urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

Archive for August 2011

Perhaps the cartographer was drunk

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This is more cartography- than transit- or land-use-related, but I couldn’t help posting this error-filled map of Chicago that I encountered in an ad for Bombay Sapphire in last week’s Red Eye (a free Chicago Tribune tabloid publication geared toward commuters):

I think Bombay Sapphire needs to hire a new cartographer.

The numbers represent stops on the bar crawl.

The map has just a number of bizarre and incorrect features:

  1. The map implies that there are no major east-west streets north of Diversey, which creates this very strange look at the top of the map where the Chicago grid appears to end and the north-south streets branch off like reedy stalks. What happened to Belmont and Addison?
  2. At the southwest corner of the map, they’ve deleted all the land southeast of Michigan and Roosevelt. While you may not be a fan of the Museum Campus (I think the Shedd Aquarium‘s a little paltry myself, but then again, my home state boasts both the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Monterey Bay Aquarium), completely removing the land seems to be a little bit much?
  3. The map shows Armitage Ave as ending at Clybourn. While that stretch of Armitage does end at Clybourn, it resumes at Elston, immediately east of the Kennedy.
  4. Similarly, it looks like Wacker “becomes” Lake St. While they do intersect, the mapmaker seems to have decided to just cut off the rest of N. and S. Wacker Drives.
  5. The mapmakers seem to have hazy grasp on North/South. In Chicago, Madison St separates north-south streets into their North and South portions; so if we take Western Ave at the left edge of the map, for example, the part north of Madison is N. Western Ave, while the part south of Madison is S. Western Ave.

Instead, on this map, south of Madison we get, from left to right, N. Ogden, N. Ashland, N. Halsted, S. Canal, N. Clark, S. State, N. Michigan, S. Columbus and N. Lakeshore Lake Shore: over half wrong. (They should all be prefixed with “South,” so S. Clark, S. Michigan, etc.) Conversely, north of Madison we have S. Western and S. Damen, which should be the opposite of N. Western and N. Damen.

What I noticed, and what I noticed initially, underlines the mental ubiquity of the Chicago grid. It took me a while to figure out why I found the southwest corner vaguely incorrect — as chopping off land will tend to do that — but I immediately picked up on the missing east-west arterial streets of Belmont and Addison, as well as the missing stretch of Armitage. Chicago’s relentless grid of half-mile streets, the omnipresence of location coordinates all over and the fact that CTA stations are somberly named after streets (hence the five “Western” stations) all serve to reinforce this overriding navigational principle (and when it is violated, as this map shows.)

Oh well. Maybe this map is meant to simulate a map you would draw after a couple of stops on the bar crawl.

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Written by Andrew ACG

August 31, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Chicago

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Transit on the tollway?

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Yesterday, the Illinois Tollway Authority voted to increase tolls, effective Jan. 1. It wants to put $240 million of an expected $12.1 billion program to add an extra lane on the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90 from the Chicago city limits to the Wisconsin border*) and a widened shoulder; all of which could conceivably be used in the future for BRT with a dedicated bus lane and stations.

It’s heavily traveled
Currently, the 600, 606, 610 and 616 PACE (suburban Chicago) bus routes run via the tollway. The 606 (Northwest Limited) is the only all-day service along the route, linking the Rosemont Blue Line station, the Woodfield Mall/Corporate Center, the Northwest Transit Center and other destinations in the northwest suburbs; the 600 is an express and the 610 and 616 are commuter-focused, rush-hour routes.

In the short term, PACE hopes to add four new routes in the next three years. The four routes that PACE hopes to add would intersect the tollway. Route 604 would travel roughly north-south between Palatine and the Northwest Transportation Center in Schaumburg (so intersecting the Addams); routes 605 and 606 would knit together Elgin and the NWT or Elgin and Rosemont; and route 608 would travel between Addison to the NWT.

