You Can’t Make a 21st Century City With a 1950s Approach to Streets

Tom Kaeser. Photo: Michael Jarecki, Sun-Times

When I worked at the Chicago Department of Transportation’s bicycle program, from 2001 to 2006, it was a very different department than it is today. While there was an interest in improving conditions for walking, transit, and cycling, the city’s main transportation goal, as it had been for most of the previous century, was to move cars. The most blatant example of this attitude during my time at CDOT was the 2005 removal of the pedestrian crossing between Buckingham Fountain and the lakefront to speed traffic on Lake Shore Drive.

Tom Kaeser, who worked at the department and its predecessors for 30 years before retiring from his post as assistant chief engineer in the division of traffic engineering in 2003, is a product of that cars-first era. I didn’t have many interactions with him at CDOT. But judging from a ten-page letter he sent to the CTA last month testifying against plans for bus rapid transit on Ashland, and Saturday’s Sun-Times article about his protest, he seems out of touch with the current approach at CDOT and other big city transportation departments.

When Gabe Klein took over as commissioner in 2011, he shifted the focus from cars to people, implementing a wide range of projects, including pedestrian safety initiatives, bike-share, speed cameras, and the Bloomingdale Trail. The department committed to a new modal hierarchy in its 2013 Complete Streets Chicago design guideline, putting pedestrians first, then transit, then bikes, then cars. Under newly appointed commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld, who helped spearhead BRT at her previous job at the CTA and started at CDOT in an interim capacity yesterday, it’s clear this progress will continue.

CDOT’s new modal hierarchy, as illustrated in the Complete Streets guide.

However, in his testimony against BRT, Kaeser displays the classic 20th Century traffic engineer’s mindset, where maintaining car traffic flow is more important than actually moving people efficiently through the city. “If the city ultimately decides to go ahead with bus rapid transit on Ashland, time will tell whether it truly lives up to the expectations of its enthusiastic supporters, or proves to be a dagger in the heart of Chicago,” he gloomily concludes at the end of his letter.

Kaeser told Sun-Times reporter Rosalind Rossi, who has given BRT consistently negative coverage, that ten times as many people currently travel Ashland in cars and trucks as buses. “You are giving half of the through traffic lanes and left turn lanes over to the buses for a very relatively lower proportion of users,” he said.

However, while the average annual daily traffic on Ashland ranges from 20,600 to 34,100 vehicles, there are about 31,000 boardings per day on the #9 Ashland bus, according to CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis. 71 percent of households along the corridor own one or no automobile, and only about half of work commutes are made by car, so he’s greatly underestimating the percentage of people currently traveling by bus. The CTA estimates that 14 percent of all current trips on Ashland are made by transit; after BRT the mode share is expected to nearly double to 26 percent, with 39,900 boardings per day.

CTA rendering of Ashland BRT.

Kaeser’s basic argument against Ashland BRT is that it would make driving less convenient, while he largely overlooks the fact that by slowing down car traffic and greatly increasing bus speeds and reliability, the result will be a major mode shift. He worries that because there will be fewer remaining mixed traffic lanes on Ashland than on BRT streets he looked at in other cities, and because Western is the only multilane north-south surface road nearby, the result will be gridlock and/or vehicles barreling down side streets.

In his letter, Kaeser criticizes the traffic modeling for the project, arguing that shifts in driver behavior won’t be as large as predicted, leading to worse congestion. It’s true that traffic modeling is more art than science, but fears of carmaggeddon rarely play out like that.

“The assumption is that traffic volumes are akin to water in pipes,” Ian Lockwood,  a transportation engineer who specializes in smart growth and traffic-calming projects at the firm AECOM, told me for an earlier article. “The incompressible fluid has to go somewhere, so it follows that if lanes are removed motorists will use parallel neighborhood streets. However, in real life, I’ve only seen the opposite effect when the whole arterial corridor is made less automobile-oriented.”

A southbound #9 Ashland bus. Photo: John Greenfield

Kaeser is fundamentally concerned about having sufficient space to move cars on Chicago streets, and that’s a worldview that destroys cities. His background as a city traffic engineer does make him an expert on expediting driving. But when you shape a city based on those concerns, roads get widened, neighborhoods get gutted, and you wind up with communities like Schaumburg, where it’s nearly impossible to go anywhere without an automobile.

