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Did the CTA Set up the Lincoln and 31st Street Bus Reboots to Fail?

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Waiting for the #11 Lincoln bus in Lincoln Square. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

Community activists who lobbied for years for the restoration of the Lincoln Avenue and 31st Street bus routes rejoiced last November after CTA president Dorval Carter Jr. made a surprise announcement that the routes would be coming back on a trial basis in 2016. The CTA board voted earlier this month to relaunch each of the bus routes as a six-month-long test to determine whether there’s enough ridership to bring back the lines permanently. But transit advocates say the way the agency devised the program’s bus schedules ensures the pilots will fail.

While the restored #11 Lincoln line will debut on June 20, the #31 bus won’t return until September. South-side activists say that will undermine the pilot because summer ridership towards 31st Street Beach won’t be counted. Worse, residents say, both bus lines will run only on weekdays between 10 AM and 7 PM, so they’ll be useless for morning rush-hour commutes. And while the Lincoln buses will run every 16 to 22 minutes, 31st Street buses will arrive only every half hour.

“It looks like it’s set up to fail,” Tom Gaulke, pastor of First Lutheran Church of the a and member of the Bridgeport Alliance, a social justice organization, told DNAinfo last week in regards to the #31 bus. “It feels like a bit of a slap in the face.” Commenters on social media were also dismissive of the limited Lincoln bus schedule. “No availability on the weekend or morning hours for commuting doesn’t appear to make this a true ‘test’ of whether there is demand for the #11 bus,” north-side resident Brendan Carter wrote on Facebook.

The CTA says, on the contrary, that the schedules were actually devised to make sure the pilots succeed.

So how did it come to this?

Read more…

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It’s a Lobby-palooza! Join MPC’s 43 Minutes for $43 Billion Infrastructure Push

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MPC says Investing $43 billion over the next years could help get the CTA system, and other Illinois infrastructure, in good working order. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Are you ready for (almost three-quarters of) an hour of power?

That’s what the Metropolitan Planning Council has planned for Wednesday, May 18, at 11 a.m., when they’ll hold the 43 Minutes for $43 Billion transportation infrastructure lobbying jam session. They’re asking Chicagoland residents to call their legislators and contact leaders in Springfield to ask them to commit to investing $43 billion over the next ten years to fund repairs and improvements to transit, bridges, and roads. They’re also asking citizens to tweet about the fact that we’re sick and tired of the shoddy state of Illinois’ transportation network.

The action is timed to coincide with Infrastructure Week, which Washington, D.C. infrastructure advocates have organized over the last few years, as well as the May 31 adjournment date for the Illinois state legislature. According to MPC executive vice president Peter Skosey, there appears to be plenty of interest on both sides of the aisle for a new transportation funding bill, but the general consensus is that the initiative won’t move forward until the state budget, which has been mired in partisan deadlock, moves forward.

“It’s problematic that we don’t already have a transportation bill,” Skosey said. “In [MPC’s] opinion, it needs to be done immediately, but it also needs to be done adequately.” He noted that if, say, lawmakers agreed to budget $1 billion a year for infrastructure, many Illinoisans would think that’s a big expenditure. “But that wouldn’t be sufficient,” he said. “A billion a year would only make us fall behind farther. It has to be $4.3 billion to get us up to par.”

While MPC hopes a bill can be passed before legislators adjourn at the end of the month, Skosey said there are other windows of opportunity for getting it approved. It could also happen during the November vetoe session (when the governor signs or vetoes legislation the general assembly has passed), or else it could take place during the lame duck session following the November elections, when Illinoisans will vote on every House seat and some Senate seats.

However, it would be much more difficult to pass a bill after May 31 because a two-thirds majority of the assembly would be needed. After January 1, only a simple majority of 51 percent would be required.

At any rate, it makes sense to get the word out to leaders sooner than later that we’re fed up with slow, unreliable train and bus service, potholed roads, and increasingly unsafe bridges. Skosey said MPC came up with the idea for 43 Minutes for $43 Billion as an alternative to organizing a lobbying day in which representatives from the 43 local companies and nonprofits who’ve endorsed the Accelerate Illinois infrastructure funding campaign would have to schlep down to Springfield. “We figured that calls, emails, and social media would be a fast, effective way to send a message,” Skosey said. Here’s how you can get involved.

