While many of Mayor Daley’s initiatives promoting citywide sustainability were visionary, transportation is one area where new thinking is still needed. Chicago traffic is among the worst in the country, and its air quality suffers as a result. Mayor Emanuel’s planning policies are just beginning to take shape, though we are heartened with his selection of Gabe Klein as department of transportation commissioner.
Emanuel saw Klein’s work first hand in Washington, where, as the capital city’s DOT head, he added hundreds of miles of bike lanes and implemented the nation’s largest bike sharing program. Klein, like his better-known peer in New York, Janette Sadik-Khan, is one of the new breed of transportation planners who are seeking to give pedestrians and cyclists a bigger share of the road. For too long we have designed our streets with primarily the car in mind, to the detriment of street life, the environment, our health, and our cities. It also makes bad economic sense. The era of cheap oil is over.
Innovative commissioners like Klein and Sadik-Khan, recognizing their relative autonomy and the vast portfolios of public spaces under their control, are changing things quickly. Sometimes these changes ruffle feathers, but Washington and New York are seeing big increases in cycling and significant improvement in pedestrian safety. It has also helped make them celebrities in planning circles.
Bike sharing, complete streets, sidewalk extensions, and pedestrian scramble intersections change the look and texture of streetscapes, usually for the better. They help transform streets from pass-throughs into destinations. With its wide streets and flat topography, Chicago seems primed to be a leading bicycling city, expanding its already active and visible cycling population.
Architects, directly and indirectly, have been part of the car monoculture problem. In order to meet parking requirements most new high rises include vast parking podiums, which, even with ground floor retail, deaden street life and pull eyes off the street, to paraphrase Jane Jacobs. An overabundance of parking encourages casual, even constant, car use, and helps generate traffic and sprawl. But that could change. In a recent interview with the smart transportation blog “Grid Chicago” Klein said he wants to reduce the parking requirements for new construction: “I think we should have a maximum and no minimum.” I couldn’t agree more.
Klein also reiterated the Emanuel Administration’s commitment to building the Bloomingdale Trail. While that project is routinely compared to New York’s High Line park, the Bloomingdale Trail is being conceived as a transportation artery, not a merely as a place for a romantic promenade. It will be the most protected bike lane of all. I can’t wait to take a spin down it, preferably using a shared bike.