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21st Century Mobility for Chicago

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion on "21st Century Mobility" at the Goethe Institute in Washington, DC.  (Note they actually pronounce it 'Ger-te' there, not the real way of 'Go-thee' like we do.)  David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington and Professor Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech were the speakers, and it was a great way to spend an evening.  They filmed the session, but I haven't yet seen it posted anywhere--I'll update if I find it (let me know if you do!) The discussion mostly focused on activities in DC and throughout Germany, but they touched on a lot of widely applicable ideas.  DC is a mess when it comes to overlapping jurisdictions, and Germany obviously doesn't have the same governmental structure, so only some of them can really be applied to Chicago.




One of the big topics they touched on was the idea of regional cooperation.  Not just the 6-county region we call Chicagoland, but the integration of several metropolitan areas.  And not just cooperating on inter-city projects like Midwest High Speed Rail--though that's certainly vital.  True regional cooperation means aligning local projects throughout a region.  Buehler suggested little things like timing local routes to coincide with the arrival and departures of inter-city transit, but I think there's a chance for truly groundbreaking cooperation: fare system integration.

In addition to the big cities that MWHSR would connect, more than half the Big Ten (or whatever it's about to become) would essentially have "local" stops: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio State.  Between students coming and going, football Saturdays, and all the people who come for the work these schools drive, the region is in a position to take a significant portion of cars off the roads consistently.  And the technology isn't too far-off, either: as smart phones become more capable of making point-purchases and general-use RFID credit/debit cards become the norm, standardization of fare-gathering will be a necessary step to keep the system useful--just like converting from tokens to magnetic stripe cards was last decade.

They also talked about how easy it is to convert people from car-centric lifestyles to what they referred to as "green transport" by integrating the two more fully.  Little things can make a huge difference in this area.  In addition to coordinating fare systems with other cities, integrating car sharing and parking into that payment system could be a boon to public transit.

But wait, you're probably wondering, won't more people use car sharing programs if it's that easy, increasing congestion on our roads?  Maybe, but it'll also expose more people to the fact that with a transit pass and car sharing membership, you can save a ton of money by not actually owning a car without sacrificing personal mobility.  The decrease in driving at the margins for people reserving a car as opposed to just going to their garage I believe would more than make up for people going the other direction.

Finally, Professor Buehler also told a story about failing his first driver's exam in Germany because the instructor didn't think he was aware enough of a bicyclist approaching the intersection.  Granted, a lot of the Illinois Secretary of State's facilities are not in places where there are a lot bikes--or all that many pedestrians.  But as Alpert and Buehler kept stressing, little changes like testing drivers as strictly on car-ped-bike interactions as on everything else can go a long way toward making Chicago a more livable place.

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