bout of clinical depression. I have struggled with this illness on-and-off since high school.

During this time, I was experiencing a level of emotional pain so intense, an escape route was the only thing I could think about. One day, as I sat on my couch in Chatham, crying in the dark, I summoned the will to explore an alternative to taking my own life.

A few years before, when I was living in Champaign, my dear friend Ogunsola Hammond Carter sold me a green Diamondback mountain bike for about $50. After I moved back to Chicago, I hardly ever rode the bike. However, during my moment of crisis, I felt my final option was to try bicycling as a healthy escape from my pain.

I got up and went next door to my mother’s house, where the bike sat in the basement with two flat tires, covered in dust and badly in need of a tune up. I resolved to take the Diamondback to John’s Hardware & Bicycle Shop for repairs, then go for a ride and see what happened.

Early in the morning on a beautiful summer Saturday, I put the now-rideable bike in the trunk of my car and drove to 63rd Street Beach. I walked the bike to the trail, took a deep breath and started to ride.

Soon, I noticed the tranquil beach and the waves rhythmically crashing on the sand. I started to play hide and seek with the sun, as I pedaled by the trees along the trail. The rustling leaves sang a song to me, drowning out the negativity in my head. I was smiling for the first time in months.

I began to take note of other Black people on the trail, enjoying themselves, walking and running and biking. Feeling a newfound desire to connect with other people, I would sometimes look up from my handlebars and make eye contact with a fellow brother or sister on the trail. I was a bit surprised to find that, every single time, I was greeted with a head nod, a warm smile, or a friendly “How you doing brother?” I no longer felt alone.

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The Lakefront Trail near 63rd Street Beach. Image: Google Streetview

I had found the respite from my pain that I so desperately needed. Over the next several weeks, I rode as often as I could. It was still a struggle to find the will to get out of bed each day and do basic things like showering and eating, but I pushed through. Each ride gave me more energy to address my problems.

After ignoring my depression for nearly two decades, I decided to do something about it. I began seeing a therapist and started a regimen of medication. Eventually, I returned to work.

I continued to struggle with this mental illness, and it sometimes got the best of me, but I no longer considered suicide. Along with counseling, diet, yoga, and spending time with family and friends, biking is still my one of my greatest weapons against depression.

I know unequivocally that I am alive today because of that ride on the Lakefront Trail a decade ago. This knowledge fuels my current efforts to bring the many benefits of cycling to others in the Black community.

For a host of reasons, many Black Chicagoans have little interest in cycling. Like I once did, they view biking as something for children and White people on the Northside. Very few of them consider biking to be a viable form of transportation.

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Active Trans Wants Candidates to Commit to Working for Safer Streets

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Active Trans is asking mayoral and aldermanic candidates to support increased enforcement of traffic safety laws, including the state law requiring drivers to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Photo: John Greenfield

The Active Transportation Alliance released its 2015 election platform last week [PDF], featuring strategies to improve walking, biking, and transit in the region that they want candidates in the municipal elections to endorse. The Active Transportation Platform focuses on creating safer streets and providing better infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. The group hopes candidates will pledge to take action to reduce the number of pedestrian and bike fatalities in Chicago, increase transit funding, and address other key transportation challenges. 

There are 198 people running for alderman in 46 Chicago wards, according to the website Aldertrack, and at least four people are running for mayor. Active Trans plans to send a questionnaire [PDF] about the platform to every candidate. Hopefuls from the 43rd Ward will also receive a questionnaire [PDF] from the group BikeWalk Lincoln Park, which asks about the candidates ideas for making Clark Street safer and more vibrant, among other topics.

Active Trans based the questions on discussions with supporters, feedback from last year’s member meeting, and a public survey, according to staffer Kyle Whitehead. The first question quickly establishes the group’s priorities, asking if the candidate or a family member routinely walks, bikes, or rides transit to get to work or school, to run errands, or for recreation.

The platform states that there should be a sustainable funding source to pay for pedestrian infrastructure improvements, and bike lane and crosswalk maintenance. Whitehead said this plank came out of the Safe Crossings campaign, which identified the ten most dangerous intersections in Chicago for pedestrians. “Even when the alderman, residents, and the Chicago Department of Transportation all agree that there’s a problem in pedestrian movement [at an intersection], there’s not always funding to develop solutions,” he noted.

Each alderman has $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” funds, but “aldermen are being pulled in all directions as to where that money should go,” Whitehead explained. When there’s a pedestrian safety issue that needs to be addressed, there’s often a lengthy back-and-forth between the alderman and CDOT about how infrastructure should be financed, which delays improvements. “Pedestrian safety is critical, to the point where there should be a portion of the city’s annual budget dedicated to improving the pedestrian experience,” he said. 

