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Talking about Slow Streets and equitable community input

The Leland Avenue Slow Street. Photo: John Greenfield

On Tuesday I took part in a panel on Slow Streets and other pandemic transportation initiatives hosted by Alderman Matt Martin of the 47th Ward, where Chicago's first Slow Streets (the city is calling them "Shared Streets") opened on Leland Avenue on May 29. I was joined by Julia Gerasimenko, advocacy manager for Active Transportation Alliance, and Audrey Wennink, transportation director for the Metropolitan Planning Council. 47th Ward staffers Michael Sewall, director of constituent services and community outreach, and Josh Mark, director of development and infrastructure were present to provide context for 47th Ward initiatives.

Michael kicked off the discussion by nothing that the panel was collaboration between the 47th Ward Green Council and the 47th Ward Transportation Committee. Both councils are open to anyone, whether or not you live in the ward.

Josh then discussed the history of the Leland Slow Street, which currently runs between Clark Street and Lincoln Avenue. Mayor Lori Lightfoot closed the Lakefront Trail, the Chicago Riverwalk, and the Bloomingdale Trail on March 26, but no additional space was opened for pedestrians and cyclists. Many 47th Ward residents reached out to Alderman Martin asking for interventions to make room for safe, socially-distanced walking, running, and biking from a recreational standpoint. Josh said that  residents have generally been supportive of the Leland Slow Street and say they would like to see Slow Streets created on other corridors within the ward. The Chicago Department of Transportation is expanding the Leland Slow Streets half a mile west to the Chicago River today.

Next I shared my observations of speeding on side streets in Rogers Park, where I live. Julia discussed ATA’s vision for a Chicagoland in which walking, biking, and transit are convenient, attractive, affordable, accessible, and equitable for all. Audrey Wennink noted that transit capacity will be reduced due to social distancing in the first few months of recovery. Safe alternatives to transit such as pop-up bike lanes, are necessary along with efforts to sustain transit. “We can’t let our transit system fail. We need to build confidence in the transit system and adapt our transit system to meet people’s needs. We must also think systematically about how we fund transit.”

The first question of the night was, “What does it mean to you to see transportation as a matter of equity and justice? What are some important steps city leaders and advocates can take to heart?” I responded that a key part in my vision for mobility justice was for transportation departments and city departments in general to start seeing residents as knowledgeable partners. I mentioned that my recent interview with Warren Logan, policy director of mobility and interagency relations for the city of Oakland, who helped create the Slow Streets concept, really opened my eyes. He discussed his philosophy on pursuing racial equity within a mobility framework.

Participants in the panel discussion, including 47th Ward reps
Participants in the panel discussion, including 47th Ward reps Michael Sewall (upper left) and Josh Mark (lower right.)

Audrey mentioned the importance of using data in strategies to eliminate transportation disparities. She noted that the Chicagoans with the longest commutes are folks who live on the South and West sides. Listening to the lived experiences of Black and Brown residents is also key. “It’s not always about whether or not the train travels to where I want to go. It’s [also] about people feeling safe to utilize transit, [walk, or bike.]” Concerns about interpersonal violence, overpolicing, and immigration crackdowns can serve as barriers to using sustainable transportation in African-American and Latinx communities.

Julia agreed. “Safety is so individual. Equity and justice looks different for everyone. Even two people who share the same or similar identities will have had different life experiences that will shape their sense of safety.” She also spoke of ATA’s work to challenge racism on every level that shapes transportation: the individual level (doing the self-work), organizations, institutions, and systems. Lastly, Julia discussed the work of The Untokening, a BIPOC- (Black and Indigenous, People of Color) led mobility justice collective.

Next, we were asked how can we move from asking communities for input on transportation projects and policies to actually putting residents in charge of transportation decisions. I responded that institutions such as the city and state transportation departments would need to be required to engage with communities in a meaningful way and eliminate inequities.

Julia said that while we don’t have all the answers to this question yet, it could be useful to start with this Spectrum of Public Participation.

