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The “Forever Innocent Driver”: the double-standard of how many view the deaths of people walking and bicycling

September 28, 2016 at 4:07 pm

In the wake of the sixth death of a person riding a bicycle in Chicago this year, I have grown a bit agitated. Not only has our city, among many others across the country/world, failed to do much to rein in the amount of preventable injuries and deaths on our streets, but there is a dark cloud of rhetoric that hangs around after these sort of deaths. There are many that are quick to dismiss the severity of the death by surmising the fallen soul who was biking or walking was in the wrong – as if the victim has the opportunity to defend his or her self. You’ll see or hear their indifference on newspaper comments sections, your social media feeds, and from the mouths of your coworkers, friends, or family.

“While I’m very sorry for this person, I’ve seen a lot of bikers biking with complete disregard to traffic laws (which they are subject to), and also without common sense.”

“If your [sic] going to ride a bike on any street you should be MORE aware of your surrounding vehicles rather then depending on the other guy to watch out for you.”

“The driving pace in the city is fast and sloppy and it is all drivers can do to keep from hitting each other… The cyclists are rudely aggressive and put themselves in tenable spots every time they ride almost daring drivers to hit them.”

These are all public comments on the Chicago Tribune article regarding the death of Anastasia Kondrasheva while she rode her bicycle in Roscoe Village on Monday morning.

You have heard similar comments from people in your life defending a person’s inability to operate a vehicle carefully enough to avoid killing someone. Rarely do you hear about all of the illegal things you know many people do on a daily basis while driving a motor vehicle. Things such as:

  • Exceeding the speed limit
  • Not stopping for a person crossing or trying to cross the street at any marked crosswalk or intersection of two or more streets
  • Using a mobile phone (with hands)
  • Parking in a bike lane (for any period of time)
  • Parking in a crosswalk
  • Double-parking
  • Turning in front of a bicyclist (right-hook) or across the path of a bus
  • Not stopping completely at a stop sign
  • Not stopping completely before making a right turn on red, if permitted
  • Not stopping before exiting an alley
  • Failing to signal a turn
  • Using a horn for a reason other than danger

All of the above are explicitly illegal in Illinois or fall under the category of reckless/aggressive driving.

How often does anyone who makes a comment like the above, excusing a driver’s action, fail to mention that there are things that people driving vehicles do every single time they get in their car that threaten the lives of others?

Countless times I have experienced near-misses while walking or bicycling when someone driving a vehicle has been breaking the law. You see it every time you walk outside for more than ten minutes. There is a certain unchecked belief that people driving vehicles can break the law now and then because “they’re in a hurry”. The belief that anyone who isn’t driving on the street is not a serious person with places to go (or not go – aimlessly walking is one of the best ways to experience the city). The belief that driving a car entitles someone to the entire road, the safety of others be damned. Or the belief that only “taxpayers”, a group from which non-drivers are frequently assumed to be absent, have a right to the space between the buildings of our cities. As if purchasing the vehicle and the gasoline entitles you to the public space that we all share.

Leaving these beliefs unchallenged is one important way that our streets remain unsafe for many and are regarded as merely a conduit for fast-moving vehicle traffic. If we are ever to achieve the aggressive goal of eliminating traffic deaths on our streets, we have to start challenging the notion that those driving cars are lawful patrons of the street while everyone else is too busy breaking the laws, or simply “in the way”.

I used to be more confident when getting on my bike to run an errand or take a nice ride by the lake. But it’s hard to do so now without thinking: in the event of my death, how will I be blamed for this? I do my best to be as safe as possible when I am on my bike or walking on the street, but the fact of the matter is that in any vehicle crash with a bicyclist or pedestrian, the living are almost always the ones behind the wheel, and they get to tell their account of the story.

