clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How did Mayor Rahm Emanuel change transportation?

New, 10 comments

After eight years, Chicago is a more walkable and bikeable city. Parts of it, at least.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on a CTA bus.
City of Chicago

Say what you want about the man who leaves Chicago’s top job this month after eight years (and his critics surely do), but Rahm Emanuel notched a number of notable achievements in terms of improving sustainable transportation, new-and-improved infrastructure, and traffic safety. Driving a car in Chicago isn’t radically different than it was the pre-Rahm days, but it’s certainly easier and more pleasant to walk and bike in the city in 2019.

Richard M. Daley, Rahm’s predecessor, talked a good game about improving Chicago’s bikeability—he first mentioned importing bike-sharing after witnessing Paris’s Velib system way back in 2007. But Daley’s legacy in terms of transportation was ultimately shameful: the privatized parking meter boondoggle, the scandalous red-light camera program built on a $2 million bribery scheme, and deteriorating roads, bridges, and CTA lines.

It was notably the Emanuel administration—not Daley’s—who launched the Divvy bike share system, built or renovated 40 L stations, finished the new-and-improved Riverwalk, revamped the 18-mile Lakefront Trail, and approved 200 miles of bike lanes.

“The city has gone through a complete transformation since eight years ago,” said former Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein. “If you live there sometimes you’re not as aware... I think we made so much change so fast that even citizens were cognizant of just how much things evolved—especially in terms of biking.”

Klein isn’t exactly an objective source. After all, he was Emanuel’s first CDOT czar and the brains behind the Divvy deal and some of the other ambitious projects during the mayor’s first term. But Klein’s not alone in giving Emanuel relatively high marks.

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke, a member of mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot’s transportation and infrastructure transition committee, also praised the mayor for his work making transportation greener and better.

“On the whole, the city has significantly improved when it comes to accommodating walking, biking, and rail transit over the mayor’s eight years,” said Burke.

That’s not to say Chicago has become a transit utopia. As Sharon Feigon, founder and the executive director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center, noted, the upgrades in the last decade have tended to favor the area near the Loop and Near North Side.

“Things have favored downtown, it’s an economic development strategy—but it’s left a lot undone. It’s shocking to me to see that the South and West sides are still heavily disinvested from the riots in the ’60s,” said Feigon. “There’s still plenty of work to be done.”

Here’s a rundown of transportation highlights (and low lights) in the age of Rahm.

The launch of Divvy bike-share

When the city rolled out the Divvy program in the summer of 2013, many locals balked at the price tag (nearly $28 million—mostly covered by federal funds) of the public partnership with bike-share operator Motivate and the idea of clueless tourists clogging the streets with clunky powder-blue bikes. Divvy certainly looked like a bust at first, but a steady series of improvements and expansions over the last six years has gradually turned the service into an essential part of the city’s transportation infrastructure.

The recent deal with Motivate’s new owners Lyft raised eyebrows because it gives the tech giant monopoly power for the next nine years and a lion’s share of future revenue, but in exchange, the service will expand to 16,500 bikes at 800 stations around the city by 2021, and new “electric pedal-assist” bikes with new mechanisms that will allow them to be locked at regular bike racks.

“It’s a big success,” says Burke. “It’s the biggest bike share in the country in terms of geographic footprint, and with Lyft, it’s going to expand even more.”

More bike lanes

Since 2011, over 200 new miles of bikeways have been added throughout the city—including 23.5 miles of protected bike lanes, and 106 miles of buffered bike lanes, says CDOT. In December, the Chicago Park District completed its two-year plan to separate the biking and pedestrian sections of the 18-mile Lakefront Trail. At the end of 2018, the agency finished a section of the $60 million Navy Pier Flyover. Plus, two bike-friendly bridges opened on the South Side (43rd and 31st Street Bridges) over Lake Shore Drive to improve access to the trail.

“I’m proud of what we did and what the city continues to do when it comes to biking,” says Klein.

On the other hand, Chicago’s progress on bike-friendly infrastructure is slipping a bit. In 2016, Chicago was ranked the best biking city by Bicycling Magazine but dropped to #6 in 2018 because of a serious shortfall of protected bike lanes (just 3.75 miles built between 2016 and 2018).

Red Line’s 95th Street terminal.
Chicago Transit Authority

Modernized CTA trains

In eight years, more than 40 CTA stations got constructed, rebuilt, or rehabbed, including the new Washington-Wabash station and a modern-looking refurbish of the Green Line at Cermak-McCormick Place. Bonus: $4 million in track improvements on the Red Line at Addison station in anticipation of the $2.1 billion Red and Purple Modernization project to rebuild the century-old lines north of Belmont.

“[Emanuel] played a significant role in landing federal dollars to get new stations,” said Burke.

The downside? The proposed 5.3-mile Red Line extension is still far from realized—which means far south siders are still underserved. And instead of beefing up Blue Line service from the Loop to O’Hare, Emanuel opted to make a deal with tech mogul Elon Musk to construct a high-speed “Tesla-in-a-tunnel” transportation system known as O’Hare Express that his successor may kill.

“I thought the best idea was to invest in the existing Blue Line system and make it as high-quality and fast as possible,” said Klein. “I don’t know if [Musk] totally understands how cities work. I feel like there’s a bit of a suburban mindset in terms of moving cars through tunnel.”

Feigon is also mystified at the lack of CTA integration with the underutilized Metra rail commuter system. “There’s close to 80 Metra stops in the city of Chicago, these agencies should connect.”

A more walkable riverfront

Emanuel focused on improving parks and expanding spaces for outdoor recreation. The downtown Chicago Riverwalk is the most notable example. The 1.25 mile path has turned into a mini-entertainment district complete with alfresco dining, summertime bars, and more access to boats. In his last week, Emanuel completed the newest section, Riverwalk East, which brings the path all the way to Lake Shore Drive.

Likewise, the $95 million Bloomingdale Trail, once an elevated railroad viaduct is now a landscaped parkland that’s stellar for walking and biking. Arguably, the 606 is almost too successful, it’s spurred hyper-gentrification along the 2.7-mile trail. It’s a lesson the city is trying to learn from while building the El Paseo rails-to-trails project in Pilsen and Little Village.

The bus system has room for improvement

The $41 million Loop Link debuted at the end of 2015 with red bus lanes, raised boarding platforms, and other amenities meant to speed up bus service downtown, so far, the reviews have been mixed and buses aren’t much faster yet.

In general, the bus system has been a growing problem under the Emanuel administration. Bus service mileage has declined more than 20 percent from the early 2000s—including 3.5 percent in 2017. It’ll likely stay that way until city adds more express buses, pre-board payments, more dedicated bus lanes, and ways to decrease car traffic, says Burke.

“There are lots of reasons why it’s dropping but it’s a troubling trend,” he said.

Klein says he’s encouraged by Lightfoot’s proposal to increase BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) outside of the Loop. “Hopefully under a new mayor, they’ll be able to move that forward. Chicago has a great bus network but it could be better.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to show that the Washington-Wabash station was not the first new L stop in 20 years. The Morgan Green Line station opened in 2012.