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Kempf Plaza Has All the Right Ingredients for a Great Public Space

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Giddings Plaza is used in all types of weather. This photo was taken in early April. Image: Andrew Seaman, via Flickr.

There are few pedestrian spaces in Chicago that evoke the feeling of an old European city as well as Kempf Plaza (perhaps better known as Giddings Plaza) in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

Now that city, advocacy groups, neighborhood organizations, and individuals call for more public plazas throughout the city, it would be instructive to examine the history and design features that make some of the city’s existing public spaces successful. Kempf Plaza is often cited as an example to emulate. The plaza is a result of history and good design, 36 years in the making.

Lincoln Square mural

Murals in the neighborhood depict the life of Old World European towns. Photo: Charles Carper, via Flickr.

The area around the Lincoln Square neighborhood was settled as early as 1836, before Chicago was incorporated. The establishment of a streetcar line along Lincoln Avenue in 1872, and subsequently the parallel Ravenswood elevated line in 1907, spurred more intensive development, especially as immigrants from places like Germany streamed into the North Side. Beginning in 1949, the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce began promoting itself as a commercial district, but it wasn’t until 1978 that a more European flair was sought for the neighborhood, in order to help a cluster of businesses struggling amidst the city’s then-declining economic fortunes. Any visitor today can attest that the area has a distinctly European feeling, including several Bavarian-style facades and painted murals of old European towns.

The Chamber’s 1978 goal to create a more prosperous business district spurred the reconstruction of the Western ‘L’ station, and the rerouting of Lincoln Avenue through the neighborhood. It was also at this time that Giddings Street was made into a cul-de-sac, establishing an open space for the Kempf Plaza. As with most projects involving the removal of free curb parking, there was opposition from the neighbors. Few specific complaints are listed in contemporary media, but I suspect the opponents feared asking drivers to divert to other streets, or removing a dozen or so free parking spaces.

Just closing half a block to residential traffic, and removing a few parking spaces, doesn’t suffice as a recipe for a successful public space. Several other public spaces, including some in Chicago, suffer a lack of vitality and are missing key elements necessary for a successful public place. What makes Kempf Plaza different?

Danish architect Jan Gehl written has several books related to the urban design of outdoor spaces. One of his books, Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, is a thorough rundown of what makes a quality public space. Giddings Plaza qualifies as a third place, one that is neither home nor work, and is a space for optional activities, as opposed to necessary activities like errands or commuting. Optional activities, Gehl writes, “take place only when exterior conditions are favorable.” What are some exterior conditions that make this a great place?

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Metra’s Strategic Plan: For Commuters, Or For The Railroad?

Metra Arriving at Barrington

Just missed a Metra train? You may have to wait two hours for the next one. Metra’s strategic plan should focus on its customers, not just its operations. Photo: Andy Tucker

Two years after launching its first-ever strategic planning process with a series of public meetings, Metra is at last finalizing basic goals for the plan. Our preview last month showed that the draft plan focused as much on administrative matters as it did on customers and services. That split focus remains, but board members are now debating whether the plan should shift in one direction or the other.

Metra’s director of strategic capital planning, Lynnette Ciavarella, launched a discussion about the draft plan’s ten goals and objectives at the board’s August meeting. The preliminary goals included “continuing to provide a high quality travel experience,” financial stability, “improving agency-wide efficiency,” integrating with regional transportation networks, and expanding the system “as resources allow.” Ciaverella then asked the board, “What’s missing?”

Some board members contended that the strategic plan doesn’t engage enough with the outside world, while one board member wanted Metra to stick to the basics. John Plante, a recently retired CTA manager who was appointed to Metra’s board last October, spoke up first. Plante wanted Ciaverella to add “innovative financing” – namely, public-private partnerships and land value capture, which could hopefully help fund expanded Metra service.

Don DeGraff, appointed in 2011, said he felt there was little coordination among the different transportation providers and planning agencies. He asked, “how does Metra fit with CTA, Pace, Illinois Department of Transportation, and the [South Shore Line], to make sure there’s an effective regional plan?” He continued, “we need a Daniel Burnham: someone to come up with a plan to allow us to be successful in the northeastern Illinois market.” He called on Metra to take on that coordinating role.

