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16 organizations sign letter to Mayor Johnson calling for a “a bold and visionary” CDOT chief

It's great to see a letter noting that while Gia Biagi helped create a safer, more equitable transportation system, the next CDOT chief must take larger steps in that direction.

5:54 PM CDT on August 7, 2023

Yesterday’s Taste of the Bike Grid ride organized by Chicago, Bike Grid Now!, one of the letter signees. Photo: Michael McLean

Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi, recently announced she's stepping down this Friday. In an exit interview with Streetsblog, she argued that the Lightfoot Administration deserves credit for "over a hundred miles of bike network," "more than a thousand pedestrian safety improvements at intersections across the city," and creating a more equitable approach to installing safety infrastructure. The latter, she said, included more focus on lower-income and working-class neighborhoods, and increased opportunities for community input.

However, some transportation advocates have argued that while Biagi had good intentions, Chicago didn't do as much as peer cities during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time of increased traffic fatalities, to promote safe, efficient walking, biking, and transit. They said the problem might have been Lightfoot, who famously once said of Chicago, "We are a car city," spent public money to reimburse residents for buying gas, and brought NASCAR to Grant Park.

Today the grassroots group Better Streets Chicago posted an open letter to new Mayor Brandon Johnson, signed by many other local sustainable transportation, environmental, and/or social justice organizations. See the full list of signees below.

The document thanks Biagi for her efforts and achievements. But it also asks Johnson to "appoint a bold and visionary leader" as CDOT chief.

"Important strides were made under [Biagi's] leadership in beginning to center equitable investments in disinvested communities and to mend the often contentious relationship the department has had with advocates and community members," the letter argues.

Biagi, 2nd from right, at groundbreaking for 71st Street streetscape in July 2021. Photo: John Greenfield

But the document urges Johnson to give serious thought to his pick for the next commissioner. It notes that this is one of his most important decisions, since it will affect many crucial issues, "from environmental, climate, racial and disability justice, to affordable housing, education, labor rights, and beyond."

The letter states that the future CDOT chief must:

• "Lead with a spirit of compassion and collaboration," listening to and amplifying the viewpoints and needs of residents and advocates, and working closely with other city agencies.

• "Center people over the movement of private automobiles," noting that the car-centric approach that has dominated U.S. urban planning for decades needs to be reversed to make walk/bike/transit safer and more convenient.

• "Be bold and empowered," taking a go-big-or-go-home approach to city planning, including risk-taking, learning from the failures/successes of other cities, and making sure positive changes are done citywide.

• "Re-think Vision Zero": The letter notes that while the goal of this initiative was to eliminate serious and fatal traffic crashes, there has been a 17 percent increase in fatalities since Chicago released its Vision Zero Plan in 2017.

• "Commit to racial equity and mobility justice": In language reminiscent of the speeches and writing of Olutunji Oboi Reed, founder of the Chicago-based mobility justice group Equiticity (a signee), the letter states, "CDOT must formalize a comprehensive, sincere, and unflinching commitment to racial equity and mobility justice." It adds that such an attitude is needed to "dismantle structural racism, remove racialized inequities, and improve life outcomes for racially marginalized communities."

The document concludes by pointing out the urgent need to reduce the number pedestrian and bike fatalities; improve the CTA; combat climate change; and make Chicago transportation access more equitable. "Addressing these challenges will require bold, courageous, and visionary leadership from Mayor Johnson and his next-appointed CDOT commissioner – and advocates stand ready to work alongside them."

It's great to see an open letter to Mayor Johnson signed by 16 advocacy groups noting that, while Gia Biagi helped our city make progress towards a safer and more equitable transportation system, the next CDOT chief must take larger steps in that direction.

Read the full letter here.

Organizations that signed the document:

Better Streets Chicago

Access Living

Active Transportation Alliance

Chicago, Bike Grid Now!

Chicago Family Biking

Commuters Take Action

Environmental Law & Policy Center

The Equiticity Racial Equity Movement

Elevated Chicago

High Speed Rail Alliance

Metropolitan Planning Council

Northwest Center

Sierra Club Chicago

Shared-Use Mobility Center

The Southwest Collective

Urban Environmentalists Illinois

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