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Séjour parisien with lots of Vélib’

March 2, 2014 at 8:20 am

Despite a few visits and a 6-month stay for university studies, there’s always been something I felt like I never did enough of in Paris: riding a bike. It always seemed a little crazy to me, whether it was on the narrow streets or the arterial boulevards full of traffic. But sit down and look around long enough and you’ll notice that the vélo is not only for the risk-averse. It’s for everyone.

I’d estimate that only 1 in 10 people on a bike were wearing a helmet or hi-viz vests. In fact, many were wearing black coats while bicycling in the light rain at sundown! Reckless Parisians.

The amount of protected bike lanes in Paris is nothing like Amsterdam, but the amount seems to be growing. There are enough of them to bridge entire parts of the city along major boulevards, while calmer neighborhood streets fill in the gaps.

Along Boulevard de Rochechouart near Montmartre.

And take note, Chicago DOT! You can totally put protected bike lanes and bus stops together harmoniously:

C’est possible.

Here’s some more photos of nice bike lanes:

There are also nice protected lanes along the new tramway lines.

There are also plenty of substandard, white-stripe-only bike lanes in Paris, and drivers will park in them. The silver lining is that traffic usually isn’t moving so fast in the first place, so it’s not that harrowing to “take the lane,” because it’s not really taking it away from anyone. Everyone’s just kind of sharing.

Which brings me to the zones 30, or 30 km/h (18 mph) zones where drivers take a back seat to people on bikes and people walking. Despite being one-way for drivers, these streets are often open to contraflow bike traffic, and people on bikes can also usually turn right on red at lights (which is normally illegal) after yielding. In some cases, they may even be permitted to go through on red after yielding, particularly at T-intersections. 80% of bike riders think that the 30 km/h zones have made it easier to bike [PDF].

Contraflow bike lane, signal, and a sign letting you go right on red after yielding!

Short crosswalk, contraflow bike lane, and a 30 km/h zone.

There are plenty of these areas of Paris, however what is notable is that many of them are in the east of Paris and there are few, if any, in the wealthier western arrondissements.

Yellow: completely pedestrianized zone. Light pink: Existing 30 km/h zone. Dark pink: New 30 km/h zone. Dark blue lines: Zones de rencontre.

Yellow: completely pedestrianized zone. Light pink: Existing 30 km/h zone. Dark pink: New 30 km/h zone. Dark blue lines: Zones de rencontre.

Last year I wrote about the new zones de rencontre, which I suppose are what woonerfs are in the Netherlands. Well, they’re amazing, and we need more of them in every big city. Even if we could never get pedestrianization of neighborhood streets in Chicago, we should at least get something like these mixing zones/woonerfs/zones de rencontre.

This is a zone de rencontre in the Marais neighborhood. Just walk wherever you want.

The speed limit is 20 km/h (12 mph) and the car is absolutely the lowest priority. I don’t recall seeing many cars on these streets anyway. The situation in many of these areas is chaotic, in a good way. There’s so much going on that it’s necessary to slow down and pay close attention even when riding a bike. It was still possible to move quickly through the neighborhood, and completely safe. 59% of bicyclists believe that these zones have made it easier to bike [PDF].

Back to Vélib: I feel like it played a huge part in transforming bicycle riding in Paris. The ubiquitous, if ugly, bikes are scattered all around the place in permanent stations. I’d estimate that more than half of people riding bikes were on one. The front baskets, bigger than the bike share bikes we have in the US (Alta’s systems, anyway), can hold a lot, and the bikes feel lighter than ours, too.

The stations are also sometimes perfectly placed along protected bike lanes. The stations themselves are the protection!

All told, Vélib also has some serious distribution problems. I was staying in the 20th arrondissement near the Gambetta Métro station, an area at a higher elevation than the rest of the city. Most of the time, there were very few, if any, bikes to take. It seems most others had the idea that it would be fun to take the bikes and ride them effortlessly downhill, then never bring them back up. In fact, Vélib attempted to solve this problem with V+ stations – if you bring a bike from a non-V+ station to a V+ station, your account gets 15 bonus minutes added on so you can worry a little less about overtime. Seemingly, it still hasn’t convinced anyone to bike back up the hill (and I don’t blame them, it’s exhausting).

