urbanite take

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

Archive for the ‘Cars’ Category

Transit on the tollway?

with one comment

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

with 2 comments

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

Fly around the city (literally)

with one comment

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

SunRail and the big picture

with 3 comments

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

Tagged with