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« More Transportation Thoughts The 15th Ward »

Aldermen Mon Mar 28 2011

Influence Pedaling in Uptown

An impressive crowd of about 75 turned out a few nights ago at Gill Park to hear the two runoff candidates for alderman in Chicago's 46th Ward, Molly Phelan and James Cappleman, weigh in on transportation issues at a forum hosted by Walk Bike Transit (WBT) , a newcomer to the political scene who may end up having an important impact. The non-partisan WBT says its mission is "to mobilize voters throughout Chicagoland [on] biking, pedestrian, and transit issues." The event was the first in a week of near-nightly matchups between the two would-be successors to Helen Shiller, and, while billed as a forum rather than a debate, it nonetheless offered insight into the contrasts between the candidates as well as showcasing the interest in issues affecting those who use their own footpower, or public transportation, to get around.

An interesting feature of the forum was that the questions were distributed to the audience (and presumably the candidates) in advance. Moderator Arline Welty, a 46th Ward property owner, resident, and bicycle commuter, welcomed the packed room, saying that biking, walking, and transit "affect everybody's life" and that in the 46th Ward, one goal was to make trains "less of an eyesore and more of a front door" to the community. While this race in some other venues has shown more of the attributes of a bare-knuckles brawl, Welty's questions and tone kept the entire evening extremely civil and pleasant; her first question asked for a simple introduction, and to tell the audience "how you incorporate walking, biking and transit into your everyday life." The contenders used this question and others to frame their overall campaign narratives.

Phelan styled herself "a city girl" who walks daily and claimed that she has knocked on "6000 doors" as a pedestrian, and takes transit for shopping and to work in the Loop. Saying we "need to look at who can't use transit in our community," she noted that there's no handicapped-access L station in the 46th Ward. Phelan also wasted no time in segueing into her keynote issue, crime, saying that the ward needs to be "more welcoming and safe" for transit and active transportation to work. She then finished with a timely reference to the dooring issue that had made headlines just days before.

Cappleman made no attempt to counter Phelan's staking out the "Chicagoan" turf, but instead led off by saying that he's lived "in a lot of different states," including Eugene, Oregon, where the availability of free bikes introduced him to the importance of the environment. He then described how leaving his previous life as a Franciscan afforded him the opportunity to choose anywhere in the country to live, and stated that he decided to live in Chicago because of its transit system.

Welty then tried to elicit more substance, asking the candidates what cities or neighborhoods they'd visited that they enjoyed getting around in, and what elements from those places they would replicate in the 46th Ward. Cappleman mentioned Athens for its "transit where you don't need to speak English," New York and its [hybrid-fuel] cabs for which he'd provide unspecified tax credits, and Washington, DC's accurate in-station alerts to when the next train will arrive. He then returned to Eugene, saying that while the free bike system didn't work because the bikes there got stolen, "why shouldn't we have 'zip bikes' as well as zipcars?"

Phelan was also an admirer of DC's Metrorail, saying that there "you could get anywhere in an efficient manner" and -- returning to her law-and-order theme -- that "a young college girl felt safe" with police regularly riding the rails. The city girl then took the opportunity, first to match Cappleman's cosmopolitanism, noting how a trip to Madrid had showed her how the "European lifestyle is based on a local economy" -- and that she doesn't want big retailers to "come into our community and strip-mall it," but also to talk about her economic plan for the ward, which she asserted would enable people to walk to destinations. She had also biked around Ireland for a month and was impressed by the respect automobile drivers there gave bicyclists; she believes we need more laws to protect riders.

The third question asked how the candidates would use their ward master plans -- each sports one -- to improve the 46th Ward's Walk Score rating. Uptown actually already has a fairly high rating, 6th in the city, but trails neighbors Lakeview, Lincoln Square and Edgewater. Neither candidate specifically answered so as to address what hikes WalkScores. Phelan mentioned her business and crime prevention plans, tying both to the general concept of walkability, and saying, without elaboration, that she would "use discretionary funds to enhance security." Phelan did say she would work to get small businesses into the vacancies in CTA stations, an area where the CTA has fallen short at many points. Cappleman's response did show familiarity with some nuances of urban planning principles, including the importance of green space and the use of windows as eyes on the street. He also evidenced a comfort level with street-level detail of the ward. However, the suggestion that traffic in the already-congested lakefront needs to be "slowed down," rather than made smoother-flowing, was more typical of the political rather than planning approach to the urban grid that has created a mess costing Chicagoans many millions annually in fuel, accidents, lost time, and lost productivity.

