Elevating Chicago

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Lies, Damn Lies, and Chicago's Congestion "Problem"

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

The Texas Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility Report is always good for a few screaming headlines, and this year's release doesn't disappoint. Chicago and Washington, DC tied for the longest commuter delays,* totaling 70 hours per commuter per year in 2009 (the most recent year for data). That's pretty awful, especialy when you compare that to the 64 hours per commuter per year we wasted in 2008.  And since 2009 was a worse year economically, this number certainly won't improve as more people (hopefully) get back to work, many of whom will commute by driving themselves.

Except that TTI's rankings are a crock. When a rough draft of this report came out last year, Chicago's own CEOs for Cities responded: their "Driven Apart" report is the most thorough debunking of TTI's methods I've ever seen.  Briefly, TTI has 2 main ranking systems, and both of them have fundamental flaws.

  1. "Delay Time." Chicago ranks #1 in the nation in total delay hours, but what is a delay? Well, anytime you travel on a highway below 60 mph or on an arterial below 30, you're adding to the delay.  Nevermind that most expressways around here have 55 mph speed limits and arterials are often 25 mph!
  2. "Travel Time Index" This is the one that really rankles, because it produces a score which state DOTs can use like a cudgel to convince politicians to waste taxpayer money on highway capacity increases that never solve congestion problems. I'll let David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington (our brethren at #1) take it away:

Consider two hypothetical cities. In Denseopolis, people live within 2 miles of work on average, but the roads are fairly clogged and drivers can only go about 20 miles per hour. However, it only takes an average of 6 minutes to get to work, which isn't bad.

On the other hand, in Sprawlville, people live about 30 miles from work on average, but there are lots and lots of fast-moving freeways, so people can drive 60 mph. That means it takes 30 minutes to get to work.

Which city is more congested? By TTI's methods, it's Denseopolis. But it's the people of Sprawlville who spend more time commuting, and thus have less time to be with their families and for recreation.

Of course, who needs a hypothetical when there's a perfectly good real-world example of this: according to the report, Chicago and Houston have the same Travel Time Index of 1.25 (which ranks us 5th among very large cities, for the record). However, Chicago drivers only need an average of 13.5 miles to reach work, while Houston's average commute distance is 22.1 miles. We are desneopolis, and that's a good thing.

*Really, Jon Hilkevitch? You're gonna fall for TTI's trap too? I know you saw the CEOs for Cities report back in September--you wrote about it very cogently. So why the regurgitation of TTI's press release now? I'll give you credit for not stooping to repeat TTI's claim that "in the end, there's a need for more capacity" and instead pointing out how much worse it would be if Chicago didn't have good public transportation. But why not mention Driven Apart and say that although TTI is (unfortuantely) the standard, there are serious problems with it? Help make us an informed citizenry and all that, right?

Train Tracker Thoughts

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

As you've probably heard by now, the CTA will introduce a Train Tracker pilot program in the next month or so.  This is, undoubtedly, terrific news.  But until we get further details about the system and can play around with it, I'd like to present some ideas/potential pratfalls for the new system.

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--Location, location, location.  How the CTA places these screens at stations is vital to their usefulness.  Obviously one at platform level is vital--always good to know how much longer you'll be standing in the cold.  The question is, where should the street-level screen go?

I'd say there are really only two locations to choose from.  One, facing the fare gates (or just outside them) and clearly visible before you pay your fare.  The second is physically outside the station.  For elevated stations, the station entrance is usually directly below the tracks, so a screen that is visible as you approach on the sidewalk would be protected from the elements (and could be protected from birds easily enough).  Similarly, at subway stations, a screen visible before going below ground would be best--though since most stations have multiple entrances, the cost of placing a display at every one may not be worth it.

--Online.  Since this is only a pilot and there won't be displays at every station, making Train Tracker easily available online is the only way most riders will interact with the system.  And most of those people will be checking the site on their mobile phone, so it's even more crucial that the interface be top notch.  Washington, DC does a fantastic job in this regard.  Here's their mobile site.  It's easy to navigate and almost entirely text, so it loads quickly, even on a slow network. The only thing I'd add would be an auto-refresh option--if the arrival times will update every 25 seconds, set the refresh period to 30.

--Open Source.  Considering the success of 3rd party applications (not to mention the manifold uses for the Bus Tracker API), there's no reason not to release the QuickTrak/Train Tracker data similarly.

--Depth of Information.  Looking at the mockup screenshots the CTA includes in their press release, it looks like we'll get 6 pieces of information: time of the last update, current temperature, line, direction, run number, and estimated time of arrival.

I'd push for 2 more pieces of information: one, give the update time down to the second.  I know the ETA isn't necessarily going to be accurate down to the second, but keep in mind: if the "as of" time is only accurate to the minute, and ETAs are accurate to within 30-45 seconds, you're looking at almost a 2 minute margin of error.  The CTA says the displays will update every 20-30 seconds, so why not tell us exactly when it last queried the system, and cut the margin of error in half?

Second, the displays should include the number of cars in the train that's about to arrive.  It may seem like a small thing, but if you know the length of the train, you can figure out whether or not you can spread out from everyone else along the platform, without having to catch up to the final door as it slides by you.  I actually asked the CTA about this over the summer, and here's the crux of their response:

"One of the purposes of the pilot would be to test the different capabilities of the program. At this time there are no plans to display the number of rail cars on an approaching train - some of the LED signs used for the program  pose character limitations for the additional information and adjustments are often made based on special events or circumstances on a particular day on a particular line that requires rail operations to deviate from what is normally put into service."

Ok, some of the signs can't hold that much information.  (Again, I think DC is instructive here: the displays have all the screen resolution of a game of pong, but they still manage to fit the number of cars.)  But why not make sure the system is at least disseminating this data, and then program each display based on its capabilities? The CTA could still include this information online, which is the only way people will get the info anyway if they're not at a pilot station.  Additionally, the CTA wrote:

"We have a schedule that designates how many cars are in each consist on any train based on ridership demands [sic].  However, this plan is subject to change - adjustments are often made based on special events or circumstances on a particular day on a particular line that requires rail operations to deviate from what is normally put into service.  This is not something that we would be able to provide."

Well, that's a relief--the CTA has a schedule, but are willing to deviate from it depending on the day's circumstances.  And when they deviate, they no doubt know the new trainset's length.  So as that train makes its way through the system, this shouldn't be a hard piece of data to include, right?

Additionally, it'll be interesting to see how Train Tracker handles arrivals.  In Washington, DC, there's both an "ARR" notation just before the train enters the station, and then a "BRD" as the train stops and opens its doors.  Whether or not the CTA can give that kind of granularity depends on whether or not there's a sensor at the entrance to the station, but we'll see.

Finally, a bonus for any programmers out there: if and when the API is released, it's screaming for an animation of Tower 18's operations (that's the intersection of Wells & Lake).  I'll take a stab at this, but if you write it, I will pimp the hell out of it here, on twitter, and anywhere else people will listen.

New Monroe St. Crosswalk: thanks for following the law!

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

Before the weekend sets in, just a tinge of outrage over something that is so close to being perfect.  Blair Kamin writes about the new crosswalk on Monroe between the Art Institute's Modern Wing and Millenium Park.  It's a great compromise between safely getting pedestrians across the street and unnecessarily impeding traffic with a full-on traffic light.

It's very simple: you press a button, wait for the big flashing yellow lights around the pedestrian signs to alert the cars to your presence, (very handy as daylight gets shorter as we head into winter,) and then cross! Cars continue on their way, you enjoy your day, everybody's happy.

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Image courtesy Chicago Tribune


But wait, what's that last note there? "Thank the driver"? Yes, even the mechanical voice that accompanies the signs reminds you, "And remember, thank the driver for stopping as you are crossing the roadway."  I'm all in favor of Nice Midwestern interactions, but as of this summer, all cars must stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk.  Yes, that's right, we're now being instructed to thank people for following a simple, straightforward law.  A law which, if drivers follow it, will mildly inconvenience them--if they ignore it, odds are a pedestrian gets hurt or dies.

So much of the rest of this--from process to final product--was executed well, but this kind of auto-centric urban design is absolutely flabbergasting.  Go enjoy your weekend, and be safe in those crosswalks.

Officially Going to 2040

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

Yesterday, leaders of the 7 counties that broadly make up Chicagoland voted on the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's (CMAP) final version of their Go To 2040 regional plan. Not surprisingly, it passed unanimously. Now what? Well, it's now up to the cities and counties in the region to get on with implementing the strategies CMAP has outlined, and funding and building some of the projects Go To 2040 calls for. First though, let's remind ourselves exactly what we're left with.

Because CMAP is regional, Go To 2040 tries to build toward a scenario where all of Chicagoland prospers equally in the next three decades. The plan talks about local municipalities partnering together to create livable communities, where water is preserved, human capital is attracted and retained, and people can get to and from their jobs in a timely fashion. When CMAP discusses competition, it is against other metropolitan regions--both nationally and internationally.

CMAP 2040 Capital projects

Image courtesy CMAP

If CMAP's models prove correct, Chicagoland will add 2.4 million residents by 2040. Many of them will be of working age. However, the plan makes no preference or prediction for where those jobs will be. This leaves us to mull over the likely outcomes: in one scenario, the region experiences a massive decentralization--the jobs move out of the current urban core and, in harmony with the livable communities CMAP advocates, people will live near where they work. In another scenario, jobs continue to accumulate as they have for the previous three decades--mainly near the loop, with suburban office parks (like those near O'Hare) dotting the periphery.

Note that neither of these scenarios is inherently better than the other. They both have their positives and negatives, and recognizing that the relationship between the city and its suburbs is symbiotic--not parasitic--is crucial to any kind of regional success in the next three decades. But in both cases, there will be winners and losers. Yes, a prosperous region is not a zero-sum game, but the past is instructive. The entire post-World War II era has been prosperous for America as a whole and the Chicago region in particular. But it would be foolish to argue that Chicago itself felt that prosperity as thoroughly as its suburbs have.

So how will this growth and prosperity shake out in the next generation? Without either a massive infrastructure change (which CMAP readily admits we don't have the money for) or a sudden, similarly massive change in how people do business (say, a continually growing emphasis on the service industry and a daily telecommuting approaching 50% of the workforce) I don't see any evidence for a fundamental deviation from the status quo. The vast majority of new jobs in the region will be where they are today: inside Chicago's city limits, and mostly in and around the loop. And in order to keep those business functioning (and ideally to attract new ones) people have to reach their jobs efficiently. Perhaps, with a good urban infill program, people will move closer to the dense core (a kind of melding of the two scenarios I outlined above), but for several reasons* that likely won't be enough.

