An Open Letter: Stop Trying to Draw Tourists to Chicago

An Open Letter to Mr. Laurence Geller and Mr. Lou Raizin:

As a Chicagoan, I appreciate the investments you make in the city and the work you continue to do to improve Chicago. Your newest venture however concerns me. The concept you’ve recently proposed–a 17-story aerial gondola from Navy Pier to the South Branch of the Chicago River–is quite frankly a dumb idea. Sorry for raining on this parade, but building tourist traps should not be a priority for the city, now or ever. While tourism can play an important part in a city’s economy the responsibility of government and civic leaders should be the well-being of the city first and visitors second. Indeed, a healthy and vibrant city for residents is a healthy and vibrant city for visitors.

Let’s begin with a little anecdote: When I first visited London in the winter of 2012 I asked a hostel employee working the desk for interesting recommendations. They were local and I figured their opinion about do’s and don’t’s in London would be best. Their immediate answer was this: Avoid the London Eye. Don’t ride it. Don’t pay for it. And if you can, don’t even go near it. Enjoy it from a distance sure, but otherwise it’s best to stay away.

I hadn’t even brough up the Eye and this was the unsolicited response I got. The Eye in the eyes of the average Londoner was the tourist trap of tourists traps. As the hostel employee put it “you’ll pay 30 pound, see everything in the first five minutes and then awkwardly spend 25 minutes with total strangers in a pod.”

How apropos that the designers of the Eye are on your consultation team.

Let’s heed this warning though. Tourists traps can draw visitors, but how often do they add to a city’s actual quality of life and the experiences of residents? While I acknowledge the importance with which you view tourism as part of Chicago’s economy I would hope that you would focus more on quality than gimmicks. Great cities draw visitors (and residents) not because of the potential to ride a ferris wheel or gondola, but by virtue of them being great cities. Keep this in mind. I’m not here to be a NIMBY, but rather a QIMBY (QUALITY In My BackYard).

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As you move forward to improve the tourist experience and draw to Chicago ask yourself: How will these gondolas also serve and benefit the people who actually live in Chicago? A gondola system itself is not a bad idea. Your proposed gondola system is a bad and unnecessary idea however, because it doesn’t add to the experience of living in Chicago and only serves tourists (assuming its succesful). On the other hand proposals for gondolas in Washington, D.C. and New York City both show how they have the potential to become integral parts to a city’s public transportation network while also serving tourists. Because they’re right for some cities doesn’t mean they’re right for all cities though.

You have put forward some great ideas that shouldn’t be overlooked for gondolas. These are the ones we should move forward; this includes working with the Lyric Opera to organize summer time open air operas on the river. This adds to the experience of being a Chicagoan by providing residents (and tourists) greater access to culture, while also raising the profile of one of the city’s great cultural institutions. This is an investment that enriches people’s lives and creates good jobs, not just any jobs. (I can only assume many of the jobs associated with a gondola would be rather low quality service sector jobs.)

Work with what Chicago has and use your influence, money, and minds to reinforce and improve these assets. How can we make Chicago’s theater and comedy scene stronger? How can we support the Chicago Architecture Biennale, which focuses on our great architectural heritage? How can we protect that heritage!? How can we improve the museums we already have (which are ample and amazing) before courting new ones? What transit projects should we support that help residents and tourists alike get around? What makes people want to not just visit a city, but live there too? These are the questions to ask.

So, I appreciate and encourage the enthusiasm, but don’t let it get the better of you and become a glittery distraction. People didn’t start visiting London because of the Eye, they visited and continue to visit London, because it’s an amazing city.

Yours,

Michael

 

 

Don’t Forget the Boulevards (Just a Reminder)

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Plan of Chicago 1909 (source: afterburnham.com)

Since I first wrote about better utilizing Chicago’s boulevards for biking much has in Chicago: new rails-to-trails projects are being planned in in Pilsen, Little Village and Englewood, Divvy is expanding, and curbed protected bike lanes are finally making an appearance. Additionally, the city announced plans for 50 miles of new “low stress” bike lanes (often the same as barrier-protected bike lanes, or PBLs), thus swapping quantity for quality. In spite of all this though, the boulevards still don’t seem to be getting any love? Progress is being made in terms of biking, but then again, just focusing on this mode undercuts the potential for the entire boulevard system.

