Friday, February 18, 2011
A writer walks 18 miles up the lakeshore after snowpocalypse – so you don’t have to.
By John Greenfield
[This article also appears in Time Out Chicago, www.timeoutchicago.com.]
Lying in bed during last week’s thunderblizzard, I wonder if my plan to hike the Lakefront Trail on snowshoes in the morning is truly stupid. After all, they’re predicting a half-meter of snow, 50 MPH winds and 25-foot waves crashing on the shore. Screw it, I resolve, and fall asleep.
For weeks I’d thought about skiing the entire 18-mile path as the latest forray in my campaign to complete all of Chicago’s major thoroughfares on foot. But when I heard we’d soon be thigh-deep in the white stuff, I picked up a pair of snowshoes at Viking Ski Shop, 3422 W. Fullerton, figuring they’d work best for dealing with drifts.
At 5:30 am the morning after the storm, I make my way through silent streets to the Logan Square Blue Line station, where a small crowd waits for the station to open; eventually workers in hardhats let us through the turnstiles for free. From the Washington stop I take the underground Pedway to Millennium Station, where I’ll catch a Metra train that will drop me off across the street from the South Shore Cultural Center the southern terminus of the trail. I’m completely avoiding the chaos of the snow-clogged roadways - maybe Chicago’s infrastructure isn’t so bad after all.
Of course, the Metra train is delayed by an hour. At 8:45 I strap on my “webs” at 71st Street and start my northbound death march into a stiff headwind of blowing flakes, very glad I recently grew a polar explorer beard. I first spy the lake at 67th and the water looks completely still under a thick blanket of snow and ice – so much for lethal waves. Since it’s tough work slogging through the deep powder near the shore, I switch to walking in the middle of deserted Lake Shore Drive.
At 56th I detour into Hyde Park. It’s only 10 am but a handful of people are drinking at the nautically-themed Cove Lounge, 1750 E. 55th. Bartender Todd Sleeper hands me a rag to wipe the ice from my whiskers and pours me a shot of antifreeze. “We were like an oasis in the storm last night,” he says. “People were here late dancing to Motown. My partner slept in the bar on an inflatable mattress.”
Back on the abandoned superhighway, around 45th Street a cop car pulls up. “You gotta exit the drive, my man,” says an officer. “We got a lot of safety equipment coming here and they can’t see you.” Cursing under my breath, I climb over the guardrail and resume clomping through the thick snow on the lake shore. My many layers of wool, polypropylene and Gore-tex are doing a good job of protecting me from the gale, but when I stop for a pit stop by the 39th Street beach house I worry about getting frostbite on my privates.
In the early afternoon the sun appears, lifting my spirit, but I’m getting exhausted. I refuel occasionally with handfuls of sesame sticks and sips of piping-hot chamomile tea – the Thermos is a marvelous invention.
North of the Shedd Aquarium, for the first time I see large numbers people enjoying the weather: walking dogs, skiing and shooting photos. The absence of traffic on LSD seems to humanize the Loop. I detour inland at Grand Avenue around 3:30 to grab lunch at – sigh – McDonald’s, the only thing open, but the greasy meal gives me a second wind.
Like dozens of other people, I ignore the “Lakefront Closed” sign at the Oak Street underpass and cross over to the beach, where folks are frolicking among surreal ice formations as the sun descends. After North Avenue, the northbound lanes of LSD are a parking lot of abandoned vehicles and a gang of rowdy suburban teens are trespassing in unlocked cars and buses. “What a bunch of punks,” says a passing female jogger. Three news helicopters hover above us.
The snow is lighter up north and I’m move faster in the rosy twilight, smiling at the adorable snowman planted in the middle of the path near Irving Park. By Foster I’m hallucinating from low blood sugar when my buddy Mark appears on skis to escort me the last, hardest six blocks of the trip. At Ardmore I pose triumphantly by the sign for Kathy Osterman Beach. We head to nearby St. Andrew’s Inn, 5938 N. Broadway, where we meet with our friend Jonathan and I thaw out with shepherd’s pie and Scotch ale. As we toast my trek I’m thinking, I will sleep like a friggin' baby tonight.
Friday, February 11, 2011
by John Greenfield
[This piece also ran in New City magazine, www.newcity.com.]