What then, will be enough? Better transportation, simple (and as complicated) as that. Go To 2040 has listed just about every conceivable project Chicago could hope to undertake in the next 30 years here. I'll get into it in the future, but to put it simply: the questions over how our limited funds will be distributed for these projects will determine the shape and prosperity of the region. Will the West Loop Transportation Center add core capacity to the L (as opposed to simply being a high-speed rail hub)? Will the city spur development around the proposed red line expansion, or waste these new stations as park-and-rides? (Or, perhaps go another route all together--Gray Line, anyone?) Will the expansion of IL-53 grow as a real urban boulevard, or just a slightly prettier version of US-41? Will the Mid-City Transitway ever be real? These are the battles that will make a difference.

*the liquidity (or lack thereof) of housing and the state of public schooling in Chicago, just to name two.

Labor Day Weekend Food for Thought

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

A few items to ponder over the long weekend, which I hope to expand on next week.

More on Street Signs
I've been thinking more about street signs--and especially numbering on street signs.  What strikes me is how infrequently block numbers are posted at all.  Every quarter or eighth of a mile on arterial streets is ok when you're driving, because if you miss your turn or turn the wrong way, it doesn't take much effort to double back to where you want to go.  But suppose you're on foot or on bike.  Suddenly making the wrong turn becomes a larger issue.  It's an issue both because of the effort you have to expend to correct it, but also because it will likely take longer to realize you've made a mistake in the first place.  So many of Chicago's residential neighborhoods have zoning requirements for setbacks that, without well-lit front doors, you can walk a full block without being able to make out an address.  In the loop, where many buildings are known simply by their address, it isn't a big as big a deal that the street signs almost universally do not include block numbers.  But if the loop is all we're concerned with, we're doing something wrong.

Frequent Network Maps
Building off a discussion from Jarret Walker at Human Transit, Jeff Wegerson at Prairie State Blue has mapped out a rough version of Chicago's Frequent Network Map.  His includes both bus and rail, and a few things jump out at me. First and foremost is how the canal carves up South Side transit options.  From 18th to (what looks like) 55th, there's no good east-west transit. These maps also really drive home how dense the loop is compared to the rest of the city, and how dramatically that skews our transit.  If you look at the 11 minute map in particular (below), you can start to see the skeleton of a corridor-based growth pattern that, if developed correctly, could help make Chicago more poly-centric, which would both ease the burden on the L and very likely lower total miles per vehicle in the city.  This is an idea I really want to get into in more depth, so if anyone knows of any studies about VMT and polycentricity, I'd love some light reading for this weekend.

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Jeff Wegerson's 11-minute CTA Frequent Network Map


Circles and Circumference
Also at Human Transit (what can I say, he's got a lot of good stuff going on over there), Walker talks about how the Moscow circle line is probably a bit too small with a diameter just under 4 miles.  Now, clearly both the urban and transit geography of Chicago and Moscow are very different, but the planned Circle Line here would suffer from a more extreme case of the same problem Moscow's line faces.  There, there's no reason to ride more than half the line.  Here, because there's nothing (from a transit standpoint) east of the loop, you'd never ride for more than a quarter of the line.  I'm not going to say that this is proof that the Circle Line is a waste of money as-designed--the need for any kind of inter-line connection that doesn't force riders all the way into the loop is desperately needed--but I think we as a city need to think long and hard about our current and future geometry. (I'd hate to turn it into a buzzword, but polycentricity is a big part of this, too.)

Where you are vs. Where you're going

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

Suppose you're driving west on North Avenue.  You cross the river, scoot under the Kennedy, and come to the light at Ashland.  You look up at the street sign and notice: you're at 1600 West.  That's great.  Your friend lives on Sawyer, which you know is just past Kedzie.  Just over two miles to go, no sweat.  When you approach the light at Kedzie though, you double check your friend's address--in the 1800 block.  Quick: which lane do you get into?  Like a good Chicagoan, you know that North Avenue is 1600 North, and you'll be making a right onto Sawyer to head north a couple blocks.   Easy. (Sawyer's also one way north, so it was really your only choice.)

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But what about everyone else?  The ones that don't know the names and numbers of every east-west arterial from Howard to 130th.   Well, they've got two options.  One is to try and crane their neck as they pass through one of the major intersections and hope to make out what the sign for North Avenue says--this is more than a little dangerous, and you've probably sworn at an out-of-towner who slowed down through an intersection to try this.  The other option is trial and error--but with one-way streets, that's a recipe for disaster.  Chicago has made a subtle value judgment here; it's more important to know the addresses on the street you're on than the ones on the street you're about to cross--or turn onto.  In our example above, it was nice to know that you were 2 miles from Kedzie, but was that bit of knowledge more important than knowing which way to turn on Sawyer?

If you've ever navigated in another city that consistently puts block numbers on its street signs, you've probably noticed that they do it differently.  In fact, Seattle is the only other major city I could find which numbers the Chicago way. In Philadelphia, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and many others, the system is exactly reversed.

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Turn left for the 2000 block of Kater St. in Philadelphia, right for the 2100 block. Photo courtesy of Edu-Tourist on Flickr.

Taking our original example, every street sign you'd see on North avenue would, in one way or another, tell you that turning left (as you head west) will take you down the 1500 block, while if you turn right, you'll be on the 1600 block.   There's an assumption here that once you're on the same street as your destination, you either know what hundred you turned onto it (and so can count blocks until you're on the right one) or you can catch the address of any building as it passes by.

Having navigated extensively in both systems, I still can't decide which I like better--and which I think is better for the city as a whole, which is a different question.  I think Chicago's system is better for locals, but the other way is more straightforward for tourists and new residents--especially because these cities tend to put numbers on street signs at more than just major intersections. Anyone have a strong preference one way or another? And more interestingly, does anyone know the how/when/why behind this decision?

Go To 2040...Better (Part II)

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

Sorry for the recent lack of publishing.  There are likely some changes around here on the horizon, but we'll get to that later.  Today, I'd like to post the second part of my review of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's (CMAP) draft Go To 2040 Plan, available online here.  Today I'm looking at the overall vision of their section on Regional Mobility.  I'll get into the specifics of the projects they include (and some they don't) in part III.

"Symptoms of decline include the dehumanizing effects of ever-worsening traffic congestion, painful cuts to public transit, a backlog of deferred maintenance on roads and bridges, and antiquated buses, trains, and stations. Inadequate investment in transportation infrastructure is partly to blame. But ballooning costs, inefficient investment decisions, and a lack of consensus about priorities are at least equally at fault, and maybe more so."  --Go To 2040 Draft, page 152.

That's about as concise a description of the challenge we as a metropolitan area face as I've ever seen.  The next step is figuring out what to do about it.  There are two fundamental questions driving Chicago's transportation choices in this document, though neither is explicitly stated as such.  One, considering the expected demographic changes to the area, how do we want everyone to get where they're going?  Then, based on the answer to that question, how do we pay for the maintenance, improvement, and creation of the infrastructure necessary to make it happen?

CMAP answers the first question largely by arguing for more of the same investments we've seen in the last few decades.  I understand--and agree with--the current ethos of "fix it first," so it's good to see GOTO2040 make the call to "prioritize efforts to maintain and modernize the existing system."  (p. 152) But I refuse to believe that it'll take 30 years to bring the current system up to a state of good repair.  And even so, I don't see the wisdom in simply reinforcing the system that has brought us to our current combination of crippling congestion and unsustainable sprawl.

In fact, CMAP agrees with this idea.  On page 156, they proclaim: "The region should strive toward fostering an environment...where ease of mobility is ensured and where car ownership is not a requirement for living, working, and recreation."  Currently, car ownership is a necessity in the majority of Chicagoland, including large swaths of the city itself.  Without a bold plan to expand non-auto transportation options, that plainly won't change.

I realize most of the current fiscal situation augurs against bold planning.  The status quo in Illinois currently allocates 55% 45% of transportation funding to Chicagoland, despite the area being an economic engine much greater than this percentage.   Most other funding mechanisms need federal (or at the very least state) backing to be productive.  The federal gas tax has been stuck at 19 cents since 1993, and needs to be increased and pegged to inflation.  As cars become more efficient though, that tax will yield less and less revenue, so finding a replacement is a necessity.

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To that end, CMAP backs a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee, though cautions it must be "implemented carefully" so it is not regressive or overly burdensome on the freight industry.  Performance parking (changing metered rates throughout the day with the aim of continually filling 85% of the spots in a particular area) can be implemented locally, but without adequate transit options to help people reach these areas it can cripple nearby businesses.  Most promising though is congestion pricing.  Whether it means turning some expressway lanes into High Occupancy-Toll (HOT) lanes or implementing a central area charge similar to London's, a well-run congestion effort could do wonders for Chicagoland's transportation infrastructure.

Basically, CMAP is using today's bleak economy to hamstring the next 30 years worth of planning  Every demand-side indicator--a growing population, especially of aging boomers and more auto-hesitant millenials, which is inclined toward good transit and other green transportation--says a bold vision would be welcomed.  Instead, we're given "more comfortable and attractive trains, buses and stations, traveler information systems, state of the art pavement materials with longer life spans, signal timing improvements, bus stop improvements, corridor upgrades" (pg 165).

All of these are great ideas, and will certainly help the system.  But every single one (with the exception of info systems and the nebulous "corridor upgrades") is a small-bore, relatively inexpensive change that can be phased in as current infrastructure needs replacing.  If we're going to convince people to elect leaders who will do things like enact congestion pricing, we need to give these politicians a vision they can sell that's greater than "more attractive trains."  There's nothing a politician loves more than ribbon cutting photo-ops.  The question is what's behind the ribbon between now and 2040.

Drunk Drivers are Dumb

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

Drunk drivers are dumb.  Drunk drivers who purposely try to hit cyclists are even dumber.  Not sure if you know where I'm going with this, but last year in Brookfield this actually happened.  On May 31, 2009, Erik Fabian and Armando Reza got drunk, went behind the wheel, and played the game "hit the cyclist;" they were sentenced to two years probation, and ten days in jail, respectively.  This relatively light sentence has caused a great deal of outrage in the Chicago cycling community (led by the Active Transportation Alliance's effort), sparking debate all across the country.  (Streetsblog wrote an informative write-up, check it out.)

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I think there should be penalties for hitting a cyclist, drunk or sober, and I think these two boys should have received graver penalties.  Thankfully, neither "hunted" cyclist was injured, but it brings up the question, how do these bike related accidents keep happening?  And why are the punishments so light?  First, the 2 girls killed down state, and now this case, how can we stop it?

Continue reading...

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.




Continue reading...

