The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Collateral damage from urban interstates

I've written before about urban highways, never favorably. Ploughing massive roads through dense urban areas has done incalculable damage to North American cities that tearing them down or burying them has only just started to fix—but usually with an order of magnitude more cost than their initial construction.

Today I got an innocent little email listing houses for sale around Chicago, both because I'm interested to see what's out there, and also because I've been too lazy to turn it off since I last moved. But one house stood out today: a beautiful, 4-bedroom Victorian built in 1898 with a lovely wraparound porch, tons of light and air, steps from everything.

I would love to live in a house just like this. In fact, there are similar houses near me, with price tags around $2-$3 million.

This stately lady in Old Irving Park can be yours for only $750,000. And that jaw-dropping difference in value is entirely due to its location.

You see, even though this house is steps from everything—only four blocks to the Metra, three blocks to the El, close to the shops in the historic commercial corridor along Elston—it's also just 200 meters from the 10-lane I-90/94 expressway:

I mean, holy hell. Getting to the El or to the Metra stations at Mayfair or Irving Park requires crossing all those lanes of traffic. I've done it; the Montrose and Irving Park bridges are soul-crushing for pedestrians. Worse, the Keeler underpass (which you'd take to the Irving Park station) requires you to cross two entrance and exit ramps on either side of a half-block-long underpass.

I'm not even going to talk about how loud the 10 lanes of traffic must be.

In short, this beautiful house, "the second built in the area," can't get anywhere near the price it would had the city not destroyed the neighborhood in the 1950s.

Sad.

How far from the park to downtown?

I love this chart from Twitter user Jay Cuda:

If you don't want to click through to Twitter, here's Jay's chart:

The chart doesn't tell the whole story, does it? For example, both Chicago teams, both New York teams, Boston, DC, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Oakland are all about the same distance from downtown, but easily accessible by train. (Chicago's are both on the same El line, in fact.) Atlanta's and LA's parks, by contrast, are approximately the same distance but completely inaccessible by any form of public transit. (Atlanta's new park even appears deliberately located to prevent those people from getting there.)

I speak from personal experience, as long-time Daily Parker readers know: I've been to every one of them, except the new Atlanta park, which I refuse to visit because of its anti-democratic location.

Friday night I crashed your party

Just a pre-weekend rundown of stuff you might want to read:

  • The US Supreme Court's investigation into the leak of Justice Samuel Alito's (R) Dobbs opinion failed to identify Ginny Thomas as the source. Since the Marshal of the Court only investigated employees, and not the Justices themselves, one somehow does not feel that the matter is settled.
  • Paul Krugman advises sane people not to give in to threats about the debt ceiling. I would like to see the President just ignore it on the grounds that Article 1, Section 8, Article VI, and the 14th Amendment make the debt ceiling unconstitutional in the first place.
  • In other idiotic Republican economics (redundant, I know), Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) has proposed a 30% national sales tax to replace all income and capital-gains taxes that I really hope the House passes just so the Senate can laugh at it while campaigning against it.
  • Amazon has decided to terminate its Smile program, the performative-charity program that (as just one example) helped the Apollo Chorus raise almost $100 of its $250,000 budget last year. Whatever will we do to make up the shortfall?
  • How do you know when you're on a stroad? Hint: when you really don't want to be.
  • Emma Collins does not like SSRIs.
  • New York Times science writer Matt Richtel would like people to stop calling every little snowfall a "bomb cyclone." So would I.
  • Slack's former Chief Purple People Eater Officer Nadia Rawlinson ponders the massive tech layoffs this week. (Fun fact: the companies with the most layoffs made hundreds of billions in profits last year even as market capitalization declined! I wonder what all these layoffs mean to the shareholders? Hmm.)
  • Amtrak plans to buy a bunch of new rail cars to replace the 40-year-old rolling stock on their long-distance routes. Lots of "ifs" in there, though. I still hope that, before I die of old age, the US will have a rail travel that rivals anything Europe had in 1999.
  • The guy who went to jail over his fraudulent and incompetent planning of the Fyre Festival a couple of years ago wants to try again, now that he's out.

Finally, Monica Lewinsky ruminates on the 25 years since her name popped up on a news alert outing her relationship with President Clinton. One thing she realized:

The Tonight Show With Jay Leno died in 2014. For me, not a day too soon. At the end of Leno’s run, the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University analyzed the 44,000 jokes he told over the course of his time at the helm. While President Clinton was his top target, I was the only one in the top 10 who had not specifically chosen to be a public person.