Ciaverella assured the board that the strategic plan was coordinated with the Regional Transportation Authority’s strategic plan and the region’s long-range GO TO 2040 comprehensive plan. Metropolitan Planning Council vice president Peter Skosey told me that “the region as a whole has a challenge connecting land use and transportation,” and that Metra can play a greater role in station-area planning “to ensure better connections to jobs and housing.”

One board member, by contrast, wants to throw out half the goals. Director Norman Carlson, appointed just before the CEO scandal came to light, explained that “so often planning doesn’t take into consideration operating perspectives.” Carlson cited his railroad consulting experience at Arthur Andersen to say “an organization can logically take on 3-5 objectives [to] make any measurable progress.” He said that Metra should take on just four goals, but list a fifth goal to be deferred.

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Thanks to Loophole, Cheerios’ Downtown Pedicab Promotion Was Unsinkable

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Why not promote your cereal with a vehicle whose wheels resemble it? Image: Cheerios

This morning, I was puzzled when I read a DNAinfo.com report that Cheerios was planning to promote its new line of high-protein cereals with a seemingly illegal activity: pedicab rides in the Loop during rush hours.

In April, City Council passed an ordinance regulating pedicabbers – and banning them from downtown streets. Under the new law, operators are prohibited from working in the Loop during rush hours, as well as on Michigan and State, between Oak and Congress, at all times. Pedicabbers say the restrictions are making it more difficult for them to make a living, and that the regulations are discouraging the growth of this environmentally friendly form of transportation.

Cheerios planned to have a crew of pedicabbers from local company Chicago Rickshaw offering free rides for people arriving at Union Station between 6 and 10:30 this morning. The commuters would line up on Jackson to be picked up by the bicycle taxi drivers on a first-come, first served basis, and then squired to any downtown destination. The pedicab operators would also be delivering free cereal to anyone who tweeted their location to @cheerios using the #CheeriosProteinChi.

Pedicabs are a great fit for this kind of event. Hiring the operators to make deliveries is probably cheaper than using motor vehicles, and companies want eyecatching vehicles for their promotions. And by placing its logo on the back of a pedicab, a company gets to associate its product with health, eco-friendliness, and good times. Meanwhile, Chicagoans benefit by having fewer cars and trucks on the street, and the passengers enjoy an unforgettable ride to the office.

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Pittsburgh Business Leaders See Bikeways as Cure for Road-Space Shortage

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Along Pittsburgh’s new downtown bike lane, all intersections are signalized, but cyclists won’t receive dedicated signal phases and most crossings are unmarked. People will need to be on the lookout for turning conflicts whether they’re on bikes or in cars. All renderings: City of Pittsburgh

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Downtown Pittsburgh has a perfectly good reason to be running out of room for more cars: Its streets have been there since 1784.

“In Pittsburgh, we have too many cars chasing too few parking spaces,” Merrill Stabile, the city’s largest parking operator, said last week. “I am in favor of building a few more parking garages. But we’ll never be able to build enough to meet the demand, in my opinion, if we continue to grow like we’ve been growing.”

That’s why Stabile is among the Pittsburgh business leaders backing a plan announced Tuesday to reduce downtown’s dependence on car traffic by adding a protected bike lane to Penn Avenue.

Jeremy Waldrup, CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said the protected lane, which will return Penn Avenue to one-way motor vehicle flow by removing an eastbound traffic lane, will make it comfortable for most people, not just the bold few, to bike downtown.

“One of the most important things is that we have as a city developed this incredible trail system, many of them leading to downtown,” Waldrup said. “But once you’ve made it to the borders of downtown, you’re literally on your own to get into the city.”

Penn Avenue’s new one-mile bike lane, installed as a pilot project over the next few weeks, is part of a wave of protected lane projects in American central business districts.

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Divvy Is No Cautionary Tale — It’s a Model for Other Bike-Share Systems

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City officials unveil Bublr bikes at a ceremony in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park last week. Photo: city of Milwaukee

Yesterday, the Tribune ran an opinion piece slamming the Divvy funding model, written by Diana Sroka Rickert from the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. Rickert argued that Milwaukee’s brand-new Bublr bike-share system, named after the local term for a water fountain, used a superior method because much of the funding came from private donors, largely corporate sponsors.

Rickert claims it was foolish of Chicago to launch Divvy solely with public money. She quotes Milwaukee developer and Bublr sponsor Gary Grunau as implying that Chicago’s method of lining up funding was fiscally irresponsible. “Milwaukee is a little more conservative… which is probably explained in the fact that Illinois and Chicago have a much more unstable financial picture,” he said.

The problem with Rickert’s thesis is that she’s making an apple-to-oranges comparison. The total startup cost for the first 475 Divvy stations and 4,750 bikes was $31.25 million, according to Divvy general manager Elliot Greenberger. $25 million came from federal grants, while local funds are covering the remaining $6.25 million.

Meanwhile, Midwest BikeShare, the nonprofit that runs Bublr, has raised about $3 million in public funds, plus roughly $1 million in private donations, which should pay for installing about 60 stations and 600 bikes, according to launch director Kevin Hardman. MWBS needs to raise another $3 million privately in the next two to three years to pay for operations for these stations, Hardman said. The system launched last week with ten stations and 100 bikes.

Obviously, it’s easier to cover the start-up cost of a small system than one that’s nearly eight times as big. To reach the same 1:3 ratio of private-to-public funding as Bublr, the city of Chicago would have had to raise almost $8 million in private donations prior to launching.

And Chicago did eventually snag a $12.5 million sponsorship deal for Divvy with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, about a year after the system launched. By that time, bike-share was already a proven success here, and the sponsor got an immediate payoff by getting its logo plastered on every Divvy bike and rebalancing van.

Rickert also writes that systems in Denver and Minnesota have a “better business model” because they’re run by nonprofits and were launched with private funding. Again these are much smaller systems than Chicago’s. Denver B-cycle has only 84 stations and 700 bikes, while the Twin Cities’ Nice Ride has 170 stations and 1,550 cycles.

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North Branch Trail Extension Inches Forward, Including Edgebrook Sidepath

Example side path on Harms Road in Glenview

The North Branch Trail’s southern extension will have a short side path along Lehigh and Central Avenues, much like this segment of Harms Road in Glenview. Image: Google Street View

The Forest Preserve District of Cook County is proceeding with plans to extend its popular North Branch Trail three miles further into the city limits, via a sidepath along Central Avenue. The extension has been planned since 1995, and has been shown as a dotted line on the Chicago bike map for several years. Some neighbors, though, worry about how the sidepath will impact cars traveling on or turning off Central Avenue.

Last week the Forest Preserve hosted a meeting at the Matthew Bieszczat Volunteer Resource Center about the extension, which would start from the trail’s current southern terminus at Devon and Lehigh avenues (one block short of downtown Edgebrook) and end at Gompers Park, near Foster and Kostner avenues, in the Mayfair neighborhood The 18-mile trail carries 250,000 users a year between the city and the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, where a northern extension to the Metra UP-North line opens September 13.

Extending the trail into the city won’t be a walk in the park, though. While most of the existing trail runs along the river, the extension must skirt both busy Devon Avenue and the existing Edgebrook Golf Course. To do so, it will run alongside existing roads instead: crossing Devon at Caldwell, then following Central past the three-block Old Edgebrook neighborhood, then crossing Central at a new stoplight placed at an existing intersection that serves the golf course and the Volunteer Resource Center.

Some residents feel that the new traffic signal will “snarl traffic,” DNAInfo reported. This is unlikely, since the new traffic signal would be on-demand, and only change when a motorist exits the parking lot or when a bicyclist or pedestrian pushes a button.

The Chicago and Illinois Departments of Transportation examined several alternatives proposed by neighbors and found them wanting. In particular, re-timing the lights at the complicated intersection of Lehigh, Caldwell, Central, and Devon would cost $1 million, and building a traffic signal at Prescott or Louise would make existing traffic backups even worse.

