The City: What a Winter Wonderland

When I tell Viennese about the regular amounts of snow that accumulate in Chicago they enviously bemoan the frequent lack of snow in Vienna (it’s not always missing, but enough so to be surprising in the capital of a ski crazed country). While Chicagoans moan about the winter there are places where its welcomed. We must be doing something wrong to not realize what other cities already have: The season offers ample opportunities for recreation and fun that are worth exploring.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of Viennese locals who dislike the winter and also skiing (and plenty who oddly enough love skiing, but they hate winter). A noticeable difference exists between how people approach winter here and in Chicago however, and part of this certainly seems correlated to the potential for exercise and outdoor activities, which aren’t limited to mountainous sports. Before Christmas, markets proliferate and some transition into outdoor bars adjoining skating rinks in January. By February the festivities start again as Fasching (Germanic Mardi Gras) roars into life.

A little research (the Project For Public Spaces provides a solid outline for strong public spaces in the winter) and anecdotal experience reveals even cities with extreme winter conditions like Montréal, the Twin Cities, and Edmonton view winter as less an impediment, but in many cases an asset. Chicago, as do many other cold weather cities, has plenty of room to grow.

And yeah, when it comes down to it, the most pressing solution to Chicago’s (and many other Metropolises’) winter woes is getting the city to impactfully enforce snow clearance policies, and really begin ticketing offenders, but as immediate as that would be felt though (it’s a well documented issue) it alone won’t get us through the winter.

So, what can be done?

  • Let’s start by maximizing on winter proof infrastructure. Chicago’s under
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    Montréal’s Ville Souterraine (Underground City) is an example for other cold weather cities to reflect. While Chicago likely can’t (and shouldn’t) mimic this scale it remains a good model to build on.

    utilized downtown underground pedway system comes to mind. It connects Loop transportation, government offices, shopping, and entertainment without requiring one step outside, yet many Chicagoans don’t realize it exists. It remains difficult to navigate and closes early. Simple improvements to navigability, place making, and better shopping, and aesthetic improvements could do the trick.

  • It goes without saying changes to transit infrastructure include very practical ‘winter proofing’ ranging from more and better bus shelters plus more heated shelters. And, it probably wouldn’t be in the city’s worst interest to promote design recommendations for new and renovated ‘L’ station that protect against the harshest aspects of Chicago’s winters (read: biting wind). The new Cermack-McCormack Place Green Line stop for example has a stately shed helps keep passengers more comfortable in all kinds of weather without sacrificing design.

Let’s not forget that we need a reason to get out and about in the first place.

  • Even with the help of God (Ditka), Chicago can’t make the Alps out the of flat expanse of the Great Plaines, so let’s not hold out for great skiing. Still there are many mountain-less winter sports (Skijoring anybody?). Maybe, HOCKEY! Encouraging kids and adults alike to don skates and hit the ice should be no task here. Meanwhile, establishing a little league outdoor hockey à la summer baseball leagues gets kids staying active outdoors all year. Imagine, a little league championship in Millennium Park below the Bean every February.

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    Okay, so maybe we won’t get much urban cross country skiing on city streets, but the sport shouldn’t be excluded from urban forest preserves and bike trails.

  • Forest preserves certainly have to be a part of this winter wonderland. Many are criss-crossed by off-street bike trails and while keeping street routes clear in winter remains important, these mostly recreational trails could instead be maintained as cross country ski routes, thus diversifying the types of sports available to Chicagoans all year.
  • New projects by forest preserve and park districts (done right) could also increase green/natural space and recreational opportunities. New land near existing preserves could be acquired for expansion and also to build things like artificial hills for public skiing and in the summer mountain biking; meanwhile, land for new forests, prairies, and flood plains can double as snow mobile trails in winter and hiking paths in the summer.
  • But none of these activities are half as fun without food or drink. Chicago does a great job during for the holiday season with the German Christkindlmarkt. Add the festive air and people want to be outside. It’s a concept to capitalize on! This ranges from neighborhood holiday markets, to scaled down markets serving the essentials (warm food and drinks), to markets in parks with ice skating rinks, or vendors to substitute where parklets go in the summer. These are the small attractions needed to establish winter outdoor gatherings spots.
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The Cathedral of St. Paul, all lit up and dressed up for the Crashed Ice competition, in St. Paul, MN. While some cities might use winter recreation opportunities as an excuse to expand green/natural areas others fully integrate them into their urban geography. (Source: Pioneer Press, Andy Rathbun)

There is good in taking the plunge (polar plunge?) and moving ahead with more winter programs: a happier and healthier community because of more year-round exercise, stronger community bounds developed through public gatherings, and the economic output resulting from new entrepreneurial opportunities and both seasonal and permanent jobs.

