30 November 2010

Let's Take a Trip Down Fullerton Boulevard!

Ok, so it's actually an avenue, but then I wouldn't have been able to work a reference from 60s East LA garage-punkers Thee Midniters in the title. But it COULD be a boulevard...it COULD be a lot a things. This street is a topic of special interest to me personally, as I live just a couple blocks south of Fullerton in Logan Square. Here in my neighborhood, Fullerton has a 100-foot right-of-way, a remnant of it's history as one of the city's busiest streetcar lines. It's also a commercial dead zone. Up until 1949, a streetcar line ran as far west as Central Avenue, letting off passengers (and customers) every couple of blocks. Today it's a four-lane, high-speed automotive corridor (and one which is generally impossible to cross on foot). Between the Chicago River and the street's terminus at Grand Avenue (roughly six miles), vacant storefronts abound. East of Ashland Avenue, Fullerton narrows to Chicago's standard 66-foot width, and commercial activity picks up markedly.

Here's a classic example of how designing streets for cars first and everybody else second hurts businesses and communities. What was once a thriving retail corridor is now rather uninviting. There are pockets of commercial life, but there are often gaps of several blocks between businesses. It doesn't need to be this way. Fullerton possesses relatively wide sidewalks, perfect for sidewalk cafes and the like, but with cars careening by at 40mph it's not a very conducive public space. With a road diet paring down the road width from 100 to the standard 66 feet, there would be room enough for separated cycletracks and a light-rail or BRT line, without sacrificing a single oh-so-precious parking space.

Sections of the street are already captured by various TIF districts, but with so many commercial vacancies it can't be generating much revenue for the city. In my mind, development projects of this nature are exactly what TIF funds should be used for, large-scale investments in a neighborhood's future.

More to come on this in the future. These are the things that I dream about.

24 November 2010

How to Fix Chicago in Seven Not-So-Easy Steps

Two months ago, I was in London. On the first day of my trip, I decide to check the news from home, not expecting anything exciting to have happened. That's when the bombshell hits...Richard M. Daley has announced he won't run for reelection in 2011. I've been meaning to write a post about it ever since, but only this week have we gotten confirmation on who the possible ascendants to the throne will be (barring the outcome of signature challenges and Rahm's residency status). I was never a fan of Daley's leadership style, but at least he's the devil we know. Of the twenty candidates, none have so far been very revealing as to their stand on any of the issues, or their plans once in office. Rahm Emmanuel is in favor of bringing jobs to the city, and as somebody who is looking for one, I reckon that's a good thing. Has there ever been a politician who took an anti-job stance? Never mind that of everybody who has ever run on the job platform, FDR is maybe the only who every personally delivered. Rahm doesn't strike me as much of a neo-New Dealer, but who knows? Maybe we'll see a Chicago WPA under his watch.

Emmanuel is the early favorite in the race, as he's got the most money and name recognition, and a shiny, happy teevee ad that's been running for a couple weeks. I suspect he would be a capable mayor, though I also suspect that if he were to get himself elected once, we'd likely be stuck with him for several terms. As for the others, I can only go by what I know of them already. A few are crossed out on my list from the start--Meeks, de Jesus & Davis, no thanks. Miguel del Valle has a decent reform record at the City Clerk's office, but so far his campaign has been vague about policy stands. Carol Moseley Braun is the sole exception, she's actually got an "issues" page on her website. She's got good credentials when it comes to sustainability, and she's in favor of doubling the mode share of cycling & transit, for instance, although without saying how she would go about it. Doubling cycling would still put Chicago at only about 4% (somebody correct me if I'm wrong), but doubling transit usage is kind of a big deal. The city already has around a 25% mode share for public transit (already high for the US), and the trains and buses are usually packed. Doubling ridership would require doubling trips and expanding the CTA's budget. Again, no details.

Without further ado, I present to you my list of Things Which Ought to Happen. I'm not full of myself or overestimating my influence, I'm just an unemployed guy with a blog, and I know what my traffic is like. But if I can inspire the debate between even just a couple of likely voters then I will have done what I set out to.

1. Fix the Schools

Okay, easier said than done, since school funding discrepancies are a national problem. But this has to be a top priority, or else any short-term gains will be for nought. I don't have specifics in this arena, as I am not an education expert. But there are plenty of people who are, and they should be consulted. Which leads me to...

2. Hire Department Heads With Relevant Experience

I'm sure Ron Huberman is a decent guy, but where in his CV would it indicate he is qualified to run the nation's third-largest school system? Likewise, CDOT has gone through six commissioners in the past five years. One of Daley's most annoying habits has been his continuation of the old Chicago tradition of appointing political operatives to top positions, rather than promoting talented people from within the departments or recruiting elite candidates from other large cities. The least we should ask is that people who know what they are doing are in charge.

3. TIF Reform

TIFs aren't by nature a bad thing. They've done a comparatively good job of managing them in Denver, for example. But this being Illinois, having a pile of money off the books is never a good idea. TIFs could be very useful for the city, but there needs to be real oversight and transparency.

4. Term Limits

For mayor and aldermen, three four-year terms and you're out. Get rid of the office of ward committeeman as well, no other big city has such a position and we don't need them.

5. Finish Rolling Out the Blue Carts

It's shameful that a city with a mayor who is constantly trumpeting how "green" it is can't do something as simple as pick up recycling. In my corner of the 26th ward, we are still without blue carts, and at this rate we may never see them. Even San Diego does a far better job, and it's been run by conservative Republicans for most of the last century.

