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I recently sat down with Downtown LA blogger and advocate Brigham Yen to talk about his neighborhood. The subject was Downtown and how even as it makes an amazing comeback with an unprecedented influx of stores, restaurants, offices, and apartments, there are still some people who don’t seem to get what it means to be urban.
For every storefront welcoming pedestrians, there still seems to be a chain store that wants to keep things the way they’ve always been. Yen told me that In-N-Out Burgers had been interested in moving Downtown but couldn’t understand why it couldn’t install a drive-through. He noted that other establishments, from drug stores to fast food restaurants, still insist on building strip-mall-style parking in heavily pedestrianized precincts, ruining any sense of street front or walkability.
Such businesses need to get over it and realize that the whole city does not need to be a bastion of surburban-ity. With its immense population, density, and energy, LA can no longer pretend to be a suburb. A city has got to be a city. That doesn’t mean ruining LA’s peaceful neighborhoods. It means densifying its urban commercial and retail corridors in an intelligent fashion. And Downtown is a prime example of one of these corridors. Its urbanity is a prime reason why it’s becoming so popular again.
This is becoming even more important as the city begins to shift its policies more aggressively toward mass transit and related density. By the time the funds for Measure R, the city sales tax paying for $30 to $40 billion worth of projects, run out, the city will have increased its rail lines from about 60 miles to 120 miles.
A major test of Downtown’s continued development will come when Walmart moves its newest Neighborhood Market, a smaller version of its superstores (though still pretty big at 33,000 square feet) into Chinatown, on the north edge of Downtown. LA’s citizens, who have already engaged in a major protest against the retail giant’s plans, need to be vigilant to make sure that Walmart doesn’t further decay the fabric of a neighborhood, and the city, at a vital turning point.
Of course, every area needs business and jobs, and Walmart will certainly help serve a niche for those looking for goods and groceries. But the company needs to be sensitive; even though, so far, it hasn’t substantially proven its desire to do so. I’ve seen a few Neighborhood Markets, and a few seem to fit well into the urban grid with street front presences, transparent facades, and even some contemporary detailing. But most have suburban-style strip parking in front and blank facades that seem to tell pedestrians they’re in the wrong place.
Walmart isn’t the only giant chain store to reach Downtown LA. Target, for instance, is opening a CityTarget inside the three-story 7th and Figueroa mall, on the west edge of downtown. The store will be much bigger, at 100,000 square feet. But unlike Walmart, Target consistently creates permeable, street-side entrances, and contextual, contemporary-style frontages. Granted there’s still tons of parking, but at least it’s underground or in a large structure behind the building. Most Walmart stores—whether they are Supercenters or Neighborhood Markets—basically look like giant industrial boxes or McMansions on steroids, clad with cheap Spanish tiles or Italianate cornices. This isn’t acceptable for Walmart or any business that comes Downtown.
As the economy continues to turn around and development makes its way into Downtown LA and other dense urban areas, we need to maintain the urbanity, albeit an urbanity tempered with amenities like parks, public spaces and bike-lanes, that makes our cities more viable, exciting, and livable. What happens now, as the recovery is in its infancy, will set the stage for future development. This is a turning point. Let’s take advantage.
National attention focused on the recent opening of the Expo Line, an 8.6-mile light rail route that connects downtown LA with Culver City. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Before all is said and done, Los Angeles —long stereotyped as a car-only city—will have more than 100 miles of public transit lines, as the West Coast, home to the nation’s first light rail line in San Diego and to its most comprehensive light rail system in Portland, continues to add a slew of new rail.
New lines, stations, infrastructure, and transit-oriented developments are popping up and in planning stages in and around Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego. And if you count West Coast–adjacent cities such as Phoenix and Denver, there are even more. Los Angeles and Seattle are set to double their offerings while Marin and Sonoma are just beginning to add rail to the mix.
Of course, this transit explosion isn’t just a local trend. According to the American Public Transportation Association, from 1995 through 2010, public transportation ridership increased by 31 percent—a growth rate higher than the 17 percent increase in the U.S. population. In part this shift is a result of people returning to urban cores. But perhaps the most compelling reason for the expansion is the crippling impact of traffic in the region and in the country, and its accompanying demons—sprawl, pollution, and climate change. Municipalities are creating new land-use strategies—some a result of new anti-sprawl laws like California’s SB 375— that emphasize walkability and dense development near rail.
