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A New Bike Network Takes Shape, and Atlantans Turn Out in Droves

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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.

The capital of the New South is working on its latest “highway” network. This one is going to be a lot quieter.

The massive Beltline trail and an impressive grid of protected lanes that will connect the trail system to key urban destinations are poised to remake transportation in the city that anchors the country’s ninth-largest metro area. Striving for Mayor Kasim Reed’s goal of making Atlanta one of the country’s top ten cities for biking, Atlantans have shown their enthusiasm with their feet: An estimated 95,000 to 106,000 people attended the open-streets event Atlanta Streets Alive on September 28 — shattering the previous record by at least 12,000 people.

For comparison’s sake, Portland’s Sunday Parkways festivals also set an attendance record in 2014 — by drawing 109,000 attendees to all five events combined.

As the video above shows, Atlanta’s embrace of open streets is part of a bigger shift in a city that’s shaking off its old “Sprawlville, USA” image with a combination of new housing and bike and transit infrastructure.

“It’s really shifting the way people think about living in the City of Atlanta,” says Rebecca Serna, executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. “The focus is on the core of the city.”

You can follow The Green Lane Project on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for its weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.

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Motorists Respond to Stranded Divvy Rider With Concern, Not Abuse

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The Divvy rider on the Dan Ryan. Photo: Stephanie Kemen

Remember the unfortunate young woman who found herself pedaling a Divvy bike on Lake Shore Drive last November? Instead of offering to help the endangered rider, a couple of people driving by thought it was funny to shoot a cell phone video of her, while repeatedly calling her a “dumb b—-.” After the clip went viral on YouTube, many more people joined the chorus of ridicule, including a Chicagoist writer and downtown Alderman Brendan Reilly.

A similar incident happened last Saturday morning on the Dan Ryan, but this time the motorists had a more compassionate response. Stephanie Kemen was driving south on the Ryan with her boyfriend when they spotted a woman pedaling on the expressway near 18th Street, RedEye reported. “I felt so bad for her,” Kemen said. “I think at first we were laughing … but her legs looked tired.”

The boyfriend rolled down the window to let the woman know that biking on the Ryan is illegal and dangerous. “She was like, ‘I know, I know,’ and you could hear in her voice that she was scared s—less,” Kemen said. Afterwards, they called 311 and 911 to report the incident to the authorities. State police who responded said they received several calls about an “elderly woman” biking on the expressway, but when they arrived, she was gone. “I hope she’s OK,” Kemen said.

“We don’t know who rode the bike nor what the circumstances were, so we don’t know enough about the situation to comment on it,” Divvy manager Elliot Greenberger told me. “We’ve served nearly 2.9 million trips in the past 16 months and there have only been a couple of incidents like this that we’ve become aware of, usually through social media.”

Former Active Transportation Alliance staffer Lee Crandell summed up the situation nicely in a comment on the RedEye site:

Divvy users are just regular people, and incidents like this are a good indication of how unintuitive and confusing our streets are for regular people. I can see how if you’re not an “avid cyclist” and you’re riding on streets you’re not familiar with, you could easily end up making a wrong turn onto a highway ramp. And many Chicago streets already feel like expressways, so you might just keep riding before you realize your mistake.

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Spielman Trots Out “War on Cars” Rhetoric for Report on Parking Tax Hike

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The Greenway Self-Park at Kinzie and Dearborn. Photo: John Greenfield

Veteran Sun-Times reporter’s Fran Spielman’s recent piece on Mayor Emanuel’s plan to raise the city’s parking garage tax was a classic example of windshield-perspective journalism.

As part of his 2015 budget, Emanuel has proposed raising the parking tax by 10 percent on weekdays and 11 percent on weekends, to 22 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Spielman reported. The mayor hopes the hike will generate an additional $10 million, which would be earmarked to hire 80 new employees for year-round pothole repair crews.

The increased garage tax “is not the only hit motorists will be asked to absorb in 2015,” Spielman wrote. The budget would also raise the tax paid by Chicago residents who lease their cars from eight to nine percent. That increase is expected to generate $60 million in additional revenue.