Reflections on Shared Streets from Japan

September 17, 2016 at 2:26 pm

I recently returned from a two-week vacation in Japan, visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara. For now, I’ll restrain from spilling ink over what you already know – Japan has fast, clean trains that run mostly on-time, with incredibly polite and helpful staff, and riding the Shinkansen is a part of the experience. I loved that Tokyo was just a ¥340 ($3.30) one-hour train ride from scenic mountain beauty and I never once consulted a timetable to make a day excursion, et cetera. If you’re curious, you can find photos on my Flickr album.

I’d like to use this opportunity to reflect on the numerous shared streets I encountered in Japan and their own strengths, while also comparing them to a recent “shared street” project that debuted in Chicago, the Argyle Shared Street (other coverage from Streetsblog).

A shared street in Harajuku, Tokyo.

A shared street in Harajuku, Tokyo.

Let me preface the forthcoming critique by stating that the Argyle Shared Street is a bold step forward (by Chicago standards) in redesigning a street and represents an acknowledgement that streets should be adapted for people, not just cars. In execution, however, the result has been confusing (as we would expect it to initially be) and suffers from a bit of over-engineering.

Argyle Shared Street on 17 September.

Argyle Shared Street on 17 September.

In my opinion, the Argyle Shared Street should not have permitted two-way traffic and has too much on-street car parking. Paid on-street car parking in Chicago has been leased to a private company until the year 2074, so we were unlikely to see any of it reduced; even if the meters belonged to Chicago, business owners would likely have stopped the entire project had car parking been reduced. If you compare the above picture to the one below, though, you’ll see that the car parking really acts as a barrier to the fluidity that a shared street can provide – people walking can waft between sides of the street, going between different shops (and vending machines!) and so on.

Cat Street (キャットストリート) in Harajuku, Tokyo.

Cat Street in Harajuku, Tokyo.

In the end, retaining all of the car parking means that large physical barriers not only prevent that sort of flâneur fluidity, but in some cases also prevent people from seeing what is across the street. Perhaps this would also be an issue since the street is so wide to begin with: Argyle is about 62′ (~19m) between buildings, while Cat Street is about 35′ (~10.5m) wide and a bit more vertical, creating an eye-pleasing streetscape where the buildings nicely frame the street.

While on Argyle, every few minutes I did see some people crossing the street between cars where there was not normally a crosswalk. However, this is the sort of behavior (legally jaywalking) that we in Chicago are accustomed to seeing anyway, shared street or not, so I don’t believe that the shared street has had much of an impact on this behavior.

Aside from car parking, Argyle’s other flaw is two-way traffic and the wide street that provides a visual cue that excessive speed is not necessarily impossible to achieve. On Cat Street, vehicle traffic was light – a taxi would come through every few minutes, and people moved out of its way for a brief moment. Drivers would instead use parallel streets designed to move traffic. Other shared streets in Tokyo mandated the same behavior.

A street near Asakusa, Tokyo.

A street near Asakusa, Tokyo.

The same street near Asakusa, Tokyo, when a truck needed to pass through.

The same street near Asakusa, Tokyo, when a truck needed to pass through.

Argyle St in Chicago does not connect to Lake Shore Drive to the east, and to the west it is a residential street through Andersonville, so it is not truly a “connector” street that should warrant high thru traffic. There are plenty of wide streets in Tokyo that are designed to move traffic quickly, but there are plenty of streets that are designed with the human in mind. Do you ever get the feeling that most streets in North American cities, from alleys to residential streets to four-lane roads, are designed primarily with car traffic in mind?

Omotesando (表参道) in Tokyo, perpendicular to Cat Street, taken from a pedestrian overpass.

Finally, I’ve heard that the Argyle Shared Street will improve once landscaping (i.e. trees) are installed. I don’t truly believe that shared streets require trees; they are nice to have, though, and can help make the street appear narrower and provide much-needed shade. However, there were plenty of streets in Tokyo where the buildings provided shade and I didn’t really miss the trees, per se. On Argyle, trees would be better placed between each one or two parking spaces, creating more opportunity for people to cross the street wherever they want. Instead, there are bays of several parking spaces with trees next to the parking spaces, which can create another barrier to crossing the street anywhere.

