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Booting Buses Off Public Square, Cleveland Deals Another Blow to Transit

Protestors gathered in Public Square last weekend to demand buses be returned to Superior Avenue. Photo: Angie Schmitt

Protestors gathered in Public Square last weekend to demand the return of bus routes to Superior Avenue. Photo: Angie Schmitt

Transit riders in Cleveland can’t get a break.

Last year, Greater Cleveland RTA, facing a budget crisis, was forced to raise fares and cut service. Each trip now costs $2.50 — no transfer included — an 11 percent hike, and riders are getting worse service for their dollar. Thanks to a state decision exempting some healthcare spending from sales tax, the RTA is again facing a large shortfall this year.

Piling on to these problems is Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, who decided to reroute buses around the city’s Public Square last month, undoing an earlier deal intended to protect transit riders. The square is the hub of the region’s bus system.

Public Square was recently redesigned by starchitect James Corner (of High Line fame) at a cost of $50 million. The project was intended to bolster Cleveland’s image for out-of-town visitors ahead of the Republican National Convention. It called for closing two cross streets — Ontario and Superior — to car traffic in order to establish a contiguous four-block public space in the center of downtown. One of those streets, Superior, was supposed to remain open to buses.

Up until the redesign, bus passengers made 20,000 transfers inside Public Square each day. The routing offered convenient access to both the hub of the city’s rail system (across the street in Terminal Tower) and the Healthline BRT, just outside the square. Public Square primarily served working class people waiting for buses and making connections.

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City Is Wrapping Up Loop Link Improvements on Canal, Prepaid Boarding Pilot


The new mid-block crosswalk and pedestrian island on Canal by Union Station. Photo: John Greenfield

About a year after the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor debuted downtown, the city is continuing to improve the route. Back in August the Union Station Transit Center opened, making it easier to transfer between buses, Metra, and Amtrak, and helping to organize West Loop traffic. Recently the Chicago Department of Transportation added new stretches of red bus-only lanes on Jackson and Canal streets, and completed other changes to Canal to sort out the different travel modes.

Previously there was a northbound conventional bike lane on Canal, which was difficult to use due to the chaotic mix of CTA buses, private buses, taxis, and private cars. As part of Loop Link, the Canal bike lane was removed and a two-way protected bike lane was built a block west on Clinton Street.

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Canal Street, as it appeared prior to the recent street remix. Image: Google Street View

CTA buses on Canal previously picked up and dropped off passengers at the train station via a southbound lane on the otherwise northbound street, separated from other traffic via a concrete Jersey barrier. That bus loading area has been moved to the transit center, located on a former parking lot directly south of the station, with a stairway, elevator, and tunnel under Jackson Boulevard providing a car-free pedestrian route to the Metra and Amtrak platforms.

The old bus lane in front of the station on Canal has been replaced with a cabstand. There are two mixed-traffic through lanes to the right of that.


The current configuration on Canal by Union Station. Photo: John Greenfield

A median has been striped in the middle of the road, and then there’s the red bus lane, which also has a wheelchair symbol on it to indicate that people with disabilities may use it to access the station. To the right of that is a curbside lane that may used by private vehicle drivers from drop-offs, pick-ups, and right turns.

A mid-block crosswalk with a pedestrian island has also been added in front of the station. Previously the Jersey wall prevented people from crossing the street in this location.

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Black Leaders Discuss Their Efforts to Promote Equity in Mobility Advocacy


Moderator Sahra Sulaiman with panelists Tamika Butler and Zahra Alabanza. Photo: Jean Khut

Editor’s note: Streetsblog Chicago sent writer Jean Khut to Atlanta last month to report on The Untokening and share lessons from the event that could be applied to transportation justice efforts in our city. We’ll be running another post on the main Untokening activities in the near future. 

In early November, mobility advocates from across the United States gathered in Atlanta for The Untokening, a “convening” to address equity issues in transportation and public spaces. The event was an extension of this year’s Facing Race Conference, held in Atlanta earlier that weekend.

