How Sprawling is Your Neighborhood? Chicago Metro Edition

Earlier this year Reid Ewing and Shima Hamidi released the latest version of their urban sprawl index.  The first version came out a decade or so ago and the latest version uses current data and has an improved methodology.

The index came out of the fact that commentators, scholars, policymakers, and journalists would constantly talk about “sprawl” without there being an authoritative definition of the phenomenon.  Ewing and his colleagues set out to change this in 2002 by developing an index of sprawl that draws on objective data relating to population and employment density, the mixture of uses and destinations apparent, the presence of urban centers, and the connectivity of street systems.

The 2002 study defined its index at the level of county and metropolitan areas.  The current effort added sprawl scores at the census tract level for the largest urbanized areas in the United States allowing for greater detail in analyzing patterns of sprawl and metropolitan development.

The map below reflects the sprawl indices for metropolitan census tracts in Illinois.  Higher scores indicate more density and less sprawl.

There are obvious patterns of density around transit lines, however it is interesting to see the north/south differences within the City of Chicago which probably reflect disparities in mix of jobs and destinations.  Also notable are the numerous suburban centers which score high on the index.  This could be promising for thinking about the viability of sprawl mitigation policies.  Such efforts as higher-density and mixed-use development in the Chicago suburbs could take advantage of an existing social, economic and physical infrastructure to help slow sprawl regionally.

Why Drivers Should Embrace Bike Share? It Expands Parking Capacity

With bike share schemes being implemented in the past year in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco it seems like this new form of public transportation is taking hold in the United States.  Often billed as a solution to the “last mile” problem, bike share allows an inexpensive and low-impact way of dispersing public transportation options, enhancing accessibility to transit hubs and other destinations.

Quarter mile walk

One critique we hear about bike share relates to the location of the kiosks–particularly when they are placed on the street where car parking was previously allowed.  People see “scarce” parking being sacrificed for the bike scheme and businesses often are concerned about how a kiosk might impact accessibility.

Positioning biking and bike share as necessarily anti-automobile is misguided.  In fact, one could argue that it could help disperse parking, alleviating congestion and wasteful efforts circling blocks looking for a place to park.

I’ll give my own commute as an example.  My office is situated in transit-friendly, mixed-use neighborhood of Lincoln Park in Chicago.  Probably about 80% of the time I either commute by bike or train from my home 8.5 miles away.  Sometimes, however, I need to drive.  The university charges $7 to park, which can be avoided by finding a place to park on the street.  The commercial streets are geared towards short-term metered parking, but one can sometimes find street-parking in the neighborhood.  In general I feel good if I can park within a five minute walk of the office, after that point “distance decay” sets in and the attractiveness of driving declines the further I get from my destination.

With the introduction of Divvy bike share in the neighborhood, however, the “five minute” rule of accessibility gets expanded.  I no longer really care about parking within a five minute walk of my destination; if I can get within a five minute bike ride I am satisfied.  With a bike kiosk in front of my office, my parking universe grows.

Quarter-mile and three-quarter mile buffers

Just for fun, I did a network analysis of the quarter mile buffer around my office, which is about how far the average person can walk in five minutes.  Because the campus is in the way, my parking options are more limited than normal and I really need to park within 2-3 blocks in order to make my walk to the office clock in at under five minutes.

The second map shows the same analysis with a three-quarter mile buffer, which is about how far the average person could bike in five minutes.  As you can see, there are more than a dozen Divvy kiosks within my five-minute bike ride area.  The further one is removed from the university and the major thoroughfares of Lincoln Ave. and Fullerton Ave., the more parking becomes available.  As long as I am able to park relatively close to a Divvy kiosk, I can get to work within the 5 minute threshold.

I would imagine that as the network grows, there will be more opportunities for dispersed parking strategies in Chicago’s neighborhoods.  If you drive in Chicago and want to spend less money on parking, get a bike share membership.


Nations Stake Positions in Advance of Warsaw Climate Conference

One of the outcomes of last year’s UN climate conference in Doha was to ramp up negotiations this year in anticipation of a new legal climate agreement to be signed in 2015.

In an effort to avoid the debacle of Copenhagen, when the proposed treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol  failed to materialize and the international climate negotiations nearly ground to a halt, the parties developed a new negotiation track in 2011 dubbed the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action [ADP].  The group has been conducting workshops this year designed to be a more informal and transparent vehicle for fostering conversation between parties.

National Stadium, Warsaw – Site of COP 19 – photo: PolandMFA

In advance of this year’s major meeting in Warsaw, parties have been submitting documents stating their visions for a 2015 agreement.  Although the negotiations over an actual text won’t commence until next year, the stands being taken now are illustrative of the potential viability of any treaty that may emerge in 2015.

