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The Mechanics

Urban Planning Thu Aug 28 2014

State Street Resurfacing to Be Completed in Time for the Marathon


Looking North on State Street from Randolph. Photo credit: Becky Schultz

On Wednesday morning, the Chicago Loop Alliance and the Office of 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly held a community meeting to provide Loop stakeholders, business owners, and residents with logistics for the Chicago Department of Transportation's (CDOT) resurfacing of State Street -- the first since the mall removal and renovation in 1997.

With a goal completion date of Oct. 10 (just in time for the Chicago Marathon), overnight grinding could begin as soon as Sept. 8 with re-paving to begin on Sept. 22. The resurfacing (grinding, paving and re-striping) will stretch from Wacker to Van Buren.

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Becky Schultz / Comments (0)

Op-Ed Thu Apr 17 2014

The Parking Hits Just Keep On Coming

Chicago parking meterJust last month, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel bragged in a statement that, "By delivering on free Sunday parking in the neighborhoods...we're able to make a bad deal better." Apparently, making a "bad deal better," and keeping his word to his constituents, does not mean much to Emanuel. This was showcased in his recent announcement that he supports the reinstatement of paid Sunday parking in neighborhoods throughout the city.

Sunday parking fees were previously eliminated outside downtown as part of Emanuel's renegotiation of Chicago's contract with Chicago Parking Meters, LLC (CPM).

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Rachel Anspach / Comments (0)

Transportation Thu Apr 10 2014

How Lawsuits, Lobbyists and Parking Meter Deals Led to Ventra

For the best reading experience, view fullscreen. May not be viewable in Internet Explorer 8 or older browsers. You can also read the text version below.

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Jason Prechtel / Comments (2)

Transportation Fri Feb 14 2014

How D.C. Public Transit Will Go Open Fare and Keep Their Version of the Chicago Card

ventra_tap.jpgWhen the Chicago Transit Authority began the Ventra card roll out last August, the agency gave riders using the Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus until Oct. 7 to transfer their accounts to the new system. However, widespread registration problems and card reader glitches forced the CTA to postpone this deadline for "several weeks" -- initially to Dec. 15, before getting pushed back again "indefinitely."

Last week, the agency announced that Ventra finally met the performance benchmarks necessary for its private vendor, Cubic Transportation Systems, to receive payments on their $454 million contract. The CTA is now claiming that they will fully transition to Ventra -- and away from Chicago Cards -- in (at least) a month.

At this point, it's worth asking why riders need to switch to Ventra to begin with. Halfway across the country, D.C.-area transit riders will soon get a Ventra-style open fare payment system...but will still be using a card based on a version of the Chicago Card technology.

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Jason Prechtel / Comments (6)

Transportation Tue Jan 21 2014

Metra Tries to Get Back on Track After Chiberia

It doesn't bear repeating that commuting on Metra during "Chiberia" earlier this month was a nightmare.

But even as Chicago sizzled to 36 degrees last week and most of the snow melted, Metra's still experiencing trouble with its service. Trains on the Union Pacific Line were forced to run a car or two short due to last week's weather.

Because of the cancellations and service disruptions these first two weeks of the new year, Tribune reporter Richard Wronski explains that Metra is likely to miss its 95 percent on time performance goal for January.

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Nenad Tadic / Comments (0)

Ward Politics Thu Jan 16 2014

Talk of Switching Argyle to Two-Way in Ravenswood

argyle and damen
The City is considering a plan to switch Argyle Street from one-way traffic to two-way between Damen and Wolcott avenues. According to a local resident, neighbors were notified of the plan via flyers in their doors only last week. Argyle currently runs two ways east of Wolcott and one-way west.

Ald. Pat O'Connor, whose 40th Ward gained this section of Ravenswood/Lincoln Square in the recent redistricting, is holding a public meeting about the change tonight at Amundsen High School, 5110 N. Damen Ave., tonight at 7pm. Enter at Door 1.

Andrew Huff / Comments (1)

Transportation Mon Dec 09 2013

Can Metra Successfully Switch to Ventra? Possible, but not Probable

Ventra Card
Image courtesy of CTA
By now, the Chicago Transit Authority's problems with Ventra have been as frequent as they've been frustrating.

CTA President Forrest Claypool insists the system's glitches and errors have been reduced. Yet the agency will continue to accept the old magnetic stripe and Chicago cards while withholding payment to Ventra's vendor, Cubic Transportation Systems, until certain performance benchmarks are met.

However, Ventra's reliability is more than just a Chicago concern. On July 7, 2011, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed into law a legal mandate for the CTA, Pace, and Metra transit systems to be united under an open fare payment system (one that allows payment through bank-issued or universal cards) by January 1, 2015. In turn, the CTA and Pace have both adopted the legally-qualifying Ventra system.

That leaves the Metra -- a train system that spans 11 individual lines across Northeastern Illinois and part of Wisconsin -- a little over a year to comply with state law.

On paper, it's possible for the expansive commuter rail system to make a smooth transition to Ventra over the next 12 months. But with the ongoing issues plaguing the CTA, and Metra's own recent troubles, there's good reason to question whether it's probable.

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Jason Prechtel / Comments (4)

Transportation Tue Nov 19 2013

Why Did We Even Get Ventra? Ask The RTA

In the wake of the seemingly endless problems with Ventra, some aldermen have called for an official hearing on the glitch-prone transit fare collection system created by Cubic Transportation Systems.

As reported last week in the Chicago Sun-Times, Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) questioned why the state even required the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace, and Metra transit systems to go under one payment system.

As it turns out, the law was pushed by the very same governmental organization currently overseeing the Ventra transition -- the Regional Transportation Authority.

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Jason Prechtel / Comments (8)

Transportation Mon Nov 11 2013

Ventra's Parent Company: An International History of Fare Card Glitches

640px-Cubic_Corporation_Logo.png
Since I last wrote about Ventra back in February, a lot has happened...mostly at the local commuter's expense.

During the past several months, CTA riders have dealt with a botched transition from city-issued magnetic strip passes and Chicago Cards (and ticket packs and cards for Pace riders), to an outsourced fare collection system based around a hybrid transit/prepaid debit card. This has been overseen by Cubic Transportation Systems, a subsidiary of a defense contractor and wireless data technology firm.

While Mayor Rahm Emanuel has both downplayed the problems and acknowledged the complaints, several alderman have called for an official hearing to demand explanations. Meanwhile, the CTA has announced a delay in the deadlines for fully transitioning to Ventra and proclaimed their refusal to pay Cubic until the issues are addressed.

In the face of public scrutiny, Cubic has ensured that these problems will be solved (though its boss "can't guess" when). However, what Cubic isn't telling Chicagoans is that the company has experienced all of Ventra's problems before... in the other smart card systems it has built for cities across the world.

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Jason Prechtel / Comments (13)

Op-Ed Mon Nov 04 2013

Bicycle Registration Fee is Absurd, Illogical

I am not a bicyclist.

I'm one of those people who always thinks, "Maybe I should trek out to Working Bikes and buy a bike because I'd love to commute along Lake Michigan," but never actually goes and buys a bike. It's partially due to the worry of someone stealing my bicycle even if I used four different u-locks, as well as deciding to buy more books with the money I could use to buy a bike.

I love bicyclists in Chicago.

These are people who have found another way to commute, one that is possibly better than how we often think of commuting in Chicago. The CTA--which I will say more about later--is not always the most reliable to commute and no one wants to be stuck in a car in traffic. Bicyclists are the people who can easily speed past the throngs of people crushed together on the bus, who never have to hear an announcement regarding a delay for the CTA.

