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Streetsblog Chicago 31 Comments

Coming Next Week: Streetsblog Chicago

After setting up transportation news sites covering New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and national policy, next Tuesday Streetsblog will be expanding for the first time in four years with the launch of Streetsblog Chicago.

The reporters producing Streetsblog Chicago are John Greenfield and Steven Vance, who have built an impressive audience for local transportation and planning news at their current site, Grid Chicago. As writers and planners, they’re both veterans of the city’s movement for livable streets. With the additional resources Streetsblog affords them, John and Steven will be creating a wide-ranging, daily news source where Chicagoans can plug in to efforts to improve walking, biking, and transit. Initial funding for Streetsblog Chicago has been provided by The Chicago Community Trust, the Rockefeller Foundation, local advertisers, and a generous anonymous donor.

Steven Vance and John Greenfield

Streetsblog will be launching at a moment when expectations are high for progressive change to the city’s streets. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his transportation commissioner, Gabe Klein, have rapidly expanded the city’s bike network, installing 12.5 miles of protected bikeways and 14.5 miles of buffered lanes since coming into office less than two years ago. Advocates believe upcoming Bus Rapid Transit projects could set a national precedent, showing other American mayors they shouldn’t shy away from giving street space to BRT. The Chicago Transit Authority is working on a major rehab of the Red Line and looking into extending it. Klein has made it the city’s explicit goal to eliminate traffic deaths by 2022. With so much happening in Chicago right now, there’s no such thing as a slow news day.

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SF Has to Pick Up the Pace on Downtown Protected Bike Lanes

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In Chicago, a new two-way, parking-protected bike lane is being constructed on downtown Dearborn Street, four months after it was announced. Photo: trapgosh/Flickr

Bicycling in San Francisco is getting better since the bicycle injunction was lifted in 2010, and concrete progress on projects like the critical Fell and Oak Street bikeway is very encouraging. But this week also made bicyclists in SF painfully aware that as the SF Municipal Transportation Agency gets closer to completing the projects in its Bike Plan, it will need to elevate its game to keep up with the nation’s leading cities. The upcoming release of the SFMTA’s Bicycle Strategy is a can’t-miss opportunity to pick up the pace.

The latest reminder that SF risks falling far behind the leading American cities came when bike advocates around the country got a look at Chicago’s new, protected two-way bike lane on downtown Dearborn Street — providing a 1.2-mile connection to another protected lane on Kinzie Street. It’s part of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s commitment to building 100 miles of protected lanes within his first four years of office. And it stands in contrast to the much slower roll-out of protected bike lanes, so far, under SF Mayor Ed Lee.

The SFMTA is planning a handful of similar projects on streets like Market, Second, and Polk, and getting improvements like that into the pipeline is hugely important. Still, those improvements are several years off from construction, as part of larger street makeovers. Meanwhile, cities like Chicago and New York are making much more rapid progress toward building continuous protected bike routes into their major job centers.

San Francisco could catch up, depending on the commitments the SFMTA makes in its upcoming Bicycle Strategy, which planners are expected to brief the agency’s board on in January. SFMTA staff says the strategy will lay out a network of priority routes for bike improvements that will help attain the city’s official goal of increasing bicycling’s share of all trips to 20 percent by 2020.

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San Francisco’s State of Cycling: Is It Falling Behind?

An increasing number of women are riding bikes in San Francisco, but bike advocates say the city still has a long way to go to make the streets inviting for less intrepid riders. Photos: Aaron Bialick

The SF Municipal Transportation Agency released its four-year State of Cycling Report [PDF] this week. While the findings in the report may not be new to those keeping an eye on the growth of bicycling in San Francisco — which has jumped 71 percent from 2006 to 2011 — bike advocates say it highlights the city’s faltering plans to roll out bike infrastructure in comparison to other cities.

San Francisco’s bicycling rate, at 3.5 percent of work trips, ties for second among major American cities with Seattle, lagging only behind Portland’s at 6 percent. The city was also recently ranked the second-most “bikeable” city in the country by Walk Score, tying with Portland behind Minneapolis in first. And, no doubt, it has seen an unprecedented roll-out of bike improvements since the bike injunction was lifted two years ago.

