Transportation Experts Discuss the Challenges Chicago Will Face in the Next 30 Years

Hall, Sriraj, Grimshaw, Oberhauser, Quandt, and Kopp. Photo: Edward  M. Bury
Hall, Sriraj, Grimshaw, Oberhauser, Quandt, and Kopp. Photo: Edward M. Bury

How will Chicago’s transportation network have to change in the coming decades to meet the needs of future generations? At the panel discussion “Our City 2049,” local heavy-hitters in the field tackled that intriguing question. The talk, moderated by Bettina Oberhauser, a culture and science reporter with H.R. Fernsehen, was part of Germany Week, a celebration of arts and culture at Daley Plaza. Panelists included Chris Hall, from Skidmore Owings Merrell architects; Dr. P.S. Sriraj director of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center; Jacky Grimshaw, vice president of government affairs for the Center for Neighborhood Technology; Jerry Quandt, director of the Illinois Autonomous Vehicle Association; and Chris Kopp of the civil engineering firm HNTB.

The discussion focused on the two main topics of land use and traffic safety. “A lot of the problems of transportation emanate from city sprawl,” Sriraj said. “Once you have the land use set up at a certain aspect, there’s nothing transportation can do to fix it. People choose to live where they live. People choose to work where they work. It’s the transportation guy’s problem to fix the gap between the origin and the destination.”

Sriraj argued that most traffic congestion issues stem from that divide, called “spatial mismatch” by urban planners. “That is a fundamental issue that no one wants to touch, because it cannot be fixed,” he said, adding that you can’t force people to live in locations that are conducive to a sustainable transportation system. “The land use has a significant impact on how transportation evolves. Connected to that is density of population.”

Grimshaw agreed, with one small caveat. “If we look at Chicago, we do have available land for development,” she said. “What’s getting in the way are really equity issues. The way the city has developed in the past, it doesn’t have to be the way the city goes in the future, but unless we are intentional about using the available land, making it available for people to live as well as work, as well as play, as well as to be educated, then we will have a problem that we can’t fix.” On the other hand, Grimshaw added, we can create a brighter future from a transportation and equity standpoint by being very intentional about how we reinvest in communities and redevelop land.

Quandt argued that one of the things making Chicago-area roadways less safe and efficient is a lack of communication between cars, trucks and trains. “None of those are interoperable,” he said. “To me, the biggest challenge we have in transportation is the disparateness of it.” Quandt used a biological metaphor to make his point. “The structure of the city is the skeleton of the body of our environment that we live in. Mobility and transportation is the circulatory system. All of them are exactly correct. When you have a body that’s misaligned or mismanaged because of its challenges to the circulatory system, therefore certain organs or parts of that system don’t necessarily function as helpfully as ones where blood flow comes to and from.”

Kopp expressed a strong concern about traffic safety. “For a long time we’ve tolerated thousands and thousands of highway fatalities across the United States,” he noted. “Through the introduction of safety features on cars, that number has been coming down for decades, but it recently turned around.” He noted that distracted driving seems to be a major factor in the spike in road deaths. “The cell phone in everyone’s pocket doesn’t necessarily stay in your pocket while you’re driving. It’s now causing especially vulnerable road users like cyclists and pedestrians to be in greater danger.”

Hall argued that the Chicagoland transit network, considered to be one of the best in North America is sorely outdated. “We don’t have enough investment in high-speed transit,” he said. “We still have an archaic system — the vehicles were designed 50 or 60 years ago. The network was designed 100 years ago.” While Hall conceded that the distances are relatively short, he noted that a regional transit trip can can take two hours.

All of this is food for thought as Chicago prepares to meet the transportation challenges of the next three decades.

  • Jeremy

    4 years ago, Jerry Quandt ran for 43rd ward alderman. Transportation wasn’t a focal point of his campaign and I don’t recall anything about IAVA. Does he have any real background in urban planning or transportation analytics? I think we have to be careful about who we label “experts” about these topics. It seems like a lot of people are just professional gadflys.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Presumably the head of the Illinois Autonomous Vehicle Association knows something about transportation. But it is worth noting that he was on the wrong side of the red light camera issue during that aldermanic race, calling for the abolition, rather than reform, of the program. http://www.suntimescandidates.com/quandt–jerry.html

  • ChicagoCyclist

    I would say that the biggest, long-term transportation problem that the City of Chicago (and, to a lesser degree, the metropolitan region) faces is an incomplete mass rapid transit network. We, unfortunately, have a “spokes only” network. Cities the size of Chicago (and larger, should Chicago actually grow) absolutely need to have a true connected “network” of “mass rapid transit” lines — please note the word choices: “network,” “mass,” and “rapid.” I didn’t say “public transportation;” and I didn’t say “transit.” Both of those sad abstractions lead, typically, to inequitable, unfunctional mobility. A complete connected network of mass rapid transit lines means everyone has access; everyone can and many more will use it. Why? Because its rapid, affordable, and efficient. Without developing that truly connected network of mass rapid transit lines — which traditionally has meant “subways” but can now also mean gold-standard Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT — aka, “subway trains-on-wheels” — Chicago will (continue to) fall behind other peer cities and regions in the US and around the world. BRT, it should be noted, costs much, much less than urban subway/elevated rail lines. New (circumferential) subway/elevated lines would be crushingly expensive and, therefore, politically impossible. Therefore, following the lead of successful, progressive cities around the world, the city and region should develop truly “gold-standard” Bus Rapid Transit circumferential lines. Gold-standard BRT must have: dedicated/barrier-protected busways, level-boarding, pre-payment, specially designed and branded buses with 24-7, high frequency service, and robust signal preemption. And land use regulations around such transit should allow by-right the density and intensity needed to support transit and, more importantly, the sustainability, livability, and prosperity goals that transit promotes. These BRT lines would connect our existing mass rapid transit “spoke-only” design. Without mass rapid transit — combined with a real, Amsterdam-style bikeway network, and more accessibility for all users of the roadways — Chicago will, alas, loose ground in the competitive world of large, global cities.

