CategoryCommentary

You can have your free parking when I get my free cappuccino

Kudos to this Chicago developer and their architect for blending the parking garage into the building. I still dislike that it’s visibly a parking garage. 

My friend Payton Chung has some very dry urban planner humor. Which I absolutely love. He wrote about parking minimums in Washington, D.C., and the current proposed zoning change that would reduce them (and included a reference to Chicago’s parking “podiums”). The best part is below:

Drivers’ inability to find free parking spaces outside their offices is no more deserving of a public policy response than my inability to find a free cappuccino waiting outside my office.

Free parking makes the world go round, doesn’t it.

When did everyone start caring about bicyclists dying?

A Plague of Cyclists appear to run cars off the road on The Weekly Standard’s cover.

A couple weeks ago a bunch of journalists from major international news outlets were having drinks somewhere (maybe The Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago’s basement) and wrote the same story.

Actually, they didn’t, but it’s surprisingly weird how close they were.

On Sunday the New York Times published “Is It O.K. To Kill Cyclists?”. Next, on Monday, Crain’s Chicago Business published “Why everyone hates bicyclists—and why they hate everyone back”.

Daniel Duane’s op-ed in NYT garnered a lot of response (7 of them are linked here, which doesn’t include Crain’s or The Weekly Standard). The Economist responded to the NYT article with “Cycling v cars: The American right-of-way” saying we should adopt laws like the Netherlands and gave several examples there of who’s liable for a crash between a car and bike (nearly always the driver). Bike Snob wrote the response I most agree with. Karen Altes of Tiny Fix Bike Gang got pissedTwin City Sidewalks (in Minneapolis/St. Paul) wrote that “bicyclists need to stop blaming themselves for dangerous roads”, referring to the bicyclist in question, Daniel Duane, the NYT op-ed contributor.

Tanya Snyder, writing for one of my employer’s sister blogs Streetsblog Capitol Hill, headlined her own roundup post, “The Times Blows a Chance to Tackle America’s Broken Traffic Justice System”. Andrew Smith at Seattle Transit Blog said that he gave up cycling to work in the first week he tried it. Brian McEntee wrote on his blog Tales from the Sharrows about two scenarios to consider about “following laws” (which isn’t what cyclists or drivers should be aiming for).

David Alpert, who runs a Streetsblog-like blog called Greater Greater Washington, said that it’s not okay to kill cyclists, “but if a spate of other op-eds are any indication, it’s sure okay to hate them and the facilities they ask for in a quest for safety”. BikeBlogNYC later published myriad examples of how streets continue killing everyone who’s not driving a car.

Then The Weekly Standard published something very similar to Duane’s piece. I don’t know when – it’s in the issue marked for November 18, but I believe it went up Monday, with a sweet cover. It went by two names. On the cover, “A Plague of Bicyclists” (by Christopher Caldwell) and on the site, “Drivers Get Rolled: Bicyclists are making unreasonable claims to the road—and winning”.

Most of the proceeding discussions revolve around “who’s right”. And the Economist skirts discussing the answer and instead just gives the answer: the bicyclist, because they’re the ones who die.

When you are driving in the Netherlands, you have to be more careful than you would when driving in America. Does this result in rampant injustice to drivers when accidents occur? No. It results in far fewer accidents. As the ANWB [Royal Dutch Touring Club, like the AAA] says, some drivers may think the liability treatment gives cyclists “a blank check to ignore the rules. But a cyclist is not going to deliberately ride through a red light thinking: ‘I won’t have to pay the damages anyway.’ He is more likely to be influenced by the risk that he will land in the hospital.”

I like what Evan Jenkins, a sometimes urbanist blogger studying mathematics at University of Chicago, wrote on his Twitter timeline:

That’s encouraging. He linked to several of his past articles about cyclist murder.

