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Funding plan for $2.6 billion IL-53 highway extension project pleases no one

September 18, 2014 at 11:37 pm

The US Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) released a report today outlining several new highway projects throughout the US that are most likely no longer needed due to a change in the number of miles Americans are driving. With that number falling and plateauing, it seems we just don’t need new road capacity in the form of massive highways any longer.

One of these projects, double-decking Interstate 94 in Milwaukee, WI, is included in the report and was part of a report released by Wisconsin’s PIRG last week, which I covered at Streetsblog USA.

Smaller but expensive projects like a bypass in my hometown, Burlington, WI, were constructed and remain underused, falling far below original traffic expectations. Photo: Casey Jacobsen.

With VMT continuing to fall it makes little sense to expand highway capacity by laying down new roads or expanding existing ones. In the case of IL-53, which I’ve covered here, here, here, and here, is an expensive highway expansion that we probably don’t need, nobody wants to pay for, and will likely be underused.

The current portion of IL-53 as a highway ends at the Lake County, Illinois border. The entirely untolled highway portion is essentially built to interstate standards – high speed limits, medians, shoulders, and large on-/off-ramps. The extension of the road through Lake County and up to Interstate 94 will be a slower-speed (45 mph/70 km/h) “boulevard,” and will also be tolled at a rate much higher than any other toll road in the state.

The $2,600,000,000.00 project will likely be paid for by various methods. From the Lake County News-Sun:

What the components share in common is that everyone will hate at least one of the ideas. And lots of people will hate the entire idea, starting with spending $2.6 billion on a road that only begets bad funding ideas.

If shared pain is a compromise, then this one is a beauty. Every driver on every road across Lake County will pay more, perhaps forever, for Route 53.

New tolls will be added at several places along I-94 where no tolls exist now (on-/off-ramps to the roads serving Six Flags and Gurnee Mills mall, for example), and an increase in the county’s gas tax by 4c/gal.

What I still cannot understand is that, after months of back-and-forth debates about how to pay for the new road, there was no proposal to toll the existing road. Would tolling the existing road push the cost of driving high enough that some people decide trips could be combined, carpooled, shifted to transit, or just not made at all? Would tolling the road now impact future development decisions in Lake county that might influence some to live closer to the places they need to go, avoiding the frequent need to drive dozens of miles across counties?

There are political reasons why the existing IL-53 highway cannot be tolled, but if the extension is really necessary – or, rather, the need to reduce the amount of traffic congestion is necessary – they would find a way to make it work.

The presumption is that Route 53 travelers would pay, too. Will they? How much? Seems a pertinent detail to have glossed over.

The originally-proposed toll, $0.20 per mile, would cover somewhere around 15% of the project’s cost. And yet that amount still seems too high for drivers.

It’s 2014 and we’ve got to come to grips with the fact that highways are expensive. If the road is really needed, the people using it will need to pay something closer to what it costs to build and maintain. While it wasn’t cited in the USPIRG report, the 53 extension is a boondoggle and should not be built.

Meet the 5,679 square foot LEED Gold-certified home

September 16, 2014 at 4:16 pm

As if you didn’t need more proof that LEED is a fairly weak method of energy-efficiency:

rather than slavishly re-create an architectural classic, the two have produced a house that crisply articulates mid-century ideals, while anchoring it firmly in the 21st century. (It’s the first single-family LEED Gold–certified residence in San Diego.)

via dwell

The home in the Mission Hills neighbourhood of San Diego. Image via Dwell.

Years ago I wrote that I distrusted LEED certifications in part due to my alma mater reaching LEED status for its new dormitory buildings despite the fact that their location required the use of diesel buses to shuttle students to campus and back on a frequent basis. Of course, LEED certification in this case is for buildings and building sites.

But that hasn’t prevented parking garages from receiving LEED green-building certification. (Apparently this practice is being disallowed for new buildings?)

On the home’s location:

Capture d’écran 2014-09-16 à 15.06.34

Remember that Walk Score usually miscategorizes many types of stores people go to for errands: in this case, a juice bar, English specialty grocery shop, and a marketing firm were categorized as “grocery.”

