Six Californias!? What about the great states of Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia (maybe?)

While I don’t foresee California being divided into six new states quite yet (hey, who knows though), I do concede that I can’t help thinking that the plan proposed by Silicone Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper is on to something about the shape of US states: maybe bigger isn’t always better? His argument for splitting California into 6 new states is based on his belief that the state has become too big to govern properly and that sometimes it is better to let smaller regions and more homogenous social and economic ecosystems govern themselves in their own interests. Granted, his plan may just be a “silly con” for Silicone Valley’s benefit and it also raises a lot of questions about how state-wide structures in California would be governed post partition. (The water system, California high-speed rail–what happens to those?) Nonetheless, it makes for a dreamy vision of other parts of the country where political differences can cripple government and others  where multiple layers of government overlap to create a recipe for even more dysfunction.

Thus, I invite you all to imagine the great states of Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia! One of the things that intrigues me most about the United States compared to many Western peers is the noticeable lack of city-states as a political unit. With the exception of Washington, D.C. none exist here even though a number of urban regions throughout the country have populations and economies comparable with sovereign states. This is opposed to Spain, Germany, and France all of which have at least one provincial unit that is a city-state. Spain has Madrid, France has the Ile-de-France around Paris, and in Germany Hamburg, Bremen, and Berlin are all clearly defined city-states. While in the case of Germany, Bremen and Hamburg are the historical remnants of the Hanseatic League, the Berlin city-state is similar to the Ile-de-France, Madrid, or Greater London in that it gives the nation’s capital and largest city a degree of autonomy to do as it wishes according to its needs. Inspired by a call for 6 Californias based on the same model it would seem prudent to add a few city states to the United States’ collection and call it a day.

So why Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City? For me, the city-state model seems most prudent when an urban region is divided into administrative levels which make it difficult to govern or creates a system in which competition becomes detrimental to the entire urban unit. Or in some instances prevents beneficial improvements across borders. In fact, the bickering of states might make it impossible for cities to compete on a larger stage. Of these three cities, the larger urban region sprawls across multiple state lines (in each case three).

An example of problems with this is in Chicagoland. With the exception of the single branch South Shore Line, there is almost zero mass transit between Cook County and the City of Chicago in Illinois to Northwest Indiana and more than 770,000 people living in LaPorte, Porter, and Lake counties. This is only one example of how policies on one side of a border make it difficult for a larger urban region to build an interconnected infrastructure network and a small nod to the barriers created by multiple political borders. Another is how Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker gloated (once upon a time) about taking jobs from Illinois rather than seeing the potential in connecting the urban mega-region that includes Milwaukee, Chicago, Rockford, Madison, and Northwest Indiana. The cross-border changes and competition makes it impossible for the region to function as a whole. This is surprising given these are just states and yet in places like Scandinavia sovereign countries are looking to improve connectivity in mega-regions. So US states are hindering urban regions true potentials it seems.

While other cities straddle state lines (Omaha, Nebraska; Saint Louis, Missouri; or Kansas City, Missouri for example) the three mentioned above are by far the largest and most influential and could above all others benefit form a uniform government, which encompasses the entire region and can more directly address the needs of each region. It would also free these regions from the frequent tumult of state politics and the not-so-unfamiliar urban-rural conflict that seems to constantly plague states with large swaths or rural area and a domineering urban center. Indeed, calls for to separate Cook County in Illinois from the rest of the state have frequently come from Downstate politicians. This would be detrimental though in that it would add another layer of governance to Chicagoland.

This map shows the NFL teams that got the most Facebook 'likes' in each US county. Notice how the Bears did well into Indiana and even Michigan, well within Chicago's sphere of influence.

This map shows the NFL teams that got the most Facebook ‘likes’ in each US county. Notice how the Bears did well into Indiana and even Michigan, well within Chicago’s sphere of influence.

A city-state around Chicago would be better served by including Cook, Lake, DuPage, Will, and Kane counties in Illinois, Kenosha County in Wisconsin and at least Lake and Porter counties in Indiana. Around Philadelphia it would make the most sense to cut out a chunk or northern Delaware including Wilmington, southwestern New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania to create a new city-state, while the communities along the Hudson River in New Jersey and New York and southwestern Connecticut would make for appropriate additions to the city-state of New York.