Although Chicago is a superior city in most respects, I suspect that Minneapolis, a much colder, snowier town, is actually a place where more people enjoy the winter. This is because residents of the Twin Cities, with their strong Scandinavian heritage, know how to embrace the season, donning cheerful woolen clothing and diving into cold-weather fun like sledding, skating and snowball fights, followed by large quantities of glögg.
Here in the Windy City, most people dress in black and view winter as something to survive, not celebrate. They see it as a series of hassles and indignities: freezing el platforms, slushy sidewalks, salt-choked air and parking spots selfishly reserved with old furniture.
Not me. I’ve got a two-pronged strategy to make the most out of cold weather. The first is indoor coziness and/or winter denial: gastropubs, rock clubs and hot tubs; Hala Kahiki and the Garfield Park Conservatory. As I type this, I’m sitting in the ninth-floor winter garden of the Harold Washington Library, surrounded by leafy trees and ivy-covered walls.
My second tactic is making sure to get plenty of outside time in the brilliant winter sunshine. I bundle up and ride my bike daily, and take long walks around Logan Square after fresh snowfalls create an atmosphere of hushed beauty. One of these days I’m going to get up early, pedal to the Belmont Harbor peninsula and do (clumsy) yoga as the sun rises over the steaming water—I mean it.
So I decide to strike a longstanding item off my winter to-do list: cross-country skiing along the lakefront with a friend. Since I don’t own a car, I tie up my two pairs of thrift-store skis and poles with inner tubes, sling them on my shoulder and hoof it to the Logan Square train station to catch the #76 Diversey bus east. I get plenty of funny looks as I wait for my ride, but the sweet-tempered bus driver doesn’t object to my outlandish cargo. “Have a fun time,” she smiles.
After I transfer to the Halsted bus and pick up my friend in Lakeview, we take the Roscoe underpass to the Lakefront Trail, clip into the bindings and start shushing north, flanked by high-rises. We come to the Waveland Clock Tower, a Gothic gem, and enter the Marovitz Golf Course, with its refreshingly wavy terrain and stately spruce. At the north end of the links, a couple of homeless guys have pitched tents.
We unclip and scramble over a fence to exit the links, then ski over to Montrose Harbor and Cricket Hill, where we “herringbone” our way to the summit, swarming with pint-size sledders. Zooming down the slope on skis is a rare treat in this pancake-flat town.
On our way back we take a trail that hugs the lake, enjoying breathtaking views of the bleak expanse. A crowd of ducks and geese bob among the ice floes—they don’t seem to mind the cold. After completing our Nordic skiing excursion, we celebrate at Ann Sather’s with an après-ski feast of Swedish meatballs and cinnamon rolls, toasting our trip with cups of hot coffee. Take that, winter depression.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
By John Greenfield
[This piece also runs in Time Out Chicago, www.timeoutchicago.com.]
In December a coalition of eight transportation and environmental non-profits sent letters to all of Chicago’s mayoral candidates asking them to endorse a Sustainable Transportation Platform, with strategies to make car-free travel in the city and region safer, more accessible and more appealing.
“As road congestion increases and gas prices rise, in order for Chicagoland to continue to be a vibrant metropolis we’re going to need to create more accommodations for biking walking and transit,” explains Ron Burke, executive director of Active Transportation Alliance, which is spearheading the lobbying effort. Although, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the alliance can’t endorse a particular candidate, Burke says the goal is to educate the candidates on the issues.
The coalition also includes Center for Neighborhood Technology, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Illinois PIRG, Metropolitan Planning Council, Midwest High Speed Rail Association, Natural Resources Defense Council and Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago.
The plan, online at activetrans.org/platform, urges the hopefuls to support increased funding for non-motorized transportation, plus new initiatives like transit-oriented development, bus rapid transit, bike-and-ped-friendly “complete streets,” and a Midwest high-speed rail system with Chicago as the hub.
The platform calls for better infrastructure for non-motorized transportation in the region, bankrolling these projects by securing a bigger slice of the funding pie. For example, Chicagoland represents 70 percent of the state’s population but only receives 45 percent of the Illinois Department of Transportation budget. The document also calls for raising the state gas tax, one of the lowest in the country, in order to fund transit and bike facilities.