But the success of San Francisco’s low-cost investments in improvements is all the more reason for the city to catch up to cities like Chicago and New York, which are setting the bar for rolling out protected bike lanes, said Leah Shahum, executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition.

“The state of bicycling in San Francisco is indeed strong,” Shahum said in a statement, “but it can and should be much stronger by connecting our city more quickly with great bikeways and welcoming more people to biking with a robust bike-share program and great bike parking options. Making San Francisco a more bike-friendly place will help our city be even more successful in reaching our goals of growing jobs locally and improving our overall accessibility, sustainability and public health.”

The SFMTA is working on a strategy to reach the city’s goal of increasing bicycling to 20 percent of all trips by the year 2020, but its release seems to have been delayed for months. That goal, set by the Board of Supervisors in October 2010, has been criticized as lofty — as the SF Bay Guardian pointed out, it would require a 571 percent increase in ridership over the next seven years.

The expectations set in the SFMTA’s five-year Strategic Plan [PDF], approved in January, were more tempered, however. The agency’s goal is to increase all non-private automobile trips to 50 percent by 2018. Currently, that number is at 38 percent. While that “mode shift” would also come from walking, transit, car-share, and taxi use, “We think half of that can come from bicycle growth,” said Tim Papandreou, Deputy Director of Transportation Planning for the SFMTA’s Sustainable Streets Division.

“We’re at [3.5 percent trips by bike] now, we could get to 8.5, 9.5 percent, which would make us the biggest bicycling mode share in North America,” he told Streetsblog. Still, that target would only meet the city’s “20 percent by 2020″ goal by roughly half.

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It’s Official: Chicago Parking Privatization a Massive Rip-Off

City parking meters are a gold mine, and in Chicago, Morgan Stanley is rolling in parking riches. Secret company documents leaked to reporters show the company will rake in a 70 percent profit margin this year from its $1.15 billion, 75-year lease of Chicago's parking meters. This profit is on top of the millions Morgan paid to buy new, high-tech meters. The good times will keep on rolling for investors: In 2010, after another meter price hike, Morgan expects to make monthly profits of $4.8 million, roughly 55 percent higher than in 2009.

Last December, Streetsblog estimated that the Chicago deal would cost taxpayers "several hundred million to even a billion dollars in foregone parking revenue." Using the latest Morgan numbers, privatization expert Roger Skurski told reporters his "conservative estimate" -- Chicago could have earned about $670 million more by holding on to its meters. Back in June, before Morgan's revenue was known, Chicago's inspector general estimated the city could have gotten $2 billion in revenue, or $850 million more than it did from Morgan, had it raised rates and kept meter revenue to itself.

Streetsblog has been following the Chicago parking privatization closely because it is the poster child for all that can go wrong with Public Private Partnerships, or PPPs. The basic idea behind a PPP is that the government leases public transportation infrastructure -- say a bridge, highway, airport, or parking meters -- that can generate user fees. In exchange for the fees, a private investor pays the government a large upfront fee or assumes the cost of improving the infrastructure. PPPs are popular in Europe, especially at airports.

Sustainable transportation advocates should care about PPPs for a number of reasons. First, politicians and bureaucrats are captivated by the fantasy that PPPs are the ultimate free lunch, generating billions in transportation investment at no cost to the taxpayer. President Obama's euphemism for PPPs is "creative financing."

In New York, state officials have repeatedly presented a PPP as the way to raise billions for the astronomical cost of replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge. This is dangerous thinking. PPPs do inflict a cost, and it's a big one. Huge amounts of revenue that could be directed to public transit, or crucial road and bridge repair, is instead going to Wall Street.

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When Old Parking Meter Poles Go, So Often Does Bike Parking

Picture_5.pngToronto's Post and Ring solution for bicycle parking on old parking meter poles. Photo: David Baker
When Oakland installed its first pay-and-display parking kiosks in early 2007, parking managers ordered employees to remove the heads of the approximately 5,000 single-space meters they were replacing. Just like other cities transitioning from using single-space parking meters to newer multi-space pay stations, the parking managers failed to realize the utility of those old meter poles for cyclists, who used them for locking up their bicycles. 

