We’ve already found all the ways to make bike lanes safer in the 43rd Ward

Michele Smith, 43rd ward alderman seeking re-election, responded to Bike Walk Lincoln Park’s addendum questionnaire about active transportation issues in that ward (which also includes part of Old Town).

“We must continue to explore different ways to make our bike lanes safer given the narrow width of our roads.”

I would discuss these points with her:

1. The number of ways to make bicycling in bike lanes safer is very small. The two biggest problems are car doors and people parking their cars in the bike lanes. I don’t know Smith to have supported building the only bike lane type – a protected bike lane between a car parking lane and the sidewalk – currently in our city’s roster of possibilities that mitigate either of these problems.

2. The problem “given” isn’t the narrow width of roads. Streets in the 43rd Ward range in all sizes, from the very small one-way brick streets to the 4-6+ lane behemoths of LaSalle Boulevard, North Avenue, and Clark Street. The problem is one of allocation – storing things or keeping people moving. Again, see the lack of Smith’s support in the previous point. (No other candidate touched on this either*, and one pitted sidewalks against bike lanes, as if that was the choice that had to be made.)

Despite four years of Bike Walk Lincoln Park’s advocacy to redesign Clark Street I know of not a single person hired or a curb moved – aside from a lonely pedestrian island at Menomonee Street, peanuts compared to what’s been discussed as needed – to improve conditions for walking, bicycling, and transit use on this important connector that is currently a barrier for those modes.

* BWLP asked about moving parking spaces around and Alderman Smith mentioned that the city faces financial penalties when removing metered parking spaces from revenue service, even if temporarily. This is true, but she ignores that the city doesn’t do this on a permanent basis and instead finds unmetered spaces in equal-revenue-value locations that can be swapped.

Eight dead cyclists, but red light cameras are the worst

Streetsblog Chicago reader David Altenburg left a salient comment this morning in response to the final tally of cyclists killed in Chicago last year after being hit by cars.

David's comment about cyclist fatalities and red light cameras

David’s comment about cyclist fatalities and red light cameras.

He wrote, “Is there any evidence that those cyclists who were killed were also issued improper tickets from red light cameras? Because if there is, then maybe we can get the current crop of ‘progressive’ mayoral candidates to give a shit about them.”

In 2013, three bicyclists died in car crashes, a fluke, because if you look at RedEye’s chart the annual average of bicyclist fatalities is 6 people. (There was a fourth cyclist death in 2013, but that was a train crash with the Brown Line.)

Exploring Pace’s locations for mysterious Arterial Rapid Transit bus stations on Milwaukee Avenue

intersection of Touchy and Milwaukee in Niles

This is the semi-urban scene at Touhy and Milwaukee Avenue. The police station is ahead on the right. The water fountain (described below) is behind the bus on the left. There are multi-unit buildings to the left and across the street on the right. Image: Google Streetview

Update, Jan 21, 2015: Pace unveiled their plan for ART and their request to Congress to make the ART plan a project of regional significance to attract more funding.

Pace, the suburban bus operator in Chicagoland, is constructed an Arterial Rapid Transit bus route on Milwaukee Avenue from the Jefferson Park Transit Center in Chicago – a busy intermodal station where Metra and CTA buses and trains stop – to Golf Mill Mall in Niles. Both of these are major transfer hubs.

I’ve never looked into ART bus systems before but it seems to resemble what many call BRT Lite. Pace has minimal information on its website. Daniel Hertz, notable bus transit supporter, pointed me to an RFP [PDF, 10 MB] that describes the location and scope of Pace’s first (of many) ART corridors.

The RFP describes this project as one of 24 corridors outlined in its Vision 2020 document “to provide a regional network of premium transit services”. It appears that premium is relative and that bus riders will have a more comfortable and easier-to-find bus station at which to wait – bus travel time will not change.

I’ll try to paint you a picture of the built environment going north to south at the eight intermediate stops.