The plan also recommends increasing CTA and Metra service; adding dedicated “bus rapid transit” travel lanes, and making Chicago the center of a Midwest high speed rail system. Other ideas include promoting “complete streets” that are safe for all users; expanding the use of car sharing over private ownership; improving the congested Lakefront Trail and providing incentives for transit oriented development.
Active Transportation Alliance has posted a sign-on form at www.activetrans.org/2011elections so citizens can lobby the politicians to endorse the platform – so far over 200 people have signed on.
We contacted the four front-runners’ campaigns for statements about whether they will be supporting the platform, and how they would promote green transportation if elected.
Carol Moseley Braun
"I absolutely endorse the goals of the Sustainable Transportation Platform, especially those for public transportation,” says former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun in a statement. “It will decrease carbon emissions and thereby improve public health and also help relieve our dependence on fossil fuels. Public transportation makes Chicago work, and we can and must do a better job of making walking, biking and riding the bus or taking a train more attractive, convenient and affordable."
"Improving our transportation system is critical to the future prosperity of Chicago,” responds former Chicago School Board President Gery Chico’s spokeswoman Brooke Anderson. “As mayor, Gery will work with these groups and others to develop a more sustainable transportation system that is accessible to people in all of Chicago's diverse neighborhoods. Gery is pleased that these groups are proposing substantive ideas to advance the dialogue on this important issue."
Miguel del Valle
"Without specifically responding to every suggestion in the Chicago’s Sustainable Transportation Platform, I agree that we must aggressively advocate for local, regional, state, and federal plans and funding to increase public transportation and make Chicago friendlier to bicycles and pedestrians,” says Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle in a statement. “Transportation is Chicago’s second largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. Investing in the future of the environment has the added benefit of creating more jobs.”
“A first step is to ensure we are not leaving any federal transportation money on the table through negligence or lack of foresight,” says del Valle. “An estimated $385 billion in federal, state, and local funds will be available for regional transportation investments over the next 30 years.
“Chicago should also seek a larger share of existing transportation funding by effectively advocating for a fair distribution of state money,” says del Valle. “The Chicago area gets 45% and downstate gets 55% even though the Chicago region represents 70% of the state’s population and 78% of the state’s economy. Another area of imbalance is the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA); we are not getting our fair share of funding. 82% of Chicago-area transit riders use the CTA, but it only receives 59% of operating subsidies from the RTA. On the other hand, METRA gets only 12% of the area's riders, but receives 27% of the funding. My administration will advocate for changes in these allocations.”
“Finally, contrary to our goals of sustainability, our state allocations of transportation funds focus too much on roads over other more sustainable forms of transportation," del Valle says.
“The greatest investment we can make in our infrastructure, our economy and our environment is by focusing transportation resources on our public transit system,” says former White Hous Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in a statement. “Cities around the world have made this commitment and Chicago will be out-competed if we don't catch up. That's why I secured nearly $250 million for the Brown line redevelopment, and why we earmarked an unprecedented amount of funds in the recovery act for transportation investments.”
“But there's a lot more to do,” says Emanuel. “I'll be laying out a comprehensive transportation agenda before the election so that voters have a clear sense of my commitment to transit, biking and pedestrian infrastructure. With the right leadership and the right priorities, Chicago can improve the transportation infrastructure we currently have, save money, and significantly expand options for every neighborhood.”
Burke says Active Transportation Alliance has scheduled a meeting with Moseley Braun for early January, a meeting with Emanuel is also likely, and they’re waiting to hear back from other candidates. “We want to make sure the next mayor has these issues on the radar screen the minute he or she steps into that fifth-floor office at City Hall,” he says.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
by John Greenfield
[This interview also appears in Gapers Block, www.gapersblock.com.]
“Biking the Boulevards,” premiering on WTTW on Monday, November 29, at 7:30 pm, focuses on three topics: Chicago’s 28-mile boulevard system, the often-overlooked neighborhoods and parks connected by the boulevards, and the history of cycling in Chicago.
