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Mayoral hopeful Kam Buckner talked walk/bike/transit issues at Edgewater listening session

Bucker, left, at the listening session. Photo courtesy of the Buckner campaign.

Current Illinois state rep and Chicago mayoral hopeful Kam Buckner held a listening session regarding transportation issues in the Edgewater neighborhood this past Tuesday. The event was sparsely attended yet offered an opportunity for attendees to have a more intimate Q&A session with the mayoral hopeful.

Kam was introduced by transportation lobbyist John Amdor. Amdor stated that,“No one in the Illinois General Assembly has done more to reform the Illinois Department of Transportation than Kam Buckner.” Amdor referenced a bill introduced by Kams bill, HB 253 which ensures that spending decisions for maintenance work and investment choices for new projects are based on objective metrics, and that those metrics be made available on the Illinois Department of Transportation website. HB 253 also requires IDOT to develop a performance-based model for selecting what projects the department will fund in order to maximize taxpayer investments.Amdor stated , “It’s being implemented now, admittedly not at the level we had hoped just yet. I believe that Kam has laid the groundwork in the past, now, as he’s still in the general assembly, and until he’s mayor, he will continue to lead on transportation. He knows the personalities of different state assembly members, the executive branch, and different stage agencies and how to work the levers to deliver the results from the state that Chicago deserves.”

Buckner started off sharing his experience in the state legislature working with a variety of personalities, interests, and priorities. He described himself as a really loud voice in the state legislature around transportation issues; one accomplishment being bringing a larger share of the motor fuel tax back to Chicago. He highlighted his interest in transportation issues following him to a recent trip to Europe in which he took lots of pictures of bike lanes, much to the annoyance of his fiance. Buckner wants to focus on liveability within the city, especially as it relates to transportation. “How can we help a person get from point A to point B effectively, safely, and affordably?” Buckner shared that he released his plan for the Chicago Transit Authority earlier that day. He wants to increase CTA ridership, equity, and efficiency. Buckner stated that the Rahm Emmanuel administration kicked off transit oriented development in the city yet the city has fallen short on the “transit” aspect. Buckner referenced a particularly deadly summer as it relates to cyclist and pedestrian deaths. He sees the current administration ignoring the needs of vulnerable road users.

Buckner mentioned his recent letter to IDOT regarding pedestrian and cyclist safety along DuSable Lakeshore Drive. He says there’s been silence between the current mayoral administration and IDOT. Buckner pivoted and stated that Chicago has no plans for project selection for transportation projects and that there’s a lack of vision. “As I talked with leaders in D.C., most notably Mitch Landrieu, current senior advisor and infrastructure coordinator for the Biden administration (and Buckner’s former boss, which he acknowledged), the lack of preparedness for Chicago to ask for federal dollars for shovel ready projects is noticed. I want to be your next mayor because I believe Chicago needs to push the envelope. The city will bounce back. The question is how do we want people to move around the city? How do we want people to feel when it comes to safety? How do we want to educate our young people?”
Kam then began taking questions from the audience. I was the first person to ask a question.

Courtney Cobbs: I’ve lived here for 8 years and my first year living here I was stunned by how inefficient Michigan Avenue is for buses. I’m stunned that we don’t have a plan to improve that corridor. What would you do to move Michigan Avenue and so many other bus routes as it relates to speed and efficiency?

Kam Buckner: There was a nationwide study conducted some time ago that found Chicago ranked very low on bus efficiency. I reached out to Mayor Lightfoot when she was first elected on this issue and never heard back. Our plan would be to change bus routes based on efficiency. It’s common sense. Michigan Avenue, State St, and Roosevelt do not work for bus riders. It’s a sad state of affairs when it’s faster to walk in downtown Chicago compared to the bus.

CC: This Mayor campaigned on ending aldermanic prerogative. Currently aldermanic prerogative is still in place as it relates to pedestrian and cyclist safety. Many alders are afraid to touch the sacred cow of car storage/parking. There are empty CPS parking lots at night and during the summer. I’m not a legal expert but it should be possible for the city to enter into an agreement that allows residents to use those lots after school hours. I think we should be charging more for on-street parking based on location/market value and parking should be second to pedestrian and cyclist safety improvements and transit improvements. Thoughts?

