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.

 

Weak Illinois Towns

So I will admit: I am out of my league when it comes to municipal finance. As a transportation planner for a major transit agency in Chicago, I am not expected to know much about municipal finance in my professional line of work. But I do know a bit about Strong Towns. And after recently purchasing Charles Marohn’s guidebook, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, I feel educated enough to point out what makes a strong town and what does not. Which brings me to the point at hand.

The Chicago Tribune (behind free registration and/or paywall) ran a rather insightful, if completely depressing, article on the ability of towns in Illinois to borrow incredible amounts of money with very little state (or even local) oversight:

That’s because Illinois law allows even the smallest of towns to tax, spend and borrow like the biggest of cities. Municipal advocates insist that home-rule power has largely improved towns, but the Tribune found suburb after suburb has gone deep in the hole over projects ranging from buying a roller rink to building condos — ventures far beyond the basics of building roads and sewers…

Critics say Illinois’ loose rules invite those dangerous conditions by eliminating fundamental checks and balances: Those borrowing the money — residents — may have little chance to vet the plans. And those lending the money — investors — may care little about the details, so long as the town leaders agree to boost taxes as high as needed to pay off the debt.

The ability of Illinois towns to borrow unseemly amounts of money is given to them via “home rule”. Home rule shifts many decision-making powers assumed by the State to the municipal corporation. In Illinois, it is triggered in one of two ways: either the municipality has grown to a population of 25,000 or greater in which home rule status is automatically acquired OR a municipality assumes home rule powers through public assent via referendum. Currently, over 70% of Illinois’ population lives under home rule status.

The issue with home rule status in this case is that the municipality has the ability to borrow large sums of money without a cap, without direct voter approval, and without state oversight. While local control is seen by many as a wonderful thing, when there is no oversight, these powers can lead to abuse. And they have:

  • Officials in south suburban Markham raised sales and property taxes while borrowing $20 million mostly to buy a roller rink and build a senior apartment building — the latter named after the mayor.
  • Northlake borrowed $14.5 million to build a 60-unit condo building that opened in 2009. The town cut prices and even helped finance mortgages, but about 20 units remain unsold.
  • Country Club Hills built an amphitheater that doesn’t make enough to cover debt payments and typically loses $300,000 to $1 million a year, depending on what expenses are counted.

These are the things that make weak towns. In terms of the “Growth Ponzi Scheme” that Marohn has described, this is it.

I see the suburban experiment failing all around. From municipalities that cannot afford their poor development investments to crumbling infrastructure to raising the ability to borrow ever more amounts of money for no productive use, it is clear that our society cannot function like we once did. Sadly, it is articles like this that are only the beginning of our fiscal woes.