Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: Walking and Talking About BRT

Checkerboard City, Green, Transit No Comments »
Boarding the Ashland bus in Brainerd. Photo: John Greenfield

Boarding the #9 bus in Brainerd/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

As I type this, it’s fourteen degrees in Chicago and snow is falling fast, but the battle over the future of Ashland Avenue is heating up. The city has put forth a bold plan to reconfigure the street by implementing bus rapid transit. Two of the four travel lanes will be converted to dedicated lanes for high-speed, center-running buses that will pick up passengers from platform stations in the median, providing an El train-like experience.

Scores of businesses and organizations, plus more than 2,500 individuals, have signed on to endorse the plan, and Alderman Ameya Pawar is an enthusiastic supporter, but there’s also fierce opposition. The Ashland-Western Coalition, an opposition group led by Roger Romanelli, is trying to kill the project, and they’ve received more than their fair share of mainstream media coverage. Aldermen George Cardenas and Scott Waguespack have also become outspoken naysayers.

But what do people who actually ride the #9 Ashland bus on a regular basis think of the proposal? In early October, my blogging partner Steven Vance and I set out to walk the entire planned BRT route, from 95th to Irving Park, buttonholing CTA customers along the way to get their take. Let’s return to that still-balmy Monday to see what they said. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Riding the L Train

Checkerboard City, Green, Transit 1 Comment »
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Lorde, in a screen shot from the “Royals” video

By John Greenfield

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to depart from my usual Chicago-centric focus to explore a question that’s been puzzling me for a while now: is Lorde’s hit song “Royals” pro- or anti-public transportation? Depictions of various travel modes in pop culture influence listeners’ commuting habits. While everyone from the Beach Boys to Public Enemy has written tunes glorifying cars, there are precious few that make mass transit sound like a cool way to get around—“Kiss Me on the Bus” by the Replacements springs to mind.

I was hoping to chalk up “Royals” as one of the latter. By now you’ve probably heard the smart, minimalist electro-pop earworm by the seventeen-year-old New Zealand wunderkind, real name Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor. I confess that I spent a recent Sunday evening listening to her album “Pure Heroine” over and over while I did housework—it’s that good. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Pedaling Fine Gifts

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Holidays, Transit 1 Comment »
The Malört water bottle. Photo: Tim de la Motte

The Malört water bottle/Photo: Tim de la Motte

By John Greenfield

The holidays are all about consumption, but the nice thing about giving a sustainable transportation-oriented present is you’re encouraging the recipient to use less resources, by walking, biking or using transit when possible, instead of driving. Most of the following gift ideas are also locally produced and available at independent stores, which means a minimum of fuel was expended in transporting them, and by spending money at a mom-and-pop instead of a big-box you’ll be promoting pedestrian-friendly retail. Unfortunately, one present you can’t give right now is a glitch-free Ventra card.

However, you can promote one of Chicago’s more successful transpo initiatives by giving the gift of Divvy. The bike-share system will be operating all winter long, so if you buy your loved ones twenty-four-hour passes ($7) or yearly memberships ($75), they’ll be able to hop on one of the baby-blue cycles right away. Passes and memberships entitle the holder to an unlimited number of thirty-minute trips, so they’re perfect for short trips and errands, plus “last mile” rides from transit to one’s final destination. DivvyBikes.com; email Gifts@DivvyBikes.com to purchase gift certificates. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Exit Interview

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, News etc., Transit No Comments »
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Gabe Klein tries out Chicago’s first pedestrian scramble/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Maybe we jinxed things by naming transportation czar Gabe Klein as the city’s best department head in this magazine’s October 31 Best of Chicago issue, because the very next day he announced he was stepping down. Can’t really blame the guy since, two-and-a-half years after he took the job, his wife is still living in his previous hometown of Washington, D.C., where he’ll be returning to launch new transportation technology enterprises in the private sector. Still, it’s a shame that the poster boy for reconfiguring urban streets to serve all road users, not just drivers, is leaving the Windy City in his bicycle taillights. I caught up with him at his downtown office for a final chat.

To ask the classic annoying job interview question, what was your biggest weakness as commissioner?
Coming to town and not necessarily understanding all the history of how the city works meant there was a bigger learning curve. I came in with Mayor Emanuel and had this idea that we were going to set the world on fire and change transportation in Chicago. That’s a double-edged sword. If I didn’t think that way, we wouldn’t have been able to get as much done, but you also rub some people the wrong way. So maybe I could have been a little less boisterous? I don’t know. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Don’t Walk

Avondale, Checkerboard City, Green, Transit No Comments »
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Crossing an offramp at Addison/Photo: John Greenfield

The Illinois Department of Transportation isn’t all bad, but it sure seems that way sometimes. Earlier this year, my blogging partner Steven Vance broke the story that IDOT has been blocking the Chicago Department of Transportation from installing protected bike lanes on state-jurisdiction roads. The motives behind the ban aren’t clear yet, but documents the Active Transportation Alliance obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request suggest that, contrary to the state’s explanation, concern for safety isn’t one of them.