KB: I’m with you. Many alders are afraid to go after parking. I think it’s more than possible for the Mayor’s office to prioritize pedestrian and cyclist safety and transit priority and provide cover to alders who don’t want to risk their electability. The Mayor has a lot of power in the city and when the 5th floor wants something done, it can get done. I would provide that cover to alders and make the necessary changes to our streets.

Attendee: I’m curious as to why transit is so important to your campaign. What would a world class transit system allow you to do, allow Chicago to do that it can’t do now?

KB: Public transit is the lifeblood of mobility in many cities. No one else says they’re moving to Tulsa because they have a great transit system. People do say that they’re moving to New York City because they don’t have to own a car.

Transit brings people from across the city together. It could be a business woman, someone going to a medical appointment, someone traveling to school, someone figuring out their next steps, etc. When it comes to quality of life, liveability, one of the top things is “Can you get around?” One example is looking at the city colleges; programs are siloed. If you want to do nursing or medical billing, you attend Malcom X. If I live on the West Side and I want to do logistics, there is no easy way to get to 103rd and far east. The same applies in reverse. In my own life, when I had my first job at United Center, my mom allowed me to drive her older car. When she bought a nicer car, she wouldn’t allow me because she was worried about the police pulling me over. There was no easy way for me to get to work by transit so I had to quit my job.
Those are just a few examples of why this is important. Chicago has the moniker for years,“the city that works” and for me, a well-functioning transit system that serves everyone well is part of a city that works.

Attendee: I am a data analyst doing research on traffic crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists. In my research I found that the majority of pedestrians are struck within the crosswalk and many cyclists are obeying the rules of the road. I’m curious about how you would work with IDOT considering the fact that IDOT controls a large number of our roads and they often reject pedestrian and cyclist safety infrastructure? They’re such a large organization and there’s so much momentum on the path they’re on.

KB: You’re right, they are a large organization. They’re a large recalcitrant organization and it can be hard to turn that ship. As a state rep, I’ve been fortunate enough to pass legislation that moves them in the right direction. We began trying to turn that ship when it comes to facilities, equity, project placement, motor fuel tax reform yet we have to do more. Between now and the next state election, there’s an opportunity for safe street advocates to influence Gov Pritzker and make the case as to why prioritizing pedestrian and cycling safety and just traffic safety more broadly, we can make some progress. This administration is swayed by advocacy.

Locally, there’s no vision. From the fifth floor to the alderman, we’re stuck. I think some of the more nuanced conversations that can lead to change haven’t been had. IDOT continues to work the way they work because they’re used to it. When we passed the bills we passed, they pushed back tough because it was different, new, and scary. I think we have to stay on them. When we talk about symbiosis, as Mayor, I would push IDOT based on a vision. We’re used to IDOT turning away to our requests. I think there needs to be a more robust conversation and it needs to be active. I don’t have the panacea answer because IDOT’s culture is old and baked in. I do think it’s time to start initiating the conversations we need to have.

Attendee: From a transportation perspective, where do you draw inspiration from?
Whether it’s Carmel, Indiana; Boston, or Amsterdam.

KB: A little bit of everywhere, right? I have google alerts set so that I’m up to date on certain topics. I’m definitely inspired by the work Boston mayor Michelle is doing providing free transit on Boston’s most traveled bus lines. I’m inspired by work in Barcelona and Madrid. In fact, when I was in Italy with my fiance, we noticed a bike lane outside our restaurant on the way in. When we came out, there was physical protection around the lane. It wasn’t a particularly long stretch of roadway but it was still inspiring.

I’ve also been paying attention to the work in some small Brazilian towns. They’re moving forward with “seamless transit infrastructure” that allows sprinter vans to function like bus rapid transit. They’re doing this work to efficiently move people around as their population increases.

Attendee: What are some things you’ve seen in Chicago that you want to see expanded?
[References the shared street on Argyle]

KB: I think there were things done during at the beginning of the COVID pandemic that were done out of necessity. Within my district there’s a small stretch of Clark Street that is closed to vehicular traffic. I would love to see it stay and I’d like to see improvements with the look of it. I’d like to see us double down on more of those spaces. I will say our transit policy has been pretty weak over the past few years so there’s no a lot I can point to that’s working. I’ve seen pop-up protected bike lanes. Points to me and asks my thoughts on the concrete barriers going up for some of the city’s bike lanes.