Old Edgebrook residents also worry about how the Central Avenue sidepath would affect vehicle turns into or out of their neighborhood. Brian Sobolak attended the meeting, and recounted that some residents thought that the sidepath’s crossings of Prescott and Louise would be unsafe, and might block residents driving in and out. Similarly, Nadig Newspapers reported that some residents believe “it would be difficult to see bicyclists” crossing these two streets, the only routes into Old Edgebrook. Yet Central already has a sidewalk at this location, so drivers at these two intersections already must watch for crossing pedestrians.

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Man Killed Sunday Was 4th Person Fatally Struck on North Avenue This Year


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The 2700 Block of West North Avenue.

A man killed by an allegedly drunk driver Sunday is the latest in a series of people fatally struck on speeding-plagued North Avenue, in 2014.

Around 8:25 p.m. Sunday, a 55-year-old man was crossing northbound on the 2700 block of North Avenue near Cermak Produce, according to Officer Janel Sedovic from Police News Affairs. The man’s identity has not yet been released, pending notification of his next of kin, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

Sean Riley, 33, of the 1400 block of North Bell, was driving eastbound when he struck the victim. He stayed on the scene following the crash. The victim was transported to Illinois Masonic Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

Riley was found to have a blood alcohol content level above the legal limit of .08 percent, according to Sedovic. He has been charged with felony aggravated DUI resulting in an a death, operating a vehicle without insurance, and fail to exercise due care to avoid a collision with a pedestrian in the roadway. A bond hearing is scheduled for today.

The victim was the fourth person fatally struck by a driver on North this year. On April 21, Kim Kyeyul, 72, rear-ended a semi truck with his car on North just east of the Kennedy Expressway. After he exited his car to talk to the other driver, a second trucker killed him.

On April 24, Jennie Davis was crossing in the 5500 block of North Avenue in Austin when a speeding motorist fatally struck her – a similar scenario to this latest crash. And On Sunday, June 1, an out-of-control SUV driver fatally struck Charles Jones, 73, who was reportedly standing in the street just west of the Kennedy.

Most of these cases involved a too-fast driver and/or a difficult pedestrian crossing. In general, North is a five lane street with two travel lanes in each direction, a turn lane, and parking lanes. By Cermak Produce, the street is 76 feet wide, and that excess width encourages speeding and creates a long crossing distance for pedestrians.

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Without Planning, Mega Parking Lot Could Replace Megamall

Logan's Crossing rendering (looking west)

A rendering of a new building that could replace the Megamall, a longstanding indoor market that stretches for almost 700′ along Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square. Image: Sierra U.S.

Terraco and Sierra U.S., two commercial real estate firms, have started marketing to potential tenants space within a new development at the site of the defunct Megamall, along Milwaukee Avenue northwest of Sacramento Avenue in Logan Square. Marketing documents published by Curbed Chicago show a new building housing 166,390 square feet of retail, including a supermarket and a health club — and a whopping 426 parking spaces, both within the building and in a surface lot behind it.

The plan proposes nearly enough parking to fill an entire city block, but surprisingly, that’s just five percent more than the minimum of 406 spaces that Chicago’s zoning code requiresWhereas most of the retail customers, just as elsewhere in the neighborhood, would likely arrive by foot, transit, or bike, a huge parking garage would only appeal to drivers — and so plentiful parking would probably induce driving to the site. That’s even though the site is ”on a designated primary bicycle spoke route, a block from a major transit hub and a city-owned parking lot lonely for cars,” as local urban planner Lynn Stevens says. Stevens also points to a previous community workshop, where two-thirds of participants didn’t want additional parking in the area.

Stevens urges that local officials should develop a plan that could guide the fast-paced development along Milwaukee Avenue through Logan Square. In the absence of a unifying plan, the decades-old underlying zoning – amended piecemeal by developers and three different aldermen – becomes a de facto plan. Stevens, who writes the Peopling Places blog about Logan Square development, said, “a plan… would establish policy guidance for future growth and implementation of social, economic and physical [design] goals. Absent a plan, all we have is the Zoning Code that guides private physical development, but, as we know, [that] is subject to change at the whim of an alderman.”