Plus, private enterprises can take part. Why not encourage an expansion of the NHL’s Winter Classic from only one game to two or three a season? What about regional version’s of the Winter Classic? Red Bull is known for sponsoring alternative sporting activities (ice boating competitions on Chicago’s frozen harbors anybody?).

A little effort and the winter becomes a much more bearable, indeed enjoyable, experience worth embracing. Many cold weather cities are already showing a great amount of creativity; and, getting into a positive mindset about winter is part of this move towards enjoying winter (something that can apparently get people in even the most extreme cities through). There’s no value in letting a pessimistic outlook get in the way creative experimentation.

At least I can think of one way to help pay for all this too: remember those tickets for enforcing shoveling…

The City as Democratic Tool

The city hasn’t seemed this fragile, nor this important in awhile. When terrorists struck Parisian on November 13, they struck the public realm, spaces people cherish as essential aspects of urban life: concert halls, stadiums, outdoor cafés and restaurants. Spaces deemed safe, where people gather, exchange ideas, share the communal fabric of urban life.

The city hasn’t seemed this fragile, nor this important in awhile. When the video of a Chicago police officer shooting and killing a young black man was released November 24, it chilled a city and was expected to spark riots. The latter hasn’t happened, but many Chicagoans have taken to the streets demanding accountability. These protestors are taking advantage of social media to spread the word, but they’re also taking advantage of an old school tactic to get their message heard: publicly disruptive protest.

While the responses are dramatically different, the public realm is playing a key role and an important one. While the attacks in Paris ignited a global effort to tackle ISIS/ISIL and plunged France into a state of emergency, the peaceful protests in Chicago come as a sigh of relief for many worried about more violence. In both cities the public is back in the streets. Some to protest, others just to live their lives; the unconcerned public has been inconvenienced; unrelated protest have been silenced. Cities are tools for democratic change by virtue of their essentially shared character, their publicness, and we need to protect that quality of our urban world. How the public use cities, or are forced to use cities, in these two examples stand as lessons for how we manage them in times of crisis big and small.

In Paris, many (are rightfully) questioning the pertinence of the government’s three month long state of emergency, which significantly increases police powers and limits freedoms like collective gathering and protest. France is of course known for it’s political protests and strikes, but what made the timing of these attacks important to consider is shortly after them global leaders would be gathering for the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) to hash out an international plan to slow the impact of climate change. It’s a ripe opportunity for the city famous for its protests to strike.

While protests occurred two weeks ago in front of important monuments shutdowns occurred in Paris. A march through the city was called off. Resistant marchers formed a human chain along the intended route to protest the ban on protests as well as slow action on climate change. Another protest featured lines of empty of shoes symbolic of the people unable to protest because of the restrictions on public gatherings. Over 200 arrests were made as well by what French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve descriped as “‘small minority’ who were bent on making trouble,” according the to the Los Angeles Times.

In Chicago, protests went ahead. They’ve blocked traffic off major streets in Chicago’s downtown and on Black Friday, the most important shopping day in the USA, protestors shut down traffic and disrupted shopping on Michigan Avenue, the city’s premier retail strip. Whether people liked it or not, the message was heard loud and clear. And on Wednesday, protestors blocked traffic outside Chicago City Hall and near the state of Illinois’ Chicago offices. All of this adjacent to Chicago’s beloved Christkindlmarkt. All this came a little late though. The actual shooting took place in October 2014 and is widely believed to have been covered up by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to protect his reelection for mayor in February 2015.

This is the power of protest. They’re defiantly taking over spaces seen as sacred, such as the Place de la République in Paris, where many memorials are in place for the victims of the November attacks, because they’re still public. They’re taking advantage of the fact that the public realm can’t be closed off in a democratic society and reinforcing that understanding even in the face of security threats. They’ve forced leaders into even more precarious (and telling) positions. They’re reminding us of the power of public protest in the public realm, a feature that is thoroughly urban.

