Topics at 47th Ward meeting: Using transit to encourage density, Bike to School Day

47th Ward residents and Alderman Matt Martin, far right, listen to a presentation about a local community garden on a ward bike tour in August. Photo: John Greenfield
47th Ward residents and Alderman Matt Martin, far right, listen to a presentation about a local community garden on a ward bike tour in August. Photo: John Greenfield

I recently resolved to be more active in real-world activism versus online advocacy, and my first step in this new year was attending the 47th Ward Transportation Committee meeting this past Tuesday. Over the summer I had been invited to join the committee after writing the office about a business whose delivery trucks routinely blocked the bike lane on Lawrence Avenue in the ward. I was pleasantly surprised to be invited to join the committee since I don’t actually live in the ward.

Like his predecessor Ameya Pawar,  Matt Martin is emerging as one of the city’s most progressive aldermen when it comes to transportation policy. While attending the first public meeting on the Leland Greenway, I was impressed that Martin framed the bike route as an opportunity for more residents in his ward to “live their values.” So it comes as no surprise that the 47th Ward Transportation Committee is doing great work.

Ed Zotti
Ed Zotti

The format of the meetings has been a presentation by a featured speaker, followed by a Q & A with the audience and breakout groups to discuss local transportation issues. The January meeting featured Sun-Times columnist and former transit consultant Ed Zotti. (He also wrote the Chicago Reader’s popular “The Straight Dope” column for years under the nom de plume Cecil Adams.) The breakout session was a discussion of plans for Bike and Walk to School Day in the ward. A couple dozen people attended. I noted that I was one of only six women at the meeting, as well as one of the few people of color present. (While the 47th ward is 75-percent white, Martin is African-American, an usual situation in Chicago, where a ward’s alderman is almost always someone of the majority race and/or ethnicity.)

Zotti presented three ideas for Chicago to better use transit to build its future:

  1. Integrate the Metra Electric District line with the CTA
  2. Build a waterfront transit line
  3. Simplify the transit-oriented development process. 

Ed’s focus on points 1 and 2 was job growth within downtown Chicago. Ed took questions from the audience and unsurprisingly I was the most vocal attendee. Most of the questions came during the discussion on transit-oriented development and they focused on zoning. I questioned the need for a new rail line when bus rapid transit can be implemented more quickly and cheaply. Moreover, it’s much more easy to modify a BRT line to respond to changes in travel patterns and population distribution.

A graphic outlining Ed Zotti’s ideas for Chicago to use transit to build density and increase access to downtown jobs. Credit: Ed Zotti
A graphic outlining Ed Zotti’s ideas for Chicago to use transit to build density and increase access to downtown jobs. Credit: Ed Zotti

But I definitely agree the transit-oriented development approval process needs to be streamlined and the benefits of transit-oriented development need to be spread throughout the city, including more transit-friendly affordable housing. As it stands, most TOD being built in Chicago consists of upscale developments in affluent or gentrifying neighborhoods, but a 100-percent affordable development is currently proposed to replace a parking lot across from the Western Brown Line station in the 47th Ward.

I was surprised that Zotti didn’t mention bus-only lanes or bus rapid transit as strategies to increase housing density along transit lines. In recent years the city expanded the TOD ordinance to include high-frequency bus lines which is a step in the right direction. I’d love us to upgrade our definition of what is high frequency and give these routes their own lanes with traffic signal priority, all-door, prepaid boarding, etc. which can help increase speed and ridership and make the routes more attractive for more density.  If you’re interested in reading more about the ideas Ed presented, check out his Sun-Times column on these topics.

After Ed’s presentation, we broke into small groups to discuss Walk and Bike to School Day within the ward. One of my group members noted how many people left after Ed’s presentation. I later found out this group member was none other than the founder of Chicago Family Biking, Rebecca Resman. Each group was tasked with addressing three questions:
1. What are the challenges to biking and walking to school within the 47th ward?
2. Who are potential partners for maximizing the success of Walk and Bike to School Day?
3. How can the 47th Ward office support WBSD?

Once all the groups presented their responses, which mostly pretty similar, Resman announced that Chicago Family Biking will be holding a volunteer training on Saturday February 22nd from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Bucktown-Wicker Park Library. This training is free (though I’m sure they’d appreciate donations) and child care will be available. The training will cover how to plan a Bike to School Day at your child’s school and a Kidical Mass ride within your community along with advocacy training. You can find more information about the volunteer training on the Facebook event page.

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A Chicago Kidical Mass ride. Photo: Chicago Family Biking

I am a fan of the setup of the format for the 47th Ward Transportation Committee and plan to attend until the transportation committee for my own ward, the 49th in Rogers Park, is up and running. If you live near or in the 47th Ward and care about improving walking, biking, and transit, there’s a spot for you on the committee. You can reach out to Josh Mark, josh[at]aldermanmartin.com, director of infrastructure and development, to join.

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