My Father, Walking the Walk (and Biking the Bike)

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

For as long as I've been alive (and I believe longer than that), my Father has practiced what Scott and I have been preaching here for only a few months.  Despite living in Chicago's suburbs, he has transit access comparable to anywhere in the city, and he takes full advantage.  He rides his bike a mile and a half each way to the Metra station.  (Try as he might, he can't convince me it's uphill both ways.)  His briefcase and (if he's working out that day) gym bag fit easily into his saddle bags.  He rides in his work clothes--which sometimes means a suit--and so he usually goes at a comfortable pace.  His reflective vest may look dorky, but the streets near our house aren't lit as well as Chicago's, so it's a necessity, especially in the winter when the sun is only in the sky for a few hours.  He'll ride in the rain and the cold, but tries to avoid the snow--not because he can't, but because he doesn't trust drivers.

He's always worked in the loop, so it's just a quick walk from the train station to his office--again, rain or shine.  Sure, this is all a lifestyle choice for him, though I've never heard him say it in those terms.  He doesn't proselytize about any of it--it's just what he does.  He has a car because not all of his weekend errands can be done on foot or bike--though some can.  It's a hybrid, but that was an economic decision as much as anything else--same goes for upgrading our house's A/C system.

When I was about 11, he patiently explained to me that State & Madison was the center of the universe, and told me the next time I came downtown to visit him at work I was on my own to get to him.  It helped that he drew me the most detailed map I'd ever seen--I think it included cardinal directions, wayfinding landmarks, addresses, and even how many paces it would take, as if I was seeking buried treasure.  I found my way, and realized as time went by that there were a number of different ways to get to him and got to explore a little slice of the city--hooray for a robust street grid!

Do I wish he'd wear a helmet? Yes, but old dog/new tricks and all that.  Does he roll stop signs? Yep.  But fortunately our home town's street design doesn't encourage reckless speeding and aren't so busy that it's dangerous.  Could he convince more people around us to do what he does if he'd stop being so unassuming about it? Probably, but they're all old dogs with their own old tricks, too.  Would it be a better place if more people realized how easy it is to make actions like this a lifetime habit?  Absolutely.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.

Go To 2040... Better (Part I)

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

As one of the United States' major metropolitan areas, Chicago is required by law to have a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).  In the past, the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC) along with the Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS) were responsible for this planning.  They merged in 2006 to form the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which is responsible for the next 30-year plan, known as Go To 2040.  CMAP came out with their draft plan last week, and it will be formally accepted by the city CMAP Board of Directors and Policy Committee in October.  In the meantime there will be ten open houses where you can share your comments, starting this past Tuesday in DuPage County, and finishing in Chicago on August 3 at the CMAP office at 233 S. Wacker Drive, Suite 800.  If you can't make any of the meetings, you can also submit written comments to them via email.

There's a lot to go over, so I'm going to break down my thoughts into a few installments over the next week or so.  They've split it up into 5 sections: Livable communities, Regional Mobility, Human Capital, Efficient Governance, and Context and Best Practices.  Although vital to the ongoing success of the entire Chicagoland area, the last 3 are less germane to what we're doing here, and so I'll address them together later on.  First up though: Livable Communities.

Although this is a regional plan, you can see right off the bat Chicago's imprint on it in the definition CMAP uses for livability: a "healthy, safe, and walkable" community that has "a sense of place."  (Page 5) I'll drink to that.

CMAP Regional Development.jpg

And don't let it be said that CMAP doesn't understand the land use problems facing the region.  There's the chart above, showing how much we've spread out as a region, especially over the last 50 years.  And though they don't call it out in very strong language, CMAP tells us we can't continue that way: "'Greenfield' development is, in the long run, more costly by many measures."  (Page 49) That's a pretty sharp--and true!--statement, but this draft then spends most of its time softening that blow.

Continue reading...

News and Notes

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

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Car companies have to find something to promote during Bike to Work Week, right? Photo by the author.


It's Tuesday.  Ivory Coast plays Portugal at 9am, and if this doesn't get you psyched for the match, then I can't really help you.  Here are some news and notes that'll fill your morning while you wait for kickoff.

  • It's Bike To Work Week!  It looks like there might be a few showers today, but then it'll clear up for the rest of the week.  Go enjoy it, stop at any of the pit stops that'll be all around the city.  The Active Transportation Alliance is all over it, as is Bike Chicago.

  • Oooooh, pretty trains go fast

  • The Trib had a few transportation items yesterday with decidedly mixed results.  First is Dan Simmons' "Reverse Commute Takes Their Time" which ignores the basic fact that commuting in any direction takes time.  I think the bigger story here is that reverse commuting exclusively on transit is possible in Chicago at all.  Let's not forget how good we sometimes have it: many cities don't have anywhere near the robust suburban transit options that Pace and Metra provide.  One of the examples Simmons uses is Carmen Cartegena's Elmwood Park-to-Schaumburg commute.  I'm not convinced that's a true reverse commute, but let's say it is: is it any faster in the other direction?  Can it be done from Schaumburg's residential areas anywhere near as easily as the denser Elmwood Park?  And couldn't the headline just as easily be "Reverse Commute Saves Their Money"?

  • Next up is Jon Hilkevitch's pretty balanced piece (though I'm not enamored with the chip-on-our-shoulder headline) "Chicago on the Low-end of High Speed Rail." He makes the case that as many benefits as HSR may bring to Chicago, it won't be as big a boon for us as it will for other regions, including the planned Florida, California, and upstate New York lines.  He notes that this is partly because Chicago is already a remarkably connected city, especially with two major airports serving the city.  This is also something to keep in mind as the US DOT parcels out HSR funding: as worthwhile an investment as Midwest HSR may be, it's going to be tough for us to make the argument that we're the best place for those limited dollars to go.

  • Finally, last Friday the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) published their draft GoTo 2040 Plan.  You have about 6 weeks to comment on the report, and there will be an open house at their office on South Wacker on August 3.  I'm still digesting all of it and hope to have some preliminary thoughts up later this week.

The Chicago Brand

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

To our readers' enjoyment, I'm going to argue with Ted some more about the new bike rack plan.  I agree with some of Ted's arguments (I'd have nothing wrong with an initial test run), on other points, however, we don't see eye to eye.

First, the little things.  I do enjoy the classic-ness of the street signs of San Francisco, but if you're going to make the argument that one similar style of street signs equates to a city brand, then you're going to be talking about most cities.  Chicago streets signs, though ugly, are all green and white (except for our honorary street signs, which too can be a brand of the city: honorary streets - go street names of people nobody has heard of).  When it comes down to it, when I think of SF, I think of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Trans Am building, and when tourists think of Chicago they think of the Bean or the Sears Tower.  So even though I think decorative bike racks will bring tourists to Chicago, it's not because of the uniqueness of the brand image it makes on Chicago.


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An Engineer's Aesthetic

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

Perhaps I'm in the minority on this issue.  (It wouldn't be the first time.)  Perhaps my stubborn preference for subtle consistency is preventing me from full-throated support of a worthy city program.  Whatever it is, I find myself disagreeing with Scott's post yesterday about the new artsy bike rack program.  I understand that it is a program which combines support for local arts with livable infrastructure at a minimal cost to the city.  I'm just not convinced it's the right thing to do.

I look at this program and don't see Cows on Parade or the city couches.  I see a piece of infrastructure which should be distributed equitably around the city that will instead go only where patrons will finance it.  A bike rack is no different than a car's parking space.  As the city's parking meters have gone the way of the dodo--drastically slashing the available bike parking throughout the city--we're losing a public good and hoping for private funds to pick up the slack.  I know that they will in certain parts of the city, but those aren't the only parts of the city where residents should be able to reach their destination without worrying about finding a secure place to lock their bike up.

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Also, as much as I hate the word, a bike rack is an easy opportunity for branding.  Many cities have a subtle piece of infrastructure which becomes iconic by its ubiquity.  Think of New York City's yellow taxicabs, or San Francisco's black and white street signs, or even suburban Evanston's slender black street lamps.  Each of these is particular to its place, and immediately gives residents and visitors a sense of place--no small feat in today's mass produced world.
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The New C-Pass's Impending Failure, or: Why Federal Policy Matters [UPDATED]

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

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The Chicago Transit Board approved a pilot program for a Convention Pass, or C-Pass, at last week's Board Meeting.  It's a simple $3/day pass that will be sold in bulk to convention organizers, who will then pass out the passes to attendees before they arrive.  I have no qualms with the program, and like that the CTA is using a targeted pilot program to get a handle on a revenue source which, judging by the low price, is currently untapped.  Implementing the program in such a way so that convention-goers will have the pass in hand before they arrive at O'Hare or Midway is exactly what has to happen to keep rental cars from clogging McCormick Place's already overused parking lots.

But here's the rub (there's always one in this city): the only way to use the C-Pass to actually get to or from McCormick Place is the 129 bus which only runs during weekday rush hours, and never ventures north of Washington in the loop.  This bus does run by many of the hotels used by convention-goers, but its limited hours gives them little flexibility--the hallmark of useful transitUPDATE: the 3 and 21 buses also run to McCormick Place, my mistake.  I don't believe this undermines my point, but it certainly shows that as the C-Pass gets distributed, the CTA and convention organizers should be sure to point out which bus lines connect attendees' hotels with the convention.

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500 Acres of Beautiful Brownfield Redevelopment

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

One of the items on the docket yesterday for the City Council Zoning Committee was the first step toward changing the face of the South Shore for generations to come.  McCaffery Interests is trying to develop the nearly 500 acre site of the old US Steel South Works site along the lake between 79th and 87th.  As the Tribune first reported, the Zoning Committee approved both a development proposal for the first 77 acres in the northwest corner of the property, as well as an overall zoning plan for the entire development.

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The first phase of the development covers the northwest corner of the now vacant land. Copyright McCaffery Interests.


This is an incredible chance for the city to transform an entire area into a local hub--not to mention add to the string of lake front parks that already covers most of the shoreline.  The first 77 acres alone will add a million square feet of retail space plus plenty of residential units.  When finally completed (maybe before I die?) the 500-acre project calls for 17,000 dwellings--potentially a density of over 30,000 people per square mile, or roughly the same as Lake View.

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Forget 'Swimming in the Potomac,' Let's Learn from the Anacostia

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

News surfaced in the Tribune on Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency is calling on the city to clean up the Chicago River to the point of making it not only safe for boats but for swimmers as well.  Mayor Daley had a simple retort to the feds: "Go Swim in the Potomac."

Where the Feds won't swim: DC's Anacostia River before the recent cleanup. Photo Courtesy of the Anacostia Watershed Society.


My sympathies are with the Mayor on this one.  The city has made great strides in improving not just the river but the land surrounding it.  They continue to work every day, and have plans in place with the help of CMAP's Waterway Management guidance.  Whether or not the EPA passed this statement along to the Illinois Pollution Control Board, Chicago was going to keep on working toward the Chicago River becoming "swimmable." (There's a separate issue here about the necessity of making the river truly "swimmable."  I'd happily go kayaking along the river if I knew it was safe to occasionally fall overboard to cool myself off.  But I have a feeling that when it comes to swimming in natural waters, Lake Michigan does the trick for most Chicagoans.)