In the show, host Geoffrey Baer, a veteran of many local travel and architecture documentaries, leads a tour of this network of tree-lined streets, first developed in the 1860s. From the seat of a Pashley Roadster Sovereign bicycle [donated by Boulevard Bikes, where I work] he showcases features you might not notice while speeding by in a car. He pedals by landmarks like Bronzeville’s Walk of Fame, Laredo Taft’s Fountain of Time sculpture on the Midway Plaissance, the golden dome of the Garfield Park field house, and Logan Square’s eagle-topped Illinois Centennial Monument.
"Black Doughboy Monument" on King Boulevard in Bronzeville
I recently talked to Baer about the making of the program, aspects of the boulevards and local bike history that may come as a surprise to Chicagoans, and his own ideas about how to improve cycling here.
How did you decide on the topic of the history of the Boulevard system and the history of bicycling in Chicago?
This is now the 17th show I’ve done about Chicago architecture and history. We’ve covered the city’s neighborhoods via the El and we’ve done the lakefront and the Loop and the river and basically all of the suburban regions of Chicago. This was a part of the city we had never featured before. It’s been on my radar for a long time but it didn’t get to the front burner until this past year.
In all these shows I’m always in some form of transportation, seeing neighborhoods via the El, or in the south suburbs I was in a tugboat on the Calumet River, and then I was in a 1929 Model A Ford “Woody” going down the Dixie Highway. They’re tours, so I’m always looking for a fun mode of transportation to make the show more entertaining.
The bicycle seemed like a totally logical mode of transportation for the boulevards because the boulevard system was founded in party because of lobbying from bicyclists because they needed paved surfaces for riding. Plus biking is a great way to explore the boulevards, and biking is very hot right now. And, of course, bicycling is something that we want to encourage.
What were some of the surprising things you saw while you were traveling the Boulevard system?
By in large, the boulevards are in great shape and are absolutely beautiful. A lot people would probably be surprised to find out that the west side parks – Humboldt Park, Douglas Park, Garfield Park – are absolutely magnificent. They definitely rival the lakefront parks in beauty and there is some really significant Prairie School architecture in those parks and architecture by some of the city’s greatest architects like Daniel Burnham.
Garfield Park Fieldhouse
Some of the neighborhoods on this tour are very much struggling communities. You never see them on T.V. unless there’s a crime and it’s on the news. You don’t see what else there is in these neighborhoods and you certainly don’t learn their histories. There’s a big Scandinavian history on the west side – that was definitely surprising to me.
Did you have any interesting encounters with locals or other cyclists while you were filming the show?
We had this big movie truck that we used for a lot of the show. I was riding my bike behind the movie truck with a cop behind me so traffic didn’t run me over, so we were quite a spectacle. Lots of people saw us with the movie truck and asked us if we were filming “Transformers 3.” It was the most common question from people. And we’d say, no we’re filming a documentary, and they were really interested in that. I think a lot of documentaries have been filmed in these neighborhoods but they tend to be about hardcore urban problems.
Did you do much reconnaissance before the show was filmed – were you taking excursions to the Boulevard system?
Definitely. I produce some of these shows and write most of them, but in this case the show was written and produced by an extremely talented colleague of mine named Dan Protess. He spent the better part of a year on this project. I was involved in it at every step because he would get a lot of research together and then we’d talk about the proposed route for the show. I would read drafts of the script and give notes, but he was far more the person making the show than I was. He went and surveyed every inch of the Boulevard system in advance of writing and shooting. So we were really out there in advance looking at the whole system.
You were basically reciting a script while you were riding the bike, so you had to memorize lines?
Oh yeah – I do that for all my shows. They’re really not documentaries in the classic sense because there are no interviews. They’re really tours on T.V. They’re shot much more like a feature film than a documentary. It was all written ahead of time and broken down into shots and scenes and then we go out and shoot those. The only stuff I’m saying out in the field is when you see me on camera, so probably 80, 85 percent of the show I’m reading a script in an announce booth but you don’t see me on camera. But I was out with the crew for eight days shooting riding shots on bike, and that was a lot of fun.
What’s an aspect of Chicago bike history you cover in the show that a lot of local cyclists might not be aware of?
