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.


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.

CTA Contemplates Dramatic Changes for North Side Train Lines

The Chicago Transit Authority announced details last week regarding a modernization project for two of its major north side elevated train lines.  The lines at issue are the Red and Purple which serve the Loop, Lakeview, Uptown, Rogers Park and the suburban communities of Evanston and Wilmette.

Like most of Chicago’s elevated rail system, the Red and Purple lines are in dire need of modernization, upkeep, and expansion.  Determining exactly what should be done in the context of limited funds is going to be a challenge.

This month the CTA is presenting various modernization options for public comment.  Here is a thumbnail sketch of what is contained in the Notice of Intent document released last week.

Currently the Purple Line runs local from Wilmette through Evanston and then express to Belmont in Lakeview where it follows the Brown line stops to downtown.  The Purple Line only runs on the weekdays during the rush hours.

Purple and Red Lines Current Configuration

The Red Line is a local train that runs at all hours, seven days a week between Howard St. at the city’s northernmost boundary down to 95th Street on the city’s south side.

Taken together, the lines generate 128,000 trips on an average weekday and are responsible for about 20% of all CTA rail trips.

In addition to doing nothing, one option being considered is the “Basic Rehabilitation Alternative.”  This alternative keeps existing stations and service, but brings the system “into a minimal state of good repair.”  This option entails making a handful of stations ADA-compliant and doing minimal upgrades.

The second option is a “Basic Rehabilitation with Transfer Stations.” option.  This would follow the above model, but would add Wilson and Loyola as transfer stations for the Purple Line.  This would slow down the Purple line for Evanston commuters, but allow two more stops for riders in Uptown and Rogers Park.

Basic Rehab with Loyola and Wilson Transfer stationsThe third option is the “Modernization 4-Track Alternative.”  This option decreases the number of stations north of Belmont from 21 to 17.  You would still have the two new transfer stations, but the South Boulevard Purple Line station in Evanston would be eliminated as well as the Lawrence,  Thorndale, and Jarvis stations on the Red Line.

To compensate for the loss of stations, platforms would be extended and new entrances would be built in key stations and there could be “potential expanded hours of express service.”

Modernization 4-Track Alternative

The next option is the “Modernization 3-Track Alternative.”  This follows the station closures of the previous option, but instead of having the expanded express service you actually have a decrease in express service.  Currently the Purple Line operates both north and south during weekday rush hours between Belmont and Howard on two of the tracks while the Red Line operates local service on the other two tracks.  The rationale for switching to a three-track option is to improve stations and make them ADA compliant.  This requires widening platforms–something that can be done within the existing right-of-way if you remove one of the tracks.  The catch is that the express train will only run inbound in the morning and outbound in the afternoon.

People who commute from the city to Evanston would be negatively impacted by this change.

The final alternative is called the “Modernization 2-Track Alternative.”  Under this scenario, the existing above-ground Red Line would be transformed into a subway.   The train would go underground north of Belmont and emerge above ground at Loyola.  The elevated stops between Morse and Belmont would be eliminated and essentially be replaced by seven subway stations on the same streets as the “Modernization” options listed above.

It is unclear what would happen to the elevated section, but this option would eliminate ALL express trains.  Apparently this would be compensated somewhat by better track alignment in the new subway section.

Assessment:  First, these lines are in dire need of upgrades.  The CTA is still running a nineteenth-century transit system.  Dilapidated viaducts result in slow zones and many stations are not ADA-compliant and in dire need of makeovers.  This is largely due to decades of minimal investment.

That said, I’m generally unenthusiastic about removing transit stops.  In each of the areas where there are proposed stop eliminations many small businesses are located.  And the more stops you have, there is a higher propensity for people to use transit instead of driving.

It is true that the more stops you have on a train line can result in longer trips since the train stops more frequently.

One curious omission from the proposals is to revert back to the old Red Line configuration which used an A/B “skip stop” system.  This speeds up the Red Line by reducing the number of trains that stop at smaller stations.