The events in Paris and the events in Chicago are reminders that we can’t forget the significance of cities in our world and the power they offer the public if we learn how to utilize and protect them as tools for democratic change. Even in the face of terror, we can’t let our cities be closed off to protest, to public gatherings, to public life, to the voices of the people. When humanity gathers together great things can happen. Cities are a testament to that as is public protest. They go hand in hand.

Cities are old, much like collective government and both are truly becoming products of the modern era. They’ve both become bigger, more influential, more nuanced, and more complex. And cities are as important tools for democracy as ever. They offer the capacity for people to meet and interact, share ideas and, organize. They can’t be closed off like malls or subdivision and private estates. They’re shared. They’re for the public and by the public (for better or for worse). They’ve become so important for government, culture, and economy that any disruption can be widely felt. This feeds the power of collective gather, protest, and civil disobedience in cities.

For many in Paris, protests at the site of memorials for the attack’s victims was “shameful”. But isn’t shutting down public protest also shameful?  “The overwhelming majority of those assembled were nonviolent and peaceful,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity in a telephone interview to the Los Angeles Times. “But many wanted to march rather than stand still. For them, climate change is the most urgent crisis facing the world, and for the government to ban all protests was highly problematic.”

Cities are tumultuous places, but also puissant democratic tools that facilitate public gatherings and people power. In a New York Times report from November 17, Liz Alderman describes how the Eiffel Tower, such a potent symbol of Paris, a city so representative of what cities aspire to be, “was adorned with the Latin words ‘Fluctuat nec mergitur,’ the ancient slogan of Paris, which translates to ‘it is tossed by the waves but does not sink.'” These words are meaningful to so many cities and should perhaps be taken as a slogan for the concept of ‘city’ as whole. They seem fragile, but they’re important public tools and public spaces and we musn’t allow them to be stripped of these roles.

 

Chicago’s Path to a Pedestrianized City Center

Chicago’s history of pedestrianization is mixed. The troubled State Street mall still haunts contemporary efforts in spite of a handful of successes. Recently a number of transportation efforts and proposals have re-ignited a conversation about where, when and how to pedestrianize Chicago’s streets. The seedlings for a bigger pedestrianization have already been planted. A dense, concentrated core and flat landscape with transit access are important ingredients for pedestrianized cities and to an extent Chicago has it all. Now is the time for advocates and planners to really start putting concrete ideas forward; actual proposals that can get off the ground.

Most recently, John Greenfield over at Streetsblog Chicago reported on the government of Oslo’s proposal to pedestrianize its city center. While he makes it clear that he isn’t “advocating for an Oslo-style ban on private vehicles in downtown Chicago” he does discuss the need for a well-rounded and impactful conversation about a decrease in car infrastructure in the Loop.

“The city has already made some positive steps in that direction by repurposing asphalt in [the Loop] to make room for forward-thinking transit and bicycle projects [like the Loop Link],” Greenfield said in the article about Oslo’s plan. By converting even some traffic lanes to non-car uses makes streets safer and encourages more cycling and walking.

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A transit mall in Angers, France. Source: transportblog.co.nz

This includes the under construction Loop Link BRT, which is converting car lanes to bike and bus lanes as well as planning other concepts to lower car use in the Loop such as a congestion charge. That aside, it really shouldn’t be all that difficult to effectively pedestrianize part of Chicago’s Downtown in the next few years, even if it doesn’t include transit malls or pedestrian only streets (although those should be considered).

I have my fingers crossed the Loop Link and new bike lanes are well received. In the case they are, I firmly believe the city could ride that wave and therefore rapidly increase the number of bike lanes and bus rapid transit paths  downtown.

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The under construction Loop Link BRT will introduce new BRT and barrier protected bike lanes to Chicago’s Loop. These new transit improvements will increase travel times east-west along Randolph, Washington and Madison and north-south along Clinton and Canal.

To start, new routes should be built on Adams and Jackson between Michigan and Clinton/Canal in addition to the Washington and Madison bus lanes. Both streets connect the east side of the Loop with Union Station and support 10 bus routes at various points. The same must be done along State (which supports 9 bus routes) from Roosevelt to Division (at least) and also Dearborn between Congress and Walton. Painted bus lanes like that along Dearborn, much like painted bike lanes, have limited efficacy, because they neither command respect nor have the infrastructure to prevent other road users from blocking them.

Not one of these projects should go forward without including cycling infrastructure either. The model to follow is the one being used along Washington, which features barrier protected bike lanes (BPLs) between the bus lanes and the sidewalk.