Dempster Street, Niles

Milwaukee has six general purpose lanes here and Dempster has six, four of which go under Milwaukee; buildings are set back far from the curb and land uses are low-density and optimized for arriving in a car

Main Street, Niles

Milwaukee has four general purpose lanes and one wide parking lane here; Main is a two-lane street; there is some residential on both streets

Oakton Street, Niles

Milwaukee and Oakton both have four general purpose lanes

Harlem Avenue, Niles

this intersection has decades-old buildings that have limited parking up front and smaller setbacks; there’s a Dunkin Donuts here with a drive-through between the building and the sidewalk (that’s novel but awful)

Touhy Avenue, Niles

This intersection may be the most urban, despite its immense size. Touhy has six lanes here meaning pedestrians must cross 100 feet of pavement in a faded, stamped-asphalt crosswalk; there’s a massive police station building on one corner, a large multi-unit building on another, a strip mall that actually has entrances onto a  sidewalk plaza instead of just in the parking lot behind it (the Subway and Starbucks here even have sidewalk cafés), and a fountain rounding out the junction – I recommend demolishing the fountain in favor of selling the land to a developer who can build more of the multi-unit buildings like the ones behind the fountain while also getting rid of the pointless cul-de-sac

Highland Avenue, Chicago

This is one block south of Devon Avenue, in Norwood Park. There’s a conventional bike lane here but the Chicago Department of Transportation has noted that there just enough cars that reducing the number of general purpose lanes from four to two – part of a road diet that would add buffered or protected bike lanes – but many residents don’t support the project so the alderman has decided against supporting it.

The land use and design is a blend of what came before it and what’s typical in Chicago: old buildings up against the sidewalk, closer-built single-family homes, some multi-unit buildings.

Austin Avenue, Chicago

Like Highland but now seeing fewer surface parking lots.

Central Avenue, Chicago

Like the rest of the junctions we’re still in motordom; four of the six “first in line” motorists seen in Google Streetview are blocking the crosswalk while waiting for the light to turn green.

About the stations

Pace has established a $6 million budget for the station construction. The station platforms will span 40 to 110 feet, a raised platform that’s 12 inches tall, a new shelter, real-time bus tracker*, a common vertical marker, a single bike rack to hold two bicycles, and associated roadway, curb, and drainage improvements.

It’s unfortunate to learn that the RFP mentions that shelters in Chicago may have to be the insufficiently designed kind JCDecaux operates for the city as part of a very long advertising contract.

Pace ART station design

Pace shows a rendering mocking up a typical station design. I’m concerned the handrail at the rear of the bus will preclude using longer buses in the future, but that would be the least of Pace’s worries.

* It appears that Pace will be using NextBus‘s real-time arrival information services (page A-6 of 14); they’re a company founded in 1996 and now owned by Cubic, which operates Ventra.

Anti-traffic safety is now a political platform

Three of the five men running for Mayor of Chicago have pledged to eliminate enforcing red light running with cameras. Many aldermen have done the same. The Chicago Tribune has factually pointed out that Mayors Daley and Emanuel have mismanaged the red light camera program, with the bulk of it falling upon staff in the Daley administration. (The only part of the program under Emanuel that could be considered mismanagement was changing the business rules to issue tickets when the yellow light was recorded as 2.90 to 2.99 seconds long; Emanuel’s administration changed the rule back and has implemented many other changes following the inspector general’s report.)

Red light cameras lead to an increase in rear-end crashes but decrease the more severe angle (T-bone) crashes, which the Chicago Tribune “sorta” pointed out when it looked at frequencies but not injury costs.

Current 2nd ward Alderman Bob Fioretti, Cook County commissioner Jesus “Chuy’ Garcia, William “Dock” Walls, and Willie Wilson all have decided that neither the facts nor safety for people inside and outside of multi-ton machines are important. They are supporting the right to endanger others by respecting the inconvenience of not always being prepared to stop at a traffic signal.

Fioretti has said he will introduce soon an ordinance to remove red light cameras by April, but I haven’t found it in the legislation database.

Even though Streetsblog Chicago is no longer publishing, John Greenfield is hustling to get us both working again. In the meantime I intend to cover parts of the election, which takes place February 24, with assistance.