But let's take the Mayor's retort for more than the glib sound bite that it is.

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Chicago vs. Philadelphia: Tale of the (Livable) Tape

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

With the holiday weekend coming up, this'll be our last post until at least Tuesday.  This means it's also our last post before the Stanley Cup Finals start Saturday night.  Lots of people have broken down the game and the two cities: from the beards to the architecture to even the actual teams.  And while I don't like to mock another city which is trying (and in some cases succeeding) to make itself more livable, I'm perfectly willing to take a few swipes at a city I called home for four years in the name of civic competition.  So, onto the matchups:

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Bruce Bartlett/Getty Images


Population/Density/Growth
Philadelphia: 1,547,901 (#5 nationally); 8.84 million in the metro area, 11,410 people per square mile; lost about 40,000 people since 1990.
Chicago: 2,853,114 (#3 nationally); 9.79 million in the metro area, 12,649 people per square mile; gained about 70,000 people since 1990.
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Regional Dominance
There's a reason why the Midwest High Speed Rail is also known as the "Chicago Hub."  O'Hare is the hub for American and United, and Southwest counts Midway among its focus cities.   Illinois would be indistinguishable from Iowa without Chicago.  (No offense Iowa, but facts are facts.)

Philadelphia is basically New York's Milwaukee.  They're lucky Amtrak's Acela trains don't skip it like they do other "local" stations.  Their international airport is a hub for UPS and US Airways.  They only anchor half of Pennsylvania's economy (and their hockey team is usually vastly overshadowed by their yinzer brethren.) 
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Mass Transit
SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority) is what the CTA will look like in 5-10 years if we let it fall into a Death Spiral.  Riders use tokens (!) to get on its two piss-stained subway lines, 5 trolleys, and the Norristown High Speed Line, which is basically a school bus on rails.  Ok, they have a subway stop that serves the Wachovia Center directly, but their "Sports Complex" is just 4 stadia in a ½ mile-square parking lot nestled between two highways--the opposite of walkable.

Philadelphia also has a pretty good bus system (they better, considering the state of their rail system,) but it also relies on tokens and cash fares. Plus, Philadelphia's status as an older American city means its streets are perilously narrow, and yet they still allow for on-street parking on most streets.  As a result, on many streets the only way to get around a bus is if you're skinny and ride a bike. 
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Commuter Rail
SEPTA also runs the commuter rail system on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, and they do an OK job of it.  Eight lines running in every direction, including the very handy R1 which takes 18 minutes from the airport to Center City twice an hour.  There's also New Jersey's Port Authority Transit Company (PATCO) that runs trains from New Jersey into Center City.  All in all, not a bad system, and on par with Metra.  Call it a split. 
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Ruinous Urban Highways
Neither Chicago nor Philadelphia has a stellar record when it comes to plunging neighborhood-crushing highways through their urban hearts.  The Kennedy cuts off the West Loop and leaves a weird no man's land next to the North Branch of the river.  The Stevenson will be seen as the growth-stopper it is as the South Loop renews itself in the coming years.

Fortunately, Philly does us one worse.  Along the Schuylkill River, there's great park space around their Art Museum (famous for its "Rocky Steps" not actually, y'know the art that's there) while the western bank of the river is given over to I-76.  I-676 (aka the Vine St. Expressway) is an open gash that connects I-76 to I-95 less than a half mile from City Hall.  And to top it all off, I-95 cuts off the beautiful Society Hill, Old City, and Northern Liberties neighborhoods from the Delaware River.  If it wasn't so awful, it'd be almost impressive how well Philly has isolated itself from two of its defining natural features. 
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Park Space
As I said, there's some nice park space hidden behind Philly's Art Museum.  And they even have 4 nice little squares--Rittenhouse, Franklin, Washington, and Logan!  The Boulevard System puts all of this to shame, and that's completely ignoring Grant Park, Lincoln Park, and the fact that we have beaches. 
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Walk Score
Finally, something a bit more objective: 76-74, Chicago.  Count it. 
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Biking 
Our bike network will total to more than 500 miles when all is said and done.  Philly can only muster 300 miles.  OK, we're a bigger city.  Philly gets the point, at least until I see Mayor Daley actually take part in Bike-to-Work day, like Philadelphia's Mayor Nutter has. 
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FINAL TALLY:
Hawks 2nd logo.gifChicago 6.5
Thumbnail image for philadelphia_flyers.gifPhiladelphia 1.5

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

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

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.

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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.

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Provisional Solutions, not Provisional Leaders

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

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.

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

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

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.  

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Phoned-in Friday

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

It's Friday.  I'm hitting the road soon, it looks like there'll be great weather for the weekend, and at some point the Blackhawks-Sharks series will start.  Here are a couple links to get you through whatever downtime you may have.  We'll be back next week with all sorts of goodness.

  • Today is the Michigan Ave. Bridge's 90th birthday.  I actually got to see the bridge's innards and its lawnmower-sized motor during one of my favorite middle school field trips.  (I'm an engineer through and through, what do you want?) At any rate, there are all sorts of festivities for the occasion starting at 10am, so check it out.

  • Conor Friedersdorf is editing a new site at The Atlantic on "The Future of Cities" to coincide with their current issue.  Conor's a very good writer and does a good job at explaining all the pertinent arguments, so check it often, as he'll be updating it daily throughout the month of May.

  • In case you hadn't heard, May is National Bike Month.  And yet, somehow bike-to-work week is June 12-18.  So, register.  Or take your own initiative and get your own personal Ride With program going.

  • Last week Brookings released their new "State of Metropolitan America" report, and it's got some interesting tidbits, including a look at why, despite a lower population growth rate than much of the country, Chicago is poised for long-term success.
So that's it.  Go run around, enjoy the city.  Happy Friday.

While You're at it, Gov. Quinn...

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

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CNT's Housing vs. H+T Indices on the South Side. Click to Enlarge.


The Pedestrian Safety Act isn't the only bill languishing on Governor Quinn's desk right now that could fundamentally change Chicago's livability for the better.  The Housing + Transportation Affordability Index Act will help citizens and civic leaders make more informed decisions housing decisions.

Back in March, Chicago's own Center for Neighborhood Technology came out with the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, which quantified a basic truth: we spend a lot of money on transportation, and both how we get around and how far we have to go is a direct result of where we've chosen to live.   So if we're going to talk about a city or neighborhood being "affordable" the current method of only looking at the going rental rates or the latest house sale price is truly folly.

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What? I Have to Stop at Crosswalks?

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

I am going to be a little selfish and write this post 95% for me, and only 5% for you, and that is because a new bill has passed in Illinois, and I want to learn about its implications.  Did you know that last month the Illinois Senate passed a bill that requires motorists to come to a complete stop when a pedestrian enters a crosswalk, even if there are no stoplights or stop signs?  I thought this might have been the case, but I wanted to know for sure, so I dug a little deeper.

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Next Stop... Confluence?

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

We're #1!  We're #1!  We have the shortest transit stop names of any of the major systems in the US!  Seriously, why aren't we celebrating this?  Ok, not seriously.  But last week Greater Greater Washington contributor Matt Johnson compared station name lengths around the country to make the point that DC's names are too long.  Meanwhile, L stops have the shortest names in the country averaging just 8.3 characters, almost 2 fewer than Philadelphia's second-ranked SEPTA system.  In fact, our margin is so big, I'd argue we have room to grow our station names and actually increase the clarity of our map.

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In Praise of Tree Grates (Yes, really)

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

Last fall, Scientific American made a splash with an article combining environmental biology with sustainable transportation ideas. (We're animals, after all, so this made a certain amount of sense.)  Their fundamental point was that women on bicycles are an "indicator species" for the degree to which a city is bikable (and by proxy, livable.) For city planners, this yielded very powerful advice: if you want to improve your city's bike infrastructure, make it more female-friendly.

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Although I don't have the extensive data at my fingertips that Scientific American did, I think there's a similar "indicator species" for the walkability of a neighborhood: tree grates.  How can this be so? Well, let's look at the four basic levels of non-industrial development we see throughout most of Chicagoland.  One is Urban Core.  Here we have busy sidewalks and extremely tall buildings.  There isn't nearly enough consistent sunlight at street level to support trees, and who wants them there, anyway?  The shade trees provide is already taken care of by skyscrapers, and the views people come to Chicago for involve towering sheer faces of steel and glass, not leaves.

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The Walk to School

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

As I've gotten older it's become more evident how interconnected all facets of life truly are.  Besides the fact that we live in a very "small world," we live in a society much like Newton's Law: "every action has an equal and opposite reaction."  While this law is primarily in terms of physics, it's also the case with day-to-day life in Chicago.  One wrong turn by a car, one poorly implemented law, one misrepresented neighborhood, or even one inadequately lit street, can be the difference of a livable (literally) city and an unlivable city.  A livable city is not one where children cannot walk to school without the fear of gang violence.  Giving kids a safe route to school won't necessarily stop Chicago's gang related violence of this past year, but it's a crucial start.

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A Change I Do Believe In

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

As I currently sit in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I find myself thinking about the speech I just heard given by the University of Michigan graduating class of 2010's commencement speaker: President Obama.  (For full text and video of the speech, go here.)  We all know that Obama's platform during the campaign was "a change we can believe in," and at the graduation, he spoke about this point.  In this post I will discuss his commencement message and how it relates to many aspects of life, including "Elevating Chicago."

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Securing the RTA's Fiscal Future: A Land Value Tax?

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

Right now, the Regional Transit Authority--the organization which oversees the CTA, Metra, and Pace--is mandated by law to collect 50% of its revenue from fares.  The other 50% is a combination of state and federal grants and assistance, investments, and in particular, sales tax revenue from the 6 county area. (That's Cook, McHenry, Lake, Dupage, Will, and Kane counties.)  As we've seen recently though, sales tax revenue is volatile and cyclical with the economy.  When sales tax receipts fall, the RTA is left in the lurch, often for millions of dollars.  Short-term, there's no great way to fix this without pain.  Now is a great time, however, to introduce a measure that could improve the RTA's financial situation long-term: the Land Value Tax.

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City Knows How to Improve L Station Neighborhoods, Chooses Not To

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

One of the most effective ways to solve the last mile problem is transit oriented development, or TOD.  Or, if you're the CTA and the City of Chicago and just want to be different, you call it Transit Friendly Development, and you publish a toothless "guide" to improving the immediate vicinity of L stations around the city.  Without a single mention of "last mile" and putting forth only non-binding zoning considerations, the CTA, CDOT, and the Department of Zoning and Planning (DZLUP) have proven they can effectively give lip service to one of the most fundamental aspects of livability.