The city-state isn’t an idea that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Yes, history and culture and identity and politics would play preventative roles (and reasonably so) in blocking such dramatic changes to the geopolitical map of the United States, but such changes could be hugely beneficial to cities and potentially make a balance of power that is more reasonable across the country. First, many major cities would be able to determine their own destiny better. They would be free from the conflicts of state politics and potentially have more money, because taxes produced in urban centers would no longer go to supporting rural areas. Additionally, three new cities states would add a number of new urban representatives in Congress. There would be 6 new senators all guaranteed to be representative of urban areas and depending on how congressional districts get redrawn potentially 30-40 House members would be from these states. This could make cities gain more influence in federal affairs to their benefit.

It is difficult to ignore how cities often don’t align with states and inevitable conflict seems to arise. Even from a sociocultural stand point it might make sense to establish city-states. Ironically, I think an argument for the importance of states based on maps from Aaron Renn’s blog/website Urbanophile shows more about how some areas just don’t belong together than do. In each three maps he shows, the sociocultural unity of the regions around Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City are clearly expressed. Indeed, the sphere of influence for Chicago goes as far as Michigan in some instances. This again makes it seem plausible that city-states could succeed. If they are large enough to include a decently sized rural hinterland that if not politically is at least culturally connected enough to the urban core of such states to function well within it. This might make for states actually more similar to Massachusetts with a strong urban core in Boston, smaller urban centers like Springfield, but enough rural area to mix it up.

This map shows where the most county-to-county phone calls were made. Again notice how around certain cities with cross-boarder urban areas the calls stay within those regions.

This map shows where the most county-to-county phone calls were made. Again notice how around certain cities with cross-boarder urban areas the calls stay within those regions.

This map shows the same thing as the map above, but with county-to-county texts. Notice the same phenomenon and the indication that in some places, urban influence is significantly greater than state influence. While Renn manages to show how some states are closely connected as a community, he also gives evidence to where urban regions might be better independent communities.

This map shows the same thing as the map above, but with county-to-county texts. Notice the same phenomenon and the indication that in some places, urban influence is significantly greater than state influence. While Renn manages to show how some states are closely connected as a community, he also gives evidence to where urban regions might be better independent communities.

These maps also show why some places, like Chicago or New York City, might be better fit for city-state status than say Atlanta. The capital of Georgia is more closely linked to the state politically and culturally than Chicago is to Illinois or New York City   to the Empire State (neither are state capitals and relatively isolated geographically in corners of the state). Growing up in Chicago for example, I can say I almost never met somebody who was from northeastern Illinois and identified with the state–we all identified with the city. Even people from Kenosha, Wisconsin identified more with Chicago than their home state. On the other hand, Atlantans seem proud of their city and state, and looking at some of the above maps, the spheres of influence that include Atlanta and Georgia seem to go much beyond urban boundaries and indeed include multiple states. Indeed, just thinking about Atlanta as I write this I can’t help but think about Georgia.

There is still the problem that states matter to some extent and even in places like Illinois, where urban-rural conflict is high some projects might benefit from the presence of large cities in the state. This includes high-speed rail. Or what about the instate tuition Chicagoans get to pay at the University of Illinois? While this might create conflict as to the benefits of building high-speed rail through Illinois from a Chicago city-state or access to higher education it doesn’t necessarily mean those cons outweigh the potential benefits. However, this is based on unfounded evidence and it may be that a stronger city-state in the heart of the Midwest would create an economic output strong enough to benefit the entire region and give it more leverage region wide. It shouldn’t even be assumed rural states would be unwilling to work with city-states. Either way, it shouldn’t be assumed that it is just the states that keep these projects together.

States are incubators for experimentation and perhaps that’s the best thing that is coming out of the proposal to divide California. No matter what happens it is an opportunity to critically think about how we divide and unite ourselves at different levels. None of this will likely happen, but thinking about it can produce new methods of improving how urban regions function and how they relate to the federal and states’ governments. In the case of Chicago a more appropriate option may be establishing a port authority similar to that in New York that crosses boarders and operates the region’s complex infrastructure in a more uniform way. On the other hand, maybe a Silicone Valley like city(ish)-state will be so successful that there is no other option but to join that bandwagon and enjoy the ride. Hey, Chicago missed out on its opportunity to add a fifth star with the 2016 Olympics, maybe this is the next best chance.