If you don't follow her on social media, you're missing out. She's smart, literate, and consistently funny.

Waiting for an upload

I got a lot done today, mostly a bunch of smaller tasks I put off for a while. I also put off reading all of this, which I will do now while my rice cooks:

Finally, I've mentioned heading to San Francisco this coming weekend, has gotten some rain. By "some" I mean over 350 mm of rain in the past 15 days, making it the rainiest two weeks since 1866. The weekend forecast does not look encouraging: rain likely, highs around 12, lows around 9, and yet more rain likely. I have never taken an umbrella to California before. First time for everything, I guess.

And now my rice is done.

My office is still and here

In a form of enlightened laziness, I often go into my company's downtown Chicago office on Friday and the following Monday, avoiding the inconvenience of taking my laptop home. It helps also that Fridays and Mondays have become the quietest days of the week, with most return-to-office workers heading in Tuesdays through Thursdays.

And after a productive morning, I have a few things to read at lunch:

Finally, National Geographic digs down to find explanations for the disappearances of five ancient cities, and what that might tell us about our own culture.

Still no Speaker

The House will probably elect a Speaker before the end of March, so we probably won't set any records for majority-party dickery before the Congress even starts. (We might for what the 118th Congress does, though.) But with three ballots down and the guy who thought he'd get the job unable to get the last 19 votes he needs, it might take a few days.

Meanwhile:

Finally, a ground crew worker at Montgomery Airport in Alabama fell into a running jet engine on Saturday; the NTSB is investigating. Yecch.

A glimmer of hope on a muddy Thursday

I broke away from my last day of work in 2022 around 2:15 to take Cassie on a 3½-kilometer walk. It's 14°C (!!!) right now so almost every snowflake has melted into a thin layer of mud over the entire city. No problems, so far; I keep old towels by the front door and Cassie expects me to wipe her paws when we come in.

Today I learned that I need to close the gate at the top of my stairs whenever we go outside on a day like this. I learned this while chasing Cassie up the stairs and through the living room while shouting "NO!", which, of course, made her run faster to her happy place; i.e., the living room sofa. Fortunately I keep the sofa covered in a $7 Target blanket because of her. Unfortunately, I had just washed it.

Cassie and I have forgiven each other but not before I carried her downstairs and put her in the bathtub. The floors only took about 15 minutes to clean up and the blanket went back into the washing machine whence it came this morning.

Dogs.

I did catch this in Mother Jones, though, and it took the edge off wiping muddy pawprints from several floors and a staircase. It seems that finally, finally!, more cities understand that parking minimums waste land, gas, and money:

California will become the first state to enact a ban on parking minimums [in January], halting their use in areas with public transport in a move that Gov. Gavin Newsom called a “win-win” for reducing planet-heating emissions from cars, as well as helping alleviate the lack of affordable housing in a state that has lagged in building new dwellings.

Several cities across the country are now rushing doing the same, with Anchorage, Alaska, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Nashville, Tennessee, all recently loosening or scrapping requirements for developers to build new parking lots. “These parking minimums have helped kill cities,” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School who accused political leaders of making downtowns “look like bombs hit them” by filling them with parking lots.

Climate campaigners and public transport advocates have seized upon the previously esoteric issue of parking minimums, posting aerial pictures on social media demonstrating the vast swathes of prime urban land given over to parking lots and pushing city councils to foster denser communities with more opportunities to walk, cycle or catch buses and trains rather than simply drive.

Cities such as Buffalo, New York, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, scaled back parking minimums a few years ago and have reported a surge in activity to transform previously derelict buildings into shops, apartments and restaurant. Developers previously saw as such work as unviable due to the requirement to build plots of car parking, in many cases several times larger than the building itself.

Just look at this aerial view of downtown Kansas City, Mo., after MODOT destroyed it with one road. Or these photos of empty mall parking lots on Black Friday, the day traffic engineers use to set parking minimums.

I hope that I live long enough to see North America correct the planning mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s, and get at least to the point Europe achieved ten years ago.

Transport priorities: Ravenswood vs I-290

I mentioned this in passing earlier this week, but I wanted to highlight this story of the American automobile fetish and how much it costs us. On Wednesday, the city officially opened an $800 million rebuild of the Jane Byrne Interchange, which started after the Union Pacific Railroad began rebuilding a single train station that still hasn't reopened:

The original Circle Interchange was built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and had no major overhaul until the reconstruction project began in 2013. The project took nearly a decade to complete.

