Elevating Chicago

CDOT Archives

An Open Letter to Gabe Klein

Dear Mr. Klein,

I heard that come January 1, you'll be out of a job.  What a bummer.  But Washington's loss has to be someone's gain, right? Have you thought about Chicago?

First, let me level with you: Yes, we get snow regularly.  But we know better than to proclaim a snowfall as "Snowmageddon" until it's over 2 feet.  We have the infrastructure to clear it--and a populace that isn't afraid to use a shovel (perhaps you remember one of our former residents referring to our "flinty toughness"?)  And yes, as a result, we get enough potholes to make driving more painful than a trip to the dentist.  But we're already the home of Lollapalooza, why not bring your famed (?) Potholepalooza to town?

But!                                      Gabe Klein Dreaming.png

You may not have heard, but we're gonna have a new Mayor here next year.  You joined Mayor Fenty's staff in Washington halfway through his term and accomplished a ton.  Imagine getting in at the start of a new mayor's term (our first new Mayor in over 2 decades!) and having nearly free reign, since the new Mayor's priorities will likely be on reducing crime and improving the school system.

Although actual policy statements have been rare thus far in the campaign, everyone agrees that the Mayor's office needs to become more open.  You helped bring DDOT into the 21st century by actually establishing a twitter presence, opening data sets to the public, and more--CDOT needs that kind of reform badly.

You can be the first great Transportation Commissioner here since... well, it's been a damn long time.  We've had repeated turnover in the job in recent years as Mayor Daley tires of each new placeholder.  While they've all mostly moved the ball forward on incremental reforms, it's only been at the whim of a Mayor whose attention is obviously divided.  So while we have a bike plan (which DC's now almost dwarfs when you consider the disparity in size between the cities themselves), and a Central Area Action Plan, and even a few Streetscape plans, no one has laid out the grand vision that Chicago needs to become a city that works for everyone--not just drivers--once again.

And just think: You won't have to fight anymore turf wars.  The National Parks Service won't claim jurisdiction over every random triangle park or circle and then fail to maintain it.  Though there are certainly NIMBYs here like anywhere else, there's no Committee of 100 to try to thwart you at every turn.  It's all yours.  We only have a few diagonal avenues to break up our lovely street grid, a fantastic slate upon which you can build a shining beacon of Bus Rapid Transit, bicycle infrastructure, and whatever else you want.

Speaking of bike infrastructure, did I mention Chicago's topography? We're flat.  Utterly, completely, incredibly flat.  When you try to push out a bike sharing program (because I'm sure Alta would be more than willing to work with you again to bring their system to America's third largest city), you'll never have to worry about overcrowding at stations at the bottom of hills--there aren't any.

You've worked hard to bridge gaps between the rich and poor areas of DC, promoting capital-intensive projects like the new streetcar lines in the worse-off areas, hoping to spur improvement.  Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, and it's high time our transportation options linked these areas rather than divided them.

So go take your vacation in January (you've clearly earned it).  And when you get back, come by and leave your card with the Mayoral frontrunners.  It'll be one less tough decision for them, and one new fantastic opportunity for you.

Trying to Cross the Road, but Kept from Reaching the Other Side

One of the advantages of the Chicago street grid is that it allows for mixed-use neighborhoods even if individual properties are not mixed-use.  You can see how this works in practice by looking at a typical quarter-mile square like the one on the northwest side bordered by Belmont, Cicero, Diversey, and Laramie below.  On the major streets there are almost exclusively commercial and business uses (zoned in blue and pink, respectively,) while the interior blocks are residential (the tan "RS-3" tag.)  Although not ideal, this still means that with the right mix of stores, a local resident's needs can be taken care of with a quarter-mile walk in any direction.

Belmont-Cicero-Diversy-Laramie Zoning.png

Image courtesy Chicago Zoning Map, http://maps.cityofchicago.org/website/zoning/

In practice though, the major streets are not commercial corridors which allow walkability.  Really, Chicago's street design encourages residents not to cross their nearest arterial, no matter how enticing the retail possibilities are on the other side.  The city's stance on arterials completely ignores the existence of the non-driving public in its official Street Design Standards [pdf, emphasis mine]:

"The arterial streets are intended to provide for the movement of large volumes of through traffic and commercial traffic for longer distances, while local streets are intended primarily for the provision of access to adjacent property."

You can see--and have probably felt--the results whenever you've come to an intersection where a local street meets an arterial.

Continue reading...

Provisional Solutions, not Provisional Leaders

One of the things I mentioned on Tuesday with regards to Bobby Ware and the direction CDOT needs to take bears explaining a little more.  One of the most important aspects of running a business in the private sector is the notion of "agility."  If a business can't adapt to changing times, they'll go the way of the buggy whip.  Disruptive technologies like the car at the beginning of the 20th century or the internet at the end drove many businesses under and produced new titans of industry.

What does all this have to do with CDOT?  Like businesses, cities have to adapt to changing times.  Cities need diverse economies, a large pool of human capital, and a willingness to try new solutions.  Chicago has the first two and that sets us up to at the very least survive the current upheaval.  But if we want to thrive in the next generation like we're capable of, we're going to have to be creative.

Continue reading...

CDOT's New Chief: A Caretaker When We Need a Leader?

On Friday, Mayor Daley made a sudden move to head off alleged corruption in the Water Department, but leaves the Department of Transportation in a precarious state.  For almost a year, Thomas Powers was CDOT's acting commissioner--the acting title stuck because of a conflict of interest with area engineering firms--but now he is gone to head up the Water Department.  Bobby Ware, who has been managing deputy commissioner since 2007, will replace Thomas, I would think as acting for at least a time, but I haven't seen any details indicating either way.

Now, I've never met Bobby Ware--in fact, until this little shake-up I'd never even heard of him.  I trust that he's a good man who will do right by the city.  But two things about this situation concern me--one specific to Mr. Ware, and one about the larger effect this may have on the city.  First, my concern with Mr. Ware is one of expertise.  He has only been with CDOT for about 6 years, and spent the decade before that as a lawyer.  Meanwhile, the man he replaces--Thomas Powers--is a registered civil engineer who had been working for CDOT since 1996.  Maybe 6 years in the department is enough to learn how to manipulate the bureaucracy--though my professional experience with bureaucracies on this scale says it's not.

Perhaps some part of Mr. Ware's background really proves this promotion to be the right move--maybe he's a very experienced manager and the department needs that more than lots of technical expertise right now--but then CDOT and the Mayor need to be say that they've given this some thought and aren't just promoting the next in line as a short-term band-aid solution that doesn't actually solve anything.

More broadly, the fact that the city has not had a full-time commissioner since early 2009 says something unfortunate about how Chicago views one of the most vital parts of our infrastructure.  

Continue reading...

Most Active Pages Right Now

ChicagoNow.com on Facebook