Read more…

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City Announces Extended Routes, Service for South Side Bus and Rail Lines

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Bus stop sign for the #26 South Shore Express. Photo: Jeff Zoline

For all his warts, Mayor Emanuel has a strong record on improving public transportation, including initiatives like the South Red Line reconstruction, the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor, the Your New Blue rehab, and several completed and in-progress station construction projects. Today’s announcement that several South Side bus and rail lines will have more frequent service and/or extended routes also appears to be a step in the right direction.

Six bus routes and two branches of the south Green Line are affected:

Having a continuous route down 95th seems logical, since this is one of the city’s major thorughfares, with plenty of retail and other destinations. Extending the Cottage Grove bus will improve access to the Pullman National Monument.

The mayor also announced that the Cottage Grove and Ashland/63rd branches of the Green Line will see increased frequency during the morning and evening rush hours.

“With this expansion, the CTA is continuing the important work of connecting more residents to jobs and economic opportunities,” Emanuel said in a statement. “This announcement builds on the strides we have made to improve connections to and from downtown.”

Announcements of new initiatives on the South and West Sides have become more common this year as the mayor seeks to repair his image in the wake of the Laquan McDonald case. However, Emanuel continues to show more interest in leveling the playing field for residents of underserved communities, including better transit access to jobs and schools, that can only be a good thing for the city.

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CTA: We Can’t Reduces Fees That Social Service Providers Pay on Ventra

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A CTA bus doubles as an info display during the 2013 Ventra rollout. The switch to Ventra created problems for social service providers, but the CTA says it’s working on fixing one of them.

The Chicago Transit Authority said that it’s working to address some of the new burdens that the switch to Ventra has created for social service providers, as described in a study from the Chicago Jobs Council, which I reported about on Monday.

The study was based on a survey of 53 organizations that provide transit fare assistance to their clients, who may be job seekers, homeless individuals, or young people. The problems include the 50-cent surcharge on single-ride Ventra tickets, which has resulted in these organizations collectively paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

Another issue is the need to mail in forms and checks in order to buy Ventra cards in bulk. The study also found that a majority of the organizations waited a long time to receive their bulk orders, and unpredictable delivery delays forced them to scramble to find alternative ways to buy tickets.

According to the report, in 2013 the CTA told the Chicago Jobs Council that online ordering would be available in 2014. Last February, the CTA estimated online ordering would be available by the end of this year. The CTA said in a statement yesterday “work is already underway with our vendor to make online credit card purchases and delivery tracking available.”

Pauline Sylvain-Lewis of the North Lawndale Employment Network said she tries to plan ahead for the long wait by ordering two months worth of tickets at a time. That can be an issue, she said, because the nonprofit’s cash flow doesn’t allow for spending large sums of money on a monthly basis, and the purchase price can be so large that it requires approval from the board. If a delivery is late, staff members go to train stations and use the organization’s bank cards, or even their own bank cards, to buy tickets.

The CTA said that they weren’t aware of any bulk card orders taking two months two arrive, adding that “99.7% of all bulk orders CTA receives are delivered within 11-14 business days and more than 88% of all bulk orders are delivered within seven to 10 business days – or faster.”

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How Can Cities Move More People Without Wider Streets? Hint: Not With Cars

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Here’s how many people a single traffic lane can carry “with normal operations,” according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

How can cities make more efficient use of street space, so more people can get where they want to go?

This graphic from the new NACTO Transit Street Design Guide provides a great visual answer. (Hat tip to Sandy Johnston for plucking it out.) It shows how the capacity of a single lane of traffic varies according to the mode of travel it’s designed for.

Dedicating street space to transit, cycling, or walking is almost always a tenacious fight, opposed by people who insist that streets are for cars. But unless cities make room for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders, there’s no room for them to grow beyond a certain point.

NACTO writes:

While street performance is conventionally measured based on vehicle traffic throughput and speed, measuring the number of people moved on a street — its person throughput and capacity — presents a more complete picture of how a city’s residents and visitors get around. Whether making daily commutes or discretionary trips, city residents will choose the mode that is reliable, convenient, and comfortable.

Transit has the highest capacity for moving people in a constrained space. Where a single travel lane of private vehicle traffic on an urban street might move 600 to 1,600 people per hour (assuming one to two passengers per vehicle and 600 to 800 vehicles per hour), a dedicated bus lane can carry up to 8,000 passengers per hour. A transitway lane can serve up to 25,000 people per hour per travel direction.

