Which Western? – Perhaps it’s time to rename some ‘L’ stops

One quirk of Chicago’s ‘L’, the city’s rapid transit system, is the presence of multiple stations with the same name. For example, there are not two, nor three, rather five stations called “Western”, one each on the Brown, Pink, and Orange lines and two (yes two) on the Blue Line. This idiosyncrasy isn’t particularly unusual for the Chicago Transit Authority. The New York City subway and Los Angeles Metro each have multiple stations with the same name. It does stand out to foreign visitors however, and it took a German, in their infinite practicality, to make me realize how insane this nomenclature actually is. Which brings me to my main point: how should the CTA rename its ‘L’ stations to prevent confusing repetitiveness?

This seems like a simple enough task, but the ‘L’ can define an entire neighborhood and so can the name of the associated station. Renaming the stations is a task in officially defining space and place and doing so in relative perpetuity. (I’ll address that irony in one moment.) A new naming system at one needs to be systematic, to make the naming of new stations simple, but also create a certain understated cohesion that makes navigating the city easy still. It also needs to take into account the changing nature of neighborhoods and consider that what was once colloquially know as “Clark and Belmont” somehow morphed into East Lakeview between the time I graduated high school in 2010 and moved home in 2016.

The current naming system uses the major street a station stops at for a name. This occurs with few exceptions (e.g. Logan Square) and the occasional intersection (North/Clybourn). Even where a landmark is included the intersecting street is usually tacked onto the name as well (e.g. UIC-Halsted or Cermak-McCormick Place). It’s simple enough, but not when you are overlaying a radial transit system on a city with a continuous street grid that results in multiple stations on different lines in different parts of the city with the exact same name. “Western” is the most garish example, but it is far from the only one. Chicago’s ‘L’ includes:

  • Four ‘Kedzie’ stations; plus one ‘Kedzie-Homan’
  • Three ‘Cicero’ stations (two were formerly on the same line)
  • Three ‘Pulaski’ stations
  • Three ‘Chicago’ stations
  • Three ‘Addison’ stations
  • Three’ Damen’ stations (two were formerly on the same line)
  • Two each of ‘Irving Park’, ‘Oak Park’, ‘Austin’, ‘Montrose’, ‘Ashland’, ‘Harlem’ (on the same line), and ‘Belmont’

While a simple system has its benefits, transit systems have power in creating a sense of place, and the importance of not causing unnecessary confusion. One solution to this predicament is combining landmarks with street names, which is more common on the South Side with station names like ‘Sox-35th’ or ’35th-Bronzeville-IIT’. This results in long cumbersome names though.

I propose an alternative: 1) name stations first after the street they stop at. It is relatively straight forward and allows people to orient themselves in the city easily. If you get off at Kimball, you know you’re 3200 west. If you get off at Damen you know the connecting bus is the Damen bus. But, in cases where there is more than one station on a street 2) name the station in relation to the designated community area. For example, the stations named ‘Pulaski’ become “West Garfield Park’ on the Green Line, ‘North Lawndale’ on the Pink Line, and ‘Archer Heights’ on the Orange Line.

ctatrainmap

All five Western stations on the CTA ‘L’.

Ah, but a there is a problem even with this example. There are multiple ‘L’ lines and stations in certain Community Areas. The ‘Pulaski’ station on the Blue Line was left out and there are four stations on the Pink Line in North Lawndale. The ‘Pulaski’ station was arbitrarily renamed, because there are more than one stations with the same name. There are two final suggestions to alleviate such conflicts: point 3) is to name stations after identifiable sub neighborhoods, especially ones that are not likely to change and 4) rename stations to align with adjacent Metra stops, where they exist.

The latter solution only results in the renaming of a few stops (e.g. the ‘Montrose’ station on the Blue Line becomes Mayfair); the former solution still is imperfect, because it holds that neighborhoods are permanent. We all know neighborhoods change and can do so gradually or rapidly. Changing the names of transit stations is a costly and time consuming affair (which is why it doesn’t happen all that often and would likely have to happen at the same time changes would be made anyhow, such as with the opening of a new station). Thus, renaming station after relatively ephemeral neighborhood names could be problematic in that over a short period of time those names could becoming meaningless.

Who still calls Andersonville ‘Girlstown’, for example?

Then again, this could be good for neighborhoods. Station names indicating an ethnic or minority community aren’t unprecedented. The Red Line stop in Chinatown indicates the exact ethnic community living there: a Chinese immigrant and Chinese-American community! This at a time when many Chinatowns nationwide are disappearing or moving (but not in Chicago).