A couple of points are interesting.  From the United States, we see a rather tepid statement which envisions “a mix of provisions that are legally binding and non-legally binding” and continues to rely on voluntary emissions targets from countries.  Glaringly omitted is any mention of the need to keep global temperature rise to 2 degrees by 2050–which was a key feature of the Copenhagen Accord.

Given the fact that there have been several analyses written since Copenhagen analyzing the gap between voluntary pledges and what the science tells us is necessary to address the 2 degree target, the US position is a bit troubling.  Essentially the US is sticking to its position in Copenhagen and ignoring the reality of science-based risk assessments agreed upon in subsequent negotiating sessions.

On the other hand, the European Union’s latest series of statements puts the 2 degree target at the forefront.  They offer a timetable to get us to a legally-binding agreement by 2015.  One of the features of this timetable is that all countries present specific reduction targets in 2014 that they will be legally bound to in a final agreement.

From the large developing country perspective, India emphasizes the need to maintain the distinction between developing and developed countries that was enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol and situates finance coming from the developed countries as a requirement for developing country emissions reduction targets.

None of these positions are really new.  Aside from the EU–which has the clearest articulation for a scientifically-oriented agreement–the others seem to be treading water making it unclear if 2015 will be a breakthrough or simply Copenhagen redux.

Evanston Approves Bike Share Grant Application; Modifies Station Map

After tough questioning by City Council members over the proposed placement of bike share stations to deployed as part of a pilot project to extend Divvy to Evanston, the Council gave the go-ahead to pursue the grant but significantly changed the station locations.EvanstonBikePilotLocations

The original plan to have just seven stations has been increased to eight.  The proposed station at city hall will be moved to a largely residential neighborhood six  blocks adjacent to a community center while one of the downtown stations (Sherman & Grove) will be moved  .5 mile south to Chicago Ave. and Greenleaf where Jewel Foods and Whole Foods are situated.  This station will also be a block away from a new Trader Joe’s food market.  The eighth station will be situated on the Chicago border at Howard St. and Chicago Avenue, one block from the Howard CTA stop.

The new map and the additions are an improvement on the initial effort.  However, the number of stations is still inadequate and the western part of the city is still excluded.  One thing that is not clear following the council meeting is just how the pilot is going to be evaluated.  If this is an initial foray to work out the kinks and get residents and visitors familiar with the system and that the ultimate goal is for the city to properly implement bike share, it is probably a workable map.  It’s another matter if they are going to gauge interest based on usage numbers, because the saturation is not adequate to properly assess citizen interest.

Evanston and Oak Park Explore Participating in Chicago Bike Share Scheme

It’s been about six weeks since Chicago’s Divvy Bike Share scheme went online.  With 144 stations, over 100,000 trips taken and 4,000 annual memberships sold, Divvy bikes are  quickly becoming ubiquitous on the streets of downtown Chicago and its inner-ring neighborhoods.

Bike share’s ability to be a cheap, convenient, and environmentally-friendly element of a city’s transportation system is not being lost on a couple of Chicago’s contiguous suburbs: Oak Park and Evanston.  According to a staff memo released on Friday, Evanston and Oak Park are teaming up with Chicago to apply for federal money under the Transportation Alternatives Program to fund new Divvy stations.

Divvy Bikes in Chicago, photo: Pam Broviak

Expanding the Divvy system to the suburbs is a positive idea, but there are many questions raised by the implementation plan proposed by Evanston.  I have not been able to find any information from Oak Park about their plans, so I will focus on Evanston.

Here are the key points:

– The plan calls for 7 stations and 70 bikes to be placed in the city.

– The TAP grant calls for a 20% share of the total capital project costs from the city which would be $94,000

–  While the memo doesn’t explicitly endorse sources of funding, it does mention the Parking Fund as a possibility.   The Parking Fund raises revenues through managing the city’s parking infrastructure and currently has a cash balance of around $16,000,000 and has earned about $1.7 million in profit this year.  They also plan on shaking down Northwestern University and the “city’s other large employers” for assistance on both the capital and operations side.

–  They project annual revenues of $44,000 from casual users and $75,000 from annual members.  This comes $49,000 short of their projected costs.  It is important to note that it is not uncommon for subsidies to be needed to meet operating costs of bike share schemes (just like subsidies are needed for road infrastructure and public transit).

From the standpoint of applying for a capital grant that will fund 80% of project costs and using the Parking Fund to make up the difference, the plan is laudable.   Using funds generated from managing cars–which extract a disproportionate social cost than other forms of mobility–to subsidize a cheaper, lower impact form of mobility is smart.

