Tagurban

What I like best about bicycling in Chicago

In an interview with a student reporter I gave this past weekend, I was asked to say what I like best about bicycling in Chicago.

I didn’t want to give an answer that would have been true about bicycling in any other city – the question was about here and not about riding a bike. My first answer may seem to disparage Chicago (maybe it won’t be printed…) but a few questions later I told the reporter I wanted to revisit this question.

My new answer put bicycling in Chicago in an extremely positive light and I was being entirely truthful:

What I like best about bicycling in Chicago is the existence of many and diverse subcultures. I mentioned that you can find a group of people who like riding fixed gear bikes, or find a group of parents who ride with their children, or even a group of cargo bike owners (actually, this subculture hasn’t taken off yet – I need to work on that). There are also group rides for every occasion, including one on Sunday for May Day, the Haymarket Ride to Union Park

I felt relieved that I was able to eventually answer this question. I didn’t want to leave the interview telling the reporter that I didn’t like anything about bicycling IN Chicago.

The 2010 Perimeter Ride rolls out after a late dinner at Superdawg. Photo by Eric Rogers.

Great photo vantage points for trains

Urban expressways are a good way to divide cities and remove housing and businesses. But for the highways with trains running through or alongside them, they provide a clear view of the trains from above on an overpass or tall structure.

Here’s a collection of photos taken from above the tracks.

A Red Line train to 95th slows as it crosses under the 33rd Street overpass into the Sox-35th station.

A Blue Line train enters the portal at the Circle Interchange. Next stop: Clinton.

For many years, Metra showed TV commercials; slogan and jingle was, “Meeeetra, the way to really flyyyyy!” This train is being pushed into the Ogilvie Transportation Center.

Where are your favorite “railfan” vantage points?

Other overpasses in cities I like:

  • 97th and Park Avenue in Manhattan, New York. During rush hours, you’ll see a Metro North train every 30 seconds (or less, even).
  • Pedestrian overpass at Hiawatha Avenue and 24th Street East in Minneapolis where you’ll see the sleek Bombardier-built Metro trains. Another photo.
  • Numerous streets and pedestrian bridges over the Metra Electric lines in Chicago. During rush hour, the trains operate on a CTA-like schedule. Photo from 18th Street pedestrian bridge.
  • Roosevelt Road in the South Loop, Chicago, Illinois. You’ll see lots of Amtrak and Metra trains on 10 different tracks.

Chicago’s big box saga continues

The Chicago big box saga is a tale of who gets to build where, how big, and how much wage it pays. It can be extended to include debates on store design.

While big box stores were built here before the first Wal-Mart in Chicago, the saga begins with that megastore. The City Council passed a “living wage” ordinance (also called the big box wage ordinance) that required stores with over 90,000 square feet and $1 billion in revenue to pay their employees a minimum of $10 per hour, and an additional $3 per hour in fringe benefits. The Mayor vetoed the ordinance. Wal-Mart built its store in the Austin neighborhood and paid their normal wage (in 2010 it seems to be $8.75). It won’t be until 2011 (at the earliest) that the second Wal-Mart will open in Pullman.

An urban-friendly Best Buy in the same complex as a senior citizen assisted living center.

Meanwhile, Target opens new Chicago stores in McKinley Park and West Rogers Park (on Peterson Avenue), both in 2006. Best Buy opened stores on Elston Avenue, Belmont Avenue, Clark Street, Roosevelt Road, and Michigan Avenue. Kohl’s, a discount department store, opened a store alongside Best Buy on Elston (to the tune of 130,000 square feet, on par with Wal-Mart) in 2005. Home Depot and Menards have also opened stores since the big box ordinance veto in 2006 seemingly without a hitch.

This month, Target proposed to a group of residents and the 2nd Ward Alderman, Robert Fioretti, a new store at Jackson and Aberdeen in the West Loop. Many residents were disappointed by the store design. At least one resident didn’t understand the need for a store with the South Loop store on Roosevelt so close.

How the saga can end

The prevailing wages at big box stores in Chicago should be researched. The current research about Wal-Mart and big box stores’ tax revenue contributions should be validated by additional studies. There are several universities up to this task, and mine, the University of Illinois at Chicago, has released multiple studies – here’s one about localized job creation and elimination.

With solid background information, alderman and city agencies, as well as residents, can potentially make better informed and more effective decisions about the future of large-scale retailing in Chicago.

More of this please (Home Depot hardware store in dense neighborhood)…

…And less of these.

Lastly, the City Council and Zoning and Planning departments should set design standards for this style of shopping to ensure urban friendly and transit oriented developments. Home Depot and Target should be lauded for their stores on Halsted Street in Lincoln Park (more info), and on Roosevelt Road in South Loop, respectively*. However, each has since built their typical suburban monstrosities in other neighborhoods, that neither recognize that some customers would like to arrive by car (instead by transit or bike), nor consider the environment (minimum-size parking lots make a large contribution to the city’s current problems managing stormwater runoff). Future Wal-Marts should promote sustainable design.

