Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: What About Bob?

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, News etc., Politics, South Loop No Comments »
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Bob Fioretti by the Dearborn protected bike lanes./Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Second Ward Alderman Robert “Bob” Fioretti got a raw deal in last year’s ward remap. His district currently includes portions of several neighborhoods on the Near South and Near West sides, but in 2015 his territory will flip to the Near North Side, which means he has to win over a whole new set of voters in the next election.

Perhaps because he has an uphill reelection battle anyway, lately he’s had no qualms about going against the mayor’s wishes on issues ranging from charter schools to the renegotiation of the city’s reviled parking-meter contract. As part of a series of interviews with aldermen about their view on transportation issues, I recently had coffee with Fioretti downstairs from his law firm, a stone’s throw from the Dearborn protected bike lanes. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: The Northwest Passage

Architecture, Avondale, Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Chicago History, City Life, Green No Comments »
Rob Reid, Mike Filipinski and Elisa Addlesperger on the 2900 block of North Elston.

Rob Reid, Mike Filipski and Elisa Addlesperger on the 2900 block of North Elston.

By John Greenfield

I’ve walked the whole length of eleven Chicago streets in order to experience aspects of local geography, architecture and culture that I might have overlooked using faster modes. So when Rob Reid, who writes the history blog Avondale Time Machine, invited me to join him and friends to hike all 9.5 miles of Elston Avenue last month, I couldn’t refuse.

The street’s namesake was Daniel Elston, a London merchant who immigrated to Chicago in the early 1800s. By 1830 he’d bought a 160-acre parcel in River West, located along a crooked wagon road. The multitalented settler established several businesses—making soap, candles, bricks, beer and whiskey—he also served as a school inspector and alderman.

While Elston was first living by the thoroughfare that would later bear his name, it was a plank toll road owned by Amos Snell, who charged travelers two-and-a-half cents per mile to use it. Displeased with this, local farmers staged a Boston Tea Party of sorts—they dressed up like Indians, chopped down the toll gates and burned them. Read the rest of this entry »

The Long, Hot Summer of Transportation

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Transit 2 Comments »
Bike rush hour on Milwaukee, torn up for repaving / Photo: John Greenfield

Bike rush hour on Milwaukee, torn up for repaving/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Trust me, my friends, this is the year sustainable transportation blows up in Chicago. Say what you want about Rahm Emanuel’s record on education, crime and privatization. But since he took office in early 2011, joined by forward-thinking Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein and shrewd CTA President Forrest Claypool, the city has embarked on a number of bold projects to encourage walking, biking and transit use. I promise the next three months are going to be a tipping point as we make the move from the car-centric status quo to becoming a healthier, more efficient and more vibrant city. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Strap It On?

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, News etc. No Comments »
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Chicago’s Divvy bike-share vehicles won’t come with helmets.

By John Greenfield

Last summer when I visited Copenhagen, I drank Carlsberg beer with Mikael Colville-Andersen, one of the world’s most influential and controversial bicycle advocates, in his lush back yard while his kids practiced soccer and picked flowers. Colville-Andersen heads the consulting firm Copenhagenize, advising politicians, planners and advocates on ways to copy the success of the bike-friendly Danish capital, but he’s probably better known for his wildly popular photo blog, Copenhagen Cycle Chic.

Among the many topics we discussed was his attitude toward bike helmets. He thinks they’re totally unnecessary for urban commuting, and he believes that promoting helmet use is actually counterproductive for making cycling safer. In northern European bicycle meccas like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, more than a third of all trips are made by bike, almost nobody wears a helmet, and yet injury rates are much lower than in the United States, where lots of people wear helmets. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Can Transportation Options Energize Englewood?

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Englewood, Green, Transit 1 Comment »
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Demond Drummer by Englewood’s Halsted/63rd Green Line Station/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Most Chicagoans associate Englewood with poverty and crime, but local advocates and activists see it as a neighborhood with untapped potential, with excellent access to public transportation being one of the keys to its future success. “From the beginning, Englewood was designed to be a transportation and retail hub, and that does not come up often enough in the conversation,” says Demond Drummer, a resident who works for the Teamwork Englewood community development organization.

Greater Englewood is a predominantly African-American area, roughly bounded by Garfield, Western, 79th and State. It includes two Green Line stations, three Red Line Stops, Metra’s Rock Island Main Line (although trains no longer stop here), and multiple bus routes. The New Era Trail proposal would turn a nearly two-mile, dormant rail corridor into an elevated greenway along 59th between Hoyne and Lowe. The city is also considering building bus rapid transit on Ashland, which would create yet another travel option. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Pedaling History

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Hyde Park, Museums No Comments »
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1839 McMillan bicycle, the first with pedals/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

The new exhibit “The Art of the Bicycle” at the Museum of Science and Industry does a fine job of tracing the evolution of the bike from the dandy horse, a primitive wooden contraption pushed along with one’s feet, to today’s high-tech steeds. While last year’s terrific “Bikes! The Green Revolution” show at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum celebrated cycling culture in general and the Chicago scene in particular, the MSI’s exhibit focuses on the history of the machines themselves. It features nine rarely seen historic bikes from the museum’s collection, newly restored for the show, plus a gaggle of modern rides.

