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Chicago’s Pedestrian Plan: a West Town pedestrian’s thoughts

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The city of Chicago’s glossy Pedestrian Plan is pretty impressive. The plan’s substantive recommendations are broken down into safety, connectivity, livability and health sections. Given that pedestrian safety and accommodations are by no means evenly protected nationwide, it’s a timely subject. Closer to home,  my own Wicker Park/West Town pedestrian experience provides a lot of food for thought.

One very basic step that I don’t think is present is to simply repaint all the lane and crosswalk markings on the street. Many lane markings are already close to nonexistent, and given Chicago’s northerly location, there are large chunks of the year when traveling both before and after work are completely in the dark, only making it harder to discern where there are any stops. The stretch of Division Street between the Kennedy and Ashland is particularly badly painted, in my experience, and it doesn’t help that it’s next to a dank underpass.

Similarly, stop signs should be clearly visible for drivers, and care should be taken that foliage in the warm months doesn’t block the signs. I speak from personal experience: again on Division St, I’ve missed a stop sign (once), thankfully not hitting any pedestrians.

With regards to the yellow marked pedestrian signs, I like these insofar as they are remarkably visible from a vehicle. The one closest is to me is on the Paulina St sidewalk, between Bangers & Lace and Starbucks — anecdotally, I’ve found that drivers are more likely to stop for me in the crosswalk once that sign went in. My one concern is that these kind of signs can create the impression that these crosswalks are somehow “special,” when in reality all crosswalks should be treated this way.

I’m particularly interested in the city’s footnote on page 69, in its “Connectivity” section, that the city is considering creating parking maximums for locations within an eighth of a mile of a transit station. I’m particularly interested in this (having written about buildings close to transit stations before) as I’ve found that in Chicago, there are numerous rail stations that have pretty pedestrian-unfriendly development around them — not even counting the expressway

The three Blue Line stops of Western, Damen and Division provide a particularly apt continuum for comparison. Damen’s the “best” here, with relatively pedestrian-friendly development radiating out in most directions from the station. Western, just half a mile northwest, I’ve always found to be particularly unfriendly: from the elevated station, there are two surface parking lots on either side of Western and a McDonald’s with more surface parking, not to mention Western Ave itself, which is already a pretty wide street.

I always think of the optimal model in these cases being Arlington’s corridor model in the greater DC area, with density skewing downwards from each Metro station — at least in theory — all the way down to street. Of course, this is more easily said than done, particularly when large portions of Chicago’s rail system are decades older than the DC Metro — I don’t think tearing down buildings and mandating skyscraper construction around the L is going to work. But mandating that future development take transit proximity into account with regards to parking is a good start.

Finally, a suggestion that’s a little bit out of left field, but I didn’t find any mention of sidewalk trees in the plan. This is obviously costly. But research has definitely found that trees on a sidewalk, even when they are leafless in the winter, contribute to the pedestrian experience. My least favorite long stretch of sidewalk in my neighborhood is on Augusta Ave, precisely because it’s already a narrow, often poorly-maintained sidewalk that lacks any sort of street foliage cover.

The Chicago pedestrian plan is a good start, although as always these plans are more easily achievable on paper than they are in real life. But it sounds

Written by Andrew ACG

September 13, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Chicago, Pedestrian

Division St development’s height and neighborhood “character”

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Last week I presented the villainous “density” and “parking”; today, I’m completing this unholy trifecta with “height.” Tall buildings, or really, any buildings perceived — fairly or not — as towering over their neighbors tend to inspire controversy at best, and legal vitriol at worst. Charlie Gardner at Old Urbanist recounts how a tall residential building in America’s largest unzoned city inspired a backlash and an ensuing setback ordinance. Closer to home in Chicago, another new development — while not nearly as tall — reflects similar issues.

Where a defunct single-story Miller Lumber building with a small front surface parking lot now stands, at 1815 W. Division (southeast corner of Division and Honore), Smith Partners is proposing a four-story, glass-paneled mixed-use building. Ground-level retail, presumably with storefronts facing to the street, will support 39 apartments, mostly one-bedrooms with a couple of studios and two-bedrooms sprinkled in. Thirty-five off-street parking spots will be built in a surface lot with egress to the alley.

This project has actually already been cut down from its initial height of five stories (and 42 parking spots), which was initially controversial because it allegedly did not fit in with the character of the neighborhood. On a scale writ large, this is the story of tall buildings in Washington, that city’s height limits and the current effort to loosen those limits. That height limit has been credited with creating an “exceptional” architectural character of the city and a supposed “European” character, although I’d call many of the ensuing ten-story office buildings built to conform exactly to the limits anything but exceptional or European. But I digress.

