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Lack of transportation options causing “Brain Drain” in Wisconsin, losing young people

May 21, 2014 at 12:54 pm

A report released today from the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) suggests that Wisconsin is facing a “brain drain” due to its lack of non-driving transportation options.

Begrudgingly, I’ll admit I’m a part of the “Millennial” group the report focuses on, but I dislike the term “Millennial” (blame my parent’s generation for writing too many recent disparaging articles about us), so let’s just say “young people” from now on.

The report echoes other articles’ assertions about young people’s driving habits – they’re lower than their parents. We just don’t seem to care about getting a driver’s license, owning a car, and so on. I have some personal, anecdotal reasons why I do not own a car: I grew up being driven around low-density exurbia. I have loved cities since the first time I visited Chicago. Chicago is a city that, in many neighborhoods, is easy to get around without a car. Also, I have a little student loan debt, and would also rather focus my extra cash on future things like retirement savings. My reasons aren’t “I use social media so I don’t need to drive to see my friends,” like many articles presume.

I got my undergraduate degree in Milwaukee and lived in its East Side neighborhood, close to the lake, my university, bars, restaurants, and grocery stores. It’s also pretty well-served by transit. I didn’t need a car – walking to school (where I also worked) took 20 minutes, and a bus trip to the Trader Joe’s took 30 minutes. Once a week with one or two bags of groceries was enough.


My old house, walk score: 83.

I recall professors in my urban planning courses urging students to stay in Milwaukee and contribute to its future after we graduated. Without a young workforce coming in, it would be hard for the region to remain competitive. The reality, though, is that Milwaukee just isn’t as desirable to young people as its peer cities. Many aspects of the city do make it desirable – a great lakefront, good museums, good food and bars, and so on… except transport options.

I knew I wanted to live in Chicago after I graduated, so I never really considered staying in Milwaukee. Had I not made up my mind, though, I know I wouldn’t have heavily considered Milwaukee. That’s the focus on this report, and Wisconsin’s “brain drain.” 60% of young people surveyed said they’d be more likely to stay in Wisconsin after graduating if they could live somewhere that didn’t require driving. 47% said living somewhere with car-free transportation options was “very important.” Only 14% said it wasn’t important at all.

Nearly half of the respondents said they already drove to school, and ninety percent of them plan to own (or continue owning) a car after graduating. Wisconsinites acknowledge that car-free living is really only possible if you’re lucky enough to live in a neighborhood as dense and walkable as, say, the East Side (where I lived).

Milwaukee’s population is about 600,000 strong, putting it around same size of cities like Denver, Minneapolis/St Paul (combined), Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC. The difference, however, is that these cities have better transit or bike infrastructure than Milwaukee, and they’re certainly not as divided as Milwaukee – politically, racially, or on an income basis.

Wisconsinites are also driving less than before, just like the US population as a whole. Transit ridership hit an all-time high in 2013 and has been rising for 12 years. It’s not surprising that Madison is also a very bikeable city, and 4.7% of workers commute by bicycle.

I’ve written before that Wisconsin’s transportation budget is completely out of touch with the realities of this century. Multibillion dollar highway interchanges come before expansion of high-speed rail service and new commuter rail service. It would have cost the state $8 million per year to run the high-speed rail service, which would have run from Chicago to Milwaukee (as Amtrak’s Hiawatha does now) and on to Madison (where no train service exists), with capital costs paid for by the federal government. The KRM (Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee) commuter rail would have run from the Kenosha Metra station north through several lakefront suburbs to downtown Milwaukee, giving commuters a new way to get to work downtown or along any of those suburbs. Instead, the nearest north-south freeway – Interstate 94 – is being widened at a cost of $1.9 billion. The cost of the new commuter rail service, which may have relieved so much traffic that the freeway widening became unnecessary, was $284 million. Both rail projects were canceled by governor Scott Walker.

Wisconsin was going to receive brand new, Milwaukee-made Talgo trains until the governor canceled the contract and refused to pay for the trains, exemplifying the state’s attitude toward non-car travel. Image: Mass Transit.

Wisconsin would rather spend that money on double-decking freeways before even thinking about building a parallel commuter rail line. I believe the opposition to running rail from Milwaukee to the suburbs is to keep “those people” away. Milwaukee’s metro area isn’t the country’s most racially segregated by accident, after all.

In the end, WISPIRG’s report calls on Wisconsin to scale back on unnecessary highway expansion projects and increase funding for “alternative” modes of transportation. In order to entice young people to stay and contribute to the state’s future, Wisconsin needs to become more attractive to the future’s realities that are being revealed today.