In conjunction with the convening, The Untokening and the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition hosted a panel discussion called “LA X ATL Exchange: Race, Place & Justice,” featuring Tamika Butler, director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, and Zahra Alabanza, co-founder of the Atlanta chapter of Red, Bike, and Green. Sahra Sulaiman, a communities editor at Los Angeles Streetsblog, served as the moderator.

Walking, biking, and transit advocacy groups often struggle with how to define equity in their work. During the panel Butler said some bike advocates she knew felt there weren’t enough voices representing people who’ve been marginalized by systemic prejudices.

Since starting her position at the LACBC in 2014, Butler has become one of the most prominent voices promoting equity in active transportation. She grew up in Omaha and previously worked as a civil rights lawyer. Butler wasn’t into biking until a friend convinced her to do AIDS/Lifecycle, a fundraising bike ride from San Francisco to L.A. It was there where she met her wife Kelly and found her passion for bikes.

Butler said she has dealt with her share of of racism and sexism in the bike world. One common criticism she gets is that she isn’t “bikey” enough to lead an advocacy organization, which begs the question of what this term actually means. Are her critics saying she isn’t riding her bike enough for transportation and/or recreation to be a bike advocate? Butler doesn’t know the answer, but feels that she wouldn’t face the same criticism if she were a white male.

Likewise, Alabanza didn’t fit the profile many other Atlanta bike advocates were used to. She moved to the city fifteen years ago with a background in community organizing, focusing on LGBTQ issues and reproductive rights. Eventually, her interest in social justice and biking intersected. She saw the need to create spaces for people of color to use biking as a way to form relationships and build community.

RBG originated in Oakland, California in 2007, and Alabanza co-founded the Atlanta chapter in 2012. At first many in the Atlanta bike scene didn’t know what to make of RGB and were surprised that they didn’t address some of the issues bike advocacy groups have traditionally focused on, such as promoting bike lanes and helmets. The volunteer-run group, which describes itself as “exclusively Black,” uses biking a way to address economic, environmental, and mental and physical health issues that impact African-American communities.

Alabanza said her work with RBG allows her to be “unapologetically Black.” Even though she helped create a positive, empowering space for African-Americans, she has faced some backlash, especially during the group’s first year. Alabanza has been accused of reverse racism from people who didn’t understand the need for an all-Black space.

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CDOT, CTA and Other Departments Provide Updates on Winter Preparations

Route 50 to 35th/Archer (Orange Line)

The CTA’s #50 Damen bus. Photo: Serge Lubomudrov

There may have been a high of 74 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday in Chicago, but city departments and agencies want to remind residents that colder days are ahead, and let them know what preparations are being made for the coming deep-freeze.

“As we have seen with recent weather emergencies here in Chicago, dealing with extreme weather is not just preparing for an emergency situation, but also having a plan of action in responding and recovering from that situation,” said Office of Emergency Management and Communications’ Rich Guidice.

Ever since Michael Bilandic lost reelection after a failed response to the blizzard of 1979, Chicago mayors have been obsessed with keeping streets clear after snowfalls. According to the city, Streets and Sanitation maintains a fleet of over 300 snow-plowing trucks, including 20 new trucks this year. In addition, the department has approximately 374,000 tons of salt stationed at salt piles throughout the city.

To clear the way for plowing, Chicago’s annual winter overnight parking ban takes effect from December 1 to April 1, from 3:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m., regardless of whether there’s snow. The ban affects about 107 miles of streets. Violators face a minimum $150 towing fee, a $60 ticket and a storage fee of $20 per day.

The CTA says their employees have received extensive training in dealing with winter weather emergencies. Customers can stay abreast of storm-related route changes or major delays through informational displays at rail stations and some bus stops, as well as Twitter, Facebook and the agency’s website. Riders are encouraged to sign up on the website for winter service alerts.

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Comparing Transit Access in Lincoln Park to South Lawndale

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While South Lawndale has a larger population and more demand for transit, Lincoln Park has better transit access (2012 analysis). Graphic: Alma Zamudio. Click to enlarge.