Miller Lumber’s stretch of Division is marked largely by three- and four-story buildings, residential buildings scattered amidst small commercial shops, restaurants and bars. Perhaps the most significant feature of this particular “pedestrian street” is its uncharacteristically wide sidewalks, which lend themselves to summer al fresco dining and plentiful urban greenery. Here, Smith’s original building would have risen above its lower-rise neighbors; the four-story will still be among the tallest buildings on the block.

But even if the old project had been built at five stories, though, I would have supported it. The lot is only a quarter-mile from rapid transit — the Washington region again offers an example of what we shouldn’t do with lots close to transit — and is located on a major, even chronicled, urban thoroughfare. The sidewalk currently is considerably narrowed for head-in parking spots; it looks in the plans like there will be planters instead, though I hope the planters won’t be as wide.

Maintaining the “character” of the neighborhood doesn’t mean running roughshod over neighbors’ concerns or indiscriminately permitting development. Poorly-designed buildings that don’t fit into the urban fabric, with seas of surface parking or blank street façades, for instance, should be carefully scrutinized. But when buildings are objected to solely on the basis of height, I think it’s important not to have a knee-jerk response of rejection. If a building taps into an urban neighborhood’s benefits (good transit access, wide pedestrian sidewalks and desirable geographical location) it makes a pretty strong case.

Some might argue that this would result in a fundamental change of neighborhood character: over the course of two or three decades, a formerly low-slung city neighborhood might rise vertically. But fundamentally, if there’s a market demand for it, then why is this a bad thing?

After all, to put it bluntly, if we don’t “sprawl” vertically, we’ll sprawl horizontally. A simplification, to be sure — but it’s something to keep in mind overall. Washington’s height limit may have created a beautiful low-slung cityscape, but it isn’t doing anything to keep the city affordable or encourage center-city density.

On a final note, I do find it interesting that the community worked for a taller building at the Ashland/Division site, while agitating for a shorter one here. In both cases, the original zoning is the same (B3-2 Community Shopping District); the former is a Planned Development while the latter is to be upzoned. I do wonder what prompted the difference — the former would have risen in an area surrounded by a number of empty lots, while this one is flanked by existing buildings and relatively less surface parking. Perhaps it’s a question of context, i.e. an eleven-story building at a street corner with lots of empty space around it feels less disruptive than a five-story building amid two- and three-flats?

Written by Andrew ACG

April 13, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Chicago, Land use

Parking: to build or not to build

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Sometimes I feel like density and parking are the seven-letter words, so to speak, of planning. Chuck Marohn has discussed how to avoid alienating non-urbanites — “density” conjures up “sardines,” and I can only think what “reducing parking” might bring — and Hollywood neighborhood associations are up in arms about upzoning of land close to LA Metro stations due to parking and traffic concerns.

Here in Chicago, downtown renters are staying away from renting parking spots, although apparently the trend is not as pronounced for owners, who are presumably worried about resale values: developers at Lakeshore East projected that 55% of renters would purchase a parking space, but only 40% of renters have done so, a pronounced trend in recent years.

The story notes that between 0.55 to 1 spots are required for downtown residential buildings, which prompted me to take a closer look at Chicago’s zoning code and off-street parking requirements. There are some fascinatingly specific requirements (do you know what a “mobility street” is? It doesn’t have to do with accessibility — I’ll save it for another post!) but for the purposes of now, a look at downtown land use and zoning requirements:

The zoning code divides downtown districts into four types, DC, DX, DR and DS; standing for “core,” “mixed-use”, “residential” and “service” respectively; These zones are combined with hyphenated density designations: -3, -5, -7, -10, -12 and -16. Broadly speaking, these refer to maximal floor-area ratio: -3 refers to a maximal FAR of 3.0, -5 to a maximal FAR of 5.0 and so on. A DR-3 building, therefore, would be a downtown building zoned for largely residential use with a maximal FAR of 3.0.

“Downtown” zones extend northward to Division, westward to Racine and southward to Cermak, although of course not all the land within this is zoned D; non-downtown zoning is separated into standard business, residential and commercial zones that have generally smaller density designations and more stringent minimum parking rules.

As far as I can tell, the only land use in the entire zoning code that has absolutely no parking minimums, regardless of lot size, are nonresidential downtown (D) districts with densities of -7, -12 and -16. (Many non-downtown land uses are exempted from parking for the first 1,000 square feet or so, but once large enough, they all have minimum parking requirements.)