6. New Streetlights

This may seem like an odd addition to the list, but there are just too many of them. The city is wasting millions of dollars each year in lost energy costs, not to mention the attendant problems light pollution and carbon emissions from burning coal. Back in the early 70s, Richard J. Daley made a big to-do about doubling the number of streetlights to "take back the night" or whatever. Nowadays, if you fly into Chicago after dark, you can easily see the city limits from above. The surrounding suburbs have far fewer lights and look black by comparison. Today, there are streetlight designs which are more effective at directing light down toward the street where it is needed and not off to the sides or out into space. Simply switching to more efficient bulbs would save at least $5 million a year, not to mention tons of CO2.

7. Curate a Bold Vision of the City's Future

I shouldn't even have to say this. I will not repeat the Daniel Burnham quote, but it's as true now as ever. It may have been easier to dream big in his day, when most of what we now know as Chicago was still prairie, but if the civic leadership really wants to compete with New York, London, etc, we need to stop thinking with a Rust Belt mindset. The first Mayor Daley understood this, and Napoleonic though he may have been, it's a good personality trait when it comes to getting things done. Chicago's future depends on the next generation of leaders at City Hall recognizing that all things are connected. Schools, health care, infrastructure, culture, housing...Chicago will never realize it's true global potential if it is lacking in any of these areas.

Oh, and if you can give me a job that would be super.

18 November 2010

What Can I Do to Put You on this Bike Today?

I hate the notion of a "cycling community". People never speak about a "motoring community" or a "bus riding community", yet the idea that by hoisting yourself up onto two wheels makes you part of a confederacy. A subculture, where you're either one of the rare few who "really gets it" and was doing it "before it was cool", or one of the mass of poseurs just following the crowd. A face in a sea of tickets.

This recently manifested itself in a comment (which I replied a bit snarkily to) on a story Huffington Post Chicago ran on my friend Martha's photoblog Bike Fancy. Now, I don't mean to call out Mr. or Ms. Randomphantom (if that IS their real name) individually, this is an all-too-common attitude. Essentially, "You're not doing it right". That's pretty much how all subcultures operate, but as for me, the bike that I ride is not my identity. It's transportation, pure and simple. It's the same if I drive a car or take the El, I'm just trying to get somewhere, and to look like a normal person in the process.

Personally, I don't really care what kind of bike you want to ride, or what you want to wear when you're doing it, or how fast you want to go. If you've found what's comfortable for you, that's fantastic. I'm much more interested in the people who would ride a bike but presently do not. I have quite a number of friends who fall into this category and when asked, will invariably give one of two responses.

The number one answer is "safety". Most normal people simply do not want to ride a bike in car traffic. I am among them, I'm pretty used to it by now but some days it just sucks. Any city that is serious about increasing mode share has to install segregated cycletracks. That'll upset the vehicular cycling champions out there, but so what? That tactic will only ever appeal to a small minority of cyclists anyhow, if the goal is to get people onto bikes in the first place you have to give them a place of perceived safety. If this was pure conjecture, and the Dutch and the Danes hadn't already proven how to do it, I would say, "Well, maybe". It'll take a city leadership with a clear commitment and political will to make such a drastic infrastructural shift to disprove any naysayers, but it's the only real way. When I visit the Lakefront Trail in Chicago, I'm usually astonished by the sheer numbers of cyclists who use it for their commutes. For me, it's a destination since it's too far out of the way to make sense for commuting, and it makes me wonder how many would be lured out if the proposed trail along the North Branch of the Chicago River or the Bloomingdale Trail were ever built.

The second has to do with the bikes themselves. I've had several people tell me (especially women--an "indicator species" as I've mentioned before) that they would prefer to ride a bike which gives them an upright position on the saddle. When most of the bikes that people see on the roads are racers of one sort or another with somebody hunched over the handlebars, that alone is enough to turn many people off. Of course there are many upright bicycles on the market, but novices are usually not well-informed enough to understand the different styles of bikes, let alone the pros and cons of each. Myself, I know a thing or two, but when folks start talking about forks or cranks or the Tour d'France, I tune out. I know that I am hardly alone in this regard.

Mikael Colville-Andersen and others have written at length about the importance of normalizing bicycling, and I would firmly place myself into their camp. As much as we may hate to admit it, the United States is a solidly consumerist nation, and as such people are highly susceptible to marketing and image. And face it, the image of the self-righteous cyclist in bright safety gear and spandex will never be "cool". The proponents of vehicular cycling strike me as essentially making the argument that if more cyclists "take the road", drivers will eventually leave their cars at home out of some odd sense of self-interest. When neoclassical economists made the same assumption about consumers in our capitalist system, it more or less led to our current morass. It may be a strained analogy, but just as we need new thinking to dig us out of our economic hole, we need new thinking on how to solve the problem of getting people onto bikes.

21 October 2010

In Every Dream Home, a Heartache

Just finished reading this piece from the New York Times Magazine on the trend toward smaller house sizes. In summary, the jury's still out. Houses aren't selling hotly as a rule, and buyers don't seem to know what to make of a "small house" of only 1700 square feet--the average new home size thirty years ago. This got me thinking about the spaces that we live in. My parents' house (which seems huge to me when I visit) was just a shade bigger than average when they bought in 1980. My girlfriend and I reside in a circa 1905 two-story house, which we estimate around 1500 sq ft. That would have seemed palatial to the average Chicago tenement dweller; not as glamorous as the boulevard mansions being erected a few blocks east, but within much closer reach. The later bungalows are even smaller, yet they too represented a huge increase in personal living space for families cramped in minuscule apartments.

