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3 Big CDOT Projects Have Been Postponed, But the Delays Are Reasonable

Divvy Bike Share Station

Sorry, Chicago won’t be getting any new Divvy stations until 2015. Photo: Steve Chou

In early June, I dubbed this the Summer of the Big Projects. The Chicago Department of Transportation was planning to start construction on, and/or complete, a slew of major infrastructure jobs this year. Now it seems more like the Summer of the Big Postponements.

Over the last month, we’ve gotten word that three major initiatives – the Bloomingdale Trail, the Central Loop BRT, and now the Divvy expansion — have been put on hold until 2015. That’s disappointing, but most of the reasons given for the delays are completely understandable.

When I interviewed CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld back in May, she expressed confidence that these projects would move forward as planned. The Bloomingdale, also known as The 606, is currently in the thick of construction, as you can see from photos Steven Vance and I took on a recent tour. The 2.7-mile, $95 million elevated greenway and linear park was slated to open in its basic form this fall, with additional enhancements being added next year.

However, on June 20, CDOT announced that the Bloomingdale opening was being postponed until June 2015, when the trail and its access parks will open in their completed state. They had a legitimate excuse: cold spring temperatures and frozen soil forced crews to delay the relocation of utilities and structural work. That, in turn, delayed the installation of new concrete in some sections, and forced the department to wait until next spring to do landscape plantings.

The transportation department had also been planning to start building the $32 million Central Loop BRT corridor later this year, with service launching in 2015. The system will run between Union Station and Navy Pier, including dedicated bus lanes on Canal, Clinton, Washington and Madison, as well as a new transit center next to the train station.

In May, Scheinfeld told me CDOT was still planning to start construction this year. However, the timetable seemed a bit optimistic, because the city was still discussing the design with downtown property owners and merchants. Some of them had kvetched that creating dedicated bus lanes would slow car traffic, and that the extra-large bus shelters would obscure their storefronts.

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Alta Chief: Bike-Share Expansions Unlikely in 2014

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There was no shortage of Bixi bikes at this 2012 conference, but there is now. Photo: Dylan Passmore/Flickr

Despite continually growing ridership, Alta Bicycle Share-operated bike-share systems across America will probably not be adding bikes or docks this year. The bankruptcy of Montreal-based Public Bike Share Company, known as Bixi, which developed and manufactured the equipment that Alta’s systems use, has disrupted the supply chain that numerous cities were pinning their expansion plans on.

“New bikes probably won’t arrive until 2015,” reports Dan Weissmann at American Public Media’s Marketplace. Alta Bicycle Share’s founder and vice president Mia Birk told Weissman that the last time Alta received new bikes from Bixi “must have been pre-bankruptcy.” That puts expansion plans for cities including Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, DC on hold. Just those three cities had previously announced fully-funded plans to add 264 bike-share stations in 2014. New York and Boston are also looking to expand their Alta-run systems. Other bike-share systems that purchase equipment from Bixi, like Nice Ride Minnesota, have had no luck buying new kit this year.

The shortage of equipment also means that cities that had signed up with Alta to launch new bike-share systems — notably Baltimore, Portland, and Vancouver – won’t launch until 2015 at the earliest. Ironically, new launches that were planned later, like Seattle’s Pronto system, will proceed sooner, as they were designed with equipment not sourced through Bixi.

The good news is that the troubled supply chain for Alta’s bike-share systems looks like it will be rebooted thanks to an infusion of capital. REQX Ventures, a company from New York City that had bid on Bixi, has been in talks to purchase a majority stake in Alta Bicycle Share, according to a report in Capital New York. This should inject new resources, allowing the bike-share operator to upgrade buggy software and overcome the hurdles imposed by Bixi’s bankruptcy in time for 2015′s equipment orders.

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Mia Birk Praised Chicago’s Bike Gains at Yesterday’s Meet-and-Greet

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Mia Birk talks to Streetsblog readers at yesterday’s meet-up.

