City leaders should promote public transit, more shared streets

A plan to tax suburban Metra riders is a bad idea. Instead, discourage driving, especially for short trips. Instead, Chicago needs a system of shared streets to promote walking and biking.

SHARE City leaders should promote public transit, more shared streets
Bicyclists ride in the bike lanes on Milwaukee Avenue near California Avenue in Logan Square, Sept. 14, 2020.

Bicyclists ride in the bike lanes on Milwaukee Avenue near California Avenue in Logan Square, Sept. 14, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Every day, tens of thousands of suburban residents drive cars to Chicago for our city’s cultural attractions, civic institutions, jobs and more. Those cars degrade the streets, air, safety and mobility of the people who live in Chicago.

So while we applaud the desire to have visitors help support the infrastructure they enjoy, the recent proposal from mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson to tax suburban Metra users will only drive more people into cars, further degrading residents’ quality of life. Instead of erecting barriers to public transportation, we must encourage Chicagoans and visitors to park their cars and use mass transit.

Perpetually clogged streets, soaring traffic crashes, sickening pollution and mounting deaths and injuries are the result of a decades-long love affair with personal cars. Since 2018, over 1.2 million people — the equivalent to nearly half of Chicago’s population — have been in a traffic crash. In 2022, over 200,000 people were involved in one of the 100,000 traffic crashes that occurred in Chicago. (City Traffic Data was analyzed for these statistics.)

The high number of crashes not only results in millions of dollars in damages, they also injure and kill hundreds of people simply trying to travel through the city. In 2022, over 150 people were killed by traffic violence.

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To get suburban visitors to support the infrastructure that they use, consider a congestion tax on drivers coming into the city, particularly downtown. Many cities have successfully implemented congestion taxes, unclogging streets, boosting transit use and raising revenue all at the same time.

Walking and rolling

Surely, there is much to be done to rebuild our anemic public transit systems, historically among the best in the nation, and a recent poll conducted by WBEZ underscores public frustration with CTA cleanliness, reliability and safety. Many of those interviewed have abandoned the system because it no longer serves their needs. Rebuilding transit will require building cleaner, safer and more reliable systems, but city leaders must also discourage residents from driving. This is especially true for short trips.

For these shorter trips, it is crucial that Chicago develop a system of shared streets. The Chicago Department of Transportation successfully rolled out dozens of shared streets during the pandemic. Before the program was shuttered, nearly 55% of people wanted to see Shared Streets expanded. Our vision at Chicago Bike Grid Now! is to designate 10% of the city’s 4,500 miles of streets as a shared street system that prioritizes people walking and rolling (on wheels) over those in cars.

A shared street layout would utilize Chicago’s existing grid system to create a connected network of pedestrian and bicycle-centered streets, allowing residents to move safely and easily through their neighborhood and the city. The current patchwork of start-and-stop bicycle lanes, trails and greenways is ineffective at best and dangerous at worst.

Slowing down traffic

Shared streets on the bike grid would be designed for traffic moving at 10 mph and would have traffic-calming mechanisms like limited access, curb bump-outs, and chicanes — curb extensions or islands to force drivers to slow down. CDOT has already demonstrated that these conversions can happen quickly and economically by using temporary infrastructure until upgrades can be made permanent.

Other features of shared streets include the elimination of thru traffic and people allowed to bike two or more abreast.

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Since city officials adopted “Vision Zero” in 2017 with the goal of eliminating deaths caused by traffic violence, over 500 Chicagoans have been killed in car crashes. These are pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. They are parents, grandparents and our children. They are more than numbers. We know how to prevent traffic deaths. The answer is to discourage driving personal cars and encourage active transportation alternatives like walking, cycling, and taking transit. Urban engineers have known since the 1960s that widening streets and accommodating cars only leads to more traffic and all of its negative impacts. Now is the time for vision and action.

Chicago Bike Grid Now! has asked elected officials to endorse a bike grid in Chicago. As of this writing, 40 mayoral and aldermanic candidates have pledged to pursue this vision. We hope that others will as well. We cannot wait. We deserve safer streets now.

Rony Islam and Andrew Mack are organizers with Chicago Bike Grid Now!

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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