There’s a number of them that I really love. We all know that Mayor Daley is the “cyclist-in-chief” and wants Chicago to be the most bike-friendly city in the country, but there have been two other really big biking mayors. Mayor Daley the First was really pro-bike and established the city’s first on-street bike routes and also designated the lakefront as a bike trail.
But about 80 years before that Mayor Carter Harrison II won his race for mayor with the slogan, “Not the champion cyclist but the cyclist’s champion.” He really made the biking agenda a big part of his platform. He launched his campaign with a bike ride from Chicago to Waukegan and back in about nine-and-a-half hours a as a publicity stunt. And he built Chicago’s first bike trail, which went from Edgewater to Evanston.
Carter Harrison II
Another thing a lot of people don’t know is that in the late 1800s Chicago was the bicycle manufacturing capital of America and there were 80 bicycle manufacturers in the city.
After doing this research and riding, do you have any recommendations for how bicycling could be improved in Chicago?
I’ve be come much more tuned into this issue through this process. We’ve had this absolutely great partnership with Active Transportation Alliance. So I’ve had my consciousness raised about the whole bicycling agenda for Chicago.
It would be really great to see separated bikeways here. We’ve got this huge network of bike routes and bike lanes, but the lanes are basically just stripes down the street. There’s nothing that really separates the cars from the bikes.
Route signage is another issue. There’s an amazing amount of bike signage in the city but region-wide the connections aren’t always there. For example, if you’re going north from the city and trying to follow the Green Bay Trail, in some suburbs it’s phenomenally well-marked and in other suburbs you’re kind of guessing.
One time I was trying to get from the northwest side of Chicago to the North Branch Trail via Bryn Mawr and it’s a pretty circuitous route through neighborhoods. The signage is great, you turn here, you turn there. And then I got to the expressway and the signage just disappeared and I never did find the trail.
On some trails like the Green Bay Trail you could be riding on a really nice paved surface in one suburb and then all of the sudden you’re on gravel in another suburb. So a lot of the interconnectivity could be improved.
It seems to me like every time they’re resurfacing a road or putting in new sewers they should be putting in a new bikeway. The best example I’ve seen of that recently is on the Valley Line Trail. It’s a really great little trail that runs from Bryn Mawr to Devon. It’s an elevated trail with a couple of bridges. It’s really good. And then you get to Devon and there nothing – no facility for bikes.
Valley Line Trail
I rode east on Devon from there and as I was riding east I could easily observe that this road had very recently been completely redone. The curbs were brand new, the median was really nice, but there was no provision for bikes. And there’s a parkway along there - how easy would it have been to just swap the parkway and the bike area so that you could have had a protected bikeway? If it was just part of the agenda it might have been done without much additional cost.
I know they’re going to be testing a new cycle track on south Stony Island using the federal money they received. If something like that was just part of the plan whenever they re-did a street anywhere in the city, think of what you could have.
By John Greenfield
Jason Rothstein’s new book, Carless in Chicago: Live and Thrive in Chicago Without Owning a Car, will be coming out this summer on Chicago’s Lake Claremont Press.
Rothstein works at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health and is closing in on his master’s degree in the field. His book is a how-to guide for improving your health, saving money and reducing stress by ditching your car if you own one, and getting the most out of Chicago if you’re already car-free.
The book will be in stores in a few weeks. In the meantime, Rothstein’s website, www.carlessinchicago.com, which went live this week, is a great resource in itself. It includes Rothstein’s blog about car-free living, links to other green transportation blogs, agencies and organizations. There are also links to “Carless Tools” like the Chicago Bike Map, CTA Bus Tracker, RTA Goroo routefinder, and Walkscore, a site that rates the ped-friendliness of any address.
Vote With Your Feet recently met with Rothstein at Intelligentsia Coffee near Metra’s Millennium Station and asked him about how the book came to be, what it offers to both car-free newbies and black belts, and what Chicago need to do to become America’s top city for green transportation.
I think I read in some promotional materials that you used to be an “autoholic” and have since made a transition to being car-free. Can you tell me the story of how you changed from someone who drove a lot to someone who’s putting out a book on car-free transportation?
I’ve had a car since I was in college many years ago. It made sense for me to have a car then because my family was in Chicago and I was going to school in Ohio and was driving back and forth. After a while I lived and worked for a while in the Twin Cities up in Minnesota. I didn’t find the Twin Cities to be a particularly transit-friendly place to live and it certainly made a lot of sense for me to have a car there.