There’s no doubt that this is a heavily traveled area. Chicago’s northwestern and western suburbs are the “favored quarter” of the region; places like Schaumburg, Hoffman Estates and Naperville host a large share of the region’s jobs. A 2009 Brookings report claims that only 17.9% of Chicago’s 3,631,387 jobs, so roughly 650,000 jobs, are within three miles of the Loop, which is the second-largest central business district in the country.

The Tribune says that there are roughly 435,000 jobs along the route of the tollway, with bigwigs such as  Sears Holdings, Motorola, Woodfield Mall and AT&T, as well as the support service businesses for these areas. The tollway is essentially halfway between the two Metra commuter rail lines, which therefore do a good job of servicing places like Barrington’s and Arlington Height’s suburban downtowns, but a poor job of reaching the major office campuses clustered along the highways. The current transit share is at a meager 2 percent.

Tollway transit difficulties
But back to the Addams tollway transit proposals. In theory, this sounds amazing — build lanes that could conceivably be used for BRT service down the highway in a job-heavy area of the metropolis. Transit in highway ROWs and medians isn’t foreign to Chicago — three area expressways (the Kennedy, Eisenhower and Dan Ryan) already host CTA rail lines, so this isn’t something that is new to the area. So I’m excited about PACE’s efforts to knit together the northwest suburbs more effectively, but I think there are a number of issues.

First, I wonder how many riders they’ll attract who aren’t Chicago reverse commuters. The rush-hour commuter services now all depart westbound from Rosemont in the AM and return westbound in the PM. Chicago’s existing rapid transit and commuter rail service are heavily radial. The bus network is a grid in this most relentlessly gridded of cities, but they are slow (hence the proposal for bus rapid transit in the city!) and for those that live far enough east in the city, either getting to Rosemont or the L is so time-consuming that transit starts to become uncompetitive. In addition, much of the Northwest Side of the city — part of Chicago’s famous Bungalow Belt — is far from any sort of rapid transit and is therefore relatively more car-dependent.

Furthermore, a lot of the residents working in the northwest suburbs live out there, as well, in places like the Fox River Valley, Barrington, Inverness, Palatine, Naperville, Hinsdale, etc. A higher-up once commented to me that it was “more convenient” that Sears Holdings had moved from their eponymous Loop tower to Hoffman Estates. While I was initially baffled, I then realized that for many people, it is more convenient. To run daily errands in most of these areas requires a car already, and for many driving to these corporate campuses is easier.

Of course, poverty in the suburbs is increasing and there will always be those for whom being carless is not a lifestyle choice, but an economic choice. And ferrying people to and from their jobs isn’t transit’s sole job, although it is quantitatively certainly its most important role. But for many people, there’s a theoretical choice between private automobile ownership and transit (and transit, of course, wants them to choose the latter!)

Based on the June figures, the current PACE routes on the Addams (600, 606, 610 and 616) carry roughly 2,300 riders/a day. The Tribune says PACE estimates that the four new routes will take 1,000 automobile trips off the tollway. Car trips and ridership are not equivalent, but given that the majority of commuters out here are solo drivers, it’s a rough approximate figure. It’s adding something, but not a tremendous increase.

Second, I think that if the Tollway Authority hopes to eventually reserve a lane for rapid transit, they are going to face an uphill battle. Places like London, which has successfully implemented congestion charges and has a much higher transit share than Chicago, have seen exclusive bus lanes converted back to all motorist-lanes. It’s very difficult to fight the perception that a lane devoted entirely to BRT or buses is seizing a lane away from cars or a waste of space.

The big picture
The bigger picture, of course, is that there is going to be a lane increase on the Tollway. The Chicago metropolitan area, if not the central city, continues to expand and I’ve no doubt that there will be continued job growth in the northwest and western suburbs if the patterns don’t change. I’m intrigued to see what the Tollway Authority will do with an extra lane, but any sort of exclusive bus lane or BRT is almost certainly far in the future, and even if it isn’t so, I think it will face considerable difficulties if it does premiere.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 26, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Posted in Buses, Cars, Chicago

Reflections on Summer Streets

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The big news in Chicago transit this week, of course, is the Metropolitan Planning Council’s release of a report for Chicago Bus Rapid Transit. I definitely recommend checking out the actual report, which goes into detail about the selection of the routes, including the metrics they used to choose the routes in question. Other good coverage.