Chicago’s boulevards are an amazing piece of infrastructure that are sadly under utilized. Beginning in Logan Square at Western Ave. on the North Side, the system of boulevards and squares connects some of Chicago’s most important parks and numerous neighborhoods and the lakefront at Jackson Park while creating an arch around the city’s core.

The product of Daniel Burnham’s vision for Chicago and archetypal urban design of the city beautiful movement, the boulevards currently fall flat. Unlike in European cities like Paris or Vienna, which also have famous boulevards, Chicago’s are a quiet affair with light traffic of all kinds, even in popular neighborhoods like Logan Square where the focus is Milwaukee Avenue.

Humboldt Blvd Looking South (Source: Google Maps)

Humboldt Boulevard looking south towards the 606 is virtually empty. (Source: Google Maps)

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A segment of the Vienna Ring Boulevard (Ringstraße); the Ring is broken into different segments for its entire length, which includes bike and pedestrian lanes, streetcar lanes, and traffic lanes each lined with trees. (Source: Michael Podgers)

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This boulevard in Lisbon, Portugal features an attractive park-median with a variety of usable spaces. (Source: travelvivi.com)

Aside from the incorporation of the boulevards into some transportation plans such as the Active Transportation Alliance’s Bikeways For All or the Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) Cycling for 2020 as well as smaller, localized concepts there is currently no guide specifically addressing the boulevards.

A plan for the boulevards is overdue.

The boulevards are one of the best, overlooked assets in Chicago, but they offer so much more. They can’t be treated as mere elements of other plans and projects though, because that undercuts the potential for how the city can utilize them. What makes the boulevards unique is how well they can be used as public spaces, green space, and corridors of active transportation. This needs to be viewed in a way that takes in the boulevards’ full extent. A complete program could radically change the character of the city.

Chicago Blvd System (Source: Google Maps)

Chicago’s boulevards make arc around the Loop and connect Logan Square on the Northwest Side to Hyde Park and Lake Michigan on the South Side via Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, Washington Park, and Jackson Park.

Although over time piecemeal changes to the boulevards could change a lot, a master plan would help bring about cohesive change to how they’re used in a way that allows for more radical ideas to be examined and potentially carried through. This includes everything from road diets along the boulevards to improving recreational spaces along the system, building kiosks for cafés and other small businesses to developing an advanced boulevard based transportation system like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or streetcars.

Michigan v Ohio State

Here’s an idea of how big one football field is, in case like me, you couldn’t visualize it. (Source: buckeyesnews.com)

What such changes would look like varies depending on the segment of boulevard in question. Humboldt Blvd between Palmer Square and Humboldt Park is a good candidate for conversion to green space for example. It’s wide, but underused express lanes are little more than speedways, while the local lanes serve real purpose. Converting these four lanes (approximate width 10 feet per lane and about 0.7 miles long) into green space would add 147,480 ft 2 or 3.4 acres (or, two and a half football fields) of new parkland to the city.

This is only one segment of the boulevard system though and is a project that functions in relative isolation from the rest of the system. As a transportation corridor, the boulevards still hold real potential both unto themselves and as parts of other city projects. On Western Blvd. for example, the double-wide layout from 31st to 55th streets could be used for building out a BRT network that would eventually extend the entire length of Western Ave. (in addition to an Ashland BRT route of course). This roughly three-mile long segment has potential other redesign options, but would be a good place for a starter BRT route.

Another example of this is the potential of the boulevards to be used for reintroducing the streetcar to Chicago. A route following Garfield Blvd./55th St. from Hyde Park to Midway has great potential for success for multiple reasons a particular one being the ability to build dedicated lanes due to the available space on the boulevards. Four miles of a 9 mile route from the Museum of Science and Industry to Midway could easily be built with dedicated lanes (critical for developing a successful streetcar network) and another 1 mile of dedicated lanes could be shared with BRT on either Western or Ashland avenues.