Leaving aside (for the moment) the issue of what--if any--actions the city will take going forward, it's important to see exactly what the city is advocating for.  First, the seven "typologies" they've outlined are Downtown Core (DC), Major Activity Center (MC), Local Activity Center (LC), Dense Urban Neighborhood (DN), Urban Neighborhood (UN), Service Employment District (SD), and Manufacturing Employment District (MD).  Stations are labeled not as what they are today, but as what the city sees them as becoming.

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How will we make it the "Last-Mile?"

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

In the past I've done a lot of CTA bashing, and even some Chicago bashing.  I don't intend to seem one sided.  I love my city, and think that as a whole it does many things well.  Today I want to talk about something that Chicago transit does better than some, but if they try hard enough, can do better than most; that is the concept of the "last-mile," in terms of transportation.


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TIGER II: Livable Boogaloo?

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

One of the best-received aspects of last year's stimulus was the set of grants known as TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) handed out by the US Department of Transportation.  So well-received, in fact, they're gonna do it again.  It's technically known as the National Infrastructure Investments (NII) program, but Congress--like us all--loves a good sequel, so this new round of grants is known as TIGER II.

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The original TIGER program was a $1.5 billion slice of the $787 billion American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, better known as the stimulus.  Unlike most federal transportation funding, which is earmarked for projects in the home district of influential congressmen, TIGER grants are assigned by a competitive process overseen by the US DOT.  This process tends to favor big city transit projects because they tend to affect more people, whereas normally federal money gets siphoned off through state DOTs, who spend on rural projects to win votes.  TIGER II should be especially be a boon to urban projects in light of the DOT's new "6 Principles of Livability" and the recent repeal of the Bush Administration's rule on cost effectiveness that hamstrung a lot of otherwise worthy transit projects.

During the first TIGER process, more than 1,400 applications were sent in, with 51 receiving funding.  IDOT requested over $2.4 billion, but the only winner in the Chicago area was $100 million (out of a requested $300 million) for the CREATE freight rail decongestion program.  This time, the total pot is only $600 million--$140 million of which must go to rural areas--and any locality would have to match 20% of the federal funds.  This still leaves plenty of room for Chicago's worthy projects to grab its piece of the pie (BRT? Union Station? Almost anything...)

There's also a new wrinkle in TIGER II: it comes connected to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) $40 million land-use aid grant program.  DOT and HUD plan on coordinating their efforts so that new projects will connect well to the areas around them.  This seems to bode well for cities like Chicago whose inherent density will mean most transportation projects will connect to commercial, residential, or commercial centers, and where there's plenty of space for new housing developments--especially ones including affordable housing--near multi-mode transportation options.

Applications have to be in by August 23, and winners will be named September 15.  Chicago has plenty of worthy applicants, and hopefully CDOT, the IDOT, and the other relevant authorities will put their best foot forward and bring some of this money home.

Tonight! Capital Improvement Program Public Meeting

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

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In 1990 Mayor Daley established the Capital Improvement Program, an annual document that lays out in great detail the next five years of infrastructure projects.  The 2010 plan--which covers 2010-2014--has been drafted by the Capital Improvement Advisory Committee, and invites public comment beginning tonight.  The city says "representatives from the Office of Budget and Management and various City infrastructure departments" will be present at these meetings to discuss the draft with constituents.  After the jump, I'll get into a few of my thoughts on the draft, but here are the dates and locations for the four public meetings.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010:  10th District Police Station, 3315 W. Ogden Avenue
Thursday, April 29, 2010:  Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted Street
Tuesday, May 4, 2010:  Southwest Regional Center, 6117 S. Kedzie Avenue
Thursday, May 6, 2010:  16th District Police Station, 5151 N. Milwaukee Avenue 

If you have the time to make it to one of these meetings, it's a great chance to make your voice heard.  So take a look at the document, and help positively impact the built environment of your neighborhood.

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The Idaho Way

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

I've written in the past that bikes need to be considered a form of transportation, but because of this they also need to be regulated like other forms of transportation. Fines and penalties do not necessarily need to be the same values for bikes and cars, but there needs to be more of a deterrent for disobeying traffic signs on a bike.  Portland, Oregon has imposed an interesting idea, which I want to discuss today.

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West Loop NIMBYs: No Walkable Development, Thanks

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

There's a parcel of land in Chicago that is within a half mile of two different L lines, sees two bus routes roll by, has a grocery store across the street, and is within a mile and a half of a ton of jobs and cultural opportunities.  It currently features a big ol' surface parking lot.  Actually, there are probably quite a few parcels like this.  They are a blight on any urban landscape, and represent millions of dollars in missed economic opportunity--for the businesses that could potentially spring up there, as well as any tax income the city would yield if people lived, worked, or shopped there instead of just parking there.

Today, it's worth focusing on one that actually has a very real potential for development: the West Loop block bordered by Madison, Halsted, Green, and Monroe.  Two weeks ago Skokie's Taxman Corporation came forward with an idea I hope we'll see more of, especially as the economy (eventually, hopefully) recovers: they want to build on the current parking lot--and build densely.

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The Gateway as seen from Monroe and Halsted. Drawing courtesy Antunovich Associates.

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Bikes, Trains, and not Automobiles

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

I've talked in the past about encouraging more bikers to commute to work, but I've failed to integrate one type of bike commuter; the type that only bikes for part of their commute.  Many people live too far from work to bike the entire distance and instead need to incorporate both their bike and the train as a means of getting to the office.  The Metra and the CTA say they are bike-friendly, but let's fact it, they really aren't.  In this post I will discuss a few ways that both the CTA and Metra can improve the commute for their distance commuters.


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A New Idea: the North Side Connector

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

Lately I've been looking over the city's old and new plans for potential bus rapid transit lines.  There's one corridor I haven't seen the city or CTA explore in any studies or plans--an east-west connection on the Far North Side.  Just as a 79th street BRT line -or the Mid-City Transitway (MCT) alignment along a rail right-of-way near 75th--would connect the Far South Side to Midway, a North Side Connector (NSC) could connect the Rogers Park-Loyola area to O'Hare efficiently.

The isolation of Rogers Park is a quirk of land use and political boundaries.  First, the land use: the mile-wide swath of land east of the Edens between Foster and Peterson features a Nature Preserve (the LaBaugh Woods Forest Preserve,) 5 cemeteries (St. Boniface, Bethel, St. Luke, Bohemia National and the enormous Rosehill,) 2 university campuses (Northeastern Illinois and North Park,) and is split almost in half by the North Shore Channel.  Then, there's the quirk of Chicago's border with Lincolnwood, which dives south from Howard all the way to Devon along the canal.

The result is striking: the normally robust Chicago street grid hits all sorts of dead ends, and transit access suffers as a result.  The northernmost bus line that connects the lakefront to the Blue Line is the 92 along Foster.  The 84 along Peterson jogs northwest along Caldwell and never crosses the North Branch of the Chicago River, and the 155 along Devon ends at Kedzie, rather than cross the Canal into Lincolnwood.

There's a solution to this mess, and it lies in abandoned railways, just like the MCT.  In among the weaving highways at the Junction is the old Chicago & Northwestern Railway.  From its merger with the current Union Pacific lines running northwest/southeast at Montrose, it curves north and east with foundations visible as far north as Emerson St. in Evanston.  In order to connect Rogers Park, we'd only need the right-of-way between Lawrence and Devon.  This works very well, as the line makes its southernmost at-grade crossing at Devon just east of Pulaski.



View North Side Connector in a larger map

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(Re-)introducing the Mid-City Transitway

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

Abandoned rail rights-of-way stripe the Chicago landscape, mostly outside the loop.  Some of these have been reclaimed for use as walking and biking trails--like the Skokie Valley Line.  Others have groups devoted to reclamation projects which have not yet come to pass--like the Bloomingdale Trail.  And still others lie dormant and mostly ignored, except for the occasional study suggestion from long-term planning organizations or a state legislator looking for a pet project.  This last area is where the Mid-City Transitway sits right now.

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BRT vs. Street Parking: a fight to the death.

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

Besides the fact that street parking spots are making it difficult to create a bike lane system in Chicago (see last week's post), they are also making it difficult to create a viable BRT system. Recently, Ted noted the importance of starting the discussion on BRT in Chicago; I want to add to his post today.


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3 Million Missed Opportunities

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

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Drowning in a sea of parking: the United Center's 6000+ parking spaces, and the proposed Madison & Paulina L stop in red. Image via Google Maps.

Tomorrow night the Blackhawks start their quest to bring the Stanley Cup back to Chicago for the first time in almost 50 years.  As it has been all season long, the United Center will be standing room only--20,000 committed fans.  And if you've ever been to the sea of asphalt surrounding the United Center, you know that the vast majority of them will arrive by car.  They'll clog the Madison exit on the Kennedy and the Damen exit on the Eisenhower.  They'll mostly arrive a few minutes before faceoff (or tipoff in last night's case,) they'll shell out at least $20 for parking, and when the game is over, they'll get back in their cars and curse the traffic as the neighborhood streets overflow.

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Do you want to hit a parked car while riding your bike? I don't.

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

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My first alteration to the street-parking nightmare in Chicago was simple: raise prices.  As I wrote on Monday, not everyone will like this idea, but you can't make everyone happy.  Today, I want to talk about something that I don't necessarily know the solution for (maybe you do, so please share), but I want to discuss nonetheless.  With parking spaces lining the streets of every main road throughout Chicago's neighborhoods, it eliminates potential for a much needed revamp and addition to our bike lane system.


Chicago has started to create bike lanes, but in my opinion, the work they've done to this point, is mediocre at best.  (Check out the Chicago Bike Map)  It would be great to have more bike lanes, safer bike lanes, and even a potential stopping zone at intersections (like Portland has).  One unfortunate rationale as to why these options can't and won't happen in the short term, is because there are too many street-parking spots.  It's hard to create a bike lane when there are cars parked on the entire right side of the street.  Also, when there are so many slow moving cars looking for parking, it makes it difficult for bikes to move freely.  Even if the city does make bike lanes just left of the parking spots, it won't be a very safe bike lane; not having to worry about getting hit by (parking) cars, is the reason bike lanes were created in the first place.


One potential fix is something that many European cities have started to do: put the bike lane right of the on-street parkers (and sometimes left of the cars parked on the left side, thus creating two bike lanes per road).  If we did this on both sides of the street, it is true that it may cut down a lane for cars, but if they're built on roads like Columbus or Wacker that have more than one or two lanes in each direction, it wouldn't be the end of the world.  Plus, it will enable the Chicago Bike Map and the new bike trip-planner on Google Maps, more options for planning bike routes.  Often times with bike trip-planners, it's necessary to go out of the way to avoid the major streets with no bike lines.  However, bike lanes on the curb-side of parked cars along major streets could fix this.