Asked about their "creative walking, biking, or transit solutions" for reducing crime and increasing public safety, both candidates touched on commerce and support for the arts. Cappleman said that after the new Target store was built, it became one of the best-performing in the US and that nearby crime dropped dramatically, which he attributed to the increased foot traffic -- a soft dig at Phelan, who built her community reputation in part by fighting the Wilson Yards TIF project that the Target anchors. Cappleman also referred to "complete streets" and pedestrian lighting. Phelan concurred in the promotion of galleries to get people "out on the streets year round" but otherwise used her answer time to hammer on crime, again underscore her endorsement by a police union, and some other ideas for crime reduction that, while perhaps meritorious, did not leverage walking, biking, or transit.

The candidates again showed more similarity than difference when asked how to make the geometrically-troublesome Montrose-Broadway-Sheridan intersections safer. Both avowed that they were not experts, with Phelan suggesting that more traffic controls or narrowing the lanes might be the answer, and Cappleman expressing a lot of empathy for the problem, but admitting he as yet had no ideas.

The final question challenged the candidates on their development vision, asking how to attract people to Uptown without creating the automobile congestion that "places like North & Clybourn" have experienced after growth. This is an extremely important issue, because the cumulative, city-wide effect of hundreds of individual, non-coordinated development and traffic control decisions (largely by aldermen) has indeed contributed to a great increase in congestion. Here again, unfortunately, the campaign got a little bit in the way, as each candidate opted to talk about development, but not so much about managing the flip side. Phelan correctly pointed out that development has been stagnant in the current economy, and Cappleman did tick off a few creative ideas for active-transportation-oriented activity generators, and both candidates again agreed that existing empty retail spaces needed to be filled up.

The good news for voters in the 46th Ward is that, despite what increasingly heated rhetoric might indicate, they have a choice not between good and evil, but between two public-spirited, intelligent candidates who have put time both into the community and into thinking about its needs. Each would be a committed advocate for the ward. WBT's Margo O'Hara, the event's lead organizer and herself a 46th Ward resident, said, "We liked what James had to say about pedestrian plazas and a public bike-share system. And we were impressed with Molly's ideas on the importance of creating walkable destinations within the ward."

No candidate committed any major gaffe or threw any elbows, although there were a few veiled references. When each went off-road, they tended to play to their strengths (or weaknesses, depending how you see it). Phelan spoke approvingly of cops with automatic weapons on the rail system, Cappleman waxed rhapsodic about dog costume contests in front of the Riviera. I suspect some voters don't agree that Uptown would be improved by either.

Cappleman showed a somewhat greater grasp of the holistics and jargon of urban planning, whereas Phelan displayed the stay-on-message discipline campaign managers love to see. Both knowledge and tenacity are useful skills for a legislator, so voters can take their pick here (and, not to say that either lacks those qualities: Cappleman, after all, has been running for the post for five years, which is nothing if not determined, and attorney Phelan clearly has a quick mind and aptitude for new ideas, including green concepts).

What was somewhat surprising was that no answer zeroed in on the massive proposed "modernization" of the Red Line, which, with one alternative considering taking the L and burying it underneath Broadway, could have a massive impact on the 46th Ward, possibly more than anywhere else north of the Loop. Also, neither candidate, although talking about bike safety, mentioned the Chicago bicycle ordinance, and it would be interesting to know whether they thought it was working, needed changes (or just enforcement), or were even aware of it.

I looked for transportation issues pages on the candidates' websites but at time of this article didn't find any. Cappleman does mention pedestrian lighting, and does specifically mention crime around L stations, but lists no solutions other than to say that he will collaborate with police and CTA. True, active transportation has not been a hot-button issue, traditionally -- that's why groups like the WBT and the longer-established, non-political Active Transportation Alliance have sprung up. But it's becoming more common, and there are ample sources to use as a template: the well-thought-out Transportation Plan that Rahm Emanuel had posted until about 10 days ago, or some of the ideas that Miguel Del Valle had listed in various places, or even the Transportation Issues page of a state legislative candidate here or there.