This would be the third time Emanuel has tweaked the garage parking tax since he took office in 2011. His first budget included a $2 surcharge for weekday garage parking, which the mayor referred to as a “congestion fee.” In 2013, he changed the parking tax from a sliding scale to a fixed percentage, Spielman reported.

Predictably, downtown Alderman Brendan Reilly and Marc Gordon, president of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, are griping that making it a little more expensive to drive downtown would have a chilling effect on local commerce. Gordon has said the same thing before each previous parking tax hike.

“[The garage parking tax is a popular punching bag for the mayor, in part, because it’s part of a larger plan to discourage driving by building protected bike lanes and bus rapid transit lanes that shrink the number of lanes available for passenger vehicles,” Spielman wrote. Here we see the tired “war on cars” rhetoric that’s all too common among mainstream news sources.

The purpose of street reconfigurations that make room for PBLs and dedicated bus lanes is not to stick it to motorists. For example, converting a mixed-traffic lane to a two-way protected bikeway on Dearborn created a safe place for north-south Loop bike traffic. It also reduced speeding on a street that formerly had capacity for 40,000 motor vehicles a day but only carried about 13,000.

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Making It Easier to Get to the Museum Campus Without a Car

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Residents asked for protected bike lanes near the Museum Campus at the meeting.

It’s already a bit of a hassle to get to and around Chicago’s Museum Campus, which includes the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium, and Soldier Field. In light of plans to build the Lucas Museum, as well as Rahm Emanuel’s goal to increase tourism from 49 million visitors last year to 55 million in 2020, the problem could get worse.

This summer, the mayor created the Museum Campus Transportation Task Force to review how people currently get to the campus and travel between the attractions, as well as to propose transportation improvements. The Metropolitan Planning Council is heading up the task force, which also includes city agencies, the leadership of the four main campus amenities, and nearby neighborhood groups.

MPC president MarySue Barrett said Emanuel gave the task force 90 days to finish the study. The report will serve as the transportation component of the Chicago Park District’s long-term Framework Plan. Plans for the Lucas Museum were announced after the task force convened. “Access has been troublesome for a while before that,” Barrett noted.

“This is the first time there’s been planning for the museum campus since the relocation of Lake Shore Drive,” Barrett said. The northbound lanes of the highway, which formerly ran between the Field and the Shedd, were moved west of the football stadium in the late 1990s, which allowed for the creation of the campus. The budget for that project didn’t “have enough give at the time,” Barrett said, for the kind of transportation planning and improvements the task force is now considering.

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MarySue Barrett (right) co-chairs the task force with Chicago Chief Operating Officer Joe Deal (left).

Barrett said that the first step in the task force’s research process is to collect public input and information from the dozen involved organizations. “There are five million visitors annually to the Shedd, Adler, and Field Museums,” she said, adding that they’re trying to get input from three types of visitors: Chicagoans, suburbanites, and visitors from outside the region. “We’re looking at the museums’ attendance surveys to see how people arrive,” she said.

To brainstorm ideas for improving access to the museum campus, MPC is hosting three public meetings, the first of which was held yesterday evening at their downtown offices. See below for details on the two remaining events. The public is also encouraged to submit ideas and concerns about campus transportation issues online.

Roughly 70 people attended last night’s session. Issues ranged from security measures during special events that block park access days after the event, to police hassling pedicabbers when they offer Bears fans rides to transit stations or bars. Attendees were invited to sketch out their ideas on maps. Some South Loop residents highlighted streets where they’d like to see protected bike lanes.