And I was just so used to it by the time I moved back to Chicago, about a decade ago, that it never really occurred to me to give up my car. Except that, the way Chicago is, I was already preferring mass transit, and walking when I could, and biking when I could and so-forth. And so I started thinking about what am I actually spending on my car, and what is my car costing me in other ways in terms of health and other aspects of my life.
And it actually was cost finally that drove me over the edge. It was when I was about to replace my third driver’s side mirror in less than a year because it had been smashed that I started to really think about this. But even from that point it probably took me another year to actually cut the cord. I was anxious about giving up my car. I was very worried that it would be really limiting, that I would be giving up a lot of freedom.
That was certainly one of the motivations behind writing the book. When I talked about this with other people about the possibility of giving up their car they expressed a lot of the same fears that I had had. So this book was intended in part to help them.
What were your fears?
Well, you know we have this idea in our culture that cars equal freedom and when you have a car it means you can hop in your car whenever you want, and go wherever you want and do whatever you want. It’s considered liberation on wheels, so the biggest fear is of losing that flexibility.
But when I thought about it I realized that the car was actually more of a shackle then a mechanism of freedom because it ate up money that I would rather have used for other things. It ate up anxiety in terms of leaving this big expensive hunk of metal out on the street where it could lose a driver’s-side mirror, for example. Stress from commuting, and other aspects of car ownership that are actually just not that pleasant.
What are some of the benefits you’ve experienced since you went car-free?
It’s on a couple levels. Certainly there’s a huge financial benefit, and the book does talk about that quite a bit, only because a lot of people don’t realize just how much their car costs them. A lot of the costs of cars leave our lives in these big, orderly chunks: a car payment every month; an insurance payment every six months. And so we don’t necessarily feel the sting of what that costs. It’s often a surprise to people when they really think about it and add up what they’re spending on their car.
There are other benefits as well. I wasn’t in poor health before but certainly there are health benefits to walking more, to cycling more. There are mental health benefits to stress through using mass transit. A personal benefit to me, which won’t apply to everyone but may apply to some people, is that I’ve been working part-time on a master’s degree for the last few years. Switching my commute to mass transit meant I had time to do all my reading. I don’t think I’d be finishing my masters degree today if I didn’t have that enforced two hours a day to do school work.
Can you walk us through the different sections of the book – what can people expect?
The book is really divided into two major sections. The first section is about the benefits of going carless, in terms of the financial benefits, figuring out what your car really costs you, does it make sense to go carless from that perspective. It’s about the health benefits of going carless. It also talks a little bit about our societal heath benefits of having fewer cars. That’s not a big theme in the book but I do go into that a little bit.
It talks about assembling a tool kit if you’re going to give up your car in terms of your transit passes and maps and technology. If you have a smart phone there are tools you can use to track your bus routes and things like that. There’s a little bit of a guide to navigating Chicago. Some people, particularly if they’re new to the city, don’t understand the grid system, even though it’s dead simple. So I include some helpful tips.
There’s some information about getting ready to walk more in your life, about getting ready to cycle more, how to become a first-time bike owner. And then the other section of the book covers Chicago by mass transit with the primary focus on the subway and El. And there’s a little entry for every stop on every line, talking about the surrounding neighborhood and some things of interest nearby.
One of the things I really hope is that, in addition to native Chicagoans who are already living here, I’ve talked to people who are visiting Chicago for a week and have found out they’ve never left downtown and Michigan Avenue. And it would be really gratifying to me if some of those people picked up this book and used it as a way to explore the city more thoroughly, because so much of what I love about Chicago takes place outside of downtown and the Near North. I’d like to share that with the tourists as well.
So did you actually visit every El stop in the system?
To the extent that I could. I’m from here originally and I grew up in Hyde Park. As a born and bred Chicagoan I’m quite familiar with most of the city. The scope of the project meant that I had to rely on some second-hand sources, but I did as much direct research as I could.
There’s also a section on CTA buses, how they work and the routes, and then a little bit about Metra and Pace. And there’s a section about when you do need a car. It talks about the city’s two competing car-sharing organizations, it talks about car rental and taxis and a fair amount of information about how to decide between them when only four wheels will do.