She added that development policy for the area is done in “isolation” at many different agencies. In the absence of any plan, each “property owner envisions development to maximize profit under the existing zoning — or the zoning he thinks he can get out of the alderman.” And since existing zoning specifies conventional retail for the Megamall site, the result is the conventional Terraco/Sierra proposal.

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CDOT’s “Safe Cycling in Chicago” Info Booklet Rides Again

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Cover of the new booklet.

The Chicago Department of Transportation bike program recently updated a classic: the city’s “Safe Cycling in Chicago” guide. The new version of the booklet, loaded with useful info for newcomers to urban biking, was released a few weeks ago. CDOT has also printed about 10,000 hard copies for distribution via the Bicycling Ambassadors and other outlets.

Back in the early 2000s, cycling educator Dave “Mr. Bike” Glowacz created the guide for the city, basing it on his popular book “Urban Bikers’ Tricks & Tips.” The booklet has been updated every few years since then, most recently around 2011, according to Charlie Short, CDOT’s bike and pedestrian safety and education manager. Although online publications have become increasingly important since “Safe Cycling” debuted, many Chicagoans who might benefit from the booklet may have limited Internet access, so it’s still important to print hard copies.

The guide is a great resource for people who are interested in bike commuting in the city, but aren’t sure how to get started. There are tips on how to shop for a new or used bike, register it, and equip it for all-weather riding and carrying cargo. The booklet explains basic maintenance, including detailed instructions on fixing a flat.

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PBLs Off the Table in Jeff Park, But Milwaukee Still Needs a Road Diet

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CDOT rendering of Milwaukee with a road diet and protected bike lanes.

The Chicago Department of Transportation has proposed three possible street reconfigurations for Milwaukee from Lawrence to Elston. Unfortunately, the one that CDOT originally said would have had the greatest safety benefit for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers is now off the table.

The scenario where the current five-lane speedway would have been converted to two travel lanes and a turn lane, plus protected bike lanes, is no longer under consideration, according to 45th Ward chief of staff Owen Brugh. He said that Alderman John Arena and CDOT jointly concluded that PBLs weren’t a practical solution for this stretch, due to the high number of driveways.

Since protected lanes would have involved moving the parking lanes to the left side of the bike lanes, parking spaces would have had to be eliminated at each intersection and curb cut to ensure that cyclists and motorists could see each other. This would have required the removal of 20 percent of the parking spots on Milwaukee. However, parking counts show that, in general, spaces on this section of Milwaukee are currently used as little as 50 percent of the time, and not more than 90 percent of the time, so there would be a relatively minor impact on the availability of parking.

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Rendering of a road diet with wide buffered lanes.

The two other alternatives are still under consideration. One would involve a road diet with wide buffered lanes, which CDOT says would still have a significant safety benefit for all road users. The other would maintain all five lanes but add narrow buffered lanes, which would provide a minor safety benefit for cyclists and pedestrians, but have practically no effect on car speeds.

It’s a shame that protected lanes are no longer being considered, since this stretch of Milwaukee would greatly benefit from a major reboot. This section consistently averages well under 20,000 vehicles, making it the least busy stretch of Milwaukee in the city. But while Milwaukee south of the Kennedy Expressway is generally a two-lane street, north of the Kennedy it has two travel lanes in each direction, plus turn lanes, and the excess capacity encourages speeding. Recent CDOT traffic studies found that 75 percent of motorists broke the 30 mph speed limit, and 14 percent exceeded 40 mph, a speed at which studies show pedestrian crashes are almost always fatal.

Since speeding is the norm here, it’s not surprising that there’s a high crash rate. The project area saw 910 crashes between 2008 and 2012, causing at least 17 serious injuries and three deaths, according to CDOT. In January of this year, two men were killed in a rollover crash on the 6000 block of the street, just south of Elston.

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