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Conquering the Unbearable Whiteness of Bike Advocacy: An Equity How-To

In Los Angeles, Multicultural Communities for Mobility helped Latino community members learn both bike mechanics and bike advocacy. A PSA campaign heightened the visibility of cyclists of color within their own community. Photo: Multicultural Communities for Mobility

In Los Angeles, Multicultural Communities for Mobility helped Latino residents learn both bike mechanics and bike advocacy. A PSA campaign heightened the visibility of cyclists of color within their own community. Photo: Multicultural Communities for Mobility

Many bicycle advocacy groups find themselves in a sticky position today: They’re increasingly aware that their membership doesn’t reflect the diversity of the broader population, but they’re not sure how to go about recruiting new members, or how to do it in a way that doesn’t amount to tokenism.

The League of American Bicyclists has been working hard to address equity in the bike movement, and their collaboration with a wide variety of local groups has led them to share some of the most successful practices in a new report, The New Movement: Bike Equity Today. Here are some how-tos, drawn from the report, for people who want to bring new voices into the movement.

Listen. How can bike advocates be sure that the infrastructure solutions and education programs they’re promoting work for everyone unless they ask everyone — or better yet, get everyone at the table in the first place when designing the advocacy program? “You can’t just go and say, ‘We need you to show up at a meeting,’” says Karen Overton of New York’s Recycle-a-Bicycle. “That’s not the way to do it. People may reach out to African American churches and say, they don’t call us back. But what if you actually go to church and then start talking?”

Elevate new leaders. Portland’s Community Cycling Center trained 12 members of the low-income, Latino housing developments they were working with to be bike educators “to cultivate and sustain [a] community-led bike culture.” The trainings were led in Spanish. “These projects also represent the promise that the best solution to barriers to bicycling are created by those experiencing the barriers,” said CCC Director Alison Hill Graves, “particularly when there are cultural, income, or age differences.” Local Spokes of New York City has a Youth Ambassadors program in which local teens explored the Lower East Side and Chinatown by bike, learning about urban planning, bicycle infrastructure, community organizing, public space, and gentrification along the way. They then created educational materials to share what they learned with local residents. “In the short term, youth became educators, stewards, and champions of this work,” says the League.

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Active Trans Launches a New Crusade Against Dangerous Intersections

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McCormick and Touhy in Skokie was ranked the worst intersection for pedestrians in suburban Cook County. Image: Google Maps

The Active Transportation Alliance was instrumental in creating the Transit Future campaign, with the goal of creating a dedicated funding source for regional transit. Now they’re also pushing for dedicated funding for pedestrian infrastructure, while raising awareness of Chicagoland’s many hazardous intersections, with their new Safe Crossings initiative.

“It’s really important that we recognize the challenges that pedestrians face across the region,” Active Trans’ director of campaigns, Kyle Whitehead, told me. “People tend to assume that these dangerous and difficult intersections are going to stay that way. We want people to realize that there are proven solutions to address these issues. If we can raise awareness and muster resources, there’s the potential to solve these problems throughout the region.”

This morning, Active Trans released a list of ten of the most dangerous intersections in the city of Chicago, and ten of the most hazardous junctions in suburban Cook County. Topping the urban list is the notoriously chaotic North/Damen/Milwaukee intersection in Wicker Park, with 43 reported pedestrian and bike crashes between 2006 and 2012. In the ‘burbs, the worst-ranked junction is Skokie’s McCormick and Touhy intersection, where two six-lane roads cross next to the North Shore Channel Trail bike-and-pedestrian path.

The crash data, provided by the Illinois Department of Transportation, was only one of the factors Active Trans used to compile the lists. They also incorporated feedback from their planning and outreach staff, plus public input. The group received more than 800 responses to an online survey that was posted on their blog, shared via social media, and emailed to members. Here are the full lists:

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Englewood Flyover Now Smoothing Out South Side Metra Rides

The Englewood Flyover train bridge unofficially opened three weeks ago, carrying test trains along the Metra Rock Island District tracts. The mile-long flyover, near 63rd Street and Wentworth Avenue, is one of the largest projects within CREATE, a larger program to untangle railroad flows around Chicago. The $141 million project could eliminate 7,500 hours of Metra delays each year that stem from this busy intersection, which sees 78 Metra, 60 freight, and 14 Amtrak trains every day.