It was great hanging with Streetsblog Chicago readers at yesterday’s meet-and-greet with noted bike and pedestrian planner Mia Birk, co-hosted by her planning firm, Alta Planning + Design at Vinyl in River North. Birk also heads Alta Bicycle Share, which runs the Divvy program for the city of Chicago. She served as Bicycle Program Manager for the city of Portland, Oregon, from 1993 to 1999, and helped launch the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Birk recently published the memoir Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet.

Speaking before the group, Birk heralded what she called a sea change in transportation planning across the country in recent years, and in Chicago in particular. “Chicago has already been on the leading edge because of Active Trans and because of former Mayor [Richard M.] Daley,” she said. “This city was already a bright light. But then, in the last few years, some things kind of clicked.”

“In my mind, those cities that are really clicking have some human elements that fall into place all at once,” she said. “They have really great advocacy organizations, but it could also be a blog, and it could also be a bike commuter group, or it could be neighborhood associations, or business associations. It’s leadership at the community level, clicking at the same moment that the political leadership is really not just saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, bikes, I like bikes, bikes are good’ — but is really leading on bikes, loves bikes, wants bikes, gets it.”

She noted that the movement towards a more bikeable Chicago picked up speed after Rahm Emanuel took office as mayor, and appointed former transportation chief Gabe Klein and current commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld. “Amazing things have happened over the last few years in Chicago,” she said.

She brought up the thriving Divvy program, now approaching its one-year anniversary, as proof of the current administration’s success in getting big things done for biking in a short amount of time. “Divvy is really a great example of how game-changing bike-share can be,” she said. “If you’d asked me five years ago where city governments should put their money — protected bike lanes or bike share — I probably would have said protected bike lanes. Now, I would say both.”

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Construction Cycle: CDOT Has a Lot on Its Plate This Summer

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Dumping infill to build out the Chicago Riverwalk. Photo: John Greenfield

[This piece also ran in Checkerboard City, John's column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

If 2013 was Chicago’s Long, Hot Summer of Transportation, then 2014 is the Summer of the Big Projects. Last year featured well-publicized game changers like the South Red Line rehab and the Divvy bike-share launch, but this year’s initiatives might not be so obvious to casual observers. That’s partly due to the changing of the guard at the Chicago Department of Transportation.

After forward-thinking, sharply-dressed commissioner Gabe Klein stepped down in November, he was replaced by the CTA’s head planner, Rebekah Scheinfeld, who’s only the second female chief in CDOT history. While her management and sartorial style is lower key than Klein’s, she’s no less progressive. “A lot got kicked off in the last two-and-a-half years,” she recently told me. “My goal is to continue that momentum, to make sure that we are bringing these projects in on time and on budget.”

One planned initiative whose future is somewhat beyond Scheinfeld’s control is the expansion of Divvy from its current 300 docking stations to 475. In January, Montreal-based Bixi, which provides the bikes and stations for the system, declared bankruptcy, putting the supply chain in jeopardy. However, Alta Bicycle Share, which runs Divvy for CDOT, is looking into alternative suppliers in case Bixi goes belly-up, and Scheinfeld says she expects the city will meet its expansion goals this year.

CDOT is currently moving forward with Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes within his first term. As of this spring, Chicago had about thirty-one miles of buffered lanes and roughly seventeen miles of protected lanes, by the Active Transportation Alliance’s count. The city has announced plans to install five more miles of PBLs this summer on Broadway (Montrose to Foster), Harrison (Desplaines to Wabash), and Lake (Austin to Central Park). Fifteen miles of new buffered lanes are planned, and new bikeways on Clybourn, Kedzie, Leland and Randolph may also get built this year.

The Navy Pier Flyover, a series of sixteen-foot-wide ramps and bridges, will solve the problem of the dangerous bottleneck at the center of the 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail. At $60 million, mostly federally funded, and featuring Cadillac-level infrastructure, it will be the most expensive single bike project in Illinois history and a symbol of Chicago’s commitment to better cycling. Construction started in March, but it won’t wrap up until 2018.