To understand how a house that sometimes feels too big can be considered smaller than "small", we have to look at what has become the new normal. The Times piece cites pre-crash model houses topping out at over 6000 sq ft, and a 2007 average of about 2500. By contrast, the average new house in Denmark is only about 1400 sq ft and only 825 sq ft in the UK. The American psyche looms large in these statistics. Our nation's identity is closely linked to a frontier mentality, a notion that there is an inexhaustible supply of both land and resources. This would have made perfect sense to early settlers who happened upon seemingly endless tracts of virgin forest and vast herds of bison. Of course, we hit the west coast 200 years ago and have been steadily populating the gaps ever since, but the myth still lingers. Buy a house for your 2.5 kids, tend a chemically-treated lawn, drive everywhere even if you don't need to, before eventually succumbing to suburban ennui. This is what "normal" people have done for fifty years in this country. (Interestingly, one nation which has kept up with American home sizes is Australia, which I would argue possesses a similar frontier mindset.)

At some point, things went topsy-turvy. I remember as a kid in Southern California, before the real estate bubble that burst in the early 90s, lots of new construction homes going up near where I lived. When my parents bought, the area was the very definition of "exurb", but the suburbs kept on their steady march. As I've alluded before, the subdivision was zoned to keep horses, so the yards were quite large. I grew up on a half-acre lot (it's very unpleasant to mow that much grass in the midst of an Inland Empire heatwave), while new houses were going up with double the square footage on a fraction of the land. The yard...the psychological "land" that ordinary people had envied for centuries, was now a postage-stamp afterthought to a hermetically-sealed living space, replete with formal dining room and four-car garage.

What really bothers me is that I can't even imagine what people do with that much house. As the minimalist aesthetic has never had many American adherents, having a lot of empty space leads to a desire to fill it with stuff. This is turn, drives overconsumption. The bigger the house, the more stuff you need to buy to make it look like it's inhabited. Furthermore, I would suggest that the "breakdown in family life" decried by many social conservatives has less to do with rap music or video games, than by giving kids too much of their own space. When large families lived together in one room, they couldn't avoid spending time together. It's also no coincidence that these sprawling exurban locales are the seat of right-wing support.

But who am I to tell people what kind of house they should want? The house-buying public will, eventually, understand that bigger is not always better. I think that it's a generational shift which is only beginning. If cities are serious about attracting a supposed "creative class", much attention needs to be paid to the state of public schools. It's one thing to get childless twenty-somethings to move in, it's quite another to get them to stick around when they start having kids. The schools are not unfixable, but it will be expensive. South Koreans sacrificed an entire generation of prosperity to invest in their education system, I doubt we could ask the same of the American public. It may be possible to enact such targeted austerity measures on a local scale though.

It's difficult to see the world outside of my liberal urban bubble sometimes. I know it's out there. I've lived there, I know the people. I also feel like I escaped.

13 October 2010

Storm in a Teacup

I've been at a loss for words recently. I've got the skeletons of a few posts rattling around in my brain but I've been too crippled by a Jimmy Carter-sized malaise to flesh them out. Every morning I read (too much) news and it fills me with dread. I'm not a depressive person by nature...I'm often characterized as being overly negative, but I see myself as a realist with a utopian streak more than a pessimist. That's probably what has drawn me into the planning profession (or at least the fringes of it), the promise of making concrete, positive changes on society, however small. That said, my aim is not social engineering. The earliest cities grew organically, but as societies became more advanced and complex it became clear that some sort of method needed to be applied to the madness. The desire to escape the reality of life as it existed in the slums of Chicago/New York/London of the nineteenth century (or the Lagos/Manila/Mumbai/etc. of the 2010's) is as much to blame for our modern planning ills as any government-subsidized highway program.

This is at the root of why libertarian populist movements like the Tea Party seriously disturb me. I share some of their reservations about "big government", but for me those spring from more of a post-Watergate/X-Files angle than a "taxes are bad, mmkay?" platform. It's the military-industrial complex, domestic intelligence agencies, corporate influence and religious zealotry, all cloaked in the unassailable armor of American Exceptionalism, that terrify me, not the wonks at the Department of Transportation or the do-gooders at the EPA. When I read that an (admittedly tiny) group of Tea Party activists are now backing Chris Christie as their candidate du jour, almost solely based on his decision to defund the construction of a new rail tunnel across the Hudson River, it gave me pause. Infrastructure should not be the enemy of the people. The demand is great, and yet the "free" market is not about to step in and offer us some salvation from our national transportation nightmare. Some projects may be misguided or overpriced, but a truly open and transparent debate process would separate the wheat from the pork. There are plenty of ways of reducing the size of government (perhaps a few of the 700,000 civilian employees at the Department of Defense?) or cutting spending (corn syrup subsidies?), but when human lives are lost in bridge collapses, when congestion causes countless millions of dollars to be squandered in lost productivity and wasted fuel, and when anybody with half a brain can tell you we need to wean ourselves from fossil fuels for a host of reasons both environmental and strategic, my level of appall at the arrogance of the opposition is matched only by my disgust at the ineffectiveness of our supposed champions.

My already fleeting optimism is wearing ever thinner. The coming election looks to be shaping up along good old-fashioned scapegoating and fearmongering lines, rather than any serious discussion of What Must Be Done. I think it's a myth that modern political discourse is cruder than in the Good. Ole. Days, but the levels of anti-intellectualism and anti-science are just straight-up depressing. I think we might have reached Idiocracy levels a few centuries early.

12 October 2010

Dirty Old Town

In lieu of the actual post I had planned on writing today (coming soon, promise)...I give you a friend's Facebook status update:

30 September 2010

Du müsst die A-Zug nehmen

Flickr photo by GRÜNE Baden-Württemberg

High-speed rail is great, and better for the environment than cars or airplanes, right? So why are environmental protesters up in arms in Stuttgart, where the government is moving ahead with plans to reconstruct the central rail station as part of an HSR line from Paris to Budapest? All politics, as they say, are local, and have united an odd consortium of fiscal conservatives who insist that the multi-billion Euro project is too expensive during a time of austerity, and Greens who are upset by plans to clearcut a portion of the Schlossgarten park to construct the station's new underground platforms.