What do you hope people will get out of your book?
It depends on the audience. The people I thought about writing this book for were people who were in a position like the one I was in. You have a car, you can think abstractly about the benefits of giving up your car, but you’re not exactly sure how to go about it. Because even if you’re familiar with the transit system and familiar with other modes of transportation you may be having a hard time envisioning your life without a car and how to make that transition.
Also, I think that there are people who are carless by circumstance and maybe feel that they aren’t getting enough out of the city. These are people who don’t have a car either for financial reasons or mobility reasons or something else. Even though the book is called Carless in Chicago, there are a fair number of people who go through a life transition, they get married or have a child or something else and the question is do you need a second car? I hope that this book will help some people decide that they don’t.
And, of course as I mentioned, visitors to the city.
Can you a story about a commute or an excursion you’ve taken that involved interesting uses of different modes?
I love the water taxi. Adding it to my commute adds about 20 minutes in one direction or another but I love doing it – it’s just something I derive a tremendous amount of pleasure from so actually I take the water taxi all the time in the summer ‘cause I just love it. What I usually do is take the 147 [Outer Drive Express] bus from to the Wrigley Building and then take the water taxi to the West Loop and then grab a 38 [Ogden / Taylor] bus from there to my office at UIC.
Another example. As I describe in the book, I’m not a capital “C” cyclist but I enjoy cycling and I like to do it. I don’t have great facilities for cleaning up in the summer heat if I bike to work, so a great thing I like to do is take my bike to work on the bus and then ride home, which is kind of a perfect compromise because I get the benefits of the cycling but also can show up for that 9 am meeting without having to spend a lot of time cleaning up or worrying about what my meeting-mates think of the sweat running down my face.
What are some surprising tips that people who are already car-free might get out of your book?
There are a few things. For one thing, over the last few years the technology component has changed so much that it’s been hard for some people to keep up, in terms of the number of tools available to get schedules and check routes. That’s really changed not only how people use transit but how people make decisions about transit.
I’m often surprised by how little people know about car sharing. They think it might be too expensive or they think it would be too burdensome. They know about it but they assume it isn’t for them without necessarily understanding how it works.
The one that really surprises me is how few people know about commuter benefits, transit benefits. A lot of organizations, particularly larger companies and public employers offer employees to buy transit passes and tickets with pre-tax dollars through a paycheck deduction and it makes a huge difference in terms of what these things cost.
Jason, if you agree that Chicago has the potential to be America’s foremost city for green transportation, that is the big city that’s easiest to get around without a car by various modes, what are the challenges we need to overcome to achieve that status?
It’s a big question and I don’t have a comprehensive list. There are a few things that I would like to see happen in Chicago. We really have a lot of policies that encourage excess car ownership. Whenever we put up a new building, whenever people build new housing, the zoning laws that are such that you have to provide a whole bunch of parking. And that’s not the best policy if you’re really trying to discourage people from bringing more cars into the city.
I’m not sure if we have the political will to get into something like congestion pricing like they do in London or as they’ve considered doing in New York. But it would be nice to Chicago at least seriously look at some of those policies and how some kind of congestion pricing mechanism might reduce the number of cars on the road.
I would like to see the CTA get a little bit more creative about how it expands service. I’m not a transit planner, but I’d like to see things like bus rapid transit [a system of dedicated lanes for buses and kiosks where patrons pay before boarding,] which is relatively inexpensive to build. I’d like to see an expansion of inter-city rail also.
It would be nice if we just had a greater willingness to undertake large projects. We often talk big about transit projects and rail projects, but when it comes down to it there’s a certain lack of will about the funding and the disruptions that would happen to neighborhoods on a temporary basis to make such projects really succeed.
I’m hopeful that if Chicago gets the Olympics that might steer us in some of these directions. I’m sure if that’s going to happen or not but it would be nice if that was at least one more impetus.
And then there’s the other problem of how do we pay for all of it. And that’s a big question and I don’t have any easy answers. Certainly I’d like to see the state fix how it funds mass transit in Illinois but the state has larger funding issues to deal with right now before we can tackle this specifically.