Last year, writing in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the Republican platform calling for the elimination of federal funding for Amtrak, mass transit, and other sustainable forms of transportation, I predicted that, on that front, 2016 would likely be the best year Chicago saw for a while.
Indeed, 2017 was a kidney stone of a year in many respects, wrapping up with the passage of Trump’s swamp-friendly tax bill, which will slash taxes for the wealthy and corporations while starving the federal government of revenue. So it’s likely that the GOP will try to follow through with its threat to gut funding for rail, pedestrian, and bike infrastructure in 2018. But for the moment, let’s comfort ourselves with the fact that last year was still a pretty good one for Chicago transportation, although it definitely had its ups and downs.
From a street-safety perspective, the biggest news was the June release of the city’s long-awaited Vision Zero plan to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2026. The program is currently focused on west-side neighborhoods with high crash rates and, as it happened, five of Chicago’s seven on-street bike fatalities in 2017, up from six in 2016, took place on the west and near-west sides. One case, the hit-and-run crash that killed Angelo Resto, 46, on the 3800 block of West Augusta in Humboldt Park in December, is still unsolved. Local cyclists were also dismayed at the light sentence handed out in January 2017—a mere ten days in jail—to motorist Ryne San Hamel, who pleaded guilty to killing 26-year-old Groupon employee Bobby Cann on his bike in 2013 while drunk and speeding.
As for bike infrastructure, the Chicago Department of Transportation kept fairly busy in 2017, marking 21.6 miles of bikeways from Hegewisch to Edgewater. That said, the west and southwest sides got almost nothing, save for some half-hearted protected bike lanes (the only PBLs built this year) on Polk in the Illinois Medical District and Loomis in Pilsen. The only protection from traffic offered by these bikeways is some sporadically placed plastic posts, and drivers are currently treating the curbside Polk lanes like parking lanes.
Also annoying was the further delay of the $60 million-plus Navy Pier Flyover bike overpass project, which has already taken longer to complete than the Golden Gate Bridge. In October, CDOT acknowledged that it won’t be finished until mid-2019, half a year behind schedule.
Still, plenty of good bikeways debuted in 2017. In May, CDOT opened the $65,000 Glenwood Greenway, legalizing two-way cycling on an already popular route through Uptown and Edgewater. Over the summer the department did a $253,000 makeover of the Milwaukee Avenue “Hipster Highway” corridor in Wicker Park-Bucktown, including experimental “dashed bike lanes” on the tight stretch between North and Division. The project also redesigned the chaotic North/Damen/Milwaukee “Crotch,” setting aside more space for people walking and biking.
In August, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County completed a $7.7 million extension of the North Branch Trail four miles further southeast into the city, making it easier for urbanites to pedal to the Chicago Botanic Gardens in Glencoe. And thanks to a $12 million gift from Republican hedge-fund billionaire Ken Griffin, the Chicago Park District made significant headway on building separate paths for pedestrians and cyclists on the Lakefront Trail, a project that’s slated for completion this year.
Despite these improvements, there’s growing awareness in Chicago that new transportation amenities such as multiuse trails and CTA-friendly high-rises can be a double-edged sword in gentrifying communities. Affordable housing activists in Logan Square continued to protest the construction of upscale transit-oriented development towers, which they argue are accelerating the displacement of longtime residents. In May, in response to steeply rising home prices along the Bloomingdale Trail in Logan and Humboldt Park, housing advocates and aldermen proposed the 606 affordability ordinance, which would charge developers hefty fees for building teardowns and expansions and use the revenue to fund low-cost housing.
Another initiative that could boost equity is the new tax on ride-hailing trips that City Council passed in November, which is projected to raise millions of dollars for CTA infrastructure. On the other hand, faced with budget shortfalls partly due to state budget cuts, all three local transit systems are raising ticket prices in 2018, including a 25-cent CTA fare hike that kicks in on January 8.
The past year was a good one for new CTA stations. After a $75 million rehab, the brand-new Washington-Wabash stop opened in August, its graceful, undulating form inspired by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The $203 million Wilson station reconstruction in Uptown is also coming along nicely and should be finished this month. In addition to making the stop a transfer point between the Red and Purple Lines, the rehab added elevators and a dazzling installation by Sri Lankan-British artist Cecil Balmond, and is restoring the 1923 Gerber Building, on the north side of Wilson, to its former glory. The $280 million renovation of the 95th Street Red Line station, including artwork by Chicago favorite son Theaster Gates, is likewise rolling along and should wrap up by the end of this year.
There was transit news of a more dubious sort in November, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a request for qualifications for a concessionaire to finance, build, and run his pet project, the O’Hare Express luxury transit line. Local transportation experts questioned whether the upscale initiative represents a wise or fair use of city planning resources, but tech guru Elon Musk immediately tweeted his intention of digging a tunnel to shoot travelers to the airport in “electric pods.”
As reported by Wired, however, at a recent artificial intelligence conference Musk stated that public transportation “sucks,” partly because “there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer,” which calls into question whether he’s the right person for the O’Hare Express gig.
Regardless, here’s wishing you a safe, efficient, and vibrant 2018 whether on rails, wheels, or on foot, and may all your CTA rides at least be free of serial killers. v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.