Bike infrastructure shouldn’t be dependent on bus infrastructur though. Downtown Chicago has numerous streets that could support new BPLs. Using anecdotal experience on Chicago’s downtown streets, I estimate that upwards of 20 miles or more of new bike infrastructure (and specifically BPLs) could be successfully introduced.

Yes, there are costs to these ideas, but they are more manageable than the costs of building new rail or road infrastructure. For example, 25 miles of BPLs would cost around only $3.5 million using an estimate from the Chicago Tribune that BPLs costs about $125,000 per mile. It would costs $150-$450 million to build 15 miles of new BRT paths in downtown Chicago based on average per mile costs estimates from Daniel Kay Hertz and the Amateur Planner blog. Some of these costs could be lowered by coordinating infrastructure construction projects and funding from downtown congestion charges. Building all this over 5 years would costs about $30.8-$90 million per year. Considering London earned over $222 million with its congestion charges in 2008 revenue can clearly be found.

These are accessible changes that serve ambitious future plans from Greenfield’s suggestion to pedestrianize portions of Washington to ideas to pedestrianize North Michigan Avenue or a return of the State Street pedestrian mall. BRT would complement these changes well, provided needed transit access. A new transit mall along State, a pedestrian and bike zone with center running BRT paths has more chances of success now than when it was first attempted. I’d even suggest turning Monroe into a two-way transit mall from Michigan to Wacker, thus better serving the Jeffrey Jump BRT.

Although some minute segments of roads might get pedestrianized, it’ll probably be quite some time before Chicago sees major pedestrianization. In the interim getting a large system of bike and bus lanes is vital to pedestrianizing Chicago’s downtown core. Financially, this is a tenable solution for the city and can easily be implemented. It’s also pretty much agreed upon, that this is the best and most practical solution for Chicago at this time. Now it’s a matter of making these ideas a reality and fleshing out what this new Loop will look like.

Size and Perception: Is the US really too big for high-speed rail?

A nifty website allowing users to pick a city in Europe and then see how far one can get from there by rail within a day made the rounds online recently. Rail and transportation advocates across the U.S. received these maps as an example of the virtues of European rail systems and the failures of the American system. “We could never get halfway across the continent in 6 hours, how can that be?” one asks themselves looking at these maps. Well, part of the problem is Europe is actually really tiny compared to the U.S. Size remains a problem for establishing a comprehensive rail American network comparable to operations in Europe. But it’s a problem of perception in addition to structural issues, which are perhaps reinforced by perception, that keeps down momentum on rail. Voices in opposition of greater investment often take the question of size to heart as a reason for passenger rail’s infeasibility; and the casual observer can probably comprehend the logic of size working against rail. We have to get over the question of size though. While the geographic size of the U.S. and distribution of its cities will definitely affect what passenger rail services will look like it doesn’t inherently hinder the potential for such systems.

The U.S. is a really big country, huge in comparison to Europe. I use a particular anecdote with the students I work with in Austria to impress this upon them. I ask how long a flight from New York City to LA lasts and usually get answers ranging from two to five hours, but hear answers in the two to three hour range, or a long flight within Europe. The answer, which is 5 hours and 20 minutes, always manages to elicit plenty of awe especially when I sweeten the whole thing by informing them this is about 20 minutes longer than a flight from London to Amman, Jordan. Crammed into this small area is a population well over 510 million (the EU’s current population, not Europe as a whole) compared to the U.S. with a population of 320 million and a combined U.S.-Canadian population that still pales in comparison at just 355 million. It’s a dramatic demographic and geographic difference that has defined how the two continents have been shaped in the last century.

EUROPE V. USA

When Europe was adopting advanced rail technology and building the Chunnel and TGVs in France, the U.S. was expanding the Interstate Highway system and building cities around cars and national travel around aviation. The changing world though is proving the resilience of the European (and Japanese) models of urban development and intercity transportation. The U.S. survived on the idea of cheap fuel without the foresight to consider the environmental impacts of our life styles and the potential that access to cheap fuel might be ephemeral, ideas that have no been thoroughly shaken.

Trains are inherently more sustainable than cars and planes. Cities and dense living similarly while also incubating contemporary economic advancements and human interactions. People are moving away from cars. These changes are forcing the U.S. to reevaluate how to get around the country and many eyes have turned towards high-speed rail (HSR) and passenger rail in general as a solution. A persistent point of opposition is that the U.S. is just too big for HSR, but that’s based on the false thinking that HSR and passenger rail systems like they exist elsewhere in the world are the only models that could work and it lacks the creative thinking to explore how such models can be adjusted for American landscapes.