There’s also stations that aren’t uphill that are empty, and other stations that are completely full. It didn’t really make any sense to me. Paris doesn’t necessarily have the same neighborhood usage homogeneity that many US cities do – that is, there’s a downtown where lots of people work, and residential neighborhoods where people live, and throughout there are places where people shop. In Paris it’s mostly just spread all over, and there never seemed to be any rhyme or reason as to why entire neighborhoods had empty stations while others were full.

Vélib is massively popular and this is probably why it has some distribution problems. One of the best months was September 2011, with 3,488,267 rides taken. Some more stats about bicycling in Paris: 60% of Vélib subscribers are men, 46% don’t have a car, 64% don’t have a public transit pass, and 20% wear a helmet. 66% of the trips are for work-related reasons, and 90% of users take trips more than 3 times per week. More stats (in French) here.

The bike parking situation seems pretty decent as well. There’s usually a sign for the on-street corrals and I like the design of them.

Permanent bike corral.

I also wanted to point out that while walking along the promenade plantée, a linear park that’s both elevated and street-level (depending on where you are), I noticed a nice solution to separate the Parisian runners and promenaders from the bicyclists. Perhaps this is what we need to do on the Lakefront path in Chicago – a wall.

Promenade plantée or coulée vert.

Bikes to the left, runners/walkers to the right.

All in all, bicycling in Paris is still young. It’s on the Copenhagenize index of bicycle-friendly cities and made it to #14 on last year’s list (only one North American city – Montréal – came before it). Indeed, Paris has played catch-up and is a global city that’s getting there faster than other equivalents like London and New York. There’s still the occasional stressful moment, like riding around a major traffic circle…

I just wanted to get to the other side!

…but it’s getting there. Especially considering the amount of neighborhood zones de rencontre that have made it pleasant to just be on foot or two wheels, Paris is a city that’s doing a lot to make itself even more livable.

 

Build it and they will come: Time to open Chicago’s neighborhood streets

February 12, 2014 at 8:17 pm

Last winter I visited New York City for the first time in five years. I remember seeing the new pedestrian spaces the city created by repurposing street space from motorists. The only other pedestrian plazas I’d seen before were in Europe; I didn’t think I’d ever see something on the scale of New York’s plazas program.

34 St pedestrian plaza, near the flagship Macy’s store, in Midtown Manhattan. Image: WNYC/NYC DOT

Even in cold December when I was there, many people were still sitting outside enjoying a coffee or chatting with other people.

When I heard yesterday that the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago was proposing 20 spots to do the same thing as New York did, I was thrilled (see coverage at Streetsblog and DNAInfo, as well as Active Trans’s own release). It’s great news to hear after the sad news that Chicago won’t have any Open Streets events this year. What’s better than permanent open streets?

Off the top of my head, I can think of only one great place in Chicago that already acts as a pedestrian plaza, and it is just as busy as the 34 St plaza in the image above. Kempf Plaza is a small car-free space nestled between mixed-use buildings in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. In the summer, it’s bustling almost every day. Parents let their kids run around while they chat with friends, people buy food from nearby vendors, and many people walk to the space from their homes in the adjacent blocks. It’s the community’s backyard, even though many of the homes in the area have their own.

Kempf Plaza, Lincoln Square.

Kempf Plaza, Lincoln Square.

The Tribune had an article in 2010 asking why there weren’t other pedestrian plazas throughout the city, again citing Kempf Plaza as a “poster child” for such spaces. I’m glad the article offers a little history on Kempf Plaza (emphasis mine):

…it resulted from an enlightened, late 1970s infrastructure project that turned a single-block of diagonal Lincoln Avenue into a one-way street. At the street’s midpoint, where Giddings had intersected Lincoln, Giddings was transformed into a cul-de-sac, clearing space for an outdoor plaza.