The main counter to Kaeser’s logic is that after BRT is built, the street, and to some degree the city, will become less about cars and more about transit and walking. What Kaeser sees as a bug in the BRT plan, the relative narrowness of Ashland compared to other BRT streets he looked at, is in many ways an asset. It means that transit will be extremely time-competitive with driving and thus more appealing. Because Ashland isn’t an eight-lane arterial road, it will be attractive for pedestrian-friendly development. If you’re looking at the project from the worldview that good cities are walkable places where you can get around without a car, then many of the aspects of the plan he cites as negatives turn out to be positives.

Near the end of his letter, Kaeser compares Ashland to other multilane arterials like Western, 95th and Irving Park as an argument against reconfiguring the street. “These important roadways are not some sort of wide, underused streets with excess right-of-way sitting idle and available for use by earnest transit planners, but play a critical role in traffic circulation in the city,” he writes. However, the fact that streets like these are important travel corridors is exactly why they’re the right streets for rapid transit. BRT is going to shake things up and change how people get around. That’s the point of the project.

  • Folks, let’s stay away from personal attacks. Future ad hominem attacks will be deleted, per the streetsblog comment moderation policy: Thanks.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Heh, I actually agree with you there. I guess what I meant to say is that I’d love to see cycling accomodations too…but I’d also take 1 bus lane, 1 travelling lane and one parking lane and just accept Ashland as a “transit corridor” of sorts.

  • ohsweetnothing

    1. I wasn’t referring to BRT there, just the city in general. That “Schaumburg-ification” is a thing we should be concerned about.

    2. No I do not.

    3. I don’t disagree with anything you said actually. But with the caveat of because of the very reasons you’ve mentioned, why would I try to walk around Schaumburg? My point is that area of town is in a pretty dense part of the City, close to downtown, and for whatever reasons was developed in a manner that’s incredibly hostile to non-car drivers (like yes sidewalks, but an insane amount of gigantic curb cuts for starters…which basically an eff you to sidewalks). I guess it was my “it can happen” example…

  • I grew up at 1647 N Clybourn (a window store the last time I went through there, several years ago). My mother bought the building in 1981.

    There was plenty of retail and plenty of residential in the area before it got strip-mallified — yes, and a bunch of empty land, especially in the triangle between Bissell and Dayton, which got covered in expensive townhomes when I was in grade school.

    It wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely walkable. The original offer for development of the corner along the north side of North between Halsted and Clybourn (that was Crate & Barrel for a while — the strip mall with apartments above) was for a 5-story building, with retail on the first two floors and small office space above, AND A BRAND NEW BROWN LINE STATION, built and paid for by the developer, with free inside transfer to the red line via new tunnels.

    R.A.N.C.H. Triangle decided (independently of those of us who lived within two blocks of the corner) that that was far “too dense” for the “character” of the neighborhood.

    Imagine the game-changer it would’ve been to get a new brown line station and a new free transfer point, back in the early 80s, when there was still A/B service on what is now the Red Line! But no, because it would have encouraged transit use and added density, they vetoed. That plan had no added parking, by the way.

    The 1800 Mall (whose gutted remains are still visible west of Clybourn at Willow) was an attempt at redevelopment and retail-ization of the area in a properly dense, urban way. It was a bit before its time, I think; the initial tenants were almost all arty and high-end, so the people who lived close couldn’t afford to patronize it and the people who could afford it still thought we were dangerous over here so close to Cabrini Green. Goose Island is the only initial tenant that really thrived long-term, and eventually they bombed it out (it had a lot of really interesting internal ramp-structure and a marked fitness trail) to put parking in its guts instead.

    The current strip-mall configuration supports reasonably high rents from national chains, at the expense of REAL density (multi-story, multi-use buildings) and any shred of remaining walkability.

    The “real transformation” for Clybourn was when the city finally sold the city-owned empty lots — about half of the blocks by then, and that they had flat refused to sell market-rate to neighbors for decades — to developers who wanted to put in condos and strip-malls. The developers then started strong-arming the remaining small owners, and the city jacked up the property taxes by claiming ‘comparable’ structures that were anything but. My mother was the last of the old neighborhood to hold out; at least twenty families with fully-paid-off houses couldn’t afford the property taxes and had to sell and move.

    It’s a travesty, and it sits amidst the bones and guts of a neighborhood I used to live in, and love. And it seems like nobody but me even knows it used to be there, anymore.