Also this year, IDOT rammed the Circle Interchange Expansion through the regional planning process. The project will make room for more cars in the West Loop’s “spaghetti bowl” junction of the Ryan, the Ike and the Kennedy. While this $475 million boondoggle promises to do little to relieve congestion, it will discourage transit use, and its three flyover ramps will degrade the pedestrian environment and lower property values. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Hauling Ashland

Back of the Yards, Checkerboard City, Green, Lakeview, Pilsen, Transit 1 Comment »
A southbound #9 Ashland bus / Photo: John Greenfield

A southbound #9 Ashland bus/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

“It doesn’t matter what you do to the bus! I will never take a bus! I will drive until the state won’t give me a license anymore.” So said an otherwise nice-seeming lady from the anti-bus rapid transit group the Ashland-Western Coalition at a community meeting this summer.

The CTA plans to build a BRT line on Ashland from 95th to Irving Park, providing an El-train-like experience on wheels instead of rails. Think of it as the Gray or Indigo Line. The buses will run in car-free lanes in the middle of the street, with stops located every half mile.

These traits, along with several other timesaving features, will bring speeds up to an estimated 15.9 mph, including stops, during rush hours. That’s almost twice as fast as the current #9 Ashland bus, which the CTA says averages only 8.7 mph, and it’s comparable to car speeds. That’s what’s needed if we want to make transit an attractive alternative to driving. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: The Izakaya Express

Checkerboard City, Food & Drink, Green, Transit 3 Comments »
Ned Abdallah, Jaclyn Thomson and Tony Koneko at Yoshino / Photo: John Greenfield

Ned Abdallah, Jaclyn Thomson and Tony Koneko at Yoshino/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Sometimes transportation and food intersect in curious ways. On July 3, I received an odd phone call from Mako Koneko, co-owner of Torishin, my favorite izakaya (Japanese pub-eatery) in Mount Prospect. This northwest suburb, along with Arlington Heights and Elk Grove Village, is home to the region’s largest Japanese expat community. The tavern was a popular place for salarymen to hang out after work over drinks and delectable bar snacks, expertly prepared by her husband Toshiro “Tony” Koneko, a native of Niigata prefecture who’d worked there for decades.

Mako told me that Torishin recently folded after Tony moved to Rochelle, a small factory town in north-central Illinois, to cook at a new restaurant catering to Japanese employees at the Nippon Sharyo railcar plant. This news greatly disappointed me but, on the bright side, she invited me to an opening party the next day for the first Midwest branch of Ramen Misoya, a Japan-based soup chain, which was launching in the former izakaya space. I’m a huge fan of quality ramen, so it was a consolation that a noodle shop was replacing the beloved pub.

With no pressing Fourth of July plans and lured by the promise of free chow, I bicycled seventeen miles from Logan Square to the open house. You can view my route at tinyurl.com/RamenRide. When I arrived, there was a line out the door and almost everyone was speaking Japanese. Mako declined to discuss the details of Torishin’s demise, but she translated while I interviewed Yu Furukawa, the North and Latin America manager for the soup chain, which has fifty branches worldwide. 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: Train in Vain

Checkerboard City, Green, Transit No Comments »
Danny Resner by the decorative spire at Ashland/63rd / Photo: John Greenfield

Danny Resner by the decorative spire at Ashland/63rd/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

On Saturday, National Train Day, my El-racing brother-in-arms Danny Resner and I tried to write a new chapter in the saga of competitive CTA riding. The rules are simple: you must stop at and/or depart from every station by train, although it’s not necessary to ride every inch of track, and you can only travel by El, bus or shoe leather.

Several people, including Danny and me, have worn the CTA racing crown at various times. In October, ad men Chris Aubin and Garrett Sorrels set the current record for 145 stations: 9:12:39. We hoped to snag the title before the five-month shutdown of the south Red Line for a $425 million track rehab and station enhancement project, which starts this Sunday. Here’s how our day went down:

10am We begin our journey in Wilmette at the Purple Line’s Linden station, a stone’s throw from the Bahá’í temple. Last week a seven-month, $2 million slow-zone-elimination project started on the line north of Howard and we see yellow construction vehicles parked along the track as we roll south. Just before we reach Howard to transfer to the Yellow Line there’s an excruciating twenty-minute delay. 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 »