***

Yesterday was the last of New York’s Summer Streets effort, in which Park Avenue/Fourth Avenue from 71st St to 9th St and then Lafayette St from 9th to the Brooklyn Bridge are closed to vehicles and open to pedestrians and cyclists from 7 am to 1 pm on three consecutive Saturdays; I was able to experience this when I was there a week ago.

At Park & 9th

It’s initially disconcerting to rise onto the street and have it be much quieter than usual, exhaust pipes and the honking of cars being part of my personal New York soundtrack. But it’s a sheer reminder of the amount of space, even in Manhattan, that are given over to roads. Cars are large, particularly in terms of their terminal parking capacity, and seeing cyclists and pedestrians taking up a relatively small proportion of the street space is a refreshing experience. It’s a good reminder that our streets aren’t always exclusively the province of cars.

However, I was able to see the “flip side,” so to speak, immediately after. The reason I was at Summer Streets in the first place was because I was helping a friend move Craiglist-purchased furniture from Astor Place, approximately at 8th and Lafayette, to the Upper East Side. She’d hired a driver and van for the move, who proceeded to weave and careen wildly northward — trust me, this is not an understatement — through Manhattan’s skyscraper canyons.

Stymied by the closed streets for Summer Streets, the driver proceeded to treat us to some choice New York-style invective, with the objects of his wrath including cyclists, the city, Mayor Bloomberg, other drivers and us; the main issue being that he was unable to cut crosstown from Sixth Ave to First Ave because of the streets. (I don’t know if the entire city and Bloomberg should be the target of his anger, but I digress.) As I mused whether I’d make it uptown alive, I had two thoughts.

Clear signs

First, in any sort of urban situation, wayfaring signage and communication is immensely important. (Slate once explained why signage at New York’s Penn Station is so confusing: it boils down to the fact that there are three separate, non-well-integrated systems in use.) In essence, Summer Streets is a “service disruption” for Manhattan city streets à la infamous subway service changes. Just as straphangers are bamboozled by trains veering off track, it’s the same situation for drivers. We actually even stopped to ask a policeman where we could cut crosstown, but of course when we arrived at the intersection there was no way through. I was a bit preoccupied with watching the Manhattan scenery fly by, but I didn’t seem to notice much signage about where to cross crosstown.

Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile just explored why urbanists detest Megabus and other low-cost intercity bus carriers, and among the comments a theme that comes through is Megabus’ extremely poor communication. (I’ve personally only taken Bolt Bus from New York to Boston once, as the rise of these carriers didn’t happen until the end of my time in the Northeast, and it was a pleasant if traffic-heavy experience.) Frequency of transit service and road surface quality are paramount, but so is communicating any sort of change or disruption.

Second, the experience underlined the role of cars and motor vehicles in the city. Urbanists and smart-growth advocates are often accused of wanting to ban cars from cities entirely. This is not true, at least not for me. There are certain things, such as moving large items of furniture within a city, that are always going to be more practically done via motor vehicle (it’s been done via subway, but I wouldn’t recommend it). Even in places like New York with relatively excellent transit, I’d never want to be moving any sort of bulky package at all on the East Side’s 4/5/6 trains during rush hour.

Rather, it’s about choice. We’ve set up a paradigm in American cities where personal vehicles are often the only practical method of transportation, ranging from tasks which it is less suited (going downtown or to congested trendy city neighborhoods) to those for which it’s eminently suited (moving an enormous futon, or for small businesses who need deliveries of products and goods.) The point of developing transportation alternatives is allowing people to make these choices, and thereby improving the quality of life for everyone involved.