The city has seen a number of mass protests over the summer, capped off most recently by the occupation of the park by thousands of people. Just today, police moved in with water cannons & tear gas, no doubt because some of the pensioners in the photo above were getting rowdy. The conservative Christian Democrats (Angela Merkel's party) have held power in the prosperous southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg since 1953, and the uproar is likely to see their coalition fall in local elections in March.

What can we learn from this mess? High-speed rail opponents in the US are likely to hold up this example of why we shouldn't make these investments. But to me, much of the anger seems to stem from the assertion that the money could be better-spent elsewhere. Rather than investing in systematic upgrades, Deutsche Bahn (along with the federal & state governments) have opted for an architectural showcase piece which may end up having little beneficial impact on the German rail network. Infrastructure isn't sexy, and it's always tempting for politicians to back the project with the most visual impact...hopefully the proper lesson is that by picking the wrong ones, it could shorten their careers.

28 September 2010

Queen of the Great Lakes


I had to share this, a 1948 Technicolor travel short entitled "Chicago, the Beautiful". Finding vintage film of the city is impossibly rare, thanks in no small part to Mayor Daley (the first one's) unofficial ban on film productions. Legend has it that the 50s detective series "M Squad" cheesed him off by asserting that a Chicago cop might accept a bribe. So far as I know, other than "Call Northside 777" & a few brief scenes in "North by Northwest", no other features were shot in Chicago until "The Blues Brothers" in 1979.

And speaking of Jake & Elwood, the mall they drove through in the famous chase scene is finally being torn down.

PS...Big thanks to Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile for reposting an earlier piece of mine!


21 September 2010

Bubblin' in Dublin

My recent trip to London also afforded me a chance to visit some good friends on an all-too-short 24 hour whirlwind to Dublin, via a cheap ticket on Ryanair (speaking of whom, this may the best argument yet for investing in a high-speed rail network). This marks my third visit in the last 2 1/2 years, and I must declare that I am rightly impressed with the progress that has been made in developing a bike network. During each subsequent trip, the number of bikes on the street seems to grow exponentially. It is doubly impressive considering that my first visit in May 2008 coincided with the entry into a recession which struck Ireland even harder than most countries, and from which it would appear they have some distance to a recovery. Still, the tail of the Celtic Tiger meant that several large capital projects have been underway for some time and are beginning to come online. Dublin Airport's expansion project is nearing completion (for fans of airport architecture, I might add that the new terminal is absolutely stunning) and traffic improvements include new separated cycletracks along the airport approach.

On the bus to An Lar, I made note of the infrastructure; shared bike/bus lanes and bike boxes at intersections were common even in more suburban car-oriented neighborhoods. Pedestrians were abundant as well, areas that don't look much different from any suburb in the States had a life on the streets that would make any New Urbanist green with envy. I reckon this owes to Ireland's economic history more than anything, the culture of car ownership is relatively new and by the time most working-class people could afford one, Dublin was already a densely-built city.

Upon arrival in the Phibsboro neighborhood, it wasn't long before I came across a dublinbikes docking station...an entirely new development since my last visit, run by JCDecaux, who also operates Paris' Vélib' and who was the original first choice to run Chicago's system back in 2007. The scheme would appear to be a resounding success, having drawn 40,000 subscribers in the first six months. Users pay just €10 for an annual hire card, which then allows them to check out bikes from forty stations across the city centre. The first half hour is free, and given that it's possible to walk pretty much all the way across town in that time it means that subscribers are seldom charged. Best of all, the bikes are branded with only a small Dublin City Council logo, as one of the chief complaints toward London's program is the rolling advertisement for the corporate sponsor. That said, I still think London's bikes are better than Chicago's, given that they are much more noticeable coming down the street. While I like the B-Cycles from an aesthetic standpoint, they would be difficult to pick out by somebody unfamiliar with the program. The "Boris bikes" for all their faults are at least also advertisements for the service itself.

Check out this excellent post over at Copenhagenize for more, along with some great photos of Dublin. I really need to get myself a decent camera.

15 September 2010

Les Bicyclettes de Londres

Back from 'the Smoke' with a tale or two to tell. I wish that I had better photos to document but my camera was constantly malfunctioning. I landed right at the peak of last week's 24-hour Tube strike and set about making my way to the city. Upon alighting the Heathrow Express at Paddington Station, plans called for me to catch a bus to meet the friend I was staying with and collect the keys to her apartment.
Once I reached the street, the chaos of a million disrupted commutes became apparent, as I encountered a mob of hundreds waiting for buses. When mine came up and I realized it was already packed to capacity, and that cabs were in short supply and high demand, I decided that suitcase or no I'd have an easier time of hoofing it to Belgravia. Along the way I passed a rather picked-over cycle hire station, as well as a couple of Londoners with yet another transport alternative:

Unfortunately, the bikes were not an option for me, as you currently need to purchase an annual subscription to the service to use them:

As the empty racks can attest, the bikes were in great demand. From my observation perch on the upper deck of a London bus, it would seem that the highest demand is coming from business guys in suits. They were hardly the only bikes on the streets though, and watching people weave through London traffic gave me an entirely new perspective on just how much street width is needed for a proper bike route. Most London streets have just a few inches clearance between the traffic lane and the curb and yet cyclists were out using those inches in force.

