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.

A Challenge to Chicago: Increase Transit Ridership Before System Expansion

Before expansions of Chicago’s rapid transit system occur I propose a challenge: increase ridership to the level of peer cities first; Chicago’s transit system is punching far below its weight. In an ideal world, the system would be expanding. But resources are needed to do that. One of the best ways to get more of that is through riders. It’s a simple solution, and Chicago needs to get its act together.

Chicago, Berlin, and Barcelona are ideal cities to compare. Each city have comparable populations and densities, they’re all major cultural and economic centers, and they all have similarly sized metro system each within larger multi-model framework. The largest of the three metro systems (size is system length in kilometers) is Chicago’s ‘L’ at 165 km followed by Berlin’s U-Bahn at 151 km and Barcelona’s Metro at 146 km. The marked difference is the number of trips on each system. Berlin’s U-Bahn and Barcelona’s Metro respectively see 517.4 and 416.2 million trips annually. Chicago’s ‘L’ only sees 238 million trips annually. That’s fare less than half Berlin.

CHICAGO 2.72 million (2015 est.) 9.55 million 4,447/km2 165.4 km (102.8 miles) 145 238.1 million (2014)
BERLIN 3.61 million 5.87 million 4,000/km2 151.7 km (94.2 miles) 173 517.4 million (2014)
BARCELONA 1.6 million 4.74 million 16,000/km2 146 km (91 miles) 180 416.2 million (2014)

This is a huge problem for a simple reason: in relation to its size, the ‘L’ is getting too few riders to properly pay for itself (or expansion and improvement). Theoretically, if each of these systems cost the same to operate and riders pay the same fares, then the larger system in Chicago costs more per rider for the basic reason that fewer riders share these costs. It also means more subsidies are needed for operations, rather than going towards capital projects.


The Berlin U-Bahn (Line U1) crosses the Spree River with the Fernsehturm in the background. This is a former crossing between East and West Berlin. (Source: Getty Images)

Dig in and the numbers are more revealing. Using a basic single-ride fare x number of rides annually to calculate and gauge potential revenue from fares on each metro system Chicago only makes $535 million a year on fares. Berlin, where a single trip costs $1.85 (€1.70), fares would generate $957.2 million annually. In Barcelona, fares would generate $978 million annually at $2.35 (€2.15) per trip. To get to these revenue levels, a single trip on the ‘L’ would need to cost something like $4 (possibly more). That’s unless more people ride the ‘L’. If it saw as many riders as the Barcelona Metro, the system would generate $936.4 million from fares; at the ridership levels of the Berlin U-Bahn it would generate $1.16 billion from fares.

The CTA’s total operating expenses in 2014 were $1.3 billion. That’s just a little context.

This basic calculation doesn’t express the actuality of how transit systems are funded however. It is of course more complex. Reduced and subsidized fares, advertising and other revenue all affect  funding calculations. Total CTA fares (bus and ‘L’) brought in about $575.1 million dollars in 2014. According to my calculation, that’s how much the CTA should make just from fares from ‘L’ trips. Obviously, my equation doesn’t take into account the above variables or transfers. What is terribly obvious however is that the CTA is on the loosing end of its (comparatively) low ridership and the math related to revenue generated from fares.


Riders wait for a train on the Barcelona Metro. (Source: alamy.com)

The upshot is opportunity exists to increase ridership without making huge investments in expansion. Indeed, even at current service levels there is room for growth. Anecdotally speaking more people can fit onto most CTA trains and buses at all hours. Rarely do I find myself actually on a full train and the goal should be changing that first, then expansion.

The solutions I propose aim to be within the realm of political and fiscal probability and are listed from easiest to most difficult to implement.