So why should they have to pay a ludicrous bike registration fee?

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Monica Reida / Comments (5)

Transportation Wed Aug 14 2013

City Tries to Improve Bicyclist Safety

In recent years the City of Chicago has been trying to improve bicycle safety. Various initiatives have been put into place in 2013 to encourage safer bicycling.

In 2013, the City sent out more than one million "Tips for Motorists" in the mailings for city stickers, said Charlie Short, Bike Safety and Education Manager for the Chicago Department of Transportation. The tips, among other things, inform motorists on how to avoid dooring bicyclists when parked.

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Monica Reida / Comments (2)

Transportation Wed Jul 24 2013

Public Meetings to be Held For North Lake Shore Drive Study

The Illinois Department of Transportation and the Chicago Department of Transportation have started a study to examine improvement of North Lake Shore Drive. The study will examine Lake Shore Drive from Grand Avenue to Hollywood Avenue. The first round of public meetings regarding the study will be held on August 6-8.

In addition to examining improvements to the road, the project will also look at bridges and methods of non-motorized travel along Lake Shore Drive, such as the Lakefront Trail.

Anyone who uses the northern stretch of Lake Shore Drive is encouraged to attend the meetings. The August 6 meeting will be held in Gill Park at 825 W. Sheridan Road on the third floor. The August 7 meeting will be held at Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson in the atrium. The August 8 meeting will be held in the south gallery of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. All of the meetings are from 6 - 8 p.m.

Monica Reida / Comments (1)

Transportation Thu Feb 07 2013

Our Coming Public-Private CTA: How Much Will We Pay?

VENTRA_CMYK_Logo.jpgWhile it's easy to get overwhelmed trying to keep track of all the Chicago transportation improvement projects on the docket for the next decade, two major changes are coming soon that will permanently alter the way Chicago's public transportation system operates. These changes -- a newly outsourced mass transit fare payment system and a potential investment into 'L' line modernization and expansion -- will both involve the Chicago Transit Authority in public-private partnerships (PPPs or P3s).

However, despite assurances that P3s are vital for the future of infrastructure, and public officials' claims that the city is not "selling off" its assets, we should be skeptical of the idea that these projects are foolproof solutions to budget woes. Not only have the city's previous transportation-related P3s proven to be an increasingly expensive burden on Chicagoans, but similar mass transit P3's in other cities across the world have had mixed results, at best. For these reasons, the current P3 projects in the pipeline for the CTA deserve more public scrutiny to ensure that they benefit Chicagoans without incurring additional fees and burdens.

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Jason Prechtel / Comments (2)

State Politics Thu Jan 31 2013

Driven to Distraction: The New Illinois Temporary Visitor DL

While Congress ponders a "pathway to citizenship" for some of the millions among us who arrived in the country under the radar, Illinois has forged ahead, sending waves of ecstasy through some constituencies and outraging others, by providing a pathway to the highway for those in the same boat. Or sedan.

Yes, for those who were under a rock or asleep, the State of Illinois last week put aside that annoying chatter about pensions and bond ratings for a while so we could concentrate on getting some documents for those who claim to lack them. Governor Quinn this week signed a bill that will allow illegal (and some legal) immigrants to get special Illinois Temporary Visitor Drivers' Licenses, although it may be a year before the Secretary of State's office figures out how to implement it. Supporters claim this will make our roads safer . Opponents fling their hands in the air (but not while driving, we hope) at the idea of "rewarding" those who are in Illinois only by virtue of their own, or someone else's violation of federal immigration law.

This site hasn't touched this hot topic since the bill signing, and so it was shoved my way like a bowl of cereal toward Little Mikey. So here's a short column about traffic -- probably mainly website traffic, since anything touching on immigration brings out sloganeers from all corners.

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Jeff Smith / Comments (0)

Public Transportation Tue Nov 27 2012

"Let Them Drive Cars!"

TrafficI met with skepticism the Tribune's report that Mayor Emanuel responded to CTA riders' consternation over hikes to the cost of daily, weekly and monthly passes by suggesting they can choose to either drive or use public transit:

The mayor suggested commuters who don't like the new fare structure are free to get behind the wheel, setting aside the fact many Chicagoans who rely on the CTA to get to and from work don't have cars. "Now you, as a commuter, will pick. You can either drive to work or you can take public transportation, and the standard fare will stay the same," Emanuel said.

This is a stupendously politically tone-deaf thing to say. But forget about the politics of it; it's wrong on the supposed policy justifications as well.

Actually, let's go back to the politics of it. Mayor Emanuel has faced a persistent perception that he's more friendly to big business interests than to working class Chicagoans. Two reports -- one from the Reader and one from the Trib -- have focused on the mayor's meeting agendas, full as they with millionaires and lacking in community voices. The first teachers' strike in a generation aided in this perception, particularly given articles like this one from Reuters pointing out how out-of-town wealthy donors were bankrolling his fight against teachers. Early in his Mayoralty he faced outrage over the closure of mental health clinics for poor Chicagoans.

Whatever the reality of his concern for working-class Chicagoans, the perception isn't great.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (4)

Urban Planning Wed Sep 12 2012

Preview: Accelerate 77 Share Fair 2012

accelerate 77.pngAre you interested in making the entire city of Chicago a more sustainable place to live?

Come join over 200 organizations from all across Chicago's 77 neighborhoods this Saturday at Accelerate 77's Share Fair 2012 to learn, network, and contribute to a grassroots effort to transform the city from the bottom-up.

Sponsored by the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ISA), the goal of Accelerate 77 is to "identify current sustainability initiatives in all of Chicago's 77 community areas; connect them with one another to inspire new ideas, practices, self-consciousness and motivation through peer interchange; and engage residents in systematic learning, planning, and collective action."

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Jason Prechtel / Comments (0)

Transportation Fri May 25 2012

Gas and Cigarettes and Addiction Funding

shutterstock_91545929.jpgSo here's an interesting problem for students of how cities operate.

Public health and public transportation are two of the marquee issues for planners, and they're intertwined. Land use planners have recently turned towards policies that encourage walkability, bikeability, and "transit-oriented development." Mayor Emanuel's administration is currently undertaking an impressive, ambitious plan to introduce more than 100 miles of protected bike lanes, of the type found on Kinzie Avenue between Jefferson and Wells. Decreasing reliance on cars is a public health issue because it makes it easier for people to be active, and decreases vehicle emissions that pedestrians encounter as they move around the city. Similarly, the Affordable Care Act had provisions for public/private community health facilities with a focus on patient outcomes rather than fee-for-service models that merely encourage remedial care.

Two of the main sources of funding for public transportation and public health (particularly as the latter is undergirded by state Medicaid) are gasoline and cigarette taxes, respectively. You can see the immediate problem; the better transportation and health systems are designed, the more they must compromise the source of their funding. With transportation, this creates the most immediate problem: with increased volatility of gasoline taxes and a sharp increase in ridership, ill-equipped public transportation systems need more and more money to handle the increase (the fares are never enough to capitalize increased infrastructural capacity).

A brief by the American Public Transportation Association touches on this problem; as public transportation ridership increases, capacity needs increase even while revenues drop. Because fares will never be sufficient for real expansion of capacity, there's a systemic knot that can't be untied without a federal-state-local approach to overhauling the funding system.