  • Unfortunately, wide curb lanes just encourage drivers to pretend there’s another traffic lane striped there, not leave room for bicyclists. At least, that’s what they do up in Albany Park and along Foster (which is technically supposed to be one lane in each direction, plus parking, but usually has two lanes of cars using it for travel).

  • John

    Complete streets advocates, including myself, talk a lot about the need to maximize the movement of people instead of just cars. I think Tom showed clearly that removing a lane of traffic in each direction on Ashland would remove more car trips than it would add transit trips. Fewer people on Adhland is not good for overall mobility or local businesses.

  • CDOT has said repeatedly that the traffic volumes, in numbers, of cars on Ashland are congruent with taking it down to one lane in each direction. They have done so on other streets with similar traffic counts (and no BRT to absorb some of the trip volume) without carmageddon.

  • oooBooo

    If it’s wide enough that drivers are comfortable forming two lines of traffic, then it’s gone beyond a wide curb lane.

    Drivers usually aren’t comfortable forming two lines of traffic unless there is at least 20 feet, they’ll form two queues at traffic lights when there is less, but that’s only for waiting for lights or to turn or something. Which is no big deal unless a bike rider wants to gutter pass.

    looking at google maps there’s at least 20 feet each way. Some areas show very faded dashed lane line paint. Anyway on super wides I stay out of the gutter, a good way’s left and usually have no issue. Don’t know about hostility on that particular road, as most roads I find like this are not particularly busy.

  • Unfortunately, on Foster between about Central Park and until past Cicero, the extra width just encourages drivers to try to hit 50mph (and they do it with fair regularity). Horribly unsafe, and with a lot of stoplight and stopsign blowing. Good luck trying to cross as a pedestrian, sometimes even at lights.

  • tooter turtle

    The Sun Times printing plant has been closed since 2011.

  • John

    This is completely false. There are no two lane streets (one each direction) with 40k cars a day. Perhaps you are referring to the projected volumes?

  • Everything I know about traffic volumes I learned on Streetsblog, but I recall someone citing two facts: the highest point count for vehicles on Ashland, and CDOT’s “most cars that can be comfortably accomodated with one lane each way” number, which they regularly use as a “can we give this street a road diet?” test. Ashland passed. Maybe one of our kind hosts remembers where those two numbers came from, I think it was several articles on the subject ago.

    But CDOT has a hard limit of how much traffic they’ll try to put on a two-lane road, and Ashland passes it.

  • cjlane

    “2. No I do not [recall north/clybourn 20 years ago].”

    I would maintain that it is *more* pedestrian friendly now than then. Of course, there wasn’t nearly as much reason to be walking over there, unless you were looking for a prostitute.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    So why don’t we propose that they reorganize some of the side streets? Maybe add in a dead end here and there, or more speed bumps, and make wood one way in one direction for a few blocks, then reverse it so that it is impossible to continuously travel on it. This is extremely cheap, and alays your nightmare side streets concern – + it will make the traffic on them already slower and safer for those living on them.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    I agree with you here, there’s small cheap reasonable steps to keep the side streets, side streets. +1

  • There’s a living laboratory of what happens if you do that already existing: Mayfair. I live right next to it and I will go to great trouble to avoid driving right through it, because unless you put a lot of effort into memorizing their idiosyncratic 45-degrees-off-the-grid-grid you can never tell where the street you’re on is going to go, or when it’s going to suddenly go one-way against you.

    There is an exit on the Kennedy at Wilson; almost nobody gets off there and goes east farther than the Irish American Heritage Center, because very quickly you end up in a snarled mess of lost-ness.

    Even with a GPS, it’s challenging to get anywhere. Even on a bike or walking it’s pretty bad (and walkers, at least, can ignore one-wayness). Presumably the residents like it like that. However, living NEXT to it is a massive pain in my butt, because things I need to get to regularly are on the other side of Mayfair from me.

  • Matt

    TED Talks

    Enrique Peñalosa: Why buses represent democracy in action

    In this spirited talk, the former mayor of Bogotá shares some of the tactics he used to change the transportation dynamic in the Colombian capital… and suggests ways to think about building smart cities of the future.

  • Alzone

    Please excuse my ignorance on the subject as I am not a small business owner and undoubtedly miss something but would you not recoup your full investment in your business selling your building to the property developers that are inevitably going to come around after work in the BRT gets started?


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