Here’s some info about transit inequality that I had to leave out of this week’s Chicago Reader column about transportation issues that impact local Latino communities, due to space limitations.

Alma Zamudio, who earned a BA in urban planning and public administration at UIC, has worked with various Latino housing, labor, and social justice organizations, including a campaign by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and other groups to improve bus service in Little Village. During college in 2012 she compared transit access in the Lincoln Park and South Lawndale community areas (the latter largely comprises Little Village) for a presentation at an Illinois African American and Latino Higher Education Alliance conference.

According to 2010 Census data, Lincoln Park had about 71,382 residents with a median household income of $82,707, while South Lawndale had a population of 81,426 with a median income of $32,320. Zamudio found that while, at the time of her research, 22 intersected Lincoln Park, only seven served South Lawndale. Lincoln Park had four transit routes with late-night “owl service,” but South Lawndale only had one, the #60 Blue Island/26th bus.

And while there are three ‘L’ lines and five stops in Lincoln Park, there’s only one train line and two stations in South Lawndale. Buses and trains also ran more frequently in Lincoln Park.

Meanwhile South Lawndale had a somewhat lower household car ownership rate than Lincoln Park, 84 percent versus 86 percent. When you factor in the fact that South Lawndale had over 10,000 more residents, that came out to a significantly higher number of car-less households. Moreover, South Lawndale had the highest percentage of residents under 18 of any Chicago community area.

That meant that while the South Side neighborhood had a higher demand for transit access, it received less service, Zamudio said. “The study proved what I already knew on the ground,” Zamudio told me. “It’s not equitable.”

Download Zamudio’s poster.

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Activists Discuss Transportation Issues That Impact Latino Communities

Lynda don't wreck Humboldt Park

Lynda Lopez with a sign from a protest against new $900,000 homes near the Bloomingdale Trail. Photo: Ryan Kelleher

[Last year the Chicago Reader launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate a portion of the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print.]

In October leaders from the local Black Lives Matter movement talked with me about factors that affect travel options for African-Americans in Chicago, but that are sometimes overlooked by decision makers. These include subpar public transit service, unsafe walking conditions, and limited access to bike facilities, as well as expenses like train fares and traffic fines that can be significant for poor and working-class people. Worries about street crime and police abuse also influence their transportation choices.

Last week local Latino and Latina social justice activists told me that their communities deal with similar challenges, as well as unique concerns undocumented immigrants face when it comes to navigating the city. In addition, Chicago’s Mexican-American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods seem to be especially susceptible to the gentrification and displacement sometimes associated with bike lanes, trails, and transit-friendly housing.

Lynda Lopez, a member of the Humboldt Park chapter of Grassroots Illinois Action; Alma Zamudio, who has worked with several different Latino affordable housing, labor, and social justice organizations; and José López, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, all agreed to share their thoughts on these issues.

Lynda Lopez, a 25-year-old Mexican-American, was born in Chicago and lives in Hermosa. She works at the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council doing youth outreach, and, for disclosure, occasionally freelances for Streetsblog Chicago, the website I edit. We started off talking about the particular challenges faced by undocumented immigrants.

“Undocumented residents often live in areas with poor public transit access,” she said. “There’s a big intersection between immigration and transportation—where you can afford to live, where your job is, and whether you can afford to drive. . . . “You see people getting up really early to make it to low-wage jobs via CTA.”

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What the Lockbox Law — And Trump Win — Mean for Local Transportation


Local leaders say don’t panic — yet — about how the Trump presidency will affect Chicagoland transportation.

It’s hard to predict what last night’s election means for the future of sustainable transportation in the U.S. But as Streetsblog editor-in-chief Ben Fried wrote this morning, the fact that the Republican party doesn’t rely on city dwellers for votes, and the president-elect’s rural base doesn’t include many fans of better transit and walkable, bikeable streets, is not a good sign.