***

Finally, a note that there is a scheduled screening of Urbanized in Chicago now! I’ll be there on October 9 at the Music Box Theatre, of course. Excited.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 21, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Pedestrian safety and million-dollar parking lots

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I just returned from a trip to New York and am still getting my life back in order, but after I do I’d like to give a roundup of some of the urbanist/transit-related things I was able to see there. In the meantime, the last couple of days seem to have been a bonanza for pedestrian safety and parking news, so a roundup:

Both the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times covered pedestrian safety recently. The Tribune‘s study finds that four-fifths of car-pedestrian crashes happen in crosswalks, that drivers turning left unsurprisingly are involved in the highest percentage of crashes at a signalled intersection, and that fatalities have declined in recent years.

The Times‘ piece discusses how Florida, and the Orlando metropolitan area in particular, is one of the most dangerous places in America for pedestrians. Excessively widely spaced crosswalks, large arterial streets and poor transit make for a very difficult environment for pedestrians. The story also mentions the Raquel Nelson case, which I mentioned in a blog post last month about how drivers cross streets.

Pedestrians in the Times’ story also comment on aggressive drivers actually speeding up when they see them. I remember reading once that drivers are less likely to collide with pedestrians when pedestrians don’t make eye contact with the driver, because the act of making eye contact serves to acknowledge that the pedestrian has seen the driver, who is then more likely to charge ahead*.

I have to admit that I’m one of these individuals: I certainly don’t blindly step out into intersections without looking at all into the street, and when I cross at a corner I am almost always aware of who is coming into the intersection. But I have found that even here in Chicago, a relatively pedestrian-friendly place, drivers will ignore crosswalks and turn right in front of pedestrians already in the street.

It goes without saying that pedestrian safety is something that’s vital to walkable and transit-friendly cities. A transit system is only as good as the pedestrian network that surrounds it, or the “last mile” problem. As the Times mentions, many of the bus stops in Florida and other pedestrian-unfriendly places are places where passengers would be hard-pressed to try to cross the street or really walk anywhere.

It’s ironic, in a way, that Florida boasts some of the most pedestrian-unfriendly communities in the nation, as it’s also known for being a haven for senior citizens. The Times recently painted a rosy portrayal of the lives of some of the elderly in Manhattan: rent control and affordability issues aside (and it’s a big aside, as that helps to drive up rents for those not lucky enough to be part of it), New York’s walkability and transit system help to make it relatively elderly-friendly. In most of this country, including Florida, when you stop driving, you lose your freedom to get around. It’s a cruel irony that a place with much softer winters and many more elderly citizens is so unfriendly to them as well.

***

In somewhat pedestrian-related news, a 10,000 sq ft. parking lot in Manhattan has apparently sold for $21 million, a staggering $2,100 per square feet. My guilty favorite the Daily Mail has a characteristically loud headline screaming, “100ft by 100ft PARKING LOT in Manhattan sells for $21million in latest sign of real estate madness returning to New York,” while the subdued Wall Street Journal just lets us know that the parking lot has sold for $21 million.

This is certainly a really high rate, and the Mail‘s headline in particular is incredulous that a parking lot would sell for so much. But it makes sense, if you think about it: a surface parking lot is a spectacularly poor use of land in the most urban environment in the entire country. It doesn’t do anything for the pedestrians who walk around it, and the tax revenue that a hotel or other business venture could bring in would be far more valuable than the parking lot.

*This might have been in the excellent Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, but I’m not entirely sure.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 16, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Wicker Park development: Walgreens and a gym?

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A brief note that I’m sad I won’t be able to see Urbanized at any of the screenings that are coming up in the fall. No Chicago screening? Sadness — I guess I’ll have to wait for it to get into wider release.

***

Last week’s most-read story on Crain’s Real Estate Daily described how developers are planning on projects including a gym, a boutique hotel, a small-plates restaurant and a Walgreens at the intersection of Damen, North and Milwaukee, the heart of Wicker Park. I live a five-minute walk from this intersection, so of course I had thoughts on the development (although given the lackluster economy, I’m skeptical that all that development will happen.)