Capture d’écran 2014-09-16 à 15.09.44

Another form of environmentally-friendly transport is the bicycle, and a lack of infrastructure (and probably hills) makes otherwise-sunny San Diego relatively bike-unfriendly. Whoever resides in this home is probably making multiple trips in an automobile every day (and I wouldn’t be writing this if it weren’t for a paragraph focusing on the all-important driveway).

I respect the will of anyone to build a bigger home if they can afford it and they want to live in it. But to call this home environmentally-friendly based on its location only reinforces my opinion that LEED is just a feel-good marketing scheme; at the least, it’s an organization who focuses solely on site design without consideration for how a building influences decisions on how its users get around.

Life Between Buildings: Giddings (Kempf) Plaza as a model

September 3, 2014 at 10:57 am

My latest post at Streetsblog Chicago is up:

The most important outcome to remember is that Kempf Plaza was once a simple residential street, moving a few cars and storing several private vehicles. Initially, there was opposition from merchants and residents alike. In retrospect, the opposition was hyperbolic. Today, the space is popular, and acts as the center of the neighborhood. To remove it today would cause an uproar — yet the result would be what some neighbors in the late 1970s wished for. This hindsight is important to remember whenever projects that reshape streets, and remove some room for cars (whether moving or parked) face opposition. With proper planning and care, they, too, can become the great neighborhood spaces that everyone in Chicago deserves.

Read it all here.

I’ve written before that Giddings (formally Kempf) Plaza is probably one of the most successful public spaces in Chicago and its popularity, tranquility, and history make it an excellent example that other neighborhoods should follow.


Giddings/Kempf Plaza. © 2013 Andrew Seaman via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Public spaces like this are important, but it’s perhaps even more important to ensure that they are planned well — too many other public plazas in Chicago have flopped without proper planning, and I’ve got the feeling that at least one I’ve seen planned will likely be unsuccessful (more on that later). We know car-free places like this can be successful, but it’s the unsuccessful ones that give rise to resistance of future ones.

How I moved across the country with Amtrak

August 20, 2014 at 5:13 pm

The drive from Chicago to Vancouver, BC is 2,190 miles (3,524 km) through six states of plains and mountains. It took me about 40 hours to complete the drive in a rented SUV packed full of personal belongings. I knew everything wouldn’t fit in the car, though, so I had to search for another way to move everything. Having just left behind a steady income, the costlier options like renting a U-Haul (approximately $1,800) or using a PODS service (over $2,500) were out of the question. This is where Amtrak Express Shipping came in handy.

It turns out Amtrak can ship a lot of your stuff (500 or 250 pounds per shipment, depending on the origin/destination stations) for very little money. The initial 100 pounds is just over $60, and then each subsequent pound is around $0.57. Most of the boxes I obtained from a friend were able to fit my books, clothing (in vacuum bags), and non-fragile kitchen items within the weight limit (50 pounds per box) and size limit (3 feet square).

There are several restrictions on what can be shipped. No electronics, fragile items, furniture, and so on – it’s basically just for books, clothes, office supplies, and the like. For some of us, though, that can be the bulk of the items we end up having to move. Other items like furniture and electronics can be moved another way, or sold and re-purchased (personally, my new apartment is furnished, and I moved some electronics in the car).

You can also ship bicycles via Amtrak. I’ve never taken my bike on Amtrak before because the route I used – Hiawatha between Milwaukee and Chicago – did not allow roll-on bike service. From what I understand the process for shipping the bike is similar to how passengers have to box up their bikes: Buy a bike box ($15), take off the pedals and remove the handlebar (and any accessories that won’t fit, like a basket), and roll the bike into the box for shipment. If this is what passengers on most Amtrak routes must do to take their bikes with them, I will never do this again; it is a complete pain. Finally, shipping bikes is expensive; each bike was considered 100 lbs and treated as its own shipment, so always cost a little over $50.

The experience of bringing the items to Amtrak for shipment is a bit like using a US postal office. It’s slow, everything seems to be written on paper and never entered in a computer, and you leave feeling a little disoriented. I used Chicago’s Union Station, where I had to drive down to the station’s basement (from Clinton St) and place my boxes on a pallet. Amtrak individually weighs each package, and if it’s over 50 lbs, they will not take it. I had three boxes that were over 50 lbs and so I had to take them back, which I was not expecting. In the future, I would weigh the boxes at home before I go.