The same thing is true for bike lane maintenance. CDOT usually only restripes bike lanes and when there’s a repaving project, or when an alderman wants to pay for the restriping via menu funds. Only a handful of aldermen, all from downtown and North Side districts, have chosen to do that, which contributes to the poorer quality of the bike network on the South and West Sides. Rather than having the visibility of a bike lane depend on which ward it’s passing through, dedicated funding would create a more functional citywide bikeway system for all cyclists.

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Faulty Signage Created Dangerous Situation for Peds by Lincoln Park Zoo

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Because “No Parking” signs by the zoo weren’t relocated after a curb ramp was moved, drivers parked in the crosswalk. Photo: Andrew Herman

Here’s a great example of the Streetsblog community making a difference by helping to get an infrastructure problem fixed.

On December 15, Andrew Herman from the group Bike Walk Lincoln Park contacted us about a crosswalk problem by the neighborhood’s zoo. Earlier in the year, as part of a project to repave Stockton Drive through Lincoln Park, the Chicago Department of Transportation relocated a curb cut for pedestrians on the west side of the street, across from The Farm-in-the-Zoo. CDOT built a new curb ramp several feet north, so that it would line up with the pedestrian ramp on the east side of the street, creating a shorter, safer crossing route, which they striped with a high-visibility, “continental” crosswalk.

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The old curb ramp was located just south of the new one. Photo: Andrew Herman

However, after CDOT built the new curb ramp, they failed to relocate the “No Parking” signs by the old ramp. As a result, motorists were parking north of the old No Parking zone, right in the middle of the new crosswalk. Drivers only seemed to pay attention to the signs, but were apparently oblivious to the presence of the curb ramps and zebra striping.

On July 2, Herman contacted 43rd Ward Alderman Michele Smith’s office about the problem, including tweeting Smith. Her office told me they immediately submitted a service request asking CDOT to fix move the signs.

Herman said he followed up several times over the summer, and the ward office resubmitted the request on multiple occasions, but the work was never done. “It’s not my job to defend CDOT,” Smith told me, but she added that the department has had its hands full with repaving work in 2014, in the wake of the brutal “Chiberia” winter.

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Mother Jones Rang in 2015 By Blaming Drunk People for Getting Hit By Cars

In a hyperbolic article, the left-wing publication Mother Jones interpreted national pedestrian fatality stats to mean people who have been drinking shouldn't walk anywhere on New Year's Eve. Image: Mother Jones

Here’s how Mother Jones presented U.S. pedestrian fatality data in a New Year’s Eve warning to avoid walking after having some drinks. Graphic: Mother Jones

This was the New Year’s revelry advice from Mother Jones, the left-wing, reader-supported magazine: Whatever you do, don’t walk anywhere after drinking. That’s because, Maddie Oatman writes, it makes you more likely to be struck by a driver.

As the basis for her reporting, Oatman used some well worn stats from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In a recent report, NHTSA noted that about a third of pedestrians killed while walking had blood alcohol content of .08 percent or higher at the time. That spurred a victim-blamey, click-baity frenzy in the national media about the dangers of “drunk walking” — as if people on two feet have the same responsibility to remain sober as people operating heavy machinery.

It’s extra disappointing to see a progressive publication like Mother Jones fall into this trap. Telling people not to walk drunk because they might get struck by a car is like telling college women not to drink because they might get raped. It takes a structurally vulnerable class of people — pedestrians — and puts the onus on them to prevent violence at the hands of another group. It is victim blaming, plain and simple.

Walking, on its own, is plainly not dangerous, and neither is walking drunk. What adds an element of risk is traffic — fast-moving traffic in particular. Entirely overlooked in the the NHTSA study and Mother Jones was how road design puts pedestrians — whether they’re healthy and alert and fit, or affected in some way by old age or disability or alcohol — in harm’s way.

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CDOT Puts Belmont on a Confusing, Dangerous “Binge Diet” At Western

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A CDOT rendering from the June meeting shows a plan to expand Belmont to six lanes for over 500 feet, across the intersection of Western Avenue and Clybourn Avenue.

Bicycling up and over the Chicago River on Belmont, from Avondale to Roscoe Village, will soon be more comfortable once the Chicago Department of Transportation gives the street a “road diet” and replaces car travel lanes with new buffered bike lanes. Bicyclists shouldn’t get too comfortable, though: Once they’ve crested the bridge eastbound, they’ll be dropped into the middle of a six-lane highway. Yes, CDOT is narrowing Belmont from four lanes to two on one block, and then on the very next block widening Belmont to six lanes, while eliminating the bike lanes completely.

