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.