Planning for People in Jefferson Park

 

Recently there has been a surge of planning work being done in my neighborhood, the once sleepy corner of the northwest side of Chicago known as Jefferson Park. Several development proposals have been percolating through the planning process and a few have been refined enough to make it to the community meeting level where opposition to increased density is a given (interesting coming from a neighborhood with a population density exceeding 12,000 people per square mile). When it comes to roads – many people seem to like them the way they are.

And this is the problem, because Milwaukee Avenue, the main north-south commercial artery through the neighborhood, as it exists fails the community (as I have previously pointed out).

The problem is, even in urban communities, the discussion of cars (and parking them) takes all the air out of the room. It is a straw man, designed to distract from the real issue at hand – if you plan cities for cars and traffic you will get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you will get people and places.

Hence the Milwaukee Avenue road diet. This project was killed dead because it was so vociferously opposed by people in Gladstone Park. They argued the road diet would cause congestion, that it would eliminate parking and that it would negatively impact quality of life and economic development. This despite evidence to the contrary. The reality is that road diets are an excellent way to support economic development. With the safety benefits that come with it.

Milwaukee Avenue north of Foster Avenue struggles for a couple of reasons. One of those reasons is because of cars. They simply drive too fast for people to notice what business activity is there. Another reason is a lack of sense of place. Because Milwaukee Avenue doesn’t feel like a pleasant environment, people don’t want to be there. Have a look for yourself.

Conversely, this is a street that I think many people would like to be on.
View Larger Map


View Larger Map

Notice the difference? Lincoln Avenue is planned for people, not cars. And its businesses are thriving. But there is something else – and it is in the details. Look at the narrowness of Lincoln Avenue, the sidewalks, the trees, the setbacks of the buildings. It feels like an outdoor room. It feels scaled to people, not cars. And so there is a plaza on the left side and a sidewalk cafe on the right. This street has a sense of place that make people want to linger. And if they linger long enough they spend money…

Whereas, Milwaukee Avenue looks like a giant runway. It is not scaled to people but rather to cars. It does not have a sense of place in that people would want to spend time there. The vacant storefronts support that theory. In short, it is a weak, unproductive place.

If we want to build a strong Jefferson Park we need to look at planning for people and not cars.

Bikes vs. Cars

We know who wins the battle – physically and generally as a matter of policy throughout the U.S.

I hesitate wading into this as it is not normally my area of expertise. Caveat: my professional focus is public transportation. And yet, I feel the need to weigh in because there has been some very good writing done recently on bike laws and infrastructure and I have my own recent personal and professional experience to bear.

I’ll start off by saying that I am an occasional bike rider who commutes mostly to work, to pick up the kids from school and other local trips. I also live in Chicago – a city known for its traffic as well as its aggressive expansion of bike infrastructure recently.

My neighborhood, Jefferson Park, has been in the middle of a fairly dramatic fight over a complete streets proposal for Milwaukee Avenue, one of the major road arteries through Chicago’s northwest side. Ostensibly, the proposal follows the City of Chicago’s Complete Streets guidelines which state clearly that:

The safety and convenience of all users of the transportation system including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, freight, and motor vehicle drivers shall be accommodated and balanced in all types of transportation and development projects and through all phases of a project so that even the most vulnerable – children, elderly, and persons with disabilities – can travel safely within the public right-of-way.

To adhere to this policy a pedestrian-first modal hierarchy of road users has been developed in which “all transportation projects and programs, from scoping to maintenance, will favor pedestrians first, then transit riders, cyclists, and automobiles.”

So why am I focused on the bottom two modes in the hierarchy? Because this is where much of the fighting over street use takes place.

In Jefferson Park, the complete streets proposal is to reallocate space on a 5-lane arterial road which sees annual average daily traffic counts between 15,000 and 19,000 vehicles. One potential idea is to reallocate space from this:

milwaukee-avenue

 

 

to this:

milwaukee-avenue-road-diet

 

Of course, the road diet cross-section does not show blocks where parallel parking will still be allowed nor does it show the potential for street bump-outs, pedestrian refuge islands, transit lanes, and other features of complete streets, all of which are being examined.

So you might imagine the public anger that has erupted from seeing such a proposal. Because traffic actually moves well (really!) in this corridor, people don’t want to change its existing conditions – which also include gross violations (due to engineering design) of the speed limit, typically in excess of 1.5 times the posted 30 MPH limit or the fact that there have been 1,000 vehicle crashes in this mile long corridor over the past 5 (five!) years alone. Clearly the road is working well. So the road diet brings the accusation that the City will “take” space for cars and “give” it to bicycles (which have an existing painted 5-foot lane). This is what is truly unacceptable to many people (drivers) because roads are for cars, right?