"This was the last breath of turning your back on cyclists. It was obscene," said East Bay Bicycle Coalition (EBBC) Executive Director Robert Raburn, who admitted that they weren't prepared for the change and the effect it would have on cyclists, so their advocacy was "reactionary." 

The EBBC lobbied the Oakland City Council to retain what meters they could after the process had started. "What we were asking for was to make sure there was some integration between the installation of parking kiosks and bike parking," said Raburn

Jason Patton, Oakland's Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Manager, said that the initial problem stemmed from the fact that two divisions of two separate agencies within the city weren't on the same page about bicycle parking and so the provisional solution was the best they could do.

"The plan for the new parking stations didn't address bicycle parking. Really the only option we had in working on their timeline was to leave meter heads," said Patton.

Over the complaints of the parking division, the EBBC worked with Oakland's bicycle program to develop an interim policy of preserving a minimum of two meter heads per block space in the areas where kiosks were installed. The bicycle division then spent a good deal of time and money surveying bicycle use on every street where the meters were being replaced to maximize the benefit to cyclists. Parking managers removed the "guts" of the meter heads so that drivers were less confused and affixed small yellow stickers that remind cyclists to park their bicycles parallel to the curb.

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Streetfilms: Luxe Bike Parking in Chicago

Continuing the Streetfilms tour of envy-inspiring bike parking garages, Clarence Eckerson files this report from the McDonald's Cycling Center in Chicago's Millennium Park, operated by Bike and Roll on behalf of the city. Says Clarence:

It's enough to make bike commuters in many cities drool. The center boasts state-of-the-art showering facilities, secure bicycle parking for 300, a repair station, towel service, is temperature-controlled, and features the constant presence of the Chicago Lakefront Police bike patrol, which shares the facility and maintains its bikes on site. The station is extremely popular, with 500 members at a time and a waiting list of eager riders ready to join. But even if you aren't a member you can still take advantage of the free bike parking, and mechanics are on duty to repair anyone's bikes seven days a week.

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Great Streets Project Hires Director, Hits the Streets Running

Market_rail.jpgFlickr photo: JaimeAndreu
Yesterday marked an important day for livable streets in San Francisco. In coordination with the Castro Street CBD, Supervisor Bevan Dufty, and the Mayor's Office of Greening, the nascent Great Streets Project (GSP) co-hosted a roundtable discussion about how to start and manage successful public spaces, with particular emphasis on the proposed street closure and public plaza at 17th Street and Market Street. 

Only weeks after hiring Kit Hodge to direct the GSP, this event marked the first step toward building a constituency that clamors for turning over more street space to people and improving the quality of the public realm.  According to Hodge, agency heads sat down with community organizers and all discussed ways to improve streets, to effectively manage new public spaces, and to locate areas throughout San Francisco that are ripe for transformation.

Hodge explained the GSP as "a catalytic and short-term effort to enhance the livable streets projects in San Francisco and institutionalize them in city government."  She said she will create an online database of best practice examples and tools intended for professional planners, engineers and agency personnel so they can easily reference the work of their counterparts in other cities.

Currently, the GSP is a collaboration between the SFBC, Project for Public Spaces (PPS), and the Livable Streets Initiative (produced by Streetsblog SF's parent company, The Open Planning Project), and Hodge expects many more groups to sign on in short order. 

"I have tremendous respect for the many groups that have been working on this for many years, but we want to broaden the conversation by talking to other organizations that don't focus on transportation issues," said Hodge.

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Transit-Oriented America, Part 5: Wrap-Up

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Thanks all for reading and commenting on our non-motorized honeymoon travel series (see parts 1, 2, 3 and 4). Below is a table Susan put together to briefly summarize some of our observations on the cities we visited.

 

Transit

Bike Accesibity

Amtrak
Station

Street life
and art

Chicago

Loop El made all connections we needed

Pedicabs exist, but are limited; Lakefront greenway; Bikers are seen on most of the city streets too. Flat.

Great station, however the grand hall seems to be off to the side and therefore less used.

Bustling city; monumental public artwork.

Seattle

Many bus routes, some electrified

Lots of hills, didn't see many bikers.

Renovations to the ceiling will make this station a better place.

Pigs everywhere painted different colors; tech money allows for amenities

Portland

Modern light rail (two systems?)

Great greenway system and tons of on-street bike paths.

