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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

The Grove, Disney parks and faux urbanism

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I just returned from a week in the greater Los Angeles area visiting family and friends. As usual, Los Angeles is an endlessly fascinating place, simultaneously the derided poster child of American sprawl and yet home to some of the biggest changes in urban life today.

I hadn’t planned to go, but when I finished the Rethink/LA exhibit at the Architecture & Design museum more quickly than I had anticipated, I drove over to the Grove, an outdoor shopping and entertainment complex at Fairfax and 3rd. Although my original goal of finding a Macy’s was thwarted, I was amused, as always, by how closely places and “lifestyle centers” of the Grove hew to urbanist tenets of city life:

A façade of an inviting streetscape

– Street-level retail
There’s a feeling of vitality all along the “city streets” of the Grove. The stores all open out onto the street, and there is a lot to see while strolling at street level. This being an August day in southern California, the weather was of course conducive to store doors flung open and people weaving in and out.

Pedestrian-friendly "streets"

– Small blocks
There isn’t any grid or blocks, so to speak of, at the Grove, as it’s far too small (even though its host city of Los Angeles actually has a fairly strong, if oft-interrupted, street grid). But there are frequent corners and intersections onto other streets. While I have no idea if “corner lots” at the Grove attract higher rent than the street lots, it still encourages a sense of vitality and exploration.

One wonders what the ridership per mile figure is.

– Pedestrian-friendliness
I suppose, strictly speaking, that the Grove is a pedestrian mall, as there aren’t any cars along the road. There is, in fact, even a trolley that runs along tracks laid into the ground. But all in all, there are few impediments to pedestrians, sidewalks are wide and there’s a parklike feeling in the middle.


The overriding thing to keep in mind, of course, is that the Grove is completely sheltered from the city block around it. I drove there, as I imagine the vast majority of shoppers did as well, and the “Welcome to the Grove” sign is at the bottom of the bank of escalators as you exit the parking structure.

Places like the Grove, and Los Angeles in general, are often derided for being ersatz and “Disneyfied” versions of so-called “real” places. There’s no doubt that the architecture at the Grove, for instance, is a mishmash of traditional European architectural styles; the developer claims to have incorporated Los Angeles vernacular architecture into the design, but there seems to precious little red tile on the roofs.

But ironically, places like Disney parks and the Grove offer more of a feel of traditional urbanism, even if it’s only the surface level. Faux architecture and artificial weathering aside, the Main Street at Disneyland and the outdoor dining next to the fountain at the Grove offer an urbanist sheen, even if it’s through a painstakingly corporate-crafted lens. While there are certainly no actual apartments above any of the stores of Main Street, it is certainly more walkable than Wilshire Blvd! And I’d venture to say that at least in look and feel, if not substance, it certainly brushes up close to violating much of the Euclidean zoning present in American cities today.

I wonder, in the end, what kind of effect these places have on the urbanite and suburbanite psyche. Part of me thinks that there’s a positive effect in showing (versus telling), and that there’s something to this whole urbanist mumbo-jumbo. On the other hand, I think it also has the effect of ghettoizing this sort of development into carefully scripted and constrained locations. It seems bad to set up a sense that this type of development is limited to playground-type locations and separate it from “real life”: counterproductive in the log run.

Written by Andrew ACG

September 11, 2011 at 5:39 pm

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

Sidewalks: bad for the neighborhood?

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Not so nice in the burbs?

Does the lack of sidewalks make a suburban area feel more “high-end”?

A coworker mentioned yesterday that his suburban subdivision had no sidewalks; I speculated that it was a cost-cutting measure by the developers. He agreed, but then mentioned that it might also be because the developer wanted to project the image of a “high-end” area, adding that the subdivisions in the affluent northwestern Chicago suburbs to which he hopes to move also lack sidewalks.

It’s a curious thought. Most of the Los Angeles suburbs that are familiar to me have sidewalks, even if they are solely used for recreational purposes and cars are used for all essential trips. I’ve noticed that many of the lots in the newer, affluent favored quarter of the northwest Chicago suburbs lack sidewalks, though.

