Grant spurs move to bikeable, walkable communities
I have an advantage over my fellow suburbanites. The grocery store is just a few blocks from our home. More often than not, I hoof it to pick up the item du jour I've forgotten. But to reach the library or post office, driving is my usual option.
The car is king in the suburbs ... but a number of Cook County towns assisted by the Active Transportation Alliance are knocking off its crown by promoting bike-accessible and walkable communities.
Roadwork finished early
Sooner is better than later especially when it comes to summer construction. The Illinois tollway has finished up repairs to the well-used Tri-Level bridge at the interchange of the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) and the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) ahead of schedule. Ramps taking vehicles from the northbound Tri-State to the westbound I-90 and from eastbound I-190 to westbound I-90 reopened last week. The project cost $13 million.
What does that mean?
• In Schaumburg, you can actually bike to Woodfield Mall.
• In Hoffman Estates, you can cruise around on 18 miles of trails.
• In Des Plaines, you can bike from your subdivision to the Metra station and grab a train to your job in the Loop.
"There's a misconception about the suburbs in that people think they're completely inaccessible to bike and walk because there are big roads and intersections," ATA Director of Policy and Planning Dan Persky said.
An attitude shift is helped by a nationwide effort called Communities Putting Prevention to Work that aims to reduce obesity and increase physical activity among Americans.
The Cook County Health Department secured about $16 million of CPPW grant funding, which was distributed to the Active Transportation Alliance, a pedestrian and cyclist advocacy group, and local governments as part of the federal government's economic stimulus program.
"We want to make healthy living easier for suburban residents of Cook County," assistant director of chronic diseases Dedra Ries said. "We want to make sure streets are designed in a way everyone can access."
And, here's your fact of the day — there's about 2.5 million folks living in suburban Cook County and 60 percent of them are overweight or obese, Ries said.
So how do you shift to an uber-healthy society?
In Des Plaines, it's as simple as buying bike racks for downtown.
"People need to put their bike somewhere once they ride to their destination," Des Plaines civil engineer Derek Peebles said. "But it's not something the city's ever done in an organized manner. People lock their bikes to fences or signs that are not secure — it's discouraging if they have to hunt around."
The new racks will go up in late summer. "This will make it much more inviting," Peebles said.
In Schaumburg, the grant money helped erect signs along 90 miles of bike lanes and paths, giving directions and mileage to destinations.
Yes, the home of Woodfield Mall also harbors 43 miles of on-street lanes and 47 miles of off-street paths. "You can reach Woodfield Road by bike, you can take bike paths on Higgins Road, you can get anywhere in the community by bike," Schaumburg senior transportation planner Richard Bascomb said.
Now, I know some readers' eyes may glaze over if I get into the minutia of revising bicycle and pedestrian ordinances. Suffice it to say, grant funding also helped all three towns update their codes to accommodate a "complete streets" mentality.
"It's a general principle that provides a safe and encouraging environment for all walkers and bicyclists," Hoffman Estates planner Ashley Monroe said.
The grant was awarded in 2010, and two years later communities are starting to reap the rewards, said Persky, adding that citizen involvement was essential. "More than 1,000 individuals participated in meetings and events," he said. "There was a big community buy-in and hopefully that will lead to more in years to come."
Take that, city slickers.
"The suburbs are more diverse than everybody thinks," ATA's suburban outreach manager Barb Cornew said.
Wait there's more!
OK, so some Cook County towns have made great strides in being more pedestrian and biker friendly. But what if the SUVs in your subdivision give your bike panic attacks?
Take heart. The Active Transportation Alliance is launching a "Communities for Complete Streets" campaign this month.
"A complete street should be accessible to everyone," Persky said. That means a person with a disability waiting for a bus, a teenager walking to school or a worker biking to a job.
You can sign an online pledge to lobby your community to adopt a Complete Streets program. Or learn more about creating a walkable, bike-friendly world in your suburb. To get started, go to www.activetrans.org/completestreets.
One more thing
Do you have time to grab that doughnut at the bakery across the street? Or is your Metra train seconds from roaring into the station? Such are the thoughts that occupy dedicated commuters. Well, wonder no longer. Metra is following in the footsteps of the CTA by offering "Rail-Time Tracker." The service lets riders know if their train is on time and, if not, how late it will be. You can access it through Metra's desktop or mobile websites. Commuters will be able to see scheduled departure time, train status and estimated departure time in case of a delay. The new service started Sunday and cost $80,000 to create. Funding is through a Regional Transportation Authority grant. Metra was required to install the real-time tracker by a General Assembly law passed in 2011. For info, go to metrarail.com/metra/en/home.html.
Reader David Horneys of Mount Prospect has a suggestion for the tollway in the wake of last week's column about varying toll rates per roadway. He asks, "has speed-modified tolling ever been discussed? The time between tolls is known as is the distance (and) average miles per hour is easily calculated. Why not add a toll bonus (graduated) for speed more than 10 mph over — maybe up to $100 for over 90 mph. That could increase revenue, reduce need for the hopeless attempts to enforce speed limits, and keep costs down for the obedient driver."
Be strong DuPage. IDOT will "occasionally" close lanes on Route 83 over Salt Creek in Elmhurst until July 20. The project, which is just south of St. Charles Road, involves maintaining and repairing the Salt Creek bridge. Give yourself extra time, especially during rush hour because it could be ugly. (That's me not IDOT speaking.) The work will cost $99,932.
Ever wanted to be an art critic? You can by voting online for a People's Choice Award for Metra's Safety Poster Contest. The contestants are school-age children across the region. This year's theme was "Lead the Way: Look, Listen, Live." Voting is open through July 13. To participate, go to metrarail.com/metra/en/home/service_updates/2012_poster_contest.html.
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