Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: Dowell Does Denmark

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Transit No Comments »

Pat Dowell with bike campers/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell wasn’t always a bike-friendly politician. But she says a recent visit to bike-crazy Northern Europe opened her eyes to the potential benefits of cycling for South Siders.

Dowell’s Near South district includes parts of Bronzeville, Kenwood, Oakland, Douglas and the South Loop. Last February, as part of Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build one-hundred miles of car-protected bike lanes in his first term, the Chicago Department of Transportation proposed installing protected lanes along Martin Luther King Drive in her ward. Local community leaders bristled and the alderman herself was worried that the white flexible posts used to delineate the lanes would take away from the ambiance of the historic boulevard. Read the rest of this entry »

El of a Song: Bringing Peace to the CTA in One Chorus

News etc., Transit 1 Comment »

An unsettling feeling develops in your stomach when the train zooms onto the platform, and all you see is crowded car after crowded car. The humidity already makes your skin feel as if it has been dipped in hot glue, so the last thing you want to do is get into a sticky, stuffy train with a hundred other people who have sweat stains underneath their armpits.

Darren Calhoun was another body standing on the platform when the red line rolled in on Monday, June 25 and he squeezed in between the other hundred or so sweaty bodies and backpacks.

“For the last ten stops, it was so crowded that no one could get into the rail car,” says Calhoun.

He heard two women behind him get into an argument about the crowded space. “Next thing I know, these women are throwing water bottles and pop cans at each other because they couldn’t get close enough to hit each other,” says Calhoun. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Wave of the Future?

Checkerboard City, Transit No Comments »

By John Greenfield

When I visited Bangkok, Thailand, last year, the endless daytime traffic jams made ground transportation a frustrating experience, but the Khlong Saen Saep canal boat service offered a speedy, fun alternative. Chicago already has a decent water-taxi system, so as our city moves toward Bangkok-style levels of street congestion, could expanded river and lake taxi service offer a hidden hope for fast, enjoyable transportation?

“Our waterways are a completely underutilized traffic network,” says Andrew Sargis, manager of Wendella Sightseeing and its Chicago Water Taxi. “If you look at a map of the city, the North, South and Main branches of the river parallel the Kennedy Expressway, the Dan Ryan and Wacker Drive. We should be using that network to move more people and goods and to fight gridlock.” Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Streetcar Desire

Checkerboard City, Green, Lincoln Park, Loop, Transit, Wrigleyville No Comments »

John Krause/Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Acid jazz pulsed on the sound system as a group of stylishly dressed transit fans clinked wine glasses last week at Vapiano, a sleek Italian restaurant at 2577 North Clark Street in Lincoln Park. They were there to launch the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance, a campaign to create a world-class streetcar line on Clark from the Loop to Wrigley Field, and eventually add lines in other parts of the city.

“Our mission is to grow the economy and the population of Chicago every year while reducing traffic congestion and making the city easier to get around,” says John Krause, the architect who founded the movement, nattily attired in jeans and a dove-gray sports jacket. “That means every year there will be more people and fewer cars, more commerce and less congestion.”

He has a vision of the clogged traffic and the notoriously sluggish buses on Clark replaced by efficient, comfortable streetcars, more pedestrian traffic, on-street cafés and broad bike lanes. “The only way you can get rid of cars is to replace them with something better,” he explains. “In a car paradigm everybody assumes the city is going to grow more and more congested. But a public-transit system is the opposite. The more people use public transit, the better it gets.” Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: One Track Mind

Checkerboard City, Green, Transit 3 Comments »

courtesy of Adham Fisher

By John Greenfield

“I wouldn’t call it an obsession,” said record-setting transit rider Adham Fisher via telephone last week. “And I wouldn’t call myself a trainspotter or a railfan because I don’t actually know about rolling stock, track gauge, infrastructure or anything like that. That isn’t what interests me about subway systems at all. I just like going around them as quickly as possible.”