The photo at right gives you an idea of the general alignment, though here in Hyde Park there is a wider-than-average traffic lane and a separated cycletrack alongside. Most streets do not have such a luxurious expanse off to the side, just picture a bike following those yellow stripes. The exception is on streets with bus lanes, which are open not only to cyclists but motorcycles as well, and in some instances, black cabs.

By the following day, the strike had ended and most Tube lines were running pretty much as normal. The shared bikes were still in high use however, and seemingly still mostly by these dashing Savile Row types. I took time to do a mental inventory on the types of private bikes being ridden about the city and it was a little surprising; while most riders tended to be on hybrids, there was a rather large contingency of home-grown Pashleys and similar upright models, a huge number of folding bikes, and the number of fixed-gears I encountered could be counted on one hand.

All in all, it would appear that cycling is thriving in old London town. I arrived just a couple of days after the Mayor of London's Sky Ride, which drew upwards of 85,000 participants this year. As I stood on the sidewalk...er, pavement, on Essex Road in Islington during the evening rush hour, the number of two-wheeled commuters passing me by was astounding. It makes perfect sense to me, in a city where it can take fifteen minutes to move two blocks by motorized vehicle (no joke).

I have a few more posts to wring out of this trip, on Dublin's growing bike infrastructure and on how my learning of Daley's impending retirement colored how I looked at things. Oh, it's good(?) to be back.

03 September 2010

London is the Place for Me

Next week I'll be in London, checking out the bikeshare program, visiting friends and ogling antiquarian maps...just in time for a Tube strike and some typically awful British weather. Expect to hear more about it.

19 August 2010

Selling the Sizzle

Screen grab from Amazon Kindle commerical

I hate television commercials. And yet...I'm secretly fascinated by them. I can't remember the last time that I (consciously) purchased a product based on an advertisement, yet for years now, I have been paying much closer attention to them than might be considered healthy. Not so much to the products on offer or the slogans used to sell them, as to the settings and the mise-en-scene on display. It is for this reason, for example, that I have recognized the mean streets of Portland, Oregon (home to advertising giants Wieden+Kennedy) in an extraordinary number of car commercials over the past few years.

Like many people, I'm pretty much obsessed with Mad Men. I could go into a lengthy diatribe about what I think is going on, but I'll spare you. One of the things I think the show does really well is to illustrate how advertisers are able to tap into the mass psychology driving the zeitgeist (except for the times when they're hilariously out-of-touch, even for the time period). Even before I got sucked into Don Draper's world, I had been noticing something strange happening. Bicycles were everywhere in TV ads. These range from cutesy-schmootsey-ness to pointless mockery to downright irritation. But even more than these ads featuring (sorta) active cycling, there's loads out there where bikes are static props in the background. Small cars being marketed toward urbanites are especially prone to this, I've seen maybe a half dozen auto commercials in the past year where bikes are placed on the sidewalks like any other street furniture.

You're probably thinking, "So what?". Anybody who has ever taken a film class can tell you that nothing gets in the shot that isn't meant to be there. When sets are decorated, they don't just grab a bunch of stuff and throw it out there. Every frame is storyboarded over the course of weeks, if not months, and props are picked very carefully. This isn't to say the directors of any of these commercials is going to be the next Hitchcock (or even Ed Wood), but they do have budget constraints, and nobody goes out and buys a few bikes to stick in their ad "just because". They want their commercial to appeal to a certain demographic, and that demographic is increasingly viewing bicycles as a normal part of the street fabric.

So what if it boils down to little more than crass marketing? The marketing targets the money, and the attitudes of those who would spend that money has changed. Advertisers understand it already, even if politicians don't.

04 August 2010

I Won't Share You

Flickr photo by James Cridland

Chicago joined the ranks of bike-sharing cities last week to much hoopla. Da Mayor cut a ribbon, a couple of newspaper articles were written, and hooray, we have 100 bikes that cost $10 an hour. The bikes are nice, but if you don't happen to pass by one of the six stations (all in the Loop and lakefront tourist bubble), you probably wouldn't even know they were out there. Meanwhile, London launched their Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme (rolls right off the tongue) with 5,000 bikes across the center city and more to come.

I've got a real problem with the way this is rolling out, and I don't have very high hopes that this "trial" will be too successful. If the assumed goal of a bike sharing program is to get people onto bikes who haven't used one in a while, making them available only in the traffic-choked downtown core probably isn't very enticing. If the stations were in actual neighborhoods where actual Chicagoans actually live, people then might decide to try one out, and then realize that riding a bike isn't so bad. This is precisely what has occurred in Paris, since Vélib’ was introduced, sales of adult bicycles have increased.

Over at Urbanophile this week, Aaron Renn has a post on uneven development within cities, a topic which is often on my mind. This is a classic example in my opinion. Chicago's neighborhoods can't get their potholes filled or have their recycling picked up, but the corporate owners of the Willis (née Sears) Tower can get multimillion dollar tax subsidies, and the Loop can get 100 bikes (so long as the city doesn't have to pay for them).