A flyer from CDOT regarding how to park on Argyle. Note the location of the tree grates. Via John Greenfield/Streetsblog Chicago.

Two-way traffic on the street, combined with the parking lining the street, prevents the Argyle Shared Street from achieving its full potential. Being Chicago’s first (and hopefully not last) shared street, we should strive to make future shared street projects more ambitious than the last until we can achieve the proper definition of a shared street.

Until then, I’ll let you enjoy some more photos and commentary of shared streets across some Japanese cities.

A mostly residential street in Osaka.

A mostly residential street in Osaka.

In more residential neighborhoods I didn’t see a lot of formal sidewalks like we have in North America. Instead, a shared street was implicit. Car traffic was light (probably thanks to some laws like Tokyo’s, which require car owners to prove they have a dedicated parking space, and overnight street parking is illegal) and slow-moving.

A street in Osaka.

A street in Osaka.

A street in Tokyo.

A street in Tokyo.

A street near Asakusa, Tokyo.

A street near Asakusa, Tokyo.

A street in Shibuya, Tokyo.

A street in Shibuya, Tokyo.

A street in Kyoto.

A street in Kyoto.

A street with lots of room for walking in Nara.

A street with lots of room for walking in Nara.

A shared street in Nara.

A shared street in Nara.

Some streets in Japan are covered in an arcade fashion, possibly to prevent rain? This was in Osaka.

Some streets in Japan are covered in an arcade fashion, possibly to prevent rain? This was in Osaka.

A shopping district in Ueno, Tokyo.

Ikebukuro, Tokyo.

And just because I miss them a lot, here’s some train pictures from Japan :-)

japan-1

The JR Yamanote Line was the circular spine of my trip in Tokyo.

Interior of a Yamanote Line train.

The Shinkansen bullet trains came more frequently than some subway lines back in North America. Shin-Osaka station.

The Shinkansen bullet trains came more frequently than some subway trains in North America. 3-minute headways to Tokyo around 8:30pm, Shin-Osaka station.

The interior of a newer Shinkansen train is spacious, clean, and well-lit.

Some JR stations were well-lit and enhanced with artwork. Ueno station, Tokyo.

This map shows the walking distance between CTA ‘L’ stations

January 10, 2016 at 11:05 am

I was inspired by Guillaume Martinetti, who created this map showing the walking times between each station of the Paris Métro and RER:

Paris Métro walking distance map

The stations on the Métro are so close together (average distance between stations is 1,844 ft, or about half a kilometer) that it sometimes is faster just to walk than to wait for a train, especially if you’re going one stop just to transfer. Guillaume’s map shows this perfectly.

Apparently there is a similar map for the London Tube – but it’s actually made by Transport for London:

London Tube walking distance map

London Tube stations look a little further apart by walking than those in Paris.

I was inspired by both of these maps, so I decided to make one for the Chicago ‘L’, run by CTA:

CTA rail map showing walking distances in minutes between stations

© CTA

It’s also available as a PDF.

CTA walking times map thumbnail

Close-up of the map.

The numbers adjacent to the line between two stations indicates the time to walk between each station entrance as published in this dataset from CTA. Black numbers indicate two or more train services (i.e. colors) run along that line at all times, such as in the Loop. To get these numbers, I wrote a hacky ruby script to get the walking times between each station pair from the Google Maps Directions API. I double-checked and edited any outliers, then used Adobe Illustrator to add the walking times.

You may be thinking, “Hey, I could walk between a and z quicker than that!” Note that the map shows the walking distance between station entrances; so if you’re thinking of walking Fullerton to Sedgwick, your walk would be only 29 minutes, instead of the 32 that the map suggests (10 + 22). Also remember that many ‘L’ stations straddle a block along an alley where Google Maps would not tell you to walk, adding walking time. In many other cities, subway lines run underneath streets instead, mirroring the path of a walk.

