Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal, writes the popular blog The Urbanophile, and sometimes his articles are right on the money. For example Streetblog NYC reporter Stephen Miller tells me Renn was justified in complaining about the high cost of New York infrastructure projects in a Daily News op-ed earlier this year.
However, the Chicago-centric piece that Renn published today in the urban planning site NewGeography.com, cofounded by pro-sprawl guru Joel Kotkin, is a real doozy. He argues that our city’s Ashland Bus Rapid Transit project is example of wrongheaded one-size-fits-all thinking by car-hating urbanists that’s about “actively making things worse for drivers.”
Renn, a former Chicagoan, actually makes some good points about the benefits of transit-oriented development and protected bike lanes in the article. I even agree with his assertion that, for many residents, the fact that Chicago offers numerous sustainable transportation options, as well as the ability to own, drive and park a car relatively cheaply and conveniently, represents “the best of both worlds.” He argues that, along with more affordable housing prices, the fact that it’s easy to live with or without with a car in Chicago is one of its main advantages over peer cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston.
However, the article goes south when the author, who currently lives in Manhattan, argues that big-box stores with vast parking moats are one of Chicago’s finest features. He tells a harrowing tale of trying to whip up a batch of artisanal mayonnaise, only to discover that his local grocery store in the Upper West Side didn’t stock the right kind of olive oil.
“I can assure you in my old place in Chicago, one quick trip to Jewel or any of the other plentiful supermarkets would have taken care of that,” he writes. “Stores like that, or like Sam’s Wine and Spirits and host of others, only exist because they are able to draw from a trade area served by the car, and because people can buy large quantities best transported by car.”
A more serious problem with Renn’s piece is his assertion that the Ashland BRT project would be a case of transit advocates intentionally “degrading the urban environment” for drivers, which would make Chicago a less livable city. The plan calls for converting two of the four travel lanes on Ashland Avenue to dedicated, center-running bus lanes, which would require the elimination of most left turns off of the street.