Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: Norway or the Highway?

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, Loop, Transit No Comments »
Madison Street, part of the Loop Link bus route, could be made car-free. Photo: John Greenfield

Maybe Madison Street, part of the Loop Link bus route, could be made car-free/Photo: John Greenfield

“I think we should look to countries like Denmark, and Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they’ve accomplished,” socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said recently. That statement surely gave the Republicans hives.

One area where U.S. cities like Chicago should definitely look to Scandinavia for inspiration is traffic management. Last month, the newly elected city council of Oslo, Norway, announced that it plans to make the central city free of private cars by 2019. It’s part of a plan to cut greenhouse emissions in half within five years, as compared to 1990 levels.

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Checkerboard City: The Rebel Transportation Commissioner

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Lit No Comments »

Gabe Klein (left) toasts the new riverwalk with Active Transportation Alliance cofounder Randy Neufeld/Photo: Steven Vance

Ex-Chicago Department of Transportation chief Gabe Klein says that when he returned to Chicago earlier this month for his first real visit since he resigned almost two years ago, it was a highly emotional experience. He was finally able to see the Bloomingdale Trail and the Chicago Riverwalk extension, projects that he spearheaded as commissioner, filled with people enjoying themselves. “It reinforced to me that there’s such a huge demand, particularly in urban spaces, just for great places to hang out.”

Klein was in town for a conference on “shared mobility” tools like bike-sharing and car-sharing. He was partly there to talk up his new book “Start-Up City: Inspiring Private & Public Entrepreneurship, Getting Projects Done, & Having Fun” (Island Press), a primer on how to quickly make improvements to cities in the face of grinding bureaucracy. Disclosure: I contributed a photo for the pint-sized paperback, of the commissioner striding diagonally across Jackson and State during the ribbon cutting for the city’s first “pedestrian scramble” intersection.

Klein came to CDOT in May of 2011 as part of the Rahm Emanuel administration, following a stint as director of the Washington, D.C. transportation department. During his two-and-a-half years in Chicago he also launched the (highly controversial) speed camera program, built dozens of miles of buffered and protected bike lanes, created the Divvy bike-share system, and planned the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor. He says he quit the job to move back to D.C. for the birth of his daughter Simone, whose name was partly inspired by noted Chicagophile Simone de Beauvoir. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Divvy for Everyone Makes Bike-Share More Accessible

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Garfield Park, Green No Comments »

Divvy employee Michael Clark (red cap) and friends take a spin in East Garfield Park./Photo: John Greenfield

Before the Divvy bike-share system launched in June of 2013, city officials promised that attracting an ethnically and economically diverse ridership was a top priority. “Since we’re using public dollars, it’s important that the folks who are using the service reflect everybody in the community,” said Scott Kubly, deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation at the time. “It’s a challenge, but we’re going to crack it.”

That hasn’t happened yet. Like most American bike-share systems, Divvy’s membership has skewed white, male, young, educated and relatively affluent.

The system currently has about 30,000 annual members. Of the hundreds who responded to a recent survey, sixty-five percent were male, and seventy-nine percent were non-Hispanic whites—a group that makes up only about thirty-two percent of the city’s population. The average age was thirty-four, the majority of respondents have middle-to-upper incomes, and ninety-three percent have a college degree or more.

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Checkerboard City: Biking in Boston – It’s More Than A Feeling

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
Pete Stidman with the Cambridge bike counter. Why can't we get one of these on Milwaukee? Photo: John Greenfield

Pete Stidman with the Cambridge bike counter. Why can’t we get one of these on Milwaukee Avenue? Photo: John Greenfield

When Pete Stidman, the former director of the Boston Cyclists Union, visited Chicago for a conference a couple of summers ago, I let him crash on my futon. I have since realized that the blazing temperatures in my Logan Square living room on that particular weekend made sleep nearly impossible. I visited my cousin in Beantown last month and Stidman, who’s now working as the active transportation specialist at a planning firm, returned that (dubious) favor by taking me on a bicycle tour of the area’s burgeoning bike network.