The effects of TOD bonuses versus what a transit overlay district could do

I responded to Carter O’Brien’s comment on an EveryBlock discussion about a gentrification series on WBEZ, Chicago’s National Public Radio affiliate. I reposted the comment here because I want to talk about the problems of piecemeal zoning and how the city’s TOD ordinance can be improved to generate more and diverse housing types (by types I’m talking about quantity of units and stories, not rent vs. own).

@Carter: I think we might be on the same page about something. You wrote:

The question becomes to what degree should zoning be used to encourage one form of land use over another. That’s the tool in the City’s toolbox, so to speak.

Substantial zoning bonuses which will create brand new high rise towers in a neighborhood of lower-density historic architecture will encourage the settling of one economic class of people and the removal of another. [snip] The evidence is that we see shrinking populations of lower-middle class people raising families by the L stops in Wicker Park, Bucktown, Old Town, Lincoln Park and Lake View.

[Actually, pause now and go read Carter’s full comment – he mentions teardowns as an issue that should be part of a gentrifying neighborhood discussion.]

I like that the TOD ordinance seems to be fueling proposals to build many units near transit stations, but it may be building more many units than the community prefers.

I’d like to see transit-oriented zoning also used as a tool to also spur smaller, multi-unit buildings (two flats, three flats, four flats, courtyard buildings) by perhaps preventing low-density buildings so close to transit.

Across from Goethe Elementary School a huge parcel of land is being turned into 7 single-family homes on Medill Ave. That’s great land near a good school and 3 blocks from the California Blue Line station.

Zoning could have been used to require 2-4 unit buildings so that more families have a chance of benefiting from that location but instead the zoning district here makes building 2-4 unit residences on those parcels illegal.

A “transit overlay district” would be something new to Chicago and could do away with the piecemeal zoning of differing densities, one right next to or mixed in with the other. You might see Bx-1 next to Cx-2 and then a Rx-4. Create concentric zoning circles that keep the density uniformly high nearest the train station and then drop off the further away you get.

zoning districts around the California Blue Line station

This map includes the California Blue Line station and the Goethe school houses (empty area northwest of the RM-5 zone on Medill Avenue). The school is outlined inside PD 349.

Quick zoning primer

  • Adapted from Second City Zoning’s plain-English zoning district descriptions.
  • B = retail and apartments above
  • C = commercial (more business types than B) and apartments above
  • RS = single-family homes only
  • RT = 2-4 flats, single-family allowed
  • RM = multi-unit, single-family allowed

The -x number of a district indicates the density allowed (this works for single-family homes, too, setting the minimum parcel area upon which the house is built).

Note: This post has slightly different text from my EveryBlock comment because I had to edit that one for length (the site accepts 2,000 characters maximum).

Working with ZIP code data (and alternatives to using sketchy ZIP code data)

1711 North Kimball Avenue, built 1890

This building at 1711 N Kimball no longer receives mail and the local mail carrier would mark it as vacant. After a minimum length of time the address will appear in the United States Postal Service’s vacancy dataset, provided by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Photo: Gabriel X. Michael.

Working with accurate ZIP code data in your geographic publication (website or report) or demographic analysis can be problematic. The most accurate dataset – perhaps the only one that could be called reliably accurate – is one that you purchase from one of the United States Postal Service’s (USPS) authorized resellers. If you want to skip the introduction on what ZIP codes really represent, jump to “ZIP-code related datasets”.

Understanding what ZIP codes are

In other words the post office’s ZIP code data, which they use to deliver mail and not to locate people like your publication or analysis, is not free. It is also, unbeknownst to many, a dataset that lists mail carrier routes. It’s not a boundary or polygon, although many of the authorized resellers transform it into a boundary so buyers can geocode the location of their customers (retail companies might use this for customer tracking and profiling, and petition-creating websites for determining your elected officials).

The Census Bureau has its own issues using ZIP code data. For one, the ZIP code data changes as routes change and as delivery points change. Census boundaries needs to stay somewhat constant to be able to compare geographies over time, and Census tracts stay the same for a period of 10 years (between the decennial surveys).