Obviously, there's a similar problem with the vice-and-obesity taxes on things like cigarettes, alcohol, and fast and junk food. Where these revenues are meant to fund necessities--community health care in particular--the fact that the tax exists as a "disincentive" to unhealthy decision making implies the outcomes we want--healthier city living--are not really priorities. The addiction persists.

Cigarette photo via Shutterstock.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (0)

Transportation Fri May 25 2012

Union Station Master Plan Study Provides a Good Step Forward

unionstationdoor.jpgThe Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) released the Chicago Union Station Master Plan Study [PDF] on Wednesday, giving much needed suggestions on how to improve Union Station.

According to the study, the goals were to find ways to improve capacity for a predicted increase in Metra and Amtrak riders, improve transfers and make the terminal more inviting.

As someone who uses Union Station on occasion, I think that all of these are much needed improvements.

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Monica Reida / Comments (5)

Privatization Tue Apr 24 2012

Capital Strikes, Capital Flight, and the Wholly Privatized City

In approving with no modifications Mayor Emanuel's infrastructure trust plan today, the City Council took another step towards ensuring their own irrelevance and wholly privatizing the operations of Chicago. It also took another step towards building up the Mayor's 30-second campaign commercial for whatever higher office he's envisioning (so far, he's got "won the longest school day in the country" and "made the tough decisions to balance the budget"; of course, "took on the special interests (workers)" is a given). They can't be wholly blamed, though. There's little room for them, or any local (and even state) legislatures to maneuver. The corporate tactics of capital strikes and threats of flight have proven their worth. Cities and states have been starved for well over a decade, and now we're reduced to auctioning off what we own to meet our obligations.

In a piece on the Infrastructure Trust last week, I said that it wasn't an inherently terrible idea, in part because there's really no other feasible way to raise the money. Issuing general obligation bonds wouldn't be terrible different, the federal government doesn't spend money on infrastructure any more (at least not in a direct way not routed through private pockets) and the city's wealthiest institutions and individuals are unwilling to pay higher taxes--in fact, are unwilling to pay any taxes that aren't offset by massive welfare entitlements, as the ongoing tax increment financing boondoggle demonstrates.

Taking a step back and considering the broad view, this is an astounding progression of events. Over the last 25 years, Chicago's corporate and political leadership has drained the city of revenue through creation of TIFs as a condition to invest capital in neighborhoods--the whole point of a TIF is that available capital is being withheld until the public provides better incentives for its investment. The billions of dollars diverted into these funds contribute to not only to budget shortfalls but, amazingly, increase taxes on middle class taxpayers, as the school district and other bodies have to raise their tax levy to meet their obligations.

At the same time, the city's corporate powerhouses not only withhold investing capital without generous givebacks, but also threaten to leave if their taxes (euphemistically called the "business climate") are not satisfactory.

The result is a public sector starved of revenue which must then turn to selling off (or "long-term leasing-off") its assets. This in turn, by the way, reduces a city's credit-worthiness even more, making it more difficult to issue bonds in the future and narrowing the city's tax base.

This isn't just random dot connecting; it's actually how investors view Infrastructure Trust vehicles. Consider this bit of finance news from last year:

Earlier this month AMP Capital Investors was appointed by Irish Life Investment Managers to advise on its $1.5bn Irish Infrastructure Trust. The fund is expected to acquire key assets such as airports when the Irish government begins selling down assets to meet its obligations.

And this:

[The Irish trust] will provide crucial liquidity to a sector which has, and will continue to be, squeezed of capital. At the same time valuations for infrastructure assets should be low, given the weak macroeconomic outlook, with BMI anticipating a double dip recession to hit in 2012.

Investors in infrastructure trusts are not interested in helping communities (we, a community, are leasing the assets) getting to a place of healthy revenue capable of meeting obligations and investing in long-term projects. To the contrary; the more a community is starved of revenue, the more it'll have to auction off assets. The more it has to auction off assets, the fewer options it has to raise revenue. And on and on.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (0)

Privatization Mon Apr 16 2012

It's Not the Privatization, It's the Privatization

This morning a coalition of organizations opposed to Mayor Emanuel's proposed Infrastructure Trust Fund urged City Council Finance Committee members to vote on the proposal, calling it "the Great Chicago Sell-Off."

The idea of an infrastructure trust is to avoid funding needed and desirous infrastructure projects--such as public transit upkeep and expansion, building modernization, etc.--with debt. So instead of issuing general obligation bonds, attractive to borrowers because they're backed by property and other taxes the city has unlimited power to raise, the city would get private capital from wealth funds, banks, and other institutions, on the idea that the project would be administered by and in part controlled by that institutions, which would earn a return on its investment over the term of the interest.

So as a hypothetical example, the City wants to build a bus rapid transit line up and down Milwaukee Avenue. Rather than issue bonds that put the city further in debt, members of the Infrastructure Trust like, Macquarie and JP Morgan, put up $500 million to widen Milwaukee Avenue, put in the appropriate curbs, compensate the parking meter consortium for the lost spaces, buy the buses, and put in street signs and benches. In return, Trust members would be given a property interest in the BRT for a period of say 50 years, with the revenue generated either being divvied or going directly to them, either in full for the period of the agreement or up to a pre-defined ceiling that allows a nice return.

In the abstract, there's no real problem with this. We as a city don't have a lot of options. Illinois is broke beyond fixing and the federal government lost its appetite for funding major urban infrastructure projects generations ago. The general atmosphere of anti-tax hysteria makes general obligations a safe investment in theory but risky in practice. If these private institutions are willing to put up the money to develop the city's infrastructure for a similar or even slightly higher rate of return that the city would pay to bond holders, then there is no real loss to the city.

The abstract privatization isn't the problem, of course. It's the reality of it. Consider the hypothetical. In that hypothetical, the Infrastructure Trust would need to reimburse another privatizer, the consortium that bought the parking meter concession, for loss of spaces. This is a considerable cost over the life of a project. The city's agreement with that consortium tied our hands when it comes to planning our own city.

Consider in turn this story about the privatized downtown parking garages. In that agreement, the City promised not to permit competing parking garages to open up nearby. From the investor's point of view, this makes sense; they want a safe investment. From the public's point of view, it's an outrage. First of all, it's hard to see how such a promise serves the public interest, since it reduces competition for parking and thus protects a high-priced monopoly. But also, it seems like an outrageous delegation of the city's general legislative powers.

Privatization is supposed to make things more "efficient" by introducing "market-signals." In reality, however, privatization of public assets usually means binding the city's legislature--meaning us, the people--to long-term agreements that bind our ability to plan and design our city as we please, and keep us indebted to private interests, many of them with no real interest in making Chicago a better place.

A similar problem popped up with the parking meter concessionaire, too as a result of disability parking and its supposed deleterious effect on their bottom line. These agreements also tend to include arbitration agreements that are costly and keep "the City" (i.e., you and I) from going to Court over disagreements in an adversarial system that lets sunlight into operations.

Concessionaires are looking for safe, long-term investments. The more city assets they de facto control, the safer their investment, because the density of privately-controlled city infrastructure cuts into revenue generating opportunities for the city (which in turn makes it more expensive to issue bonds).

The safest investment are those that are most amenable to making a profit--more "monetizable" if you will. This inverts the rationale of infrastructure building. It's why Chicago has such a maddeningly redundant train system. The original lines were privately built, operating under charters granted by the City Council. The train operators knew the best and quickest way to make their money back was to have their train line touch the central business district, thus the creation of the Loop. But the whole point of infrastructure is not to maximize existing revenue opportunities, but to build up and out--to create new ones, even where there is risk, serving the underserved, and experimenting with new forms of infrastructure.