Perhaps a lack of sidewalks indicates that the residents of that subdivisions can all afford cars, and so they don’t need sidewalks to get around. Upon reflection, this is a little bit too involved and conspiracy-like for my thinking. It also seems strange that there wouldn’t be any sidewalks for young children — who presumably comprise a large part of the population — but perhaps the thinking is that the lawns, grassy areas and parks in the area suffice.

A lack of sidewalks could also create a sort of quasi-bucolic setting, which is what many suburbs aspire to anyway. I’m reminded of a 2009 Washington Post story that describes the controversy over the installation of sidewalks in an affluent northwest District community. Some were quoted as saying that the installation of sidewalks makes an area safer, because it forces drivers to slow down for children and other people in the street; they also argued that the installation of sidewalks would make an area more urban in nature, via replacement of greenery with concrete.

Perhaps it’s a combination of all of these: developers don’t develop sidewalks because residents of these high-end suburban areas don’t demand them, subconsciously wanting to get away from an urban “feel.” Other developers aiming to create similar high-end subdivisions build similarly, and the sidewalk-less pattern replicates itself.

I’ll freely admit that it’s hard for me to see a sidewalk-less suburban area and think “high-end,” but that is probably a function of my urbanist leanings and my upbringing and its surroundings.

Written by Andrew ACG

July 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Posted in Chicago, Land use, Pedestrian, Suburbs

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Fly around the city (literally)

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If you have anything at all to do with Los Angeles, then you know about Carmageddon, the closure of the 405 — 10 miles northbound, 4 miles southbound — between the Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley this coming weekend. One of my favorite airlines, JetBlue, ran today a ‘Carmageddon Fly-Over’ deal that has since sold out, offering four $4 flights between Long Beach and Burbank this Saturday. The two airports are about 33 miles apart as the crow (plane?) flies: roughly twice as far as O’Hare is from Midway, or one-and-a-half times as far as JFK is from Newark or Dulles from National.

Novelty aside — if I happened to be in the Los Angeles area, I probably wouldn’t have been able to resist the chance to take a 30-mile flight — JetBlue’s clever Carmageddon publicity stunt serves to point out the essentially two-pronged nature of the United States’ transportation system: auto and air. Americans are generally heavily to solely reliant on private cars for short-distance and planes for medium-haul and long-haul travel. It’s odd that in a transportation situation where cars are out — such as the 405 closure this weekend — we jump straight to air, a medium more suited to Long Beach, N.Y. to Burbank than Long Beach, Calif. to Burbank.

Of course, JetBlue’s 30-mile flight isn’t a practical form of intracity transportation and isn’t really meant to be anything more than a stunt (and a good one, too). The scheduled flight times are 30-40 minutes, but when you consider time spent getting to and from the airport and security, the time spent is probably about 60-70 minutes overall. The FAA and local authorities have had to specially coordinate the flights because they’re flying well below normal cruising altitude, and these flights would have to priced well above $4 to be profitable.

But while most of the Facebook comments on the Los Angeles Times’ article on the Fly-Over address their un-green nature or PR value, there are a couple who wish these flights were actually regular. Hopefully, some of these commenters — among the vast number of Angelenos not hopping on the next flight to Burbank this weekend — will instead take advantage of the improved LA metro transit service this weekend and realize that your transport choices don’t have to be just auto or air; that indeed there can be, and there are, other choices besides a gimmicky PR flight and an apocalypse-inducing closed freeway.

Written by Andrew ACG

July 13, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Ads in and of the city

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It is finally summer in Chicago, and in the course of walking around I encountered this ad on a bus stop, one of my favorites.

Get it?

(Apologies for the random strip of shade at the left, I took this picture late in the evening so the angle wasn’t ideal.)

It says something about the ubiquity of public transportation in this city that Leinenkugel feels confident in making this ad. After all, if you don’t get it, the slogan almost becomes a little bit inane. The L and the CTA are pervasive enough in the lives of most Chicagoans — and this ad is found on a bus stop at a major street intersection in a neighborhood relatively well-served by public transit — that the reference pays off. I’d wager that the Leinenkugel marketing group gambled that a a large number of Chicagoans would understand the reference and feel appreciative of the Chicago-centric ad effort; I certainly did. (It also helps that Leinenkugel is based in Chippewa Falls, less than 350 miles from Chicago.)