Chicago Blvds (Source: Michael Podgers)

The boulevards offer the potential to introduce new transportation modes to Chicago and experiment with other urban planning/design concepts not widely seen in the city yet. (Source: Google Maps, Michael Podgers)

This doesn’t even speak to the ability to build a “Circle Line” along the boulevards using streetcars rather than a new ‘L’ line, which would be significantly more expensive. It’s too bad discussing the boulevards’ future isn’t part of a very active conversation about Chicago’s future. The boulevards and streetcars are not included as part of the Active Transportation Alliance’s Transit Future campaign and Chicago Streetcar Renaissance has focused on starter lines along Clark St., Lake Shore Drive, and in the Loop. A 55th/63rd Hyde Park to Midway streetcar would be a huge asset to the South Side and probably a heavily used route considering it would connect three ‘L’ lines, the South Shore Line, Metra Electric and all of it to Midway.

Regardless of what’s included a plan for the boulevards is necessary. All of the boulevards have the space to facilitate the easy and unobtrusive construction of better bike and pedestrian infrastructure and transit infrastructure not to mention improve accessibility to public green spaces also. Such types of complete streets and seamless modal connectivity is what advocates are calling for in Chicago, but the conversation keeps overlooking a critical asset in establishing these things. Fundamentally, the boulevards are not being capitalized on.

Stepping back and acknowledging what the boulevards can be in Chicago alters the role they play in the city’s structure. Not only are they visually lovely elements of early American urban planning, they’re spaces ripe for improved infrastructure and experimentation with projects so far unseen in the city.

 

Chicago International: The region needs an aviation Master Plan (and here are some ideas to go with it)

The O’Hare Modernization Plan (OMP) has been the cause of great excitement over the future of one of the most important airports in America and of a great PR disaster once residents began experiencing the resultant jet noise. Planning for the future of O’Hare will never be an easy feat; it has to remain competitive, but grow in highly constrained conditions. Planning O’Hare’s future occurs in an irresponsible vacuum though. Any future planning must be fashioned in relation to external elements at Midway Airport on Chicago’s Southwest Side and increasingly in relation to a potential third airport in the region. At this point an aviation master plan for Chicago is needed. The development of one would be a huge boon for the city as it would probably coalesce a number of transportation and economic planning projects into one more cohesive vision of future transportation in the region.

Earlier this spring, the Chicago Tribune ran a multi-page feature by transportation columnist Jon Hilkevitch comparing O’Hare with Shanghai’s Changi Airport--a tale of two airports–and it wasn’t a pretty picture of O’Hare. It ate away at the brief joy that followed O’Hare’s renewed position as the busiest airport in the world based on take-offs and landings and did a lot to remind Chicagoans that while we may be home to a great and important airport, we’re also home to one that needs a lot of work to catch up with international rivals in terms of quality customer experience. Indeed, the article opened the flood gates for renewed debates about the airport’s multimodal connections as well. One of the worst problems facing O’Hare’s future and ability to perform doesn’t even seem to be O’Hare’s problem per se, rather a fundamental lack of regionalized planning in relation to aviation.

Much of the problem lies in the competition for tax dollars between the states of Illinois and Indiana. The obvious, although oft ignored, site for a third airport in Chicagoland is Gary. Located just southeast of the Loop, Gary/Chicago airport could easily be transformed into a commercial airport. A soon to be completed extension of its main runway (one of two) will push that potential future. Tax dollars generated from this plan (which a city like Gary could use) wouldn’t benefit Illinois as directly though, and so the proposal for an airport in far south suburban Peotone was born. It will never be built. If anything it has merely diverted attention away from actually achieving anything like a functional third airport serving Chicago.

A bi-state, region-wide master plan for how to grow and support Chicagoland’s aviation industry has to be the next step. And it can’t ignore Gary.