Chicago, like most major cities, doesn't have a ton of money.  Daley thought that giving a private company control of our street parking system would make us money.  Who knows if this will be a good idea in the long haul, and who knows if he hadn't done this that the system would be better off.  But no matter who is running the system, they need to start thinking long term solutions for Chicago.  In the short term we want money, in the long term we want more bike lanes and a BRT system second-to-none (my next post will discuss BRT and street-parking).  I know there must be a way to accomplish all of these goals simultaneously, and I hope as a city, we think of one soon.

 

Every Cube a Parking Spot

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

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Photo by D'Arcy Norman via Flickr

There are two reasons why driving has gained overwhelming control of America's transportation landscape: a robust network of mostly free roads, and the abundance of free (or at least cheap) parking.  So, as we try to lessen our reliance on cars and wide roads, it's important to learn lessons from how we made the car king over the last half century.  If we want to encourage walking or mass transit, it's important that we have a good street grid (check plus for Chicago) and a good transit network (check minus.)  And if we want to encourage bicycling, we need to make sure there's safe, easy parking for people near their destination.


Enter the Bikes in Buildings law passed last year in New York.  This law requires high-rise office buildings to allow riders to use the freight elevator to bring their bikes upstairs for parking while they're at work.  This is a great step, though if I had my druthers I'd add a clause allowing building owners to apply for an exemption if they provide a separate secure, indoor facility which is equally easy for riders to reach.  That would make the law more amenable to building owners, as they wouldn't have limited use of the freight elevator during the morning rush when many deliveries are made.  It's also important to note that the individual building tenants can set their own policy for their employees, especially since the fire code can restrict the space in an office available for bike parking.  There's no reason not to adopt a similar measure in Chicago, or at the very least in and around the loop.
This is a small measure that can have big, far-reaching effects.  Most simply, it gives bike commuters a safe, secure, and dry place to stash their bikes while they work.  With a parking spot guaranteed, there's one fewer excuse for people not to ride to the office--especially when the weather isn't as nice as it has been recently.  It would also remove some bikes from sidewalks, allowing for wider walkways and more pedestrians passing by (and theoretically shopping at) ground-floor storefronts.

This kind of law can also have hard-to-measure positive effects on the bike community, which would be similarly profound.  Scott mentioned last week how one impediment to growing the community is the lack of "Average Joes" who are just trying to get from point A to point B and not make a big political statement.  Well, if you're going to visit your coworker's cubicle and you see he's got his bike parked next to his desk, you suddenly know you have a peer who already has mastered the commute.  Also, as more people choose to ride all the way to their offices instead of simply parking at a bikestation or similar central location, it will increase the demand for a "share the road" ethos in the loop, encouraging safer, more complete streets.

Raise the Parking Price...it will help.

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

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I want to start the discussion about parking in Chicago (mainly street parking).  Those of you who lived in Chicago last summer are well aware of the day that Chicago gave a private company control of our street parking.  It was a joyous day when all the electric meters/pay-boxes broke and remained broken for weeks.  It made me so happy to drive to the beach and attempt to pay the meter, but instead have to write a note on my windshield asking the meter maid to spare my car a ticket because the pay-box was out of order.  These types of annoyances, however, are the least of our worries regarding parking.  The Chicago street parking system is a mess and needs major modification.


The main issue I want to discuss in our first post about parking is the need to raise prices.  Many Chicagoans' first response to this idea is that parking is expensive enough, and in this economy it will be detrimental to make us pay more.  Yes, parking is expensive, but raising prices will be very helpful for Chicago and its economy in the long run.  We saw in 2008 that when gas prices rose, driving (and thus parking) was more elastic than Americans initially expected.  As a country, we drove less, used public transportation more, and rode our bikes.  This was great for political reasons because we were becoming less reliant on countries and people who hate us.  It was great for environmental reasons because less carbon dioxide was emitted into the atmosphere.  But it was also great because it limited congestion in our cities.


Congestion is a huge problem.  When there are more drivers, there are more people on the streets.  I believe that if it costs more money to park, there will be fewer drivers and freer streets.  Freer streets will enable us to share-the-road more, allow for faster/more-reliable public transportation, and potentially decrease the number of accidents.  In fact, street parking rates in Chicago have risen recently.  However, I don't believe this is enough.  Another option for revamping parking-payment is to do what New York has started to do, install a performance parking system.  Performance parking enables the electric meters to increase and decrease parking rates at peak times and to manage demand, to ensure that there will always be about 15% of parking spaces available.  The primary purpose of this is to eliminate all of the drivers that constantly circle the block looking for parking.


I'm a driver, and for my own financial reasons I don't want to pay more out of my pocket, but it's time for us to stop thinking about ourselves and instead think about the greater good for all Chicagoans.  Raising prices will not fix the entire problem, but it will be the first step of many more to come 


Getting Bus Rapid Transit Right the First Time

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

The Metropolitan Planning Council made a big fuss earlier this week over its renewed interest in studying Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Chicago.  They say they'll be releasing their study's results this summer, and I look forward to it.  For now, I'd like to focus on one of the little details that is so easy for cities to get wrong, but which it appears the MPC has gotten correct.  Namely, its definition of BRT:

"BRT is defined as a transit service operating along its own right-of-way with signal prioritization technology in place and prepaid boarding at stations. The study is examining true BRT services, not an express bus with elements of BRT."

There is, however, a wrinkle in this I hope they'll take note of, because it can make or break a BRT system.  In September 2008, the CTA had a presentation about their four pilot BRT routes: Chicago Ave from LSD to Cicero, Halsted from North Ave. to the River, 79th St from Jefferey Blvd to Western, and Jefferey Blvd from about 63rd to 87th.  In this presentation, they said these BRT routes would be "Integrated with but not replacing local bus services."  The devil will be in the details of how this integration works.  They say BRT will be given its own right-of-way.  Where BRT is mapped onto a city street, this usually means giving the buses the curbside lane, and setting up some type of physical separation--or at least an emphatic paint job and lane striping.  But if local bus service continues, it will have to make curbside stops as well.  Without spending huge sums on grade-separated rights of way or drastically widening the street to put a busway with bus shelters in the median, there are two ways of ensuring that local bus does not impede BRT: giving local buses curb cuts for their stops so that BRT can pass, or giving over the street to buses completely.  Curb cuts into already crowded sidewalks can ruin an area for pedestrians, and since any program vying for FTA funds must meet its 6 livability standards this won't fly.  Alternatively, since many of the BRT routes CDOT/CTA are studying are arterials, I'm skeptical that they would even try to kick cars off the road.  (I'm not saying it wouldn't work--I'm the guy who wrote this with my tongue only partly in cheek, after all.)

I'll hold off on hard criticism until the full results of the study are released in a few months.  But if CDOT and the CTA are going to convince the city of Bus Rapid Transit's potential, they need to get these details right the first time.

Want High Speed Rail to Fail? Don't Fund Local Transit

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

On March 18, the Illinois State Senate approved the formation of a High Speed Rail Commission for Illinois.  While the bill still has to be passed by the State House and signed by Gov. Quinn, the bipartisan vote in the Senate seems to make its eventual passage a foregone conclusion.  This is great news for a number of reasons.  One of the biggest in my view is the proscription for studying and designing truly high-speed trains, that is, trains that top out over 200 mph.  Let's be completely clear: current rail travel between Chicago and St. Louis, even when the enhancements funded by the US Department of Transportation's $1.13 billion stimulus infusion earlier this year are complete, will only speed trains up to 110 mph.  That's not high speed rail, and the ridership levels on the current line flounder because of it.  Really, that's regional rail at a regional scale that's too large for the train to gain any market share.

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A true HSR line would serve a market with similar demographics to the outstanding Paris-Lyon TGV line.  It would serve more than 3 million riders annually and help grow the regional economy.  The next step will be to integrate the planned Milwaukee-to-Madison HSR line into a full Midwest Line running from St. Louis through Chicago and Milwaukee to the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

There are, however two fundamental problems with a high speed rail proposal like the Chicago-St. Louis line, though both are entirely solvable.  The first, of course, is the price tag: on the order of $12 billion to fully build out the line.  Whether it's through a Public-Private Partnership (hopefully more artfully executed than the Chicago parking meter debacle,) taxes, bonds, or some combination of all three, the people of Illinois--and Chicago in particular--will have to decide if we have the will to bear a cost that may take a generation to be repaid.  I believe there is, or at least should be.*

The second, more fundamental problem is what all these people will do when they arrive in Chicago--and especially how they will get there.  Part of the case for HSR is that, unlike an airport, it can bring people directly to the center of the city.  They'll arrive at Union Station ready to work, ready to spend, ready to enjoy and add to Chicago's vibrant city life.  At least, that's the idea.  But that supposes that everything they want to do in and around Chicago is accessible without a car.  Put bluntly, Chicago must be a livable city, or else high-speed rail will fail.  The CTA and Metra must meet their--and our--needs.  Walkable, mixed-use development around stations means that whether people are coming to Chicago to re-unite with their friends and family or seal a business deal, they won't need a car.  Dense, beautiful architecture will keep them coming back.  Otherwise, all these people will take the high-speed line to its proposed terminus at O'Hare, rent a car, and add to our congestion and pollution more than our economy.

*UPDATE: I originally wrote this last weekend, before the fine citizens of St. Louis recognized the crucial impact local transit can have on the success of high speed rail, and voted Tuesday to increase their sales tax by ½ cent to pay for it.  What are we waiting for?

Convenient, I think not.

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.


We all have problems with the CTA.  Bus and train service cuts have affected our lives more than expected, the El cars smell like urine far too often, and the El bridges, especially those in the suburbs, look as if they might fall at any moment.  Through all of their many problems, however, the convenience factor of the CTA is the worst, and based on their current management, looks as if that convenience level may continue to decrease.


I'm not an economist, but the recent moves made by the CTA seem faulty.  As the CTA began to lose money, they decided to make service cuts and will soon raise prices.  As this happens, consumers such as I will use the CTA less frequently, thus decreasing their profits.  Soon the CTA will have to make even more service cuts and raise prices once again.  This seems to be a never-ending cycle of "death," and these illogical moves made by the CTA could eventually lead to their bankruptcy.


In my opinion, if the CTA wants to increase profits and end the cycle of "death," they must think of ways to increase riders, not decrease them.  Improving their convenience level is one way to do so.  I understand that with less capital, it is harder to pay the bus drivers, and thus harder to keep the same number of routes.  But if I have to wait a half-hour for a bus or train, I would much rather walk, ride my bike, or even pay for a cab.  Even if it means borrowing money, it is imperative that the CTA bring back the same level of service as a year ago.


