WBEZ Chicago Public Radio
Sometimes the best solution isn’t the newest one. Walking, biking, and public transportation have been part of the Midwest fabric for generations, but some communities have sacrificed these safe, clean mobility options over the years as cars grew to dominance.
Transportation is the leading cause of climate change in the United States, producing about a third of the nation’s carbon emissions, in addition to other dangerous air and water pollutants. But cars and trucks are not just dangerous in the long-term. Higher speed limits, bigger cars, vanishing bus routes, and nonexistent sidewalks put people directly at risk from collisions and limit options for those who do not or cannot drive. Nationwide, 6,283 pedestrians were killed by cars and trucks in 2018, up 43% from 2008. And as the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated, walking and biking are critical means of safely moving people.
Fortunately, many cities and towns across the Midwest are rethinking their transportation infrastructure, to protect and support mobility with low pollution. From bike-share programs to bus rapid transit, comprehensive sidewalk networks to scooter pilot programs, smart multimodal transportation can mean a more connected and low-carbon future for the Midwest.
This subterranean walkway system stretches for miles under the Chicago Loop, connecting multiple train lines to hundreds of buildings, shops, and homes. It protects pedestrians from inclement weather and traffic, while facilitating transit connections in this busy urban hub. With a patchwork of owners, this system is currently underutilized and undervalued, so ELPC has been working with city agencies and local stakeholders to improve navigation, coordination, and activation. Through public pressure in our communications campaign, we have seen cleanup efforts improve the pedway’s look and feel. Through our partnerships and engagement, we have seen new arts installations and public programming bring people together. We recently secured a grant to improve wayfinding and navigation, and we are continuing to identify further opportunities to revitalize the pedway as an asset to low-carbon transportation.
Buses, trains, streetcars, and other kinds of public transportation keep the Midwest moving, providing accessible and efficient transportation with minimal energy and land use. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic crisis, public transit systems are hurting for funds, as riders stay home, and local taxes shrink. ELPC worked with partners across the country and gathered public comments from the Midwest to secure emergency funding for public transit from Congress in the CARES Act (link). While Chicago has the largest system in the region, this funding is also critical to maintain mobility from Des Moines, IA to Cleveland, OH, Duluth, MN to Indianapolis, IN. ELPC has also spoken out with our allies to prioritize the transportation needs of essential workers in this time. We are working with allies to encourage transit systems to respond creatively and responsibly to this unprecedented challenge.
Electrifying the entire fleet of CTA’s 1,864 buses will be the equivalent of taking almost 43,000 cars off the road.
Buses and trains are far more environmentally-friendly per person than individual cars, but they are not perfect. ELPC’s air quality monitoring team has recorded high levels of small particle pollution near busy Chicago city bus routes, where diesel engines emit pollution. Electric buses have all the benefits of public transportation, with far less air pollution, so ELPC consistently advocates for funds to electrify city transit fleets buses and school buses, prioritizing communities with high rates of respiratory illness and air pollution.
When coronavirus infection rates decline and states begin to open up again, trains and buses may not be able to carry as many passengers to maintain safe social distancing, and some commuters may not be as inclined to take transit. If even 1% of public transit users drove personal cars, the congestion on many Midwest streets could be disastrous, leading to widespread gridlock and abundant air pollution. ELPC is speaking out now to encourage more environmentally friendly options when the time comes. Companies should institute flexible work policies, commuters should bike instead of driving whenever possible, and municipalities should support bike travel by expanding safe bike lanes and bike racks in priority areas.