Boston, a city of 655,884 residents (4,628,910 metro) has come a long way since 1999, when Bicycling Magazine ranked it as the nation’s worst city for biking. When I meet up with Stidman at the lovely Brewer Fountain in Boston Common, the city’s biggest downtown green space, he explains that much of the blame for that title can be traced to the city’s then-large population of “vehicular cyclists.”

Vehicular cyclists are cult followers of John Forester, author of the book “Effective Cycling” and son of “The African Queen” writer C.S. Forester. John preaches that cyclists are safest when they operate like drivers, pedaling in the center of the lane. Of course, most people aren’t willing or able to bike twenty miles per hour to keep up with cars, but Boston’s Foresterites have actively lobbied against installing bike lanes, arguing that they’re unnecessary and, paradoxically, dangerous.

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Checkerboard City: Hittin’ (Up) the Bong

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
Photo: John Greenfield

Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

I like to think of myself as a gonzo transportation journalist, the Hunter S. Thompson of pedestrian, transit and bike writing. After all, I’m the guy who wrote the book “Bars Across America: Drinking and Biking From Coast to Coast.” But I steer clear of drunk cycling, and I’ve had little experience with illegal mind-altering substances on my car-free road trips. One bicycle journey I took from Kansas City to St. Louis along the Katy Trail did end in a psychedelic mishap, but that’s a tale for another day.

However, I had a smokin’ good time in late August on a train-and-bike excursion to Richard Bong State Recreation Area in southeast Wisconsin. It was the latest of several fun excursions I’ve done this summer, taking advantage of Chicago’s status as the nation’s railroad hub, with great Amtrak access, plus convenient commuter rail service via Metra and the South Shore Line.

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Checkerboard City: Dense Thinking

Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, Lakeview, Logan Square No Comments »

The 1611 West Division building has 99 units but zero parking for residents./Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Believe it or not, back in the early nineties, ex-mayor Richard M. Daley was planning to tear out an entire branch of the El system. “The Lake Street branch of what’s now the Green Line had terrible slow zones and you could almost walk to Oak Park faster,” recalls Jacky Grimshaw, the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s vice president for policy. “The mayor and the CTA president wanted to take it down.”

Grimshaw says this moment of crisis was the birth of Chicago’s transit-oriented development (TOD) movement, a push to create dense, parking-light housing and retail near rapid-transit stations in order to reduce car dependency. CNT and the West Side community organization Bethel New Life teamed up to present the CTA with a plan for TOD near the Lake/Pulaski stop, but it fell on deaf ears. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: The Case of the Missing People Spots

Andersonville, Architecture, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
Brian Bonanno, in baseball cap, and contractors reinstall the Farragut People Spot. Photo: John Greenfield

Brian Bonanno, in ballcap, and contractors reinstall the Farragut People Spot./Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

As the Tribune’s Blair Kamin recently pointed out, it’s embarrassing that San Francisco will soon have more than eighty “parklets”—parking-lane space repurposed as picturesque seating areas—while our much-larger city only has a handful of them. Dubbed “People Spots” by the Chicago Department of Transportation, which runs the program, eight of these have been put in on business districts in Grand Boulevard, Kenwood, Lakeview and Andersonville.

The beauty of parklets is that they take asphalt that’s usually reserved for warehousing private automobiles and transform it into attractive, planter-enclosed public space where neighbors and shoppers can congregate. The People Spot nicknamed “The Wave” at Addison and Southport in Lakeview is practically public art—its undulating, freeform seating units are both comfy and reminiscent of whale skeletons.

A study by Metropolitan Planning Council found that, since People Spots encourage people to linger on Chicago’s retail strips, they’re a shot in the arm for local businesses. Eighty percent of merchants surveyed felt nearby parklets helped attract customers to their establishments. Seventy-three percent of parklet users said that, if they weren’t eating, chatting, texting or relaxing in the spaces, they’d probably be at home. Thirty-four percent of them said they made spontaneous food or beverage purchases as a result of the inviting hangout space. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: A Taxing Woman

Checkerboard City, Green, Politics, Transit 2 Comments »
Cook County president Toni Preckwinkle and CNT vice president Jacky Grimshaw. Photo: CNT

Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle and CNT vice president Jacky Grimshaw/Photo: CNT

Back in 2010, when Toni Preckwinkle was running against incumbent Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, she successfully used Stroger’s one-cent sales tax hike as a campaign issue, going as far as to make an ad with a Benjamin Franklin impersonator. “I used to teach my history students about Ben Franklin,” said Preckwinkle, a former high school teacher, in the spot. “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

After she was elected, Preckwinkle rolled back the sales tax to the current 9.25-percent rate. As president, she’s generally been credited with improving the efficiency of the county government and cutting costs, avoiding the allegations of patronage and incompetence that hounded Stroger.

However, to address pension obligations, Preckwinkle is now calling for a return to the higher county sales tax. In response, a Crain’s magazine cartoonist recently portrayed her as a mad scientist crying, “It’s alive!” as the 10.25-percent tax rises from the operating table like Frankenstein’s monster.

There’s a saying in politics, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Accordingly, The Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance are using this moment when the Cook County commissioners may vote for a tax hike to promote their Transit Future funding campaign. They’re asking the commissioners to simultaneously create a dedicated revenue stream for public transportation infrastructure in the county. CNT vice president of policy Jacky Grimshaw explained the reasoning behind this new push. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Gettin’ Quigley With It

Checkerboard City, Green, Politics, Transit No Comments »
Mike Quigley

Mike Quigley/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

If you’re not a transportation geek like myself, you may be most familiar with Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL 5th) from his hilarious segment on “The Colbert Report.” His North Side district includes Boystown, and he’s known as a strong ally of the LGBT community. Therefore, Stephen Colbert, in his persona as a conservative blowhard, baited Quigley by insisting that homosexuality is a choice:

Quigley: I don’t think you choose. It’s from birth. You’re gay, and it’s the rest of your life.

Colbert: Gay babies? I find that offensive, the idea that there are gay babies out there and they’re looking at me, and they’re sexually interested in me, as a man.

Quigley: You have a point. It’s not a good point, but it’s a point.

However, Quigley, a blue-collar dude, built like a fireplug, is something of a rock star when it comes to bringing home transportation funding to the Chicago region. He’s the only Illinois member on the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development, with the memorable acronym THUD. He helped secure funding for the federal Core Capacity transit grant program, which will help bankroll the CTA’s rehab of the North Red and Purple Lines, and the TIGER program, which funds various sustainable transportation projects in cities. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Why Rolling on the River Is No Easy Task

Checkerboard City, City Life, Loop No Comments »
Tight turns and bottlenecks making cycling on the riverwalk a tricky endeavor. Photo: John Greenfield

Tight turns and bottlenecks making cycling on the riverwalk a tricky endeavor./Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Earlier this month, the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, grabbed the spotlight as our city’s latest fabulous public space. However, the Chicago Riverwalk extension, which partially opened on May 23, is another strong contender. The new two-block stretch between State and Clark takes you down to within a foot or two of the sea-green water, and there are unique, breathtaking views of the city as you round the bridge houses.

The roughly $100 million project, funded by a federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act Loan that needs to be paid back in about thirty-five years, is slated to be extended all the way to Lake and Wacker by 2016. The now-open sections are the Cove, which has stone-like concrete seating units and will feature kayak rentals, and the Marina, with elegant teakwood banquettes whose tops will double as bar seating for eating and drinking establishments. Upcoming amenities include amphitheater seating, a water play area, fishing piers and a boardwalk.

The new spaces are already a hit with Chicagoans from all walks of life, and you’ll see dozens of people strolling, lunching, catching carp and relaxing there on nice days. The one fly in the ointment is that, while the riverwalk extension was designed to be a transportation corridor, it doesn’t function particularly well as one. Narrow sections of the path create bottlenecks, and sharp turns in the route are tricky to navigate, making it difficult to walk—let alone bike—the route efficiently when it’s crowded. Read the rest of this entry »