  • ardecila

    I think the “spokes-only” model is fine as long as there are high-quality connections within the hub. Right now we don’t have that – our L lines and Metra lines are disjointed. Planners allowed one of only two passageways between Red and Blue lines to be demolished. There’s still only two spots with a direct connection between subway and elevated lines, and lots of missed connections. There’s zero direct connections from Metra to CTA and no fare integration. You could fix all this for a fraction of the cost of a new rapid transit line.

  • david vartanoff

    Yes, immediate fare integration should be implemented. However, the lack of non spoke rapid transit (bus or rail) obstructs many travel needs. Why should someone going from O’Hare to Midway have to visit the Loop? A direct link N-S would open many new travel options. The highway folks built 294 precisely to achieve this sort of travel.

  • Anne A

    The closest we have to direct Metra-to-CTA connections are spots where stations are adjacent: blue line to LaSalle, brown/orange/purple/pink lines to LaSalle, and green/pink lines to Ogilvie. Signage isn’t necessarily adequate and 2/3 of those connections are NOT ADA accessible.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Connections (or transfer stations) are super important. Nevertheless, a “Spokes-only” system is not really a complete connected network. If I am in, say, Rogers Park, and I want/need to go to Logan Sq. (by the city’s mass rapid transit system, i.e. the “L”), then I have to go down to the Loop first and then up north again (and west). This is about a 14.5 mile trip (about 1-1.25 hrs. (if there are no ‘glitches’ with slow zones) of what should be about a 6.5 or 7 mile trip (taking maybe/ideally about 25 min.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    The best way to understand this fact is to visit a city that has a complete, connected mass rapid transit network — try, if you can, Paris, Berlin, London, Tokyo, Seoul, Moscow, Madrid, Barcelona, Shanghai, Beijing, Mexico City, New York (see http://fakeisthenewreal.org/subway/). Station density is also super important, of course. Some cities in fact have three “nested” networks instead of two — like Berlin (U-bahn, S-bahn, and national/regional trains) and Paris (Metro, RER, national/regional trains). We have CTA rail and Metra rail and they aren’t really “nested”/integrated. Metra being “spoke-only” is not as problematic as the “L” being spoke-only — if only, as others here point out, their stations (where possible/useful) were fully integrated in terms of both physical design and fare/payment (for transferring). Larger cities — over say, 3 million — can’t really/easily compete and prosper, or offer residents decent quality of life when private cars and (regular old-school) buses dominate. Large, healthy cities need efficient, functional, high-quality, connected and integrated mass rapid transit networks. Our only option for achieving that here (over the next, say, 50 years) is gold-standard bus rapid transit.

  • rohmen

    I don’t necessarily disagree, but we’re in a lot better shape than most U.S. cities outside of New York if we could just get the necessary momentum here. If we ran gold-standard bus rapid transit down Cicero and Western (or Ashland), that would do a heck of a lot towards solving the problem. That’s not at all an unrealistic goal (it should have happened on Ashland already) if people would just get on board with the benefits.

    It may take waiting for the almost-certainly coming collapse of “cheap” ride share before we see it happen, though.

  • what_eva

    So this is a total nitpick, but AFAIK, the Washington transfer tunnel was never demolished, it’s just sealed off.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Not to mention, is the Loop’s highest and best use really just to be a bottleneck for the entire L system?

  • ardecila

    There are ways to decongest the Loop by running trains down one side or the other (like the Green Line) but right now the south/west side of the Loop has no transfer connections. High time we used that vacant “park” at Van Buren/State to build a proper connection from elevated to both subway lines (and maybe even a proper plaza).

  • ardecila

    All these hypotheticals are niche travel markets that are best served by a flexible grid of buses or just private options like Uber/Lyft. Rogers Park to Logan Square? Buses – ideally with some upgrades. O’Hare to Midway? Please – who is actually making that trip? They don’t serve the same airlines, so who is transferring?

    Also, for every “neighborhood to neighborhood” trip that is poorly served by the radial layout of CTA/Metra, there is another one that is well-served or could be, given a proper and convenient downtown connection. What about South Shore to Wicker Park? The direct path takes you through downtown anyway, but there’s no way to get from Metra Electric to the Blue Line.

  • Carter O’Brien

    What I’m saying is the Loop is a destination in its own right. As in, for over a half million people every day during the week. If someone doesn’t want/need to be in the Loop, for god’s sake let’s stop trying to squeeze them through it.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    You are right — in the US, outside of NYC, there isn’t really a mass rapid transit system that can (without exaggeration) be called a “complete, connected network.” That doesn’t mean NYC’s system is perfect of course. And I think that, for the largest cities — which is what I was talking about — Chicago is definitely in second place behind NYC. All told, from what I have experienced and heard, NYC, Chicago, Boston, DC, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have the best public transportation systems in the US, overall. Seattle and LA are working to enter this group.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Hey, what about all the “early riser” potheads that make use of that park? Seriously, I am there most days of the week, wtf is up with that space and people getting baked at 730 – 8 am???

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