I used the “light” ‘L’ system map from CTA, but am working on using the “standard” map once some construction-related reroutes are complete.

Do you see any anomalies or anything interesting on the map? Let me know in the comments.

A freeway-free city does not guarantee a walkable one

April 18, 2015 at 10:38 am

Of all the pretenses thrown around Vancouver urbanism/planning circles, “we have no freeways” is among the most unchallenged. No freeways traverse the 44 square miles of Vancouver proper (which is mostly true, as a small section of the Trans-Canada Highway does indeed enter the city’s boundaries), and someone will inevitably let you know this is why Vancouver is “so livable” or “Canada’s most walkable city” or something else along those lines.

But there are ramifications to being a city with North American freight demands, a large central business district inside the city, as well as a major bridge that moves traffic to the North Shore communities and beyond from all around the region (where most people still drive). The city is laced with a grid network of arterials that are unpleasant to walk along or across.

To give credit where its due, Vancouver does move a lot of people into its CBD and employment districts by transit, like many other North American cities. And a fairly large share of its own population travels on transit within its borders. You would think these factors, coupled with the lack of freeways, would make Vancouver a walking mecca on par with historic European cities.

This is the reality:

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Shaun Jacobsen.

Image: Shaun Jacobsen.

Vancouver’s downtown is one of the few parts of the city that is walkable and feels comfortable to walk around. There are a few neighborhoods here and there that are also comfortable to walk around, but they are isolate sections only reached by streets that look like the ones above.

Worse, these roads are designed to move traffic quickly. Signalized intersections with a flashing green light mean the signal is only changed when a person walking or bicycling on the cross street presses a button; that is, the lights are green by default. This is so traffic can move more quickly along the streets. Further, despite these streets being relatively narrow in terms of width, they pack in several lanes of moving traffic (4 or 6, depending on the time of day). The speed limit is set at 50 km/h (31 mph), but people normally drive at or exceed 60 km/h (37 mph). There is not usually a landscaped strip separating the (narrow) sidewalks from the roadway, and with few parked cars acting as a buffer, this means traffic is whizzing inches away from people walking or waiting for a bus. Finally, signalized intersections and painted crosswalks are few and far between when not in a commercial area, making crossing these streets difficult. Safely crossing can involve walking several blocks out of one’s way to safely cross these streets.

This does not stop at neighborhood high (commercial) streets either, which are often noisy due to four, five, or six lanes of through traffic moving at relatively high speeds. Neighborhoods like Marpole could make use of its wide sidewalks by having outdoor seating and other elements of vibrant outdoor public life, but there is little of it and I do not hesitate at thinking this is due to road noise.

Furthermore, there are no policy pushes by the city to put these streets on a “road diet,” as is being done in other cities around North America. This is likely because some of them are provincial roads or part of TransLink’s Major Road Network, which would make them similar to State DOT roads in U.S. cities. This is a disappointment.

Vancouver's share of the Major Road Network (blue). Highways are in red. Not all photos of arterial streets above are part of the Major Road Network. Image: TransLink.

Vancouver’s share of the Major Road Network (blue). Highways are in red. Not all photos of arterial streets above are part of the Major Road Network. Image: TransLink.

There are good walking streets in Vancouver. Notice that they all have one usable lane of through traffic:

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

Image: Google.

 

And here are some decent walking streets in other North American cities (also, only two traffic lanes maximum):

Capture d’écran 2015-04-18 à 09.27.48

Andersonville, Chicago. Image: Google.

San Francisco. Image: Google.

San Francisco. Image: Google.

Brooklyn. Image: Google.

Brooklyn. Image: Google.

Montréal. Image: Google.

Montréal. Image: Google.

Hyde Park, Chicago. Image: Google.