I’ll grant this, doing a direct comparison of the U.S. and Europe would make the casual observe believe that, yes, the U.S. is just too big for HSR or any European style rail system. Even when broken down into regions, the U.S. is still at a very different scale from Europe. Take the Midwest for example, it covers an area comparable to much of Western Europe (population 260+ million), but has a population similar to France (approx. 67 million). With only one city of 10 million plus people (Chicago), it also falls far behind the two in this European region and the many of urban regions with over 5 million people there. If the distribution of cities and population are what make a successful HSR system work, well then yeah, Western Europe has a lot on the U.S.

But that’s not all what it takes to make rail feasible and work or what make it a valuable asset.

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The European counties of the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria are shown in comparison to the Midwest and Great Lakes States with Chicago and Frankfurt positioned roughly at the same point.

What is too often overlooked in the simplistic argument that the U.S. is too big is considering the way rail fits into larger socio-economic, environmental, and transportation systems that are both dependent and independent of geography. There are of course the environmental reasons for promoting investments in rail over investments in car infrastructure and aviation. Trains contribute significantly less to global climate change than the latter two, but the environmental argument alone isn’t a huge sell for many Americans (unfortunately) and is at the very least it’s well established. Additionally, although the costs of building the system are high, the economic output that would likely result is even greater. That’s moving in the right direction. Perception is powerful though, and this all means nothing if people think the country is just too big for a system to be built anyhow.

But now it’s time to start thinking outside the box?

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France, superimposed over the Midwest, occupies a relatively small portion of region.

FRANCE V. GERMANY

There are a few particular points that indicate geography and scale are not the significant roadblocks to HSR and passenger rail generally believed. One point is how the system is going to be used. There are two models one can look at in determining the design of a HSR and passenger rail system. One is the German system, which really looks more like a subway system. Routes criss-cross a region connecting multiple urban centers of various size and varying in importance. Such a system would make sense along the Atlantic coast where urban centers are more scattered and a passenger getting on at Point A may be getting off an any number of points between A and B. Then there is the French model, which is all about getting people to and from a single primary center to outlying more minor urban regions.

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This map shows the different HSR systems in Europe and how each country follows pretty much one of two models, the German or French one. (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

The applicable model is important when considering geography. In the German model, trains run at slower speeds and can share tracks with conventional trains, because the shorter distances between stops means trains can never really pick up speed anyhow. In the French model, speed is king. With more express or almost express services, the goal is to get passengers from Point A to B with few to no stops in between; often because it’s not even necessary. A geographic and demographic distribution similar to Europe is significantly more important for the German model, but the French model could easily benefit from the spatial geography of a region like the Midwest.

Let’s focus on the Midwest as an example.

Part of what makes HSR in the French model work is trains getting up to very high speeds cutting down the door-to-door travel times while having the option to offer frequent service throughout the day in a more comfortable surrounding than an airplane. Competition with cars and planes though means trains need to hit speeds of well over 180 kph (110 mph) and usually closer to 320 kph (200 mph) (Link: 10 Fastest Trains in the World). The longer the distance between stops and the fewer stops means the faster trains can go and the better they can maintain their speed. The Midwest is ideal for such a system. With Chicago at its center and most traffic going to and from Chicago with few large cities between it and other major centers a system modeled on the French one here would be highly competitive.

Indeed, the long stretches of relatively flat land with few barriers (natural and man-made) means Midwestern trains could be some of the fastest in the world. Running at speeds comparable to the Renfe between Madrid and Barcelona an express train from Chicago to Minneapolis/St. Paul would arrive in about 2 hours, 10 minutes. At a maximum, there would likely be 4-6 intermediary stops (Chicago-O’Hare, Milwaukee, Madison, LaCrosse, Rochester, and maybe Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport). This is barely half the number along the Acela Express from Boston to Washington, D.C. with an average of 70 miles between stops in the Midwest versus 32 miles along the Acela. Combined with trains that have improved acceleration and breaking technologies common on German systems a Midwestern system could be globally state of the art. Here, geography is less an impediment to rail, and more a benefit.

