Chicago transportation planning is in the doldrums, and the lack of a CDOT chief isn’t helping

New York's nearly car-free, camera-enforced 14th Street Busway. Why isn't Chicago doing bold projects like this right now? Photo: David Dartley
New York's nearly car-free, camera-enforced 14th Street Busway. Why isn't Chicago doing bold projects like this right now? Photo: David Dartley

Teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg was right: When it comes to addressing climate change, there’s no time to waste. So why is Chicago currently dragging its feet about taking bold action to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention crashes and traffic jams?

The fact is that, compared to peer cities, Chicago is currently in a period of stagnation when it comes to transitioning to a more sustainable transportation system, not unlike the way things were at the end of the the Richard M. Daley administration. During that time the city basically did little in the way of innovation to promote walking, biking, and transit, partly because Chicago Department of Transportation leadership was a revolving door, with five different commissioners within the last six years of the administration.

That changed after Rahm Emanuel took office and appointed former Washington, D.C. transportation chief Gabe Klein to lead the department. Klein completed or launched many then-progressive projects during his 2.5-year tenure, including:

Klein’s successor Rebekah Scheinfeld had a more conservative approach, but she saw several of these projects to fruition, and also launched a few major initiatives herself, such as the Vision Zero crash reduction program and the construction of three new bike/pedestrian bridges over Lake Shore Drive on the South Side.

But there’s currently not much new on the docket in terms of bold transportation initiatives in Chicago. Let me know in the comments if I’m overlooking anything major here, but aside from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s proposal to raise fees on downtown and single-passenger ride-hail trips to fight congestion, the citywide Divvy expansion, and plans for a people-friendly reconfiguration of the Logan Square traffic circle, there’s not much on the agenda with the magic to stir Chicagoans’ blood, as legendary local architect Daniel Burnham might have said.

Meanwhile, look what’s happened recently in a couple of Chicago’s peer cities:

Chicago should be making similarly big plans. But the first five months of Lightfoot’s administration have seen relatively little movement on sustainable transportation initiatives.

The fact that CDOT still doesn’t have a permanent commissioner certainly isn’t solely to blame, but it’s certainly not helping. It’s time for Lightfoot to fill that seat with a transportation chief who has a Gabe Klein-like knack for getting big projects done quickly, who also understands the importance of listening to residents about their wants and needs, particularly those in underserved neighborhoods. It’s high time for these dog days to end.

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