As a testament to their popularity, most recent rail projects and extensions along the coast have been paid for not just through federal largesse but by local ballot measures such as LA’s Measure R, San Diego’s TransNet, and Marin and Sonoma County’s Measure Q.
“The biggest surprise for all of us wasn’t that we envisioned it, but that there was so much support,”said David Mieger, deputy executive officer of countywide planning and development at Metro, LA’s transit agency, of Measure R. “In 2008, we got two-thirds of the voters in the county. Motherhood and apple pie usually doesn’t rate that high.”
Opponents, particularly neighborhood groups fighting tax increases and construction disruptions, charge that rail’s extensive costs aren’t worth the benefits; they say that
ridership still isn’t what it should be. For instance the new Expo Line’s ridership has so far reached only half the projected load. “Every commuter rail project in the country has exceeded ridership,” answered Matt Stevens, a spokesperson for Sonoma-Marin Area Rapid Transit (SMART). Mieger adds that, unlike just a few years ago, a good portion of riders in LA are now “discretionary,” meaning that they choose to take public transit, even though they don’t have to.
Rail doesn’t just provide architects and engineers with jobs designing stations and related infrastructure; it can also completely transform municipalities’ land use patterns, ushering in transit-oriented development and walkable streets. Cities have been incorporating these plans into their new approaches to land use and will continue to do so. Metro, for example, has developed an extensive transit-oriented development program in Los Angeles that has spurred the creation of more than a dozen pedestrian-friendly, transit-adjacent projects. “This is a planning solution, not just a transportation solution,” said Metro’s Mieger. San Jose “is directing new growth to build out downtown in a more urban way,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), which just opened a new office in San Jose. He warns though that in Silicon Valley “they’re fighting some pretty big forces and some pretty entrenched traditions” favoring sprawl and the automobile.
The return to rail is, in some surprisingly convenient ways, a return to the past. Many of these lines were built on the rights of way of existing train and trolley systems that were active in the beginning of the 20th century and abandoned in favor of cars and buses around mid-century. LA’s Expo Line runs on a former right-of-way of the Los Angeles & Independence Railroad. Marin and Sonoma’s runs on a right-of-way owned by the Southern Pacific Railway.
Of course rail isn’t a flawless solution. Besides pockets of underuse, rail and light rail are still far from reaching the tipping point on the West Coast. In LA, for example, 80 percent of the city’s residents still don’t live within convenient distance to rail. The recession has stalled plans that were even more ambitious. For instance slower returns from Measure R’s tax-related funding have forced the completion of LA’s Purple Line subway extension beyond 2030. (LA Mayor Villaraigosa hopes his 30/10 program will significantly speed projects up). And architects and engineers claim that regulations regarding rail design—often overseen by public utilities commissions rather than design or building experts—are still not suitable for innovation. But the progress is palpable, making cities feel more like cities again. “For a lot of these cities these lines and stations are the biggest things affecting their development in years,” said Roland Genick, of LA-based Parsons Corporation, which oversaw the Expo Line and is now working on LA’s Gold Line Foothill extension.
San Diego, the city to first re-introduce light rail to the West Coast (and to the country) back in 1981, now has 53 miles of light-rail track. Its most recent extension in 2005, the green line, extends from Old Town San Diego out to Santee, east of Qualcomm Stadium. The extension stretches about six miles and five stations, closing what was a gap in the system’s loop through the city.
Plans for an 11.2-mile extension from old town to UC-San Diego in La Jolla is set to be in place by 2018, said San Diego Metropolitan Transit System spokesperson Rob Schupp. Most likely the line will be an extension of the city’s blue line. Roughly $1.2 to $1.8 billion for the project comes from a local sales tax called TransNet, which will provide half the funding. The remainder of the money will come from federal funds.
Even posh La Jolla was “all for it,” said Schupp. In addition to the new lines last year, the city added $700 million worth of retrofitted light-rail vehicles (64 in all) to its Silver Line, which was completed in 2005.
The city’s newest transit line is the Expo light-rail line, an 8.6-mile route now running from downtown LA to Culver City. By 2015 the Expo is expected to extend to Santa Monica. Designed by Gruen Associates, with support from Parsons and Miyamoto International, the line has been funded mostly by Measure R, a 2008 city sales tax increase estimated to eventually bring in from $30 to $40 billion. About 35 percent of that, up to $14 billion, will go toward rail projects.