After eight years, the project to overhaul the entire interchange, where three expressways meet, is now substantially complete. It was slated to be complete in 2017, with a price tag of $535 million. It will end up costing $806 million.

Prior to its reconstruction, the interchange struggled to perform under its original 1958 design, resulting in congestion for the majority of the day and frequent unsafe conditions, according to the governor's office.

The American Transportation Research Institute and the Federal Highway Administration at one point rated the interchange the country's No. 1 bottleneck for freight.

I've previously reported on the excruciating wait for the Ravenswood station's east platform to open. But the Jane Byrne rebuild cost two orders of magnitude more and, in my opinion, should never have existed in the first place. Notice, in this 1961 Chicago Tribune photo, the complete destruction of the eastern half of Greek Town plus the flattened West Loop neighborhood between the river and Halsted, all in service of cars—even though Chicago back then had more railroad track per capita than any other city in the world:


Photo: Chicago Tribune

So, wonderful, after spending nearly a billion dollars, the "improvements" will once again induce demand that obviates them, probably within ten years. And that's one interchange. Imagine if we'd spent half that money on regular road maintenance and another half on, oh, the CTA?

The 75-year experiment of dispersing low-density housing over a wide area connected by dangerous, high-pollution roads failed almost as soon as it began. But we still can't accept that building a hundred train stations at $8 million a pop will have better long-term outcomes than rebuilding one road interchange—especially if we build them in one year rather than 10.

Is it post-empire time yet?

I can't quite draw a line between all of these stories, but it feels like I should:

Finally, a million-liter aquarium in a central Berlin hotel collapsed spectacularly today, causing millions of euros of damage. No people were hurt but 1,500 tropical fish drowned or froze to death in the aftermath.

Disaster averted in London, but not elsewhere

A little less than 50 years ago, the Greater London Council finally abandoned a plan from 1966 that would have obliterated Earls Court, Brixton, Hampstead, and many other central neighborhoods:

If events had turned out differently, Southwyck House would be perched on the edge of the Motorway Box, a 50-mile, eight-lane ring road built across much of inner suburban London, including Brixton. This was only part of the planners’ ambitions. The Box, or Ringway One as it was later titled, was to be the first of three concentric gyratories. Together they would have displaced up to 100,000 people.

Baffling as the idea might seem now, it must be viewed in the context of a time when politicians and planners were panicked about imminent gridlock across the UK’s towns and cities as ever more vehicles took to the roads.

The solution they collectively turned to was the inner-city motorway, an innovation that arguably changed postwar cities as fundamentally as modernist architects’ tower blocks. Here was an entirely new type of street, one that did away with shop fronts, pedestrians, chance encounters or indeed anything recognisably human-scale. For the first time in centuries of urban life, a street was not a public realm, just a conduit between private spaces.

In 1969, while the Ringways plan was being finalised, New York’s mayor, John Lindsay, scrapped [Robert] Moses’ proposal for a massive freeway across lower Manhattan, after pressure from a new breed of activists who had started to ask, for the first time in the automobile era, whether cities should be designed around motor vehicles or human beings.

Most prominent was Jane Jacobs, the visionary urbanist and writer whose idea of a successful city centred on a necessarily organic and unplanned “ballet” of street-based life proved hugely influential in subsequent decades.

Such radical ideas were less embedded in London, and opposition to the Ringways came mainly from a string of small and fragmented local campaigns. But a near-miracle was at hand. In 1970, with the GLC on the verge of starting construction, [Prime Minister Harold] Wilson’s [Labour] government unexpectedly ordered a public inquiry, seemingly spooked by the scale of what was about to be done.

If only other cities had stopped the destruction in time. Here in Chicago, we have three major expressways converging on downtown. In all three cases the construction devastated neighborhoods (usually Black and brown ones) and permanently separated others. They're ugly, and they don't really work; induced demand destroyed their utility almost immediately. And here we are, in 2022, with the city proudly announcing that the "spaghetti bowl," where three massive highways meet just west of Downtown, will reopen this week after a $800 million rebuilding effort.

Cities can recover, but at great expense and often only because an unrelated disaster forces them to act. (See, e.g., San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway and Rochester, New York's Inner Loop North.) And yet here we are, with 100 years of data about the external costs of high-capacity, limited-access highways in urban areas, unwilling to remove them. Even in places where residents almost universally want the roads removed, politicians refuse to act.

When they write America's obituary, they will list "cars" as one of its causes of death. I'm glad London avoided it.