The future of public transportation
By John Greenfield
Editor, Streetsblog Chicago
As the car-choked transportation systems of big U.S. cities like Chicago become more and more dysfunctional, tech gurus like Elon Musk want the public to believe they will save us through Jetsons-like inventions. Usually this new technology would allow people to cling to the luxury of traveling in private automobiles, or at least high-end, low-occupancy vehicles geared toward elites. Some of the ideas Musk has floated include underground car tunnels; autonomous vehicles that would let executives sleep while they’re chauffeured from suburban McMansions to downtown offices; pricey “electric sled” pod service to whisk travelers between the Loop and O’Hare at one-hundred miles per hour; and Hyperloop vacuum tubes that would supposedly cut the travel time between Chicago and Cleveland to a mere half hour.
None of that technology exists, but Musk and his kind assure us they’re on the cusp of inventing it. Musk would surely dismiss me as a “subway Stalinist,” but if we want a safer and more equitable, efficient and enjoyable Chicago transportation network by the year 2030, the gee-whiz schemes of self-styled tech saviors aren’t the answer. The real solutions aren’t as sexy, but they’re way more democratic, and they use proven technology that has existed for many decades: buses, trains and bicycles.
The basic mistake made by car salesmen like Musk is assuming that the future of transportation will continue to be auto-centric. But private cars—large metal boxes that typically carry no more than one or two occupants—are a profoundly inefficient way to move people through cities. In contrast, bus travel isn’t glamorous, but a sixty-foot articulated CTA bus seats about fifty, not counting standees, while only occupying as much road space as a handful of cars. And there are lots of ways we can make bus travel more attractive, although they require political will and proper funding.
Chicago buses get mired in driver-generated traffic jams. The city has taken baby steps to speed service, including building a few miles of red bus-only lanes and adding transit-friendly stop lights which keep buses from getting stuck at reds on streets like Ashland and Western. Ideally, we would have continuous, camera-enforced bus lanes on every major street, plus time-saving features like prepaid boarding and express service with limited stops. Latin-American metropolises like Bogotá and Mexico City have had bus rapid transit (BRT) networks with subway-like speeds for years, so this isn’t rocket science. We also need to beef up bus frequency, so you’re never waiting more than fifteen minutes for a ride.
Expanding the El network would be much more expensive, but ultimately it’s in Chicago’s interest to augment our current hub-and-spoke rapid transit system, which often requires straphangers traveling from one side of the city to another by rail to travel all the way downtown and back out again. Having more north-south and east-west El lines would be a game-changer. A train running down Cicero Avenue could make traveling between O’Hare and Midway way more practical. At the very least, we need to keep the city’s decades-long promise to Far South Siders by finding funding to extend the Red Line from its current terminus at 95th Street to Altgeld Gardens.
Speaking of transit equity, the city should follow through on recommendations from the Active Transportation Alliance’s recent “Fair Fares” report, including offering reduced CTA fares for low-income Chicagoans, similar to programs in cities like New York and Seattle. Increasing frequency and lowering fares on Metra, an idea that’s been endorsed by the Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, as well as providing free transfers between Metra and CTA, would also improve access to jobs and education for residents of underserved communities. Some cities, from Tallinn, Estonia to Kansas City, Missouri even provide free transit service, an idea that might pay for itself in Chicago by reducing crashes, congestion and pollution, as well as first-responder, healthcare and property damage expenses.
On the other hand, if we want public transportation to be competitive in an era of underpriced Uber and Lyft service, transit needs to be perceived as safe, sanitary and dignified. One possible solution is an old-school idea, bringing back CTA conductors—the position was eliminated in the late nineties—to patrol the trains at night. Their presence would deter crime and encourage compliance with rules against smoking and littering, and they could do outreach to the many homeless people who shelter on the Red and Blue lines, helping them to connect with housing and healthcare resources. Finding money for conductor payroll would be an issue, but thanks to increased ridership this could be a revenue-neutral program.
As for short trips within Chicago, the future of transportation involves a much older form of technology—the bicycle. Cycling isn’t for everyone, but in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen over a third of all trips are made by bike, which makes a major dent in traffic jams and smog. Our city may never reach that level, but we could exponentially increase our current, puny 1.7 percent bike mode-share by passing European-style laws to hold drivers accountable for injuring cyclists, rolling out universal bike education in the public schools, and building better infrastructure.
Chicago-style protected bike lanes, in which cyclists are shielded from traffic by a line of parked cars, are okay, but mediocre sightlines can make it tricky for turning motorists and fast cyclists to see each other at intersections. Instead we should build a continuous network of Copenhagen-style raised bike lanes, where cyclists ride a few inches above the street, but a couple of inches below the sidewalk, so motorists don’t drive in the bike lane, and pedestrians don’t walk in it.
The bottom line is that, instead of clinging to the notion that traveling in private motor vehicles is a right that needs to be preserved at all costs, in a future, utopian Chicago it will be viewed as a privilege, reserved for people with mobility challenges, families with small children, folks hauling heavy cargo, and those celebrating special occasions. But non-car transportation will become so efficient and pleasant that residents won’t mind the change.
Another perk is that, with so few people driving, metered parking spots would see little use, rendering the seventy-five-year meter contract basically worthless, which would really stick it to Chicago’s much-hated parking concessionaire. They’d beg us to let them out of the deal, which would open up even more curbside space for bus lanes and bikeways.
John Greenfield is the editor of the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago and a columnist for the Chicago Reader. He previously worked at the Chicago Department of Transportation, arranging the installation of roughly 3,500 bike parking racks across the city.
The future of Chicago as a global cultural capital
By Mark Kelly
Commissioner, City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events
Chicago is a hothouse of cultural vitality: the birthplace of modern jazz, the urban blues, gospel music, house music, footwork, the skyscraper, improv, spoken word and so much more. Even with this amazing legacy, Chicago has never acted or has been appreciated as a world cultural capital. This is about to change. By 2030, Chicago will emerge as one of the world’s most-recognized centers of cultural creation.
The driving force for this emergence will be Chicago’s embrace of the cultural vitality of its neighborhoods and its young creators. As the city becomes less separated by the historic divide of race and class, Chicago’s gritty cultural scene will pop across the creative genres of theater and music, art and design, dance and film production.
Visitors will flock to our cultural scene with our authentic music clubs and vibrant, engaging and provocative theater in every neighborhood, with our artists and cultural institutions thriving. New York will be about cultural power, Los Angeles about glitter and Chicago will be about authentic voices, undistracted by the business of arts and culture.
Chicago’s youth will have more pathways to develop their creative chops, and Chicago citizens will value their cultural engagement, no longer viewing it as an elitist or anointed undertaking, but rather what Chicagoans do: create. Our world-class cultural organizations will embrace and respond to these shifts in our cultural landscape as they become more diverse, accessible and engaging.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot will have galvanized governmental bodies and civic and philanthropic institutions to support this cultural emergence, knowing its value to our citizens, our artists, and our economic livelihood. Our cultural vitality brings life to our streets, fills our restaurants and hotels, and supports the financial livelihood of our creators as citizens and visitors flock to our clubs, museums, theaters, and festivals. Creative industries will invest and return to the city because they want to be close to our creative scene. Our newly burgeoning film production community is one example of this new creative dynamic.
There is also a deep democratic impulse to make art accessible to all by bringing down the barriers of cost and encouraging participation and engagement. Think of Chicago SummerDance and Night Out in the Parks writ large. Every neighborhood is filled with free or low-cost art offerings as a new civic cultural life emerges.
Utopian thinking? Hardly. We are a world cultural capital, and as the city organizes itself around this idea, it will shift our thinking and actions, bringing many more Chicagoans into the fray and enticing visitors from around the world to visit our authentic and vital cultural scene.
Mark Kelly is the Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s DCASE, which presents and promotes high-quality free festivals, exhibitions, performances and holiday celebrations in parks, the historic Chicago Cultural Center and other venues throughout the city. He was appointed to the post by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in July 2016.
Kelly previously served as the Vice President for Student Success at Columbia College Chicago, where he fostered and oversaw an immersive arts experience for Columbia’s burgeoning student body, across one-hundred different degree programs. For more than thirty years, Kelly served in leadership roles at Columbia, supporting students who view the world through creativity in attaining a world-class education that blends media arts, liberal arts and business.