Talking About Transit

Redefine-the-Drive-May_boulevard-detail-section

How does this station work? Is there signal priority for the streetcar? How does existing CTA bus service interact? All transit questions unanswered by this concept.

 

There is a right way and a wrong way of talking about transit. Specifically, when you propose an idea for transit service without mentioning the details. As a transit planner, I love details. Because transit costs money, and because it is seen by many as government largess, if you are going to responsibly discuss your transit ideas, the more fleshed out it is the more credibility you will have with both the public and the government agency that would likely run the system. The project in which I’m referring to is the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance proposal for streetcars along North Lake Shore Drive when that road is rebuilt. I attended a presentation [actual proposal here] by John Krause of Chicago Streetcar Renaissance at the Transport Chicago conference a last month where he laid out his vision for a streetcar (or LRT) running from downtown via Michigan Avenue north along Lake Shore Drive. The vision looks really nice. Many pictures of streetcars in European cities in urban areas at a smaller scale, and perhaps even more dense than the areas around North Lake Shore Drive. And while I was sucked into the grandeur of it, the transit planner in me awoke with these questions:

  1. What is the actual route (from end to end) of service? It’s great to see cross-sections of North Lake Shore Drive, and I’m aware that the streetcar is proposed to travel down North Michigan Avenue and Sheridan Road, but what are the limits? Are there branches of service, particularly at the ends of the route?
  2. Which current CTA bus routes, if any, will this new streetcar service replace?
  3. What is the frequency of service and hours of service? Since you propose to replace many of the buses along Lake Shore Drive with streetcar service, I am wondering if the service plan accounts for headways of 1-3 minutes in the peak period. If so, then…
  4. Where to do you plan for the vehicle and crew facility? Particularly since land is at a premium downtown and along the lakefront.
  5. Will the streetcars have traffic signal preemption?
  6. How do you anticipate at-grade street crossing effecting scheduling?
  7. Could bus rapid transit provide a similar level of service for less cost?

I am not saying this project is a bad idea, by any means and I am receptive to reducing North Lake Shore Drive from a limited access expressway to a boulevard of some type with transit running alongside (or in the middle). But when you propose a new mode of transit, one in which there is no legacy network to tie into, then these types of questions are appropriate. That said, I applaud the efforts Mr. Krause has made to thinking about North Lake Shore Drive differently, and putting his efforts into a concept to show an alternative way of thinking about this corridor. But the pictures are too pretty and now we need to get to the hard part. The system design and analysis.

So, as a transit planner what would I do?

I would flesh out my concepts a little better first, making sure the streetcar is feasible from a physical, operational and market standpoint. That is, addressing the questions above and developing a service plan to compare with existing CTA bus operations. Then I would really figure out a way to pay for it.

What would you do with North Lake Shore Drive?

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.

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.