The measure also funded an extension of Metro’s Gold Line into East LA and is helping fund the Gold Line Foothill Extension, stretching farther into the San Gabriel Valley. Other city transit projects—totaling 12 in all— include the Regional Connector, a 1.9-mile underground light-rail route linking the city’s Gold and Blue lines; extensions of Metro’s Green Line to LAX airport and farther into the South Bay; and the Purple Line subway extension down Wilshire Boulevard all the way from downtown to Westwood and, funding allowing, to Santa Monica. In fact, by the time Measure R’s funds are all spent, LA’s rail lines will have doubled, from about 60 miles to about 120, said Mieger.
Partially as a strategy to reflect LA’s diversity and partially because each line has its own construction authority, the stations along each route are widely different. The Expo’s minimal stations are highlighted by wavy metallic canopies and blue steel frames; Foothill takes on gabled roofs and a traditional vernacular; and the Gold Line into East LA has an explosion of colors and forms.
San Francisco opened its first light-rail line in over 50 years in 2007 with its T-Third line, which included 5.1 miles of light rail spread over 18 stations. The line has proven a huge success and brought San Francisco up to seventy miles of light-rail track. The next move for the T-Third is the T-Central subway, an underground extension of the line another 1.7 miles from Mission Bay into downtown, with stops in South of Market, Yerba Buena, Union Square, and Chinatown. The project is funded primarily via the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, with about $942 million coming from that source. A combination of federal, state, and local sources will provide the remaining funds. The line is slated to open in 2019.
Outside of San Francisco is the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) project, largely funded by Measure Q, a 0.25 percent sales tax passed by voters in the two counties in 2008. SMART will provide rail service along 70 miles of the historic Northwestern Pacific Railroad alignment. Slowed by the economic downturn, the plan is to open a 38.5-mile initial operating segment between Santa Rosa and San Rafael by 2016, with additional segments to be opened as funding becomes available. Ultimately it will extend 70 miles. The project is the first passenger rail project in Marin and Sonoma counties since the 1950s. According to spokesperson, Matt Stevens, designs for the stations have still not been finalized, although Zimmer Gunsul Frasca (ZGF) did complete preliminary work.
Meanwhile in Silicon Valley the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is overseeing a the Capitol Expressway Light Rail Project, extending light rail by 2.3 miles and four stations in San Jose. But the big news in that area comes with heavy rail. The VTA is overseeing a $2.3 billion, 10-mile, two-station extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) into Silicon Valley from Fremont to North San Jose. A total of $900 million is coming from the Federal New Starts program, with $1.18 billion coming from the local half-cent Measure A sales tax. Design-build is being overseen by the joint venture team Skanska- Shimmick-Herzog. The second phase, still in project development, will reach six miles and four stations running through downtown San Jose and ending in Santa Clara. That would cost about $3.6 billion, largely because it would be underground.
Sacramento’s contribution to the transit extravaganza is the 1.1 mile extension of its green line from downtown Sacramento north to the city’s river district. The extension just opened on June 15, to big crowds and even fireworks. The city is also planning a $270 million, four station, 4.3-mile extension of its blue line from Meadowview road to Cosumnes River College. A team of design-build architects, including Vrilakas Architects and MFDB Architects, have produced station designs unique to their locations. “We want our stations to reflect their neighborhoods,”said Sacramento Regional Transit District Architect David Solomon “It’s easier for the riders and it makes for better community building.”
With a mature and extensive system of 82 miles of track and 85 stations operating since 1986, Portland has been a model for city officials throughout the nation for how light rail can work. In 2011, over 41.2 million riders boarded Metropolitan Area Express (MAX), according to the local transit authority, TriMet.
There are currently four lines operating and a fifth—the Portland-Milwaukie MAX light rail Orange line—under construction and expected to open in September 2015. It will extend to Milwaukie in Clackamas County, 7.3 miles south of the current Yellow line that runs from the Expo Center to Portland State University.
The ten stations along the Orange line will feature a mix of landscaping and public art to reflect the character of each surrounding neighborhood. The Lincoln Street/Southwest 3rd Avenue Station in the Halprin District will include a vegetated trackway dubbed an “eco-track”; at the SE Tacoma/Johnson Creek station,
a Bike and Ride station will provide secure parking for over 100 bicycles; and at the OMSI/SE Water Ave station, two artists have proposed a large “sonic dish” that will reflect sound and light as nearby commuters pass by.