  • Fare Integration: All the transit providers in Chicagoland need to (finally) implement (real) fare integration and abandon the superficial program that currently exists. One means to achieve this is reorganizing the Metra fare zones so fares are compatible between Metra, the ‘L’, and buses; installing tap-on, tap-off turnstiles allows passengers to use Ventra cards on all service types.
  • Divvy Integration/Improved Bike Facilities: The last-mile can deter people from transit since it doesn’t often directly reach people’s final destination. Integrating Divvy into fares is vital to getting people that last mile. While Divvy docks aren’t ubiquitous, they offer one useful option. A single-ride on Divvy should be integrated into single-ride fares as a transfer option. Unlimited ride tickets should included Divvy usage as well. Single-rides on Divvy should be equitable to a transit ride as well. Additionally, numerous ‘L’ and Metra stations lack enough bike racks to encourage biking. Often, racks are full, people are forced to lock bikes to sign poles and trees (blocking sidewalks), or bike racks are in low visibility areas, leaving bikes prone to theft.
  • Zoning (A Friend): Look at land use around transit stops in Chicago and it’s obvious why people don’t use transit: too few people live or work near it. Even in neighborhoods with dense populations, there are gaps in the system where instead of dense offices and housing adjacent to transit there are surface parking lots, strip malls, and drive-thru restaurants. Chicago’s Transit Oriented Development ordinance (TOD) is a step to correcting this, but that program needs to be reinforced with ordinances that don’t just promote TOD, but outright ban undesirable types of development. Within TOD zones, transit unfriendly developments like strip-malls and drive-thru’s should be banned; and where they exist Aldermen and the Department of Planning and Development should encourage redevelopment as TOD through the use of eminent domain (for underused property) or RFPs/RFDs (Requests for Proposals/Development).

The new Whole Foods development in Englewood is in a suburban style strip mall. It is only a half block form the Halsted Green Line. It is a 10 minute walk from the 63rd Red Line.


  • Invest in Transfers: One unfortunate element of the region’s transit network is the inability to transfer often and easily. Major investments are needed in new transfer stations, especially between Metra and the ‘L’. Currently, there are only two stations where riders can transfer between the two systems–Oak Park and Jefferson Park–and two between Metra Lines–Western and Clybourn. Transfers should occur in the same facility, and not force people to walk between facilities with no way finding and exposed to the elements. This must change. Investments in station facilities improve riders ability to transfer modes and bring more ridership potential to communities. Points where this is a possibility include:
    • Main Street-Evanston (Purple Line, UP North)
      • Combine existing facilities
    • Mayfair/Montrose on the Northwest Side (Blue Line, MD North, possibly UP Northwest)
      • Build new connecting facility, add station for UP Northwest, upgrade MD North Facilities
    • Davis Street-Evanston (Purple Line, UP North)
      • Combine existing facilities
    • Ashland (Metra UP West, MD North, MD West, North Central Service, possible Ashland BRT)
      • New station
    • Montrose/North Center and Irving Park/North Center (Brown Line, UP North)
      • New stations
    • Kedzie/Little Village (Pink Line, Metra BNSF)
      • New station combined with existing facility
    • Northwest Highway/Des Plaines (North Central Service, UP Northwest)
      • New station
    • Ashland (Orange Line, Heritage Corridor, possible Ashland BRT)
      • New station combined with existing facility
    • Halsted/Bridgeport (Orange Line, Heritage Corridor)
      • New station combined with existing facility
    • Cermak/Chinatown (Red Line, Rock Island District)
      • New station combined with existing facility
    • Blue Island-new ‘Union Station’ (Rock Island District, Metra Electric)
      • New ‘Union Station’, single station facility for all trains through Blue Island
    • New Lenox (Rock Island District, Southwest Service)
      • Move existing station and build as new transfer station
  • Increase Metra Service: Although I didn’t include commuter rail in my calculations, increasing Metra service is a cheaper alternative to building ‘L’ lines. The infrastructure already exists. The key is making this increase along with other improvements. Metra mustn’t necessarily increase service system wide either. The North Central Service, for example, might not support more service beyond it’s O’Hare station, but increased runs might make it a good option for people going to the Loop, thus increase service just between the O’Hare Transfer and Union Station. This also serves more densely population Northwest Side neighborhoods with less transit access. Another well-discussed and obvious candidate for service increase is the Metra Electric.