Anne Alt is a regular rider of the Rock Island line between Beverly and the Loop. (Anne works for FK Law Illinois, a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor.) Alt described the delays on her commute as erratic: “I can go weeks or months without seeing any delays there, and then go two or three days in a row where my train waits anywhere from a few minutes, to 10 or 15,” an appreciable amount on a half-hour ride. Metra’s July delay report [PDF] listed multiple delays at the Englewood interlocking, varying from five to 15 minutes long.

Metra will be the only user of the Englewood Flyover, sending its Rock Island trains soaring over three previously intersecting tracks. Metra will soon add a third track to the flyover for SouthWest Service trains, after another CREATE project is constructed. That flyover [PDF], at 75th Street and Normal Avenue, will allow SWS trains to head to downtown Chicago on the RID tracks. The switch would also send SWS trains into LaSalle Street Station rather than Union Station, freeing up room at Union Station for other Metra lines and for Amtrak service to Michigan and Missouri.

Alt said that her first impression of the new flyover was that it “feels real solid.” She added, “I’m really hoping that the flyover will help reduce weekend delays, which often make it difficult to be on time for things unless I leave ridiculously early (like a couple of hours early) or take the [CTA] Red Line.”

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Transit Future Slowly Building Coalition to Fund Expanded Transit

CNT says there is poor transit service between where low-income workers live and where most jobs are. They're developing research that would show the impact of building new lines outlined in the Transit Future campaign.

CNT says there is poor transit service between where low-income workers live and where most jobs are. They’re developing research that would show the impact of building new lines outlined in the Transit Future campaign.

The Transit Future campaign sure did arrive with a bang. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle both spoke at its April announcement, which was accompanied by a splashy map and website. It seemed like a huge expansion of the region’s transit network was closer than ever, once Cook County and Chicago officials rallied around the idea (imported from Los Angeles) to use local taxes to leverage big dollars for projects. But ever since then, though, its backers — the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Active Transportation Alliance — have been fairly quiet.

CNT vice president Jacky Grimshaw and Active Trans executive director Ron Burke recently gave a glimpse into what’s next for Transit Future at DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute. Ever since its launch, 12 of Cook County’s 17 commissioners have signed on to the campaign. Several of them told Grimshaw that the campaign should also meet with mayors and other elected officials in their districts, so CNT has expanded its outreach accordingly.

“It’s important to build a coalition,” Grimshaw said, “to share the message and get the electorate involved.”

Grimshaw was candid about the progress of Transit Future since April, saying she had asked Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle to include a new transit fund within the FY2015 budget proposal. “But Toni had a bigger nut to crack,” Grimshaw said, “and that’s pensions.” (The current, election-year budget also, conveniently, does not include any new taxes.) Grimshaw added, “The best we can hope for now is the 2016 budget.”

The Transit Future map shows many new and extended ‘L’, Metra and arterial rapid bus routes. Grimshaw explained that “we didn’t just make up these lines.” Many of them were on the wish lists that transportation agencies, departments, and other governments had submitted to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, for potential inclusion in the GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional plan. The routes “were vetted, part of a public engagement process, and screened,” she added. “What these lines lacked is funding” (unlike some other projects), and so they weren’t included in the final GO TO 2040 plan.

Transit Future is developing a compelling public case for why these transit lines are needed. Campaign manager Ronnie Harris said that they’re racing to develop a report clearly showing the benefits and return on investment “of going ahead and doing this.” The report, he said, will “outline the benefits of [the region] buying into Transit Future.”

Cook County certainly could use more extensive transit service. County residents take transit for just seven percent of all trips, Burke explained, because it’s inconvenient for most of their trips. Transit service just isn’t available, or is infrequent, in the areas where most county residents work. Decades of sprawl have pushed jobs from downtown Chicago to newer centers, around O’Hare Airport and to suburban corridors in the north, northwest, and west suburbs. Getting to jobs in those locations is impractical by transit, since these transit deserts see only infrequent Pace buses and practically nonexistent reverse-commute Metra service to faraway stations.