Half of the $1.5 billion project is being financed by the Federal Transit Administration, with the remainder coming from local, regional, and state sources, including $250 million in bonds financed by future Oregon Lottery revenue. This is the most expensive line Portland has ever built because it traverses urbanized land and adds a new bridge, the first to cross the Portland section of the Willamette River since the opening of the Fremont Bridge in 1973.
When open, by September 2016, the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Bridge in the South Waterfront District will be the first multi-modal car-free bridge in the nation. TriMet hired Donald MacDonald of MacDonald Architects, as the lead designer and chose a cable-stayed bridge design, which would help maximize horizontal and vertical clearance on the busy river and keep costs lower. Approximately 1,720 feet in length, the bridge will feature two towers and include, in addition to a light-rail track, dedicated bus lanes and two 14-foot wide paths for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Light rail in Seattle had a shaky start ten years ago. Initially it was met with fierce opposition, then a threatened loss of funding, and eventually the resignation of the former CEO of Sound Transit, the agency that serves the Puget Sound region. But finally, after almost a decade of debating and lawsuits, the first light-rail line in the city, Sound Transit’s Central Link, opened in July 2009, a 15.5-mile route connecting downtown Seattle to Rainier Valley and SeaTac Airport.
The city is now pushing forward with a huge light-rail program, with a total of 36 miles planned by 2023. This includes the University Link (U-Link) a 3.1-mile underground section running from downtown Seattle north to the University of Washington, scheduled to open in September 2016. There are three more planned sections: a 1.3-mile section south toward Tacoma to open in 2016; a north leg to Northgate and eventually Lynnwood that will open in 2021; and a 14.5-mile extension east over the I-90 bridge through Mercer Island to Bellevue that will open in 2023.
Construction of the U-Link is now underway. At the University of Washington station, designed by LMN Architects, a pedestrian bridge will traverse Montlake Boulevard, linking the upper campus, the University of Washington Medical Center, and the 27-mile Burke-Gilman Trail, affording views on a clear day of Mount Rainier.
Total funding for the U-Link project is $1.9 billion, with $750 million derived from a blend of grants from the Federal Transit Administration, including a TIGER I competitive grant, as well as local support. In 2008, voters approved the Sound Transit 2 measure, increasing sales tax and motor vehicle excise tax.
“It’s so nice to discover that after all these years we’re not done yet, and we can still change our cities,” said SPUR’s Metcalf.
One of LA’s most important urban projects is back on track after the dissolution of California redevelopment funding almost shut it down for good.
Since 2010, the MyFigueroa project had tried, through street, landscape, and land-use planning studies, to pave the way for the city’s most innovative pedestrian and bicycle environment along Figueroa Boulevard between LA Live, on the southern end of Downtown, and Exposition Park, adjacent to USC. It included separated cycle lanes and improvements to streetscape, pedestrian infrastructure, and transit stops.
The Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles had served as custodian to the $30 million Proposition 1C grant funding the project. But once the California State Supreme Court dissolved the state’s redevelopment agencies at the end of 2011, it fell into limbo.
But in early April, the LA mayor’s office and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (DOT) struck a deal to move administrative oversight of the project to the DOT. Now MyFigueroa appears primed to move forward quickly. According to Tim Fremaux, a city traffic engineer, DOT will bundle the project’s environmental review with that of the city’s plans to build 40 miles of bike lanes. DOT would serve as lead agency on MyFigueroa’s construction, overseeing work by a yet-to-be-determined contractor. The Proposition 1C grant money will fund it, and additional Metro Call for Projects money could be used to improve connections between the Figueroa Street and the new Expo Line.
All told, the project will add pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements on 4.5 miles of streets along the Figueroa Corridor. LA-based landscape and urban design firm Melendrez Design Partners has already completed initial designs. The centerpiece of the project would be a separated cycle track (SCT) running in each direction along Figueroa Street between 7th and 41st streets. The SCT would slide parking spaces out toward the street, leaving curb, sidewalk, and drainage infrastructure in place.
