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An Open Letter to Gabe Klein

Dear Mr. Klein,

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

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

But!                                      Gabe Klein Dreaming.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting to 2040 with Meat AND Pudding

I got into a twitter argument conversation (ugh, I shudder at that phrase) with Lindsay Banks of CMAP over my post yesterday.  Such is the limit of the 140 character medium that I want to take a moment now to expand a bit, as it's possible there's a big BRT announcement coming up that would otherwise shelve this important discussion.

Here's the situation: GoTo2040's capital projects are broken up into two sections: fiscally constrained and fiscally unconstrained.  Constrained projects are those which CMAP has deemed worthy of funding from the (projected) limited dollars over the next 3 decades, while unconstrained are those other projects which CMAP has decided do not warrant our attention for now.*  I posited that CMAP is being too narrow minded in how they plan to use capital projects to help us reach their vision for the region--a vision I agree with.  As Lindsay said, CMAP revises the study in 5 4 years anyway, so if the fiscal outlook is rosier in 2015, unconstrained projects could edge toward reality.

But, with apologies to Pink Floyd, this is the point I was trying to make: funding the priority projects is almost all meat (higher gas taxes, more tolling, etc.), while the unconstrained projects [pdf] are--or at least in my view should be--the pudding for Chicagoland.  We can't have our pudding--projects like the Heritage Corridor or the Mid-City Transitway (which goes suspiciously missing in the bullet-point list on page 197 because it's listed as part of the Cook-DuPage Corridor) if we don't eat our meat first--fix the system we've got.  But what incentive do we have to eat our meat if there's no pudding at the end?  (This is especially true considering we have politicians who tend to worry about their re-election chances more than the long term health of the region.)

Cropped 2040 Capital Projects.jpg

Mmmmm... Meat and pudding

So what would I like to see in the draft that isn't there now? (Beside the Mid-City Transitway?) Two things.  First, a more complete, prioritized description of the unconstrained projects.  CMAP includes a brief paragraph on the Illiana, Metra Southeast, Metra STAR, and Cook-DuPage Corridor projects.  Are these the top four unconstrained projects or merely four they chose to expand on and itemized in alphabetical order?  Secondly, are the unconstrained projects off the table until every priority project is finished?  If gas prices really spike in the next 2-3 years (to, say, $5.50/gallon), do we really want to add lanes to I-94, I-80, I-88, and managed lanes to I-55 before expanding Metra's reach?  I suppose that's what the 2015 revision is for, but I'd rather see the professionals at CMAP give us even a rough outline of these contingencies than wait and let politicians decide these matters.

*Note: I'm reserving the right to comment on the inclusion of certain projects over others on the constrained list.  I'm trying to get the numbers to work out and want to take my time and get this right.  It's coming though, and in the meantime I just wanted to make clear that I'm not demanding we do all the unconstrained projects--just that they be given a higher profile in the draft plan.  Hope this makes everything copacetic.

Go To 2040...Better (Part II)

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.

CMAP Transpo Funding.jpg

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.

Go To 2040... Better (Part I)

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...

500 Acres of Beautiful Brownfield Redevelopment

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.

South Shore Plan.jpg

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.

Continue reading...

Next Stop... Confluence?

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.

Continue reading...

TIGER II: Livable Boogaloo?

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.


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.

The Idaho Way

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.

Continue reading...

A New Idea: the North Side Connector

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

Continue reading...

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


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.


*BREAKING* Meigs Field 2.0 -- Mayor Daley Closes Magnificent Mile to Cars

He's done it again.  In a move reminiscent of the 2003 midnight closure of Meigs Field, we wake this morning to news that Mayor Daley has closed off the Magnificent Mile to all car traffic.  Overnight, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) with help from the Lincoln Park Towing Company put a row of planters along the crosswalks on the south side of Oak Street as well as at the intersection with Upper Wacker Drive, leaving Michigan Avenue wide open to pedestrians and cyclists.  Southbound traffic from Lake Shore Drive is being diverted along Oak to either Rush St. or the Inner Drive.  And don't try anything funny, as Chicago Police are waiting and anyone who tries to drive on the Magnificent Mile will be arrested under charges of reckless endangerment.

"Closing the street and allowing only pedestrians and bicycles has worked wonders for Broadway in New York City's Times Square," Mayor Daley said in a statement released to Chicago media overnight, "and there's no reason the Magnificent Mile should only be magnificent for traffic congestion."

NoCars MagMile.png

Everything you need to know about the new Magnificent Mile. Image via flickr courtesy of theogeo.

While private auto traffic will be prohibited, there are a dozen CTA bus lines that ply the Mile--the 2, 3, 10, 26, 143, 144, 145, 146, 147, 148, 151, and 157 all use at least part of this stretch--and they will continue to run.  Initially they will run curbside to accommodate the location of bus shelters for inclement weather, with bicycle lanes one lane closer to the center of the street.  In time, however, the median strips will be removed or replaced with new waiting shelters, and buses will move to occupy the middle of Michigan Ave.   Bicycle lanes will then run outside the bus lanes, providing pedestrians with an 8 foot buffer.  Businesses will also be able to apply to have the flower boxes outside their storefronts removed, opening up sidewalk space for outdoor dining, shopping, and other lively uses.

So as not to completely split River North in half, cross traffic will still be allowed on every street from Walton to Illinois.  However, the CTA buses on Michigan Avenue will have signal priority, and speed limits for east-west traffic between Fairbanks Ct. and Wabash have been lowered to 20 mph.

So, Chicago: with what looks to be fantastic weather coming this weekend, go walk around on our new (and I'd say vastly improved) Magnificent Mile, and share your observations/comments below!

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