Which brings me back to the fight over street space and bicycle use of that space. Vox.com recently wrote about why cyclists should legally be allowed to roll through stop signs and red lights (which is illegal in Illinois as in many other states but also which is commonly ignored by both police and bicyclists). I won’t get into the physics about why bicyclists do this only to note that it pisses car drivers off to no end who want to see enforcement of the law (like speed enforcement, right). But, as Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, who has provided me with significant insights on urban planning, has stated:

Stop signs weren’t designed for cyclists. In fact, very little of our built environment was designed with cyclists in mind. What we have done – as I pointed out way back with the video on the diverging diamond – is developed a tolerance for cyclists, and that only with some heroic effort. Engineers now generally accept cyclists and have even created checklists to help us accommodate them – at least the skilled ones – at a minimal level in our current transportation system. Tolerating cyclists, and sometimes even attempting to accommodate them, is a far cry from designing systems based on their needs.

We need to rethink our urban areas. They need to be redesigned around a new set of values, one that doesn’t seek to accommodate bikers and pedestrians within an auto-dominated environment but instead does the opposite: accommodates automobiles in an environment dominated by people. It is people that create value. It is people that build wealth. It is in prioritizing their needs – whether on foot, on a bike or in a wheelchair – that we will begin to change the financial health of our cities and truly make them strong towns.

So my response to my neighbors in Jefferson Park is that as long as we continue to design Milwaukee Avenue for the benefit of drivers, our community will always lose. We will not get the economic development we seek, for who wants to walk down a 5-lane arterial road with cars blasting through at 45 MPH? And our bicyclists, along with our pedestrians and transit riders will lose.

Traffic Signal Synchronization, Ctd.

 

MinnPost file photo by John Noltner

I was recently quoted in an article on traffic signal synchronization – an ongoing project in Minneapolis right now. I have a contrary view to conventional wisdom on this topic as I have been quoted in the article and expressed in greater detail here.

Communities like traffic signal synchronization because it is smart technology that can reduce congestion and increase traffic flow without making any geometric changes to the roadway system. My argument is that these technologies work a little too well – they actually create induced demand  which in the longer term leads to more congestion and air pollution and poor land use decisions. I’ll stand by my quote in the article in that traffic signal synchronization is a solution that becomes a victim of its own success.

The Suburban Experiment, Explained

I have been an enthusiastic adopter of the term “suburban experiment” after having following the magnificent work that Strong Towns does up in Minnesota. But it came to my attention that I have not fully explained it and applied it here in Chicago.  So, I’d like to take a step back. Of course, since I did not invent the term, it’s best to direct you to the primary source. Chuck Marohn’s seminal articles on the suburban experiment note that:

“our post-World War II pattern of development — operates like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.”

Meaning essentially that this form of development cannot fiscally sustain itself over more than one life cycle without  more growth to pay off previous liabilities.  Essentially, all of the infrastructure that supports the inefficient development pattern that is modern suburbia, the huge investment in roads and utilities to support sparsely dense areas, does not make economic sense after one life cycle.

We’re already seeing this today.

You know we can’t support our towns and cities when roads turn to gravel, when bridges collapse, streetlights get turned off and park districts, schools and municipal budgets are slashed despite ever rising taxes. It means that we’re not allocating our resources efficiently, that maybe the great wealth this country has had has been spent towards a pattern of development that just cannot sustain itself.

 

 

 

Competition

There is nothing wrong with friendly competition. I laughed when I saw this image and read this article on Streetsblog.rahmfeud

But the truth of the matter is that this makes a lot of sense. I’m talking about transportation investment in cities. It’s been clear for some time now that the suburban experiment is coming to an end, that we need to reinvest in our cities. Now, I am a Chicagoan and I’m not necessarily a big fan of Rahm (who eliminated the planning department at City Hall!). But, he has done some very innovative, urban friendly things that are paying off. There is a reason that downtown Chicago has attracted corporate investment the past couple of years. One example of smart transportation investments, alluded to here in the Streetsblog article, is the Dearborn protected lanes.

I’m not sure whether we’re better off in the long run stealing jobs from other cities. But, then again, I’m not sure I’d categorize it as stealing. When you build infrastructure in the right way, the economic rewards will come.