Bike sharing in selected cities by the numbers:

May 1995 - Copenhagen City Bikes - 2,500 bikes, 110 stations (soon to be replaced by a new system)
May 2005 - Lyon Vélo'v - 3,000 bikes, 350 stations
March 2007 - Barcelona Bicing - 3,000 bikes, 400+ stations
June 2007 - Montpellier Vélomagg - 750 bikes, 59 stations
July 2007 - Paris Vélib’ - 20,600 bikes, 1,639 stations
May 2009 - Brussels Villo! - 2,500 bikes, 180 stations
June 2009 - Montreal BIXI - 3,000 bikes, 300 stations
February 2010 - Mexico City Ecobici - 1114 bikes, 84 stations
April 2010 - Denver B-Cycle - 400 bikes, 40 stations
May 2010 - Melbourne BIXI - 610 bikes, 52 stations
June 2010 - Minneapolis BIXI - 700 bikes, 65 stations
July 2010 - London Barclays Cycle Hire - 5,000 bikes, 315 stations (so far)
2011 - Toronto BIXI - 1,000 bikes
July 2010 - Chicago B-Cycle - 100 bikes, 6 stations

Chicago is the third-largest of the cities listed above in population, yet with the current numbers there is roughly one shared bike for every 28,000 residents. That oft-repeated Chicago axiom (falsely) attributed to Daniel Burnham comes to mind..."make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized". Even the much-maligned SmartBike DC program is more widespread. It may all be in vain anyhow...if the predicted Tea Party electoral gains actually materialize this November, at least Denver's system could be in jeopardy. A gubernatorial candidate in Colorado apparently believes bike-sharing is part of some devilish UN plot to subjugate Real Americans. The future looks bright, friends.

02 August 2010

Lest I Forget

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about dangerous cycling spots in Chicago. That post garnered a lot of positive feedback and I subsequently realized that I forgot about one of the worst ones. Logan Boulevard & Western Avenue.

Logan is a major bike route, connecting the boulevard system to Elston Avenue. Let us begin with Logan eastbound as it passes under the Kennedy Expressway:

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The boulevards feature service drives, which I always use as the center lanes have very little curb clearance and high speeds. As Logan approaches the Expressway, these end and bikes must enter the lane or use the sidewalk. The road curves as it passes under the freeway and the train viaduct, which is just a bad combination. I don't like driving west through here in late afternoon as well, when the light goes from dark shadow to blinding sun in an instant, all while managing a curve and trying not to hit a cyclist on your right.

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Moving along, Logan crosses Western Avenue, one of the busiest streets in the entire city. Here you can see the bad combination of shadow and street alignment. Furthermore, as you cross Western, Logan narrows from two lanes to one, before a dedicated bike lane appears. Traffic is often nightmarish here, with many people trying to turn left across the bike lane into the Target parking lot.

This one I don't have any simple answers for. I have lots of complicated, expensive ones but I doubt those will get very far. At the very least, bikes need to be given their own space under the freeway overpass. There's already been one cyclist fatality at this intersection in the last couple of years, memorialized by a ghost bike. (As an aside, while I appreciate the ghost bikes, I find this one to be rather distracting every time I pass it. I would hate to have to point out the irony if someday somebody were killed because a driver or cyclist was too focused on the side of the road.)

More posts to come in the near future, I've gotten some excellent feedback lately and it's greatly appreciated. Nice to know there's somebody out in the inter-ether.

09 July 2010

The Bicycle Commuter's Blues

Despite the complaints I leveled in my last post, riding a bike in Chicago is mostly not so bad. There are the maniac cabbies, the summer humidity, the winter ice, but 95% of the time it's a breeze. But every cyclist has their own personal donnybrooks...those spots where all rules of the road go out the window in a quest for survival. The route I follow from home to downtown and back again uses Milwaukee Avenue, possibly the most heavily trafficked street by Chicago cyclists, and as good a candidate for a cycle superhighway as ever there was one. Just because it's the street of choice connecting downtown with points northwest doesn't mean it's always optimal, however. I give you the top seven worst cycling locations from my commute.

1. Milwaukee & Kinzie/Desplaines

Let's start at the end of the line, where Milwaukee ends and feeds you onto Kinzie and into River North & the Loop.

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This is by far my least favorite intersection. Car traffic is generally heavy, especially during rush hour, and getting across to the turn lane is sometimes nearly impossible. The left turn signal cycle is exceptionally short for such a broad intersection, only enough time for one bike to make it across legally. Unsurprisingly, the bicycle crash density in this location is quite high.

Solution: Bike box for left turns and Amsterdam-style traffic signals giving priority to turning bikes.

2. Milwaukee & Elston

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What happens when two diagonals meet? My problem here is on the northwest-bound side of Milwaukee as you approach Elston. The lane for cars turning onto Elston is very short and cars must often cross the bike lane at the last minute to merge. Once again we see a high density of crashes.

Solution: Disallow street parking on the north side of Milwaukee between Chicago & Elston to give drivers more space to change lanes.

3. Milwaukee & Wood/Wolcott

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This intersection is a mess for so many reasons. The odd angle and the placement of the traffic lights make for confusion on the part of many drivers, cyclists & pedestrians, and once again, a high density of crashes.

Solution: I like what Norsman Architects has proposed, bulb-outs to slow traffic and a realignment of Wood & Wolcott so they meet one another head on. (Incidentally, this is also the location of the Walgreens store which I have discussed in previous posts.)

4. Milwaukee between Wood & North

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Just beyond that intersection things get pretty dicey during rush hour. The street narrows slightly cutting the amount of clearance for bikes. Automotive traffic is usually backed up quite some distance and cars are parked all along the right side, making it feel like riding through a canyon. Parked cars are constantly swinging open doors and jaywalkers dart out from between them. Bike traffic also usually gets bottlenecked in this stretch. To make matters worse, delivery vehicles often double-park in the bike lane.

Solution: Dare I say it? Eliminate parking and install a separated bike lane.

5. Milwaukee & Western

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Not such a bad intersection really, except for the entrance to the McDonald's parking lot on Milwaukee. Drivers come in and out with no regard to the bike lane or pedestrians on the sidewalk, and honestly I can't see any good reason to have a parking entrance so close to a major intersection.