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A Finnish train outside of Helsinki mid-winter (Source: 4rail.net)

WINTER IS COMING

In our Midwestern model, weather also plays a major role in supporting a strong rail based transportation system. The size of the Midwest will never save it from two things: summer thunderstorms and winter weather. Both of these can cause havoc at regional airports and on roadways and are especially troublesome for a singular aviation center, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. A Chicago Tribune article from 2013 looked at the numbers and reasons for flight delays at O’Hare and bad weather year-round socked the city’s airports’ on-time departure rankings. Unlike airports and airplanes, which can be quickly and more dramatically affected by severe weather trains, which are by no means immune, at least offer A) an alternative mode of transportation and B) can get through more before getting shut down.

In a region like the Midwest, where thunderstorms are common in the summer with snowy, cold winters, providing a quick and convenient transportation option that can get people around the cancelled flights and slogging traffic (or keep them out of it in the first place) is essential and up to now missing. Considering how much air and road traffic goes through Chicago this is significant for improving passenger and freight movements through the region. Since most any Midwest HSR system would in all likelihood include stops at O’Hare it would actually enhance intraregional and national passenger traffic.

Chicago’s O’Hare is a major hub, but not necessarily a major destination. One of the keys to making O’Hare function successfully is getting people and planes in and out of the airport as efficiently as possible. Weather regularly confounds those efforts and causing delays creating backups that include short-haul flights within the region and important national and international long-haul flights. Opening up capacity at O’Hare can be achieved by decreasing the number of short-haul flights to the airport from within the Midwest. This would improve operations year round and improve performance when operations are limited by bad weather.

And HSR makes this entirely possible at O’Hare. Chicago is within the Top 3 destinations for many of the region’s major cities (#1 from Cleveland, #2 from Detroit, St. Louis, Indianapolis each, and #3 from Kansas City) as well as the fourth top destination from Milwaukee. All of these are within 2-3 hours or less of Chicago based on optimistic proposals for a Midwestern HSR system. If an HSR system was built in the Midwest and bad weather strikes fewer passengers would get trapped at O’Hare, because the first or final leg of their journey to or from O’Hare would be by train rather than plane.

That’s not to say trains equal problem free winters. A study from the Swedish Royal Institution of Technology (KTH) called Gröna Tåget examines the problems facing high-speed rail operations in climates with harsh winters such as the Nordic countries, Russia, and northern Japan. While winters pose very robust engineering and planning problems for high-speed rail operations (and rail operations in general) they are not problems that are impossible to overcome. There are still many areas for improvement. Indeed, the Midwest’s geography in particular may be more ideal for HSR in wintry environments, because it’s relatively flat compared to Scandinavia where on top of everything snow build-up in valleys and avalanches are problematic too. Growing HSR systems in Russia and China and older ones in Germany and Japan show that winter isn’t as much of an impediment to rail as it may seem and reinforces the positive impact it can have in relation to other transportation modes.

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This is just one proposal for HSR in the U.S. This map gives more details about the types of services offered. (Source: america2050.org)

Weather disrupting air and road traffic though isn’t unique to the Midwest. Regions like the Deep South and Texas, both of which experience thunderstorms in the summer and the remnants of hurricanes would benefit from transportation modes that redistribute passenger traffic over a number of modes too. Indeed, these two regions share another common characteristic with the Midwest: both have major hub airports serving the American aviation network (Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airports), that could also be connected to HSR and passenger rail systems serving their immediate surroundings and regions. Indeed, a hub-and-spoke HSR system in the South with Atlanta at its center could beneficially serve Hartsfield-Jackson International airport the same way as with O’Hare in the Midwest. And all this means less traffic at airports allowing for a greater focus on the major mid- and long-haul flights people are most likely connecting to, less congestion in security lines and terminals, and fewer emissions and noise pollution from fewer flights overall.

BUT ARE WE BEING REALISTIC?

According to Shanghaiist, an ambitious new plan has been unveiled to connect Beijing and Hong Kong by an HSR line that will cover the 2,400 km (1,490 miles) distance in 8 hours. This is an equivalent distance to Amtrak’s Silver Star or Silver Meteor routes between New York City and Miami, which each take more than 27 hours. The article, which was shared by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association on its Facebook page, has made the rounds of social media as an example of the China’s increasingly superior HSR network. Granted that the construction of single, essentially transcontinental HSR lines is impressive, it’s not a shame the U.S. isn’t doing that, or at least not to the extent that China is (as well as Europe to an extent), because a U.S. network needs to serve the needs of the U.S. and reflect the realities of the country, including in terms of our geography, and there are plenty of ways HSR and other passenger rail services can do just that.