Hyde Park, Chicago. Image: Google.

The point is that you can be a city with no freeways, but the cost could come in the form of a network of stroads (street/road hybrid, essentially a street that doesn’t work well for anyone) whose unpleasantness is spread across the city and therefore impacts more of its population. Few urbanists, myself included, like freeways running through cities. We can certainly do without them in our downtowns, their effects are incredibly unpleasant, and the history behind their construction is shameful. But it is disingenuous to assert that a city is somehow better off with several long, straight, high-speed arterials designed to move traffic quickly instead of one freeway which might be able to handle this traffic, giving way to narrower, calmer commercial streets through neighborhoods. It would also be less of a liability to run these arterial streets through the city if the it had planned its retail districts (i.e. neighborhood centers) on smaller streets.

This is an idea that should be thought over, not to make the case for building a freeway through Vancouver (which I do not think should be done), but instead to think about the ramifications of being a city in a North American region where the majority of residents still travel by car, despite efforts to reduce car travel by rejecting freeways and building transit instead. Unless it is balanced out with policies directed at taming arterial streets, it doesn’t appear to work all that well.

Stacked big-box development: Chicago’s next urban design challenge

April 13, 2015 at 8:59 pm

In Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin laments a new sort of high-rise residential development going up in and around downtown Chicago: stories of parking at the base, with residences four, five, and six or more stories above ground, far from being “eyes on the street” of any sort.

The difference between a condo tower in New York and one in Chicago is that the Chicago tower will have a base, roughly four to nine stories tall, that houses a parking garage where condo and apartment dwellers store their cars and SUVs. The apartment floors begin only after the parking garage ends.

It’s a small difference with large consequences. It means that in New York, you look up from the sidewalk to the second floor and you see somebody’s curtains. In Chicago, you look up and see, in most cases, a blank wall of concrete or opaque glass, because the city requires buildings to cover parking garages rather than leaving them exposed.

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

The book is a compilation of articles that Kamin has written over the years; that excerpt was written in August 2003. While this trend may seem to have slowed, River North and West Loop in particular are riddled with this sort of development. The parking being between the ground plane and the residences is not as obvious as it is with Marina City, but it’s pretty bland. Above is a pretty egregious example; not only is the ground plane wasted on three banks (BMO Harris is not pictured, to the right), there are at least 4 levels of parking above the Chase.

Parking garages in developments like those shown above, and which Kamin bemoans, likely exist because it is cheaper to build parking above ground than below it, and nobody thought much of it. Fortunately, new development does not tend to include aboveground parking structures at the street-facing side of the building, and we are seeing more transit-oriented developments with much less parking.

A trend I have seen more recently is development that has parking on the ground floor (even worse), with retail on top. This was something I first noticed at the Target on Division St:

Image: Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Parking is accessed around the corner, on Larrabee:

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

This is terrible urban design, for a few reasons: The parking on the first level provides two blank walls to stare at while walking by. There is no opportunity for other retailers to open on the ground floor, or even windows where passers-by can look into the store (the only windows afford a view of escalators to go up to the second floor, where there is retail). There is no chance that anything along this block will ever be “active.”

It’s concerning, because the Wilson Yards Target is better:

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

Target still occupies quite a bit of the block, but there is nonetheless housing above the rest of the retailers that exist on the other half of the development. Another small enhancement is the café section of Target, which has a window looking out to the street giving passers-by something to look at. I don’t think this would have happened if this Target were built on its own, however. The fact that it is a part of a larger TIF-funded development likely helped. It does help to show, however, that the ugly urban design of the Division St Target is entirely avoidable.

Here is another example of a poorly-designed big-box development, about a 15 minute walk west:

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

This new Mariano’s grocery store, next to the Metra UP-N Ravenswood station (the busiest non-Loop Metra station in Chicago), has a sidewalk-fronting entrance which takes you straight upstairs to the rest of the store, unless you want a coffee or flowers, which are the only items sold on the first floor.