From a planning perspective, the concern with an Infrastructure Trust is that it privatizes our infrastructure decision-making. Rather than building and developing for the common good and to serve the underserved, we will be building and developing only where it is safe to do so, for the smallest cost for maximum return. And where such a decision may conflict with grander, more expensive, and potentially less lucrative plans, the binding, long-term agreements wins out.

As the story on the Monroe Garages indicates, these agreements are also often counter-productive. They lock the city into protecting non-competitive behavior for extremely long terms, with penalties that make forcing change or cancelling agreements costly enough to inhibit public innovation. It makes no sense for the city to agree not to permit competing parking garages, just as it made no sense for the city to guarantee the existence of parking spaces--and think how this inherently impacts the city's ability to move towards a more transit-friendly, bike-friendly planning posture. Consistent privatizing of assets creates a hodge-podge of potentially conflicting property interests owned by outside parties that keeps the city--us--from planning for a future that could, and should, look quite different from today.

From a democracy perspective, the Trust presents the twin problems accountability and transparency. Aldermen had to fight to get the Mayor to include a legislator on the body that makes decision--presumably an alderman he appoints--which does not augur well for the accountability and responsiveness of this body. It creates another appointed body immune to public pressure that further concentrates power in the person of the Mayor.

If we want a legislature that is independent of the Mayor, it'd be nice if it had some power distinct from his. With such limitless control over the Board of Education, the CTA, the CHA, and all the city's planning bodies, much of the reason the City Council can't cultivate any independence is that it has very little operational authority.

Asset privatization will create some jobs, it will modernize or improve some public assets, but it will not do so in a way that is publicly-driven, held well to account or even necessarily money-saving in a long-term sense. It isn't an inherently bad idea, particularly given the absence of lots of other options.

The problem in other words isn't privatization per se, it's privatization per quod.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (4)

Transportation Thu Dec 22 2011

New App Allows Taxi Users to Share Rides

One of the competitors in the Apps For Metro Chicago Grand Challenge promises to help Chicago become greener while users save money. Taxi Share Chicago has that goal in mind.

The idea for the app came from Chicago attorney Dan Fedor after meeting his wife while sharing a cab. Fedor thought that an app allowing people to share a taxi would not only help save money but also reduce carbon emissions and congestion.

Cyberwalkabout.com CEO Uki Lucas designed the app.

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Monica Reida / Comments (0)

Aldermen Tue Dec 20 2011

Talking Transportation with 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack

By John Greenfield

chicago alderman scott waguespackAs part of an ongoing project to interview all 50 of Chicago's aldermen about sustainable transportation issues in their districts (previously: 27th Ward Ald. Walter Burnett Jr.), I recently caught up with Scott Waguespack at the 32nd Ward service office, 2657 N. Clybourn. His ward includes parts of Ukrainian Village, Wicker Park, Bucktown, Goose Island, Lincoln Park, Lakeview and Roscoe Village.

In 2007 Waguespack defeated Richard M. Daley-backed incumbent Ted Matlak and soon gained a reputation as an independent voice in City Council. Most famously, he was the leading critic of Daley's push to privatize the city's parking meters, a move that the former mayor would eventually admit, "we totally screwed up."

Waguespack is also known as one of the city's most bike- and transit-friendly aldermen. We talked about his commuting habits; his efforts to promote biking and transit use in the ward; plans for developing the Bloomingdale Trail; and his far-fetched idea of connecting his district to the Loop via water taxi.

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Mechanics / Comments (0)

Technology and Politics Tue Nov 22 2011

The New Chicago Way: The Wholly Surveilled City

surveillance.jpgA friend sent me a note asking if the recent Automated Speed Enforcement system (ASES) approved by the General Assembly at the behest of Chicago's Mayor and Police Superintendent would make Lake Shore Drive fully subject to electronic monitoring, since almost the entire lakefront is a public park, and the bill was pitched as enforcing speed limits near parks and schools, "for the children." The good news is the answer is no, because Lake Shore Drive is exempted from the enacting legislation, known informally as SB956. The bad news is that Lake Shore Drive may be the only unmonitored bit of the city.

The ASES would not apply to Lake Shore Drive, but it would apply to almost the entire city. Some interesting things about the bill:

First, the way it defines an "automated speed enforcement system." That is as "a photographic device, radar device, laser device, or other electrical or mechanical device or devices installed or utilized in a safety zone and designed to record the speed of a vehicle and obtain a clear photograph or other recorded image of the vehicle and the vehicle's registration plate."

Which brings us pretty seamlessly to "secondly." Secondly, the bill defines a safety zone as any "area" that is within 1/8th of a mile (or a city block) from the property line of any public or private school or school-owned facility except central administrative buildings, and any park district owned property, except, again, for central administrative buildings. As you can imagine (see schools map below) that makes up a huge amount of the city -- because the cut-off isn't just a block. The bill also provides, "However, if any portion of a roadway is within either one-eighth mile radius, the safety zone also shall include the roadway extended to the furthest portion of the next furthest intersection." In other words, if a road falls within the a block of the property line of a school district or park district property, then the "safety zone" is extended to the next intersection, and through it.

Take a look at this map:

Chicago Elementary School Map

These are just the elementary schools.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (1)

Urban Planning Fri Nov 04 2011

Yglesias on the "Chicago Model"

Interesting short post on Chicago's zoning and development from Think Progress' Matthew Yglesias, with a note on how sprawl is impacted by mandatory parking space creation. I wrote about Chicago's parking policy and regulatory regime (though less as it relates to zoning) here. From Yglesias:

Chicago, though by no means perfect, is largely doing real estate development policy right. It's a city that's both sprawling and dense. It has its share of heavy rail transit serving the center of the city, and downtown where land is expensive the buildings get very tall. At the same time, it also spreads out a great deal since lots of people have a perfectly authentic preference for single family homes and varying degrees of low density neighborhoods.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (0)

Transportation Thu Oct 27 2011

Privatizing Traffic Law Enforcement

This morning, the Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released the first nation-wide study on the risks associated with outsourcing automated traffic law enforcement to private, for-profit companies. While the report offers the most details on cities in California, Texas and Florida, it serves as a cautionary tale for Illinois law-makers. Illinois ranks third, only behind Florida and California, for having the greatest number of jurisdictions with such contracts. More to the point, the city of Chicago is the single largest contract-holder in the country with Redflex Traffic Systems, one of the two largest operators of automated traffic monitoring — rare is the Chicagoan who hasn't seen one of the 380 red-light cameras in the city.

Celeste Meiffren, Field Director with IL-PIRG, emphasizes that the study is intended to underscore the pitfalls many other cities have fallen into when drafting their contracts, leading to the prioritization of revenue over public safety. The report details the most glaring conflicts of interest, such as contracts that link payment to Redflex (or its competitor, American Traffic Solutions) with the number of tickets given — the more effective in ticketing motorists, the more money the company earns. This has resulted in the companies lobbying to kill measures that would increase the duration of yellow lights at intersections, which would decrease both the chance of accidents as well as potential tickets.

Meiffren explained that the deals Chicago has struck are, by and large, a "model" for how other cities should have done it. Chicago purchased the camera systems from Redflex, and the Chicago Department of Transportation operates and maintains them, without involving Redflex in the citation process. Although the city has been smart in the arrangements it has made to date, the study remains important in keeping the eyes of watchdog groups on the situation.