 

What’s also funny about this weekend’s bike-journo-fest is that Whet Moser, writing for Chicago Magazine, interviewed me two weeks ago about bike infrastructure and penned this uncomplicated, unruffled but comprehensive article saying “drivers and cyclists don’t have to be angry and fearful…with smart planning, a city can design safe roads for all.”

Chicago has started on that path. You know what might influence more change than any bike lane built? Speed cameras. And no, I won’t let them be removed.

Updated multiple times to add more responses to Duane’s op-ed. 

Pervasive Divvy station maps offer big opportunity to show people around Chicago, but need major changes

A man looks at one of the first five stations installed, at State and Randolph (but the board says State and Lake). 

Navigation maps on Divvy bike sharing stations will be placed at 400 locations around the city. A map this pervasive, to be read and interpreted by hundreds of thousands of locals and visitors to Chicago (including people who will never use Divvy), should have a design that communicates good routes to ride, and important places like train stations, nearby Divvy stations, points of interest, and where to find places to eat or be entertained.

The design of the maps on the station boards needs to be improved. The first issue I noticed in June is that streets and alleys are given equal significance in their symbology, possibly confusing people on which route to take. The map should strip alleys, offering room for more info on the map, like useful destinations. It may be easier for some to locate the Art Institute of Chicago as a labeled, light-gray block instead of trying to locate its address on the map (nigh impossible). When one locates the destination, one can more easily locate the nearest Divvy station.

The map at North/Clybourn’s station (actually on Dayton Street) covers a large portion of the map with the “you are here” label and lacks the connection between North Avenue and Goose Island. 

I’ve noticed that the “you are here” labels cover up train station markers/labels, and the loop elevated tracks are missing (a common reference point for Chicago). It takes a moment to realize that the white text is labeling the CTA stations and not the nearby Divvy stations. It’s unclear where “you are here” points to, until you realize that it’s at the center of the blue 5-minute walking circle. Dearborn Street is symbolized as a bike lane, but not labeled as a street. Clark Street and State Street are doubly wide, but the meaning of that is unknown. The legend is useful to distinguish bike lane types but is placed far from the map, at the bottom of the board.

Here are other areas where the boards and maps should be redesigned:

  1. The “service area” map has low utility in its current form as it’s not labeled with streets, points of interest, or a time or distance scale. It appears as a reduced-boundary blob of Chicago. It could be improved if it communicated “this is where you can go if you take Divvy” and label streets, train stations, and points of interest at the edge of the service area. 
  2. The 5-minute bike ride map is nearly identical to the 5-minute walk map, but smaller. The 5-minute walk map should be made larger and integrate the now-eliminated 5-minute bike ride map.
  3. Much of the text is unnecessarily large. The CTA station labels are so large in comparison to the streets that it’s not clear where on the block the stations are located. CTA stations are labeled but the train routes aren’t always shown (Loop stops are just gray); it’s not even clear that they’re CTA stops.
  4. The purpose of the blue circle isn’t labeled or clear: the larger map, titled “5 minute walk”, shows a large map but there’s a blue circle – is the blue circle or the square map the 5-minute edge? The connection between the title and the blue circle could be tightened by using the same color for the text and the circle or by wrapping the text around the circle path.
  5. The map, which is likely to serve as a neighborhood “get around” and discovery map for tourists, and even locals, lacks basic info: there are absolutely no destinations marked, no museums, parks, etc.
  6. The bike lane symbology doesn’t match the Chicago Bike Map, which uses blue, purple, orange, and red to denote different bike lane types, and hasn’t used green for at least seven years. The use of green makes them look like narrow parks.
  7. The map designers should consider placing the city’s cardinal grid numbering system to enable readers to find an address.
  8. North/Clybourn’s Divvy station map lacks a bikeable connection from North Avenue to Goose Island via the Cherry Avenue multi-modal bridge. The maps should be reviewed for street network accuracy by people who live and ride nearby.

Photo shows the original board and map at the Milwaukee/Wood/Wolcott station, which has since moved. The station on this map marked at Marshfield/North was moved to Wood/North this week. 