The road diet is planned between Western Avenue (2400 West) and Washtenaw Avenue (2700 West). Its buffered bike lanes will extend west to Kedzie Avenue and, eventually, east to Halsted Street in Lakeview. Not only will the road diet give bicyclists a rare chance to safely climb over the Chicago River, but it will bring Belmont into a consistent lane configuration — it’s two lanes wide both east of Western and west of Washtenaw. Two lanes is perfectly appropriate for Belmont’s light traffic: 14,000 cars per day were counted in 2010, which two lanes easily handle on similar streets like Milwaukee Avenue and Halsted.

Yet, at the exact same time, CDOT is continuing to advance another plan for Belmont that’s at odds with the goal of making it a comfortable street for bicycling and walking. As Belmont approaches Western, where a crumbling overpass is being removed, the street will balloon from two to six lanes wide. The planned intersection [PDF] will require condemning private property, demolishing the fronts of several buildings at the southwest corner, and halt the bike lanes hundreds of feet short of the intersection.

This widening project is eerily reminiscent of how Harrison Street was widened at Congress Parkway, an unsafe and unnecessary move that was finally undone last year. The situation didn’t improve traffic flow much, since it simply created bottlenecks on either side where several lanes had to merge into one. The widening is also at odds with CDOT’s current practice of striping bike lanes through intersections, and puts bicyclists at greatest risk right where they most need protection.

Before conditions on Belmont at Western Avenue

CDOT plans to demolish at least part of the buildings at right so that it can widen Belmont Avenue. Photo: Steven Vance.

Belmont is designated as a key Crosstown Bike Route in the city’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, and would be a great way for bicyclists to get between the north and northwest sides if only there weren’t a huge, crowded, high-speed intersection dropped right into the middle of it. Michelle Stenzel was a co-leader for the plan’s North Side district, co-chairs Bike Walk Lincoln Park, and is disappointed with CDOT’s plans for Belmont at Western.

A wider Belmont “will never, ever attract new bike riders, when people are left with completely no help, no protection, and no direction at a huge intersection like this,” Stenzel says. “It was supposed to serve as an important east-west route,” she said, but will prove too dangerous for many potential bicyclists. Stenzel took umbrage with using city funds to buy buildings and widen the road: “It’s infuriating” that, while “city planners have a blank slate [because of the flyover teardown]… there’s not a single inch of room to provide bicyclists a safe passage.”

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Hit-and-Run Driver Killed Cyclist Aimer Robledo on New Year’s Day

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Aimer Robledo

2015 had a tragic start for the family of Aimer Robledo, a Humboldt Park man who was killed by a hit-and-run driver as he rode his bike home in the early hours of New Year’s Day.

Robledo, 30, worked in construction and catering, and also DJed Mexican music at parties. On New Year’s Eve, he threw a party at his home on the 1400 block of North Avers, where he lived with other family members, DNAinfo reported.

At about 1:30 a.m., as the party was ending, nephew Raphael Hernandez told DNA that Robledo decided to ride his bike to go visit a friend. Hernandez added that his uncle hadn’t been drinking prior to leaving his party. After wishing the friend a happy New Year, Robledo stopped nearby to visit his own wife and two daughters, ages eight and nine, who lived separately from him. 

Around 2:40 a.m., Robledo was riding home from his wife’s house when the driver of a dark-colored minivan struck him under a railroad viaduct on the 4700 block of West Division, according to Officer Veejay Zala from Police News Affairs. This industrial stretch of Division has wide lanes and few intersections, which encourages speeding.

Robledo suffered a head injury but was still breathing when the ambulance arrived, Hernandez told DNA. Robledo was transported to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 3:37 a.m., according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

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Thoughts About Bollards vs. Green Paint, and Chicago’s 100-Mile PBL Goal

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A typical Chicago protected bike lane on Broadway, and a typical NYC PBL on 1st Avenue. Photos: John Greenfield

[This article also ran in Checkerboard City, my column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

There’s nothing like visiting another city to give you a fresh perspective on your own. Earlier this month I traveled to New York City to pow-wow with other Streetsblog editors. Pedaling a Citi Bike around Manhattan, I was struck by the thought that Chicago’s protected bike lanes could be a little nicer than they are.

In both cities, PBLs are generally located curbside, with parked cars relocated to the left of the bike lane to shield cyclists from moving vehicles, and a striped buffer marked between the parking lane and the bike lane. In Chicago, flexible plastic posts, AKA bollards, are installed in the buffer to discourage motorists from driving and parking in the lanes.

New York protected lanes usually don’t have the posts, but there’s generally an extra-wide buffer, and the entire bike lane is painted green. Often, the parking lane is capped with a concrete pedestrian island at the intersection.

That helps remind other road users that PBLs improve safety for everybody — not just cyclists — by shortening crossing distances for pedestrians and calming motor vehicle traffic. We don’t have safety stats for Chicago protected lanes yet, but a study by the city of New York found that the installation of a PBL on Manhattan’s 9th Avenue led to a 56 decrease in injuries to all road users.

