Mindful Metropolis — July 2011
Change Language:
Why You May Never Need Another Car
Jessica Mason

Though study after study shows that choosing alternative forms of transportation can make you healthier, wealthier and happier—not to mention provide less tangible benefits like decreased pollution and reliance on foreign oil—it’s the reasons not to that tend to stick with us. Biking seems dangerous.Transit is slow, unreliable and—let’s face it—sometimes gross. Th en, there are the places you need to go that aren’t easily accessible by any other means than a car.

But, if you live in Chicago, these excuses may not be valid for long.

Real support for alternative transit

When it comes to bike friendliness, “Vote with Your Feet” blogger and alternative transit advocate John Greenfield, predicts that Mayor Daley’s legacy will pale in comparison to that of our new mayor. Greenfield characterizes Daley as having been bikefriendly, but in a passive sense.

“He basically allowed Chicago to become a great bike city,” says Greenfield. Rahm Emanuel, on the other hand, not only has a personal interest in cycling but has kickstarted his first term as mayor with a detailed plan for improving the city’s bike and transit networks and the appointment of a new transportation commissioner with a reputation for getting things done.

Experts are also confident that Emanuel will be willing to open the city coffers for bike initiatives—something Mayor Daley had always been loath to do.

“I think there was always a feeling that ‘Oh, if we actually spend city money on biking, that’s too far out.Most Chicagoans wouldn’t support that. Most Chicagoans think that driving is the only practical way to get around,’ whereas in more liberal cities I think there was sort of a sense that people would understand that bike projects are a whole lot cheaper than car projects and think that they’re a worthwhile thing to Spend money on,” says Greenfield.

Support for green transit initiatives is also growing among city council members. Th is March, Aldermen Colón, Moreno and Re-boyras journeyed to Seville, Spain to check out the city’s protected bike network and came back determined to make it a reality in their own wards. On a smaller scale, wards across the city are beginning to use menu funds to make their streets more bike-friendly and their business districts more conducive to pedestrian traffic.

a world-class bike network

In addition to doubling the number of painted bike lanes in Chicago, Mayor Emanuel has also pledged to build 25 miles of cycle track, bike lanes that are physically separate from motorized traffic, for each year he’s in office; meaning, if he keeps his promise, the city will have nearly as many miles of protected bike-ways by 2015 as it has regular bike lanes now.

Former executive director of Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance and SRAM Cycling Fund Director Randy Neufeld points out that cycle tracks, because they eliminate many of the dangers and difficulties of sharing the road with automobiles, will play a major role in encouraging more people to bike in the city.

“Right now, you’ve got a painted stripe in a bike lane and, if there’s somebody double parking in it, it’s not very useful,” says Neufeld. “Protected bike lanes can Bring out more folks—especially kids and seniors, but really anybody who’s less comfortable in traffic.”

In addition to new bike lanes, within his first term, the mayor plans to expand the city’s bike share program to ten times its current size.

Transit as a first choice

As Greenfield puts it, transit in Chicago can be a “less than dignified” experience and is often thought of as the option of last resort.The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) agrees and has made improving the public image of transit one of its top priorities. Upgrades to plusher railcars, state of the art traveler information systems, swanker rail stations and multipurpose fare cards (one card could be used for CTA, Metra, car sharing and parking fees, for example) are all part of the plan to lure riders back to transit.

Intelligent land use near transit is also a key component according to Randy Blan-kenhorn, CMAP’s executive director.Areas around train stations, for instance, won’t be just where “you get off the train and you pick up your laundry and you go home,” but places where people shop, work, live and generally spend a great deal of time.To this end, communities and neighborhoods will be offering incentives to entice businesses to locate near transit and to encourage developers to create affordable housing nearby.

Though CMAP is cautious about promising any major new rail lines, there is reason for optimism for those hoping for a more sane commute, from say, Rogers Park to O’Hare (currently twoel rides plus an hour-long bus ride).Bus rapid transit will dedicate entire lanes of trafficnmajor arterials and even highways exclusively to buses, thereby Allowing them to travel nearly as fast as a train, and providing a welcome alternative to arduous trips on the El’s hub-and-spoke system.

Changing attitudes

According to Greenfield, it used to be that the city was in favor of green transit initiatives if it didn’t have to pay for them, and they didn’t take space away from motorists. But now, he says, “If a bike project inconveniences drivers, that’s not necessarily going to kill the bike project.”

In order to install one of the city’s first length of cycle track, Alderman Moreno has unapologetically announced he will be removing a lane of car traffic from Milwaukee Avenue.Other examples of this new people-rather-than-car-centric attitude are the creation of the Albany Home Zone in Logan Square, a European style residential block incorporating bump-outs in order to slow traffic through the area and discourage motorists from using it as a shortcut, as well as the Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT'S) “road diet” plan for Lawrence Avenue, in which a lane of trafficineach direction will be removed in order to accommodate bike lanes, wider sidewalks and center-of-the-road islands designed to facilitate pedestrian crossings.

A study recently completed by (CMAP'S) shows overwhelming support on the part of the public for transportation alternatives. In the poll, 77 percent of those surveyed favored allocating the maximum amount of funding to public transit whereas only 30 percent felt the same about roads.

Finally, strides are being made in terms of enforcement of laws aimed at protecting cyclists and pedestrians. (CDOTs)Share the Road program will be expanding this year, beginning with 70 outreach events slated to take place over the summer in locations throughout the city. During these events, road users are given warnings or tickets if they fail to observe laws such as yielding to pedestrians in a crosswalk. According to Brian Steele, director of communications at CDOT, not only has there been a significant drop in accidents at locations where Share the Road events have taken place, but people seem grateful for the opportunity to be educated.

“Even though the people who get tickets aren’t real thrilled about it,Rarely do we have someone who doesn’t stop and say, ‘I really need to do better as a driver or cyclist or pedestrian,” says Steele. “It gives them an opportunity to really think about their behavior in the public way.” Though it’s unlikely that Chicago will ever be completely car-free, at least for the foreseeable future, if we, as a city hold true to the vision of becoming a place where alternative transit is not really alternative at all, it’s entirely possible that it can become a place where living happily without a car is a way of life for most of us.

Jessica Mason is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Contact her at jessicamasonwriter.com.

For more tips on transitioning to a car-free life in Chicago, visit mindfulmetropolis.com/blog