These are simple proposals. Some cost more than others, but they’re not radical. They’re proven to make travel on transit more comfortable, convenient, and seamless. The only thing that is radical about this is the needed political will to implement it. That often is missing or undercut by competing interest. To improve transit in Chicagoland a concerted effort needs to be made to increase ridership within the existing service and infrastructure and take advantage of the gains made by increased revenue from fares. Then let’s get to those big extensions. There is nothing that says a system the size of Chicago’s should have the low ridership it does.

I’m a Cyclist, I’m Entitled, And Rightfully So

I’m a cyclist. My bike is one of my primary modes of transportation and just about a day doesn’t go by that I don’t hop on it.

I’m a cyclist, and I also feel entitled, and frankly rightfully so.

My sense of entitlement stands in direct opposition to what many public commentators in the media (in Chicago particularly) are saying about cyclists. They deem cyclists as reckless and dangerous. We’re whinny troublesome people who get in the way of cars and put drivers and pedestrians at risk. We’re entitled and only because we’re Millennials or environmentalists or some other hollow insult. (Are those insults?)

Well, I’m one of these Millennial, environmentally and health conscious jerks and I feel entitled and there is a lot of good reason for me to feel that way.

I find it ridiculous that I have to write this in the first place, but I feel entitled to bike, because like everybody else I helped pay for roads and transportation infrastructure and I should be able to use them as I see fit without having to fight for a place. Yes, cyclists don’t pay as directly or consistently for roads through things like user fees or through the gas tax, but cyclists still do pay. Few cyclists are mono-modal meaning many of us still drive or ride in cars. That is not to mention the other array of taxes cyclists still pay.

My choice mode also costs a hell of a lot less than driving. Let’s just talk infrastructure for a moment: for example, the average cost for one mile of bike lanes is about $130-150,000 (let’s stick with 150K), while one traffic lane-mile of generic highway (read: road) costs just shy of $1.4 million to build (let alone maintain). So yeah, $150,000 for one mile of bike lane might sound expensive, but consider 10 miles of bike lanes could be build for the average cost of just one lane mile of new road in Illinois. Bicycles have much less impact on roads too, so that $150,000 goes a lot further than money used for roads.

Then there are the externalities! Every time I get on my bike I am one less driver on the road, that is, I am one less cause for more congestion. I am one less automobile causing pollution of the kind that is locally and globally impactful. I am causing less noise. I am one more person staying in better shape and staying healthier than if I was constantly sitting idle in a car. Those costs are seldom addressed and easily ignored, but eventually we all end up paying for them.

I feel entitled, because I am entitled to feel safe on the road regardless of whether I’m walking, biking, or driving. I am tired of getting on a bike and having to constantly feel like I am battling to stay safe. I feel entitled to my safety and an equitable distribution of resources, because I also know my choices have hugely positive effects and I want that fucking acknowledged already! I want that acknowledged by government, by people in cars, the general public, and by people who are paid to write ridiculous articles about things they don’t understand.

I want it fucking acknowledged that our driving culture isn’t inevitable, because a lot of other cities have people biking–a lot. And in a city as flat as Chicago it is insane that we don’t have more people riding. Bike lanes do indeed take space on roads (but cars use a lot more). And, if we have people bike at the rate they do in Amsterdam (22-40% of trips), Copenhagen (26-37% of trips), or Osaka (25% of trips)–a city as big as Chicago–you simply need less space for cars. Things even out. Alas, according to City Clock Magazine Chicago’s highest average percentage of trips by bike is a measly 1.7%. San Francisco, a city defined by hills, is almost double this. Minneapolis, a city defined by winter, is even higher than San Francisco.

Obviously something is wrong. The visibly obvious problem is the lack of infrastructure. Weather could be a problem, but that doesn’t make sense when we consider the Twin Cities. Clearly there is amore deeply rooted rot in our car culture that denigrates anybody else in harmful ways.

So yeah, I’m a cyclist. I’m entitled and rightfully so. Get over it.