» Taking the realm of America’s third-largest city after 22 years under Richard Daley could produce big changes for local transportation.
Despite its burgeoning downtown, Chicago has big problems. The city lost 200,000 people between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census. Vast tracts of the south and west sides of the city sit vacant. Job growth in the metropolitan area is slower than in most other regions of the country. The city faces a $75 million budget deficit just over the next few months.
Thus the swearing-in this week of the city’s first new mayor in 22 years, Rahm Emanuel, cannot come at a better time. In order to gain ground over the next few decades, Chicago has to do a better job keeping its existing residents and attracting new jobs. The mayoral election in February was a landslide for Mr. Emanuel, which means he has the political momentum to pursue change for this great city after decades under Richard Daley’s leadership — but will the new mayor be able to do so? Or will the city stagnate?
Transportation is only one of a myriad of concerns that must be addressed in Chicago, but Mr. Emanuel has made it one of the foci of his transition plan — and initial signs indicate that his goals are appropriate: Incrementally improving the transit network and remaking the streets so that they better address the needs of all modes of transport. The choice of Gabe Klein, of Washington, D.C. bike share and streetcar fame, to lead the city’s transportation department, implies that the new mayor understands the value of improving local non-automotive mobility systems.
In a cash-poor municipality whose transit system requires $7 billion in renovations now, it is not surprising that new rail transit lines appear to have been sidelined — at least for now. In the short-term, this may be the right approach. The city cannot afford to maintain what is has, so investing in new capital programs may be inappropriate. But whether Mr. Emanuel’s brand of local modesty is right for Chicago in the long-term is worth evaluating. Does this city need to play it safe, or become ambitious?
The transportation components of the transition plan, which is the best sign yet of where this mayor hopes to take his city, can be divided into two themes: One, the improvement and expansion of the Red Line, and two, the retaking of the city’s streets from the dominance of cars.
The first project — the Red Line renovation and extension — is a necessity: The northern sections of the corridor (shared with the Purple Line) are a century old and the Chicago Transit Authority has already presented a number of alternatives that would relieve the problem. Also on tap is the extension of the corridor south to 130th Street, designed to improve the commuting times for people who live in the city’s Far South Side, whose residents are transit-dependent but poorly served. The combined cost: Somewhere between $3 and $6 billion.
Other far less expensive improvements mentioned by Mr. Emanuel’s transition plan include a bus rapid transit corridor for Western or Ashland Avenues that could include dedicated lanes within 3 years (already being planned by the CTA); an attempt to reform the city’s zoning code to encourage transit-oriented development around stations; and the implementation of a citywide bike share system and the expansion of the bike lane network. The latter initiative would expand lanes by 25 miles a year (versus 8 today) and prioritize protected lanes. The first two miles of those, the document states, would be selected
arrive in the mayor’s first 100 days. (See Steven Vance’s post on where those might be most effective.)
The overall message is that of a politician who sees the value in improving the way the city’s streets work for all their users. For Mr. Emanuel, the implementation of reserved lanes for cyclists and buses can be done incredibly cheaply but to great benefit for the quality of life of Chicago’s denizens, more than 30% of whom rely on walking or transit to get to work and a quarter of whom have no car available to their households at all. With wide streets everywhere in the city, bus rapid transit is a particularly relevant and easy-to-implement improvement for Chicago transit.
The costs of the Red Line expansion are in themselves beyond the city’s current means — especially considering that President Obama’s budget for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which would have included billions for renovations just like this one, is likely to go down in defeat. This suggests that Mr. Emanuel will have to either get more funds from the state or raise local revenues if he is to follow-through on his campaign promise to act on the matter.
Should Mr. Emanuel, then, aim higher? Faced with the need to raise taxes anyway, should he be looking to imitate Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who transformed his personal ambition to build a one subway under Wilshire Avenue into a multi-pronged strategy to rethink all of L.A. County for transit through the construction of a dozen new lines — with a dedicated sales tax to boot?
Chicago certainly has room for improvement: Travel between neighborhoods, rather than to downtown, is difficult, and the Circle Line rapid transit corridor could be an investment-worthy piece of infrastructure. But its development has been sidelined due to a lack of funds. Meanwhile, the integration of CTA with the Metra suburban-oriented commuter rail system (the two currently have different fare structures and few interchange points) could be a boon to ridership if the Metra network evolved into a regional rail system that provided frequent access to the city’s citizenry.
But either effort would need a cheerleader. Will Mayor Emanuel step up?
Unfortunately, hopes such as those may be sidelined by a different, less pressing concern: The ever-present push to connect Chicago O’Hare Airport to the downtown Loop with a dedicated high-speed rail line. Recently revived by Mayor Daley, it is the pet project of the Loop’s business interests — but it will serve few of the city’s many transit-dependent residents and it will do little to ameliorate the problems of everyday life on Chicago streets.
Image above: Chicago’s Green Line, from Flickr user John Picken (cc)