Given the shaky economic environment, some of the options presented–like the subway –seem overly ambitious.

Chicago Inaugurates Modest Bike-Sharing Scheme for Tourists

Schweizer Platz - Frankfurt

Bike-sharing is one of the smartest trends sweeping urban transportation planning these days. The idea is that you set up kiosks around a city where a number of bikes are parked securely. Riders use a credit card or subscription card to “check out” a bike.  They then ride it to another kiosk and drop it off.

It works great for trips less than a mile.  It is convenient (no waiting for a bus or train) and carbon neutral.

The concept has been around for several decades, but it really took off in 2007 when Paris initiated its Vélib’ system which features 20,000 bicycles and over 1500 kiosks.  Since then cities as disparate as Mexico City, Montreal, and Washington, DC have established programs (for more info on the global bike share movement, I highly recommend the Bike-Sharing Blog).

Beginning Friday, Chicago will be the latest entry into the bike sharing game.  The system has been a long-time coming.   Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley is well known as being a biking enthusiast and advocate of “green” public policy.  After a visit to Paris and testing out their system in 2007, he expressed interest in bringing the concept to Chicago.

Unfortunately the system that will be inaugurated this week is too modest and too geared to tourists to have any significant impact on mobility for the vast majority of Chicagoans.

Last year, I had a group of students look into what makes a bike sharing program successful as part of an effort to give the Chicago suburb of Evanston information on the subject.  Evanston was involved in transportation master-planning and its consultants had recommended bike sharing as a program to possibly reduce congestion.

According to our preliminary research, there are a few essential elements that a bike sharing scheme must have in order to make an impact on mobility choices in a city.

  • It should be convenient.  Kiosks need to be placed near activity centers and bikes should be plentiful.  No one will use the service if it doesn’t allow them to go where they need to be and the reliable supply of bikes is essential to get people in the habit of using the service.  The activity centers need to be varied–cultural spots, residences, workplaces, shopping districts.  This allows many potential destinations as well as helps bikes circulate through the system so you don’t have all the bikes at one station during particular times of the day.
  • It should be cheap.  Bikes are one of the cheapest and most efficient forms of transportation; however, there are still costs involved (maintenance, purchase of bikes & kiosks, IT infrastructure to keep track of bikes, etc…).  The trick is to figure out a way to keep the price point at a level where it costs less for the average consumer than other forms of transportation (driving, cabs, etc…).  In order to meet these costs, many cities privatize the system.  The operators will put advertising on the bikes or–as in the case with Paris–the bike service will be part of the general outdoor advertising franchise that cities sell to billboard companies.
  • It should be integrated with other modes of transport.  Kiosks should be set up next to train & bus stations, car sharing spots, parking lots.  This allows for flexibility in movement for the user and translates into more successful system.  The picture above, for instance, was taken in Frankfurt at a place called Schweizer Platz.  The bike sharing kiosk is located at the top of the steps of a U-Bahn station and at the corner of a tram line.  At this spot you can transfer from bike-to-tram, bike-to-U-Bahn, etc…

So how does Chicago measure up on this metric?  The main problem–at this point–is that the system is extremely small and is not integrated with a wide variety of activity centers.  There are only 6 full-service kiosks where you can drop off and pick up a bike.  Three of them are (more or less) strictly tourist destinations (Buckingham Fountain, the Field Museum, McCormick Place).  For those readers unfamiliar with Chicago, basically these spots are destinations with a single use.  The number of residencies and work places near these kiosks is small.   You are not likely to see the bike share displace many higher-carbon trips since the kiosks are essentially inconvenient.

The cost is another factor.  A temporary pass costs $10 for the first hour and $5 for each subsequent 30 minutes.  You can also get a monthly membership that costs $35 which gives you the first hour free and charges $2.50 for each subsequent 30 minutes.

