Street Smart Chicago

Checkerboard City: Life in the Bus Lane

Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, Humboldt Park, Loop, News etc., Politics, Transit 1 Comment »

Proposed BRT configuration/Image courtesy of CTA

By John Greenfield

“It comes down to: how do Chicagoans want their streets?” said Chris Ziemann, the city’s bus-rapid-transit project manager, as we drank coffee downstairs from the Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) downtown headquarters last week. “Do they want them to be congested every day at rush hour with gridlocked vehicles? Or do they want fast, reliable bus service and nice, comfortable conditions for walking?”

As car-dominated transportation systems become increasingly dysfunctional, more U.S. cities are looking to bus rapid transit (BRT) as a solution. BRT delivers subway-like speed and efficiency at relatively low costs through upgrades to existing streets rather than new rail lines. These improvements can include dedicated bus lanes, pre-paid boarding at stations in the road median, bus-priority stoplights and more. BRT is already common in Latin America, Europe and Asia, and it’s currently being piloted in dozens of American cities. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Can Indy Rock?

Architecture, Bicycling, Checkerboard City, City Life, Green, Transit 1 Comment »

McAfee and Kastner on the Cultural Trail/Photo by John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

If I had to sum up Indianapolis in one word, it would be “Underrated.” With a population of 829,718, the Hoosier State capital is the second-largest Midwest city. But despite its size it’s known as “Naptown” and “India-No-Place” due to its reputation as a bland, suburban-style metropolis with few attractions besides the Colts, the Pacers and the Indy 500. I’m told that in the 1980s you couldn’t even buy a sandwich downtown after 6pm and the massive streets, lined with dozens of garages and oceans of parking lots, were so deserted you could safely walk down the middle of them.

But last weekend when I took Megbus there to meet up with my buddy Jake, in town for a conference, I discovered a surprisingly hip city with some fascinating architectural features and plenty of fun stuff to do. And while there’s little public transportation to speak of, and the city’s dominant image is a racecar, I was shocked to find a level of bike-friendliness that gives Chicago a run for its money. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Red All Over

Bicycling, Checkerboard City, Green, Roseland, Transit No Comments »

95th Street Red Line station/Photo:  John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

After sprinting east down Fullerton Avenue on my bicycle, I make it to the turnstiles of the eponymous Red Line stop just before the 4pm bike-and-ride cutoff. As I relax onboard with my wheels, the train passes through the near North Side, the Loop and the near South Side, then decreases in speed as we pass through slow zones, sometimes decelerating to walking pace. In all, the fifteen-mile rail trip takes forty-five minutes, with an average speed of merely twenty miles-per-hour.

When we reach the end of the line at 95th Street, the roar of traffic assaults my ears, since the platform sits in the median of the Dan Ryan Expressway. I’m on my way to a CTA open house at the Palmer Park fieldhouse to learn about the 95th Street Terminal Improvement Project. It’s estimated to cost $240 million in federal, state and CTA funds, about half the total bill for Millennium Park. The formal design process is slated for later this year, with construction in late 2014, after the Red Line South Track Rehabilitation Project is completed. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »