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Despite the Day Pass Hike, Divvy Is Already Making Money, Not Losing It

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The Divvy day pass hike will largely affect visitors, not locals. Photo: John Greenfield

In Friday’s Chicago Tribune article about the impending price hike for Divvy day passes, transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch implied that the extra revenue is needed because the bike-share system has been a money loser. In doing so, he ignored a statement he received from the Chicago Department of Transportation noting that, when you factor in sponsorship and ad money, Divvy is actually generating revenue for the city.

Starting this Wednesday, the price of a 24-hour pass will increase from $7 to $9.95. CDOT and Motivate, the Divvy concessionaire, expect this will generate an additional $800,000 per year. The cost of an annual membership will remain at $75, a steal when you consider that a year of monthly CTA passes costs $1,200.

The day pass price hike will largely affect visitors to Chicago, since about two-thirds of the passes are purchased by out-of-towners, according to CDOT. 86 percent of the system’s roughly 27,400 annual members live within the city limits. The $9.95 price for a 24-hour pass also puts Divvy on par with New York City’s Citi Bike, which is also run by Motivate, while an annual membership in NYC costs almost twice as much, at $149.

Hilkevitch spun the news to suggest the higher day pass rate is a fiscal austerity measure for a bike-share system that is hemorrhaging cash. “The daily fee to rent a Divvy bike will jump by more than 40 percent next week because of a deficit and escalating costs to run the expanding bicycle-sharing system,” he wrote. “Divvy has yet to steer clear of red ink.”

The reporter notes that the program’s stated goals include financial self-sufficiency, as well as generating surplus revenue that would help fund other bike infrastructure. He points out that the system, which launched in June of 2013, posted a $171,000 operating loss for the remainder of that year, and a $500,000 operating loss in 2014.

Hilkevitch’s piece is largely based on a statement provided by CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld. She said the department is raising the day pass price “in order to maintain and build on Divvy’s success and maintain the high level of service that our users are accustomed to.”

Scheinfeld acknowledged that the original projections for how much revenue would come in from usage fees, and how much it would cost to run the system, were not 100-percent accurate. “Divvy was launched at a time when big cities were just beginning to launch bike share programs and many of the financial predictions we made were based on other industries, without having a direct precedent to look to in the bike share world.”

Read more…

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Driver Who Killed Cyclist Hector Avalos May Plead Guilty Soon

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Hector Avalos. Photo via Facebook.

A key hearing in the criminal case against the driver who allegedly struck and killed cyclist Hector Avalos while drunk will take place on August 20.

Robert Vais was charged with a felony aggravated DUI and two misdemeanor DUI charges in the wake of the December 6th, 2013 crash. Vais has asked the judge for a “402 Conference,” a conference between his lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge, which could pave the way for the defendant to plead guilty. If the parties agree on a potential sentence for Vais, he will have the option of pleading guilty, so that the case does not go to trial. In such cases, it’s common for some leniency to be granted in exchange for the guilty plea.

It’s critical that there be a strong turnout at the hearing from supporters of the Avalos family, including members of the bike community, to let the judge know they want to see justice served. If Vais is guilty of taking a life while driving drunk, he must not be let off with a slap on the wrist.

On the night of the fatal crash, Avalos was biking back to the South Side from his job as a line cook at El Hefe restaurant in River North. Vais, an administrator at Stroger Hospital, reportedly attended a staff Christmas party in Little Italy prior to the collision. At 11:58 p.m., was driving to his home in southwest suburban Riverside in his minivan when he struck Avalos on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park. The victim was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:38 a.m.

Avalos was 28 years old at the time of his death. He loved to camp, fish, barbecue, and share his knowledge of outdoor skills with his many friends. After serving his country in the Marines, he began working in the restaurant industry with the goal of becoming a chef. Sadly, that dream will go unrealized because his life was tragically cut short.