 

 

 

 

Chicago’s Next Infrastructure Projects, pt. 1: Biking the Boulevards

There has been a recent spurt of news in Chicago about new infrastructure projects reaching completion, beginning construction, and as many new proposals as German goals against Brazil. To say it simply: Chicago’s infrastructure is starting to get some serious attention, but if we want to keep up the good momentum, the city’s citizens and community and planning organizations need to generate ideas for what’s next. There is a layer of projects that are long forgotten as well as new ideas that deserve attention too and this series over the next few weeks will looks at some (very preliminary) ideas for what we should start planning next. The projects do not included proposals by the City of Chicago, CTA, Active Transportation Alliance (that is, none of this include Transit Future projects) etc… The attempt is to be as original as possible and indeed offer a critique to some more serious ideas already out there to add to the conversation of what our priorities should be as well as what’s plausible. Also, the proposed projects try to mix cheap projects that could be feasibly proposed, planned, and completed in a 2-5 year period as well as projects that may have been much further in the future, but warrant consideration. Now is the time to start this, because the energy for infrastructure improvements is there.

Much like boulevards, the Ringstraße in Vienna, which encircles the city center, provides space for a mix of uses: its green space, has broad bike lanes, sidewalks, trams, and room for automobiles. This is more the image Chicago should embrace for its boulevards.

Much like boulevards, the Ringstraße in Vienna, which encircles the city center, provides space for a mix of uses: its green space, has broad bike lanes, sidewalks, trams, and room for automobiles. This is more the image Chicago should embrace for its boulevards.

The first of these projects looks at bike connectivity in Chicago. Take a gander at the bike routes on Google Maps and one of the most obvious things is despite the large number of routes, the overall connectivity of the entire system is feeble–at best. There are a few consistently long stretches of street that included a dedicated bike lane (Lawrence on the Northwest Side, Damen in Wicker Park, and Halsted through Lakeview and Lincoln Park). Other than these though, few major bike routes extend from one end of a major street to another with dedicated lanes in some form (an exception is Elston, which is in a rather dire state the further north one bikes) and most cyclists must contend with serious gaps in bike infrastructure to move between neighborhoods or even continue along a single street.

While the City and CDOT have done a great job of implementing improved biking infrastructure in the city the gaps in infrastructure are pretty severe. The city’s fantastic grid system and boulevard system are not being taken to full advantage though, and these offer some of the best solutions for improving infrastructure as a whole, but also vasty improving cycling connectivity.

Dedicated bike lanes have been a huge improvement in Chicago, but the city has been slow to embrace protected and curbed bike lines like those more common in places such as Paris or Amsterdam, where extensive bike infrastructure is pervasive throughout the city. Certainly there is truth to the fact that expanding curbed bike lanes would be more expensive and difficult in some places simply because of space availability; what is unfortunate is how the city and CDOT have not taken advantage of a system of streets planned a century ago that provide the space, physical beauty, and calmness to support vastly more extensive bike lanes such as barrier protected or curbed bike lanes: the boulevard system.

This map shows how the city's system of boulevards, which create an arch around the city center from north to south through the West Side could create an until now untold amount of connectivity within the city. The boulevards are particularly ready to be redeveloped with curbed and barrier-protected bike lanes. Additional extensions into surrounding arterials would bring more people to the boulevards and park system.

This map shows how the city’s system of boulevards, which create an arch around the city center from north to south through the West Side could create an until now untold amount of connectivity within the city. The boulevards are particularly ready to be redeveloped with curbed and barrier-protected bike lanes. Additional extensions into surrounding arterial streets would bring more people to the boulevards and park system. New curbed and barrier-protected bike routes are shown in orange.