Understanding that ZIP codes are well known (everybody has one and everybody knows theirs) and that it would be useful to present data on that level, the Bureau created “ZIP Code Tabulation Areas” (ZCTA) for the 2000 Census. They’re a collection of Census tracts that resemble a ZIP code’s area (they also often share the same 5-digit identifiers). The ZCTA and an area representing a ZIP code have a lot of overlap and can share much of the same space. ZCTA data is freely downloadable from the Census Bureau’s TIGER shapefiles website.

There’s a good discussion about what ZIP codes are and aren’t on the GIS StackExchange.

Chicago example of the problem

Here’s a real world example of the kinds of problems that ZIP code data availability and comprehension: Those working on the Chicago Health Atlas have run into this problem where they were using two different datasets: ZCTA from the Census Bureau and ZIP codes as prepared by the City of Chicago and published on their open data portal. Their solution, which is really a stopgap measure and needs further review not just by those involved in the app but by a diverse group of data experts, was to add a disclaimer that they use ZCTAs instead of the USPS’s ZIP code data.

ZIP-code related datasets

Fast forward to why I’m telling you all of this: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has two ZIP-code based datasets that may prove useful to mappers and researchers.

1. ZIP code crosswalk files

This is a collection of eight datasets that link a level of Census geography to ZIP codes (and the reverse). The most useful to me is ZIP to Census tract. This dataset tells you in which ZIP code a Census tract lies (including if it spans multiple ZIP codes). HUD is using data from the USPS to create this.

The dataset is documented well on their website and updated quarterly, going back to 2010. The most recent file comes as a 12 MB Excel spreadsheet.

2. Vacant addresses

The USPS employs thousands of mail carriers to delivery things to the millions of households across the country, and they keep track of when the mail carrier cannot delivery something because no one lives in the apartment or house anymore. The address vacancy data tells you the following characteristics at the Census tract level:

  • total number of addresses the USPS knows about
  • number of addresses on urban routes to which the mail carrier hasn’t been able to delivery for 90 days and longer
  • “no-stat” addresses: undeliverable rural addresses, places under construction, urban addresses unlikely to be active

You must register to download the vacant addresses data and be a governmental entity or non-profit organization*, per the agreement** HUD has with USPS. Learn more and download the vacancy data which they update quarterly.

Tina Fassett Smith is a researcher at DePaul University’s Institute of Housing Studies and reviewed part of this blog post. She stresses to readers to ignore the “no-stat” addresses in the USPS’s vacancy dataset. She said that research by her and her colleagues at the IHS concluded this section of the data is unreliable. Tina also said that the methodology mail carriers use to identify vacant addresses and places under change (construction or demolition) isn’t made public and that mail carriers have an incentive to collect the data instead of being compensated normally. Tina further explained the issues with no-stat.

We have seen instances of a relationship between the number of P.O. boxes (i.e., the presence of a post office) and the number of no-stats in an area. This is one reason we took it off of the IHS Data Portal. We have not found it to be a useful data set for better understanding neighborhoods or housing markets.

The Institute of Housing Studies provides vacancy data on their portal for those who don’t want to bother with the HUD sign-up process to obtain it.

* It appears that HUD doesn’t verify your eligibility.

** This agreement also states that one can only use the vacancy data for the “stated purpose”: “measuring and forecasting neighborhood changes, assessing neighborhood needs, and measuring/assessing the various HUD programs in which Users are involved”.

The City of Chicago should implement filtered permeability immediately at Green Street and Milwaukee Avenue

This is not a bikeable block

The multiple threats to bicyclists, to pedestrians, and to motorists, are pervasive in the depicted scene. There is low visibility for turning motorists which in turn causes them to encroach on the right of way of other street users, including other motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

This single image shows everything that is inefficient and dangerous to bicyclists and motorists about the intersection between north-south Green Street and diagonal Milwaukee Avenue in River West. Motorists should be physically blocked from entering or exiting Green Street at this point because of the danger inherent in the current intersection design. The block of Green Street south of Milwaukee Avenue is so insignificant to the driving network that no other design intervention should be implemented.

