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:




to this:



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. 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.

Urbanism and Resort Communities

Sarasota, FL skyline. Source: Patrick Braga via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve spent the better part of last week in Sarasota, Florida, on Lido Key with my family to attend a wedding for my sister-in-law. Much has been written about sprawl throughout Florida or the housing crisis. What interested me was the urbanism I had found near the resort I stayed at, most unexpectedly.

St. Armand's Circle, looking west towards Lido Key.

The urbanism I’m speaking of was found on Lido Key and neighboring St. Armand’s Key. John Ringling (of Ringling Bros. fame) and Owen Burns purchased Lido Key, St. Armands Key and neighboring Bird Key in the 1920s and began a development scheme which eventually failed in the 1929 stock market crash. St. Armand’s Key has in its center, Harding Circle, shopping district oriented around a beautiful roundabout, which has been recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the pictures, you may notice several features celebrated in new urbanism and planning circles alike: roundabouts, landscaped sidewalks and pedestrian treatments, all imposed on a grid street pattern.
These types of urban environments in resort communities are few and far between. I treasure spending time in these environments.

St. Armand's Circle pedestrian crossing. Source: Thoralf Schade














See how the landscape treatments separate cars from pedestrians? This allows more intensive pedestrian uses of the sidewalk like this cafe. Source: winterwhiteiris

Smart Meters and Dumb Deals: What Chicago is missing out on.



Much has been said about the parking meter fiasco and how badly Chicago has been burned. I don’t have any more to add. Rather, I’d like to focus on missed opportunities in parking technology – opportunities at the meter that support urbanism and can generate real revenues for the city. Principally, this opportunity revolves around variable pricing policy.

While cars may be a part of urban life, free (or under-priced) parking does not have to be. Donald Shoup, author of the preeminent manual on the topic, The High Cost of Free Parking, states that planners tend to tackle street parking problems by increasing off-street parking requirements. “Rather than charge the right price for on-street parking, cities attempt to require the right quantity of off-street parking,” according to Shoup.

Chicago’s parking meter rates before the lease were low in many areas (they still are likely too low in some places). They were low because cruising and overcrowding of parking were the staples of urban life, particularly in many of the lakefront neighborhoods and downtown. Conversely, we know that if parking were priced too high, vacancies would be an issue. This is simple economics, the supply and demand curve (see below).

The Market Price of Curb Parking. Source: Shoup, VTPI

True market priced parking allow for free parking until an occupancy reaches 85%. This is due to the marginal costs of adding parking is zero, Yet, when demand (occupancy) increases, the marginal cost of adding additional parking increases. Because on-street parking capacity is fixed, costs must rise to meet demand. Thus parking costs should rise. This is what is called variable parking.

A smart parking meter, such as what has been installed in San Francisco, for example, can manage the availability of on-street parking by utilizing smart meters that can adjust prices dynamically, based on demand.

This technology is enabling not just better revolution of parking, but management of parking as well.

The problem with Chicago’s parking meter lease is not just that Chicago no longer controls parking, an important revenue generator in its own right, it is that the City gave up the right to control planning policy on some of the most vibrant land it owns – the streets. The City gave up the right to manage its on-street parking, to further planning goals and livability projects that create complete streets. Such projects might be pop-up cafes, bike lanes, street parades and festivals, all of which can reduce parking supply. And all of which are penalized under the terms of the parking lease.

Pop-up cafe in Manhattan. Source:

The shame is that at the moment when parking meter technology  is revolutionizing the way cities manage parking, Chicago has turned over almost significant control over to a private company. The shame is that transportation planning is moving towards complete streets policies and Chicago finds itself without the flexibility needed to make its streets more livable and more complete.




CDOT Plan: Reaction

The Chicago Department of Transportation just released its Chicago Forward Action Agenda, which is the department’s strategic plan. You can read a good summary of it over at Grid Chicago and the full plan is available here. The plan has six elements. Here is my immediate reaction to the plan.


  • Eliminate all pedestrian, bicycle and overall traffic fatalities within 10 years.

I agree that traffic fatalities can be reduced and/or prevent through structural and design changes, but I think only to a point. We can’t control driver behavior. While this is a laudable goal, I don’t see funding to implement the changes that CDOT’s studies may suggest. Definitely not over 10 years. I do, however, appreciate additional study that could lead to small, but immediate safety improvements, particularly for bicyclists and pedestrians.

  • Reduce pedestrian and bicycle crash injuries, each by 50% within 5 years.

Another laudable goal, but what I’d like to have seen in the actions list is (and perhaps this falls under the Complete Streets policy) a re-engineering of the roads to slow down traffic. This could be accomplished through technology like speed cameras, but also through road diets and lane width shrinkage.

Rebuild and Renew

One area that is missing, and kudos for Grid Chicago for asking Gabe Klein about this, is partnerships with the other transit agencies besides CTA. And while I accept that CTA and CDOT have close working relationships for historic, political and practical reasons, the CTA is not the only mode of public transportation in the city. I’d love to see the city partner to improve commuter rail stations, both downtown and in the neighborhoods in as meaningful a partnership as the City has with CTA.

Choices for Chicago

I cannot emphasize enough how happy I am to read that the car “should be a choice, not a requirement.” This is true multimodal thinking! Let’s hope that the plan does not do anything to make it easier to drive in Chicago. It is already easy enough. While not the purview of CDOT’s silo, I would have loved to see an action item stating that CDOT would work with the Department of Housing and Economic Development  on land use and zoning issues that would support transit and bike/pedestrian modes better.


The environmental value of a tree. Source: CDOT

One of the coolest things that I’ve seen around downtown, highlighted in this plan, is the GreenStreets campaign, where the trees have “price tags” that illustrate the environmental value of the tree.

Fueling Our Economy

I think the very first performance measure, to increase activity, sales revenue, and occupancy rates in neighborhood commercial districts, is a fantastic example of breaking out of the silo. This is a problem that will have to be addressed city-wide through multiple agencies. Recognizing that streets can “add value”  to the neighborhoods means that you begin looking at streets in “complete” terms, as in how can a street serve multiple modes simultaneously?

This is it, for now. I’m happy to see CDOT embark on a strategic plan with a clear vision for what Chicago should be. I cast a critical planners eye, but I hope to convey that this is, however imperfect, a wonderful product. Now let’s see the implementation plan.