Of course, it usually takes more than changing a single street to fully realize these benefits. A bike lane won’t reach its potential if it’s not part of cohesive network of safe streets for biking, and a transit lane won’t be useful to many people if it doesn’t connect them to walkable destinations.

But this graphic is a useful tool to communicate how sidewalks, bike lanes, and transitways are essential for growing cities looking to move more people on their streets without the costs and dangers inherent in widening roads.

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Study: Ventra Fees Cost Social Service Providers 140,000 Bus Rides Per Year

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A CTA staffer demonstrates how a Ventra machine works. Ventra replaced simpler and cheaper ways for social service organizations to procure transit cards for their clients. Photo: CTA

Ever since the Chicago Transit Authority and Pace switched from magnetic stripe fare cards to the Ventra smart card system in 2013, social service providers across Chicago have been spending more money on paying for their clients’ transit rides, and giving out fewer rides. A new report from the Chicago Jobs Council details the burdens that Ventra fare policies and ticket ordering delays place on social service organization staff members and money dedicated to helping clients. The jobs council works to change laws and policies to increase access to jobs for marginalized workers.

The report says that for the organizations to provide fares to their clients they have to spend more time and money. The money they spend on the new Ventra fee could otherwise be spent on  hundreds of thousands in additional rides for job seekers. It starts with the cost of a new card. Ventra cards cost $5.

While the CTA refunds the $5 as credit for future rides if the account is registered, staff must spend time managing that registration process, and checking often to see how much value each card has left. In addition, it’s possible for clients to run up a negative balance on their card that, to continue using the card, the organization has to pay off.

The report said that the plastic multi-ride cards “do not make sense for programs that serve highly transient populations” because they represent a “financial liability if they are lost or used to accrue a large negative balance.” Ventra also doesn’t offer a way to register or manage many cards. “Overwhelmingly,” the report said, “providers rely on single-use paper tickets to provide transit assistance.”

Anyone can run a negative balance because bus fare readers sometimes let people on even if they have less than $2.00 on their Ventra account. The CTA assumes you’ll eventually put more money on the account to reach a positive balance.

If an organization doesn’t want to wait long for a bulk order, which has to be mailed in, or pay off negative balances, then they’re out there at CTA stations buying single-use tickets for $3.00, and racking up hundreds of dollars in “limited-use media” (disposable) fees, at a cost of 50 cents per ticket. That’s the fee CTA charges to print a one-time use ticket and encourage using the hard plastic Ventra card.

The report surveyed 53 organizations which provide job training, shelter for the homeless, and youth services and found they’re spending $280,000 annually in fees – the equivalent of 140,000 additional bus rides. Read more…

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Eyes on the Street: Loop Link Lane Scofflaws Continue to Be a Problem

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A cab driver blocks a bus in the Loop Link lane.

It’s been four months since the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor launched downtown, but it seems like there are still some bugs to be worked out of the system.

The two main issues I’m aware of are bus speeds and private vehicles using the red lanes, which are marked “CTA Bus Only.” The city projected that the system, which also includes raised boarding platforms, and white “queue jump” traffic signals to give buses a head-start at lights, would double cross-Loop speeds from the previous, glacial rush-hour average of 3 mph to 6 mph.

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A private car blocks one of the red lanes.

However, not long after the launch, bus speeds still averaged about 3 mph, largely due to a rule requiring the operators to approach the stations at that speed in order to avoid crashing into the platforms or creaming passengers with their rear-view mirrors. The speeds seemed to improve a bit in subsequent weeks, although CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman told me today that the 3 mph platform restriction is still in place.

“Performance and ridership are trending in the right direction but we still don’t have enough data to draw meaningful conclusions,” Tolman added.

The fact that private bus lines, motorists and taxis drivers sometimes drive or stop in the lanes can’t be helping Loop Link speeds either. This is particularly common with the charter bus lines that ferry office workers to and from Metra stations. When I talked to staff from The Free Enterprise System and Aries Charter Transportation last month, they were fairly unapologetic, arguing that their drivers don’t have much choice but to use the lanes for pick-ups and drop-offs.

