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02.15.2012
Feature> Taking it to the Streets
Steven Vance surveys new strategies for safe and sustainable transportation taking hold in Chicago.
Chicago's first protected bike lane on Kinzie Street.
Courtesy CDOT

Change is coming to Chicago’s streetscapes and transportation landscape. The experiences of people driving, cycling, taking the bus or train, and walking are going to be transformed from one that overwhelmingly favors cars to one that serves many modes and users. Several large-scale projects, such as the Bloomingdale Trail and bike sharing, will be ambitious and noticeable, supplementing finer-grained changes like protected bike lanes and pedestrian improvements.

After years of Daley rule, Rahm Emanuel’s administration is taking a fresh look at how Chicagoans traverse the city. “I’m expecting that the Emanuel administration will look at the city’s transportation system more holistically in terms of including high-priority projects for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders as well as infrastructure that serves drivers,” said Jennifer Henry, a transportation policy analyst in Chicago with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Mayor Emanuel campaigned on a platform that included sustainable transportation. In his campaign plan, he talked about finishing projects that were in the initial planning stages, such as extending the Red Line trail and introducing bus rapid transit (BRT). These plans were made more concrete with two events: the hiring of the charismatic former Washington, D.C., transportation commissioner, Gabe Klein, in April 2011, and the release of the Transition Report in May 2011.

 
A community-driven plan would rework Logan Square with more green space and pedestrian and bike amenities.
Courtesy Don Semple
 

The Transition Report includes goals to make Chicago a safer place to cycle, create new public transit options, and promote transit-oriented development; another goal is to realize the Bloomingdale Trail. Since inauguration in May 2011, new initiatives have emerged, including the pedestrian safety campaign and a large-scale bike sharing system with a tight deadline of a launch by June 2012.

Henry also expects that the benefits of these changes will make contributions “in terms of reducing congestion, keeping Chicagoans’ costs down, keeping the city vibrant and appealing, and keeping the environment clean.” These plans also have the potential to make Chicago meet many of its long-stated ambitions to reduce pollution, injuries, and obesity, as well as make it the most bicycle-friendly city in the country and increase park space.

Commissioner Klein argues more balanced transportation is about safety and economic return, an agenda the administration is pursuing with decisive speed. In May 2011, the city opened the city’s first protected bike lane on Kinzie Street, which was completed after just one month of planning and construction. “There’s slowing traffic down, increasing the responsible driving of livery drivers, enhancing and activating public spaces, and widening sidewalks when possible,” he said. The city developed its first-ever pedestrian plan last year and is in the midst of implementing strategies of the Pedestrian Safety Campaign, including somewhat gory advertisements on garbage bins. The commissioner has more tactics in his tool kit, including repainting faded pavement markings and restoring crosswalks (such as the one made famous by Queen Elizabeth II in 1959 that was removed in 2005). Klein is in discussions with the police superintendent to incorporate more traffic-safety enforcement “baked into what officers do every day in the streets,” he said. There is also staff within the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) working to find a test location for the first “pedestrian scramble,” a situation where all traffic signals turn red and people can cross in any direction.

A detail of the Logan Square plan shows narrowed lanes, curb extensions, permeable pavers, and a bike/bus-only lane bisecting the park.
Courtesy Don Semple
 

In addition to repainting the lane markings and crosswalks to keep traffic more orderly, Klein says they will be repaving more than ever before. “That improves conditions for all road users.” But, keeping economics in mind, “we’ll be leveraging the work of the utility companies and maximizing the taxpayer’s investment for safe road surfaces,” he said.

The department also recently approached the Wicker Park/Bucktown special service area (a business improvement district) to be a partner in developing the city’s first “parklet,” a temporary park built on a parking space. Brent Norsman, an architect in the district who also owns a bike shop, said, “Parklets offer a low-cost opportunity to expand the public realm and make the streets more livable.” No two parklets look the same, as each neighborhood can design it for their needs. Norsman has seen parklets that offer a place to sit and relax, add appealing landscape elements to barren areas, and provide bike parking and sidewalk café seating.

Klein reiterated the importance of looking at transportation projects as safety projects. He cites New York City’s study on the number of bike trips, which has shown a link between the increasing number of people cycling and a decreasing number of injuries while cycling.

Not all infrastructure ideas have to come from the agency, though. In January, a group composed of a preservationist, a transportation engineer, and an architect met with Klein and Luann Hamilton, deputy commissioner of project development at CDOT, to present their vision and plan about a traffic problem in their neighborhood. In the past 100 years, Logan Square has become less square and more circular, to the detriment of people trying to pass through on foot or bicycle. It now has four lanes of fast, one-way traffic circling the small park, which includes the Illinois centennial monument. Four lanes of Milwaukee Avenue cut through the square diagonally.

The group has a plan to reduce the number of lanes and make the diagonal open to bike and bus traffic only. “I thought, ‘Wow, this has become a big enough issue that the community has come up with ideas for a solution. We often, in agencies, go to the public to build support for solutions, but they’ve already started doing that,” Klein said.