Continued funding gridlock over IL-53 extension

May 9, 2014 at 6:54 am

The ongoing funding chronicle over the expansion of IL-53 in Lake county seems to have hit a plateau:

Members of an Illinois tollway advisory council tossed around ideas to fund a Route 53 extension Thursday, noting that sharing the cost regionally instead of locally will ease the pain.

The tollway has yet to decide if it will adopt the pricey project, which would lengthen Route 53 north 12 miles from Lake-Cook Road to connect with Route 120.

The article from the Daily Herald says funding the $2.47 billion project could not be done with tolls alone; in the past, I’ve written that the $0.20/mi toll ($0.14/mi higher than the regional average) would only cover about 17% of the cost.

Image: Bill Burmaster.

There’s talk of raising gas taxes – which we have to do anyway – or sales taxes, an idea that would shift the burden of the entire cost from its future users to everyone buying anything in the county. TIF funds or a SSA were other ideas.

There has not been any public talk about tolling the existing freeway portion of IL-53 or even conducting a toll sensitivity analysis. It’s entirely possible that tolling the existing freeway would lower the amount of drivers using it, but project supporters appear to have their eyes set on the prize.

It is amusing to watch as legislators are finally confronted with the true high cost of building new roads. Just as IDOT is sweetening the funding package of the Illiana expressway by adding $250 million in guaranteed public funds, the tollway is faced with how to take on and pay for another expensive project.

Let’s start blocking off residential streets

May 6, 2014 at 6:08 pm

Several residential streets running under the UP-N Metra tracks have been blocked at one point or another due to Metra’s reconstruction of 19 bridges. One of these bridges is at Leland Ave in Ravenswood, which has been under construction for as long as I’ve lived in the neighborhood – likely due to the new Metra station going there. The street here (one-way going east) has been blocked over for at least 18 months, while one side of the sidewalk remains open.

I want it to stay blocked forever.

Why? The street has been so much calmer as a result.

Just a few blocks from the busiest non-downtown Metra station and a busy Brown Line station at Damen, as well as an elementary school (and the future Lycée Français), the area is full of people walking and riding bikes at times of the day. With so little car traffic, people feel fine crossing wherever they want, or diagonally at intersections. It’s positively pleasant to ride a bicycle on Leland from Damen to Ashland because there’s so little cut-through car traffic.

The construction has created filtered permeability on the street, blocking cars from proceeding under the tracks while still allowing people walking and biking to get through. It’s clearly worked just fine for the past year and a half. Nobody’s house burned down because the fire trucks couldn’t get through. The neighborhood didn’t die; actually, we just got a new grocery store and gym a block north. And drivers are still driving.

Chicago (and many other cities) has a great street grid that gives us many options to get from A to B. In 2011, Bike Walk Lincoln Park wrote about the lack of neighborhood “bicycle boulevards” in Chicago; since then, we’ve only had one true bicycle boulevard/greenway built – the Berteau Greenway – and it doesn’t have any infrastructure in place to discourage thru car traffic. Truth is, there are a ton of streets where it would be more pleasant to walk and bike just by placing simple car traffic diverters at intersections.

Clarendon Ave in Uptown is another low-volume street that should pre-empt future thru traffic (due to a development at Montrose/Clarendon) by building traffic diverters. Image: Google.

Clarendon Ave in Uptown is another street with low car traffic that should pre-empt future thru traffic (due to a development at Montrose/Clarendon) by building traffic diverters. Image: Google.

Here on Leland, drivers know if they need to get further east or west, they need to drive to an arterial like Lawrence, or a “neighborhood arterial” like Wilson. The best part about making it harder for thru car traffic is that it still permits local traffic to get where it needs to go; longer trips are diverted to arterial roads, keeping drivers off of residential streets, opening them up to people (including families with children) who want to bike safely to the store, the park, and so on.

A traffic diverter (here, from a plan in Los Angeles) at an intersection permits thru traffic for those on bike or foot, but forces drivers to turn. Image from Aaron Kuehn on ciclavia.wordpress.com, via Bike Walk Lincoln Park.

When it comes time to resurface these streets, it should be policy to bring the entire street to the level of the curb and introduce permeable pavement/bioswales for stormwater management, making the street a sort of greenway-woonerf hybrid.