It occurred to me that Chicago might do well to emulate the New York style of protected lanes. Despite the lack of bollards, I didn’t notice any problems with cars in the lanes during my visit. Meanwhile, the posts by Chicago PBLs often start looking ragged after a few months, and they’re frequently knocked out by careless motorists and snowplow operators. This year, the city of Chicago has temporarily removed bollards on PBLs along snow routes in an effort to reduce the damage to the posts and improve snow clearance.

It seems that the Chicago Department of Transportation could save the trouble and expense of removing, reinstalling, and replacing the bollards, which cost about $90 each installed, by getting rid of them altogether and painting the lanes green instead. Judging from New York, drivers wouldn’t be any more likely to park in the lanes – the colored pavement might actually make it more obvious that these are bike-only zones.

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The 2014 Chicago Streetsies

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[Most of these entries also appeared in Newcity magazine's Best of Chicago issue.]

Best local universities to visit for that pedestrian-friendly, old-world feel

Loyola University and The University of Chicago

Nearly all Medieval-era cities in Europe, and countless other old cities around the world, are known for their pedestrian streets – markets and residential areas where driving is banned or limited. Two Chicago universities have recently turned streets into car-free spaces, and third has proposed a Dutch-style “woonerf” — a pedestrian-priority street. Loyola University transformed the 6300 block of North Kenmore  from a typical road into a sustainably-landscaped pedestrian and bike-only street, complete with permeable pavers that allow stormwater to drain into the ground. The University of Chicago similarly converted a block of 58th Street in front of the Oriental Institute, as well as a stretch of 58th west of Ellis. This extended the tranquil walkways of the main quadrangle into the greater Hyde Park neighborhood. Meanwhile, DePaul University has proposed building the woonerf on the block of Kenmore south of Fullerton in Lincoln Park.

Best place to see grown Chicagoans acting like little kids

The Chicago Riverwalk construction site

The less-than-incendiary Great Chicago Fire Festival made riverfront headlines, but if you wanted to check out a spectacle of different kind this summer, you could join the crowds oohing and aahing this as workers build the $100 million Chicago Riverwalk extension, slated for 2016 completion. This new segment will extend from State to Lake, incorporating six themed sections delineated by the bridges, ranging from “The Jetty” fishing area to “The Cove” kayak dock to “The Swimming Hole” water play zone. It was mesmerizing to watch towering cranes on barges driving long pilings and dropping huge loads of gravel to widen the shoreline. Sure, a barge sunk now and then, but that was part of the excitement.

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Dumping infill to build out the Chicago Riverwalk. Photo: John Greenfield

Best places to use protection

New protected bike lanes on Harrison and Broadway

It’s awesome that Mayor Emanuel is trying to build 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes within his first term, but a few of the locations are questionable. How many people really want to pedal on Lake Street, in the gloomy, cacophonous space below the ‘L’? However, new bikeways on Harrison in the South Loop, and Broadway in Uptown, are truly useful. The PBLs on Harrison, between Desplaines and Wabash, feature S-curves of green paint that help cyclists navigate the skewed Harrison/State intersection. PBLs and BBLs on Broadway, from Montrose to Foster, involved a “road diet,” which transformed this former four-lane speedway into a safer, more civilized place for pedestrians and drivers as well.

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Another 207 Parking-Lite Residences Sprouting In Wicker Park

The TOD building at 1237 N Milwaukee is currently under construction. Rendering by Jonathan Splitt Architects

A building currently under construction at 1237 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Rendering by Jonathan Splitt Architects

Way back in 2012, one developer proposed what was then a radical idea: tearing down what had been a cheesy restaurant and a moat of parking overlooking a faded corner, and replacing them with a gleaming tower housing 99 apartments, two shops, and just 16 car parking spaces. Ever since 1611 W. Division Street showed the way — both from a legal and a market standpoint, developers have flocked to the adjacent blocks of Wicker Park to try and replicate its success.

Last year, the original ordinance permitting 1611 W. Division to be built with so few parking spaces was expanded to encompass a broader array of sites in the city. Many of the newly permitted sites for these transit-oriented developments happen to encircle the Chicago Transit Authority’s station at Division and Milwaukee, an intersection better known as the Polish Triangle. This largely built-out area, adjacent to thriving retail corridors along both streets, has many small pieces of land where redevelopment had been hindered by city zoning that required many on-site parking spaces. Now, thanks to new rules, new apartments can be built without expensive and sidewalk-interrupting parking garages.

Out of 15 developments citywide proposed under the TOD rules so far, six – including 1611 W. Division – are in Wicker Park. Read more about five new developments below.

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