Time for a sustainable revolution | On Transportation | Chicago Reader

Time for a sustainable revolution 

Chicago’s new wave of aldermen discuss transportation goals.

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click to enlarge Alderman Daniel La Spata with First Ward staffer Allison Carvalho - FIRST WARD
  • Alderman Daniel La Spata with First Ward staffer Allison Carvalho
  • First Ward

These are heady times in Chicago. We recently inaugurated Lori Lightfoot as our first black, female, and openly gay mayor, and she immediately signed an executive order to end aldermanic privilege. That dubious tradition has allowed City Council members to veto good projects within their wards, including sustainable transportation initiatives.

With the latest round of federal indictments against once-powerful 14th Ward boss Ed Burke—the council's last remaining member of the Vrdolyak 29, the bloc of mostly white aldermen who fought the racially charged Council Wars against Mayor Harold Washington—Burke appears to be on his way out of City Hall and on to prison.

And 12 new aldermen joined the council last month, including five open Democratic Socialists, joining incumbent 35th Ward rep and Democratic Socialists of America member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, which means that a full 12 percent of the 50 council seats are now held by DSA-endorsed politicians. There's a spirit of change in the air.

As such, this would be a great time for a sustainable transportation revolution in Chicago. Lightfoot's transportation platform and statements suggest that she's on the right page on these issues. She's committed to budgeting $20 million a year for walking and biking, promised to implement several strategies to speed up buses, proposed sensible ride- hailing regulations, and indicated that she will kill Rahm Emanuel and Elon Musk's O'Hare Express vaporware boondoggle.

To get a better sense of what other improvements for walking, biking, and transit are in store, I reached out to the dozen freshman aldermen to ask about their transportation priorities, and several got back to me by press time. Here's what's on their to-do lists.

Daniel La Spata, First Ward

Before incumbent alderman Proco Joe Moreno was charged with filing a false stolen vehicle report and insurance fraud last month, he had a reputation for pushing the envelope on transportation, advocating for dockless bike-sharing, Car2go point-to-point car-share, and dockless electric scooters. La Spata, a Democratic Socialist who says he makes 95 percent of his trips on foot, bike, or transit, promises to continue promoting outside-the-box transportation solutions in the near-northwest-side ward, but hopefully without the shady personal dealings.

High on La Spata's list of goals is improving the district's miserable "D" rating for bus service in the Active Transportation Alliance's recent Bus Friendly Streets Report Cards study. In particular, he wants to boost speeds on the popular but sluggish #66 Chicago Avenue route.

La Spata said he's looking forward to the Chicago Department of Transportation's upcoming protected bike lane project on Milwaukee Avenue (nicknamed the Hipster Highway for its heavy bicycle traffic) between Sacramento and Western in Logan Square.

He's also excited about Active Trans' proposal to create a safer bike and pedestrian route between Logan and Lathrop Homes through improvements to Logan Boulevard and Diversey. "As a cyclist, [transitioning between] Diversey and Logan can be pretty treacherous, so I would love to see something really strong happen there," he told me.

Felix Cardona Jr., 31st Ward

This pro-union candidate, a former staffer for controversial ex-Cook County assessor Joseph Berrios, defeated incumbent Milly Santiago. She was famous for defending her right as "a poor alderman" to receive free Cubs tickets.

Cardona said he's hopeful that recent shared-mobility technology can help fill in the gaps in the transportation network for residents of his northwest-side district, which has no direct CTA el access. "The 31st Ward is in desperate need of sustainable transportation, and that is why my administration, in conjunction with CDOT, is working to bring [Car2go] and Divvy stations to our neighborhoods." He also noted that the ward will be included in this summer's dockless scooter pilot. "I'm excited to be introducing these initiatives and more to our residents who need more transit options."

Samantha Nugent, 39th Ward

This former employee of ex-Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan won the far-north-side seat vacated by incumbent Margaret Laurino, the architect of Chicago's common-sense ordinance against using a cell phone when biking.

In addition to improving CTA and Metra service in the ward, Nugent said she's jazzed to be working with CDOT to fill in the roughly 1.5-mile gap between the North Branch Trail and the North Shore Channel Trail. "Connecting the trails along the two forks of the river and integrating existing paths near Gompers Park and Eugene Field Park will create a new transportation opportunity for cyclists and pedestrians," she said.

In the long term, Nugent hopes to help link up the North Branch Trail with the existing Sauganash/Valley Line Trail and Lincolnwood's Union Pacific Recreation Path, aka the Weber Spur Trail.

Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward

It was a sign of the times when Vasquez, a Democratic Socialist and former battle rapper, defeated 36-year incumbent and Vrdolyak 29 member Patrick O'Connor, a symbol of the old Chicago machine. One of the alderman's top priorities is encouraging transit-oriented development (TOD) around the recently funded Edgewater Metra station, slated for Peterson and Ravenswood Avenues, according to ward policy director Geoffrey Cubbage.

But after witnessing the high-end TOD boom along Milwaukee Avenue, which has been blamed for accelerating the displacement of longtime Logan Square residents, "We want to maintain affordability and make sure that residents and businesses that have been in the community for years are able to remain in the neighborhood," Cubbage said.

Vasquez will also be overseeing CDOT's plan to improve Lawrence Avenue from Western to the Chicago River—which includes wider sidewalks and upgraded bike lanes—scheduled for construction next year.

Matt Martin, 47th Ward

In the contest to replace outgoing alderman Ameya Pawar, civil rights lawyer Martin faced off against Emanuel ally Michael Negron. (That meant that when you added an "i" to the end of either candidate's surname, you got the name of a classic gin cocktail.)

Pawar pioneered the city's first "neighborhood greenway" on Berteau Avenue, and Martin said he wants to build more of these traffic-calmed side-street bike routes, as well as protected bike lanes on business streets.

On a macro scale, Martin said, "Chicago needs to step up its game and roll out many more miles of dedicated bus lanes." While he said he'd be happy to get bus lanes on Western in his relatively affluent ward, "we would support prioritizing such lanes to improve connectivity and access to downtown jobs and economic opportunities for our city's most marginalized communities first."

Likewise, while Martin supports bringing more TOD to the area, he wants it to be affordable rather than upscale. "Because transportation has become a commodity marketed to wealthier residents in this city, we must ensure, through zoning stewardship in our own ward as well as through citywide policies, that Chicago's most marginalized residents are the first to benefit from expanded access to transportation."   v

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