This solution isn’t one designed to get people riding bikes or walking long distances, like to work downtown, but it’s a way to make it easier to make those one- or two-mile trips by a way other than driving there. A good way to illustrate this is this graphic from Copenhagenize:

After all, if you want more people to walk and bike, design the streets to make those the most straightforward ways to go!



Montréal is North America’s bicycle city

April 27, 2014 at 10:25 am

I had always heard Montréal was North America’s most bicycle-friendly city, but I believed that like other “best-of” bicycle achievements, reality would reveal something a bit subpar. I was wrong.

Two-way protected bike lane on Rue University near McGill.

There are miles upon miles (kilometres upon kilometres?) of curb-protected bicycle lanes. Apparently the city has over 40 miles of them (that’s actual protected bicycle lanes, with curbs or bollards). Many of these lanes were installed just before Bixi’s launch in 2009. Many of them are on street, and some are adjacent to parks.

These lanes continued on and on. They didn’t form a perfect grid – some detours were required to stay in a ‘protected network’ – but the network was such that when one ended, it seemed to connect with another one, indicated with signs and paint on the ground. I’m convinced curb separation is a great way to go: Not once in 4 days did I experience any cars, delivery trucks, or taxis blocking the lanes, and I rode around a lot. In Chicago yesterday, I encountered no fewer than ten vehicles parked in our ‘protected’ buffered bike lanes; in Montréal, the only time I saw a vehicle parked in a bike lane was on a street with the basic “two white stripes” lanes.

The curbs also provided a great place to rest your foot when waiting at a red light. This is something small but it makes a great difference in comfort when waiting, because you don’t have to get off your bike to place your feet on the ground or lean your bike over.

The lanes were wide enough for two people to ride alongside each other while still allowing room for others to pass. But what I really think sets them apart was the number of children I saw using them:

If parents feel safe enough to allow their children to use their own bike on the street, I think that’s a great sign your city is doing “8-80” bicycle infrastructure successfully. Bravo, Montréal.

Aside from the busier streets with protected bicycle lanes, there were a few other streets in the Plateau, Mile-End, and Little Italy neighborhoods where the lanes were on residential streets.

This lane, on Rue Clark, ran down a mostly residential street.

So how did Montréal get this great bike infrastructure in? A recent post from People for Bikes says that Montréal planners were able to get over the “autoparkolypse,” or the fear of losing precious street parking spaces, by merely showing that the number of street spaces being removed was a drop in the bucket compared to the total number of spaces in the surrounding neighborhood. In the case of Boulevard de Maisonneuve in the central business district, this meant removing 300 spaces in an area with 11,000 – or just 2.7% of spaces.

Credit: Green Lane Project/People for Bikes.

Credit: Green Lane Project/People for Bikes.

Pictured above is the bike lane on Boulevard de Maisonneuve.

All this bike infrastructure is well and good, but it snows a lot in Montréal too, so how do they handle it? Sadly, it seems many of the protected lanes are closed in the winter – from Nov 15 until Apr 1. On streets where the protection from moving vehicles is by parked vehicles and bollards, this is to allow cars to park on wider streets for snow removal. This is indicated with signs:

While this makes a little bit of sense given the long, cold, and snowy winters which prevent plowed snow from melting between snowfalls, Cycle Montréal blogger David Beitel made a good point that bicycle users need this protected infrastructure the most when there’s snow on the ground. Imagine if a driver’s expressway or a transit line went out of service for nearly half the year. When some of these lanes get thousands of daily users, it really is parallel to shutting down certain bus lines or streets for the winter – and we in Chicago remember the media hullabaloo from last winter when residents of a single block complained their street hadn’t been plowed. Since Montréal’s investments in bicycle infrastructure have paid dividends in the form of more bicycle riders (and therefore perhaps fewer car trips), it would make sense to find a solution to the snow problem and become a leading example that snow and bicycles can coexist in North America.

There are a few more things I wanted to point out concerning the bicycle infrastructure:

When there is a bus stop, the bike lane raises to meet the sidewalk and two crosswalks are put down to allow passengers to get to the stop.

When there is construction (at least in this case), both the bike lane and sidewalk are compensated for.

On Avenue Laurier, there is a bicycle counter! While the screen says only 8 or 9 bicyclists had used it, I believe the number was much higher and my iPhone didn’t take the photo right. There is even a website linked to the counter so you can see how many people have biked past it today and in the past.

There are also bike boxes and contraflow bike lanes on one-way streets.

The parking meter space posts also feature rings on which you can lock your bike. This one, close to a wall, could lock only one bike; others further from walls could safely lock two bikes.

I used AirBNB to rent a room in Montréal and could not have been luckier that there was a Bixi bike-sharing station just a block away.

You may have heard Bixi in the news lately after it went bankrupt. Years of financial mismanagement did no service to the popular program. However, the bikes and their stations were being installed the week I arrived, and many people were already out on them. Bixi is one of those bike share systems, like Boston and Minneapolis, that removes their stations in the winter (this past winter, Boston-area Hubway piloted a program that left stations in Cambridge in place for the winter). In my opinion, bike share makes a city much easier to visit and explore. Instead of taking the Métro everywhere, I got on a bike and discovered neighborhoods by riding around them (as opposed to under them). After hours of walking, hopping on a bike can be more relaxing than sitting down at a café.

Just as with many other North American bike sharing systems, using Bixi was easy and straightforward. When it comes to being a visitor and having to use the kiosk each time, though, efficiency counts. The difference with Bixi (and Hubway, in my experience) is that there are fewer steps to renting a bike than with Divvy in Chicago, and the screen is more responsive. When you have a line of people waiting to use the stations, time matters. Within ten seconds of walking up to a kiosk, I had a code to unlock a bike.

I paid $15 for 72 hours of unlimited 30-minute trips. It more than paid for itself! I did have one problem: a bike did not properly dock at a station (despite the green light illuminating) and I was unable to rent any bikes for the afternoon until a technician could come fix the problem, identified after I called the toll-free number. Because these docks are not perfect I really recommend keeping the receipt you receive when you first purchase a pass. The membership number on the receipt came in handy when I was on the phone with customer support.

As far as bicycle and driver behavior goes, I have a few remarks. One is that about half of bicyclists were wearing a helmet. I believe whether or not people are wearing a helmet is an indicator of how safe people perceive the streets to be.

As far as driving goes, Montrealers seem to be just as nuts as any other east coast driver. The difference is that the ubiquitous protected bike lanes helped in keeping them far away, if just mentally. Where the bike lanes crossed paths with turning drivers, I felt like I made more eye contact with drivers that were turning – i.e., they were actually looking for bicyclists. Like I mentioned before, they also stayed out of the protected lanes.

I noticed that in Canada, street signs generally tend to tell road users what they can do and not what they can’t. The sign above with a green circle and two arrows tells drivers they can either go straight, or right. There is no “no left turns” sign. On my bike I found this to be much easier than being told what not to do. I’m not sure to what degree this has an effect on driving and bicycle behavior, but I appreciated it.

In numbers: In 2010, about 2.2% of people got to work via bicycle in Montréal. However, like other North American bicycle mode share figures, this counts only trips to work, and not trips around the neighborhood to get groceries, meet friends, or go to school, so the actual number of trips could be higher.

Finally, Montréal has some neat public spaces that I just have to share:

Place Jacque Cartier in Vieux-Montréal.

The verdict? Montréal’s place on the 2013 Copenhagenize index of bicycle-friendly cities is well-deserved. There could be more connecting bicycle paths to round out the network and put the grid system to good use, but the system still gets you around many neighborhoods. The biggest deficiency is the lack of a complete network in the winter. Nonetheless, Montréal is a great place to see how the bicycle can be integrated into a typical North American city where the car has long been the sole road user. It provides a great example of how we can change street space to accommodate more people.

A boulevard is the safest option when reconstructing Lake Shore Drive

April 13, 2014 at 6:32 pm

The recently-released draft Purpose and Need (P&N) statement from the North Lake Shore Drive (NLSD) reconstruction project has at least some issues that need to be fixed before a final version is released. As a guiding document for the reconstruction of the Drive from Grand Ave to the northern terminus at Hollywood, it must seriously identify all of the issues in more detail than it does now. The draft document currently has about four pages dedicated to improving the safety and mobility of drivers, but only a few lines dedicated to bus passengers and a further page for people walking and bicycling along the lakefront and the links to inland neighborhoods. IDOT is also using freeway-standard traffic analysis tools to study Level of Service, another metric that takes into account only car traffic when it comes to streets. Hopefully this and other issues with the current draft statement will be rectified.

I wanted to focus on this, for now:

Vehicle speed studies conducted at twelve locations along the length of NLSD for a 48-hour weekday period showed non-compliance rates with the posted speed limit (40 mph at the time of the study) of 78% in the southbound direction and 95% in the northbound direction, with most compliance occurring only during periods of heavy congestion.

