On a day when the collision between two CTA Blue Line trains in Forest Park continues to raise more questions than answers, a pair of ongoing stories serve to remind us of the deep-seated and often contentious transportation challenges the city faces.
The first is the increasingly bitter opposition to a 16-mile rapid-transit bus line proposed to run along Ashland Avenue from the city’s North to South sides. Everyone from business owners, concerned parents, neighborhood residents and car owners have decried the project, which is slated to replace one lane of traffic in each direction with rapid transit buses designed to decrease commuting times along a critical north-south corridor.
Critics say the bus-only lanes, which will restrict the ability for cars to make left turns off of Ashland, will force traffic onto neighborhood streets, reduce travel times for cars and increase truck congestion. Opponents, such as the Ashland-Western Coalition, are circulating petitions urging Mayor Emanuel to kill the project and instead expand and modernize the current bus service.
Advocates for the project point to CTA predictions that bus ridership along Ashland could increase by as much as 30 percent and reduce average commuter time along the route by 50 to 65 hours a year. Nevertheless, much media attention has been given to the plan’s opponents, despite the plan’s potential to tackle a critical congestion problem for city commuters.
In the far north community of Rogers Park, a contentious battle is being waged over a proposed 250-car parking garage along the city’s lakefront that opponents say will sacrifice a portion of one of the city’s greatest natural resources—access to Lake Michigan—for the needs of car drivers.
The garage is intended primarily to support a number of properties owned and developed by billionaire Jennifer Pritzker, who nearby properties inlcude a Frank Lloyd Wright house, a 13-story apartment tower and a bed-and-breakfast. The project was approved by 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore over the opposition of a group of neighborhood residents and the possibility the 5-story structure could violate the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, designed to ensure protection for valuable lakefront properties.
Both critics and Moore acknowledge that the project is going forward primarily to create easier parking for automobile owners. For many neighborhood residents, however, the question is really whether a private developer’s need for parking should overrule the character of a neighborhood and access to the lake.
There’s little doubt the greater Chicagoland region is clogged with cars, and traffic and parking are problems in even the least congested city neighborhoods. But it’s also clear that the region’s addiction to driving is a habit that is proving increasingly undesirable and even unsustainable. A Metropolitan Planning Council study from 2008 found the Chicago region suffers $7.3 billion in lost productivity from congestion, a number that has almost certainly increased since.
A more recent study, the GO TO 2040 plan from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, points to the need not only for increased financing for public transit but also approaches to the city’s transportation problems. For sustainable economic development across the region, the plan calls for a focus on pedestrians and bicyclists, congestion pricing for road use, innovative transit project financing and reforming ordinances to reduce parking requirements for new developments among other solutions.
These studies and the battles currently being waged over Ashland, Rogers Park and elsewhere suggest the city’s challenges around traffic, parking, and transportation won't be over anytime soon. But they also suggest the old ways of tackling these problems may no longer be working.
At least not without a fight.