Another way that the CTA is a perfect example of inconvenient public transportation is in regards to their monthly passes.  The CTA currently offers a 30-day pass for $86.  For some riders, this is a good deal.  Let's say these riders want to buy a pass, can they get it at any El station?  No, they can only buy online, at select Jewel or Dominick's, or at currency exchanges.  New York's MTA offers a monthly pass that you can buy at any station.  Boston's MBTA also offers a monthly pass that you can buy at any station.  San Francisco's MUNI offers a monthly pass that can be bought at 80% of their stations.  Why is the CTA lacking in this department?  If I rode the CTA enough to warrant buying a monthly pass, I wouldn't want to go to a currency exchange to buy one.  Little things like this, discourage riders and therefore make the CTA less profitable.  In addition, I guarantee you that most Chicagoans don't even know that the CTA offers a 30-day pass.  If they marketed their pass and sold it at every station, I'd put money down that they'd sell more.


Livable cities need efficient, profitable, and most importantly, convenient public transportation.  At this point, the CTA is none of the above.  If they don't get their act together soon, Chicago could become the next Los Angeles: the land of many cars and of 10 hour traffic.


Go-See-Do in Early April

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

Lots of stuff happens every day in Chicago--some of it is even related to urbanism/livability/whatever it is we do here.  We'll try to put together a list of the more interesting upcoming events for you whenever we get around to it.  Everything we list is free unless otherwise indicated.  We'll cover the events that we can get to, but we can't get to them all.  So, if you go to one of these and want to tell us about it, or want to see us pimp your event, email us, or get at us on Twitter.  We'll be back tomorrow with more Chicago-y goodness.

Tonight! Tuesday, April 6

"WPA 2.0: Working Public Architecture--Chicago Edition"

5pm at the Archeworks headquarters, 625 N. Kingsbury St.  Greg Dreicer of the Chicago Architecture Foundation will moderate the session on architecture and infrastructure in Chicago.  Or if this is too early for you, there's also...

"The Cindy Pritzker Lecture on Urban Life and Issues"

6pm in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Washington Libary, 400 S. State St.  Starchitect Frank Gehry and CEO Tom Pritzker will have the floor.

Thursday, April 8

"Creative Living in the City: Walkable Urbanism and the Green Futures of Cities"

12:15-1:15pm in the Claudia Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington.  Carol Coletta the CEO of CEOs for Cities and author Doug Farr will be speaking at what should be a very interesting lunchtime lecture.  More info here.

Saturday, April 10

Transportation, Community & Climate Change: Seizing the Opportunity--$24 ($15 for students)

10am-5pm at Catalyst Ranch, 656 W. Randolph, Suite 3W.  This is a symposium run by the Sierra Club, along with the NRDC and Transportation for America.  More info is here.

Monday, April 12

Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) Citizen's Advisory Committee

9-11am, Cook County Conference Room, 233 S. Wacker Dr. Suite 800.  The agenda is here, and includes a public comment period if you've got anything you want to add.

Wednesday, April 14

CTA Transit Board Meeting

10am, 2nd floor Boardroom, 567 W. Lake St.  More info on this and all future CTA meetings is here.

Thursday, April 15

Chicago Plan Commission

1pm, Council Chambers - City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.  This meeting looks like it's mostly small-bore zoning changes, but that's where some of the most powerful changes take place.

The Straight Dope: Crooked on Transit

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

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I've long been an avid reader of the Chicago Reader's Straight Dope.  Cecil Adams and his minions generally do an admirable job of laying out the facts of the matter on issues large and small.  However, unless it was some kind of extended April Fool's joke whose punch line I missed, he (they?) really punted on the issue of transit vs. car efficiency.  It started back in January when Cecil was asked about mass transit energy consumption.  He started his response with two seemingly contradicting quotes--one from the American Public Transportation Association, and one from Randal O'Toole from the Cato Institute--and argues toward an unsatisfying middle by focusing on BTUs (British Thermal Units, a measure of energy) per passenger mile.  His straightforward argument is "true" as far as the numbers go, but completely ignores the problem with point source pollution (i.e. we can achieve economies of scale today via electrification of rapid transit and reduce pollution generally by powering transit with renewable sources, while the infrastructure necessary to do the same with private automobiles is still several years away at best.)

The Straight Dope barely redeems himself by mentioning that the pro-transit argument includes the idea that "transit promotes densely built-up cities, which we know will work from a transportation standpoint. (If all else fails, you can just walk or ride your bike.)" But he ultimately lets his "inner Ayn Rand" effectively side with O'Toole while ignoring the fact that there is no such thing as a free market when it comes to land use.

The ignorance continued on April 1, when he compared the L's energy usage to other mass transit systems around the nation, and then broke down the system by individual line.  First, the comparisons to several of the other systems are unfair and misleading.  New Jersey's PATH system, Boston's T, Philadelphia's SETPA, and LA's LACMTA have a combined 94.2 miles of track, while the L alone has 107.5 miles--this is an order of magnitude difference that wildly overestimates the efficiency of cities that have limited, (albeit high-ridership) transit options at the expense of the CTA's wider coverage area.  DC's Metro Rail numbers are also inflated for a reason I can't quite discern--its single-day ridership record of 1.12 million rides the day of Obama's Inauguration is the only day that system has ever had above their alleged "weekday average ridership" of 935,200.  Plus, all five of Metro's lines run to some pretty-far flung suburbs, so they should all work to drag the system down in the same way Cecil alleges the Purple Line does.  And yet, Metro survives--and at least by ridership metrics, it's thriving.

Finally, I'll be the first to admit that the L does not match the efficiency of New York's Subway--few systems in the world do.  But if we're trying to make the L more efficient, isn't the Chicago-New York disparity an argument for building out the system and encouraging density near stations to reach levels approaching the Big Apple's, not giving everyone a car to commute in by themselves as O'Toole would suggest?

Even more generally, Cecil makes a common and fatal flaw in his argument: he assumes the raison d'être for transit is the environmental advantage it yields over private motorized commuting.  The point of transit--and the entire concept of urbansim/livability/whatever you want to call it--is about fundamentally changing the geometry of how we live our lives.*  If we only take into account travel on an average weekday, we fail to appreciate transit for how it improves our lives 7 days a week, 365 days a year, throughout our lives.  It lets kids who can't yet drive get around without relying on their parents to drive them.  It lets seniors maintain a high standard of living even after they lose the ability to drive themselves around.  Transit lets the rest of us leave the car snugly snowed into a parking spot when the lake effect snow piles up--if we own a car at all.  It keeps drunk drivers from tragically taking lives on the weekends.   And as smart phones and other devices make us more productive during transit, transit gives parents more time to spend with their kids.

If Cecil Adams and Randal O'Toole won't think of the kids, I certainly will (mostly because I still think of myself as one, and I'm selfish that way.)

* Through all this, I haven't even gotten into the fact that paving over all of god's creation just so we can drive and park anywhere at any time is not a sustainable idea.

Share the Road...you too Cyclists

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.


Share The Road


If a livable city is one where cars are not essential, then a livable city is also one where bikes become more the norm.  The bike community is big in Chicago, but some in the current bike community are not helping it to get bigger.  I fully support all the "Share the Road" stickers I see around Chicago, but I do not think those flaunting their stickers always understand the meaning of the word "share."  As we learned in kindergarten, sharing means the desired "thing" is to be fairly used by all parties involved.  Both drivers and cyclists use the city streets, yet both parties act as if they deserve the right of way.  As much as I wish it were different, the angrier the bikers get that the roads aren't shared, and the more they try to disregard the cars, the less likely that their goals of a more bike friendly city will be accomplished.


I am a cyclist.  I ride to work, I have worked with bikes, and I support biking in Chicago.  However, a few things need to take place before this city is truly a great biking city, and that starts with strengthening the rapport between cars and bikes.  Drivers in Chicago hate the cyclists, and vise versa.  The first way to fix this, which won't make me many friends, is to eliminate Critical Mass.  As much fun as it may be, I don't think it's helping the cause.  Every time I've participated in this ride, I see physical fights break out between a cyclist and a driver who is forced to wait fifteen minutes for the "critical mass" to pass.  Cops see these fights and take note, but more importantly the alderman to whom the driver complains, also takes note.  Angering cops is never a good idea, but angering aldermen, who have relationships with Chicago legislators, is even worse.  


The percentage of commuters on bikes is also important to discuss; let's use the example of Portland, OR, voted as one of the top bike cities in the country.  Even in Portland, only about 6 percent of the population commutes by bike (here is an Oregonian article that discusses bike commuting in Portland).  This number grows every year, but even if it quadruples in the next 5 years to 24 percent, cyclists are still the minority.  While this concept might not resonate well with cyclists, it needs to.  The majority always wins, and while I am not suggesting that the bike community backs off and stops fighting for their cause (far from it), I just think they need to pick their battles.  The fight that I speak of needs to be the fight for rights, recognition, more bike lanes, etc., instead of a fight specifically against the drivers.


In addition, if cyclists want to "share the road" and get recognition as a means of transportation, then the city needs to begin regulating bikes like other forms of transportation.  Just as when a car disobeys a traffic law it receives a fine, bikes must be held to the same principle. The ticket prices do not need to equal those of cars, but the threat of a ticket might deter cyclists from their aggressive riding style of running red lights, and weaving in and out of traffic.


I believe that if the cycling community sees more enforcement and regulation, and if we cut Critical Mass, the drivers will not purposely try to hit them.  If bikes no longer play the roll of daredevil on the streets, the drivers will be more understanding, more responsive, and more tolerant of them.  This is a win-win for the bike community.  It's all about relationship building.  The better the relationship between drivers and cyclists, the less often drivers complain, and the greater the likelihood that the roads really will be shared.  Daley is eager to make this a better city for bikes, but until he gets more approval from the driving majority, it's only the cyclists who will suffer. 


Environmental Determinism in Chicago (Part II - The Built Environment)

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

When it comes to the kinds of land-use changes necessary to promote livability in Chicago, there are two main obstacles greater than our city's propensity for cynicism and its forbearer, corruption: the natural and built environments.  In the Part I, I covered Chicago's natural geography.  Next up: the built environment.  The built environment we see today is the result of over 170 years of decisions by private citizens and the municipal government--some coordinated and well thought-out, some not.  Just as the natural environment was easily understood as the combination of three distinct types, we can split up the man-made city that surrounds us into  roads, railways, and buildings.  Some of the built environment works to Chicago's advantage, some of it to the city's detriment.

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All the pieces fit together. Image courtesy of subbu4 on flickr

Roads
For more than a century, Chicago's famous street grid has primed it for walkable development.  I won't recount Jane Jacobs' entire argument for why short blocks improve the cityscape, but briefly, if you're walking somewhere that isn't simply down the street a few blocks, every corner you reach gives you the opportunity to turn and encounter a different micro-neighborhood, a different set of retailers, and different people.  This makes streets and sidewalks more exciting, provides for more commercial opportunities, and generally adds to the vibrancy of a city.