6. Palmer & Humboldt/Sacramento

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I have no idea what the city traffic engineers were thinking when they adapted Palmer Square for automobile use. The city has recently painted a nice bike lane around it, but the westbound entrance to the square still poses problems. If you are traveling west on Palmer and wish to continue on doing so, you have to watch out that somebody isn't coming around the little half-roundabout and deciding to cut over at the last moment to make a right onto Sacramento. You on your bicycle are all but invisible to them, since there are cars parked in the middle of the street at nearly all hours.

Solution: Cars shouldn't be allowed to park in the middle of the street!

7. Logan Square

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Not actually part of my daily commute, but I have to deal with it all the time since I live nearby. If you enter any part of the sort-of roundabout on a bike, it is very confusing which lane to use, and drivers are less than forgiving. There's been talk by the city of rerouting Milwaukee to make it a true roundabout, I'll believe that when I see it. Anyhow, it doesn't quite answer the question of how to ride safely southbound on Kedzie, or eastbound from Wrightwood to Logan/Milwaukee.

Solution: Integrate bicycle infrastructure such as separated lanes in any redesign scheme.

Easy right? Anybody else care to share their least favorite places to cycle?

03 July 2010

Everybody Loves the Sunshine

Everything old is new again. Was flipping through one of those Taschen photo books at a friend's house recently and this caught my eye. A quartet of young Berliners enjoying their "green roof" in 1926. Enjoy the long weekend, everybody.

01 July 2010

The World Laps Chicago

Since the World Cup is on it's two-day break before the quarterfinals begin, I have a chance to think about things less important. A few years back, Chicago was held up as a shining example of what big cities could do with bicycle infrastructure when the civic elites set their minds to it. Then, apparently, Mayor Daley got distracted by his dreams of Olympic glory, selling off the rights to the city's parking meters, inventing new ways to use the English language and who knows what else. Nowadays, a lot more is happening in New York, London & Mexico City than here at home.

I've been reading about what transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is doing in New York for the last couple of years with great envy. It wasn't until I finally booked myself a trip to London later this year that I realized how much we've slipped. As we all know, London is a sprawling metropolis, and as excellent as their transit system is, I've grown so accustomed to getting around by bike that I figured it would help out my patience and my wallet to do so during my visit. They don't have an ideal system in place just yet, and reading the comments on various posts on the Guardian's bike blog would indicate that there is still a very, very long way to go. But let's run down what's coming down the pike just this summer...400 bike share stations throughout the center city and completion of the first two "cycle superhighways". All under the aegis of a Conservative mayor in need of a new hairstyle who rides a bike to work. The city is spending £110 million just this year, a big chunk of which is coming from Barclays, who get naming rights to the programs and even get to put their logo on the maintenance crew's uniforms. But what impressed me more than anything is that the city's bicycle plan is totally integrated within the framework of Transport for London (TfL), the government body charged with running the Tube and double-deckers. Go to TfL's website and you can find an entire section with information on bike sharing, route planning and even a page where users can upload their own routes into a Google Maps mashup.

Again, the system isn't perfect, one of the largest flaws being that bikes aren't allowed on subway trains and only on buses "at the driver's discretion". However, it really got me thinking about the RTA here in Chicago. Public transit planners worldwide struggle with the dilemma of the "last mile". Including bikes in the equation would make transit a lot more attractive, especially in the suburbs, but of course only if adequate infrastructure exists to ride them on. This is something London really isn't too far ahead of us on, traffic has decreased since congestion pricing went into effect, but it's still pretty horrendous. And those streets are narrow, some London streets could fit into a single lane in a place like Schaumburg.

Speaking of lane width, I remember hearing an anecdote once about how the Mexican government promised to double the total mileage of the Mexico City's freeways by the end of a certain year. Money for the project either dried up or was siphoned off and the authorities simply doubled the number of lanes by remarking the roads and claimed it as a success. Nowadays I guess we would call this a road diet. The effect of these sorts of actions just made room for more cars, and now the city government is attempting to undo some of the ill effects, notably the infamous air pollution. A few years back they introduced the hoy no circula scheme, which restricts drivers from using their cars on a certain day each week based on the last number on their license plate. Now, the local government is pushing bikes as the ultimate solution and has begun by expanding bike parking, installing ramps down stairs into Metro stations, bike boxes, pedestrian bollards, bike sharing, all that good stuff.

None of this stuff is all that difficult. Chicago had a deal in the works for a bike share program a couple of years ago that fell apart, and is now tentatively moving forward with 100 bikes at six stations. Six. Compared with 400 in London, where stations will be no more than 400 meters apart, which do you think will be more successful? Despite Complete Streets design measures being passed by the city, county and state, I've seen very little in the way of new bike lanes, bike parking, bike anything over the past couple years. There has been some stirrings of support for bike boulevards and the like, but it seems like the grassroots support falls on deaf ears at CDOT, possibly because the agency just named it's sixth commissioner in five years? Mayor Daley set a very ambitious course five years ago with his Bike 2015 Plan...unfortunately, the amount of work left to do is daunting.

18 June 2010

World Cup Songs -- Group of Death Edition

I realize that the number of people who care as much as I do about World Cup songs can be counted on one hand, but do I let that bother me? There are literally hundreds of official and unofficial songs out there on YouTube...England alone has dozens, leading me to believe that the lead-up to the World Cup must have provided quite an economic spark to local English video production houses. As a result, I'm back with more favorites.

1. Ghana: K&Q All Stars, "Ghana Black Stars"

Enjoyed Ghana's performance against Serbia and am hoping they advance. Here's some auto-tuned West African hip-hop to spur them on.

2. England: Rik Mayall's Noble England, "World Cup Anthem 2010"

Yeah, that Rik Mayall. An "official unofficial" song...seems a bit odd but wait for the comic payoff at the end.