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Active Trans Marks 30 Years With 5 Big Goals, New Sister Organization

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One of the five goals is to create biking/walking education programs in all IL elementary schools. Photo: Active Trans

Streetsblog Chicago is on vacation from July 13-17 and will resume publication of Today’s Headlines and daily articles on Monday, July 20. We’ll keep in touch this week via social media and occasional posts.

The scrappy little advocacy group that was founded in 1985 as the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation is now the Active Transportation Alliance, a venerable institution with a major influence on local transportation policy.

As part of its 30th anniversary celebration, Active Trans recently announced five major goals for promoting safe, efficient streets, and started a fundraising campaign to help pay for these initiatives. They also heralded the birth of a new sister nonprofit called Walk Bike Go, which will take over the organization’s paid consulting work.

“Our main theme this year is ‘We still have a long way to go,’” said Active Trans executive director Ron Burke. “With recent developments like protected bike lanes and the Divvy bike-share system, we’ve made progress to the point where rapid change is possible.”

The five objectives of the so-called 2020 TransFormation Campaign are all projects that the group has already been working on to some degree, but now they plan to shift their activities into a higher gear. The goals are:

  1. Region-wide low-stress bike network: A dense, connected network of low-stress bike routes across Chicago and the suburbs.
  2. Transit Future: Funding for the “Transit Future” plan to build multiple new rapid transit projects.
  3. Biking/walking education in elementary schools: All public elementary schools in the state begin teaching biking and walking safety and encouragement.
  4. Mobility education in high schools: High school driver’s education becoming “mobility education” with bike, walk and transit training in addition to driving.
  5. Vision Zero: The state, the city of Chicago and suburbs adopt and implement comprehensive Vision Zero plans that focus on eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

In order to pursue these objectives, Active Trans is launching a new fundraising drive, with the goal of raising an additional $250,000 per year for the next five years, in addition to its current annual operating budget of about $3 million. “We want to be able to expand and take on these projects, but we don’t really have the capacity right now,” Burke said. The additional revenue would mostly be used for new staff, including a full-time director of government relations, and new community organizers.

Political lobbying will be key for achieving most of the five objectives. Burke cited the example of mobility education. “The way we can win this particular goal is in Springfield, by getting legislation passed, or getting the state board of education to change their curriculum for driver’s ed or phys ed.

Right now, Active Trans and the Center for Neighborhood Technology are trying to persuade Cook County commissioners to create a dedicated funding stream for Transit Future in conjunction with a proposed sales tax hike to address the pension crisis.

The organization also announced that the new Walk Bike Go nonprofit will be taking over its fee-for-service work. I myself am a former Active Trans consultant – during my stint at the Chicago Department of Transportation bicycle program in the early 2000s, I was actually an employee of the nonprofit, which was paid by the city to provide bike program staff. A few Active Trans employees are currently stationed at CDOT.

The advocacy group is also helping to run the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Play Streets block party program. They’re also developing active transportation plans and complete streets policies in several low-income Cook County municipalities as part of a contract with the county’s health department. Active Trans has also done consulting work for many other suburbs over the years, helping to create pedestrian and bike plans, as well as mobility education programs.

There has long been a perception that Active Trans’ consulting work conflicts with its advocacy work, especially when it comes to the organization’s relationship with the city of Chicago. Many peer organizations, such as New York City’s Transportation Alternatives, don’t do consulting work for their city governments.

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CNT, Active Trans to County: If You’re Going to Raise Sales Tax, Fund Transit

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Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle and CNT vice president Jacky Grimshaw/Photo: CNT

Streetsblog Chicago is on vacation from July 13-17 and will resume publication of Today’s Headlines and daily articles on Monday, July 20. We’ll keep in touch this week via social media and occasional posts. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from this week’s Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column, which appears in print in Newcity Magazine.  

Back in 2010, when Toni Preckwinkle was running against incumbent Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, she successfully used Stroger’s one-cent sales tax hike as a campaign issue, going as far as to make an ad with a Benjamin Franklin impersonator. “I used to teach my history students about Ben Franklin,” said Preckwinkle, a former high school teacher, in the spot. “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

After she was elected, Preckwinkle rolled back the sales tax to the current 9.25-percent rate. As president, she’s generally been credited with improving the efficiency of the county government and cutting costs, avoiding the allegations of patronage and incompetence that hounded Stroger.