Unfortunately, we also have highways carving up the streetscape.  I'm not going to say that we should get rid of highways--they serve their purpose.  However, there's a point at which they do more harm than good, and that point usually comes where there is or could be a perfectly good urban neighborhood which is instead cut to shreds by 8 lanes of speeding metal.  The best (worst?) current examples of this are the Kennedy south of Belmont and the Stevenson between the Dan Ryan and Lake Shore Drive.  The Kennedy because it creates a no man's land just west of the North Branch of the Chicago River--as I mentioned in part I, some re-zoning around the river would be necessary to really take advantage of this space--and the Stevenson because of the way it chokes off the Near South Side from Douglas.  (Compare this with how the Kennedy feeds into Ohio and the upcoming Congress Parkway redesign resist isolating the Loop further.)

Railways
Chicago was built on the back of the railroad boom in the 19th century, and the remnants of this history still shape our city in significant ways.  From the enormous Belt Railway Company Yard south of Midway to Canada Pacific's stagnant Bloomingdale Trail and the numerous Metra lines, rail rights-of-way take up significant real estate.  The CREATE Program will clear up some of the bottlenecks that come with this level of complex infrastructure, but by and large railroads are simply something we have to work with and around in order to have a growing economy.  There is also, of course, the L, maybe the defining characteristic of the Chicago built environment (along with the Sears Tower.)  We'll have plenty more to say about the L, as it's just as vital a part of the people economy in Chicago as the freight lines are to our local industry.

Buildings
Between the loop's skyscrapers and the familiar brownstones throughout the city, much of the city is built up nicely.  It allows for a wide variation in densities, from the incredible diversity of the areas around the Loop, to the almost suburban single family homes in Sauganash.  But there's also plenty of opportunity for urban infill, especially where surface parking has blighted the land around L stops.  There's no reason why the same 3- and 4-story mixed use development which has spurred non-bubble growth in many American cities in the last decade can't be replicated along various corridors here.  Developers are finally coming around to the economic merits of this type of construction, but it's up to the city to meet them halfway in terms of up-zoning areas which are well-served by transit so they can start building in a more economically and environmentally sustainable way.

Environmental Determinism in Chicago (Part I - Natural Geography)

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

When it comes to the kinds of land-use changes necessary to promote livability in Chicago, there are two main obstacles greater than our city's propensity for cynicism and its forbearer, corruption: the natural and built environments.  Since it came first, I'd like to look first at the geography that has both made Chicago great, but which can also hold it back if we don't harness it well.  There are three main pieces to this puzzle: The Land, The Lake, and The River.  We use all three, but it's important to understand how they've combined to make Chicago what it is.

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Lots of flat land, plenty of fresh water. Photo by the author.

The Land
You don't have to go far to see what sort of hearty Midwestern land Chicago's built on.  There's the forest preserve running along the Des Plaines River, or if you go far enough west it's beautiful, flat prairie as far as the eye can see.  So unlike a lot of places (i.e. San Francisco's narrow peninsula and New York's islands) our growth--westward, at least--is unconstrained.  We've never been worried about a lack of land.  But this also works against us, because it's so easy to sprawl out--as we have for the past 50 years.

So we're left to work against our lazier impulses to fill in the gaps between our neighborhoods and re-stitch our urban fabric.  Fortunately, our urban prairie is flat as a pancake, and that's great news when we want to get around without the help of an internal combustion engine.   Our travels are the same in every direction.  There's no rough uphill commute in the morning, and no reason to shift gears when we bike home after a long day.

The Lake
Perhaps Chicago's greatest asset, Lake Michigan does a few wonderful things for us.  It tempers our climate (this weekend it'll be "cooler by the lake" for the first time this year,) and quenches our almost insatiable thirst.  It is a main attraction for both locals and tourists, whether for swimming, sailing, or anything else.  Last but certainly not least, it is also an easy-to-use, massively obvious wayfinding point--the Lake is always east.  This is no small matter, as it makes getting around the city easier, encouraging Chicagoans and tourists alike to get out and see the city more.

As wonderful as Lake Michigan is, it has also skewed our growth.  Just as development around individual train stations is often lopsided due to "wrong side of the tracks" disease, Chicago's development as a whole is lopsided because of Lake Michigan.  The Lake pushes our development north, west, and south from The Loop, which is most clearly visible in our rail map: where other cities develop robust networks  we're left with a hub-and-spokes.

The River
Finally, there is the Chicago River, that magically backward-flowing stream that comes close to splitting the city into its famous "sides."  In the River's fork and different responses to it throughout the city, we can start to get a feel for where Chicago has gone wrong and also how easy it would be to go right.

First, the Main Branch.  With its narrow riverbed and frequent bridges, it's an urban river in the Seine model.  Even with the frequent, walkable bridges, it's still a natural border that makes River North a much different beast than the Loop itself.  It also serves as a chokepoint for vehicular traffic, so it's not surprising that transit from the North Side is successful.  The new Riverfront Plan is a gem and should it ever be completed all the way to the confluence, it'll become as much a Place (capital P) as the lakefront is now.

Then there's the North Branch, a giant wasted opportunity.  From the Confluence all the way up to Belmont, it's still a narrow, albeit meandering, easily bridgeable river.  But unlike the Main Branch (or the northern segment of the South Branch, as I'll get into shortly) there's no attempt to tie the two sides of the river together.  This is partly a function of zoning: a lot of this area is zoned for manufacturing, which only works with walkable growth through hard work.  But that's exactly the point: There's no geographic reason why the River-centric development has to be confined to the area between Kinzie and Congress.

And what of the South Branch? There are three main parts of it: part well-used, part of it reclaimable, part of it given over to industry.* From the Confluence to Congress, it's walkable like the Main Branch, but without the River Walk.  The West Loop's resurgence is living proof of this.  And even though nothing about the river itself changes south of Congress, it reverts to a strong border, with crossings only at Harrison and Roosevelt.  As with the North branch, a lot of this has to do with the zoned uses around the river, but again, that's just the point: the Chicago River--like the rest of Chicago's natural geography--is not some untamable beast.  We can use the river just as readily to improve the cityscape as we can to ruin it.

Come back for Part II tomorrow...

*Note: this is not a swipe at industry along the River.  To the contrary, it is vital to the municipal and regional economies.  And unlike the North Branch, where development could be realigned toward integration with the surrounding livable neighborhoods, heavy industrial uses do not offer the same opportunity along the South Branch.

Bloomingdale Bike Trail

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

Has anyone heard of the City's proposed Bloomingdale Bike Trail?  Didn't think so.  The Bloomingdale trail is a planned 2.65 mile (and potentially 3 mile) bike trail on top of former Canada-Pacific train tracks in the Logan Square area.  The path would start at Ashland Ave. and Bloomingdale Ave., continuing west along Bloomingdale Ave. to Ridgeway Ave.  I love this idea.  It's about time the city figures out what to do with the old tracks.  These idle tracks serve not only as eyesores to pedestrians, but as hotbeds for graffiti.  Using them for good is essential, but using them for a bike path is outstanding.


Even though the path will probably end up being less than three miles long and will only have around three main access points, there is nothing wrong with a bike path for plain riding, not only for commuting.  In addition, if the path is made well, it will be a source of fun.  Yes, some people like to ride bikes for fun and not only for transportation.  The more fun places to ride one's bike throughout Chicago, besides our beautiful, yet overcrowded lakefront path, the better.  I believe that "fun" paths encourage more family riding.  With more families and children in the Chicago bike community, the more likely the city will listen to the bike community's demands (i.e. more bike lanes, repaving the bike paths, etc.).


City planners and the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) have worked on plans for the Bloomingdale trail for decades, but still few Chicagoans have any idea of what it is, and nobody knows if or when it will be built (Bloomingdale Trail FAQs).  It's true that the city still doesn't own the tracks (they're privately owned by Canada-Pacific), and that the renovation could cost billions, but that hasn't stopped the City in the past.  My qualms with this plan are not that the plan itself has many faults, but with the fact that nothing has come of it.


As much as it pains me to say, Chicago officials need to look at New York City as a model for similar bike paths.  The New York High Line, which is a bike path that runs on old train tracks 30 feet above the streets of Manhattan, opened last June, with more improvements coming this fall.  If a project like this is manageable in Manhattan, then Logan Square should be able to handle it too.  Chicago's government has many (not all) brilliant minds, and it's time to use these minds and not merely put their ideas on to-do lists.  Let's finalize a solid plan for the Bloomingdale trail by the end of 2010, and get our build on.  

On Density in Chicago

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Ted Rosenbaum

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

Density.  Without it, a city is no longer a city, an engine of growth for the entire nation.  Jane Jacobs understood this back in 1961 as America began a half-century slide away from it.  Tourists instinctively get it when they visit--they come for the "energy" and the "excitement," not the weather.  And if you want to get all pointy-headed about it, you could even say that "agglomeration raises per capita consumption growth"

So now that we're agreed on the advantages of this nebulous "density" concept, the question remains: density of what? Grocery stores? Bars? 16" softball diamonds? Those are all well and good, but without people, the groceries go sour, kegs sit untapped, and infields are given over to weeds.  So, we certainly need a critical mass of people.  Chicago has that in spades, as the 5th most dense metro area in the country by population.  We've got density of jobs, too: more than 471 per square mile (compare to 538 for the DC area and 318 for the Dallas area,) employing not just Chicagoans but our suburban and exurban brethren as well.  There's both transit density--nearly 2,300 miles of bus routes and 222 of L track for our 606 square miles--and parking density--we have about 36,500 metered spaces alone inside the city limits.

But again, while each of these specific types of density is necessary for a working city, no single one is sufficient.  And one of the things we have to be careful of as a city is that we're matching all these different densities with each other in a way that makes Chicago more livable.  For instance: does putting an L station in a highway median encourage growth if no one can live or work within 200 meters of the station? (hint: not really.) Or: how many parking spaces should a high-rise condo building in the South Loop have in its garage? What about a medium-rise in Rogers Park?  I'll explore these ideas more in the weeks and months ahead, but for now it's worth recognizing that nearly 3 million people (and growing every day) live on this little slice of land next to Lake Michigan, and it's up to us how well we share it.
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Infographic by Shane Keaney for good.is


Bonus!
Last week, this image was floating around the internet.  While no one is suggesting we all get together and live in a neighborhood as tightly-knit as Brooklyn, it's a good thought experiment.  But Brooklyn has a density of 34,917 people per square mile, almost triple Chicago's 12,649.  At Chicago's density, the entire country could fit snugly into West Virginia.  Or, if we wanted to spread out a little more and have a coastline, we could use South Carolina.  So who wants to trade blizzards for hurricanes?

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