There are many opportunities for the map to change because they will have to be updated when stations are moved, for both the moved station and the handful of station boards that include the moved station. At least four boards needed to be updated when the station at Milwaukee/Wood/Wolcott moved from Milwaukee Avenue (next to Walgreens) to Wood Street (across from the Beachwood). The maps for Citibike in New York City don’t share these design flaws.

The Citibike station boards and maps were designed by Pentagram, a well-known design firm, with whom the city has a longstanding relationship, designing the new wayfinding signs for neighborhoods, the “LOOK” anti-dooring decal for taxi windows, and the bus station maps. One of the key differences between the Citibike and Divvy maps is the text label size, the symbol label size, and the presence of building outlines (that other huge group of things that defines a city, contrasting the roads-only view on the Divvy map).

A close-up view of a Citibike map. Photo by Oran Viriyincy. 

N.B. More trips are currently taken by tourists and people with 24-hour memberships than people with annual memberships. I question the bikeway symbology and suggest that the streets have three symbols: one representing a bike lane (of any kind), one representing sharrows (because they are legally different from bike lanes) and one representing a street with no marked bikeways. The current bikeway symbology may not be understandable by many visitors (or even understood by locals because of differing definitions) and show a jumble of green hues whose meanings are not clear or even useful. It’s not currently possible to take a route on a bicycle that uses only protected bike lanes, or uses protected bike lanes and buffered bike lanes, so the utility of this map as a route building tool is weak. One wastes their time looking at this map in the attempt to construct a route which uses the darkest green-hued streets.

I also recommend that the board and map designers give Divvy CycleFinder app messaging greater prominence. I believe that a majority of users will be searching app stores for appropriate apps. When you search for Divvy, you’ll find eight apps, including my own Chicago Bike Guide.

Updated 22:43 to clarify my critique and make more specific suggestions for changes. 

Dutch biking is better than all other kinds

Yonah Freemark, famous person behind The Transport Politic and now a semi-famous person at Metropolitan Planning Council (shut down the Illiana, Yonah!), needed a ride from the Damen Blue Line station for a special Vancetour of the Bloomingdale Trail. The Dutch way of biking is extremely social, both because of the way bicycles are built and the way the infrastructure is built. That style is rare in America, and even downright anti-social and hostile in many places. For starters, there’s not enough room to ride side-by-side (in Chicago it’s illegal outside of too-narrow bike lanes).

The WorkCycles Fr8, my main bicycle, is built like a tank. Some may call it the Mercedes G-Class SUV of bicycles. I called it a Cadillac to some guy outside City Hall – referring to how comfortably it rides – and he said “They suck, it’s a Mercedes.” (He was German and I don’t think either of us knew any Dutch car manufacturers.)

Thank you, Ryan Lakes, for the photos.

A new freeway depreciates itself and the city as fast as your new car

A Metra train bypasses congested automobile traffic on the free-to-use Kennedy Expressway. 

Elly Blue wrote about automobile depreciation last week. Depreciation is the value of the automobile that disappears because it’s not as valuable anymore, for reasons of mechanical decay and the “used” factor.

Depreciation is, for many individual consumers a hidden cost. But any responsible accounting of the costs of driving includes it as one of the largest associated with car ownership. The fact that such a large and unprofitable investment is necessary to living and working in most areas of this country is a major source of poverty and failure to get ahead for people and families, and is a hidden source of poverty on a national scale.

The same exact principle is at work in our road system.

It’s depreciation at the societal level. It’s irresponsible not to plan for it, but we do not. A freeway, once built, immediately begins to deteriorate and become congested, it loses its ability to provide the jobs that often were much of the argument for building it in the first place.