At first, people complained that their two-way traffic was being taken away, but almost no one complains now, especially after later changes endowed the plaza with handsome paving, a performance platform and a multi-tiered fountain…

Yes, a plaza that has existed for around 35 years is still successful today, unlike the failed State St pedestrian mall that everyone brings up. Yes, one of the city’s pedestrianization projects failed. But another one is thriving. And unlike the 1980s, more people are moving into cities, desire walkable neighborhoods, are driving less, aren’t shopping at suburban malls, and so on…

I chuckle when people make statements like this, from the DNAInfo article:

Another neighborhood resident who identified himself as “Gary R.” visibly scoffed when he heard the plan while standing on the half-mile stretch of Broadway packed with businesses and motor vehicle traffic.

I don’t want to pick on Gary, but I am willing to bet that the majority of motor vehicles “packed” on the street were driving somewhere else, not to the businesses along the street. And unlike the pedestrians walking on the street, the drivers of those cars probably won’t “pop in” to a local shop if they’re going somewhere else. Broadway between Diversey and Belmont, one of the stretches Active Trans proposed, is absolutely thriving in the summer and full of pedestrians and bicyclists. Motor vehicle traffic from the lakeshore unproductively fills the streets, pollutes the air (with exhaust and the sound of horns).

Looking into it even further, many homes on the blocks immediately adjacent to that strip (yellow) are car-free – well above the city’s average (25%):

My commute/car ownership map demonstrates that many homes along at least one of Active Trans's proposals are car-free already.

My commute/car ownership map demonstrates that many homes along at least one of Active Trans’s proposals are car-free already. Map data: US Census. Street base layer © Open Street Map Contributors.

“No,” he said. “Why would you want to do that? This is a busy street that’s been here for hundreds of years — that doesn’t make any sense.”

I’m no historian, but cars weren’t being driven on a mass scale until the 1920s-30s. I’m willing to bet that before Broadway was ruled by cars, it was ruled by pedestrians.

I’m surprised that few of the articles I read mentioned parking. I believe that this would be an issue for business owners as well as the private company in control of metered curbside parking. But from what I know, this city has plenty of thinkers who would be willing to put their heads together to solve these issues. And as far as transit access goes: buses could be integrated into the space. I can think of one space in Paris that has an exclusive bus lane nestled in between the sidewalk and seating areas. There’s also a Vélib bike sharing station!


View Larger Map

Further back, you can see a bus coming down the lane. (Side note: the buses in Paris don’t honk. They instead emit a digital sound – listen here –  that is loud enough to warn pedestrians to move, but quiet enough not to bother people sitting outside or living upstairs.)

The DNAInfo article cited my idea to pedestrianize Michigan Avenue, which I wrote about last December. Michigan Ave (the “Mag Mile”) is also in Active Trans’s list. Where Michigan Ave would be a sort of “flagship” pedestrianized street, I think it would be easier to start with these smaller sections of streets that would become centerpieces of entire neighborhoods. Every neighborhood should have great plazas for people just like Kempf Plaza in Lincoln Square. At first, motorists would be frustrated in finding another way to get around… but they’d still get around. It’s worth the extra few minutes of driving to open spaces back up to pedestrians.

I’m excited to see what becomes of these proposals. Hopefully we can learn from the lesson of Kempf Plaza in the late 70′s – just build it, and they will come.

Residential streets as places to be

February 1, 2014 at 6:06 pm

Overnight we got a few inches of snow in Chicago. In December I recommended taking post-snow photos to prove that there are many cases where street space for cars could be turned over for other uses that make streets safer. I looked outside today and watched the traffic on my street for a while, noting that no matter which direction drivers were going, they usually drove on one side of the street. A photo shows this too:

It isn’t perfect, and a few people did drive on the “correct” side of the street (tire tracks prove it), but many seem to have moved to and driven on the side where there’s the least snow.

This is a residential street that is sometimes used as a shortcut. This is especially true when traffic on the nearby higher-volume streets is heavy. Unlike parallel streets, there are no speed bumps (allegedly because a neighbor complained about them and they were removed years ago). I don’t advocate for speed bumps though, because they’re unpleasant to bike on and make it harder to carry cargo (in my experience). There are better traffic calming tools out there.