There is perhaps then an incentive for minority or ethnic communities to stay in place longer is something as seemingly permanent as the name of an ‘L’ station reflects the local demographic. For example, renaming the ‘Belmont’ station on the Red, Brown, and Purple lines in Lakeview to ‘Boystown’ might act as a catalyst for renewed investment in the area by LGBTQ residents and business owners. It would also solidify the stop as the gateway to the neighborhood. Meanwhile, up the road at the ‘Addison’ stop the name ‘Wrigleville’ seems apt.

It is unlikely the name of every station on the ‘L’ will properly reflect the community surrounding said station. Communities change, developers push new neighborhood identities, the system grows and contracts (hopefully no more), and the grid still prevails. Then again, anything is better than having five stations named ‘Western’ in the same system.

Therefore, here are my proposals:

LINE PREVIOUS NAME NEW NAME NOTES
Red Morse Rogers Park Create more identifiable commercial center
Red Bryn Mawr Edgewater Create more identifiable community center
Red Lawrence Uptown Create more identifiable community center
Red Addison Wrigleyville
Red Chicago Magnificent Mile Create stronger link between station and N. Michigan Avenue
Red Cermak-Chinatown Chinatown Simplify
RBP Belmont Boystown Reinforce character of LGBTQ neighborhood
BP Sedgewick Old Town Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Kedzie Albany Park Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Western Lincoln Square Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Damen Ravenswood Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Addison Roscoe Village Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Brown Chicago River North
Blue Harlem Norwood Park
Blue Montrose Mayfair Associated with neighborhood and Metra station
Blue Belmont Avondale Create community identity
Blue Western Bucktown Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Blue Damen Wicker Park Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Blue UIC-Halsted UIC East-Greektown Associated with neighborhood and UIC
Blue Racine UIC West-Little Italy Associated with neighborhood and UIC
Pink 18th Pilsen Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Pink California Douglas Park
Pink Pulaski North Lawndale-Little Village Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Green Kedzie East Garfield Park Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Green Pulaski West Garfield Park Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Green Oak Park Oak Park-Lake Street Create stronger link between station and neighborhood
Green Harlem/Lake Oak Park-Central Combine with Metra
Orange Halsted Bridgeport Create stronger link between station and neighborhood

 

 

Effectually Ineffective Bike Trails: Design is Keeping Bike Trails from Living to Their Full Potential

The opening of the first phase of the North Branch Trail’s southern extension, completion of the Skokie Valley Line, and the construction of the first phase of the Weber Spur all signify a growing interest in the development of dedicated bike infrastructure in northern Cook County; this is especially so on the Northwest Side of Chicago and nearby suburbs. Cheers to that! There’s just one little catch: beyond their design as recreational trails, they offer very little in terms of other functional uses. This is rooted in a design problem that stems from subtleties that seem to suggest the trails are saying “don’t use me”. Alterations can be made to mend this, but the planning put into these trails needs to begin addressing this from the outset.

This much is true–among the general public bike trails are popular. They provide residents recreational facilities for sport biking, jogging, and walking plus green space access. Additionally, the trails are important pieces of the region’s wildlife infrastructure. They are green conduits that provide wildlife safe passages between larger green pockets like parks and forest preserves.

That said, because they are treated exclusively as recreational paths they end up designed with a certain engrained uselessness. The problem lies in their isolation, which is part of “the engrained uselessness” design (even where that design is unnecessary). By designed isolation I mean that the trails are designed to exist in insolation of other infrastructure and solely in the context of being recreational. There is no connection to the contextual needs of the communities even when that would inform more useful design. A perfect example of this is the first phase of the North Branch Trail’s southern extension, which will eventually end at Gompers Park in North Park.

On the North Branch Trail extension there are examples of this design problem at Forest Glen and Central Avenues in Forest Glen and Edgebrook respectively. Here, the trail parallels the main roads and is closely adjacent to the main roads, making them ideal for shared recreational and transportation purposes. Additionally, they are near transit and fully built out residential areas and commercial districts. In neither case though is there any semblance of design the encourages users to leave the trail, enables users to connect to other bike routes, or easily use the trail if trips cross the path of the trail. This is the isolated design I am talking about.

These North and Northwest Side projects (Weber Spur, North Branch Trail, Skokie Valley Trail) exemplify this issue of designed disutility; examples abound on the extension of the North Branch Trail. Throughout the project area the path runs immediately adjacent to residential streets, but the lack of access points make it useless expect for people biking long distances for sport and not at all useful for somebody who could bike the short half-mile trip to the local Metra station.