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Got Transit Troubles? The Problem Could Be the Chain of Command

Boston's MBTA enjoys unique consolidation, but that hasn't spared it from grave funding challenges. Photo: Eno

Boston’s MBTA consolidates the entire region’s transit network, but that hasn’t spared it from grave funding challenges. Photo: Eno

If you still have to juggle multiple farecards for the various transit systems in your area — or if urgent maintenance issues in the city core are going unattended while the suburbs get a shiny new station — the problem might run deeper than the incompetence everyone is grumbling about. The root of it all might be embedded in the very structure of the agencies that govern your transit system.

Last year, infighting among members of Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority about how to distribute funds led the agency to seek outside help. A team of researchers, including the Eno Center for Transportation, came to try to figure out what the trouble was. “It soon became clear that RTA did not actually have a funding distribution problem,” Eno wrote in its report.

In fact, the authors concluded, RTA had a governance problem, which in turn had far-reaching consequences beyond funding battles: Governance issues impeded RTA’s ability to coordinate regional transit services and investments and contributed to “chronic underinvestment” in Chicago’s transit network.

The Chicago area is home to three major transit operators: the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra (a regional rail agency), and Pace (a suburban bus agency), all members of the RTA. While the RTA has the power to distribute funding, that’s about all it can do. Even those funding decisions are largely based on outdated formulas set by the state. When there is some money that RTA has the discretion to allocate as it chooses, bitter disputes ensue among the three agencies — disputes like the one Eno and company were called in to mediate.

The RTA doesn’t coordinate or steer Chicago’s transit providers, so all three essentially operate separate fiefdoms. “The inherent problem is that RTA occupies an ambiguous middle ground where it is powerful enough to create challenges and bureaucracy, but not powerful enough to be productive in pursuing regional goals,” reports Eno. The Chicago officials and transit experts Eno interviewed wanted to see RTA either strengthened or eliminated, but they agreed the status quo is not productive, leading to jurisdictional battles without building regional partnerships.

Meanwhile, the state is all but absent in Chicago transit governance, which Eno says is “shortsighted” when “transit has such a large impact on the economic success of the state.” Aside from helping with coordination and regional visioning, the state could be providing needed funds.

Intrigued by the findings in Chicago, Eno then partnered with TransitCenter to study five other cities to see how transit governance structures affect operations.

Here’s a cheat sheet before we go on:

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An Update on the Lawrence Streetscape and the Ravenswood Metra Stop

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A curb bump-out and a pedestrian island makes it much easier to cross Lawrence than before, while a new bike lane encourages cycling. Photo: John Greenfield

The long-awaited Lawrence streetscape and road diet is is almost complete, and the project has already transformed a corridor that had been unpleasant for pedestrians and cyclists into a much more livable street. Meanwhile, construction is also wrapping up on a new, supersized Metra station house on Lawrence.

First announced in 2010 and launched in July of 2013, the streetscape has changed the stretch of Lawrence between Western and Clark from a four-lane speedway into a much calmer street, with two mixed-traffic lanes plus a turn lane. This was formerly a “reverse bottleneck,” since it was the only section of Lawrence in the city with four lanes. The road diet has made room for wider sidewalks, which will provide space for café seating, plus non-buffered bike lanes, where there were formerly only shared-lane markings.

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The same intersection as the above photo, Lawrence and Seeley, before the road diet. Image: Google Maps

The section from Ravenswood – where the new Metra stop is located – to Western is largely completed. Many pedestrian islands have been built. In a few locations, there are also curb bump-outs that reduce crossing distances for people traversing Lawrence. Crosswalks made of eye-catching red asphalt, stamped in a brick pattern, have been put in at all intersections.

Workers have installed old-fashioned acorn-style streetlamps, as well as standard inverted-U bike racks, according to to Brad Gregorka, an assistant to 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar. Benches and trash cans will soon be added. Two Divvy bike-share stations have been returned or relocated to spots by the Metra stop and at Lawrence/Leavitt.

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