Bank of America also has similar Chicago-themed ads that feature public transit:

Granted, this one is more explicit because it’s for Bank of America’s mobile banking, and so you’d expect that it would be more likely to draw a connection to forms of transit or other places where you’d use mobile banking. (The red text at the bottom says “Chicago loves Mobile Banking”; the picture quality is poor because I snapped it on my not-very-advanced phone.) But again, you can tell that Bank of America has made a conscious decision to focus on references it thinks will be understood by Chicagoans, and it’s nice to know that public transit is one of these references. Some of their other ads are a little less direct, mentioning to lines and colors, thus referencing Chicago’s colored transit lines.

There’s another ad in one of the downtown subway stations, that I don’t have a picture of at the moment, which is similar and has something like Next Stop: Jackson; Next Stop: Jackson; Next Stop: Jackson. It’s an ad showcasing how many ATMs there are in the city, and plays on the fact that “Jackson” is the name of two separate and heavily-used Red and Blue line stops downtown.

Written by Andrew ACG

July 9, 2011 at 7:35 pm

SunRail and the big picture

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The New York Times has come out with two fascinating pieces on transportation since Sunday: one describing European cities’ efforts to roll back car dominance; and another describing Florida Rep. John Mica’s efforts to promote SunRail, a commuter rail effort that would connect DeLand and Poinciana in central Florida via downtown Orlando, although not connected to Disney World or other amusement parks.

While there’s a lot to note in these two articles — the phenomenon of a Republican supporting non-automobile transportation is remarkable in itself — what stands out from considering them together is the importance of careful consideration of how the entire network works together.

The Times notes that European cities are taking steps such as pedestrianization of streets, congestion pricing and shrinking parking in order to make the streets friendlier to pedestrians and to drive up the usage of mass transit. American tourists in Europe often comment on how convenient and reliable European intercity rail is, but a key factor in why the experience is so pleasant is the integration between intercity rail and intracity public transit — the train station is generally not your final destination in London or Paris or Berlin, but the local network makes it easy to get there. By comparison, in Chicago, which has a very robust transit system by American standards, the connectivity between Amtrak at Union Station, the various Metra commuter rail terminals and the L is rather poor. (On the other hand, Chicago’s airports are fairly well-connected.)

Viewed against the prism of European integration of intercity travel and intracity transit, the SunRail project seems to be lacking in this dimension. Intracity public transportation is weak in many of the cities along the route that it serves, and while Orlando will be upgrading and improving its bus service to better integrate with the system, other communities along the route will continue to be auto-centric suburbs with poor intracity connections. Furthermore, some of Florida’s communities, including Orlando, are among the most pedestrian-unfriendly and, indeed, dangerous-for-pedestrian places in the entire nation.

My concern is that if SunRail is built and fails to meet ridership projections or bring anticipated benefits, then this will be taken as proof that alternative, non-automobile-centric forms of transportation as a whole cannot work, when its integration into the greater network is a significant factor. Urbanists and sprawl apologists alike tend to have an undue focus on glitzy showcase projects, whether these are rails or roads, which obscures the fact that no method of transportation functions in isolation. Part of the reason European rails are extensively patronized is because the cities they connect have made pedestrian- and transit-focused efforts for a more seamless experience.

Ultimately, you have to start somewhere, of course. Effective intercity transit and walkable neighborhoods don’t spring up out of nowhere (but neither do twelve-lane highways and culs-de-sac), but are a product of overall planning and examination of both the big picture and the small details. I hope that if the SunRail commuter project goes through, that a corresponding amount of effort be spent on improving infrastructure for users off the train. I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that urbanism and transit are wholly incompatible with American cities, but I do believe that a lack of consideration of the entire user experience can be damaging to the cause of furthering these worthy goals.

Written by Andrew ACG

June 28, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Posted in Cars, Rail (intercity), Transportation

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