The situation depicted in this photograph demonstrates why the City should implement filtered permeability and close this entrance of the Green Street/Milwaukee Avenue intersection to motor vehicle movement. While motorists would be barred from entering or exiting Green Street here bicyclists would still have access to Green Street as part of the low-stress bicycling network of which Green Street is a part, between Milwaukee and Van Buren Street in Greektown.

I first wrote about this problematic intersection in June on Streetsblog Chicago and it remains an issue. One of the two motor vehicles ahead is blocking part of the bike lane while the second threatens to enter it. The bus on the left prevents the bicyclist in the bike lane from maneuvering around either vehicle. The photo below shows the situation from a different angle, that of the motorist wanting to turn left.

The vehicle operator on the left – a bus driver, in this case – has stopped the vehicle because they can occupy the intersection with the vehicle, or leave it open. Essentially, the bus driver has stopped to “let” the motorists on Green Street proceed across Milwaukee and further north into Green Street or turn left onto Milwaukee. Their movements would, again, put the bicyclist in danger, and put themselves and other motorists in danger because they are making nearly-blind turns into faster moving traffic.

The threats to the motorist are as limitless as the ones to the bicyclist (although the bicyclist will experience much greater injury if the threat is realized). As the motorist is paying attention to other motor vehicle traffic the bicyclist is coming down this bike lane – yep, I took the photograph – and is additionally obscured by the line of parked cars on the bicyclist’s right, and is in the shadow of the bus and the buildings. It’s like there’s a perfect storm of blind spots.

The quickest way to implement a system of filtered permeability and raise the significance and safety of the Green Street and intersecting Milwaukee Avenue blocks within the low-stress bicycling network would be to install a series of large planter boxes that prevent motorists from entering or exiting Green Street but allow bicyclists to filter through the planters.

And skip any traffic impact study. Not a single parking space will be lost or be made inaccessible with the implementation. A traffic study is not an experiment, but has practically been a foreboding document that has only ever said “things will be different”. (A good plenty of them have also suggested adding multiple $300,000 traffic signals.)

I read on Streetsblog USA recently about Pittsburgh’s new protected bike lanes:

“Instead of asking people to judge the unknown, the city’s leaders built something new and have proceded to let the public vet the idea once it’s already on the ground.”

Chicago maintains a Silver bike-friendly commenting ranking, yet my initial analysis shows that our metrics are below average among other Silver communities after which I’m led to believe we’re undeserving of the medal. Safety is a citizen’s number one concern when considering to use a bicycle for transportation and it will take an expansion of the low-stress bicycling network – currently not a priority – to deserve the current ranking or achieve anything higher.

Two bicyclists take different routes around this driver blocking the bike lane with their car

This photograph depicts a nearly identical situation but from the perspective of the motorist on Green Street approaching Milwaukee Avenue. Two bicyclists have taken two routes around the motorist blocking the bike lane with their vehicle.

Proposed residential high-rise injects TOD and population loss into Logan Square conversation

A public notice stands in front of an affected property

There used to be a Max Gerber plumbing supply store here that the absent landlord demolished to reduce his property taxes. A developer has proposed built 254 units in two towers here, in spitting distance from the CTA’s 24-hour Blue Line.

Developer Rob Buono has proposed two towers for a vacant property 400 feet away (walking distance) from the Chicago Transit Authority’s California Blue Line station. It has caused quite a stir in Logan Square about how much development is the right amount, and brings into question residents’ understanding of how the neighborhood demographics have changed.

It has also brought “TOD” into the local conversation. Buono will get some relief from exceptional car parking requirements because of the land’s proximity to the ‘L’ rapid transit station.

The process will be a long one. The first meeting, called by Alderman Moreno, was held on Thursday night. I counted over 70 people on the sign-in sheet when I came in, and many people arrive after so saying 100 people were there isn’t a stretch. Moreno described his development policy: whenever they need a zoning change they must present their proposal to the community so Moreno can get their feedback.

Before Buono spoke, though, Moreno asked Daniel Hertz to briefly talk about transit-oriented development and why the development (or at least the number of units and car parking spaces it proposes) is a good project for this place, and in this neighborhood. In balancing concerns about car traffic, keeping people close to the services and products they need, and making it easy to get around, it makes the most sense to put the highest number of housing units in close proximity to high-capacity transit versus anywhere else.