Building a barrier-protected bike lane or curbed bike lane between Logan Square and Lincoln Park would complete a boulevard bike system that arcs from Lincoln Park to Hyde Park and brings the Logan Square  neighborhood closer to Lakeview and Lincoln Park as well as the lake.

Building a barrier-protected bike lane or curbed bike lane between Logan Square and Lincoln Park would complete a boulevard bike system that arcs from Lincoln Park to Hyde Park and brings the Logan Square neighborhood closer to Lakeview and Lincoln Park as well as the lake.

These are bike infrastructure gold! Their width and the broad planted medians which separate local traffic from the faster center running traffic have plenty of room to accommodate biking and walking paths. The system’s size would bring high-quality bike infrastructure to a huge part of the city too and make the boulevards the park-like thoroughfares they were planned to be. The beautifully planned medians would be like those in Paris or Vienna, which double as community green spaces and plazas and don’t simply fall into the realm of the decorative. Additionally, some of Chicago’s best parks would be easily connected by bike and foot, turning the boulevards into a true web of parks simply by bringing them within reach by means other than the car.

Like in Vienna, the Parisian Boulevard de Clichy near Montmartre includes space for cars, buses, pedestrians and bikes and other activities. Here it is more similar to Chicago though, with large medians as opposed to the wide edges in Vienna.

Like in Vienna, the Parisian Boulevard de Clichy near Montmartre includes space for cars, buses, pedestrians and bikes and other activities. Here it is more similar to Chicago though, with large medians as opposed to the wide edges in Vienna.

Unlike in Paris or Vienna, Chicago's boulevards are relatively quiet although they offer large swaths of space for playgrounds, small athletic facilities, cafés, food cart stands etc., which would liven them up. Bike lanes and walking paths could bring the human density to sustain such activity.

Unlike in Paris or Vienna, Chicago’s boulevards are relatively quiet although they offer large swaths of space for playgrounds, small athletic facilities, cafés, food cart stands etc., which would liven them up. Bike lanes and walking paths could bring the human density to sustain such activity.

Connectivity within the city would take a huge leap forward by utilizing the boulevards as spaces for advanced bike lanes, but such lanes would necessarily have to move beyond the borders of the boulevards to achieve a more interconnected end. While the boulevards would bring places like Humboldt Park, Logan Square and even Hyde Park within closer reach of each other, expanding dedicated and protected bike lanes, particularly curb protected bike lanes, to additional streets in a larger system would dramatically increase the city’s bike infrastructure and instigate a huge step forward in turning Chicago’s bike lanes into a system comparable with cities like Paris or Berlin. This starts with Diversey Boulevard.

This map shows an early 20th century view of Chicago's lakefront parks and the 'emerald necklace' of parks and boulevards that encircle the city.

This map shows an early 20th century view of Chicago’s lakefront parks and the ’emerald necklace’ of parks and boulevards that encircle the city.

While Diversey Boulevard only has two traffic lanes and two parking lanes the street seems relatively wide. Not wide enough to make it a three or four lane street, but certainly wide enough that a bike lane could be added there (at least in Logan Square) and perhaps even wide enough for a curbed bike lane. Adding one here would do a few things. It would complete the full arch of a boulevard bike system ending at the lake in the north and south; it would also create the most direct bike connection between Lakeview and Lincoln Park to Logan Square. Diversey straddles the border of these two neighborhoods and bringing them within better reach of Logan Square would mean connecting some of the city’s more popular neighborhoods. It would also be a potential boon for Diversey, which has a cluster of restaurants now, but certainly needs a little push into the realm of fully developing into a great street. Other options include extending this boulevard system along Ogden from California to where it meets with Elston, along Archer from Pulaski to Chinatown and west along Fullerton to Cicero.

Chicago’s boulevards are a forgotten vestige of 19th century planning and urban beautification. They are a beautiful and rich addition to the city’s urban landscape, but they also provide fantastic potential for biking in the city than most other streets right now. While expanding bike lanes else and the expansion of Divvy to more parts of the city is commendable, rethinking the way we use the boulevards could offer a keystone to constructing a city-wide, comprehensive, and interconnected bike lane system in Chicago. Thinking about the boulevards differently in terms of bikes could be the stepping stone towards reinventing them as a whole: they have the potential to be a greenway through the heart of the city that mirrors the lakefront parks. They offer potential to add streetcars back to Chicago’s urban transportation, and bring new It bring myriad neighborhoods together in one well-knit web of vitality and life to an often overlooked. They forgotten system of green space and urban planning genius that should get some much needed attention beginning with bikes.