Classy bustling station. "Go By Train" sign on the clock tower was a welcome sight.

"Keep Portland Weird" is less a slogan, more a way of life

San Francisco

An amazing variety of buses and trains, some vintage

Hills, but cyclists persevere.

Amtrak serves the city only with buses; use Oakland, Emeryville or San Jose for trains.

Tons of performers, packed sidewalks, awesome walk-in fountain.

Los Angeles

Has light rail and clean new subway.

More time needed for additional study.

Amazing old station like a Hollywood movie set surrounded by palms with deco style, but some parts are closed.

Well-done graffiti and murals; few pedestrians.

New Orleans

Sexy vintage streetcars with big windows, grassy right-of-way

Flat. Lots of small streets and many bikers. Coaster bikes seem to be the regional favorite.

Functional but drab station right downtown. Service to Florida is suspended indefinitely.

Lots of street musicians, lots of tourists in French Quarter

For those of you who want some more U.S. transit-oriented travel stories, check out Twin City Sidewalks' visits to Chicago and Washington, Babylon, L.I., Savannah, Ga. and Durham, N.C., and also visit Dave KCMO, who liveblogged his 8,789 miles on Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada.

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Transit-Oriented America, Part 2: Three Cities

This is the second installment in a five-part rail travel series that began yesterday.

In between all that fun Amtrak travel I described yesterday, my wife Susan and I stopped on our honeymoon at six great cities with an eye toward observing their built environments and transportation systems (but mostly just being plain old tourists). Below are photos and brief observations from the first three, in the order we visited.

Chicago 

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The railroading capital of the United States is a great, great town, loved by New Yorkers for generations. We love it too, right?

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Chicago had a lakefront exhibit of great big globes encouraging people to adopt environmentally friendly but inoffensive habits, like setting one's washing machine to cold or switching to compact florescent light bulbs. But next to the exhibit, when we tried to hail a pedicab to take us downtown, we were told that pedicabs are not allowed in the Loop. Ouch. Our recently imposed pedicab restrictions were bad enough, but this takes it to a whole new level. On the plus side, Chicago has the coolest-sounding train-related terminology that we found: the Metra Electric District.

Seattle

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We had hoped not to get into a single automobile on the whole trip, but in Seattle (and only in Seattle), that broke down, mostly because we had a friend in town who owned a car and was putting us up at his place. This city has what seems like hundreds of bus routes, but the one we needed never came, even though two drivers on other routes and other passengers all swore it was running on the Sunday we arrived. After we got off the train we waited and waited for our bus. Then we took a different bus to a more central stop to try our luck there. Then our friend Matt offered to pick us up from the bus stop. We accepted because he said he completely understood our motivating principle, but was downtown anyway and would be burning the same amount of gasoline either way. He drove us again a few more times, including to Lake Union go kayaking, which was worth it.

However we still wanted to explore Seattle on foot, so we walked through downtown, adjacent Belltown, where new condos are going up like mad, and residential Queen Anne Hill. Somewhere in there we noticed the signs all around Seattle encouraging people to ride transit. They have sayings like "Take the monorail, Abigail," and "Take the bus and relax, Max." Slogans aside, Seattle already had what Ted Kheel knows is a better incentive. At least downtown, its buses are free.

Portland

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Like Seattle's downtown buses, Portland's downtown light rail does not charge a fare. Our hotel was in the free zone, and we felt a little guilty riding so much for free, so we vowed to spend our extra money in various Portland businesses, like the worker-owned bicycle cooperative where we rented bikes. The bikes were great, as they allowed us to really see the city and its nearby bike trails up close and personal. As I stood watching cyclists pass by on a fully-separated bike lane next to a light rail line and a aerial tram depot, I realized why it is said that Portland has the most diverse multimodal transportation network in the country for a city its size. One of those modes is the automobile, which in places is catered to as much as any suburb. On the way to the rail, we'd pass curb cuts used by cars and SUVs in the drive-thru restaurant and drive-thru Starbucks across from our hotel, engines idling as their occupants awaited their morning venti mocha frap. Portland leads the nation in many ways, but hey, it's not perfect.