In this case certain measures could be employed on the low-volume street to narrow the width for cars and make the street more of a “home zone,” or a woonerf. Although this street isn’t a one-way it could still be bi-directional, with wider points to allow two cars to pass each other as well as one or two dedicated spaces for delivery vehicles only. Narrowing the street and making it more difficult to navigate would discourage drivers from speeding down it without also making it less enjoyable to ride a bicycle (as speed bumps do). At the corners, bumpouts and a raised crosswalk could elevate pedestrians and may prevent drivers from speeding into the crosswalk, ignorant of pedestrians about to cross. Anecdotally this happens often, likely because the design of the street makes it easy to drive down without much thought. Think about driving in a place where the street is narrow and unfamiliar – do you slow down, maybe turn down the radio and peer carefully out the windshield to see what’s going on? Just a few changes to the street can change driver behavior just like that, without impeding the little existing car traffic. After all, trips on residential streets shouldn’t be long ones, and making it just a little slower to drive should hardly impact a driver’s total trip time.

This may not be the best example (from Trondheim) for my specific Chicago example, but if some streets are to be places for everyone again, we need to rethink where everything goes and what residential streets are really for. Image vagod/Panoramio.

What’s more, it will feed into a future greenway. As more greenways are planned around the city, we should also start to look at the residential streets that feed into them. It would improve pedestrian safety by slowing down traffic and making drivers more vigilant (especially if intersection enhancements are included), and improve bicycle safety by creating safer neighborhood routes to bike on.

The Comox-Helmcken greenway in Vancouver goes through a residential neighborhood and is curb-separated at parts.

Since this street has many old apartment buildings with little green space, we could go even further and suggest very small “pocket parks,” where people could sit, relax, and see their neighbors. It could be as simple as a bench on a plot of grass where a parking space used to be, or some space for children to play. The possibilities are numerous.

Every block is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to making the streets better places to walk and bike. Look at how people use the streets as they are and imagine how we want people to use them in the future, perhaps as social spaces and not just storage for private vehicles.

Chicago needs to refresh its parking supply requirements

January 27, 2014 at 8:01 pm


For far too long, American cities have enshrined in their zoning codes minimum parking requirements. One result is an overabundance of parking spaces: some estimates put the number at 8 spaces for every car in the U.S. If you’re up to the challenge, you can read all 800 pages of The High Cost of Free Parking
by UCLA professor Donald Shoup to learn more than you thought you needed to know about parking policy.

I recently wrote an article for Streetsblog Chicago about a proposed development in Uptown, Chicago, which will add 554 parking spaces to a now-vacant plot of land. The land will be upzoned to B3-5, which will require 554 parking spaces. The developer is proposing to build the absolute minimum the city permits.

The developer, James Letchinger, said in an email that 60-65 percent of parking in JDL’s other developments sit empty. At tens of thousands of dollars per space in construction costs alone, all these parking spaces drive up the price of housing and the cost of retail goods. Parking mandates also result in less space being developed for more productive uses.

Even the developer himself noted that more than half the parking in his other developments goes unused! In Uptown, half of residents take public transportation to work, and nearly half don’t own any cars at all (see my commute map for a look at Chicago as a whole). We don’t need there to be so much parking supply in this neighborhood.

The 46th Ward Master Plan [PDF] calls for more innovative parking solutions that make use of existing parking “assets” in the neighborhood. I believe a good existing asset is the Truman College parking garage just a few blocks west on Sunnyside. It provides 1,138 free parking spaces for its students despite being directly adjacent to a rapid transit line and two bus routes. When class isn’t in session, the garage sits empty. Many of the spaces likely also sit empty when classes are in session. If there were a daily fee for the garage – say, $4.50 (equivalent to CTA fare), even more spaces would likely be open.

You can see how close a walk to the garage (B) would be from the proposed development (A):

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Currently, “shared parking” like I’m proposing is not possible; the development and the garage too far apart. The city requires the shared parking facility to be no more than 600′ away from the development.

Imagine what our city would look like if we required all new developments to be no further than 600 feet from any rail or bus line. In Chicago, 600′ is approximately a block and a half – this kind of development would be impossible here. It would even be impossible at my old apartment in Paris, which is 700′ feet away from the nearest Métro station.

Yet we require that parking facilities for developments be no more than 600′ away.