Improving American rail: Chicago’s Union Station, part 3 (delayed posting) – Intermodal connections are essential keys to success

Getting to Union Station by any means other than car or taxi, especially for people unfamiliar with the layout of Downtown Chicago, is by no means easy. Although there are numerous bus routes that terminate at Union Station and the area is certainly within walking distance of the Loop and things like Divvy bike share have made it easier to get around town by bike, unlike in most major Western cities, none of Chicago’s train stations (not one!) have direct access to the city’s subway/metro system—the ‘L’.* An effort to improve Union Station necessitates taking on such a groundbreaking infrastructure project like a subway along Canal Street that would include the addition of ‘L’ stops at Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center as well as improvements to surrounding bus stops and terminals. Intermodal connectivity is a cornerstone of good transportation networks and one which Chicago sorely lacks at Union Station (and by extension all its major stations).

Union Station has been conceptually conceived as having the potential to act like a third airport right in the center of Chicago. However, it will not compete with these airports if it doesn’t get up to speed with the intermodal connections offered there. Both are connected directly to the ‘L’ at the very least and both offer some form of dedicated bus facilities. An overall renewal of intermodal connections at Union Station should focus on two major projects: the Clinton Street Subway and a new bus terminal with facilities for both local buses, BRT, coach buses.  These have the potential to hugely and positively impact the efficiency of transportation connections at Union Station, although one would be significantly cheaper than the other, the costs of both are certainly worth the long-term benefits.

In the case of a new ‘L’ route, the shortness of the route would both help to reign in the costs of the project and the overall impact of construction. Although it’s in a densely built up area, the impacts would be significantly outweighed by the potential benefits: direct ‘L’ access to O’Hare from the West Loop, more ‘L’ access for West Loop residents and workers, direct access by train between two major Chicago train stations with the potential to direct access to a third station** and all along less than a 1 mile stretch.

The new segment of subway would also be more than just direct access to Union Station, but the final segment in a secondary Loop that would be formed by the two branches of the Blue Line. This Loop would also be a station Loop facilitating direct connections between LaSalle Street Station, Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center with indirect connections to Millennium Station and potentially Van Buren Street Station along the Metra Electric via underground ped-ways. Improvements to service along the Blue Line branches would also be possible, by splitting the line into two new lines, one along each branch. The Forest Park branch has significantly lower use compared to the O’Hare branch and splitting them into two new lines, means the CTA could better customize service on each branch accordingly.

According to Google Maps, the route from the Clinton stop on the CTA Blue Line's Forest Park Branch is a 5 minute walk starting under and highway and going past mostly nondescript or empty buildings.

According to Google Maps, the route from the Clinton stop on the CTA Blue Line’s Forest Park Branch is a 5 minute walk starting under and highway and going past mostly nondescript or empty buildings.

Uninterrupted access from a subway station to the interior of Union Station could be  a way to increase the use of the Great Hall as well. A mezzanine level built below Canal Street could facilitate the construction of street portals along Canal between Van Buren and Adams as well as access portals to a bus terminal and the Great Hall in Union Station. The availability of space inside the west end of the station’s Great Hall means there is ample room for elevators, escalators and stairs to the mezzanine level. This infrastructure need not be in the Great Hall itself either, but rather adjacent to it. A mezzanine level to an underground ‘L’ station also doubles as a covered and heated passageway to the bus terminal, which in Chicago is a huge plus considering how extreme summer and winter weather can get.

The Clinton stop on the Blue Line is far from appealing, even for Chicagoans let alone visitors and is often an impediment to those looking to getting to Union Station late at night.

The Clinton stop on the Blue Line is far from appealing, even for Chicagoans let alone visitors and is often an impediment to those looking to getting to Union Station late at night.

