Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Jason Tinkey: The World Laps Chicago

[ Today I’m launching a series of posts leading up February’s Chicago mayoral election called the Future of Chicago. I will share my own thoughts on the critical issues facing Chicago today, along with important views of others where I can get them. In fact, I start with a perspective today by relatively new blogger Jason Tinkey who writes at The Planner’s Dream Gone Wrong. Tinkey highlights one of the major civic problems, namely how Chicago, once an innovator and leader in public space design, has fallen woefully behind. Today’s example: bike infrastructure – Aaron ]

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.

This post originally appeared in The Planner’s Dream Gone Wrong. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Chicago

6 Responses to “Jason Tinkey: The World Laps Chicago”

  1. the urban politician says:

    This blogger is wasting my time.

    Why is he comparing Chicago to London?

    You don’t compare American cities to European ones–that’s a no-no. Here is how these cities are perceived by their national Governments:

    American cities: fend for yourselves, you crony and pork-infested hell-holes!
    European cities: here’s a blank check

  2. AMen says:

    “the urban politician” is right. In fact, never compare things, ever; you might find yourself learning something and we can’t have that.

  3. Roland S says:

    How are the “cycle superhighways” any better than Chicago’s bike lanes? They don’t look any different to me. I’m sure their creation is a much, much more profound event, since road space is such a precious commodity in London, but that still doesn’t put London ahead of Chicago.

    The bike sharing program is a manifestation of Europe’s collectivist attitudes. Here, lots of people would probably shudder at riding a bike somebody else had ridden on and touched. Plus, in image-conscious America, I can’t see stylish urbanites riding one of those frumpy, odd-looking rental bikes.

    Transit service is obviously better provided by governments than private companies, but why can’t the free market work for bike rentals? Chicago should issue an RFP for bike-sharing programs. Bidders would bear all costs, including the construction of storage facilities, the purchase and maintenance of bikes, and the rental of space on city streets and in transit stations.

    Of course, there’s also the winter factor. Temperate European cities can run successful bike sharing programs. But who’s gonna want to rent a bike in Chicago when it’s sleeting and the roads are slick? What happens if the bike gets a flat under the aforementioned conditions? What do you do about bike theft and vandalism? These are all huge risks that Chicago must take on to implement a sizable bike sharing program. I understand risk and reward, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still bad bets.

  4. Obviously Chicago will never be Copenhagen. But the point is that at one point Chicago was leading. It was the place others pointed to as the shining light of bike lanes and facilities (remember when the McDonald’s cycle center was the big ooh and ahh generator?) But it has basically stagnated while the world moved on.

    TUP, I think that’s my difference vs. you. I think my take on Chicago was similar to yours up until around 2006. But once the Millennium Park afterglow wore off, Chicago just hasn’t had much to replace it with. As Tinkey noted, Daley got distracted with things like the Olympics, Miegs Field, demolishing Michael Reese, building a half-finished $200M station on block 37, parking meters, etc. He forgot what made him a great mayor earlier in his administration.

    As for some of those European cities, as Tinkey notes, most of the money is private, not public.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    London’s bike lanes really suck, actually. They’re not up to standard, and they disappear into car lanes just like in Chicago. If you want good implementation, go to New York, or Paris.

  6. Steven Vance says:

    Roland: The City of Chicago issued an RFP (I think in 2007) for bike sharing and received two bids (one from JCDecaux, I don’t know the second bidder). JCD operates Paris’s Vélib bike sharing as well as our street fixtures, including newspaper stands and bus stops.

    From what I heard, JCD was interested in operating such a system here if the City would take on the liability insurance. It seems the City was not interested in funding that.

    It’s important to distinguish between the City of Chicago and the operator of the “bike sharing” enterprise. B-Cycle is 100% operated by Bike & Roll, a for-profit bike and Segway rental company using public space donated for that purpose.

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