However, to address pension obligations, Preckwinkle is now calling for a return to the higher county sales tax. In response, a Crain’s magazine cartoonist recently portrayed her as a mad scientist crying, “It’s alive!” as the 10.25-percent tax rises from the operating table like Frankenstein’s monster.

There’s a saying in politics, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Accordingly, The Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance are using this moment when the Cook County commissioners may vote for a tax hike to promote their Transit Future funding campaign. They’re asking the commissioners to simultaneously create a dedicated revenue stream for public transportation infrastructure in the county. CNT vice president of policy Jacky Grimshaw explained the reasoning behind this new push.

John Greenfield: Why is Preckwinkle talking about raising the sales tax? That seems like political Kryptonite, considering that Stroger lost the election to her over that issue.

Jacky Grimshaw: Well, she has spent about four-and-a-half years cleaning up county government, creating opportunities to be more efficient, eliminating positions that were not crucial to the operations of government and bringing the budget within the means of the county. At this point in time, it’s become crucial that there’s action taken to fund the pensions. As she said, it’s costing about $30 million a month the longer there is a delay in putting in new provisions for pension reform.

Greenfield: So Active Trans and CNT support this tax hike?

Grimshaw: Yes. The reason why we support the tax is because, when we talked to the president about backing Transit Future, she said she was supportive but had to take care of pensions before she could deal with any kind of transit expansion. So her taking action to deal with the pensions is the first step toward us getting the support we want for public transportation.

Read the rest of the interview on the Newcity website.

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Survey Says: Lots of Lakeview Residents Like the Lincoln Hub

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The Lincoln Hub, yesterday around 7 p.m. Photo: John Greenfield

As mentioned last Friday, Streetsblog Chicago will be on vacation from July 13-17 and will resume publication of Today’s Headlines and daily articles on Monday, July 20. There may be some occasional posts next week. Have a great weekend!

Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin recently wrote a column slamming the “functional faults” of the Lincoln Hub placemaking initiative in Lakeview, which he claimed have led to a cacophony of horn blasting from aggravated motorists. I responded with a post acknowledging Kamin’s valid criticisms that the seating plazas lack shade, and they don’t offer enough obvious physical protection from cars for some people to feel comfortable using them.

However, I also pointed out that a supposedly well informed urbanist like Kamin shouldn’t be lamenting the removal of dangerous slip lanes to make more space for pedestrians, simply because it forces drivers to slow down a bit. He wasn’t pleased:

An entertaining Twitter exchange ensued. Eventually Luis Monje, a local resident who launched an online petition against “Polka Dot Park,” got involved:

Of course, not all of the signees on Monje’s petition (there were 535 as of this afternoon) live in the neighborhood – some the addresses listed aren’t even in Illinois. But Monje has a point: While his petition does suggest that a significant number of residents dislike the hub, there hasn’t been much in the media about neighbors who like the new street layout.

To get a sense of what kind support there is for the Lincoln Hub, I staked out the intersection last night between 7 and 8 p.m. and buttonholed passers-by. Granted, it wasn’t the thick of rush hour, but I saw no evidence of traffic problems and didn’t hear any of the “frustrated motorists honk[ing] their horns” Kamin wrote about.

All of the 16 people I spoke with were on foot, unless otherwise noted. I tried not to ask leading questions that would suggest I wanted a positive response, but simply asked for their opinion of the new street configuration.

The vast majority of the respondents told me they believe the curb extensions, including the removal of slip lanes, make the area safer and more pleasant for walking, and said the current layout doesn’t cause undue inconvenience for drivers. True, a couple of people did assert that the intersection is now a nightmare for motorists.

But, overall, this informal survey suggests that more neighbors may be in support of the Lincoln Hub than you might think from mainstream news reports, Kamin’s column, or Monje’s petition. Here are the responses, in chronological order, edited a bit for clarity.