Another massive infrastructure project that’s in the thick of construction is the long-awaited Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606. Since the nineties, Northwest Side residents have lobbied the city to convert the Bloomingdale rail line into a 2.7-mile elevated greenway and linear park, and now their dream is finally coming true. The basic trail, slated to open this fall, will cost about $54 million, largely bankrolled with federal dollars. Project manager the Trust for Public Land is working on raising an additional $40-$50 million to pay for building parks at the access points, plus enhancements like playgrounds, landscaping and art.

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State Rep Tries to Dock Block Divvy Stations in Front of Schools

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Jaime Andrade

In a case of thinking locally and acting globally, state rep Jaime Andrade (40th) introduced legislation that would have banned the installation of bike-share stations in front of all Illinois schools, not long after a Divvy station was placed by the school he co-founded.

Last year, the Chicago Department of Transportation installed the Divvy station at the Cardinal Bernadin Early Childhood Center, a Catholic Montessori school located at 1651 West Diversey, in a no parking zone near the building’s Paulina entrance. Andrade, whose district includes parts of the Northwest Side but not the school, describes himself as a founding member of the school’s board in his bio on the Illinois General Assembly’s website.

On May 21, Andrade sponsored HB6239, a bill that would have amended the Illinois Municipal Code with the following language:

No bicycle sharing system may operate a docking station in an area with posted signs that expressly prohibit parking at any time or during certain hours that is adjacent to any elementary or secondary school in any municipality.

The bill also included a provision against local municipalities overriding the ban via home rule.

When I talked to Andrade yesterday, he said he’s a actually a fan of Divvy. “It’s a great, great program,” he said. “I think we should keep expanding bike-share all over the city and the state.” He added that he used to ride a bike in Chicago before a knee injury stopped him, usually gets around by public transportation and carpooling, and his car is a 1985 Chevy Cavalier that probably wouldn’t even survive the trip to the state capital.

Andrade said the bill was intended to address safety issues. “It’s strictly saying that the stations should not be in front of schools in the no-parking zone,” he said. He argued that bike-share stations could be an obstruction in the case of a fire, and that the stations’ advertising placards block the sightlines for children crossing the street.

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Bus to Zipcar to Divvy? RideScout App Makes Connecting A Bit Easier

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RideScout will avoid steering you towards a full Divvy station.

The number of transportation choices available to Chicagoans continues to grow, particularly as shared options like car-sharing and Divvy bikes become ever more popular. Yet these options can turn the simple act of planning a trip across town into a complicated exercise that requires weighing multiple factors, like cost, convenience, time, and ever-changing availability. RideScout, a new app that was recently updated to include Chicago, presents numerous transportation choices all within a single smartphone screen. After factoring in your origin, destination, and the time of day, RideScout compares choices like walking, bicycling, Divvy bike-sharing, Metra, CTA trains and buses, taxis, Zipcar, and SideCar shared rides.

Transit industry specialists have long sought to create such a “multi-modal trip planner,” or MMTP. The familiar Google Maps – both on the web and on smartphones – is probably the largest provider of trip directions, but its interface makes it difficult to compare trips across different modes. OpenPlans, parent of Streetsblog, has developed OpenTripPlanner, which is used by Portland’s TriMet agency. Our own Regional Transportation Authority developed Trip Planner (launched as “GoRoo”) in 2010, which gave directions to 3.4 million users in 2013, even without a smartphone app.

RideScout aims to make it easier to quickly understand all of the available choices for getting around town. CEO Joseph Kopser calls it an app that “optimizes cities” by making the necessary travel calculations for its users.

RideScout is the only MMTP app that includes Zipcar as an option, for users within walking distance of an available car. Right now, that walking distance is set at 1/3 of a mile, but in the future they’ll let users choose how far they want to walk. Additionally, he said that the app will soon look to see if there’s a bus or train to take you to a Zipcar – a feature that might be especially useful in bad weather, or if the nearest Zipcar has already been checked out.