And even in Portland, we learned, bike and transit networks are under attack. This newspaper article described the efforts of one Craig Flynn, a local activist and one-time city council candidate who "thinks city transportation funds should go toward relieving congestion on freeways and other main roads, specifically adding lanes or building new freeways." He told the paper: "I feel like honking my horn going over a speed bump to irritate the people who want them there."

In tomorrow's installment, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans.

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Transit-Oriented America, Part 1: Eight Thousand Miles

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My wife and I were married last month in Brooklyn. For our honeymoon, we wanted to see as many great American cities as we could. In 19 days of travel, we visited Chicago, Seattle, Portland (Ore.), San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans (and also stopped briefly in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Houston, Atlanta, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia).

How could two people as obsessed as we are with minimizing our transportation carbon footprints possibly justify taking so many flights for leisure travel? We didn't take any flights. We also didn't rent any cars or even set foot in a single taxi. We learned that thanks to the magic of transit-oriented hotel development (often inadvertent), it is entirely possible to travel this great country from sea to shining sea without any of those carbon-belching modes of travel -- and still have a fantastic time.

Our intercity travel consisted of 33 miles on Metro-North (because we couldn't allow ourselves to depart for such a historic trip from Penn Station), 48 miles on CalTrain, and 7,840 miles on our underfunded national railroad, Amtrak. To travel about in town, we rented bikes in Portland but mostly used an amazing variety of light rail, bus and subway transportation, including trips on Chicago's El, Portland's TriMet light rail, San Francisco's Muni and BART and New Orleans' streetcars. All of which worked perfectly well for our purposes.

Despite the large number of transit providers, it was Amtrak that did the heavy lifting and made our vacation possible. Amtrak employees are painfully aware of the railroad's reputation as habitually late. They desperately wanted to provide an on-time, high quality service, but were demoralized when the trains ran late and frustrated because it was almost always for reasons beyond their control.

We took six Amtrak trains more or less through the entire length of their routes: The Lake Shore Limited, the Empire Builder, the Cascades, the Coast Starlight, the Sunset Limited and the Crescent. All of these trains left their departure stations on time to the minute. It wasn't until we got moving that delays occured, and these were caused by chronic underinvestment in rail infrastructure that has left many lines with just a single track. The lines are owned by freight railroads, which Amtrak pays for the rights use. The freight railroads are in increasingly intense competition with one another for customers, and have a habit of having passenger trains wait at a siding while freight trains roll through. Despite this, the Empire Builder managed to travel 2,206 miles from Chicago to Seattle and still arrive 38 minutes ahead of schedule. If our national government invested in rail improvements just a fraction of the billions of dollars it spends annually on highway maintenance and widening, Amtrak would run on time and more people would ride it.

As gasoline prices have gone up and congestion at airports has increased, Amtrak has had record ridership for multiple years in a row, despite being starved by the Bush administration, which wanted to disband the railroad, and the Republican-led Congress. Many threats remain. On the day we rode rode the Sunset Limited across Texas, a Republican congressman from Texas introduced legislation that would have eliminated the Sunset Limited. (It was defeated with the help of our region's congressional delegation by a vote of 299-130.)

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But the trains are still running and we had the time of our lives on this trip. Even if its running late, and even if they've replaced the chefs in the dining car with microwave ovens, there remains something inherently enjoyable and relaxing about riding on a train across vast distances. You have time to yourself to sit and watch the world roll by, completely stress free, and sleeping in a real honest-to-God bed while rolling along through the undulating darkness is just incomparable to anything else experienced in travel. Now with the addition of laptop computers, you can watch a DVD or play tetris to pass the time, but I prefer to leave the screen off and look out the window.

This is the first part of a five-part series on our travels to run this week. Parts two and three will focus on the cities we visited, with brief updates on their struggles for livable streets. Part four will describe in greater detail the trains we rode and the sights we saw. Part five will compare the cities to one another in terms of livable streets, pedestrian-friendly development and intermodal transportation.

The great American poet Robert Hunter has written that he and the other members of the Grateful Dead had the greatest time of their lives aboard a train across Canada that carried themselves, Janice Joplin, The Band and many other musicians. That's high praise from people who spent their lives rocking out. The trip inspired Hunter to write some lines that became the motto for our honeymoon:

No big hurry
What do you say
Might as well travel
The elegant way

UPDATE: Here are the other entries in this series: