28 November 2011

It's Not a War, it's a "Global Struggle"

The opening salvo has been fired, and the much-anticipated "War on Cars" has finally made its way to the Windy City, via an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune by one John McCarron, adjunct professor of urban studies at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. It's the sort of screed we've come to expect, full of outdated stereotypes, faulty logic and straight-up misinformation.

Let's begin with the elephant in the room. From 2001-2009, 369,629 people died on America's roads, an average of over 41,000 per year. To put that in perspective, that is just above 0.1 per cent of the national population, equivalent to a city the size of Minneapolis being wiped out, or nearly 125 9/11 attacks. I really think it's time the streets-are-for-cars-so-everybody-else-can-get-out-of-my-way-or-go-fuck-themselves crowd drops the "war on cars" rhetoric. Unless, of course, they're willing to confront the crimes against humanity waged in their name over the past couple of generations. Nearly everybody has lost somebody near and dear to them in an automobile crash, yet somehow we accept these losses as the cost of simply moving around. Per capita casualty rates are significantly lower in every other industrialized nation, so why does it need to be this way?

To answer this, we must look at how we've built our cities over the past fifty years. It's no secret that trillions in federal funding has gone to subsidize freeway-centric development. We've paved over some of the most productive farmland in the world so that people could feel like gentleman farmers of yore, tending their quarter-acre lawns. It always takes time for latent costs to become apparent, in this case a confluence of factors including the housing market collapse, rising crude oil prices, crumbling infrastructure, political gridlock and a rash of other reasons have created a perfect storm of generational discontent.

He's right about one thing, all the bike lanes in the world are pointless for the elderly or infirm. But then again, so is auto-centric development. When my 95-year-old grandmother's eyesight got too poor for her to drive safely, she had to leave her small-town home of nearly four decades to move in with my parents. Not that she necessarily wanted to, but the nearest grocery store was twenty miles away, and the prospect of being a shut-in unable to walk to even the most basic of amenities can be a powerful motivator. This speaks more to a history of misplaced priorities than anything. You're expected to drive, drive, drive, everywhere you go, until you get too old and start running people over, then we don't care about you anymore. May as well check yourself into a hospice and welcome the enveloping darkness.

I'll grant McCarron one more point. He would look silly in "cyclist couture", then again most people do. But to presume that you need to be Spandexed-out to ride a bicycle is patently absurd, and proof that he is clueless about what is fueling this cultural shift. Anybody dressed in such a fashion who is not involved in an organized race, is, in my estimation, a dweeb, and I enjoy snickering and sneering at them every time they whip past me and my heavy steel-frame commuter. I'm in no mad rush, you see. Even at my slower pace I can make the trip downtown in roughly the same amount of time it would take to drive, fight off traffic and search for parking. Furthermore, I certainly get no ego boost from cycling. If anything, my id feels threatened every time a driver passes too close or speeds by.

It's time we recognize that maybe cars just aren't all that good for us. Something happens to us when we get behind the wheel, where even the most good-natured among us turn into assholes. We suffer from a national addiction deadlier than all illegal drugs combined. I readily admit that cars are useful tools, but heroin can also be a useful sedative. Our reptilian brains progressed through all of evolutionary history going only as fast as our two feet could take us. Then somebody domesticated the horse, and we maxed out for another 4000 years or so. We've had the use of cars, and the speed and power they represent, for about 100 years, "forever" in our short-attention-span culture, but hardly a blip in the Grand Scheme of Things. Will cars even still exist in another century? What am I, Kreskin? In some form I'm sure they will, but I doubt we would recognize them as such. Will every single person drive around by themselves all the time? Most assuredly not. People are changing their habits, and society is being forced to come along. This is hardly limited to Chicago, to the United States, or even to the developed world. As a species, we are finally realizing that moving people is more important than moving cars. And if you don't like it, move to Houston.

19 September 2011

Public-Private Regionalism

Just saw an unexpected commercial on television, on the surface a rare example of cooperation across state lines. An ad extolling the collective touristic amenities of the states along the Gulf Coast (Texas not included), rather than the time-honored provincial approach. As I watched, I thought to myself, "what a geographically unlikely and yet completely sensible idea". Right up until the end.

Y'all come on down to the Gulf and eat some gumbo, from your benevolent friends at British Petroleum! No wonder the states are involved in such a logical campaign. BP is facing billions in fines and clean-up costs (hopefully--the proverbial jury is still out), it makes sense that they would want to pool their resources, rather than paying each state's tourist board independently. The madness has even spread to the region's seafood processing trade group, whose executive director says "state marketing efforts are a mistake, trying to brand a product by a state label is inane." As true for shrimp as for steel beams or airplane parts.

So i guess all it takes for states and cities to rethink their spatial limitations is an environmental catastrophe. No doubt you've heard that local governments coast-to-coast are in trouble, and they increasingly look to corporations to finance everything from playgrounds to entire healthcare systems. Apple can spend $4 million to renovate one transit station in Chicago, or they can spend $10 million to spread the goodwill to five or six different cities through economies of scale. Probably a better investment than a Super Bowl ad.

Economy of scale also translates to a cookie-cutter attitude to projects. Rather than taking context-sensitive approaches, a company seeking some good short-to-medium-term PR can hire a design firm to create a playground/stadium/freeway interchange that "reinforces the brand" in some way, and offer the template up to cash-strapped municipalities across the land. Faced with crumbling infrastructures and lacking the funds to do anything about it, it's a deal many mayors and city managers desperate for tangible proof that they're doing something may be unable to pass up. It would be years (a couple of election cycles, at least) before folks realize whether or not a one-size-fits-all public works project in fact, does.

29 August 2011

2011, A.D. (After Dooring)

I've been called a lot of names, both affectionate and otherwise in my day, and as of a little over a week ago, I can add yet another slur: statistic. Ladies & gents, I must now claim my place among Chicago's growing legion of victims of car doors.

There I was, happily trundling along Milwaukee Avenue on my evening commute when suddenly, a car door swings open just feet ahead of me. I managed to swerve out of the way and avoid hitting the woman and her door, but the sudden jerky movement of my heavy bike that is not designed for such sudden jerky movements brought both bike and rider crashing to the pavement.

In that split second, a hyper-awareness of my surroundings kicked in, predominated by the thought, "Oh shit, there's a van right behind me on my left." To the credit of the van's driver, he managed to stop mere inches from running me over. I hate to think what might have happened had he been momentarily distracted via text message, a bad song coming on the radio or what have you.

"I didn't see you!", I was told. Yeah, no shit. Luckily for all involved, damage to human and bicycle was minimal. I walked away with a sprained finger and a pretty gnarly bruise on my right thigh. I was pretty shaken up by the event, and in all the commotion dealing with the fire crew and paramedics that arrived on the scene, I somehow managed not to notice the motorist stealthfully leave the scene. One of the firefighters took down the license plate number before she left, and this was included in the police report. So not only was I doored, but I'm now among Chicago's lucky hit-and-run victims, as well. Bravo.

I've been relying on two-wheeled transport for several years now, and this was by far the worst thing that has happened to me. It's also been remarkable how one incident can erase years' worth of confidence on a bicycle. I got my bike out of the shop on Saturday afternoon and my first time in traffic that evening (mild traffic at that, and on my own block) nearly gave me a panic attack.

Of course, this sort of crash is entirely preventable. It's also entirely foreseeable. I wrote in this very blog just a few months back about Milwaukee Avenue's narrow chasm of doom also known as the "shared lane". Since that time, I had been riding up and down that strip anyhow, in the belief that the most direct route must be the best. I put that theory to the test this morning, my first day back on the steel horse for my commute. I took my winding, all-backstreet route from Logan Square to downtown, it added...wait for it...five whole minutes to my trip. During which time I was able to roll along at my own comfortable pace, without jerky dudes passing me on the right. So I guess this is it, Milwaukee Avenue. We've had a good run, but I'm not going anywhere near you until some changes are made in your street design.

As an aside, apologies for the recent dearth of posts. I started a new job a couple months back which has been taking up my time. The dust is beginning to settle now so I hope to get back to a semi-regular thing around here.

14 May 2011

Garden Crazed

It's spring in Chicago, and the lilacs are blooming (although it feels more like November at the moment). In the spirit of the thing, I present the latest installment of my occasional  "everything old is new again" series: community gardens. Examine the news brief to your right, from the March 19, 1917 edition of the Day Book, a fascinating advertising-free, pro-labor tabloid.

I love the reference to "food speculators". You can search the paper's full archives online, thanks to the Library of Congress. I wish that it made note of the location of the first garden. I've been on a bit of a hyperlocal history bender of late, and Hermosa is just slightly west of where I live.

In general blog news, I recently switched to a new URL. The old blogspot address will redirect you, but should you wish to update your bookmarks, you can now reach this page at http://blog.theplannersdreamgonewrong.com

Unfortunately, in the switch I lost my blogroll. So if I used to link to your site, and I don't anymore, it's nothing personal. Drop a note and let me know, I just couldn't remember all of them.

28 April 2011

Better Bike Routes

In discussions with Chicago friends who would like to bike in the city but do not, one thing I invariably hear is that they "don't want to ride in traffic". A lot of this has to do with non-cyclists' conceptions of safety, but still, I can't say that I blame them. In spite of what the vehicular cycling lobby would have you believe, most normal people would rather not cruise along next to several tons of careening steel. I've been on two wheels for primary transport for a few years now and often still get a little antsy when thrown into the mix against some of the most aggressive, least-forgiving drivers I've ever encountered (and I've driven in Tijuana). The city's official bike routes recognize this fact, which is why certain busy streets like Western or North Avenues are advised against. And yet a street like Milwaukee Avenue, which in it's current alignment only is wide enough for a shared lane, is a recommended route, with the highest concentration of cyclists. It is also where I have had most of my closest calls with being doored. Most of the time, Milwaukee's really not so bad. While I do subscribe to the "safety in numbers" argument, get out there during rush hour with idling cars backed up for a couple blocks in that narrow little gap between the parked ones, with a dozen or so other cyclists hot on your tail, and there's not much room for error.

I've lived in Chicago for going on eight years now, and I've resided that entire time west of Western Avenue, in various parts of the Humboldt Park, Avondale and Logan Square neighborhoods. This area easily has one of the highest rates of cycling per capita in the city, but only a fraction of the infrastructure that you would find further east. One part of the problem is the damage inflicted on the built environment by the Kennedy Expressway. Many side streets which used to have throughput now dead-end at a 300-foot-wide wall of concrete and congestion. As experience has shown, this has a deleterious effect on local traffic flows, forcing more cars onto fewer surface streets. As the traffic on those streets has gotten heavier, the conditions for cycling on them have deteriorated in hand.

So as a person who simply wishes to reach his destination without being flattened, and while breathing as little exhaust as possible, I often take to the side streets. It's easier than it sounds, what with Chicago being on a neat, tidy little grid and all. But finding quiet streets that intersect busy ones at places where it is possible to cross them is rather trickier. Illinois motorists are required by law to stop if you're in a crosswalk, but I've yet to see many people actually do so. But breathe easier, timid near-northwest side denizens! I've done the work so you don't have to. Behold, a new map to get you where you're going in one piece:

As you can see, I focused primarily on the Logan Square, Avondale and West Town community areas, as that is the section of the city I have the most familiarity with. You may also see that Lincoln Park already has a much more extensive network than the lower-income neighborhoods west of the river. 

It is certainly not perfect, this is still very much a work-in-progress and subject to many future revisions. I apologize that I was unable to include labels on this version, due to it's small size. I am open to any suggestions that any of you may have. The red lines indicate current, CDOT-approved routes, the yellow ones are mine, and the orange are where they overlap. Many of the streets are one-ways, which could make a case for the city building more contraflow bike lanes (we have a grand total of ONE so far) or bike boulevards. Many of these side streets have speed humps or pretty awful potholes in some places, but that's a trade-off I'm willing to make for the sake of having the entire street to myself for blocks at a time. I have steel rims, anyhow.

Another issue is access over the Chicago River (link to Steve Vance's map of "untreated" bridges). Diversey is an official route, but personally I hate using that bridge on a bike. Webster and Kinzie are much quieter in terms of traffic, and make for good bike routes, but they are open-grate bridges which always feel like they are going to shred my steel-belted tires. Cortland is the only bridge across the North Branch with the combination of relatively low speeds and a surface safe for bikes, but that doesn't do you much good if you have to go a mile out of your way to get to it.

Much work needs to be done to provide citywide routes safe enough for people to overcome their fears and get onto bikes. Ultimately, I'd love to see separated infrastructure all over the place, but realistically it could be decades. But with this guy coming in to head Mayor Emanuel's version of CDOT, we might just get lucky.

UPDATE: 4/28 6:32pm

I've fixed the kml layer that was at the base of the map, no small feat as Google Maps constantly crashes on me. My own fault for not labeling it as I was going along. So now, a version with labels. You're welcome. Full size available here.