After about an hour I had paid for all 450 lbs of my belongings – except three boxes – destined for Bellingham, Washington (the closest Amtrak station to Vancouver). I had to make an emergency run down the next day after splitting up the remaining three boxes.

Driving through Montana.

While I was in Montana just three days later, I received a call from Amtrak in Bellingham that my shipment had arrived and was ready to be picked up. I had to pick up the boxes within 48 hours or each box would be subject to a $4 fee per day.

There was one problem when I arrived in Bellingham, though – only one of my shipments (with the bicycles) had made it to Bellingham. The other boxes were sitting in Seattle. The staff at Bellingham station told me that they were an Amtrak Express Shipping Lite station, and could only handle shipments up to 250 lbs due to the size of the station. All of my other boxes were sitting hours away in Seattle, and I had rented a Zipvan for the day in Vancouver to get the boxes. I couldn’t drive all the way down to Seattle (due to Zipvan’s distance restrictions), and Bellingham couldn’t store them.

The staff at Chicago never informed me that they could only ship 250 lbs to Bellingham, while shipments up to 500 lbs would have to be picked up in Seattle. I never received a call from Amtrak in Seattle, either, to let me know that the boxes weren’t going to continue to Bellingham. I ended up renting another van for another day and had to pick up the remaining boxes in Bellingham as the train arrived around 9:40 PM last night (it was supposed to arrive at 9 PM).

Picking up the boxes at the station.

Amtrak waived the fees for holding the boxes in Seattle, but I still had to pay for another van to get down to Bellingham a second time to get the rest of the boxes, and had to be at the station exactly when the train arrived so I could take the boxes directly from the cargo car and put them in my van. If I wasn’t there, I was told Canadian border police would “destroy” the boxes when they got to Vancouver. (Another note: make sure the boxes are labeled with your name, address, and phone, because they are not separated from other cargo).

All told, the experience was fairly easy and all of my items arrived damage-free (I still wrapped books in plastic bags just in case), and I saved a lot of money given the amount of items I shipped (about 20 boxes and 2 bikes in total) and the total distance they traveled. Despite the issues with the weight and station pairs (of which I’m now aware to ask about), I would use Amtrak Express Shipping again to move my clothes and books on a long-distance move.

Vancouver: First Impressions

August 9, 2014 at 11:26 pm

Last weekend I moved to Vancouver, Canada to start a masters program in the fall at UBC. Everything leading up to the move is the reason I’ve been on a bit of a blogging hiatus, but now that things are settling down and I’m in a new city, I’ll certainly have plenty of material coming up.

You can't beat a view of the city set in front of the mountains.

You can’t beat a view of the city set in front of the mountains.

I visited Vancouver last October when I was applying to schools, and I had a pretty good impression of the city. As with most visits, though, I didn’t get to see all of the city, especially the neighborhood I now live in, Marpole. It’s a bit far from the “action,” so to speak, of downtown and its nearby neighborhoods. But the place I found was furnished, close to express buses, and fairly walkable.

I say fairly walkable because I’ve noticed some oddities in Vancouver’s walking infrastructure that make me question the validity of the city’s title of Most Walkable city in Canada, specifically that there are places where sidewalks are entirely missing.

Missing sidewalks.

It even happens that some blocks are missing sidewalks on both sides. Walkability scores usually take into account the number and array of services within a short walk of a certain address, and not always the quality of infrastructure (width of sidewalks, for example), the visual beauty of a walk (which is subjective), the amount of traffic noise nearby, and so on.

Fortunately, the missing sidewalks problem is identified in the neighborhood’s community plan and are specifically outlined in the community profile from 2013.

From page 54 of the Marpole Community Profile, City of Vancouver.

From page 54 of the Marpole Community Profile, City of Vancouver.

It still completely took me by surprise that there are residential streets without any sidewalks. Previously in Chicago, the only time I had ever encountered missing sidewalks was on Damen Ave near a cemetery and an industrial park.

I was not pleased to make a three-cross detour to cross Oak St, either.

Fortunately, the bicycling picture is a little better. I only received my bike from Amtrak a few days ago, so I haven’t had the chance to really explore the city by bike, but so far it has expanded how far I can get without having to pay for a bus. Downtown is only about 40-45 minutes away, as well as the UBC campus. One thing I have noticed so far is that the bike network in the city is mainly on residential streets, a stark contrast from Chicago where bike routes take you on some of the busiest streets.