The solution includes a mix of spurs and better crossings and entrances to the bike trails. Take the segment along Forest Glen: the bike trail parallels the street, which is also a designated bike route, for about three blocks before it turns north and south. At the southern approach, the trail is two blocks from the Metra’s Forest Glen stop on the Milwaukee District North line and Elston Avenue, a major bike route. The northern approach opens onto Forest Glen where the designated bike route continues across Cicero into Sauganash and north along the boarder of the Forest Preserve into Edgebrook. Along this stretch, there are no proper paved access points to the trail from side streets nor is there a paved access point to the southern end of Forest Glen, making it a useless piece of infrastructure for people using Forest Glen for trips that pass the trail. The lack of barrier protected bike lanes or trails also forces users onto poorly designed streets where they must compete with autos for use.

A well designed trail would have included more access points and at the very least a spur to create an uninterrupted connection between Elston Avenue, the Metra stop, and the trail. Furthermore, the need for spurs is vital, because they better connect residential and commercial areas adjacent to the forest preserve, but not the trails, to the trails. They would transform the trail into reliable pieces of transportation infrastructure. They would open the trails up to the neighborhoods as opposed to being wholly within the forest preserves.

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Existing trails and those under construction or proposed for the North and Northwest Sides would have increased utility for all cyclists if they included better design and integration into the larger bike network including improved access and spurs connecting trails to commercial districts and other transit infrastructure. Likely trail extensions and spurs with dedicated bike lanes are shown with solid red lines. Dashed red lines show routes that could use additional improvements or upgrades to bike infrastructure. Transportation nodes are circled.

It would be useful to see spurs, built as dedicated, barrier-protected bike lanes, included in the design and build out of the trail system. This includes spurs north and south of the North Branch trail along Forest Glen from Cicero to Elson, and perhaps a spur north into Edgebrook along the forest preserve that could become its own path. Additionally, a spur south of the North Branch trail to Elston or Milwaukee Avenue along Central Avenue from Indian Road and along Bryn Mawr east (and possibly west) of the intersection of the Skokie Valley Line (Sauganash Trail) and Weber Spur would be useful. This is particularly important if the Weber Spur is extended all the way to Mayfair, bringing Sauganash within 10 minutes of the CTA’s Blue Line stop at Montrose and the Metra Milwaukee District North Line stop at Mayfair.

screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-11-04-59-am

The trails–existing and proposed–do bring more areas into closer proximity by bike, but a recreation-oriented design may discourage use for transportation purposes.

While north of Devon Avenue the trails cut so deep into the forest preserves that the possibility of their use for transportation purposes diminishes greatly, the slow expansion of the trail south and other extensions of the system continues and brings them closer to businesses and residential areas their potential as transportation corridors increases dramatically. Yet, in their current state, use as utilitarian transportation infrastructure is almost expressly discouraged.

Hopefully, this kind of design will slowly be encouraged and supported. These are incredibly important recreational projects, but biking as a form of transportation will not take off if the design of bike infrastructure is held back by a view that the bike is only a piece of sporting equipment or child’s play thing.

 

Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful! But the City is So Delightful!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: weather–winter weather especially–should not be a major player in determining where people live. It is high time cold climate cities embrace the winter as an asset and chide it. This discussion may become an annual tradition on this blog (I wrote about it last year too); so, as long as the annual threat by Northerners to move mid-winter continues, so will my call for a more positive mentality towards the chillier months–and in this installment for better design for the winter.

In the previous post about winter I focused on a mix of methods to improve a residents’ experience of our cold climate city. (This was done with help from the Project for Public Spaces.) Suggestions ranged from incorporating winter markets into the seasonal calendar of events to creating little league hockey and other winter sports opportunities.

The suggestions weren’t entirely focused around a single theme. After getting back to Chicago this year, I re-recognized the importance of design in getting residents through the winter. Most of this realization happened using the “L”, which is where most Chicagoans probably get extended exposure to the winter elements. This, and walking and biking mid-winter in the city.

The weather is made uncomfortable mostly due to wind and snow. In a city like Chicago it is hard to avoid both. It’s called ‘lake effect’ and the Great Plains. There is nothing to stop or slow any inclement weather. Sadly, the design of a lot of the city’s public spaces and amenities doesn’t seem to account for this. And in terms of design, this is what the Chicago needs to begin considering.

So, to make winter all the more lovely in Chicago there are three areas where design holds the solutions: transit stations, sidewalks and bike lanes, and parks.