The closed Midwest Bank branch between Milwaukee and Damen will be converted into a Walgreens, which is somewhat unintuitive because there are already a number of pharmacies in the area. Within a mile-and-a-half along Milwaukee Ave, not only are there two Walgreens — one at Milwaukee and Wolcott halfway between the Damen and Division Blue Line stations, the other at the Western stop — there is also a CVS at Division and Ashland. This last store is, ironically, almost in the same situation as the proposed Walgreens: it also opened in a closed 1920s bank building (the bank actually moved right next door, but they abandoned their vintage headquarters) very close to a transit stop.

I wonder if the neighborhood can support such a high concentration of drug stores. Diversity of uses, classic Jane Jacobs-style, is an essential element of healthy urban neighborhoods, and four chain drugstores in a mile and half  seems rather excessive. On the other hand, I can see how the Damen Walgreens will do well. For the waves of downtown commuters disembarking at the Damen station who head north on Milwaukee and Damen avenues, it will be very easy to stop at the Walgreens. In fact, it will have to rely fairly heavily on pedestrian and transit-driven traffic for business.

Street parking on Damen, Milwaukee and North avenues in that area is limited and difficult. (It’s difficult to drive through, let alone park, in that area. Buses that pass through often take as long to clear the intersection as they did to cover the mile preceding it.) From this point of view, the density of drugstores isn’t perhaps as excessive after all if the clientele they are serving is mostly walk-in traffic.

In fact, the street parking lot at 1611 N. Milwaukee Ave belonging to the now-closed bank is to be converted into an AT&T store and Midwestern coffee chain Caribou Coffee, which is a positive development. Surface parking lots tend to discourage pedestrian activity and eat up valuable real estate. There’s a seemingly always empty Verizon Store surface parking lot just a little bit further northwest on Milwaukee which I’d also love to see turned into something more vibrant. And in such a walkable neighborhood, storefronts are essential, contributing to its urban vitality.

***

Among the other “storefronts” planned for the area include an outpost of the Chicago Athletic Club, a rather glitzy chain of large gyms. All the other Chicago Athletic Clubs are in trendy, transit-accessible, walkable neighborhoods: Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Lincoln Square, the West Loop and Evanston, all within half a mile of CTA stations. In fact, the ones in Evanston, Lincoln Park and Lincoln Square are a tenth of a mile away; the location in Lakeview is at Belmont and Broadway in the middle of one of Chicago’s densest community areas (Lakeview, community area 6, with about 29,000 people/sq mi, 2.5 times as dense as the city as a whole).

I extrapolate two things from the interest of the gym here: First off, they think that the Wicker Park/Bucktown area is dense and walkable enough to support such a large commercial enterprise; whether you support the large chain or not, it’s a positive development that the neighborhood is perceived this way. Second, the gentrification and upward mobility of the neighborhood are such that they think the neighborhood can support it in those socioeconomic aspects. I could write a whole post on young, upwardly-mobile perceptions of  Chicago neighborhoods, but it suffices to say it’s as if Wicker Park is joining — or rather, has joined — a club, and that’s the club of trendy, yuppie-heavy*, transplant-filled neighborhoods.

***

As I said above, I don’t believe all the planned development Crain’s mentioned will come to pass. Even if it does, not all of it will probably last. As commentators note, the six-way intersection is littered with closed boutiques and shut-down restaurants. But the conversion of parking lots, vacant stores and unused buildings to living storefronts is essentially a good thing for the neighborhood, even if I’m a little bit hesitant about the diversity of the buildings coming in.

*Not to denigrate yuppies. By almost all definitions, I’m one myself.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 9, 2011 at 4:05 pm

To preserve or not to preserve

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A piece in yesterday’s Friday’s Tribune — I just moved this weekend, so this post is delayed a couple of days — about Chicagoland’s old elegant theaters and my involvement with a trail-reuse group got me thinking about historic preservation and its role in the city.