Read more…

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Rauner Authorizes More Illiana Spending to “Wind Down” Project

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Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the Illiana “gravy train” needs to end. Photo: ELPC

Governor Bruce Rauner signed a bill last week that authorizes spending $5.5 million more on the Illiana Tollway, a month after he announced he was suspending the project.

The Illiana would have been a new highway a couple miles south of the existing Chicago metropolitan region that would have encouraged suburban sprawl. Tolls would have been high enough that the road would have likely seen little use, but taxpayers would have been on the hook for covering revenue shortfalls as part of a public-private partnership. Ex-governor Pat Quinn, who was fighting for his political life at the time, pushed hard for the Illiana, hoping that support from Southland legislators and voters would help him win reelection.

Crain’s Chicago columinst Greg Hinz reported that the $5.5 million is for to pay consultants to “wind down” contracts and for covering litigation fees. A Rauner aide told Hinz that the fact that Rauner has authorized the expenditure doesn’t necessarily mean the Illinois Department of Transportation will spend the money.

While this development doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a backroom conspiracy to keep the Illiana on life-support, some of the text in the measure is a bit fishy. The bill says that the money is going to IDOT to “enable the Illiana Expressway to be developed, financed, constructed, managed, or operated in an entrepreneurial and business-like manner.”

Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which has sued IDOT twice over the Illiana, told Hinz that Rauner is not keeping his June 2 promise to “[suspend] all existing project contracts and procurements” related to the project. “It’s time to bring the wasteful Illiana tollway gravy train for consultants to an end,” Learner said. “These public funds should instead be used to meet our state’s high-priority needs.”

The most recent stake in the heart of the tollway was when a district court ruling invalidated the project’s federally required Environmental Impact Statement. The judge noted that IDOT’s justification for the highway was based on circular logic. The department argued that more road capacity is needed because new residents will be moving to the area. However, IDOT’s projection was based on the assumption that the tollway would be built, which would have encouraged development sprawl. However, IDOT could potentially rewrite the EIS to pass muster.

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More Ideas for Improving Rail Service at O’Hare Right Now

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Long lines and crowding around CTA fare vending machines doesn’t impart a pleasant welcome to Chicago visitors arriving at O’Hare airport.

Last week’s Streetblog Chicago post about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s O’Hare express train proposal struck a chord with readers, with dozens of retweets and almost 100 comments. Lots of people agreed that the existing CTA Blue Line run between the Loop and “the world’s busiest airport” is already a relatively fast, high-quality service. Many readers also concurred that an airport express would be costly to build and expensive to ride, which makes the project a bad use of taxpayer money that could be better spent improving neighborhood transit.

Few U.S. cities have a better rapid transit connection from its main airport to downtown in terms of capacity, speed, and frequency. Much of Americans’ rail access to airports is in the form of light rail with 15-minute or longer headways, and service often shuts down before the last flights of the night. In contrast, the O’Hare Branch’s headways are as short as every two to eight minutes during rush hours, and trains run 24/7. In the previous post, I listed several inexpensive, short-term strategies for improving Blue Line service for all kinds of users.

After riding the ‘L’ to and from O’Hare last week for a trip to Los Angeles – which, surprisingly, has a very useful transit system – I’ve got more ideas the CTA should immediately consider to improve rider experience and make the system more user-friendly for visitors.

Provide a staffed booth selling CTA passes

Long lines often form at the Ventra vending machines at the Blue Line’s O’Hare station. This may be partly because the machines’ user interface is confusing, or because people are aren’t sure which type of fare card or transit pass they need. Last Thursday, when I returned home from my trip, seeing the crowd at the machines brought to mind how much simpler it used to be to buy CTA passes at retail stores like Walgreens. You simply asked the cashier for the type of pass you want, handed over the cash, and the cashier gave you an already-activated pass. With Ventra it’s still simple, but there is an extra step of activating the card. 

A staffed booth advertising “1-Day Unlimited Ride Transit Passes, $10″ could help reduce confusion and shorten the lines at the vending machines during peak hours. The employee would provide visitors with an unregistered Ventra card, preloaded with the 1-day pass, along with a brochure with info on the benefits of registering the card and instructions on reloading the in case the visitor decides to use transit on additional days. 

This would be in addition to any necessary software design changes that would improve the customer experience. Another tip to decrowd the vending area would be to scatter the machines into pods, like at London Heathrow.

Make it easier to board the train

After you’ve bought a ticket it’s time to enter the turnstiles and board. Here you may encounter an odd problem: some of the turnstiles are two-way, so that customers exiting the system may block you from entering. Red, “do not enter” symbols appear on these, with a similar sign above, to discourage exiting here. Sometimes the CTA sets up moveable barrier belts to direct exiting passengers to the exit-only turnstiles. The CTA could use these belts more often and experiment with floor designs that subconsciously guide exiting passengers to the right-side, exit-only turnstiles.

The CTA is planning to install Train Tracker displays at all stations in the system but, strangely, O’Hare doesn’t yet have them. In addition to letting customers know how long they’ll have to wait for the next train to depart, the displays also provide an estimate of how much time is left to board, or walk down the platform to a less-crowded car. With that advance warning, visitors won’t panic when they hear “[Ding dong] Doors are closing.” Read more…

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Eyes on the Street: Monumental Bike Parking on Lawrence Avenue

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Photo: John Greenfield

I spent about five years in the early 2000s coordinating bicycle rack installations for the Chicago Department of Transportation. One of the main takeaways from that very enjoyable job was that, when it comes to bike parking, form really does follow function. Although designers are constantly trying to reinvent the wheel by building a better bike rack, it’s hard to beat the no-frills “inverted U” style CDOT has been putting in since the early Nineties.

Therefore, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at the rather grandiose bike parking structure that was recently installed as part of the successful Lawrence Avenue road diet and streetscaping project. That “four-to-three conversion” transformed the segment of Lawrence between Ashland Avenue and Western Avenue from a desolate speedway into a people-friendly street with wider sidewalks, space for cafe seating, and bike lanes.

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Photo: John Greenfield

Even before that stretch became more bikeable, there was a huge demand for bike parking at the Ravenswood Metra station at Lawrence and Ravenswood Avenue, which has recently grown with the addition of a new supermarket and housing complex. There are “wave” racks with space for dozens of cycles under the Metra tracks, but that still isn’t enough capacity — bikes often overflow onto railings.

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Photo: John Greenfield

Therefore, it was a no-brainer that the streetscape project should include additional bike parking, but the design that was chosen is a bit of a head-scratcher. The streetscape included four colorful, roughly 30-foot-high “neighborhood identifier poles.” One of these, at the southeast corner of Lawrence/Ravenswood, was retrofitted with six curved bike parking fixtures made by Bike Arc, a company based in Palo Alto, California.

Read more…

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City Launches “Divvy for Everyone” Bike-Share Equity Program

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Emanuel discusses the Divvy for Everyone program at this morning’s presser. Photo: John Greenfield

About a month ago, the Better Bike Share Partnership announced a $75,000 grant to the city of Chicago to launch the “Divvy for Everyone” campaign, a strategy to increase bike-share access and ridership among low-income residents. At the time, Chicago Department of Transportation officials declined to discuss the details of the program, but BBSP’s grant program manager provided info about the plan from CDOT’s grant proposal, and I shared it with Streetsblog readers.

Today, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office officially announced the initiative, and it’s almost exactly what I outlined a few weeks ago. To recap: Divvy for Everyone will offer a one-time annual membership to low-income residents for $5 – a deep discount from the normal $75 fee. To make the system accessible to unbanked individuals, the usual requirement of a credit card as collateral will be waived. Instead, the program funding will help cover the replacement costs for any lost or stolen cycles.

The D4E program (CDOT’s abbreviation) is available to Chicagoans with a maximum combined household income of 300 percent of the federal poverty level. For example, a family of four with an income of under $72,750 would be eligible.