Think about the Circle Interchange project the Illinois Department of Transportation is bent on building. For 10 minutes I monitored the “public forum” room at the late June – and final – public meeting about the project to rebuild and increase capacity at the intersection of I-290, I-90/94, and Congress Parkway. I heard seven people speak and at least five of them focused their two minute speeches on the “good jobs” that this project would provide. These are the same “good jobs” that $470 million spent on any other transportation project would generate, like the underfunded but highly beneficial CREATE project that reduces congestion and travel times for freight, Metra, and Amtrak trains in the region.

The Circle Interchange will add an imposing flyover to Greektown and residents and workers on Van Buren Street. 

Building something for jobs is the worst reason to build something. At least with transit (or tollways, for this matter) there is a recurring funding stream, with every use. Oregon is slowly moving in the direction of taxing drivers by mile instead of by gallon, but starting only with electric vehicles. Illinois is issuing bonds for its freeways with the country’s worst credit rating.

Elly’s article had me thinking of other ways cities lose. One of the commenters mentioned there is a loss in property taxes, when properties are demolished to make way for the highway. As Rick Risemberg wrote, “Roads themselves do not pay property tax, of course.” The revenue from those razed properties is eliminated, permanently.

This train flyover represents what the Circle Interchange flyover, over Halsted, will look like. At least this flyover has a revenue stream.

Another way cities lose property tax because of highways is that it makes properties around highways less valuable. It also makes existing, now vacant properties less desirable to developers. So, we have less revenue and then a lowered desire to develop there. Seems like a Catch-22.

However, urban rail stations and bikeways are now known to raise property values and thus government incomes, though this money generated by them is usually not allocated to the infrastructure that created it. (Some places are beginning to use “value capture” mechanisms to do so.)

Risemberg makes sure to point out that gas taxes hardly cover the costs of building highways. I would add that, at least in this state, more and more is being spent on debt service.

And this is all slightly relevant to the article I posted Tuesday on Streetsblog Chicago about transit-oriented development. It’s the third of three articles on the topic based on a report by the Center for Neighborhood Technology that essentially says that Chicagoland, compared to San Francisco, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, are not experiencing the same benefits of them as adding housing to the transit shed (within 1/2 mile of a train station) and that driving is up in the transit shed of Chicagoland while transportation costs, as a portion of household income, are rising faster in the transit shed than outside. These were surprising to CNT, where the expectation was, in brief, that living near a train station provides more mobility, closer retail and services opportunities, and thus would reduce dependence on expensive automobile ownership.

What modernism should we preserve?

Ed. note: This post is written by Ryan Lakes, friend and architect

Goldberg’s Marina City towers are a couple of my favorite buildings in Chicago, but all of the discussion about preserving Prentice Women’s Hospital – designed by Bertrand Goldberg – has left me conflicted. The following is my response to the video above that was originally posted on Black Spectacles.

When we figure out how to easily move old, significant buildings that are no longer wanted by their owners and occupants, to museum-cities made up of the old masterpieces that have since fallen out of use or favor, then we will have the luxury to preserve them like books, paintings and sculptures. To me, large buildings are more like trees than art. Occasionally the great old fall to make way for the young. There is no moving them. And as time passes, individual systems age and decay, and evolution leads to new, often more efficient ways to compete for space and resources.

Prentice Women’s Hospital is slated for destruction by its owner, Northwestern University. Photo by Jeff Zoline. 

Contemporary architecture has a new set of more complex criteria to respond to than what was included in original modernism’s scope. With form ever following function, in modernism, as functions change, so too shall the forms. Is modern architecture able to do so? How do fans of modernist buildings plan to preserve them as fuel prices rise and the desire for energy efficient buildings increases?  What else besides their structure is not obsolete? Let’s not forget that the time of modernism was when most thought our resources were unlimited, that it was better to leave our lights on 24 hrs a day to save bulbs, and that it was better to employ machines to fabricate our buildings rather than our neighborhood craftsmen.

Photo of Zurich Esposito at protest to save Prentice by David Schalliol. 