Amid all the shock over the unexpected election results, news of another significant development for Illinois transportation got lost in the shuffle. Voters in this state passed the so-called Safe Roads Amendment ballot initiative by nearly 80 percent, far more than the 60 percent needed to make it law.

This controversial amendment to the Illinois constitution will require that all funds collected through gas taxes, tolls, driver’s license fees, and city stickers be captured in a “lockbox” to prevent them from being used for non-transportation purposes. The ballot question asked citizens if they supported earmarking this revenue for “administering laws related to vehicles and transportation, costs for construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, ports, airports, or other forms of transportation, and other statutory highway purposes.”

Originally the Metropolitan Planning Council, the Active Transportation Alliance, and the Center for Neighborhood Technology supported the amendment, arguing that it would grow the overall transportation budget, which could mean more money for walking, biking, and transit. They also argued that the lockbox would help build support for raising the gas tax by insuring the revenue would go to transportation, not other needs or pet projects. Initially, I was a supporter as well.

But Chicago’s two major newspapers oppose the initiative, arguing that the campaign was fueled by cronyism between lawmakers and road-building and labor interests, and that politicians shouldn’t need a constitutional amendment to force them into fiscal discipline.

Other organizations and progressive commentators, including Streetsblog’s Steven Vance, pointed out other additional issues with the amendment. They argued proponents has misrepresented how much money had been previously diverted from the transportation fund, and that tying lawmakers’ hands on spending decisions could cause problems if a real financial crisis or natural disaster arises.

They noted that the language of the legislation didn’t specify whether walking, biking, and transportation funding would be eligible for funding, or whether local governments would be able to spend transportation revenue on things like streetlamps and snow plowing. Eventually the Center for Neighborhood Technology dropped their support for the amendment, as did I.

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CTA Budget: Fares Stay Flat and Low Gas Prices Cause Lower Bus Ridership

The CTA predicts that rail ridership will continue rising and bus ridership will continue to drop. Despite the same number of bus service hours, service is owow and gas is cheap. Chart data from CTA budget. Compiled by Yonah Freemark and Steven Vance.

Earlier this week the Chicago Transit Authority announced its proposed budget for 2017. Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted the fact that the budget “freezes” the $2.00 and $2.25 cash fare on buses and trains, respectively.

The CTA holding the line on fares – for the eighth consecutive year – creates positive publicity for Emanuel, even while he raises many other fees in Chicago. Agency spokesman Jeffrey Tolman said “we will continue to look for ways to keep CTA as affordable as possible while maintaining the high level of service.”

However, it would be wiser for the CTA to raise fares incrementally each year to accommodate perennially rising costs, and give itself more breathing room to add or expand bus route changes without having to find an equivalent cost to cut elsewhere in the budget.

The agency’s repeated decisions not to change the “base” fare could lead to a future doomsday scenario. Chicago is currently experiencing a building boom, but if development slows the CTA will have less funding from its share of local sales taxes, and from the real estate transfer tax (a tax on property sold). At that point it will need to cut staff and service, or raise fares steeply, to a price that would likely be higher than if the fares were raised periodically.

Even the language in the CTA’s budget document bemoans the scarcity of transit funding, stating, “CTA continues to face funding challenges to meet our ambitious modernization goals.”

Although the total number of rail and bus rides in 2015 was 516 million, up 1.6 percent from 514.5 million in 2014, the current budget projects that total annual ridership will have dropped by nearly 17 million rides from 2015 to 2016. A majority of this drop will be seen on bus routes. The CTA also predicts a total drop of 3.4 million rides, all of them on bus routes, between 2016 and 2017. The agency is projecting an increase in rail ridership.

Tolman said the drop in bus ridership is caused by “low gas prices, traffic congestion, [and] shifting population trends.” He added, “CTA ridership, especially bus, has been heavily influenced by gas prices over the last 20 years. Inflation adjusted gas prices are near 100-year lows and are forecasted to remain low in 2017.” Figures from the Federal Highway Administration show that people drove more last year than the previous peak in 2014, which followed a decline during the recession.