Current developments make this especially pertinent. Springfield lawmakers have been considering a bill that would expand privatized law enforcement in Chicago dramatically, by adding a roster of speed cameras to its already impressive holdings of red-light cameras. According to an article in the Tribune, the two versions of the bill, sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, would "render about 47 percent of the city eligible for speed camera surveillance." Although the language put forward by the lawmakers and Mayor Emanuel is that the new cameras are intended to "protect children" in "safety zones" near parks and schools, because of Chicago's abundance of such areas, very little of the city would be speed-camera free.

That Chicago earned $58 million from red-light camera fines in 2009 alone — "a rare bright spot in a generally bleak fiscal picture for the city" — is not to go unnoticed, and is certainly a motive for acquiring speed cameras.

Megan E. Doherty / Comments (4)

Public Transportation Fri Aug 26 2011

Growing Pains: The Red Line Extension

by Christopher Gray

Eddie Davis waits in his dapper suit for customers to arrive at Bass Furniture, but buyers and even browsers are few and far between these days for the Roseland landmark at South Michigan and 115th Street.

Business has been down for years, while Davis continues to pay the mortgage on his store and warehouses, which have sold new furniture on the Far South Side for generations.

"As much as I would like to stay in the 9th Ward, if I had the resources, I would move," Davis said.

The days when far South Michigan Avenue was a thriving commercial corridor with competing department stores are long gone, but Davis said business was much better even 10 years ago when a strip mall sat cater-corner to his store.

The mall was bulldozed for redevelopment in 2004, and the neighborhood has been waiting ever since for a grocery store to anchor the neighborhood on 115th. Roseland is completely without a supermarket, making it one of the city's largest "food deserts."

"It has impacted our business tremendously," Davis said. "We need foot traffic. We need people."

An Aldi store may yet anchor that location within the next year, but Bass Furniture could some day benefit from another development: a new El station a few hundred yards to the south, part of the proposed Red Line extension.

"We've been here 70 years," Davis said. "If it takes 10 years for the train, we hope to be here in 10 years."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaigned on an overhaul of the Red Line as his highest transportation priority, and within his first 100 days in office, the CTA has showed the beginnings of that process: the agency won $8.4 million in federal dollars to conduct environmental studies for Red Line improvements.

The environmental studies will take two years, and push out the finish line of a Red Line extension until at least 2017, but Joe Iacobucci, a strategic planner at the CTA, said any delay is hardly the biggest obstacle the project faces.

"The two main barriers are finding capital funds and operations costs," Iacobucci said. "We're still a ways to go, but we're still pushing this through as fast as we can."

When Richard M. Daley was mayor, the Red Line extension had to share CTA planning time with extensions to the Yellow and Orange lines as well as a new inner-city connector route called the Circle Line. Under the new mayor, those projects appear shelved, and only the Red Line extension remains active. But now the extension is sharing funds with improvements to the existing Red Line on the North Side.

In the spring, the CTA initiated its "Your Red" campaign, which, reflecting Emanuel's Chicago 2011 Transition Plan, takes a three-pronged approach to the Red Line: overhaul the dilapidated north branch of the Red Line and the suburban Purple Line for $2.4 to $4 billion; replace the rails, ties and ballasts of the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line for $700 million; and extend the Red Line to 130th Street, through the Roseland neighborhood to Altgeld Gardens, for $1.2 billion.

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Mechanics / Comments (2)

Transportation Thu Aug 18 2011

How Bus Rapid Transit Can Be Implemented in Chicago

The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) released their report Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago's New Route to Opportunity publicly at an event held yesterday at the Union League Club. For some background on the report, see here.

The speakers at the event included former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa, United States Bus Rapid Transit Program Director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), Annie Weinstock, MPC Project Manager Josh Ellis and Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) Commissioner Gabe Klein. The event focused on how BRT's implementation in Chicago could work and cited examples from other cities using BRT, primarily Bogotá.

As mayor, Peñalosa oversaw the development of Bogotá's BRT system. TransMilenio, as it was called is now viewed as being the world standard in BRT. There are 84 kilometers (52.2 miles) of road used in the TransMilenio route and it serves more than 1 million riders daily. (Note: TransMilenio links are in Spanish but can be viewed in English by clicking on "Idioma.")

"Buses operating as BRT are wonderful," Peñalosa said during his presentation.

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Monica Reida / Comments (0)

Transportation Wed Aug 17 2011

New Report Examines Possibility of Bus Rapid Transit in Chicago

The Metropolitan Planning Council released a report, "Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago's New Route to Opportunity," [PDF] evaluating the potential for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Chicago. As part of the study, the proposed BRT lines would connect with Metra and CTA L stops, as well as help serve communities by improving livability. A BRT system was mentioned in both Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Transition Plan and the Chicago Climate Action Plan.

While BRT uses buses, it is meant to emulate a rail system in some ways. Standard BRT systems require riders to pay at stations before boarding, which allows for faster boarding at stops. BRT stations also usually have a level platform and buses tend to have multiple doors for boarding and exiting. Most systems have a dedicated lane for buses as well as signal prioritized intersections, which allow for buses to move without stopping and to ensure the safety of buses. According to the study, BRT costs about $13.32 million per mile to construct while light rail costs about $35 million per mile and heavy rail tends to cost more than $96.25 million. BRT is already used in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Eugene, Oregon. In Los Angeles, the Metro Liner system originally included the Orange Line, which is highlighted in the report, but another route--the Silver Line--was added in 2009 to connect the city of El Monte with downtown Los Angeles and the city of Gardena. Currently, officials in Los Angeles are extending the Orange Line, which had 22,817 average weekday boardings last month and a total of 591,179 boardings. The extension is expected to be completed in the summer of 2012.

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Monica Reida / Comments (0)

Transportation Tue Aug 16 2011

Talking Transportation with 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett Jr.

By John Greenfield

As "mini mayors," aldermen have a huge influence on the kinds of projects that are built in their districts. For example, a handful of aldermen have opted to use "menu money" discretionary funds to stripe additional bicycle lanes in their wards or to bankroll innovative transportation projects, like the Albany Home Zone traffic-calmed block in Logan Square. On the other hand, they can stand in the way of progress, like when former 50th Ward Alderman Berny Stone vetoed a bike bridge on the North Shore Channel Trail in West Rogers Park.

ald_walter_burnett_jr.jpgAs gas prices rise and addressing the problems of climate change, pollution and traffic jams becomes increasingly important in Chicago, it's important to know where our elected officials stand on sustainable transportation. As one of the city's most bike-friendly alderman and a former board member with the Active Transportation Alliance, 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. seemed like an ideal candidate for an interview.

The district covers an incredibly diverse area, including parts of Humboldt Park, East Garfield Park, the West Loop, River West, Cabrini Green and Old Town. Last week I caught up with Burnett, who has been in power since 1995, in his City Hall office. He updated me on new walking, biking and transit projects in the ward, discussed how better transportation options can help low-income people access education and jobs, and gave me a few local restaurant tips.

Tell me a little about your experience working with the Active Transportation Alliance.

The thing about Active Trans is they're always looking at "best practices" nationally and internationally and thinking about how to use those ideas to make biking better in Chicago. I went with them to Quito, Ecuador, [in 2008, along with 35th Ward Alderman Rey Colon and other city officials] for a conference on ciclovias [events that close down a network of streets for car-free recreation]. Every Sunday in Quito they bike around the city, and there's so many kids and parents involved it's a beautiful sight.