Essentially, Logan Square has lost residents – 10,000 people since 2000 – concentrating the burden of patronizing local businesses, seen as a distinguishing asset in the neighborhood, on fewer people. Additionally, adding housing is the best way to combat rising home prices (and unaffordable rents) by offering more supply which reduces demand on richer people buying, converting, or tearing down existing buildings.

While no building permits will be issued for the towers until Ald. Moreno, Plan Commission, and City Council approve the zoning change, you can track what other kinds of buildings developers are building in the area surrounding 2293 N Milwaukee on Chicago Cityscape.

You’ll see quickly that a majority of the projects permitted this year are for single-family houses. Some of these are built on vacant parcels while at least one is  being built where there was previously a multi-family house.

In 2014, within 1/8 mile of the site:

  • +0 units in multi-unit buildings
  • -1 deconversion, turning two units into one unit
  • -1 teardown, turning a two-unit property into a single-family property
  • +17 single-familiy homes
  • Net gain of a maximum of 15 units

At this rate, Logan Square may grow at an extremely low rate – these homes will likely be filled with small families. The decreasing household size is another factor in Logan Square’s population loss.

Read about people’s reactions to the towers on other sites:

Joe Moreno

1st Ward Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno gracefully – given the circumstances – moderates the meeting.

I’ve got property tax data for Chicago Cityscape

Wrigley Field Ahead of a Seemingless Meaningless Game, September 2011

Wrigley Field is an old baseball stadium in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Photo by Dan X. O’Neil

1. Licensed Chicago Contractors, my website that tracks what developers and the city are proposing to build or demolish in your neighborhood, is now called Chicago Cityscape.

2. I’m grateful to Ian Dees who helped me get property tax data for 2009-2013 for over 1.4 million PINs (property identification numbers) in Cook County.

I’m going through various parts of the property tax data and figuring out how to integrate it with Chicago Cityscape. The first time Ian got the data I found out I didn’t tell him to get the right PINs. I think I’ve fixed that now.

As part of this process I’m checking properties somewhat randomly, based on the permits I’m browsing. I most recently viewed a Wrigley Field building permit at 1060 W Addison Street – for a Zac Brown concert – so I searched its PIN and how much the property is “worth”. Here goes:

Year Amount Billed Assessed Value
2013 $1,517,665.09 $8,049,996
2012 1,498,971.03 8,049,996
2011 1,493,002.47 8,865,636
2010 1,489,160.89 8,865,636
2009 1,360,673.45 10,613,423

Notice how the assessed value dropped over $2 million from 2009 to 2010. And even though it had three unique assessed values, the annually changing tax rate adjusted the amount billed. You can see this information on the Cook County Property Info portal.

The Chicago Way: Potholes that definitely no longer exist

311 report for a pothole

Screenshot of the 311 service tracker that tells me that the photograph I submitted contains no image of potholes.

The Chicago Way is as much about the process as it is about the result. This story involves what happens when you can’t provide accurate information about a street inspection in the tracking system that has been built, effectively making a group of potholes disappear.

I submitted a pothole report via the Chicago open 311 system – assigning it service request #13-00420100 – on April 12, 2013 for 1653 N Milwaukee Avenue near Red Hen Bakery and Athletico. Three days later the inspection found no potholes and the request was closed.

The website or the Chicago 311 system seemingly could not provide a better answer. Certainly dismissing the existence of potholes is the wrong response. There’s no hope for the future in this response. Maybe there’s a plan to resurface this block. This could be the opportunity to inform a concerned citizen. Instead, the response told me I’m wrong.

Fast forward to now and the situation has devolved. Potholes have gotten a little bigger and they’ve spread as if the street is diseased. What also sucks is that this problem will probably persist for at least another year from my report (unit April 2015) because the hot asphalt plants are going to shutdown soon.

This reminds me of that Chicago maxim: “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.” Or Metra, that the trains would be on time if they didn’t have to stop to pick up passengers.

#TheChicagoWay

Potholes on Milwaukee Avenue - I reported them over a year ago

The potholes as of August 2014.

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