Some of the streets with bike lanes are on arterials, but most appear to be on calmer residential streets. Image: City of Vancouver bike map.

Some of the streets with bike lanes are on arterials, but most appear to be on calmer residential streets. Image: City of Vancouver bike map.

In Chicago, the city painted bike lanes on the busiest streets that took you through many neighborhoods. In Vancouver, the scene is a bit different: there don’t seem to be a ton of painted bike lanes, but instead a well-signed network of streets that are traffic-calmed with roundabouts, curb extensions, and sinusoidal speed humps, which are much easier to ride over than the more jarring speed humps featured on the streets of Chicago. To cross busier streets, there are buttons that stop cross traffic.

I initially grumbled at the thought of more buttons to push to “ask” to cross a busy street, but realized that I’d remembered seeing the same device in the Netherlands and that it really isn’t that terrible. Plus, the wait is rarely long.

To help people on bikes proceed on the marked bike routes, there seems to be ample infrastructure.

Another nice feature of the bikeways is that they discourage thru traffic, which should go on the busier arterial streets, by implementing traffic diverters. Previously I’ve maintained that these should be an important feature of residential neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, where a more thorough, safer bike network could be built simply by directing car traffic to busier arterial streets. After seeing a few examples in Vancouver, I do believe that one way of building a better bike network is by redirecting most traffic and calming the remaining local traffic. It doesn’t create a network I might feel safe letting my hypothetical children use alone, but it works until momentum builds for something more robust.

Roundabouts as traffic calming help slow down car traffic on Ontario St.

There are of course the protected bike lanes closer to downtown (and some outside the downtown area, too) and the Seawall, which I covered on my last visit.

This traffic-calmed street requires drivers to slow down and pay close attention while providing ample room for bicycles.

One more thing to note: British Columbia has a mandatory helmet law, which appears to be relatively ignored in my neighborhood. It’s only been a week, but most of the people I’ve seen wearing helmets are clad in lycra and riding expensive bikes. About half of everyone else around is sans-casque.

Another aspect of note when comparing cities is the driving culture, or how drivers drive. Frankly, Vancouver drivers are scary. I’ve already seen several red-light running incidents where the driver went through after the signal was red for two or three seconds. Many times drivers turning at an intersection will try to drive out and in front of people crossing so as to avoid a wait, perhaps due to the lack of leading pedestrian signals in my neighborhood. And some people seem to drive way too fast. Frankly, I’d be surprised if I don’t get hit at some point in the next few years.

I used to think Chicago’s major streets were too wide until I saw some of Vancouver’s. It will take some getting used to, but it seems that a trade-off of having a city with no freeways is that the streets composing the Major Road Network are designed to carry a lot of traffic quickly and on to bridges to other cities. Many of these are unfortunately near where I live, so I imagine the majority of Vancouverites don’t encounter how loud they sound and dangerous they feel. However, the interior residential streets are quieter as a result and make for a more pleasant walk – except that one thing I love about walking in neighborhoods is passing local businesses, which happen to be concentrated near these major roads.

Agrandir le plan

Finally, there is the public transportation system. Vancouver is mainly a bus city, and while there are three rail lines, two of them principally serve the inland suburbs. It will take some more riding around on transport to really get a feel for the system, but my first impression is fast. I took the SkyTrain a few times and the wait for a train was never longer than 3 minutes on a weekday. The train also never stopped between stations; although I’m sure it does happen, it’s a welcome change from the stop-and-go “waiting for signal clearance” of the CTA.

Another nice aspect is that the city and developers really appear to take TOD (transit-oriented development) to heart – the first time I got off the Marine Drive Canada Line station, I noticed a large tower going up which will house condos, a movie theatre, grocery store, and other retail right outside the station. Other developments such as malls are similarly situated adjacent to rail stations.

One rendering of Marine Gateway, a complex to be built directly adjacent to the Canada Line. Image: Marine Gateway/PCI.

Adjusting to a new city is fun and simultaneously difficult, and there are so many things to experience and learn about. I’m particularly interested in the history and planning in Vancouver since it seems to be quite different from the Midwestern mindset and planning I’m accustomed to. I look forward to writing about all of the new things I find.


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