At annual meeting, ATA prioritizes safe streets, transit access, and lowering emissions
Last Thursday, the Active Transportation Alliance held its annual meeting to honor volunteers, conduct a few items of board business, celebrate funding wins from 2021, and inform members of the organization’s priorities for the year ahead.
Like last year, the meeting was held via Zoom, with about a hundred attendees. Campaign organizer W. Robert Schultz III kicked things off by recognizing four volunteers and advocates. Kevin Crowley has been volunteering for ATA since he was a teenager in 2005. Rochelle Jackson is chair of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council’s transportation committee and a key advocate for reinstating service on the 157 Ogden bus route and expansion of Divvy in her neighborhood. Chris Valadez, co-founder of Cycle Brookfield, was recognized for organizing family-friendly bike rides and safety improvements in his community.
And Matthew Portman is the cousin of “School of Rock” drummer Kevin Clark who was fatally struck by a driver at the intersection of Logan Boulevard and Western Avenue. Portman and Kevin’s Coda, the grassroots organization he launched. (In a nod to Clark’s life in rock music, Portman affectionately referred to members as the Kevin Nation Army), were instrumental in pushing for the protected bike lanes and pedestrian safety improvements recently installed at the intersection.
ATA board president Peggy Reins then introduced two items of board business: an amendment to the bylaws instating term limits for directors, and the slate of candidates up for election. Both measures were voted on and adopted via an online poll.
ATA executive director Amy Rynell provided a look back and forward, starting with successes from the past year. “More, more, more money for active transportation,” she said. “We continue to grow funds for walking, biking and transit by leaps and bounds.” 2021 saw big legislative victories at the state level for walking and biking infrastructure funding. Most notably, the Illinois legislature eliminated the 20 percent local match requirement for walking and biking infrastructure on state roads, a mandate that often resulted in sidewalk and bikeway accommodations being stripped from projects in lower-income municipalities. ATA, the statewide bike advocacy group Ride Illinois, and the Metropolitan Planning Council advocated for the bill that ensures the state will now cover 100 percent of road improvements, for driving and active modes alike.
State coffers will also help fund sidewalks and bike lanes via gas tax revenue for the first time. Until this year, gas tax funds were exclusively earmarked for new roads. In April, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a bill allowing suburban counties to use gas tax revenue for walking and biking infrastructure as well. The governor also signed into law new equity and transparency requirements for the Illinois Department of Transportation in how it evaluates, prioritize and make decisions about projects. The bill requires IDOT and the Regional Transportation Authority to use performance metrics in evaluating how tax dollars will be spent on transportation infrastructure.
Rynell then announced four focus areas for Active Trans in the year ahead to promote pedestrian improvements; bike infrastructure; making transit stations ADA accessible; and lowering vehicle emissions overall.
The first strategy is making streets safe for people of all ages and abilities, advocating for pedestrian-friendly Complete Streets interventions; the construction of a citywide protected bike lane network, and slower speed limits for cars. People For Bikes gave Chicago embarrassingly low marks in its annual bike-friendliness ranking in 2021, mainly because of the city’s default 30 mph residential speed limit and spotty patchwork of protected bike lanes.
The second area, closely related to the first, is prioritizing public spending on active transportation, and making sure the new federal, state and local funds available for walk/bike infrastructure are spent where they’re needed most.
Third, Rynell said ATA will continue advocating for improvements to transit accessibility and reliability, pushing for a network of dedicated bus lanes; the permanent adoption of reduced fares instituted by CTA and Metra during the pandemic, and making more CTA stations ADA accessible. As of now, 42 of the 145 CTA stations lack elevators and are not fully accessible to people with disabilities.
Finally, ATA will push for more ambitious goals for lowering vehicle emissions and mitigating the impacts of pollution, which disproportionately affect lower-income communities of color. Rynell used the story of the three little pigs as an allegory for the virtues of investing in high-quality infrastructure against wolves like climate change. “Which approach will we take, straws and sticks, the path of least resistance, continuing to incentivize vehicular travel – roads, parking, sprawl – or the third way: the bricks? If we’re serious about slashing carbon emissions, we must go big.”
The meeting ended with breakout rooms where members were prompted to discuss transportation and environmental injustices members have observed and ideas for how to repair past harms. These are big questions that no individual can answer, but folks in my group observed that educating policy makers, instituting bold, European city-level changes – the kind that will ruffle some drivers’ feathers – and making sure new infrastructure is well-designed will all be instrumental in making the shift away from car-centric travel. Hopefully the funding wins from the past year prepare the ground for big material changes in the years ahead.