I wish I wrote a blog about food trucks sometimes: Chicago has made it really difficult for expansion

The Flirty Cupcakes food truck. Photo by Andrew Huff. 

Most of my time (because it’s actually my job) is to blog about transportation. This blog is about cities, and cities are about food trucks, so I guess it’s fine. I neither own a food truck, nor patronize them, but I’m fascinated by the process of how city administrations are handling them, whether through some kind of indifference or making regulations that seem only to make running a food truck more difficult than it should be.

At a “mobile food summit” at the University of Chicago in the spring of 2012, I learned from the sponsor Institute for Justice that they were suing cities for passing unconstitutional laws that regulated business not for health and public safety, their duty, but to protect the economic well-being of other businesses. Based on that knowledge, Chicago did this with the food truck ordinance from July 2012.

The Chicago Tribune reports today, in summary form, the current status of this regulation (here’s the full article):

No city licenses for food trucks

The city hasn’t licensed a single food truck for onboard cooking since the practice was approved in July. Some food truck operators say they’re scared off by the extensive red tape they foresee in the application process. Of the 109 entrepreneurs who have applied for Mobile Food Preparer licenses, none has met the city’s requirements.

I looked this up to know more and I found short commentary on Reason magazine’s blog:

The City of the Big Shoulders is hungry. And 109 entreprising folks want to help feed it. Too bad they’re not allowed to.

For example, the Tribune interviewed proprietors, one of whom said, “While most of its provisions are similar to those in other major cities, [Gabriel] Wiesen said, Chicago’s code includes rules on ventilation and gas line equipment that “are meetable but extremely cumbersome and can raise the price of outfitting a truck by $10,000 to $20,000.”

The bit about the regulation possibly being unconstitutional is that the food trucks with this license (which allows them to cook on the truck) must have a GPS device recording their position during retail hours and cannot operate within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant (except in designated mobile food truck loading zones, for a maximum of two hours). Restricting where and when a food preparation business can operate is the tricky part: the city doesn’t regulate this for brick-and-mortar restaurants (except for zoning, which is much more lax and is intended to keep incompatible land uses away from each other).

What abysmal pavement quality on a brand new bike lane means

Approaching the intersection and bike lane minefield. 

I find it very embarrassing that Chicagoans are supposed to ride their bicycles in this. I feel embarrassed riding my bike in this. I rode my bike on this pavement of abysmal quality and then felt ashamed and uncomfortable that I exited the bike lane and rode elsewhere.

The bike symbol succumbs to flooding which occupies half the bike lane’s width. 

I felt like a person in a wheelchair given an “accessible” theater seat behind a column that blocks a majority of my view of the stage. I felt like I was a reporter at a newspaper given a new computer where the keyboard was missing 42 keys. The bike lane was unusable, I was the butt of a cruel joke. This felt like a pittance, throwing crumbs to the masses.

2013 April Fool’s Day came early, in fall 2012. 

The photos in this post show a bike lane in Douglas Park against the curb, with a painted buffer, running in a minefield of patches and potholes on asphalt pavement. The bike lane was installed in the fall of 2012, as part of Mayor Emanuel’s efforts to construct 100 miles of protected bike lanes. The goal has since been reduced after the definition of a protected bike lane was surreptitiously changed. The change was revealed by Grid Chicago.

You can find this at the intersection of Sacramento Boulevard and Douglas Boulevard in Lawndale on the Near Southwest Side of Chicago. View more photos of this and the other West Side Boulevards bike lanes on my Flickr. They’ve probably been the most controversial: there were complaints because of ticketing cars parked in the under construction bike lane on Marshall Boulevard; then there were complaints about the “decreased safety” of the protected bike lane on Independence Boulevard which has prompted CDOT to agree to remove it and replace it with a buffered bike lane. The Independence Boulevard debacle started because of ticketing cars parked in the under construction bike lane – I doubt it would have become an issue if cars weren’t ticketed.