CC: Well, it is an election year so I think that’s part of it. There’s also the issue that many of the intersections are not protected and drivers still manage to weasel their way into these lanes.

KB: Yeah.
I feel like the larger issue is a lack of vision on transit policy. I think the Rahm administration had some good ideas and this administration just hasn’t continued that work.

Attendee: What do you see the role of “prototyping” playing?

KB: I like it but here’s the rub for me: I hate task forces and pilots. It’s very easy to throw something to a task force. It’s what people to do to avoid the real work. However, pilots can be helpful to quickly see what’s working and what’s not. I feel like we’re partly in this space where we can still be creative COVID has turned our world upside down for the past two years. On the subject of COVID, I was surprised that very little street resurfacing projects happened when we had significantly fewer people on the road. Without disparaging anyone, I’m not seeing a lot of creativity on this mayor’s staff. I think a lot of creative people have left because they haven’t been listened to. I’d like to propose a City Year type of program specifically around transportation infrastructure and bringing back the Department of the Environment. Those are two departments that I’d like to see beefed up and infused with creative ideas. Additionally, I’d like to work with private businesses that want to lend some of their talents.

CC: Mental health centers are part of my vision for public safety. I would love to see more mental health centers.
Second, 90% of menu money is being spent on roads. I’m curious as to why that money is coming out of discretionary spending budgets as opposed to the Chicago Department of Transportation’s budget.

KB: The city had 21 mental health centers at one point. Mayor Daley closed a number of them and Rahm Emmanuel finished the job. We have five remaining; four functioning. Lightfoot promised to bring them back online. There are other mayoral candidates who have argued the city should not be in the business of direct services. We have a plan to address this and we’ll be releasing that. I will say that having to pick between private providers and public providers is like saying one can’t exist among the other is like saying we can’t have libraries and bookstores. The city should have a say in what’s going on with our folks. With our plan there will be a commitment to put the clinics that left back online, not necessarily in their original locations. I’d also like to see mobile clinics and 24/7 clinics that focus on crisis and trauma. We also want services that serve youth- in and outside of schools. Look out for that in October.

On the subject of menu money, I’m with you. It makes no sense that CDOT has a budget and aldermen have to use menu money for services that should be covered by CDOT. It’s also counterintuitive to say “I’m anti prerogative but I’m going to continue this old school way of dealing with this small discretionary fund for the ward.” It breeds prerogative. It makes prerogative less effective.
Chicago is one of the few large cities without a charter. We are governed by a small and old state law and ordinances that have been passed over time. The biggest thing that governs us is custom. We don’t have a document that governs us. The mayor being the presiding officer of City Council is crazy but it’s custom. The mayor picking committee chairs is crazy but it’s custom. The entire process is like an old wives tale being passed down. If you ever wonder why the city can be so ineffective, that’s part of it.
On the other hand, because we don’t have a charter, we can fix the issue around menu funds pretty quickly.

Attendee: I saw on your website something about reconnecting communities that were disconnected by the Eisenhower Expressway. What are some of your ideas?

KB: When the Eisenhower was constructed, it literally put a whole in many West side communities like Austin, Lawndale, East and West Garfield Park. It sounds crazy now: building an expressway with a train in the middle of it. I think that there are many communities adjacent to the expressway that feel disconnected. There aren’t even exits on the expressway for some of them. There’s some historical insensitivity that we have to be careful with addressing.
Another element is the Blue Line. We are literally asking residents and visitors to travel from the central business district in the third largest city in the United States to the busiest international airport in this country on trains that are slow, old, and loud. There’s plenty of room for improvement on both ends of the Blue Line. There are communities on the Forest Park branch of the line that need to be reconnected to the Blue Line. The Regional Transit Authority has done a few studies on it but they’re tight lipped because they don’t want to piss off the Chicago Transit Authority. The governing structure of the CTA is a whole other topic we could spend an hour on but I think fundamentally we need to be open and proactive towards focusing on areas that have been disinvested for decades.

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