Fisher, a twenty-seven year old native of Leicester, England whose day job is working at campsites during Formula 1 competitions, has made a hobby of racing around international transit systems. Following world-record-setting attempts on New York’s MTA and Toronto’s TTC earlier this month, he’s back in town this week trying to reclaim the title of fastest Chicago ‘L’ rider, and participating in a carload of other CTA-related events. Read the rest of this entry »

The Rickshaw Run: Hard Labor and Hot Sun Driving a Pedicab

Bicycling, Transit No Comments »

By Taylor Cowan

There’s a weight beneath your knees, an unimaginably heavy force that you’re trying to push down. The sun is beating on the back of your neck. You’re standing and your shirt is plastered to your skin in sweat. You have two rubber bars for grips. Cars pelt by, passing on the left without so much as a word or honk. And what makes this nightmare real is that, with great effort, you can move this force. The force can only be moved by a pair of pedals. The weight is your fare, a man and a woman, wailing encouragement and laughing hysterically.

People talk about the adventure, the freedom, the exercise, the outdoors—I just wanted a job. I graduated last spring with a degree in fiction writing, which is about as promising as it sounds. I could have begged my way into a dismal job market, but I opted instead to take up pedicabbing—bike rickshawing. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Mission to Madison

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Transit 1 Comment »

Photo: Brian Lewis-Jones

By John Greenfield

Back in 2005 when Illinois Governor Pat Quinn was second-in-command under Blago, he did cyclists a huge favor by bullying Metra into allowing bikes on board. This opened up a whole new world of options for affordable, car-free road trips–even after the commuter rail system hiked its fares last year, a weekend pass is a mere seven bucks.

You can hop the Union Pacific North Line all the way up to Kenosha, Wisconsin, then pedal thirty-five miles to downtown Milwaukee–it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than Amtrak, whose Hiawatha service to Cream City costs $46 roundtrip and doesn’t allow unboxed bicycles. Or bike thirty miles south from the Loop via trails to Munster, Indiana, for gourmet burgers and craft beers at Three Floyds, a heavy metal-loving brewpub, then spin ten miles west to Flossmoor Station Brewery, where you can catch a lift home at the adjacent Metra stop. Read the rest of this entry »

Difference and Indifference: A Moscow subway rider goes to L

City Life, Transit No Comments »

Elena Rodina

By Elena Rodina

“You don’t know how lonely it gets, waitin’ for El cars…”
Nelson Algren, “The Man with the Golden Arm.”

A woman sitting next to me is painting her nails bright red, spreading a strong smell of nail polish. A girl in a pink sports suit a couple of seats away is listening to rap music, energetically shaking her head and occasionally yelling some words from a song out loud. People read books and newspapers, talk on the phone, knit, pray, ask for money, drink, eat, chatter in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, German, Polish. Every morning I take an elevated train, Purple Line Express, from Evanston to downtown, every evening I return home on Purple or Red. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: To ‘L’ and Back

Checkerboard City, Events, Green, Transit No Comments »

By John Greenfield

Driving cuts you off from the outside world, but walking, biking and especially public transit encourage interaction with strangers, which can lead to some unforgettable encounters. The performance piece “EL Stories,” based on real tales from CTA commuters recorded by Waltzing Mechanics theater company, capitalizes on this.

“The Chicago ‘L’ is a shared, communal space that hundreds of thousands of people come together and inhabit every day,” says cast member Eleni Pappageorge. “When you bring that many people from that many places into one space a lot can happen. Some of the smallest, most mundane events on the train can make beautiful stories, but you wouldn’t notice them with your iPod on.” Read the rest of this entry »

Notes from the Underground: A Subterranean Safari in the Chicago Pedway

Chicago History, Loop, Transit No Comments »

Photo: John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

As I make my way through the blizzard to the Blue Line’s Logan Square stop, seven pigeons are huddled on Evelyn Longman’s giant eagle sculpture atop the Illinois Centennial Monument. It’s a Thursday afternoon in early January, the streets are lined with slush and cars move at a cautious crawl. A scruffy, bearded guy in a hooded jacket trudges across the street toward me with wet snow blowing into his face. “No, it ain’t shitty out,” he says with a grin. Me, I’m planning to take a pass on this nasty weather and spend the rest of the day in warmth and comfort as I go urban spelunking in the Chicago Pedway, an overlooked layer of Chicago’s transportation system.

The Pedway is downtown’s network of indoor pedestrian pathways, including below-ground tunnels, street-level concourses and overhead skyways, covering about five miles, and connecting more than forty city blocks. Tens of thousands of downtown workers use it every day to traverse the Loop without having to deal with cold, heat, rain, snow or the Loop’s hectic, often dangerous, street traffic. Read the rest of this entry »