The bus terminal would also facilitate better intermodal and inter-bus transfers. First, it gives passengers transferring from train to bus or arriving at Union Station just for the bus an identifiable landmark towards which they can go knowing they’ll find their buses. As it is now, the curbside bus stops are difficult to find if you don’t know where to look. The different bus companies terminating at Union Station use different blocks of Canal Street too, which leads to confusion as to which block to wait at for a bus. Secondly, the curbside bus terminals don’t facilitate easy transfers between busses and cause overcrowding of the sidewalks. They are uncomfortable places to wait for a bus too and don’t include shelters, awnings or benches for passengers. Additionally, the curbside stops mean coach buses must contend with other traffic to get a spot to load and unload and crowds the streets. They not only get blocked, but they block traffic. Altogether this system is creating a traffic nightmare.

A bus terminal would include that and much more. An indoor waiting room provides an additional level of comfort for waiting customers and also doubles as a space for bathrooms, rental lockers, cafés and food stands as well as ticketing and information kiosks or offices. A staff lounge would also be available for the staff of bus companies. A terminal could also host a small staff to beginning taking tickets or act as baggage handlers to speed up turnover and departure times. Bus operators could also use the more comfortable space to improve transfers between routes. A shuttle bus could ferry passengers to the Greyhound terminal south of Union Station beyond walking distance.

A 0.7 mile stretch of subway connecting the O'Hare Branch and the Forest Park Branch of the CTA Blue Line would effectively connect all but one major Chicago train station (LaSalle, Union, Olgilvie). It would also create a second 'loop' allowing for O'Hare and Forest Park bound trains to be turned into two new routes with more effective schedules. It would also be the first time Union Station had direct access to the CTA 'L' in decades, bringing it up to par with European and other American counterparts.

A 0.7 mile stretch of subway connecting the O’Hare Branch and the Forest Park Branch of the CTA Blue Line would effectively connect all but one major Chicago train station (LaSalle, Union, Olgilvie). It would also create a second ‘loop’ allowing for O’Hare and Forest Park bound trains to be turned into two new routes with more effective schedules. It would also be the first time Union Station had direct access to the CTA ‘L’ in decades, bringing it up to par with European and other American counterparts.

Creating strong, efficient, and user-friendly intermodal connections at Union Station will require a mix of simple and extreme solutions. However, no great train station, especially those in large cities, exists within a transportation vacuum. And considering the proximity to other stations downtown a well-connected Union Station could effectively create a Downtown ‘super station’ split between Union Station, LaSalle Street Station and Ogilvie. Such connections would also facilitate the movement of people to, within and out of Downtown Chicago.

The importance of such connections does not go unnoticed in other cities either and should be a lesson for Chicago to emulate. Although plans exist for improvements to Canal Street and Union Station, a more impressive master plan should consider some helpful projects in other cities. In Berlin for example, the first part of a major extension of the U-5 subway was to first and foremost build a connection to the new Berliner Hauptbahnhof. The U-55 is a mere 0.9 miles long with three stops, but effectively connects the otherwise unconnected subway system to the main train station. The London Underground offers a more dramatic example with the Circle Line, which connects 5 major intercity stations with the larger Tube network. The importance of access to bus terminals doesn’t go unnoticed either. Denver is the best new example of bus and rail intermodal connections being brought together. Even little Kalamazoo offers convenient bus-train connections at its main Amtrak station.

A key, if not one of the most important keys to Union Station’s success is dramatically and wildly improving intermodal connections. This won’t just bring it to the same level as stations around the world, but truly help it become the center of rail in Chicago and the Midwest as well as the Downtown ‘airport’ Chicago is dreaming of.

*To get to Millennium Station from the ‘L’ one has to get off at either the Lake Red Line, Washington Blue Line, or Loop Randolph stops then walk 2-3 blocks further east or through the complex pedestrian passage ways underground. To get to LaSalle Street Station from the LaSalle Blue Line stop one has to walk a block south and find the hidden entrance to the platforms and Olgilvie Transportation Center requires a two block walk from the Clinton Green-Pink Line stop. 

**Olgilvie and Union stations are both along Canal Street, for direct access between the CTA Blue Lines LaSalle stop and LaSalle Street Station reconfiguration of the former would be necessary.