Both candidates, however, deserve credit and thanks for attending the forum and for making comprehensive planning, rather than ad hoc decisionmaking, focal points of their platforms. At this writing, WalkBikeTransit had not made an endorsement in the 46th Ward. Nor is there a clear favorite for voters in 46 for whom pedestrian, mass transit, or bicycling issues could make the difference. Cappleman has the support of numerous generally pro-environment, pro-transit elected officials in the Democratic establishment, such as State Sen. Heather Steans, Cong. Jan Schakowsky, and Carol Ronen; Phelan's green cred is bolstered by the backing of the Sierra Club and two locals of the Amalgamated Transit Workers union. Voters still undecided can attend the Truman College Forum tonight, Monday, March 28, at 6:30-8 p.m., which is supposed to be moderated by Alds. Helen Shiller and Tom Tunney. WBT, meanwhile, has keyed on 4 other wards where it does have favorites: JoAnn Thompson (16th), Toni Foulkes (15th), Che "Rhymefest" Smith (20th), and Debra Silverstein (50th).

As gas prices continue to head upward along with global temperatures, alternatives to the automobile will only become more salient in civic conversation. WBT is ahead of the curve in trying to give proponents and users of those modalities a greater voice. Voters and others looking for more info on a walking/biking/mass transit agenda can check out WalkBikeTransit at http://www.walkbiketransit.org, and the non-electoral Active Transportation Alliance at http://www.activetrans.org/. To be balanced, I might include links to groups opposed to walking, biking, or mass transit if I were aware of any. But I'm not.

 

BP / March 28, 2011 12:44 PM

Great Forum - but I was concerned about Phelan's proposal to "arrow" the lanes (to 1) at Montrose-Sheridan-Broadway. This sounds to me like asking for gridlock, with Target traffic and regular traffic already heavy and cramped there.

Cappleman suggested better marking lanes, clearly marking turning lanes, better signage and more prominent lights to direct traffic into the appropriated path and direction.

Making that desolate little traffic triangle just beyond theNW corner of the Jewel Parking lot more visually distinct would be a simple, cheap and helpful fix - now that island is so indistinct that I am surprised more motorists don't drive over it - pedestrians certainly don't feel safe standing there waiting to see if cars notice that they are crossing.

One quibble - Phelan said Washington, DC transit is easy to get anywhere on.... That's ridiculous. I wonder how much time she spent in DC and where and when she tried to go anywhere.

I lived and worked in DC for 14 years, in several neighborhoods, before returning to my native Chicago. DC's system has recently (since around 2000) been expanded, but this had not occurred yet when Phelan lived there.

The DC busses are still horrible, irregular and stop running completely after daytime rush hours, the subway completely shuts down at midnight and getting anywhere but from the suburbs to the main downtown & Mall tourist destinations & office buildings is impossible via mass transit.

Congress built the DC subway to get suburban Govt. workers into DC and to get tourists to the monuments & museums - it does that, but does not serve many neighborhoods. The DC subway is newer, cleaner and somewhat safer than Chicago's, but it not available except in daytime and to the non-neighborhood areas of the city (it has historically poorly served minority parts of DC - something many short-term students and tourists fail to notice.

BP / March 28, 2011 12:47 PM

Correction: I meant to say I found Phelan's suggestion implausible to "NARROW" the lanes to 1 at Broadway-Sheridan-Montrose.

Jeffrey Littleton / March 28, 2011 11:33 PM

I attended the forum and would have to give the edge to Molly Phelan and her more coherent strategy to attract small businesses to Uptown.
As well she just has a broader vision for cultural issues, and transportation is in fact a cultural issue as well. People will walk and bike more if there are more places to walk and bike to close by...simplistic but true.
In regards to the previous comment I respectfully disagree on the assesment of the Washington DC Metro. I have been there many times in the last 15 years to visit my sister and found it clean, safe and convenient, as have MANY others.
I am voting for Molly Phelan.
I have to also thank Margo and Arline for the hard work and focus it took to make this forum happen, this issue has recieved scant attention in the other forums of which there have been many. We have great people here in Uptown! Well done!!
Jeffrey Littleton

BP / March 29, 2011 1:11 AM

I appreciate the dissent about DC, but I don't know what you disagree about - I said explicitly that the subway in DC is cleaner and safer than Chicago's, but do you disagree that it ceases running at night? Do you disagree that it fails to serve DC neighborhoods?

My comments were only about Molly's claim to know about DC transit, when her description of it was untrue. As I who lived there many years, and I return there monthly now and I use its transit as a resident, not just as a leisurely tourist - because that's what the discussion is about - not how convenient Chicago's subways are to serve the tourists in Downtown areas (or how well DC's transit serves tourists from Chicago) but how our transit can emulate other systems to serve our Ward 46 and its residents.

Steven Vance / March 30, 2011 11:08 PM

I would like to know more about the Target and it supposedly being one of the best performing stores in the country. And also more information about the alleged crime drop surrounding it.

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