This is important to remember when planning and thinking about any model of passenger rail development. Although there are certain trends and truths that are universal, the way to apply them isn’t always identical. Examples like those from China are great to inspire something better in the U.S., but they’re not set in stone. I can see it already though, critics explaining how the U.S. is just too big for a system like China’s, because we have fewer people spread over more of the country than China.

Well, duh! The U.S. will never have the huge, concentrated population of eastern China that supporting massive transcontinental HSR lines. But that’s basing an American rail system on a country unlike the U.S. And that’s fine. China is not Europe is not the U.S. At the very least China can continue to set an example of what is possible. As Rick Harnish, Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association pointed out in an e-mail interview “in ten years China has connected the equivalent of Miami to Boston, New York to Omaha, and New Orleans to St. Paul.”

That’s really impressive for sure and although it’s built to serve different demographic needs it also exposes the ironic situation the U.S. is in. The U.S. has a set of integrated regions and megalopolises to support regional systems connected to each other via long-distance trains or connecting hubs, all of which are included in realistic proposals for HSR and passenger rail improvements in the U.S. and none of which are nearly as big as the Chinese system. So how has the U.S. managed to achieve so little? Europe and Japan are successful by virtue of geography and technology. China is successful because of population and technology. The U.S. falls somewhere in the middle. Clearly the geography of the U.S. isn’t too big for comprehensive rail systems or its population too small and there is plenty of technology to fix the quirks. We simply have a limited perception of what’s possible.

All these arguments have gotten so swamped with chatter about how we’re not Europe or China and how unrealistic this whole HSR thing is that we’re losing sight of important details. Europe and China only offer examples for us to build on and most proposals are incredibly realistic. In an interview with Talk of the Nation on NPR Dr. Christopher Barkan of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides insight into the geographic practicalities of HSR compared to other modes explaining the sweet spot for HSR is somewhere between 240 and 1120 km (150-700 miles). Most existing proposals for HSR in the U.S. are well within this range and some routes are much shorter. The Northeast Corridor for example could be extended another 435 km (270 miles) and still be within this ideal range for HSR. That’s an extension from Washington, D.C. to Norfolk, VA.

IT’S NOT THE SIZE THAT MATTERS, BUT HOW YOU USE IT

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Fantasy map of an HSR network in the U.S. (Source: transitmaps.tumblr.com)

Yeah, some ideas are definitely too far outside the realm of possibility, such as one fantasy map showing a transcontinental HSR network with routes that carry trains from Miami to San Francisco and Québec to Cleveland… via Dallas! While it manages to simultaneously engage people in the discussion about HSR it also worrying reinforces a perception that HSR and passenger rail advocates in the U.S. day dream about trains that will whisk people from Seattle to Washington, D.C., rather than more realistic and practical dream of trains from Las Vegas to Los Angeles or New York City to Montréal. And these are the ones we should be discussing.

So okay, there are in fact pipe dreams out there, but the overwhelming majority of proposals are really well though out and realistic HSR and passenger rail concepts. What’s strange about arguing the U.S. is too big for HSR–or better passenger rail in general–is that usually the U.S. never sees itself as too big for anything. It’s just this time that we’re breaking from that mold. This point alone shows how the particular argument being challenged here is pretty blatantly used as a means to mask various other more subjective reasons to oppose HSR. If the U.S. never limits itself because of size, how did the country suddenly grow too big? The U.S. is not too big for HSR and it’s not too big for rail, we’re just thinking too small.

We’re a country of big dreams and big ideas and yet the dreams many have for passenger rail in the U.S. are pretty modest compared to international examples. HSR networks that connect specific regions, expanded passenger services, and potentially improvements that will make transcontinental trips an overnight journey instead of a weekend long excursion are all much more realistic than most of us think or are told to believe. How we let ourselves fall into the trap of suddenly thinking we’re too small for anything is pretty unfortunate and getting over that thinking alone won’t make HSR and better passenger rail services appear over night, but it’ll sure as hell help.

As Harnish put it bluntly, “Perception is everything.”