Grant funding for the MyFigueroa project also targets improvements for 11th Street from Broadway to Figueroa, Bill Robertson Lane between Martin Luther King Boulevard and Exposition Boulevard, and, finally, MLK Boulevard between Figueroa and Vermont. Eleventh Street, which feeds into LA Live, would add a bike lane and enhance pedestrian infrastructure—including a possible 19-foot-wide sidewalk. Improvements along Bill Robertson Avenue, currently flanked by a sea of surface parking lots and the LA Coliseum, could become a pedestrian promenade. MLK Boulevard would see improvements to sidewalks, setbacks, and lighting.
Melendrez principal Melani Smith said MyFigueroa will create “an amazing multi-modal link” and “a huge leap forward for the city.” An estimated 15,000 to 16,000 bikes populate the USC campus. This plus regular city and county bus lines—not to mention the opening of the Expo light rail line, slated for later this month— make the corridor an ideal location to reprogram streets as a public hub. The street, said the city’s Fremaux, would become “less of an alternative to Interstate 110, and more of a community street.”
As part of her annual State of the City address, on February 9 City Council Speaker and potential mayoral candidate Christine Quinn announced her support for the future growth of New York’s design industries: “We have more designers than any city in the United States, with nearly 40,000 New Yorkers working in everything from graphics to movie sets, architecture to interior decorating. We’ll grow our design sector by stealing an idea from the fashion industry. Fashion Week, which starts today, brings 300,000 visitors and nearly $800 million into our city every year. Working with Council Member Karen Koslowitz, we’re going to give that same kind of boost to our design industry by creating and hosting a New York City Design Week.”
The next mayoral election is still over a year in the future, but the speech does raise the question of what a new mayor will mean for the city's departments of Planning, Transportation, Parks and Design and Construction not to mention our dynamic design community. It is common knowledge that Mayor Bloomberg’s administration made a conscious effort to bring architectural and urban design thinking into city government more than at any time since Robert Moses and John Lindsay in the late 1960s. In the same way that Lindsay's two terms as mayor coincided with a remarkable transformation of urban life in New York, Bloomberg’s three terms have witnessed a profound change in the life of the city. It will of course be up to future historians to assess the current mayor’s ultimate success and failures but his quartet of Commissioners at City Planning, Transportation, Parks, and Design and Construction have overseen a total transformation in how citizens move about, experience, and live in the city.
Then again it may be that Bloomberg only happened to be mayor when architecture was taken up for the first time by New York property developers as a salable commodity and when they commissioned some of the world’s best architects to design Manhattan luxury housing. The mayor certainly did not directly create anything of great civic architectural quality for our public sphere, but as a believer in the private market supported by public, philanthropic initiatives of high design quality like the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Governors Island development, and the DOT’s bike lanes and “parks in a street” maintained by Business Improvement Districts and other non governmental agencies. These are of course heavily Manhattan-centric in their geographic reach and influence, so Bloomberg’s new city is less visible the farther one travels from Midtown. We all remember when he pinned his legacy to an Olympic master plan, West Side Football stadium, and the possibility of a really great World Trade Center development.
Or it may be that Bloomberg happened to be mayor when New York emerged as the most important design hub in the United States if not the world. Last summer we commented on the Growth by Design report assembled by the Center for an Urban Future that detailed the growing importance of the design sector to New York’s economy. It revealed how design sector jobs in the New York metropolitan area grew by 75 percent over the past decade. In fact the report claimed that in New York the design field (architecture, graphic, interior, fashion and industrial design) has nearly twice as many designers as Los Angeles, the nation's second largest design hub.
But back to Speaker Quinn and her support for design in New York City. Really, is a week-long design festival the best that the Speaker can do to support and encourage this dynamic sector of the city's economy? We need to hear what she proposes for the various departments like City Planning and Parks. Its hard to imagine that department heads like Amanda Burden, David Burney, Janette Sadik-Khan, and Adrian Benepe will stay on after 12 years of public sector employment, but will the new mayor even want them to stay or will she/ he replace them, and what types of policies will new commissioners be pursuing? Will the next mayor continue to support new bicycle lanes and curbside park development from the DOT and the ambitious architecture policies of Commissioner Burney? We have heard almost nothing from Quinn and the two or three other likely candidates about their potential policies. Proposing a week-long festival is not really enough of an initiative to tell us much about what a new Quinn administration might mean for the city. In the coming months, we need to hear much more from the Speaker and all the other candidates.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.