One recent RideScout improvement based on user feedback was adding “dock block prevention” for Divvy riders. “We give you an update along the way,” Kopser explained, “and the app will ding at you” if your destination Divvy station fills up while you’re en route. “At the next stop sign, you can look at the alert, and get new directions” to a nearby station that still has docks or bikes available. Read more…

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Scheinfeld Talks About Divvy, PBLs, Traffic Cams, and Long Term Goals

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Scheinfeld with Mayor Emanuel at the groundbreaking for the Navy Pier Flyover. Photo: John Greenfield

In this final installment of my interview with Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld, we talked about the Divvy expansion, traffic cameras, protected bike lanes, and her overall goals as CDOT chief. Read the first and second parts of the interview here and here.

John Greenfield: We’re slated to get 175 more Divvy stations this year. Do you think that’s actually going to happen, what with the Bixi [aka Public Bike System Company] bankruptcy?

Rebekah Scheinfeld: That’s still our intention. Obviously, our options are impacted by what happened with the PBSC bankruptcy, and we’ve been following that very closely. Our contractor is Alta [Bicycle Share] – we don’t have a direct relationship with PBSC. Now that the bankruptcy procedures are closed, we’re able to move forward to make some more certain decisions about the supply chain and timing. We are moving aggressively to try to still meet our goals for expansion this year, so I expect we still will.

JG: If Bixi’s not able to provide any more equipment, do we have equipment that’s in storage now that could be installed, so that we might get some of the new stations?

RS: Alta has been exploring alternative supply chains. PBSC doesn’t necessarily make all of those pieces. They assemble a lot of it into those packages. So there are other suppliers out there that are actually making the bikes or the different components for the stations or bikes.

Alta has been pressing as aggressively as possible, considering the bankruptcy process, as well as investigating alternative supply chains, so that they’ll be able to do the expansion. We’d like to end up in a situation where we’re able to continue working with PBSC, because we still think that’s going to be the most expeditious way.

JG: OK, this next question is probably going to annoy Pete [Scales, the CDOT spokesman who is sitting in on the interview.] [Laughter.] So you were involved in putting together the mayor’s Chicago 2011 Transition Plan, right?

RS: Yes, I was part of the transportation and infrastructure committee.

JG: When you guys put together that document, the protected bike lane goal defined protected bike lanes as being separated from traffic by a physical barrier, such as bollards or parked cars. The current definition of protected bike lanes that the city is using includes buffered lanes, which the city is now classifying as “buffer-protected.” While the transition plan originally called for 100 miles of physically protected bike lanes in the mayor’s first term, it looks like a much higher percentage of the bike lanes are going to be buffered instead.

It’s awesome that we’re getting all these miles of buffered and protected lanes. But arguably, it’s a letdown that we were promised 100 miles of physically protected bike lanes and, due to reality setting in, this is the one goal out of the three major bike goals, including the Bloomingdale Trail and Divvy, that is not going to be accomplished. When it’s time to cut the ribbon on the hundredth mile, how will you respond to that question — will we have achieved the goal that was set out in the transition plan?

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How Divvy Stacks Up Against Bike-Share in the Netherlands and Spain

Riding Sevici bike-share on the riverfront bike path in Seville

Two women ride Sevici bike-share along the Guadalquivir river in Seville, Spain.

Last month, I had the chance to use bike-share systems in two Dutch cities and Seville, Spain. The systems – OV-fiets in Rotterdam and Nijmegen and Sevici in Seville – differ from one another and from Chicago’s Divvy system in several key ways. Together, they make for an instructive comparison about how our friends in other countries get around. 

While most of the 400 bike-share systems around the world are primarily used for residents’ brief, one-way trips around town, OV-fiets provides local transportation for short-term city visitors and workers, rather like an airport car rental service. It’s run by the Dutch intercity train network, which largely restricts passengers from bringing their own bikes on board due to crowding. Members can get 72-hour rentals for about $4.70 per day, from about 250 locations across the small nation. The single-speed bikes include a built-in lock so you can use it all day, anywhere in the city. (OV-fiets requires a Dutch bank account, but I was able to try it thanks to a local friend who lent a membership.)