Reflections on a Queer Bike Tour of Chicago

In a city whose gay and queer community remains decidedly concentrated within a relatively limited number of neighborhoods, it would seem unlikely a tour of that very community’s history would traverse many neighborhoods outside the current concentration on the North Side. But that’s exactly what happened when I planned a tour of this very history. The tour, which I organized for and with the help of a local Meet Up for LGBTQ* and allied urban planning professionals, students, and enthusiasts called Moxie Chicagoland, took place a few weeks ago. Focusing on the city’s pre-Stonewall queer experiences neighborhoods throughout Downtown and the near South and North Sides were explored, thus examining often overlooked histories and simultaneously forcing a discussion about myriad other relevant topics.

Because of decently strenuous overseas move and a serious case of writer’s block I’ve delayed writing about this tour (sorry, Daniel!) It was nonetheless a wonderful capstone moment to a year spent in my hometown and an opportunity to flex my still underdeveloped event organizing muscle (thank you, Daniel!) It was also a much-needed excuse to venture further onto the South Side of Chicago, which is way too overlooked by North Siders like myself.

The tour, which featured roughly 20 intrepid participants facing cold and rain, began at Washington Square Park. This Victorian pocket of green located on Clark Street fronting the Newberry Library was once a center a bohemian life in Chicago and was until the second half of the 20th century the de facto center of Chicago’s North Side queer community. From here, the tour travelled north on Clark Street passing the former site of The Gold Coast bar (owned by Chuck Renslow, the founder of International Mr. Leather) and to an apartment building on Goethe Street where a police raid of a private party hosted by a gay male couple occurred in the late 1960s.

From here the group made a consistently southward trajectory, through the Gold Coast and River North (formerly referred to as Tower Town in reference to the Water Tower and Chicago’s answer to 1920s Greenwich Village) into the Loop, which included a stop at Daley Plaza the site of many important rallies and protests by queer Chicagoans including the first Pride March, AIDS rallies, and marriage equality protests. Cutting further south still along Dearborn Street (using one of the city’s bike paths in the process) the group made its way to Dearborn Station to learn about one of Chicago’s former vice districts (and an attraction for queer men) before zigzagging to the lakefront and a photo-op at the Shedd Aquarium.

Eventually, the sun did come out and dried us off after a rainy and drizzly start to the day.

Eventually, the sun did come out and dried us off after a rainy and drizzly start to the day.

This is when the sun finally came out and the city began to dry out and warm after the frigid morning. Just in time too: from here the group sped south along the lakefront passing McCormack Place and the then soon-to-be-open Northerly Island park on our way to Bronzeville. Better known for being one of the premier African-American neighborhoods and nightlife spots in the city (and possibly the country as well), it also played host to a number of bars and clubs where queer men–those who were white and who were of color–not only met for social events, but to also practice an art that is almost exclusively synonymous with queer culture: drag.

Lots is gone in fact. The tour made one feel the impact of time and redevelopment on our visible and physical urban history (both of Chicago and queer Chicago), but also the impact of social mores on what buildings (indeed, entire neighborhoods) we preserve, especially when the decision is done explicitly. Minority communities and underprivileged communities feel the impacts of these destroyed spaces the most. This was certainly true in Bronzeville, where an entire historical neighborhood disappeared and speaks volumes about to treatment of minority communities in Chicago’s past and even into its present. Seeking out physical remnants of Chicago’s queer past, especially that which happened before 1969, offered few satisfactory moments. Most of the queer community’s physical historical evidence is gone: the Gold Coast is a condo tower now, what were once the vice districts were mostly cleared and paved, and the Coliseum, historical for more than just its queer parties, is long gone.

Chicago is fortunate though that the voices of so many of its queer residents resonate still. Chicago’s queer community, although important, can’t compete with the fame of New York’s or San Francisco’s and the solidity and centrality of its current North Side home make it seem like it was always along Halsted Street. Its overlooked, misinterpreted, and misunderstood.

It didn’t totally disappear though.

Washington Square Park is still there. There are books and TV documentaries and websites being produced about this history. And there is still room for more research. The voices of women and people of color play second fiddle to those of white gay men. Physical spaces, like the home of Henry Gerber, are finally being recognized and preserved by the city and at the national level even. Ultimately it’s not a tragic end. Nor should the results be looked at as a disappointment. Never has a history of Chicago revealed so much about its diverse and complicated past while forcing the viewer to ask as many questions about a similarly complicated present. Indeed, the tour was not merely a history of queer Chicago, rather it was a tour of Chicago’s history through a queer lens and looking through queer experiences, which are as much a part of the city’s history as those of any other group.