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Mechanics / Comments (2)

Urban Planning Thu Jul 07 2011

Chicago and Portland: Urban Dynamism

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Aaron Renn, the estimable Urbanophile from the blog of the same name, published a piece considering what Portland, as a beacon of "livability," means for cities across the country. Renn compares Portland in the 1990s to Chicago in the 1890s: visionary and opportunistic, the "orderer" of its day:

Portland didn't invent bicycles, density or light rail -- but it understood the future implications of them for America's smaller cities first, and put that knowledge to use before anyone else. The longest journey begins with a step, but you have to take it. Nobody else did. In an era where most American cities went one direction, Portland went another, either capturing or even creating the zeitgeist of a new age.

In the agro-industrial era, Chicago first understood the true significance of railroads, the skyscraper and even urban planning. It saw what others couldn't -- and acted on that understanding. That made Chicago the greatest city, indeed the orderer, of its age.

In the late 20th century and continuing to the present day, for cities below the first rank, Portland plays that role. Like Chicago, it is remaking much of America after its own fashion. Light rail, bike lanes, reclaimed waterfronts, urban condos and microbreweries are now nearly ubiquitous, if not deployed at scale, across the nation.

Renn is an agile and interesting thinker on urban issues, one of my favorites to read on big city policy, even when we disagree. While I think the piece lapses into generalization occasionally, he sets up some very interesting contrasts and asks some great questions.

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Ramsin Canon / Comments (0)

Event Wed Apr 06 2011

Love Your Bike in the South Suburbs

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Although there has been some small gains for Chicago's bicycle community in recent years, such as the launching of the city's bike-sharing program last year, the Chicago area could certainly use its share of more bike lanes, trails and other transportation services.

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Sheila Burt / Comments (0)

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.

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Jeff Smith / Comments (5)

Transportation Mon Mar 28 2011

More Transportation Thoughts

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In light of Tuesday's event about deteriorating bridges in Illinois, we plowed through Transportation for America's 21-page report The Fix We're In For: The State of Illinois' Bridges (PDF) to digest more of the facts for you. Kathleen Woodruff, Transportation for America's Illinois field organizer, also kindly sent along this picture from Tuesday's event.

  • Currently, one out of 12 bridges in Illinois are likely to be deteriorating to some degree, and 8.5 percent of bridges in Illinois are currently rated "structurally deficient" according to government standards. This compares to 11.5 percent nationwide.

  • Illinois is the 35th worst state in terms of the overall conditions of the state's bridges.

  • Most bridges are designed to last about 50 years; the average age of bridges in Illinois is 38.2 years old.

  • Out of the top 10 structurally deficient bridges with the highest traffic volumes, seven of them are in Cook County.

The report singles out Chicago's 50-year-old overpass at Western Avenue between Addison and Diversey, stating that it "has reached the end of its useful life and is overdue for repair and rehabilitation. Some local officials and residents have noted that the current structure, in addition to being unsafe, has been a strain on city finances due to the continual need for small patches and repairs."

Beyond this report, Transportation for America also has an interesting interactive graphic about transportation issues facing each state. According to the coalition's analysis, annual hours of delay per peak traveler in Chicago increased from 33 hours in 1995 to 46 hours in 2005. Read more transportation facts about Illinois here. The group has also mapped the nationwide "transit funding crisis" here.

Sheila Burt / Comments (0)

Transportation Tue Mar 22 2011

Report: Some Illinois Bridges "Deteriorating"

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An industrial bridge over the Calumet-Sag Channel

Chicago transportation advocates will gather Tuesday morning at the southeast corner of North Western Avenue and West Melrose Street, at the site of a 50-year-old overpass, to discuss bridge maintenance in Illinois.

According to a report from Transportation for America, a D.C.-based coalition lobbying for transportation reform, some bridges in Illinois may not be as structurally sound as they should be. The coalition notes that "one out of every 12 bridges in Illinois is likely to be deteriorating to some degree, and 8.5 percent of bridges statewide are rated 'structurally deficient' according to government standards."

Wabash County, in southeastern Illinois near the Indiana border, ranked number one in having the most structurally deficient bridges at 21.7 percent. In comparison, 9.9 percent of bridges in Cook County were rated structurally deficient.

You can read more state facts about Illinois' transportation infrastructure here.

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Sheila Burt / Comments (0)

Public Transportation Wed Jan 05 2011

Not Even on the Map

Recently, the CTA announced that its long-awaited Train Tracker app will be launching this month. Utilizing a system similar to its popular Bus Tracker app, CTA riders will now be able to get real time information on when the next train is due to arrive at the platform. Ideally, this story would be part of a narrative that the CTA, despite these lean times, continues to produce the best possible product it can for its ridership, and is dedicated to taking whatever steps necessary to ensure its service continues unabated.

Unfortunately though, the Train Tracker seems to be one of the only
projects that is realistically slated to get off the ground this year for the CTA. In an inventory carried out by the sweeping transportation blog The Transport Politic, a study outlining all of the major planned transit projects across the country is now available for review. Light rail in Denver, Dallas, and Pittsburgh? Construction already underway. Streetcars in Atlanta, D.C., Portland and Seattle? Making progress. Busways in Hartford, CT, and Los Angeles, and commuter rail in New York, Boston, and San Francisco? All are in various stages of construction or completion. Chicago? Not even on the map.

For a city with such historical precedent of great public works, and relatively recent cachet to preen about large-scale infrastructure projects such as Millennium Park or innovative greening initiatives, it's startling not to see it listed anywhere. In Chicago's defense, it's not as if it's starting from zero in terms of transit infrastructure. For that matter though, New York, D.C., and the majority of other cities on the list aren't either. With the completed Brown Line renovation, the CTA has been incrementally fixing what it can. And though they've still yet to move out of the review phase, there are plans to move the system forward with BRT lines, and the forever-in-review Red, Yellow, and Orange Line extensions .

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Ben Schulman / Comments (3)

Transportation Fri Dec 31 2010

What's Ahead: Thoughts on 2011

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With 2010 coming to a close today, Gapers Block asked two environmental advocates who helped put together Chicago's Sustainable Transportation Platform to reflect on 2010 and discuss their hopes for 2011. Via e-mail, this is what they had to say:

Brian Imus, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group (Illinois PIRG)

1. The privatization of Chicago's parking meters - allowing a Morgan Stanley backed set of investors to reap the profits for the next 75 years from the city's parking meters - sparked public outrage as parking rates quadrupled overnight in some parts of the city, meters malfunctioned, and critics, including the city's own Inspector General, argued that the city received hundreds of millions of dollars less for the meter system than it was worth. In 2011, as the new mayor and city council undoubtedly face a big budget deficit, let's hope - rather than considering the sale of more taxpayer-owned assets - the city increases government transparency and more citizen input in important budget decisions.

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Sheila Burt / Comments (0)

Transportation Tue Dec 21 2010

Chicago's Sustainable Transportation Platform

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Chicago's mayoral candidates have a lot to consider if they want to keep several local environmental and transportation advocacy groups supportive and engaged. In recent months, organizations have released detailed reports on how to make Chicago a more progressive and sustainable city. [For more on the loaded word sustainable, check out Ben Schulman's latest post]. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning unveiled its GO TO 2040 plan in October, and last week, the Center for Neighborhood Technology released its "Investing in a Better Chicago" report. Most recently, the Metropolitan Planning Council, Active Transportation Alliance and six other Chicago organizations collaborated on a Sustainable Transportation Platform, a report outlining ten priorities that the coalition is urging mayoral candidates to support in order to make transportation safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, and more efficient for all commuters.