All residential parking spots are required to have parking: 0.55 parking spaces/unit are required for residential downtown zoning at densities of -10, -12 and -16; 0.7 spaces/unit for -7; and 1 space per unit for -3 and for -5 for the first 100 units. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but after all, if your building has 150 units, that’s a minimum of 80 parking spots.

More importantly, if there’s anywhere in Chicagoland that shouldn’t be burdened with minimum parking regulations, it’s downtown Chicago. This isn’t to say that there should be no parking downtown or that none would be built without minimum requirements. I’m pretty certain the market would support a certain level of off-street parking, especially given the amounts of “reverse” commuting happening nowadays. Keeping in mind the significant externalities and cost of building downtown, though, it is eminently reasonable that we shouldn’t be artificially increasing the supply of parking there.

In a way, that’s what is happening with a non-downtown development closer to home, that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by.

A space that is currently a shuttered Pizza Hut at the southwest corner of Ashland and Division is slated to house an 11-story building with 8,000 square feet of first-floor retail — they’ve got PNC Bank and Intelligentsia coffee so far — with a floor of office space and nine floors of residential space with 99 residential units. The surprising part is that the developer is providing only 15 new off-street spots, in addition to 20 spots that will be co-shared with the Wendy’s next door, which is currently surrounded by a sea of surface parking that I don’t think I have ever seen even 20 percent full.

The idea is that the building is to take advantage of its location, which is right next to the Division Blue Line and of course the bus lines; Ashland runs 24 hours a day. They’re banking on residents not owning cars to the point where they won’t be eligible for residential parking permits on nearby residential streets, although since the building’s address is on Division I would think that residents aren’t be eligible for a permit anyway. The spots are supposed to be for visitors and for patrons of the retail; I am assuming that signs of some sort will be posted to that effect.

The plot of land is currently zoned B3-2 Community Shopping District, which means a maximum FAR of of 2.2 and 1 parking space/unit. Seeing as how the proposed building will significantly exceed this ratio and that 15 spots are by no means above, the development is a Planned Development. As far as I can tell, this means that the development theoretically has to undergo stringent review, but also seems to be exempt from minimum parking requirements.

I’m curious to see how the building will fare. It’s right on top of a transit stop and isn’t far at all from a major supermarket and Loop offices are within 30 minutes door-to-door by CTA. On the other hand, the Polish Triangle along the way is rather scruffy, though there are efforts to revitalize it, and really the general Ashland-Milwaukee-Division intersection has a rather run-down feeling throughout. I see the luxury building on the north side of Division and often wonder about the occupancy of the units there — is there enough pent-up demand to fill nine of floors of middle- to higher-end priced apartments?

Nevertheless, it’s a promising sign that the developers were receptive to community pressure for a larger, more-dense building at that site. (And that the community wanted a denser building in the first place!) Any sort of parking issue inevitably seems to inspire spontaneous paroxysms of outrage, so I’m cautiously hopeful here.

Written by Andrew ACG

April 3, 2012 at 8:30 am

Posted in Chicago, Land use, Parking

D&L 7: How cities (and suburbs) foster diversity

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Chapter 7. The generators of diversity

This is a fairly short chapter, and I am about to embark on a week-long trip, so I’ll keep this relatively brief. While the last several pages of the chapter reference the four generators of diversity, the bulk of the chapter discusses how “big cities are natural generators of diversity and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds.”

This fundamental message — from an economic perspective, big cities are more than the sums of their parts — is strikingly on point; I’ve have seen it echoed in more recent publications. Ryan Avent’s Gated City, which I read several months ago, cites Vietnamese restaurants as an example of the kind of diversity that only big cities can support: small towns and cities can only support businesses with relatively mass-market appeal (and, unless you are in southeast Asia, this is probably not a Vietnamese restaurant); on the other hand, a large city can support multiple Vietnamese restaurant because of the collection of people together. Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City makes a similar, broader point that the value of cities in civilization is in the sheer concentration of human capital.

Other parts of this chapter are unfortunately less perceptive in hindsight, in particular Jacobs’ dismissal of “the much-heralded postwar exodus of big offices from cities” as “mostly talk.”. She touts how Connecticut General Life Insurance Company’s move to a headquarters “in the countryside beyond Hartford” — aka the CIGNA campus in Bloomfield, Conn. — required them to build “inherently inefficient” facilities, contrasting this negatively to the shared facilities available in the big city that companies therefore don’t have to build.