I can faithfully assume that IDOT would want to raise the 40 mph speed limit in this case, since most drivers are exceeding it anyway. I have driven on Lake Shore Drive dozens of times and it feels like an expressway that can be safely driven on at 50 or 60 miles per hour. So what’s the problem with raising the speed limit?

[t]he Drive is a parkway that should conform to the following general roadway standards: lanes should be no more than eleven feet wide with additional width only at curves and other special locations; regularly spaced emergency pull-off bays should be provided rather than continuous paved shoulders and where continuous shoulders are needed, they should be specially treated; minimum width access ramps should be provided; and design speed should be 45 mph or 50 mph with speed limits set at 40 mph or 45 mph. The median should be developed with appropriate plantings. Protective barriers, where necessary to protect pedestrians, should be blended with landscaping”.

(Emphasis mine)

That paragraph is from the Lakefront Plan, which reflects the fact that the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection ordinance states that “no roadway or expressway standards…shall be permitted in the lakefront parks,” where an “Expressway means any primary highway constructed as a freeway which has complete control of access and is designed for speeds in excess of 45 miles per hour.”

Apparently, issues with crashing are also related to the fact that the barriers are too close to the edges of the lanes and leave no room for error, or room for vehicles to errantly leave the lane without hitting something. On northern portions of the Drive, there are fewer crashes because there are fewer barriers, despite speeds being generally higher.

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

Drivers can’t be trusted to drive on Lake Shore Drive at the posted speed limit, and any DOT’s go-to strategy – raising the speed limit to coincide with the 85th percentile – is forbidden. It’s also unlikely that there’s any room to expand the Drive for any significant length, even if it were permitted. What are they going to do?

I believe these factors make a strong case for converting Lake Shore Drive into a boulevard that does not feel like an expressway. In my opinion, Lake Shore Drive has already overstepped the Lakefront Protection ordinance by routing pedestrians and bicyclists under or over the Drive and damaging the lakefront parks with pollution of both the air and sound kind.

Lake Shore Drive as it exists just north of Fullerton. 100 ft in width.

Lake Shore Drive as it exists just north of Fullerton. 100 ft in width.

The only feasible way to reduce speeds and therefore improve driver safety is to take away the “expressway feeling” of the Drive by reducing its size. This should be done for the following reasons, among many others:

  • Give the 60,000+ daily bus riders on the Drive a dedicated lane in each direction and respite from congestion caused by drivers in single-occupancy vehicles.
  • Separate recreational or athletic trail users from those using it for transportation purposes by dedicating additional space for bicycles.
  • Convert what are currently tunnels and bridges to at-grade intersections, with shorter crossing distances thanks to fewer car travel lanes, and possibly removing need for most bridge maintenance by removing the bridges.
Quick Streetmix of Lake Shore Drive as a boulevard, with wide bike lanes, bus lanes with a center median, and two car lanes.

Quick Streetmix of Lake Shore Drive as a boulevard, with wide bike lanes, bus lanes with a center median, and two car lanes.

Two lanes for cars? Am I crazy? No. Lake Shore Drive is supposed to be a boulevard, not an expressway. Short of extensive automated speed enforcement, the only way to ensure that most people won’t speed (and therefore drive safely) is to make it feel more appropriate to drive the 40 mph speed limit, something that can be accomplished by reducing the width of the roadway. To accommodate turns, crossings, et cetera at intersections, the extra space provided by the removal of offramps would be more than sufficient. To accommodate the lessened capacity for cars, we offer better alternatives or introduce a per-mile-driven electronic toll (most of us have an I-PASS, right?) to weed out people who could use an alternate route. The P&N statement already cites heavy traffic backups at several entrances/exits, such as Belmont, as a problem. This is because you’re taking tens of thousands of vehicles and dumping them onto smaller city streets that can’t (and never should) be widened. Reducing the capacity of the Drive would also reduce the amount of drivers on streets further inland. As I’ve already written, this would not cause carmageddon.

Lincoln Memorial Drive along Milwaukee’s lakefront is a much more appropriate design. Image: philontheweb2001/Flickr

If Lake Shore Drive is reconstructed to the same expressway-like standard, potentially with wider curves and more room for “driver error,” it will fail to reduce the number of crashes and will not solve any problems that currently exist. Its design should be one that matches more closely the feeling of driving down a city street a mile or two inland. What it makes up for in less car capacity it will make up for in greater accessibility and safety for all users. We can’t make it wider and we can’t make it faster. We can only fix it by making it a slower boulevard.


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