This is way too expensive and is further evidence that the scheme is designed primarily for tourists who may be willing to pay more for a pleasant bike ride on the city’s lakefront.  Most schemes that are designed to be integral parts of a city’s transport system have a very small up-front cost.  London’s new bike share program (which also starts on Friday) is not only much bigger, but only charges 1 pound for a single day pass with free usage for the first half hour.

As a point of comparison, in Chicago, lets say I work at the Daley Center and want to eat lunch at the Field Museum (no one would ever want to do this by the way, but that’s where the kiosks are).  I would check out a bike for $10, ride the mile or so to the museum in about 15 minutes.  I would check the bike in at the Museum.  After my hour lunch, I would have to check out a new bike for another $10 at the Museum for the return trip to Daley Plaza.  Twenty bucks to go out to the museum for lunch!    Of course, if I had a monthly pass, the $35 that I pay each month would cover both rides.  But because there are only 6 kiosks, I would not be likely to buy a monthly pass.

In London, lets say I get off a train at St. Pancras.  I pay £1 access fee and check out a bike, ride it the 1.5 miles to the British Museum in about 15 minutes.  I hang out in the museum for an hour, check out another bike and take another 15 minute ride to Hyde Park.  Later on, I can check out another bike and ride up to Kensington, etc… For that initial £1, riders get unlimited short rides.

Finally, Chicago’s scheme comes up short as a practical transport alternative because of the lack of integration with the city’s public transit system.   There are a couple of kiosks that are within a block or two from the city’s subway system, but the major Metra commuter rail stations are about a mile away from the nearest kiosk!   The system will be useless for the thousands of commuters who travel into the city center from the city’s western and northern suburbs.

I understand that this is essentially a demonstration project.  However, because it doesn’t even make an attempt to link with the destinations that everyday residents use, it is hard to get too excited about it.  A better model for the city to follow would have been Washington DC, where a small program began in 2008 that linked a couple of select neighborhoods with the city center.  The program was so successful that the District of Columbia is expanding the system to include all of the wards in the city as well as neighboring Arlington, Virginia, creating the first regional scheme in the United States.

Chicago could also learn from Mexico City, which recently started a small neighborhood system in Condesa.  The first stage of the scheme in Condesa began with 85 stations with plans for expansion.

At this stage, it is a bit premature to call Chicago’s experiment a proper bike-sharing scheme in the sense that it will enhance mobility options for the city’s residents.  Rather, it is a nice tourist amenity to help our visitors enjoy the lakefront and our cultural assets.

Update [28 Jul. 2010 1:23pm]

After my initial post, I came across this article by the Active Transportation Alliance explaining the origins of the scheme.  It is not a municipal project.  Rather it is an outgrowth of Bike Chicago–a private firm that rents bikes at various locales along the lakefront.  [They also run the dreaded Segway tours that clog downtown sidewalks & bikepaths–please, no Segway sharing schemes!]

I assumed the city was involved given the fact that they issued an RFP for a bike share program in 2007 and Mayor Daley apparently presided over the ribbon cutting ceremony yesterday for the project.

In reality this scheme is an expansion of the existing bike rental infrastructure targeting tourists and leisure users.  It is premature to call it a proper “bike sharing” program.

Boat Public Transit Scheme for Chicago?

An article in last Friday’s New York Times asks the question: why doesn’t New York City have more ferries?  The Staten Island Ferry is probably the most well known; and, of course, there is the popular water taxi from Wall Street to the Ikea in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  But in a high-density urban area surrounded by water, the author argues that the water transportation potential is underutilized.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation is currently putting together a “Comprehensive Citywide Ferry Study,” which should provide some guidance on expanding water transportation in the city.

I’ve always thought that here in Chicago water transportation options could be a fruitful area for reducing congestion and for expanding mobility options.  In particular, the Chicago River and its tributaries could be used in this regard.  Currently there are a couple of water taxi services that connect the main commuter rail stations on the west Loop with Michigan Avenue and Chinatown.  But aside from the water taxis, passenger travel on the river is limited to private boats and tours.