I went to a docent training meeting this week of the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, a group working to convert the no-longer-used rail viaduct on Chicago’s Northwestern side into a three-mile elevated park à la High Line in New York or the Promenade Plantée in Paris. Preliminary design for the trail is underway, and Mayor Daley Emanuel has thrown his support behind it. In the news, the Tribune story I read profiles a number of theaters: The Chicago Theater downtown, on Randolph/State, remains iconic; while the Highland Park Theater has apparently been “grotesquely” cut up, although I don’t know what this means unless it’s some sort of garish interior design; while the Uptown Theater remains boarded-up altogether.

Once a utility company, now a shoe store: reused creatively and effectively.

Both of these are positive and speak well toward historic preservation. It seems obvious that we should save these old structures, particularly the theaters, and if possible reuse them. After all, one of the strengths of cities is the dense land use and regulations — now largely made illegal — that allow cities to creatively reuse old buildings. It’s easier to convert an industrial building (or freight line) close to sidewalks, residences and other shops than to convert a big-box store zoned only for commercial use.

The Bloomingdale Trail will be a a well-needed addition to Chicago’s public parkland to be one as well (it will also entail the creation of street-level parks). Reuse of Chicagoland’s elegant grand theaters allows us to maintain a sense of architectural and entertainment history while meeting modern needs.

So it seems that historic preservation is all-in-all and on the whole a good thing. On the other hand, Emily Washington, at the Market Urbanist, notes that a move in Arlington to set new standards for historic preservation risks preserving a number of banal, anti-urbanist architecture. Ed Glaeser argues in Triumph of the City, which I read earlier this year, that over-exuberant historic preservation has the effect, he says, of artificially limiting the otherwise market-driven supply for housing, driving up costs for walkable, urban areas and thus forcing many who might otherwise desire to live in cities to move out to the suburbs.

Washington’s height limit, for example, seems to be historic preservation writ large, and while I truly enjoy the European vibe there, it also drives up the cost of real estate; it’s also produced office towers in Rosslyn: thanks in large part to Metro, these have turned out to be transit-friendly, but it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which they didn’t. By contrast, Glaeser cites Chicago’s propensity for new development and construction to be a reason why it’s relatively affordable compared to other big American cities such as DC. (I suspect that our easy winters are also a factor.)

It seems easy to draw a line of what should be preserved. Landmarks, such as grand theaters, train stations, grand palaces, seem obvious — I don’t think anyone would re-tear down old Penn Station in New York, and I’m glad Chicago’s Union and Dearborn stations are still with us today. Merely limiting preservation to landmarks, though, would have entailed the destruction of structures such as the Bloomingdale viaduct-to-be-park — Chicago isn’t exactly lacking in elevated rail.

And it begs the question of what exactly is a landmark? We clearly can’t just go on size or “oomph factor,” for lack of a better description. And if we’re preserving landmarks and city buildings for their historic value, then everyday, smaller buildings — such as the 1950s-era strip malls that Arlington is aiming to preserve  — are just as valuable.  After all, many of the most valuable exhibits in museums are the smallest or most ordinary. Taken to the logical extreme, we can’t really tear anything down because everything has historic value.

No one is suggesting that, of course. But it speaks to the tension between city-as-museum and city-as-home. Frequently, they do work together beautifully: conversion of factories to condos, use of an old rail viaduct as a sorely-needed public park or the adaptation of Twenties movies palaces to modern functions. Neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, within reason, fit this well: they were built in the pre-auto era and have many of the urbanist characteristics that we should prize today.

But when they don’t, we have to think about what we want our cities to be. If we want (and I do!) to make our cities walkable, transit-friendly and dense places, not all infrastructure, architecture and buildings are going to contribute toward the goal. Landmarks such as theaters, individual buildings, train stations — which seem to have a particular propensity for being bulldozed — are easy. It gets messier with larger, more comprehensive districts, and I think we have to think carefully about what we want our cities to be. Beautiful, historic, low-slung city centers are a joy to visit; and the alternative doesn’t have to be soulless Corbusian skyscrapers. But our cities, after all, are places for real people to live, and it’s paramount to keep that in mind.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 1, 2011 at 8:42 am

Posted in Land use

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