  • Transit has to be made weather proof. It is insane that the CTA and Chicago’s DOT haven’t made it a standard policy to build stations that includes weather proofing. Chicago is unique having a rapid transit system that is almost entirely above ground; or, at least this is unique among cold climate cities. Yet, station design doesn’t reflect this reality. While the airy elevated stations are great in the summer, they don’t hold up in the winter.
    • Use the Cermak-McCormick Place Green Line station as a design model for future stations and renovations. The station, wrapped in a tube like structure, protects passengers from the elements while waiting for trains. While it isn’t enclosed fully to keep it heated, it keeps passengers dry and moderately warm.
    • Install glass windows along Blue and Red Line stops in the medians of highways. The canopies of many of these stations (e.g. Harlem and Cumberland Blue Line stops) are ideally designed to allow such installations. This would not only help keep platforms insulated from the weather, but lessen noise caused by traffic passing so close to the platforms.
    • The same applies to stairwells along segments of other L lines. Enclosing them in glass would go a long way to improve the station experience while allowing light in still. Take the Brown Line: most of the stairwells at the Brown Line’s elevated stations are only enclosed with fencing. This allows snow and ice to build up on the stairs making for wet and dangerous ascents to and descents from platforms. Put up impermeable walls and problem solved.
    • Invest in bus stops that actually keep the weather at bay. The CTA’s JCDecaux bus stops are purely aesthetic and fail on a functional level. The gaps between the glass walls and roofs let in snow and rain and the open fourth side lets wind and cold in easily. A good example of a weather proof bus stop were those I’ve seen in Winnipeg. It was enclosed on all four sides and included an easy to push open swinging glass door to keep the weather at bay.
  • winnipeg-bus-stop

    This bus stop in Winnipeg is fully enclosed. This design could also include ticket machines or be incorporated into prepaid boarding schemes. 

    Using permeable pavement is another solution to deal with snow and ice. Shoveling, or lack thereof, is an annoyance for pedestrians and cyclists in Chicago. Bike lanes only get partially cleared and crosswalks are usually blocked by piles of snow, ice, and sludge kicked up by snow plows. This decreases the likelihood of winter biking and causes inconveniences and safety concerns. According to a Water Environment Federation report on porous pavement the amount of salt needed to keep streets and sidewalks clear of ice decreases where porous pavement is used. It also lowers the amount of black ice that appears since water can drain before refreezing when it melts. Porous pavements should become standard in areas that are difficult to clear including bike lanes, parking lanes, pedestrian crossings and intersections. It is no silver bullet to snow build up, but the easier it is for snow and ice to clearance, the better.

  • While the Project for Public Spaces is right for pointing out that using skywalks and underground pedestrian walkways can backfire by lessening the value of outdoor spaces they are in and of themselves not worth dismissing. In cities like Chicago, Montréal, and Minneapolis the winter weather can be extreme and there is value in keeping people inside on the worst days. The question is whether these passages are designed to connect with their respective cities. Chicago needs to renovate its pedestrian passage way, which covers a significant area of the Loop and employ better signage in addition to other aesthetic improvements. A particular focus should be made on a single aesthetic identity and ensuring users know where they are in relation to the city above. Montréal’s Ville Souterraine is a prime example of how to maintain a balance between indoor and outdoor spaces. The system connects major institutions and the Métro and throughout the system opens into light filled galleries and atriums that connect back to street level.
  • Green spaces play a vital role in improving how we experience winter cities. Design firm Perkins + Will lays out a number of suggestions for improving outdoor life in cold cities. This ranges from designing to maximize winter sunlight and creating new waterfront recreational opportunities with parks that connect residents to rivers and lakes, but also block wind. In North American cities where grids are the dominant street form another way to achieve this is by capping streets throughout the grid creating parklets at dead-ended streets that provide new public spaces and can be planted with large trees to block and slow wind. Such parklets shouldn’t be restricted to areas along water, since streets along a grid channel can wind for longer distances. I can say the worst wind I experience biking is on an uninterrupted east-west street on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side far from any water.

Before I wrote this I was sitting in a café in Madison in a newly built building. The café had floor to ceiling windows that must have been 15 feet high. They let in plenty of light, but mid-winter in a city surrounded by three lakes, where the wind, snow, and cold can be intense the lack of context struck me. The large windows did not keep out the cold. The only thing you needed to do to figure that out was come inside. Design trends have become so ubiquitous that any context seems to have disappeared. How silly that is. Design for the winter and we might all be a little warmer year round.