Elevating Chicago

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Labor Day Weekend Food for Thought

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.

Jeff Wegerson 11min FNM.png

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

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.)

Thumbnail image for North Ave sign.png

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.

Kater st Philly - Edu-Tourist.jpg

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?

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