Sunday, May 13, 2012

Plenty to love in Chicago's new transportation plan

by Michelle Stenzel

Chicago’s Department of Transportation released its two-year plan last week, and if you’re interested in what will be happening on our city’s streets and sidewalks in the very near future, it’s a must read. (You can download the 100-page PDF directly at this link.)
(Source: Chicago DOT)

My impression: Awesome! It’s very clear that we’re in a new era in Chicago, where city leaders like Commissioner Gabe Klein recognize that our streets are public places that must be made safe and accessible to everyone, and that we need a variety of transportation means beyond just the car or SUV. 

Of course, motor vehicles are here to stay for now, but this plan makes it clear that the choice of walking, riding a bicycle, or using public transportation instead will be made even more attractive through hundreds of policy and design improvements in their favor. 

The document starts with total support from a mayor who understands that multi-lane highways are not the future, and that environment and health concerns are intertwined with the way we transport ourselves:
Where we once built expressways that divided our communities, we are now reconnecting neighborhoods with new bus lanes and extensive and expanding bicycle facilities that offer safe, green, and fit ways to travel for all ages.  -- Rahm Emanuel
There are ambitious plans to improve safety for people walking, bicycling and driving/riding, including these goals:
  • Eliminate all pedestrian, bicycle, and overall traffic crash fatalities within 10 years.
  • Reduce pedestrian and bicycle crash injuries, each by 50% within 5 years.

I’m not sure that we can completely eliminate all crash deaths within 10 years, but in Chicago, make no little plans. I like that they will evaluate the top 10 crash locations to “implement quick, low-cost improvements while also seeking funding for more comprehensive changes” and they’ll investigate ALL fatal crashes involving pedestrians or bicyclists.

There are many specifics design and engineering changes that will benefit people walking and bicycling: 
  • Install countdown pedestrian signals at 300 intersections in 2012 and, if funding is available, 100 more intersections in 2013.
  • Install Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPI) at 100 intersections in 2012 and, if funding is available, 100 more intersections in 2013.
  • Develop policies and standards for bicycle signals and leading bicycle intervals, deploy at least 10 pilot locations in conjunction with protected bike lanes, and collect data for evaluation.
  • Install 10 pedestrian refuge islands per year at locations recommended by Aldermen through the “menu” capital improvement program.
  • Expand the use of in-street “State Law: Stop for Pedestrians” signs, speed indicator signs, and related devices through the Aldermanic “menu” capital program.
Bicycle signals! Pedestrian Refuge Islands! Yes! 

I found this little tidbit about past lack of commitment to secondary street resurfacing very interesting: 
CDOT relies on its in-house tradesmen to perform regular, routine maintenance. In an average year, these tradesmen resurface 60 miles of residential streets ...  While 60 miles of resurfacing sounds like a large number, alone it means that at that rate, CDOT would only be able to resurface the city’s over 6,000 miles of residential streets just once every century. More resources are necessary.
Well, that’s an understatement. No wonder many side streets look like this, if they only get major TLC every 100 years:

Sorry, Lill Street, your 100 years of waiting is not
over yet. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
The plan talks about the importance of maintenance. Maintaining existing infrastructure is not something that usually makes headlines (except on the Bike Walk Lincoln Park blog, of course), but it’s crucial to our transportation network. 

That doesn’t just apply to bike lanes and crosswalks, but also the center lanes, arrow symbols or other pavement markings intended for car drivers. You may have noticed that these have also faded to nothing on major streets in our area like Stockton, Diversey and Halsted. So the CDOT plan makes a commitment to:
  • Refresh pavement markings annually on at least 100 miles of major (arterial or collector) streets, and 800 locations on local streets.
  • Renew 125 miles of existing on-street bikeways by 2014, updating configurations as necessary.
  • Resurface 100 miles of arterial streets by June 2013 to catch up on unmet needs and reduce potholes.
Regarding new construction, the plan says that when a new project is being built, we need to make sure that it adds to the life of the sidewalks and streets it is next to, because that’s public space that we ALL own and have to live with. This is something that we’ll have to very vigilant about for big projects in our ward, like the redevelopment of the Children’s Memorial site. Here’s the quote:
Just as careful design of our streets is important, careful review of the new development projects that could redefine these streets is equally important. Well planned, designed and managed private developments add to, rather than detract from, the common public space, support a more active and walkable street environment and use a variety of modes to support their residents, workers and patrons rather than overloading any one.
But it’s the section called “Choices for Chicago” that starts on page 38 that really makes urbanists swoon:
Americans love choice and Chicagoans are no different. We like to choose where we live, what we eat, and how we travel. ...  We know that driving continues to be a very viable choice for the city and region, and CDOT is committed to making it safer and more efficient for those who drive. But getting in a car should be a choice, not a requirement. For our physical and economic health as a city, we will continue to expand and improve the availability of all mode choices.
Chicago will make it easier for more people to choose
riding a bicycle for transportation, like this woman on the
Wells Street bike lane. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
Exactly: Getting in a car should be a choice, not a requirement. 