Applicants must show up in person at one of five Financial Opportunity Centers operated by the Local Initiatives Support Coalition in Englewood, Bronzeville, East Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, and Ravenswood, and provide proof of income and residency. After paying the $5 charge, they’ll be given an activated Divvy key and will be immediately able to check out a bike.

One advantage of the person-to-person approach is that it makes signing up for bike-share a more user-friendly experience. Instead of navigating the potentially confusing sign-up process solo at a Divvy kiosk or a computer in the library, residents will be assisted by a staff member. As an added perk, the first 250 applicants will receive a free bike helmet from Divvy sponsor Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, which is providing matching funds for the grant.

After the first year, D4E members will have to pay the full annual fee, but the city is looking into strategies to make it easier for low-income people to budget accordingly if they choose to renew their memberships. These include payment plans, cash payment options, and a financial literacy program offered by LISC, where participants learn strategies for saving money and building credit.

At a press conference this morning at The Cara Program, Quad Communities Center for Working Families, the Bronzeville headquarters for the D4E campaign, Mayor Emanuel heralded the program as a major step toward bridging Divvy’s economic gap. “This is a great day for the city of Chicago, a day in which we move forward, literally, as one city.”

CDOT commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld told me the equity program compliments this spring’s expansion from 300 to 476 Divvy stations, which brought physical access to the system to many new neighborhoods, including a number of low-income communities. “It’s about providing more options for people to get to the jobs they’re seeking, to get to recreation in other parts of the city, to run errands and more.”

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Kamin on Placemaking Efforts: The Food Is Terrible, and Such Small Portions!

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The Lincoln Hub placemaking project. Photo: John Greenfield

Et tu Blair?

It wasn’t surprising when some disgruntled Lakeview residents launched a petition against the Lincoln Hub placemaking project, which reclaimed asphalt at the Lincoln/Wellington/Southport intersection for pedestrians. After all, one purpose of the street remix was to increase safety by slowing down car traffic, and not all drivers are going to appreciate that. And, sure, the bright green-and-blue polka dots are not everyone’s cup of tea.

But it was distressing to read a recent column by Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin – who’s usually on the right page about urban planning issues – in which he picks apart several aspects of the design and laments that the new layout inconveniences motorists. “The aim of such projects is to ‘calm’ traffic, slowing vehicles and making conditions safer for cyclists and people on foot,” he writes. “It also aims to boost business by creating more inviting outdoor spaces. Yet this mission is far from accomplished.”

Kamin doesn’t have a problem with the colorful spots, and he notes that people on foot like the fact that they’ve been given more space through the use of paint, flexible posts, and planters, which shortens the crossing distance. He also concedes that, by slowing down drivers, the Lincoln Hub has enhanced traffic safety at the intersection, and may be helping turn the location into a place to spend time, rather than just pass through.

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The view from St. Alphonsus Church. Photo: John Greenfield

However, Kamin doesn’t like the fact that most of the seating in the new plazas is provided by round concrete stools rather than benches, which he thinks would be more comfortable. He laments the lack of shade at the intersection. And he argues that the on-street seating is located too close to traffic lanes, and there isn’t enough physical protection to make people feel safe using it.

There’s some validity to these criticisms, but it was disappointing to read this passage from a guy who’s supposed to be a well-informed urbanist:

By gobbling up space once occupied by right-hand turn lanes along the curbs [to create pedestrian space], the project forces drivers to make looping turns through the center of the intersection. Frustrated motorists honk their horns, an ironic outcome for a project devoted to “traffic calming.”

Kamin is referring to the elimination of the intersection’s slip lanes, aka channelized right turns, which have been incorporated into the curb extensions. That’s actually one of the best things about the Lincoln Hub. Slip lanes create longer crossing distances and additional conflict points between pedestrians and drivers, and they allow motorists to whip around corners at dangerous speeds.

Because of this, the Chicago Department of Transportation is generally no longer building slip lanes, and most six-way intersections in the city aren’t channelized. Rather than creating an aggravation for drivers, removing the slip lanes simply brought Lincoln/Wellington/Southport up to current standards for pedestrian safety.

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