Franklin Boulevard at Kedzie Avenue, taken on the same day. Thankfully it’s wide enough that you can bike around it while still being in the bike lane. 

Finding a new way to measure cities’ bike friendliness in the United States

A really smart person could come up with a way to measure day-to-day bike friendliness based on how well cities adhere to standards that keep roads clear of obstructions that further frustrate the commute, like construction projects that squeeze bikes and cars together. 

I work at home. There are some days when I only leave my house to get milk from the Mexican grocery store at the end of my block (which makes awesome burritos). That means I ride my bike half as much as people who commute to work. on their bikes. Today I had a bunch of errands to run: drop off stuff, buy stuff, take pictures of stuff for my blog, Grid Chicago.

It was a very frustrating experience. I don’t need to go into details about how I was harassed by people who the state so graciously awarded a license to drive. But it happened. And it happens a hundred times a day to people cycle commuting in Chicago. I got to thinking about “bike friendly” cities. Is there a way to incorporate driver attitudes in there? I tweeted:

[tweet_embed id=264575958374305792]

Later I had the idea to use some very simple but objective measurements to create a new bike friendliness metric. It would help ensure that “Silver” (a ranking the League of American Bicyclists [LAB] uses) in one city means the same as “Silver”. It can expand from here but basically it works like this:

  • The share of people going to work who go by bike is a proxy for how “friendly” a city is to biking.
  • If a city has a lot of people biking to work, it must be friendly.
  • If a city has a few people biking to work, it must be non-friendly.
  • Cities are compared to each other to determine friendly and non-friendly.
  • The metric uses standard deviation to score cities.

Stop me if this has already been done.

I created a spreadsheet that lists the top 10 populous cities in the United States. I then added 10 more cities: Austin, Boston, Davis, Madison, Minneapolis, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. In the next column I listed their bike commute share from the American Community Survey 2006-2010 5-year estimates. I calculated the standard deviation and mean of these shares and then in another column used Apple Numbers’s STANDARDIZE function:

The STANDARDIZE function returns a normalized value from a distribution characterized by a given mean and standard deviation.

I think that’s what I want. And the output is close to what I expected. I then found the LAB ranking for each city and found the variance of each ranking to see how far apart each city within one ranking was from another city in the same ranking. The results were interesting: the higher the ranking, the more variance there was.

Hurricane Sandy prompted a lot of New Yorkers to bike. It made headlines, even. Photo by Doug Gordon. 

I wanted to add another metric of bike friendliness, and that’s density. To me, a higher density of people would mean a higher density of places to go (shop, eat, learn, enjoy) and friends and family would be closer, too. Or the possibility of meeting new people nearby would be higher. Yeah, I’m making a lot of assumptions here. So I applied the STANDARDIZE function there as well. I added this number to the previous STANDARDIZE result and that became the city’s score.

So, in this new, weird ranking system, the most bicycle friendly cities are…drum roll please…

  1. Davis, California (Platinum)
  2. New York City (Silver) *
  3. San Francisco (Gold) *
  4. Boulder (Platinum)
  5. Boston (Silver)
  6. Philadelphia (Silver)
  7. Tie: Chicago*, Washington, D.C. (Silver)
  8. Tie: Portland* (Platinum), Minneapolis* (Gold)

Remember, I said above that any author of a list should spend at least a day cycling in each city. I’ve starred the cities where I’ve done that – I’ve cycled in 5 cities for at least a day.

I only calculated 20 cities. Ideally I’d calculate it for the top 50 most populous cities AND for every city that’s been ranked by LAB.

LAB cities list (PDF). My spreadsheet (XLS).

Comparing how bikes and buses interact

A photo from Los Angeles, filling in for a lot of North American cities (less Montréal):

Photo by Metro Los Angeles. 

A photo from Amsterdam, filling in for a lot of European cities:

Photo by Boudewijn Deurvorst. 

Where would you rather bike?

See more photos of bikes and transit in the eponymous Flickr group.

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