As we all well know, decentralization of office space into the suburbs has proceeded rapidly since Death & Life‘s publication year of 1961. Suburban office space* forms about 40 percent of total office space in metropolitan New York and about half in Chicagoland and greater Boston; about 70 percent in greater Atlanta and 85 percent in South Florida. As I mentioned earlier this week, I’ve been reading Rybczynski: one of his critiques of Jacobs is that she essentially ignores the postwar migration to the suburbs. Here, she may not have ignored it, but she was perhaps a little bit blind to upcoming trends.

Overall, though, this chapter’s role is as an opening salvo to the four arguably most important chapters of the book. In that respect, it sets the stage well. We’re convinced of cities’ roles in fostering diversity — even if, perhaps, their monopoly on generating this diversity has been ceded to the suburbs quite considerably since Jacobs’ time — and we eagerly anticipate the explanation of the factors that create this diversity.

*These exclude downtowns, secondary downtowns and “urban envelopes” in the report linked to. While some of the office spaces is located in edge cities such as Naperville, Ill., most of these Naperville-like edge cities would almost certainly not be perceived as a city by Jacobs, and much of the employment is located outside of walkable areas of these municipalities, if they have one. Most of Naperville’s office development, for example, rings I-88 and is not found in the central, pedestrian-friendly core of the city.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 23, 2012 at 8:00 am

D&L Introduction: in which I join the book club

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I have a shameful confession to make: I’ve never finished The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. As an urbanist and city enthusiast, it’s more or less expected that you will have read the book, even if you don’t agree with all the tenets in the book.

This is why I’m so excited that the City Builder Book Club has selected Death and Life as the book that they are jointly reading through the spring. I’m taking this opportunity to finally finish what is one of the central texts of the urbanist movement; since I only found out about it last week, I’m a little behind, but I’m posting on the Introduction now, will be posting on Chapters 2 and 3 later and should be on track by next week.

But to the Introduction: I’ll start, a bit contrarily, with the end. I’ve only lived in Chicago for a year and a half, but even after living here such a short time, I’ve sensed the 1895 World’s Fair and Daniel Burnham’s architectural legacy are ingrained in the municipal psyche. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard his apocryphal “Make no little plans.” And though it is certainly criticized, his Plan of Chicago, with its broad Parisian-style boulevards, lakefront open spaces and monumental city center, and its roots in the City Beautiful movement are often invoked as one of the most respected and important elements in Chicago’s planning history.

All this is to say is that it’s a little bit jarring when I arrived at the end of the Introduction to find Jacobs disdainful of the City Beautiful movement. She dismisses the City Beautiful movement as resulting in a “City Monumental,” resulting in grandiose monumental boulevards intended to serve as centerpieces of the city but ultimately failing in their venture. As she says, when the “fair became part of the city,” somehow the juxtaposition didn’t seem to work so well.

But I shouldn’t be surprised, and in a way, that’s the whole point of the Introduction. Much of this opening salvo is devoted to describing then-widely-accepted ideas of city planning and top-down municipal development that Jacobs clearly finds completely inimical to how cities actually work.

She touches relatively briefly (on pages 14 and 15 in my edition, the Vintage House tan-colored paperback) on her thoughts on diversity and the four essential conditions, but really, much of the Introduction is devoted to taking down ideas she doesn’t like, in preparation for what we assume will be the book’s carefully laid-out thoughts on what the city should look like.

The cognitive dissonance of the Boston planner who calls the North End the worst slum in the city yet appreciates the “wonderful, cheerful street life” in the summer; the combined fallacies of the “Radiant Garden City Beautiful” à la Lincoln Square in New York City; the essential idiocy of improving cities through completely anti-urban measures; and an apt comparison to the pseudoscience of bloodletting (which, if I’m not mistaken, shows up again in Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking!) are all depicted in energetic fashion by Jacobs in this section.

And for me, as a reader, this works. Perhaps it’s easier to see this in hindsight, having observed the aftermath of much of the twentieth century’s misguided urban renewal efforts. I saw Cabrini-Green come down in pieces in the time I’ve lived in Chicago, have been to the cozy streets of Boston’s North End and have marveled at how we could ever think that Le Corbusier’s towers in the park could be livable.

But I think that even if I were reading this in the midst of its first publication, in the 1960s, without the benefit of New Urbanism and smart growth and all the developments of the 21st century, this Introduction is alluring enough and critical enough of accepted doctrine that I would be tempted to continue in, to find out what a city should really look like.

And so we’re off! Next up are chapters 2 and 3, on the use of sidewalks: contact and safety.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 6, 2012 at 9:47 pm

The problem of parks

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The future Bloomingdale Trail: creative park space in the city

I’m a little late, but I thought that Blair Kamin’s recent pieces on “park deserts” in Chicago brought well-deserved attention to the problem. The gist is that away from Chicago’s glitzy downtown and lakefront jewels, the city has a dearth of parkland, particularly as you go far into the Northwest and Southwest sides along the river and canal corridors.