Leveraging the Truman College parking garage instead of having the developer build their own parking garage would be a great way to achieve the Ward’s stated goals. It could also have a ripple effect that would improve our streets. During last year’s Participatory Budgeting process, we brainstormed multiple east-west streets that would be good for carrying bike traffic. One street was Montrose Ave.


View Larger Map

It isn’t a very bike-friendly street right now, but it could be. There is no business purpose for the parking, which is not directly adjacent to any business. It really only serves residents/visitors who want to park for free, because there are no meters. One side is adjacent to a cemetery. If we removed the parking on just one side, there would be room for protected bike lanes on the 60′ wide street:

An idea for Montrose Avenue.

An idea for Montrose Avenue.

This is just one improvement we could make if we were able to shift street parking to a nearby, central location. I’d argue it may make parking even easier if drivers know they can find a spot in a garage and walk a few blocks instead of circling block after block for a spot.

Several U.S. cities (many in California) have instituted in-lieu fees where developers can pay a fee to go below the minimum amount of parking spaces required. For example, Palo Alto, CA offers developers the chance to pay $17,848 per space in lieu of building the actual space. This money can then be used to build centralized parking structures. Why would the developer decide to pay the fee? If the cost of building the parking space exceeds the value to the developer of building the space, the developer would be better off paying the in-lieu fee.

For this specific development, assume Chicago has an in-lieu fee of $15,000 per space. If the developer were required to build 554 spaces, but knew that only 35-40% of them would be rented, they could opt to build 220 spaces (about 40%) and pay $5,010,000 in fees for the remaining 334 spaces that would otherwise be required. The city could use this money to pay down the debt service on a centralized garage, to improve pedestrian and bike infrastructure nearby, to renovate the nearby park facilities, etc.

I argue that a better solution for a city like Chicago, and a neighborhood like Uptown which has several transit options, is to instead institute a parking maximum. Developments like this one should not be permitted to build so much parking in the first place. The Ward’s and the City’s goals support this position: Three different policies that “oversee” this development list promoting transit, biking, and walking as goals.  It would therefore make more sense for the city to require the developer provide a certain number of car share spaces, to provide funds to improve the bike infrastructure nearby, to install Divvy stations, to construct bus shelters*, and so on.

I wouldn’t argue that deregulation of parking requirements would work entirely. In some cases, developers who are more familiar with suburban, parking-dependent developments would still overbuild parking. We need to reverse the trend of the past few decades by instead instituting parking maximums.

Our aldermen need to push for new parking reforms – Chicago last did so in 2004. Since then, riding a bicycle as transportation has taken off and is being recognized by the city as they continue to build new infrastructure to support it. CTA service has improved and upgrades to both the track and stations are forthcoming. Many new shops providing daily needs have popped up within walking distance of many Chicagoans. At the national level, we’re driving less, and people are moving back to the city – some without their cars. It’s time we have new parking policies that reflect these realities, and create the city we want to live in.

* There is already one bus shelter where the development will go, and the city’s contract with JCDecaux (who maintains the shelters) may make it difficult to provide more bus shelters.

How Chicagoans Commute

January 23, 2014 at 3:59 pm

After the 2012 ACS (American Community Survey) 5-year estimates were released by the U.S. Census Bureau, I took to using them to find out how many people own cars in certain neighborhoods, mainly as a way to prove to some that there may be more people without cars in our neighborhoods than we think.

I used the American FactFinder to do this on an individual basis (usually by ZIP code) but found that the smaller census tracts could provide an even closer look. So I took all of the data from 2012 and I mapped it over Chicago. I used the B08141 table from the census, which shows the means of transportation to work by vehicles available, and divided each mode by the total number of workers in the given census tract to find the percentage. I also used the DP04 selected housing characteristics table to obtain the number of households within a tract, and the number of vehicles each household has. All of the data that comes from these tables can be further analyzed to dive deeper into the numbers.

I fully plan on making this map better than it is right now. I have started to compare the data to the 2000 census and I want to implement a sidebar that shows more information about the tract when it’s clicked on. Ideally we could also look at some of the nearby communities, but I focused on Chicago for just this map.

You can get a glance of the map below, or see the full-screen map here.

If you have suggestions, please comment below. Read more…

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