Granted, the funding for such a project might be hard to come by considering the current fiscal and political situation in Illinois, it is nonetheless well within the realm of possibility and could be absorbed into the work of existing organizations, both public and private. Ideally, such a plan will scrap pie in the sky ideas like the Peotone airport, which will probably die alongside the Illiana Tollroad, which is failing to get the support former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn may have hoped for (you can sign a petition here against it), and focus on reasonable alternatives. (Like Gary/Chicago.) The plan can’t focus just on the distribution of air traffic at regional airports though. In reality it would probably be wiser to look at such a master plan more as an intermodal transportation plan aiming to improve how people get in and out of the region.

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Gary/Chicago Airport seen from the air with the Chicago skyline in the background. The airport is extending its main runway west. The terminal facilities are on the north end of the airport and the South Shore Line runs just to its south.

Wisely, proposals to turn Gary/Chicago airport into a functioning commercial airport includes the development of a multi-modal transit center adjacent to the airport where connections could be made to coach buses, Amtrak intercity trains, and the South Shore line (an interurban running between Chicago and South Bend, IN). Future growth in this area would have to include high-speed rail and the potential for new services offered by the South Shore Line or Metra. Indeed, future development of a regional rail systems around the proposed CrossRail Chicago may include a modern airport rail link similar to ones in London, Beijing, and soon Toronto, that connects regional airports to Chicago’s Loop central business district and the three main airports themselves.

Such a plan would likely woo the support of multiple organizations and communities looking to improve transportation options in the region and multimodal connectivity. Gary/Chicago has also already won the support of the City of Chicago, which according to a summary produced to assess the viability of commercial operations at Gary/Chicago included fiscal support from Chicago. Investing in a viable third airport is certainly in the city’s interests too and something that plays into recently re-elected Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push for growth in tourism in the city and maintenance of the city’s strong convention industry. Much of that of course revolves around how well O’Hare can perform. How a third airport would affect O’Hare needs to be seriously considered too, because this could vastly change how the facility functions and brings the airlines O’Hare into the conversation much more.

One upshot of a third Chicago airport is that it increases air traffic capacity in Chicago. Again, the reason why Gary remains such a strong contender is proximity to Chicago and the potential for strong transportation connections. A master plan though could help do more than just make a plan to increase capacity, but change air traffic movements in a masterful way. O’Hare would regardless remain Chicagoland’s primary airport and international gateway.

With growing interest from large international air service providers such as Air New Zealand and Philippine Air too how travels move through the airport is going to be as important if not more important than how many enter and leave. Codeshare agreements play a big role in this, because they make it incredibly easy to connect between flights on different airlines. A master plan might work to guiding a future reconfiguration of O’Hare that includes organization of airlines based on their airline alliance and in the current three domestic* terminals and international terminal, much like Miami International. For example one could be given over to the Star Alliance, one to SkyTeam and to Oneworld. In the latter case that would put American Airlines (AA) in the same terminal as Air Berlin, BA, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, JAL, Qatar Airways, and Royal Jordanian, or the easy movement of passengers from international flights to domestic connecting flights on AA without the need to change terminals.

This would likely be best achieved by moving operations of one or more smaller airlines to Gary/Chicago from O’Hare not only giving it commercial viability, but allowing it to support itself beyond use as a center of charter and infrequently scheduled services, as recommended in the summary mentioned above from 2010. What that means for O’Hare though is fewer passengers, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Increasingly in-airport comforts are drivers of an airports success and fewer passengers means more room to expand food and shopping options as well as entertainment and relaxation options.

It’s normal to hear news cycles about O’Hare’s ranking as an airport in the United States. And it’s great to be able to boast that the busiest airport in America is here, but quantity and quality are vastly different things. Great as it is that O’Hare is busy, the quality of the experience increasingly is a big a player in an airport’s desirability factor. But, it should also be considered that O’Hare and Midway collectively account for more than 90 million passenger movements a year and taken together would mean Chicago is the world’s second busiest airport. Improving transportation options and intermodal connections across the board and the region could become one of the busiest transportation centers anywhere in the world, if it isn’t already. A master plan is essential to guide that growth and development though. Smart decisions shouldn’t be held back by political boosterism, truly conceivable plans are there (they just need a push), and at the end of the day sometimes quality trumps quantity and by leaps and bounds.