The Spectrum of Public Participation. Image: IAP2
The Spectrum of Public Participation. Image: IAP2

Julia later told me that, based on her experiences work at ATA, it seems the current laws and regulations around community input are all informed by federal environmental laws. “So to clarify when a project is using federal dollars that is when CDOT/CTA/others are required to do community outreach that might nudge its way up the spectrum. So when it comes to local menu money funds [the roughly $1.3 million is discretionary funds each Chicago ward is allocated each year] there is no expectation for input, [although] some alderman opt for doing participatory budgeting. All of that to say is our current regulations are a far cry from ‘empower’ end of the spectrum.” 

During the panel, Audrey noted that tactical urbanism, low-cost temporary changes to the built environment, can be a way for agencies to try out a transportation strategy and obtain feedback. “These pilots do not have to be expensive. If we want to calm traffic, the ultimate way to do it is to change the street experience: narrow it and make [motorists] feel like they can’t drive fast. We haven’t really harnessed this power here in Chicago and we need to.”

During the Q & A, there was discussion of the new Leland Avenue Slow Street, which was extended another half-mile west on Friday. An audience member asked, “Does CDOT views these Slow Streets as one-off projects or are plans for a slow street network?” Ward staffer Josh Mark responded that there are currently no plans for a Slow Street network. Mark explained how aldermanic prerogative, which gives Council members de-facto veto power of projects in their districts, stands in the way of a cohesive transportation policy.

The 47th Ward's COVId transportation community input map. Image via Block Club Chicago
The 47th Ward's COVId transportation community input map. Image via Block Club Chicago

Another resident asked how Leland was selected to be a Slow Street and how long the pilot will last. Josh said Leland was chosen based on feedback from residents, including via an interactive map the ward launched to ask residents where they experienced sidewalk congestion during the pandemic. Lincoln Avenue topped the list, Ravenswood Avenue was #2 and Leland was the third most congested street. Leland was also chosen due to its status as a potential neighborhood greenway bike-priority route (it already is one in the neighboring 46th Ward), and its low car traffic volume. Josh added that the pilot is open-ended and its timing is related to COVID-19 and the need to practice social distancing. 

Finally someone asked, “When will we have a network of protected bike lanes to serve as a true alternative to driving?” Josh once again brought up aldermanic prerogative as a barrier, as well as lack of funding. “We will need a top-down approach to this. The city will need to take the lead and impose this. To my knowledge there is no dedicated funding for bike lanes. The city depends on grants and aldermanic menu money.” Mayor Lori Lightfoot made a campaign promise to earmark $20 million a year in the city budget for walk/bike initiatives, but faced with an $800 million budget gap last year, she failed to do so in the 2020 budget.

Julia agreed and noted that last year ATA helped win an annual $50 million walk/bike fund in the Illinois capital bill. When it comes to the city budget, she said, “The resources are there, it’s just a matter of political will.” ATA has a campaign for a Safe Streets Fund, a city of Chicago fund for street safety projects in high-crash areas.

Audrey added that currently about 80 percent of transportation spending goes towards highways and only 20 percent goes to transit. “We need people to speak up about what they want. Investments in transit and biking projects have such a great return on investment. Don’t let anyone tell you we don’t have enough money; it’s about the choices we make.”

I made a plug for Better Streets Chicago, the new pro-open streets sustainable transportation advocacy group Kyle Lucas, Jim Hodapp, Brittney Lane, and myself launched last month. We're planning to have actions where folks can make their voices heard in support of protected bike lanes, bus-only lanes, and other initiatives.

47th Ward Alderman Matt Martin concluded the meeting by saying that while sustainable transportation is a passion of his, his work to lead on these issues is motivated by feedback from his constituents, who say they want better conditions for walking, biking, and transit. While there may not be much movement on this front at the federal level right now, there’s plenty of opportunity to demand change on the state and local level.

You can watch a replay of the discussion on Martin’s Facebook page.

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