I am sure there are engineering, navigational, and health and safety issues that would need to be squared away before expanding passenger travel on the river, but below I’ve put together a “back of the napkin” map of an ideal route.

Docks are situated at 1.5-2 mile intervals.  In some areas the docks would serve neighborhoods with limited access to the rapid transit system while in others docks would be integrated with rail and bus to enhance mulitmodality.

I’m not sure about the timing or what sort of craft would be viable, but theoretically you could travel from the northern suburb of Evanston to downtown Chicago in a little more than an hour–making it competitive with local trains.  The greatest potential would be for the north side Chicago neighborhoods where boat transit could be integrated with neighborhood commercial districts in areas like Logan Square/Lincoln Square, North/Clybourn, or Lincoln/Peterson.

[gmap class=”{post}” width=”{500}” height=”{500}”],-87.705231&spn=0.257783,0.504684&z=11[/gmap]

For a full page view, follow this link.

Really Green Transit

Chicago artist Joe Baldwin just received approval to deploy his conceptual project, mobile garden, on the city’s mass transit rail system.

Image taken from
Image taken from

The idea is to configure a Chicago Transit Authority rail car into a mobile garden, which would visualize the possibilities for enhancing green space in the city.  Additionally, Baldwin promises to plant native plants in the mobile garden, educating Chicagoans about varieties that have historically flourished in the region.

Baldwin’s project seems to be a kindred spirit to Park(ing) Day where citizens commandeer metered parking spaces, lay down sod, bring out lawn chairs, and literally remake the parking space into a park.

These are great examples of creative efforts to get city dwellers to reflect on the human-environment connection and explore the possibilities of using a city’s infrastructure to get us to think critically about nature and the urban landscape.

Obama Going to Copenhagen

The White House just announced that US President Barack Obama will be going to Copenhagen…to support Chicago’s Olympic bid.

If the President is willing to travel across the world to try and lobby the International Olympic Committee to award the games to Chicago, there should be no excuse for him to travel back to Copenhagen in December to help hash out a climate deal.

Many heads of government have announced their intention to attend the COP15 talks–including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  In Brown’s estimation, having the highest level of representation in Copenhagen shows the urgency needed to hash out a global deal.

If Obama goes to Copenhagen to support a two-week sporting event and fails to attend a historic meeting in the same city to transform the world’s economy towards a low-carbon path, the symbolism will be noted by delegations from other countries.

It won’t bode well for generating a global response for dealing with one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Pro Squash in Chicago

Chicago is lucky enough this year to be the host of the US Open Squash Championship. It is one of the top pro tournaments in the country and is being held in a dramatic setting:  a glass court temporarily erected at Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River.

The US Squash Federation was probably hoping that having Chicago host this year’s tournament would both help squash get selected for the 2016 Olympics as well as provide evidence of the city’s ability to host top international sporting events in advance of its bid to host the 2016 games.

Unfortunately, the IOC decided not to include squash for 2016.  The decision on the host city will be made next month.

I’ll be attending the matches this weekend and will provide some posts on the matches.

Yesterday’s first round didn’t have any surprises.  Number two seed Amr Shabana handily defeated Canadian #1, Shahier Razik, while fifth seed, Englishman Adrian Grant, swept Saurav Ghosal in 3 games.  In the other bracket, last year’s Windy City Squash champion, Peter Barker, held off a spirited Gilly Lane.  In the most contentious match of the evening, British phenom James Willstrop gave up one game in his ultimate victory over Julian Illingsworth.

Today’s quarterfinals start at 5pm and include the following matchups:

Ramy Ashour (Egypt) vs Wael El Hindi (Egypt)
David Palmer (Aus) vs  Olli Tuominen (Finland)
Peter Barker (Eng) vs  James Willstrop (UK)
Amr Shabana (Egypt) vs Adrian Grant (UK)