However, the plan has some serious problems which could negatively impact the program’s effectiveness in Evanston.

First, the location and number of stations is a bit problematic.  The memo states that this proposal would “expand bike share north” from Chicago.  Read literally, this is true.  However, the siting of the closest proposed station to the Chicago border is about 2 miles and four miles to the northernmost proposed Divvy station in Chicago.  The distance between the proposed Evanston network and Chicago is too great to really think of it as a network–which is essential for making bike sharing attractive to consumers.ProposedBikeShareEvanston

Without being integrated within the larger Divvy network, you will essentially have a stand-alone system of 7 stations.  A system this small is very hard to sustain.  A feasibility study done by Divvy’s operator for Cincinnati mentioned 10 stations as a minimum.  With seven stations, the system loses its attractiveness for potential users.  The map at the right shows the proposed locations (click here for the kiosks pinned on a google map).

Three are directly adjacent to transit stations–which is good (Central St. Metra, Central St. CTA, and Davis St. CTA).  It is essential to be intermodal.  But once you get off the train you have to go somewhere!   The four non-transit stop kiosks are 1) on Northwestern University’s campus, 2) near the beach at Lake Michigan (also close to a couple of Northwestern dorms), 3) City Hall, and 4) Downtown Evanston (about 500 feet from the Davis CTA stop and another proposed kiosk).

The idea behind bike share is that it is designed to help cities solve the “last mile” problem.  Once a person’s destination–like a transit stop or a grocery store–is more than 1/4-1/2 mile away, the likelihood that they will walk diminishes significantly.  You can’t build trains to get within a 1/4 mile of where everyone lives or needs to go.  But scattering bikes around most cities is quite feasible.

With only 7 stations, however, you are really limiting the possibilities and attractiveness of the system.  Is it likely that someone will choose a bike share to go from the Central St. Metra Station to the Central St. CTA station? The linkages from Northwestern to Downtown Evanston should be popular–especially to the transit hub at Davis.  However, key Downtown student destinations like Whole Foods are overlooked in favor of Rotary International.  Rotary is a major employer and generates many trips (and singled out as a possible source of funding in the memo).  But people who work there are not likely to live close to a bike share kiosk.

We have to be mindful of budgets which is why such a modest system is being proposed and that brings us to the annual revenue generation assumptions: $44,000 from casual users and $75,000 from annual member fees.  It is a bit unclear how these numbers were generated.  In the feasibility studies done by Divvy’s operator, Alta, I’ve seen  for other cities, they normally estimate numbers of users per category rather than revenue generated per type of user.

These assumptions are important as they can help determine the financial sustainability of operations.  In tourist-heavy cities like Washington DC large numbers of casual users can help pay for system costs.   The data is still premature, but in Chicago I would think that a significant percentage of casual users are tourists.  We would not expect the same percentages in Evanston.

It is hard to know how to assess this proposal.  I recognize the municipality is working within budget constraints (although that didn’t stop the city council from giving a German company $2 million of Parking Fund revenues last year to build a parking lot for their store).  But if there are only 7 kiosks, will there be enough Northwestern student support to make the scheme financially feasible?  The fear is that if the roll-out is too modest, it could stain public perception and set bike sharing back in the city.

updated 12 Aug. 2013 13:04 to show correct number of Divvy stations

update 15 Aug. 2013: City Council approved the measure unanimously to apply for the grant.  During council deliberations aldermen representing districts that were not included in the pilot expressed concern that their constituents were being left out of the pilot.  The City Manager seemed to agree that staff would include at least one additional station on Howard Street and Custer (I believe).

Assessing the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement: Highland Park, IL

It has been about eight years since Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels challenged his fellow mayors to sign the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement which  would pledge each signatory to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their town by 7% of 1990 levels by 2012.

Photo: zol87 (Flickr)

While over 1000 mayors  signed the agreement, for most cities little is known about what was accomplished.  An article in today’s Chicago Tribune discusses the Chicago suburb of Highland Park–an affluent community on the shores of Lake Michigan north of the city–and its experience with the USMCPA .

The former mayor signed the agreement in 2005 and, according to a new city council member Kim Stone, nothing systematic was done to realize the emissions reduction.

In fact, the first step needed to understand a community’s emissions potential–a baseline emissions inventory–was never undertaken.  Stone chalks up the signing of the pledge as symbolic according to the article.

Having done some research on this topic of implementing climate action after signing the USMCPA, I can say that Highland Park’s experience is not atypical.  Many small municipalities simply don’t have the technical background or resources to conduct such an analysis.

This isn’t to say that the municipalities do nothing.  The article on Highland Park notes several measures relating to energy efficiency in buildings and vehicles that the city has implemented.

However, the advantage of a specific target is that progress can more easily be assessed.  As it stands Stone and the city staff are looking into ways to develop measurable changes.   It will be interesting to follow how they proceed.

Does Obama Still Support Cap and Trade?

An article in today’s New York Times discusses how the issue of climate change has been conspicuously absent from the recent US presidential debates and the candidates’ stump speeches.

Speaking of the president’s position, the article indicates that “after a bill died in the Senate in 2010, Mr. Obama abandoned his support for cap and trade, a market-based method to limit greenhouse gas emissions.”

It is clear that Obama supported cap-and-trade during his 2008 campaign and pushed for Congress to pass such legislation early in his term.  But it is also true that the issue also took back seat to other policy initiatives like health care and that key advisers like former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel actively discouraged elevating climate policy to the top of the president’s agenda.

But has he really “abandoned support” for cap and trade?

The idea is not mentioned on the White House energy website and does not appear in the 2011 “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future.”  A search for “cap and trade” on his campaign website reveals “No Results.”

However, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is still touting cap and trade as a goal of the administration and earlier this year Obama acknowledged “cap and trade” as a position he supported.  Even without cap and trade the administration has still moved forward with increased fuel economy standards for cars and regulations on coal power plants and carbon emissions have, indeed, decreased during the course of his first term.

Nevertheless, the issue of climate change isn’t going away and how the candidates propose to address it need to be more clearly articulated.


Daniel Hernandez to Speak at DePaul: Nov. 5 2012 6:30pm

The Public Policy Studies Program, College of Communication, Latin American and Latino Studies Program, and the Department of the History of Art and Architecture invite the DePaul and Greater Chicago community to a lecture by Daniel Hernandez on the topic of: “‘Me Encanta La Ciudad! Confronting the User-Friendly Mexico City” on Monday November 5, 2012 at 6:30pm in McGowan South 108.

Hernandez is a contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Down and Delirious in Mexico City (Simon and Schuster, 2011) which looks at the cultural, economic, and political transformations under way in our continent’s largest city.

Check out more of his writing at his blog, Intersections, and be sure to follow him on Twitter.

Chicago Beats Suburbs for New Google Unit

Motorola Mobility–a unit of Google–announced today that they will be moving their headquarters from suburban Libertyville to the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago.

The company was purchased by Google last May and will be moving 3000 jobs to the historic building.

From an urban development standpoint this move is instructive since the head of Motorola deliberately sited the urban environment as an advantage to their business given the new site’s ample crowds and public transit being a natural laboratory in which to observe how consumers interact with mobile technology.

From an urban planning standpoint it could be used as evidence that the dense, multi-modal environment that you get in a city is an amenity for business and economic growth.  In addition, Motorola sees the urban setting as advantageous to recruit and retain good talent.

Suburbs like Libertyville simply can’t compete with the social and physical infrastructure of Chicago.

A Highline for Evanston?

Evanston, Illinois’ City Council approved a planning grant application (see pg. 271 of the .pdf) last week that will provide funding for a Transit Oriented Development Plan at Main and Chicago Avenues.

It is a logical place for TOD given that the intersection is served both by a CTA EL line and Metra’s regional commuter rail.  The neighborhood is walkable, mixed use, and has a nice variety of small businesses.  One problem that the new plan will likely attempt to alleviate is the poor pedestrian connections between the two stations.  As it stands now, folks making transfers have to go around the block and walk under a dark viaduct.  There are no wayfinding signs at either station,  so those unfamiliar with the area often have trouble navigating transfers.  A more transit-friendly plan could open up the space between the stations for transfers.

More intriguing to me in the memo was a desire to explore a “highline” concept for bikes and pedestrians in the railroads’ right-of-way.  The staff memo cites the very popular Highline project in New York which converted an unused elevated rail line into an elevated park.  Chicago is currently planning its own elevated park with its 3-mile Bloomingdale Trail project that will link Logan Square with Goose Island using an abandoned elevated rail corridor.

Evanston would be a great site for a similar project as there is ample space between the Metra and CTA tracks that is currently underutilized.  The photo on the right shows the current state of the space between the two rail lines which offers a few  long-term parking spaces but otherwise is a “dead zone” of activity.  Furthermore, the two rail lines run parallel on a berm roughly from the city’s southern border  two miles north to the center of downtown.

It would be an easy and relatively inexpensive project to have a Highline the entire stretch of rail corridor.  This would improve bike mobility immensely as a safe and convenient North-South connection could entice cyclists who are uncomfortable with riding on Chicago Avenue.

It is not inconceivable to see this project as the opening section of an eventual “bike superhighway” alongside the Metra berm connecting Evanston with downtown Chicago 12 miles away.