First and second photos by Payton Chung. Third photo by PonderInc.

*While the Target in McKinley Park (Chicago) is LEED Certified, the South Loop store probably has an annual lower carbon footprint because of all the visitors who arrive by transit and bike. The South Loop store is near a major train station and several bus routes (at least five). The McKinley store is on a highway and two bus routes.

Diversity in business and buildings

One of Jane Jacobs’ key points in her works tells about the need for diversity in neighborhoods: choices and options in housing, jobs, natural and gathering spaces, and entertainment. As lives and lifestyles change, people aren’t forced to move or move out. Urbanophile touched on that in part two of “Building Suburbs That Last.”

This should sound familiar to you since it is exactly how Jane Jacobs described a healthy city neighborhood. She says it better than I ever could: “Flourishing diversity anywhere in a city means the mingling of high-yield, middling-yield, low-yield and no yield enterprises.” And, “Time makes the high building costs of one generation the bargains of a following generation. Time pays off original capital costs, and this depreciation can be reflected in the yields required from a building. Time makes certain structures obsolete for some enterprises, and they become available to others.”

“Turnover Plaza,” a photo by PJ Chmiel.

I don’t believe that Jane’s discussions will convince any banker, economist or developer. For those arguments, you’ll have to refer to the rest of Aaron’s article on how smart, commercial land use development occurs in order to create sustainable suburbs. You should refer to paragraphs like:

If you having nothing but high value buildings, no one but national chains can afford to invest. If you have nothing but low value buildings, no one wants to. It is important to have a mixture of buildings, supporting a mixture of uses, mixture of high, medium and lower values uses, and both national chains (which bring much good with them) and indigenous business. It is this diversity that again helps to mitigate against the failure of any one element. And also provides room for the local business that is both committed to the town and a source of at least some independent economic life.

Where else does diversity give an advantage?

Increasing the City of Chicago’s tree canopy

The assignment: You are on a team working with the City of Chicago on increasing the City’s tree canopy from just under 15% to 25%. What would you recommend? Please bear in mind that most city staff feel that they have covered most city owned land and that to reach the goal they will have to get private landowners to plant the trees. How can we get them to do this? What types of parcels present opportunities?

The class: Sustainable Development Techniques

How the class works: The professors invite working professionals to speak to the class each week. After the lecture from these guests, a short discussion ensues. The guests design the homework questions. The following week, the class discusses their responses with each other and the professors.

I’ve identified four parcel types that present opportunities to increase the City of Chicago’s tree canopy from 15% to 25%.

1. Existing surface parking lots, both private and public
2. New surface and multi-level parking lots, both private and public
3. Schools, both public and private
4. Condemn private lots

1. The team will inventory private and public surface parking lots. Using demand survey data, the team will identify specific lots and direct them to reduce the number of spaces by half the difference between demand and availability. The team will select the spaces where trees will be planted at no cost to the parking lot owner. Alternatively, the parking lot owners can choose to purchase and install secure, sheltered bicycle parking on the spaces where trees would have been planted. Owners must install this facility at their own expense but may charge for its use.

The owners choose between a no cost option that potentially reduces their income, or a cost option that potentially reduces their income. Both options would potentially reduce carbon or carbon emissions associated with the parking lot.
2. The team will recommend zoning code changes that reduce the number of required auto parking spaces for new parking lots, increase the number of bicycle parking spaces, and improve the zoning code’s accommodations to alternative fuel, hybrid and shared car spaces. The code will require that builders plant trees in the space that would have been built as auto parking. The code will specify best tree planting practices so the builders plant trees in places on the parcel where it will live.

Parking lots will become useful to a larger number of users, and reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

3. Many schools have land paved with asphalt, acting either as a playground or parking lot for staff. Under a district (or diocese) and City-wide plan to reduce carbon emissions and improve the health of staff, schools will install sheltered bicycle parking on a small portion of the asphalt, and then remove a large area of asphalt. They’ll replace the removed asphalt with grass and trees. Principals will make up the first group of staff to adopt alternative commute methods (which can include carpool, vanpool, transit, walking or bicycling), starting with at least two days per week.

Students will receive a kid-friendlier playground. School staff will reduce their carbon emissions. Schools will help reduce their contribution to the urban heat island effect. New trees will reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

4. Lastly, the City will condemn private lots and convert these to urban forests. The team will first identify residential areas, and then commercial areas. Communities identified by the team to receive urban forests can choose to have and operate a farm or garden instead. The City will provide relocation assistance to all residents of a blighted or energy inefficient building who decide to move to a denser part of the city. The City would then condemn the lot and building, aggregating it into the forest. A variation of this plan includes strategic placement of the trees: The trees can be planted in such a way on the parcel’s perimeter that would permit a new parcel owner to build a new, energy efficient home on the lot.

I feel unclear about the consequences of this strategy. Will the new urban forests raise, lower, or leave alone property values? Will property owners appreciate a rise in property values? Will they feel their neighborhood has improved? How will the forests affect crime and other neighborhood activities?

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