3. Australia: John Duffin, "Here Come the Socceroos"

The runner-up in a tv competition for an official song, and much better than the winner. Alcoholism jokes and cheerleaders!

4. Republic of Ireland: The Mighty Stef, "Protest Song With No Name"

One of the great things about football is how long the fans will hold grudges...Brazilians still haven't forgiven their team for losing in the 1950 final to Uruguay. So Ireland "lost" to France in the qualifiers, but only with the help of Thierry Henry's handball. My friend Stefan Murphy, Dublin resident, Ireland supporter and general raconteur, penned this song in protest.

5. England: The Skatoons, "The World Cup's Waiting for You"

A bit naff, as the limeys might say. What can I say, I was really wishing to see a Madness song for the Cup, I guess this will have to do.

10 June 2010

The World Cup of World Cup Songs

If you'll indulge me to go wildly off-topic, you may have heard that the World Cup is upon us. I am very excited, because, well, it's the World Cup. For the next month, you will find me watching television very early in the morning. Every World Cup brings with it official songs for many of the national teams. Most of them are absolutely terrible, which is why I'm obsessed with them. I have watched a lot of them, good, bad and completely forgettable, so you don't have to. These are my favorites (so far) of 2010.

1. South Korea: T-ara, "We Are the One"

First, a peppy little k-pop anthem called "We Are the One" by girl group T-ara:

2. England: Robbie Williams, Russell Brand, Baddiel & Skinner, "Three Lions 2010"

I was skeptical about the lineup here, but it's actually a pretty good song, real "Parklife"-ish Britpop, and readymade for the terraces.

3. Germany: Ikke Hüftgold, "FUSSBALLGÖTTER"

And then there were the Germans. "Football Gods". Really speaks for itself.

4. Nigeria: Paj ft. Tolumide, "Goalaaaso (Inside the Net)"

Another favorite...this is for the Super Eagles of Nigeria. Awesome afroelectro style.

5. Algeria: various, "1 2 3 Viva l'Algerie"

Last, but of course not least, here's an all-star jam a la "We Are the World" featuring the Algerian entertainment world's biggest names. I assume.

01 June 2010

Kultur Takes the Ruhr

Whoops, no posts in the month of May. Sorry about that. I don't know how some people make the time to update their blogs regularly with interesting content. Rest assured, I have not abandoned this thing, I have a few posts I'm working over in my head that should arise in the coming weeks. Patience is a virtue, or so I am told.

I was watching the Deutsche Welle news last week (what, doesn't everybody?) and saw a really interesting piece on the Ruhr Valley's preparations to be one of the European Capitals of Culture 2010 under the theme "Art, Culture & Energy". I've been hoping that the video would go up so I could share it with you lovely people, but so far no dice. So to break it down for you, Germany's Ruhr Valley contains the cities of Essen, Gelsenkirchen, Dortmund and is home to about twelve million people. It was once Germany's industrial and coal mining heartland, though most of the factories have since migrated to cheaper realms in the former East Germany and beyond. The folks in charge of regional planning have apparently been listening quite intently to the likes of Richard Florida and have been busy reinventing the area's image. Where once stood smokestacks, now there are, um, three hundred and eleven luftballons.

The EU's Culture Capital program is ostensibly a chance for cities to showcase their unique character to tourists, which on the surface seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do. But as Andrew Ross has written, it's become little more than a feeding trough for real estate developers at the expense of the displaced working classes. Writing about Glasgow's experience as the Culture Capital for 1990, Ross posits that "the familiar lopsided footprint of neoliberalism made itself visible in a system of labor apartheid that displayed an ever-firmer spatial demarcation between the residences, workplaces, and playgrounds of the ascendant professional service classes and those of the low-wage and unemployed populations at the city margins. From the standpoint of arts practitioners themselves, a 2004 study showed that the progressive legacy of 1990 was widely perceived to have been squandered by the data-focused bureaucracy in charge of cultural policy in the intervening years. An obsession with audience numbers and quotas had inhibited the sustainable growth of jobs in the sector." (Ross 2009; pp 30-32) He goes on to cite a 2007 Demos report by saying "city boosters who followed the model were locked into...a 'cultural arms race,' competing for finite pools of investment resources, cultural workers, audiences, tourist streams, and signature archistectural icons." (Ibid.) As a witness to Chicago's recent failed bid for the Olympics I can relate.

Florida is not without his critics, but his ideas (most of which he amalgamated from other sources, but I digress) are popular among city managers worldwide...and he has made quite a lot of money selling communities his services. But honestly, the way small cities are latching onto this bandwagon is a bit silly. Not to pick on Duluth, Minnesota--I'm sure it's a lovely town for three months out of the year--but does anybody honestly believe that anybody will be drawn there just because the city paints a few bike lanes and cuts tax breaks to art galleries? Don't misunderstand me, those are nice things to have, but the way Florida is selling these ideas as a panacea to dying towns seems a bit disingenuous. It may work for some, and places like Pittsburgh have had success, but the idea that Pittsburgh's revival is reproducible anywhere is preposterous. The much sought-after "creatives" are a limited resource, and most of them tend to be drawn to places that have already reached a critical mass. Large ponds may translate to a lot of small fish, but it also means more ideas being bounced around and more "creativity", however you want to define it. For all of it's qualities, Duluth lacks two critical components to revitalizing a city: connections with the outside world and existing, philanthropic wealth. You need one or the other to get on your way. I'm sure Duluth has it's prominent families that made fortunes from the iron mines, but nothing close to Pittsburgh's collection of Mellons and Heinzes and Scaifes and their associated charitable endowments.