The parking structure, accessed from the cave shown above, is above the store. But what is particularly bad about the design of this development is that its smaller occupant, LA Fitness, can only be accessed from behind the store, through the driveway to the parking garage.

Image: Google Maps.

There is no entrance to LA Fitness from the sidewalk. Image: Google Maps.

In my opinion, fitness clubs should be located on the second floor if possible, since many of them usually throw up an opaque screen for some reason (probably to prevent people from looking inside), which is antithetical to good pedestrian-oriented design. And good pedestrian-oriented design is exactly what we should be calling for on Lawrence Ave, considering it was recently the beneficiary of a much-needed road diet, which not only makes the street safer for people walking but should also be conducive to more people-oriented urban design.

Which brings me to the reason I wanted to write this post, which is a new development proposed on Montrose Ave just two blocks from the Wilson Yards Target. A former neighbor tipped me off to a DNAInfo article regarding a Ross discount clothing store wanting to open shop on the site of former Dearborn Foods, which has sat vacant for some time at 918 W Montrose Ave. Here are the renderings:

Image: Mid-America Real Estate.

Image: Mid-America Real Estate.

Image: Mid-America Real Estate.

Image: Mid-America Real Estate.

Let’s start with the good, because it will be quicker: At least there is space for two small retailers.

The bad should be obvious: ground-floor parking (73 spaces proposed), with second-floor retail. Even worse is that, unlike the Target on Division, the parking is not even closed off by a wall that could have something on it to look at. The developer touts “strong traffic counts” as an asset.

Is it better than the vacant store there now? Sure. Is it better than the Jewel-Osco across the street, with it’s large surface parking lot? Maybe. But it sure isn’t good urban design.

Buildings like this cannot continue to pop up like weeds across Chicago’s landscape. Thankfully, this looks like it is the first rendering, and it has not gone through any sort of public review process. Recently re-elected alderman James Cappleman should reject this style of development and insist that the only type of new development that should be built in Uptown be pedestrian-oriented, not only on principle but also because over half of households in this area have no vehicle and most people commute via transit (source). Traffic-choked Montrose should not be subjected to development that will induce more automobile trips and re-introduce conflict points between people walking and driving with a curb cut on a busy street. Finally, we should expect better when a $200+ million Red Line ‘L’ station renovation is being constructed just down the street.

Chicago already has a tool that can fight back against this sort of development, it just needs to be applied more widely. The Pedestrian Streets ordinance (17-3-0500) is a wonderful law that ensures existing “streets and intersections that are widely recognized as Chicago’s best examples of pedestrian-oriented shopping districts” remain that way. However, it needs to be expanded to include most, if not all, commercial streets instead of covering only those that are currently human-scale, pedestrian-friendly shopping districts. The three developments (Target on Division St, Mariano’s on Lawrence Ave, and the proposed Ross on Montrose Ave) I showed in this article would not have been built as they are had they been on designated Pedestrian Streets. Transparent surfaces would be required on 60% of the sidewalk-facing walls, entrances must be on the primary street, and curb cuts are prohibited.

Chicago Pedestrian Streets, relatively few and far between, are also inequitably distributed. Image: City of Chicago Data Portal.

Chicago Pedestrian Streets, relatively few and far between, are also inequitably distributed. Image: City of Chicago Data Portal.

33rd ward alderwoman Deb Mell fought a developer who wanted to build a standard-issue, auto-oriented Walgreen’s at the site of an existing mixed-use building, as I reported last year in Streetsblog Chicago. Cappleman, and many other aldermen and women throughout Chicago should be rejecting the same type of development in their own wards, and you should be pressuring them to do so. The higher initial cost, if any, to a developer is worth it in the long run if our new development resembles less of a stacked suburban big-box design, and more of the human-scale shopping streets we’ve come to appreciate in several Chicago neighborhoods.

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