An occasional trek out to the justifiably celebrated lakefront doesn’t replace the convenience and importance of a close neighborhood park. I live only three miles from Lake Michigan, in a neighborhood that isn’t afflicted with a particularly sever shortage of open space (although Logan Square to the northwest is), and I can take the train downtown or the bus to the lakefront very easily and be at either within half an hour. But none of these  replaces a neighborhood open space within closer proximity to me.

New York's High Line

This lack of urban space in Chicago relates to a criticism that I have of Gary Hustwit’s otherwise excellent Urbanized, which I saw at a special screening last week. Hustwit traces the familiar path of postwar suburbanization, arriving at one of the classic urbanist nightmares, Phoenix. He interviews a developer who argues that Phoenix shouldn’t be condemned as “sprawl,” but rather accepted as the prototype of postwar automobile-centered development. The developer ends with a defense of his love for his home, pool and 3/4-acre lot, but an unflattering close-up and lack of any mitigating commentary cast him in an unsympathetic light.

This portrayal of the developer, whether or not it was intentional is a weakness emblematic of a larger fault of the film. Not only does it provides fodder for anti-urbanists — “Look at those snobby urbanists, they have nothing but contempt for Joe Suburbanite, they can’t relate to ‘real’ Americans” — but it also dismisses American suburbanization and urban sprawl with a simplistic appeal to individualistic greed on the part of people who just want a big house, some land and some space.

There are many reasons for suburban allure, of course, with the germane reason here the offering of parkland. In theory, classic American suburbia offers  an unbeatable mix of urban and rural: live close to the city, but  surrounded by your own green grass. American suburbanization certainly can’t be attributed solely to a cultural yearning for green space — what with mortgage incentives, the interstates, redlining and other factors, it’d be a shock if the nation hadn’t suburbanized on a grand scale — but it’s undeniable that there is something in our cultural psyche.

While Hustwit does mention the Garden City movement and portray the slums of contemporary developing-world cities, I still wish that he had addressed the pull for suburbanization in more detail: the film paints a gorgeous picture of the appeal of city living, making it easy to dismiss the suburbs as a cultural wasteland; yet the majority of Americans are housed in them and our culture makes an easy contrast between the lush, green suburbs and the overcrowded, run-down inner cities. Not at all an accurate comparison, but certainly a compelling one, especially when so many cities do lack the open spaces that are (theoretically) an advantage that suburbs offer.

In a way, it’s telling that a comment on the Curbed Chicago blog entry that featured Kamin’s pieces dismissed the need for more parks in Chicago, what with the plentiful private green space and the forest preserves. While the forest preserves, and places like the Chicago Botanic Gardens, are indeed great green spaces, these types of locales are found largely in the suburbs and on the outskirts of the city. From the vantage point of lawn- and forest preserve-filled suburban Chicagoland, it’s easy to miss the need for green space in the city.

Lake Point Tower's park lies on top of the parking garage, with the residences above

And, of course, private green space doesn’t benefit the majority of city residents who don’t have access to these spaces. In this vein, I was lucky enough to visit Lake Point Tower’s private park during the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago event this past weekend. The condo/apartment building, the only one east of Lake Shore Drive, has a tower of residences built on top of a wide parking garage. Instead of the standard rooftop blacktop filled with mysterious blocks puffing out steam and hot air, there is a park. It’s a respite from the city — although never far from the din of Lake Shore Drive — with a pool, winding paths, playground and fairly impressively large trees, for being planted in topsoil above a parking garage.

The takeaway from the Lake Point Tower park is not that the private park should be made public, of course, but rather than when you build parks in cities, particularly old, densely-built-up cities that it’s often necessary to be creative in the way that you allot open space parkland. Parks in urban areas need to be accessible by a number of means, be designed with public safety in mind and often require creative use of space. The Lake Point Tower park, the Bloomingdale Trail, Chicago’s Riverwalk and New York’s High Line are all examples of this type of use.

Parks and well-designed open spaces are important. It is difficult to see from either the largely affluent lakefront or outer suburbs of Chicagoland, but many parts of the city away from the glitzy center are starved for open space (or, as Kamin notes, afflicted with too much open space, but that’s a separate but related problem). At their core, vibrant urban neighborhood require a mix of everything: mixed ages of people, mixed uses, mixed history of buildings and a mix between built-up and open spaces.

Written by Andrew ACG

October 22, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Posted in Chicago, Land use

Tagged with

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.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 31, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Chicago

Tagged with

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

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