OV-fiets bike-share bikes at Rotterdam Centraal

OV-fietsen are parked underground at the Rotterdam central train station, waiting to be checked out.

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Divvy NIMBYs’ Bike-Share Nightmare Is Over: Lakeview Station Relocated

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J.C. Steinbrunner and Amalie Drury at the Pine Grove Divvy station. Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago’s most notorious bike-share haters, married couple and lawyers David Kolin and Jeannine Cordero, have gotten Divvy deliverance. In the wake of a lawsuit by the pair, the city has removed a “hideous” bike-share station from their Lakeview block. However, it’s not for the reasons you might expect.

On August 21, Kolin and Cordero sued the Chicago Department of Transportation and 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman, demanding the removal of the station in front of their condo at 3565 North Pine Grove. They argued that the facility would attract garbage, and could be a magnet for strangers who might follow their kids into the building. Two days later, a judge dismissed the couple’s request to have the station removed immediately, but the lawsuit continued.

The lawsuit settled a few months ago, according to CDOT spokesman Pete Scales. As part of the deal, the city agreed to move the docks about 50 feet south, away from the couple’s door and closer to the alley. This afternoon, workers moved the station a block north, to the southeast corner of Pine Grove and Waveland, but Scales said the relocation was unrelated to the lawsuit.

“That’s one of the top 30 most-used stations in the system, with about 32 trips per day,” he said. “Because it’s so popular, we wanted to add a few more docks. Moving the station allowed us to expand the station, and also conserve some [car] parking spaces.”

The controversial station’s new home is next to the New Yorker, a 594-unit, high-rise condo tower, and there are several other high rises nearby. Scales said he’s heard of no objections from the station’s new neighbors. “This moves the station closer to thousands of people,” he said.

While this sounds like a fine location for the blue bikes, it’s mildly annoying that Kolin and Cordero, a pair of squeaky wheels, got their way. It’s safe to assume that, during the eight-plus months their block was “begrimed” by Divvy bikes, there were no major waste management issues or child abductions.

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How About Some More Carrying Capacity on Divvy Bikes?

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An Indiana Pacers Bikeshare vehicle on the Cultural Trail. Photo: Indiana Pacers Bikeshare

With Divvy slated to expand by 175 stations this year, there’s an unprecedented opportunity to increase bike ridership in Chicago. There’s also an opportunity to rethink the Divvy bike design.

A shortcoming I’ve noticed about Divvy, and other systems that use bicycles supplied by Bixi, is the lack of carrying capacity. The bikes feature a narrow front rack, useful for carrying a purse, briefcase, or messenger bag. However, transporting anything larger is inconvenient at best, and a dangerous balancing act at worst. I know how perilous a Divvy journey can be when you’re trying to carry large items or multiple parcels, based on my experiences hauling luggage and grocery bags.

Chicago can do better. Indianapolis’s new Indiana Pacers Bikeshare, for instance, is much more convenient for transporting cargo. The system, run by B-Cycle, which operates bike-share in a number of smaller U.S. cities, features bikes with a large, enclosed front basket, as well as a rear rack and basket. Kevin Kastner, who runs the blog UrbanIndy, has seen people use the baskets to carry groceries, jackets, water bottles, and more.

The current Divvy rack design was chosen to discourage people from using the baskets as trash receptacles. Rear racks may also be seen as a liability, because users might try to use them to carry passengers.

Kastner speculates that since stations are relatively close in Indianapolis, and there are only 250 bikes, compared to Chicago’s 3,000, keeping the bikes garbage-free may be “an easier issue to solve than in other places.” However, the design of the Indianapolis front baskets, which lack sidewalls, helps prevent the bikes-as-trash-cans problem.

The Indianapolis rear racks do feature mesh sidewalls, but using a similar design as the front baskets, or simply having a rack in back, which would allow members to bring their own panniers, would prevent garbage build-up. As for concerns about the rear rack being used to transport human cargo, I am sure a design solution can be devised which would discourage this behavior.

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