“For 200 years people have continuously reinvented the bicycle,” reads the intro to the exhibit. “With each new decade new designs and technologies improved the popular machine, making riding safer, more reliable and more fun.” Amusement was probably one of the main motivations when German Baron Karl von Drais built the first verifiable dandy horse, a pedal-less, steerable, two-wheeled vehicle he dubbed the Laufmaschine (“running machine”) for cruising around his large garden. A 1931 replica of an 1818 Draisienne, as the French called it, is on display, and the clunky, green-and-gold vehicle looks like it would be a blast to scoot down the Lakefront Trail. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Raised (Bike Lane) Expectations

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
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Raised bike lane in Copenhagen/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

I’m a huge fan of the city’s efforts to get a total of 100 miles of protected bike lanes (which put a physical barrier between cyclists and moving traffic) and buffered bike lanes (conventional bike lanes with extra dead space striped on either side) by 2015. Protected lanes are crucial if we’re going to significantly boost Chicago’s bike mode share because they attract the so-called “interested but concerned” demographic, folks who would like to try urban cycling but are worried about getting hit by cars. The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) deserves major kudos for installing 11.4 miles of protected and 18.65 miles of buffered lanes in the last two years.

That said, there are some issues with Chicago-style protected lanes, created by moving the parking lane to the left of the bike lane, which is delineated by flexible plastic posts, so that the parked cars serve as the barrier. For example, this configuration makes it harder for right-turning drivers to see cyclists, which can result in the dreaded “right hook” crash. It’s common for motor vehicles, especially cabs and delivery trucks, to drive and park in protected lanes. And curbside asphalt tends to be in worse shape than the rest of the road and often has poor drainage, as demonstrated by the slush-filled puddles in the Dearborn Street protected lanes this winter.

European-style raised bicycle lanes, elevated a few inches above street level and sometimes located an inch or two below the sidewalk, could solve all of these problems. Also called grade-separated lanes, these facilities are the norm in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which each have more than seventeen times our bike mode share. Chicago’s Bike 2015 Plan, published in 2006, called for testing grade-separated lanes in two or three locations by 2010, but nothing ever came of this recommendation. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Picturing Safer Streets

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green No Comments »
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Better Blocks interns with a young workshop participant. Photo: Active Trans

By John Greenfield

Underserved neighborhoods are called that for a reason. They generally don’t receive their fair share of city services, and they tend to have less green space, worse conditions for walking and biking, and higher crash rates than wealthier areas, which can discourage residents from being physically active. Often part of the problem is that community members are unsure how to get help with issues like cracked sidewalks, broken streetlights and speeding traffic.

For three years the Active Transportation Alliance’s Better Blocks program has been working with folks in low-income neighborhoods to solve these problems. Staffers have led more than fifty workshops at community centers and block parties, brainstorming with adults and kids on ideas for making their block safer and more conducive to walking, biking and other forms of healthy recreation. Then Active Trans has helped the residents lobby the city government to make these infrastructure improvements a reality. Community liaison Cynthia Bell filled me in on the nuts and bolts of the program. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: From Southern Africa to the South Side

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Hyde Park, Transit No Comments »
Dustin Gourdin / Photo: John Greenfield

Dustin Gourdin on 53rd Street in Hyde Park/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

“Parts of Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city, and the South Side of Chicago are actually eerily similar,” says Dustin Gourdin, a PhD student in the University of Chicago’s sociology department, over coffee at Hyde Park’s Valois Cafeteria. “You see a lot of the same issues, in terms of transportation challenges and youth opportunities. Hopefully we can figure out ways to make things better in both places.”

Since 2009 Gourdin, twenty-five, has made three research trips to Namibia, a nation of 2.1 million people just northwest of South Africa. He’s been studying the Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN) Namibia, a nonprofit that provides disadvantaged local people with efficient transportation and job opportunities, as well as other non-governmental organizations. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: A Denver Omelet of Transportation Options

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Transit 2 Comments »
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Aylene McCallum on a B-cycle bike/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

One of the perks of being a sustainable transportation geek is that wherever I travel local planners and advocates are usually happy to give me a tour of their town’s walking, biking and transit hotspots. So when I went to Colorado on vacation last October I asked Aylene McCallum, transportation research manager for the Downtown Denver Partnership, to show me around the Mile High City.

With roughly 620,000 residents (about 2.6 million metro), Denver has its share of big-city challenges. McCallum’s nonprofit works to promote a vibrant, prosperous and environmentally friendly central business district, and smart land use and transportation policies are key pieces of the puzzle. Read the rest of this entry »