TRANSIT TALK-I’m home again, for a few minutes at least. Hey, cut me some slack; have you ever heard of snow and ice? It’s summer and to fully appreciate the places I’ve been, this is the best time of the year to be there.
As usually happens when I spend time soaking up the energy of great cities, I feel enriched and inspired to bring some of those lessons home to Los Angeles. My latest trip took me to New York, Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin. And all three cities get a shout out for re-envisioning and making great things happen in their streets, open spaces or transit.
Away from Los Angeles, It was a week of contrasts, a chance to scope out the most expensive transit improvement -- the Calatrava station at New York’s World Trade Center site -- and the most basic of massive domestic urban transit systems, Chicago’s seemingly ubiquitous L.
My biggest shout out goes to the much maligned city of Chicago. Why do people hate on Chicago? For all that city’s violent crime, failing schools and missteps of its tone deaf mayor, Chicago is awesome, to use a word I can’t believe I just uttered, given my age.
Between some of the world’s finest urban architecture, beautiful parks, great transit and bike share, terrific food and music, vibrant neighborhoods and a lake the size of an ocean, I’ll take it.
In light of the terrible news of the past two weeks, how great it is to have something homegrown and American Made to celebrate.
Whoever would have thought we would live to see the same sort of shameful attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement that plagued this country back in 1968?
Attention No Faux News and you other haters: a disciplined civil disobedience movement à la SNCC and Dr. King himself did not murder five police officers in Dallas. RIP the officers as well as Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. We are better as a country than the side of things we have seen as of late.
But let’s get back to Chicago. Won’t you please come to Chicago?
I remember that it gets cold in the Windy City, as in really cold, but the views south from the Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk and north and west from The Field Museum and Adler Planetarium in Grant Park are breathtaking urban landscapes (photo above) that rival anything one finds on either coast.
Given the week’s news, I had second thoughts about leaving behind bucolic Madison, my free summer Bcycle bikeshare membership and chair near the stage on The Terrace at the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union. The brats and beer and open mic night on Lake Mendota alone almost justified the out-of-state tuition at one of the Country’s finest public (and private) universities. And that’s even after years of Scott Walker’s shameful efforts to eviscerate The Wisconsin Ideal.
Though I was sorry to miss the opening day of Bike Metro, LA’s new bikeshare program, Bcycle, Madison’s protected bike lanes and its lakeside paths helped me appreciate the significance of bikeshare’s arrival in Los Angeles as nothing short of transformational. It’s a shot in the arm for the growing chorus of support for complete streets in Southern California.
After the time I spent in Madison, Chicago beckoned me. The “express” Van Galder bus from Madison hit a traffic wall around Austin and Cicero. But that was okay for me as there were CTA Blue Line tracks running down the middle of the Eisenhower Expressway. Sure, the train line is not pretty and standing on those platforms in the winter must be brutal, but let’s focus on the positive; the line exists and offers functional, frequent 24/7 transit to thousands of daily riders.
In spite of Chicago’s traffic, reminiscent of any hour on the 5, 405, 10, 110, 605, 710 (need I go on?) we eventually made it to The Loop where the real fun started at Chicago’s Union Station. A walk/architectural tour through The Loop of the big shouldered city and along the Chicago River (with kayakers!) never disappoints.
With the quiet Expo Line to Santa Monica in mind, I have a soft spot in my heart for the noisy, gritty L, a largely bare bones urban transit system that rivals New York’s bursting at the seams behemoth. If Chicago was building the L today, it would never get its basic design past the public and the Federal Transit Administration. But there it is, in all its Loop-centric glory, taking riders nearly everywhere in the sprawling city.
All over Chicago, I saw plenty of rust and the lines are pretty noisy at times. But, assuming the tracks and trains are safe, to an inveterate transit fan, the rattles and rust are small prices to pay for the frequency that we can only dream of for our own LA Metro.
For a “city junkie,” there is almost nothing like riding the L through The Loop and out into Chicago’s vibrant neighborhoods.
On the active transportation front, Chicago’s robust Divvy bikeshare program is super popular, especially near the Lake and parks, making it hard to find a bike at some of the stations.
The takeaway for LA is: build out our transit fast and within budget and give Angelenos the frequency they need and the system will land discretionary riders who don’t even think about driving. This is what LA Metro’s November Ballot Initiative is all about and why we need to vote for it early and often as they would in Chicago.
Just don’t get me started about the fact that Chicago’s Blue Line goes all the way to O’Hare, not just nearby, requiring a second ride.
Since I probably sound like a PR flack for Chicago, I should add that I saw some annoying things there like Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s name on the sign at Bixler Playlot Park in Hyde Park, as if Rahm paid for the playground himself.
In LA, of course, we would never put the name of a living County Supervisor on the name of a regional park. Never! Right?
And I am not so nearsighted that I missed the resilient blight and crime that plagues much of Chiraq’s South Side and West Side.
But in Chicago, like in New York, I also saw a vibrant city where races mix, at least on the L and in the street and parks along the Lake.
LA fascinates me because its density and clash of dreams and cultures creates a built environment that is greater than the sum of its parts. Our cousins in Chicago and Madison and New York are also doing great things that can teach us a thing or two about how to build and rebuild cities that work.
Now let’s get out and vote.
(Joel Epstein is a senior advisor to companies, law firms, foundations and public initiatives on communications strategy, corporate social responsibility (CSR), recruiting and outreach. He is a contributor to CityWatch and can be contacted at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.