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Sheila Burt / Comments (1)

Transportation Thu Oct 07 2010

Do Bike Lanes Make Bikers Less Safe?

A biker in New York City makes the case in this video that bike lanes actually make biking less safe, sparking a debate in the bike community in New York.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (3)

Chicago Fri Sep 10 2010

Chicago's Right Fix

Last week, this space took a peek into various projects underway nationwide that are essentially right-sizing transit infrastructure to be compatible and appropriate for its surroundings. For infrastructure on the whole, more and more cities, such as New Orleans, are at the very least talking about attacking their present sense of being with a more symbiotic view of their natural sense of place. In addressing more realistic uses of land, and recognizing that the old standard of growth as a panacea is basically outdated, a city like Cleveland is just now starting to operate in the here and now by reclaiming vacant land for new purposes, and in the process directly addressing its future and not hoping for one to simply take hold of it. Under the still-new Mayor David Bing, Detroit is beginning to realistically assess its assets in terms of proper use, and not regrowth.

And with mention of mayors, it brings us home to Chicago. After hearing that Mayor Daley would not be running for reelection, the Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamen noted in his Cityscapes blog that Daley "...was the Boss and the Builder -- a democratically-elected king who could remake vast swaths of the city at will," and that "whether you loved Daley or loathed him, this much was indisputable: He cared passionately about the way Chicago looked." For all of the much-needed repairs the CTA requires, for all of the neglected spaces and neighborhoods that need further tending to and attention, and for all of the unlocked potential within the city, we've got to admit Chicago's got good bones to work with. Where at one point in time the city could have very easily ossified, Daley ensured that for the past 21 years, there was a check against that atrophy.

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Ben Schulman / Comments (0)

Public Transportation Fri Sep 03 2010

The Right Fix

As the coffers of all forms of public agencies continue to bleed, there's a growing movement of adopting common sense strategies towards maintaining transit infrastructure. Philip Langdon over at The New Urban Network has looked into a growing chorus of concern in D.C. that calls to change the way maintenance is scheduled and delivered across D.C.'s Metrorail and Metrobus service. Echoing the Obama administration's call for preventive health care, Greater Greater Washington blogger Ken Archer suggests a more pro-active approach to upkeep by utilizing a "maintenance-as-you-go" system. By outfitting trains and buses with diagnostic sensors, such a program would work to identify when vehicles are in actual need of care, and not simply, to quote Langdon quoting Archer himself "either too late and a breakdown has already occurred, or it is way too early and thus wasteful."

In rural communities across the Dakotas, Michigan, and other states as well, some cash-strapped counties and state DOTs are doing way with repaving roads and replacing them with gravel. The cost of asphalt and constant maintenance is simply something small, cash-strapped highway departments are not equipped to handle at present. While it would seem almost counter-intuitive to allow roads to go "back to nature," for communities such as the 78-population strong Spiritwood, N.D., it is actually a corrective in providing infrastructure that is appropriate for a town of its stature. It's more evidence of structural changes happening everywhere in forcing Americans to address the notion that one-size-fits-all approaches to growth are not, and never were, the answer to the myriad needs of the diverse makeup of the nation's communities.

A burgeoning highlight of the Great Recession is slowly starting to reveal itself, in that we are recognizing growth, in expansionist terms, will not be the way out of our current morass. Rather, the new growth will be a right-sizing approach of doing what's rightful for our individual communities, thereby strengthening their assets, and not implementing mismatched and long-term destructive plans.

Ben Schulman / Comments (0)

Transportation Mon Aug 30 2010

Creating Bike Lanes Makes Cities Safer for Pedestrians

A study by the New York City Department of Transportation has found that increasing the amount of dedicated bike lanes--and enforcing the laws around them--actually increases protection for pedestrians; roads with bike lanes saw 40% fewer pedestrian incidences with autos.

Perhaps this can help add light to the current hulabaloo going on in the comments on a post over at our sports blog, Tailgate, about the monthly Critical Mass "Happy Friday" bike rides.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (1)

Transportation Mon Aug 16 2010

Active Transportation's New Executive Director

[Editor's note: This story was submitted by freelance journalist John Greenfield.]

After a long search process, Active Transportation Alliance recently selected Ron Burke as its new executive director, replacing Rob Sadowsky who left in June to lead the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, Oregon. Burke, an expert in environmental policy comes to Active Trans, the region's advocate for better walking, biking and transit, from a job with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Before that he worked for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Ron doesn't start work at Active Trans until August 17, so is not yet giving interviews. But Active Trans board president Jane Healy, who has spearheaded Safe Routes to School initiatives in her hometown of Blue Island and is a familiar face on Chicago Critical Mass rides, agreed to talk about the appointment. She discussed why the board chose Burke from a field of more than 75 candidates, the concerns that his marriage to a current Active Trans employee might be a conflict of interest, and Healy's hopes for the future of the organization under its new E.D.

Can you tell me about Ron's background in promoting green transportation and active living initiatives?

When he worked for the American Lung Association, Ron was really key in pushing for CATS [Chicago Area Transportation Study, now called Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, an agency which helps award grants to local transportation projects] to use some of the federal CMAQ [Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality] dollars for bike, pedestrian and transit projects, not just for car infrastructure.

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Mechanics / Comments (0)

Public Transportation Fri Aug 13 2010

Raise the Grade

Chicago's Aaron Renn, who writes an influential blog under the moniker The Urbanophile, is one of the region's- if not nation's- leading thinkers in providing innovative solutions to urban issues. Last year, his series "Chicago Transit at a Crossroads" won the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce's Transit Innovation Award, and his work regularly is quoted and/or appears in the New York Times, Forbes, and New Geography, amongst many others. Needless to say, when Renn digs into an issue or picks up a cause, it is pretty much assured worth a read.

This past week, Renn made his case in a lengthy post about Metra's plan to use earmarked transit capital dollars to raise the grade of clearance bridges in order to accommodate more truck traffic on the roads below, and to remove a currently unused third right of way track that runs alongside the Union Pacific North Line. As is usually the case, Renn clearly illustrates his point, lucidly cutting to the heart of the matter by asking: why is Metra using any amount of their minuscule funds available for transit in order to enact what is essentially a roads improvement project? He further questions the wisdom of permanently removing the currently underutilized third right of way track in light of all indications pointing to increased ridership in the years to come, making it seem foolhardy of Metra to remove an essential bit of infrastructure that could very well be needed in the future. In his post, Renn encourages his readers to email the Metra Board and at the very least, appoint a third party to review their intentions before moving any further with the plan.

This bit of advocacy actually worked in prompting a response from Metra to Renn, presenting their side of the story and an explanation of some of their plans. (You can read their response by downloading the following: Urbanresponse.doc) While the factual matters concerning this debate would seem to fall in Renn's favor, one of the more interesting aspects of this exchange is the response elicited by the petitioning body and the speed in which the governing faction- in this case, Metra- responded. Saul Alinsky and neighborhood community groups aside, direct democracy and advocacy are not traditional strongholds in Chicagoland. Given the paucity of funds floating around during these critical times, and the utter incompetence of, sadly, most everyone involved in making funding decisions, there seems to be a slight shift afoot in how people interact with the powers and services that be. If, on a larger scale, Machine Lite may be in its waning days, could Renn and his readers represent an emerging kind of informed and eager class of citizen demanding direct interaction and response from their public utilities and government? If so, Paddy Bauler might be needing a new quote.