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Why the Belmont Blue Rehab Includes a Futuristic Canopy but No Elevators


Rendering of the redesigned Belmont Blue Line station, including its Jetsons-like canopy.

Early this month the city announced upgrades the Blue Line’s Belmont stop that will cost up to $15 million. The improvements to the station, which opened in 1970 and was originally designed by Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, include several cosmetic changes, including a space-age-looking weather canopy. However, many residents are scratching their heads about why the rehab won’t include the addition of elevators to make the stations compliant with the Americans With Disabilities act.

The project, which is slated to begin next year, is part of the CTA’s Your New Blue initiative, which includes makeovers to several stations along the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch, as well as track improvements. Residents have previously complained about the fact that many of the station redesigns don’t include elevators, and the CTA has said they plan to make all stations ADA compliant sometime in the future.

The planned improvements include a community gateway for the street-level entrance to the Belmont subway station and improvements to a safer, more comfortable environment for pedestrians. Importantly, the CTA plans to permanently add prepaid bus boarding to the station, a timesaving feature the agency has been testing since this summer on westbound buses during evening rush hours.

Attendants with portable fare card readers have customers scan their cards and wait in a fenced in bullpen. When buses arrive the employees direct the riders to board through both the front and rear doors. The CTA didn’t provide additional details on how the permanent prepaid boarding system would work.

But spokesman Jeff Tolman said the Belmont test, as well as a similar pilot that recently launched at the Loop Link’s Madison/Dearborn station, seem to be going smoothly. “Anecdotally, customers have responded generally positively to both pilots and they have helped reduce boarding times,” he said.

The large, skeletal canopy, designed by the Chicago architecture firm Ross Barney Architects, will provide additional weather protection. It’s more evidence that the city has a “When in doubt go with something Santiago Calatrava-esque” design philosophy. See also the Loop Link and Union Station Transit Center bus shelters, as well as the upcoming Washington-Wabash ‘L’ station – all of them are vaguely reminiscent of dinosaur ribs.

“Projects like this bring notable architecture and design that celebrates and complements the character of our communities, enhance our neighborhoods and bring economic and cultural opportunities to residents and businesses,” said Mayor Emanuel in a statement.

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Activists: Social Justice Issues Influence Black Residents’ Travel Decisions


Jason Ware campaigns on an ‘L’ train. Photo: Sarah-Ji Photography

[Last year the Chicago Reader launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate a portion of the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print.]

When it comes to improving Chicago transportation, city officials and advocates often focus on infrastructure, reasoning that street redesigns, public transit improvements, and better pedestrian and bike facilities will help make travel safer and more convenient for all residents.

But decision makers sometimes overlook issues that are specific to Chicago’s lower-income communities of color on the south and west sides. Many of these areas have poor mass transit service, unsafe conditions for walking, and limited or no access to bikeways and Divvy stations. Transportation costs that may seem trivial to higher-income residents, like the price of a CTA ride or a traffic ticket, can be significant for poor and working-class people. And street crime and police harassment—problems that disproportionately affect African-American and Latino Chicagoans—can be major factors in their travel decisions.

To get some perspective on these topics, I spoke with two leaders associated with Chicago’s Black Lives Matter movement: Charlene Carruthers, national director of Black Youth Project 100, and Jason Ware, an organizer with the #LetUsBreathe Collective. (We’ll hear from Latino activists in a future column.)

Carruthers, 31, was born and raised on the south side and currently lives in Bronzeville. Her organization, made up of African-Americans ages 18 to 35, addresses issues like police abuse, mass incarceration, and LGBT and women’s rights “using a Black queer feminist lens.”

Ware, 21, grew up in Rochester, New York, and now lives in the Austin neighborhood, where he runs a restorative justice program at Austin College and Career Academy. #LetUsBreathe was formed as a fund-raising initiative to provide aid to Ferguson protesters. The group uses civil disobedience, as well as outreach through various art forms, to call for police and prison abolition.

“I do believe transportation access is an element of social justice,” Carruthers says.

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