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People Will Win if Wrigley Field Streets are Closed to Vehicle Traffic

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On game days, pedestrians fill the Addison/Clark intersection. Why bother keeping it open to vehicle traffic during these times? Photo: Peter Tauch

Two local politicians have proposed changing the streets around Wrigley Field to help defend it from terrorist attacks. Instead we should be looking at ways to protect the area from an excess of car traffic.

U.S. representative Mike Quigley (5th district) recently floated the idea of pedestrianizing Clark and Addison Streets during game days to prevent attacks. A spokesperson for Quigley clarified that while he hasn’t proposed anything specific yet, he’s interested in restricting private vehicle traffic during games but allowing buses and pedestrians to use Addison and Clark.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has previously rejected the idea of pedestrianizing these streets. But on Wednesday he announced he’d seek federal funding to widen the sidewalk on the south side (Addison) of the ballpark by four feet and add concrete bollards or planters to improve security.

“There [are] ways to achieve the security without shutting down Clark and Addison,” he told the Tribune. “We can do it in another way without all the other kind of ramifications that shutting down a major intersection [would entail].”

Quigley’s office released a statement yesterday endorsing Emanuel’s plan and offering help secure the federal funding.

While widening the sidewalk is a step in the right direction, more should be done to improve pedestrian and transit access to Wrigley. As it stands, motor vehicles can already barely get through Addison and Clark before and after games, when some 42,000 fans flood the intersection, and pedestrians in the street are at risk of being struck.

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Police SUVs That Aren’t Serving or Protecting: Part II

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Apparently the officers who parked this car were responding to a Chicago chicken emergency. Photo: J. Patrick Lynch

We owe a debt of gratitude to the police officers who work hard to make our streets safer for all Chicagoans, which includes enforcing traffic laws. And, as I’ve written before, an officer has every right to park his or her squad car in a crosswalk, bus stop, or bike lane if it’s necessary to quickly access a trouble spot in the line of duty.

However, when officers choose to block access for pedestrians, bus riders, and bicyclists with their vehicles simply because it makes their personal errands a little more convenient, that’s a minor abuse of their authority that undermines respect for the law.

Reader J. Patrick Lynch told us about a couple recent examples of this from Lakeview’s Broadway business strip. In the first case, pictured above, Lynch says two officers left their vehicle in the northbound bus stop at Wellington/Broadway while they ate a Korean-inspired fried chicken dinner across the street at Crisp on a Thursday evening. Can’t fault them for their taste in food.

“I asked one of them if that was their vehicle and if he really thinks he should be blocking access to the bus stop,” Lynch reports. “His response, no joke, was, ‘When you’re girlfriend calls us up because you are beating her, I need to have my vehicle close by.’” Not funny.

On a busy Saturday afternoon, Lynch drove by a patrol car that was parked in a crosswalk at Surf and Broadway, even though there was space to park behind the vehicle. After Lynch parked and was walking back to his apartment five minutes later, he saw an officer walking back to the unattended squad car.

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This Year’s 49th Ward PB Ballot Includes a Few Transit Projects

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A 49th Ward participatory budgeting expo. Photo: 49th Ward

Each of Chicago’s 50 wards gets an annual $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” funding to spend on infrastructure projects each year. Usually the alderman decides how the money is spent and typically most of the money is used for traditional projects like street resurfacing, sidewalk repair, and streetlamp installation.

However, the growing participatory budget movement, which lets constituents vote on how menu money is spent, has paved the way for more innovative uses, including many sustainable transportation projects. Seven years ago 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore pioneered participatory budgeting in the United States, and this year six other wards are holding PB elections:

Ward 10 – Susan Sadlowski Garza
Ward 17 – David H. Moore
Ward 31 – Milly Santiago
Ward 35 – Carlos Ramirez-Rosa
Ward 36 – Gilbert Villegas
Ward 45 – John Arena

In recent years, some activists in Moore’s diverse Rogers Park ward have argued that the PB process, intended to make the decision-making process for spending ward money more democratic, actually favors wealthier residents. They noted that there was relatively low participation from low-income residents, people of color, and Spanish speakers.

Moore’s assistant Wayne Frazier, who handles infrastructure issues, told me that the ward did additional outreach this year, and new residents were involved. The work of a Spanish outreach committee resulted in good turnout at the ward’s Spanish-language PB meetings, and there were generally 35 to 60 residents at all of this year’s PB meetings, Frazier said.

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