Some of the performance measures I like (even if I’m not clear how the latter will be measured):
  • Increase the number of residents within a half mile of a bikeway.
  • Increase the share of all trips under five miles made by cycling to at least 5%.

You may remember that the Complete Streets Policy is something we raised in our review of the ongoing Fullerton Parkway Bridge reconstruction project, which was planned and funded under our former mayor, commissioner and alderman. The new two-year CDOT plan specifically provides the key part of the city’s Complete Streets Policy wording and commits to adhering to it more fully. Here’s the policy:

“The safety and convenience of all users of the transportation system, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users 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.”
Notice how the convenience of all users have to be not just accommodated, but also balanced. Some of the ways CDOT plans to ensure adherence:
  • Train all design engineers in Complete Streets approaches.
  • Update CDOT’s project delivery system to ensure Complete Streets design of roadway projects, and potentially include the use of a Complete Streets checklist during the first phase of design.

Finally, I’ve saved the best for last. This plan commits to making Chicago “the best big city in America for cycling and walking.” It points out that we have a reputation of being bike-friendly, and yet the numbers of Chicagoans who choose to bike is actually very low, and there’s much room for improvement:
Just over 1% of Chicago commuters choose to travel by bicycle. While this number has almost doubled each of the last two decades, it’s still less than the enviable 6% rate in Portland, Oregon or the 4.5% achieved in chilly Minneapolis. Even in the central portion of the city, only 2% of all trips (errands, lunch, and commute) are by bicycle. We can do better — much better.
There’s so much to celebrate on page 45, I’ll just reprint a screen shot below. There’s bike share, protected bikeways, more bike racks, a master pedestrian plan, slow zone blocks in the neighborhoods, and more Open Streets events. 
(Source: Chicago DOT)

Taking back the streets, one game of hopscotch at a time. At Open Streets on State Street 2011.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)

And remember, this isn’t a long-term plan, but a TWO-YEAR plan! We’ve got a lot to look forward to. What do you like about the plan?
And are you following us yet on Twitter @BikeWalkLP?


  1. "Increase the share of all trips under five miles made by cycling to at least 5%."

    This is a major criticism I have of the Bike 2015 Plan: We'll have no idea if we reached that because such information is not collected.

    The National Household Travel Survey collects that kind of information, but only once every few years, and not at the city level. CMAP's Travel Tracker also tracks this information, but again once every few years. Oddly CMAP didn't separate Chicago from their last Travel Tracker report but the raw data includes trip origin and destinations (OD) that can be traced to TAZs (traffic analysis zones in Chicago).

    Here're all the articles I've written about this data collection gap:



    1. Thanks, Steven. I'm sure you're following the news that Congress is taking steps toward eliminating the American Community Survey, which provides nationwide bike commuting statistics. Although stats on overall trips by bike are nearly impossible to come by, at least the ACS provided bike commuting data, and now even that's being threatened. -- MS

  2. Thanks, Michelle. You really make following local planning politics fun.
    I remember Jan Gehl talking about how great it's been to live in Copenhagen as the city got gradually better and better, removing a little parking and installing a few cycle tracks, every year for 40 years. Maybe we're finally ready to get started.

    1. One of my favorite Jan Gehl quotes:

      "It’s really wonderful to wake up in a city where every day you realize that today the city is a little bit better than yesterday."

      We'll just have to make sure streetcars are included in the next two-year plan. :) -- MS

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. I allow anonymous comments to be published without signing in, but I ask that you keep all comments civil. -- Michelle Stenzel

  4. Michelle- I think my comments were civil. Do you really think that at some point, cars won't be here to stay? Do you think we should go back to horse and buggy days? Would that be prosperous for our country?

    1. You can express opinions, but wishing harm on another person is not civil.

  5. Thank you for this excellent & thoughtful post, so full of ideas.. it is helpful & your post motivated me..thank

    1. You're welcome and I'm glad it has motivated you! -- Michelle Stenzel