The future site of the Bloomingdale Trail.
Steven Vance
 
 

The plan could become a reality, but Klein’s staff will have to look into possible property acquisition, the costs of the plan, impacts on traffic, and whether it can fit into the plan to revitalize the entirety of Milwaukee Avenue to determine its viability. “I don’t think all the wisdom for traffic design and engineering resides within the agency. Everything should be looked at,” he added.

The plan also includes better bicycle accommodations, which go along with the sentiment of building new and different bikeways. “You’ll see some pretty dramatic changes in the streetscape,” Klein said, including new bike lanes, bike boulevards, and buffered and protected bike lanes, as well as bike sharing. “We want to make it safe to ride bikes, but also provide bikes for residents to use.”

CDOT plans to announce a bike-sharing vendor soon. Cindy Klein-Banai, the director of the sustainability office at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is excited about how bike sharing can better connect the campus to the city. She expects that students and staff will use the bikes for pleasure rides or to run errands. “Office workers could use it to get to meetings, or people could get some exercise on their lunch break.” Gabe Klein sees bike sharing more as part of the transit system in Chicago than as a separate bicycle initiative. He said there will be planning to have “modal connectivity with bike share, bus, and rail transit.”

Over a decade in the making, the Bloomingdale Trail received two huge boosts in 2011: finally signing an agreement with the lead contractor after a two-year delay, and receiving over $40 million from a federal grant program to reduce congestion and clean air. The project is a hybrid of bicycling, walking, and public space infrastructure. Both a park and an off-street trail, the project will convert an abandoned, elevated railroad into a linear park and trail, about 2.7 miles long. A public planning process started in summer 2011 with design charrettes and stakeholder meetings. There have been several public meetings where the design team, led by Arup, with several subcontractors from Chicago and New York City, has gathered input to develop a vision and framework plan, due later this year.

This project also was initiated at the community level. D.C.-based planner, and former Chicagoan, Payton Chung, recalled discussing a “Bloomingdale Bicycle Expressway” in 2000. The Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail was later founded; Aldermen at the time were not supportive of the project, but it now has widespread aldermanic support. CDOT and its contractor have largely taken over the planning and development role.

 
CDOT's Gabe Klein pedals down Wabash Avenue (left) and Klein sits in a dunking booth during a temporary closure of State Street (right).
Steven Vance (left) Jennifer Henry (right)
 

CDOT is also partnering with the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) to improve the bus and train systems in the city. They recently received a federal grant to build a BRT system on Jeffery Boulevard on the South Side, for CTA buses. “It can be a lower-cost alternative” to light- or heavy-rail transit that “makes use of existing roadway infrastructure,” said Peter Skosey, vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council. “It has a lower implementation cost than those, but if done properly, can be just as effective.”

“It’s Chicago’s first foray into bus rapid transit. However, we’ve done intensive planning for the East-West BRT corridor, connecting the two busiest downtown commuter stations with shopping and jobs on Michigan Avenue and Navy Pier, which is giving us a great opportunity to really create a complete street,” Klein said.

NRDC’s Henry says that the upgrades to the 2nd Avenue bus in New York City have helped change transit riders’ perceptions that buses are always slow: “As a non-driver, you feel like the city government is more on our side than it used to be, and I think the benefits of that are going to reverberate for decades.”

Many of the changes you see in Chicago will appear to be very similar to those New Yorkers started seeing in 2007: new types of bike lanes in Manhattan and the creation of new pedestrian plazas, among other streetscape augmentations.

 
Lawrence Avenue east of Western Avenue will include curb extensions with bioswales and pedestrian refuges.
Courtesy CDOT
 

A lot of this change can be attributed to current New York City transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, who was hired by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2007. Soon after starting the job, Sadik-Khan traveled to Copenhagen on a study tour. The city then hired Jan Gehl and his firm, Gehl Architects, known for innovative streetscape and traffic improvements. Their first project was transforming Madison Square, a pilot project to test out some theories of street design.

“The effects are transformative,” said Henry. “Areas like Union Square, which received a treatment similar to Madison, Herald, and Times squares, feel much safer for pedestrians and bicyclists to move around.”

Staff from the Chicago Bicycle Program, within the Department of Transportation, went to the Netherlands in fall 2011 with Alderman Daniel Solis on the city council. “The urban areas are especially friendly to bike riding, pedestrians, and public transportation, and all three forms of transportation are very well coordinated. Automobile driving in the city is actually last on the priority list,” Solis told sustainable transportation blog Grid Chicago.

Klein and CDOT think there is a growing demand for such improvements. In Chicago, the number of trips to work by bike increased from 0.5 percent in 2000 to 1.1 percent in 2010. “I think there was a push in the past to make it so that cars moved as quickly as possible. We want Chicago to be a walkable, livable city. We also want it to be a bike-able city, but walkable first,” Klein said.

How fast will these changes come? Copenhagen, where Gehl comes from, didn’t change overnight. Neither has Paris under Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, nor London. “The changes in Copenhagen to a more balanced transportation network were gradual, over 20 to 30 years, starting with narrow bike lanes, turning car lanes into bike lanes, and turning some car parking into bike parking, as well as creating pedestrian spaces,” Skosey said.

With the variety of tools transportation officials and community groups are putting to use, Chicago may be able to shorten that timeline—one step, or pedal, at a time.

Steven Vance

Steven Vance is the co-editor of Grid Chicago.