Ben Schulman / Comments (0)

Public Transportation Wed Aug 04 2010

The Bus That Ate Chicago

While the implementation of the CTA's Bus Rapid Transit Pilot Program is eagerly anticipated, it's well-worth paying attention to some of the insanely innovative ideas coming out of China right now. Still in the proposition phase, the Chinese company Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment has unveiled plans for a gigantic, towering, road-hovering light rail/bus hybrid that looms over roadways. Powered by a mix of electricity and solar energy, and capable of carrying passenger loads of 1200-1400, the vehicle would essentially create a moving tunnel in which traffic would flow underneath the commuting masses.

This vision of tomorrow's future today is intriguing to say the least, although there are tremendous practical concerns to address, especially in regards to how such an imposing structure would encourage TOD-development if it was simply tacked on top of existing car-oriented thoroughfares. But nonetheless, it is exciting to imagine these new systems coming into play. Initial questions to ponder: where would such a system work best in Chicago? Can Marty McFly use his hoverboard to access docking stations? All things worth further inquiry.

Ben Schulman / Comments (0)

Transportation Thu Jul 15 2010

Fare is Fair

But it's gonna take money
A whole lotta spending money
Its gonna take plenty of money
To do it right child

Its gonna take time
A whole lot of precious time
Its gonna take patience and time, ummm
To do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it,
To do it right child

Yes, the above lyrics reference James Ray's 1962 soul hit "Got My Mind Set on You." (Or if you prefer, George Harrison's 1987 cover version. Regardless, both are great.) But when read on paper, could these stanzas not be the prescription for transportation in Chicago, and the nation as a whole?

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Ben Schulman / Comments (1)

Public Transportation Mon Jun 28 2010

Brand the CTA

The MTA in New York recently announced that beginning this week they would be cutting two subway lines and 37 bus lines from service. With other reductions set to take place system-wide, New York's transit agency aims to shave $93 million from its operating costs. In July, when the MTA unveils its new budget, many expect the already rumored 7 precent fare hike actually to be much higher than anticipated. While the cuts in New York will indeed cause consternation and confusion amongst many, and fuel the fire of the MTA's naysaying watchdogs, it is interesting to note here the difference in tone from these drastic reductions in service in New York to the incessant "doomsday" chatter that hangs like an ever-present cloud over the CTA in Chicago. The MTA seems to have taken these operational measures without engaging in the process of alienating and villainizing the majority of the patrons who utilize their trains and buses. Leading up to the last series of service cuts experienced here in Chicago over the past winter, the CTA made a spectacle of itself by often throwing up its hands in the face of the City, Springfield and most importantly, its riders, by essentially saying "Look, there's no way. What do you want us to do? You deal with it."

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Ben Schulman / Comments (4)

Transportation Wed May 19 2010

Ride of Silence Roars Wednesday Night

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Bicycle advocates will gather this evening (6:30 p.m.) at the Eternal Flame in Daley Plaza for the annual Ride of Silence, a silent cycling procession honoring bicyclists who have been injured or killed on Chicago streets. The Ride of Silence's route passes by several eerie ghost bikes -- bike fixtures painted white and permanently displayed near the intersection where cyclists have been killed. The bikes usually include the name of and date of the bicyclist killed. This year's route ends at North Damen and West Wellington Avenues, which is the location of Liza Whitacre's ghost bike. Whitacre, 20, was killed in late October after falling from her bicycle and being run over by a truck.

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Sheila Burt / Comments (4)

Public Transportation Mon May 17 2010

The Collapse of the High Speed Rail Promise?

Advocates of publicly-owned transit were over the moon with the announcement by the Obama administration that there would be serious investment in high-speed rail as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Communities likely to be served by the high speed rail had tentatively begun community information efforts. Transit advocates like the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) have begun undertaking serious study of the benefits of the program as planned.

Unfortunately, there may not be much of a future to the plan. The Infrastructurist asks, "Could high-speed rail stall completely in the U.S.?" And the answer seems to be yes:

Following the much-ballyhooed $8 billion that the government allotted to states as part of the stimulus bill, it doesn't look like there's much more federal money after that. In 2010, Congress authorized $2.5 billion for HSR projects -- and for 2011, it's a mere $1 billion. And given the shambles condition of most states' budgets, it's highly unlikely that state governments will be able to write big checks to HSR projects in the next 2 to 5 years.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (3)

Transportation Thu May 06 2010

MPC Maps Out Benefits of High-Speed Rail

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In late January, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), President Obama awarded $8 billion in high-speed rail grants to 31 states, including just over $1 billion to Illinois to improve tracks, signal systems and stations on the existing Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City corridor (pdf).

While Mechanics readers are prone to ponder if high-speed rail makes any economic sense at all, advocates with the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) tend to think otherwise. The non-profit recently released a report stating that in the next 10 years, roughly 800,000 new tourists will visit Chicago because of the rail improvements, pumping the local economy with some serious cash. Researchers analyzed how much money tourists will spend (which they call direct spending), how much money Chicagoans will spend as a result of this tourist spending (called indirect spending) and "how our state and local tax revenues will grow as a result."

The MPC came up with these numbers:

  • $320 million in direct new tourist spending

  • $510 million in total direct and indirect spending as a result

  • $120 million in new state and local tax revenue

  • 5,300 jobs as a result of tourist spending and building of the Englewood flyover bridge near 63rd street

  • $2.6 billion of additional income from job creation

Additionally, as people rely less on planes, buses and cars, the environment will also get a boost. The MPC estimates that 9.3 million barrels of gas will be saved along with 12 million tons of CO2, which MPC Fiscal Policy Manager Chrissy Nichols notes is "the equivalent of half a million roundtrip car trips from Chicago to St. Louis."

The only caveat? The initial investment won't exactly create high-speed rail as it is known in other countries. Nichols writes, "While the $1.2 billion investment will cut the time it takes to get from Chicago to St. Louis by an hour-and-a-half to four hours, at an average speed of 62 mph it will be far from the high-speed bullet trains whizzing around Europe and Japan."

Read Nichols' full piece here and see the full MPC fact sheet here (pdf).

Sheila Burt / Comments (3)

Transportation Thu Apr 29 2010

Recent Immigrants More Likely to Ride Bikes.

Huh. Well, there's a fact you can repeat to people.

Immigrants tend to be healthier than native-born Americans when they arrive in the United States, but within a generation that advantage is lost. A new study by UCLA doctoral candidate Michael Smart suggests one reason why. In the May issue of Transportation Policy he describes findings that new immigrants -- legal or not -- are twice as likely to travel by bicycle than native-born Americans.

[....]

Previous research found that, although Latino immigrants in California have similar travel needs to the native-born, they are more likely to use alternative modes of transportation -- primarily ride giving and receiving -- because many have limited access to a car. Other factors promoting pedaling among immigrants might include living in compact neighborhoods or being comfortable as a two-wheel commuter in their homeland. Plus, illegal immigrants may choose a bicycle to avoid the contact with law enforcement officials that cars may bring. But even when Smart accounted for these variables, he found a significant "immigrant effect" on bicycle use for all immigrant groups.

Ramsin Canon / Comments (0)

Feature

How Lawsuits, Lobbyists and Parking Meter Deals Led to Ventra

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Cubic learned early on that if you don't win a contract through bidding, there are other ways to prevail. More...

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