News & Politics » Transportation

How a Quinn staffer halted Chicago's efforts to build protected bike lanes

The state said it was about safety, but others now point to politics.

by

1 comment
A woman rides down the Clybourn protected bike lane, past the 'ghost bike' memorial to Bobby Cann. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • A woman rides down the Clybourn protected bike lane, past the 'ghost bike' memorial to Bobby Cann.

On the evening of May 29, 2013, 26-year-old Bobby Cann was bicycling north on Larrabee from his job at Groupon, heading home to catch a Blackhawks game. Meanwhile, 28-year-old Ryne San Hamel was driving southeast on Clybourn. He'd been drinking in Wrigleyville after watching the Cubs defeat the Sox.

Just after 6:30 PM, the two men's paths tragically collided. Police said San Hamel had been driving his Mercedes at least 50 mph when he struck Cann at the Larrabee intersection. The cyclist suffered horrific injuries and, despite the best efforts of bystanders and paramedics, he was dead within the hour.

San Hamel was found to have had a blood-alcohol content of 0.15, nearly twice the legal limit. He's being prosecuted for aggravated DUI, but the case hasn't yet gone to trial.

Near the crash site, there's a shrine with flowers, photographs, and a white-painted "ghost bike" that bears a placard with Cann's image. On November 20 of this year, officials from the city and state transportation department cut the ribbon on curb-protected bike lanes on this stretch of Clybourn, plus a segment of Division.

These bike lanes, which are separated from traffic by wide concrete curbs that provide extra protection for riders, double as a memorial for the fallen cyclist. Friends and coworkers said Cann was always encouraging others to bike, and to do it safely.

Clybourn is only the second road in town to get this type of bikeway. Most Chicago protected lanes are located curbside and are separated from traffic by a striped buffer zone, flexible plastic posts, and parked cars.

The Clybourn lanes are also noteworthy because they're the first protected lanes built on a state route within the city. That's because in 2011, soon after the Chicago Department of Transportation opened the city's first protected lanes on Kinzie, the state government began quietly blocking the city from installing protected lanes on state roads.

Forty percent of Chicago's arterial streets are under Illinois Department of Transportation jurisdiction. These wide roadways generally have high crash rates, but CDOT is required to get approval from the state before making safety improvements to them.

The former heads of CDOT and IDOT, plus the director of the Active Transportation Alliance, now indicate that the chief architect of the three-year ban was ex-governor Pat Quinn's deputy chief of staff Sean O'Shea.

The state claimed the reason for the prohibition was a need for more proof that protected lanes are safe. But former city transportation commissioner Gabe Klein says the ban was motivated by "political and personality issues." (For full disclosure, Klein is currently a board member with the parent organization for Streetsblog Chicago, which I edit.)

It's not certain what would have happened if the moratorium hadn't been in place, or had been lifted earlier. But data suggests that Cann's death, as well as other crashes, might have been prevented if protected lanes had been installed sooner on Clybourn and other state routes.

Here's a timeline of how the ban occurred, and was ultimately overturned with the start of the Clybourn project, three years later.

At the July 2011 opening of the Kinzie lanes, Klein announced CDOT would next build protected lanes on Jackson, between Western and Halsted. That August, O'Shea started his position at the governor's office, which included overseeing policy for IDOT.

In October, the city began building the Jackson lanes, but the work was halted at Ogden. East of there, Jackson is an IDOT route, and the department refused to allow the change.

"The state traffic engineers had balked because 'they had jurisdiction' and 'this was unproven,'" Klein explains in his new book Start-Up City, which includes stories from his tenure at CDOT.

However, "after collaborating to address IDOT's needs and concerns, CDOT and IDOT staff largely agreed to. . . test barrier-protected lanes on state routes, including Clybourn," wrote Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke in a recent blog post. "As professional planners and engineers, they had a game plan."

A Freedom of Information Act request by the advocacy group recovered an August 3, 2012 e-mail from CDOT bikeways engineer Nathan Roseberry to coworkers, announcing that IDOT engineer Jason Salley was almost ready to approve the Jackson lanes.

However, my own FOIA request turned up an August 28, 2012, e-mail exchange between Klein and then-IDOT secretary Ann Schneider. Contrary to what Salley had indicated, Schneider wrote that, "Due to safety, traffic, and operational concerns, we can not approve protected. . . bike lanes on state routes within the city."

Klein was skeptical.

"I understand politics as you do," Klein replied. "But if this is truly about safety, then we should be able to quickly fix this misunderstanding."

"This is NOT about politics," Schneider fired back.

But Burke explained the state's decision this way: "Unfortunately, a high-level staffer in Gov. Quinn's office overruled [CDOT and IDOT's] strategy. . . .It appears this decision was more about politics than planning." When I called Burke last week, he wouldn't name the staffer.

Klein, who left CDOT in November 2013, was more forthcoming. "People at IDOT said O'Shea was the one who was blocking the lanes," he told me. "When the governor's office trumped [the IDOT engineers]. . .they were livid."

"Because the governor's office was blocking the bike lanes, citizens got caught in the crossfire."

—Former Chicago transportation commissioner Gabe Klein­

In his book, Klein explains what he saw as the motive the reversal: "The governor's office didn't want me or the city dictating policy to them, or making the state look old school in the face of change."

My writing partner Steven Vance broke the story of the ban in February 2013, after being tipped off by a city transportation planner. CDOT and IDOT claimed that the state was prohibiting protected lanes until the city could provide at least three years of safety data about the Kinzie lanes. But the state's claim that more data was needed made no sense, because there was already plenty of evidence that protected lanes make streets safer.

New York City has installed the lanes since 2007. A 2011 memorandum from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office noted that when protected lanes were installed, injury crashes for all road users typically decreased by 40 percent. A 2012 study found protected lanes on Manhattan's 9th Avenue led to a 56 percent reduction in injuries.

Schneider, who resigned from IDOT in June 2014 after allegations of patronage hiring at the department and now works as a transportation consultant, confirmed that O'Shea initiated the moratorium. "I'm not saying the three-year ban is something that I would have done, but I felt there needed to be some kind of safety analysis," she said.

Schneider said she was unaware of any political or personal motivations behind O'Shea's actions.

Klein told me he believes the governor was out of the loop about the IDOT ban. The two men sat next to each other at a Cubs game in summer 2013, a year after the governor's office put the kibosh on the Jackson lanes.

"Quinn told me he supported Divvy and protected lanes," Klein recalled. "He said, 'I'm all for this—we need more of it.'"

After the ban was made public, Active Trans rallied supporters to send 3,000 emails to Quinn asking him to overturn it. The advocacy group also enlisted a coalition of business leaders to lobby the governor.

"We. . .attempted to navigate around the staffer by way of [Quinn] donors and former employees," Burke wrote. "These efforts, combined with a [August 2013] meeting that the businesses got with the staffer. . .along with the outrage over Bobby Cann's death, contributed to the state's change of heart."

At a street-naming ceremony held in Cann's honor at the crash site in October 2013, 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett announced that Clybourn would be the first state route in Illinois to get protected lanes.

O'Shea resigned from the governor's office in August 2014, in the wake of the IDOT patronage scandal. Now working as a lobbyist, he didn't respond to interview requests.

At last month's ribbon cutting on Clybourn, current IDOT secretary Randy Blankenhorn implied that the state and city would collaborate on more protected lanes in the near future. "This is a project that's time has come," he said.

But it's unfortunate that its time didn't come sooner. Again, even without O'Shea's interference, it's not certain the Clybourn bikeway would have been installed in time to make a difference for Bobby Cann. But think of all the other crashes, injuries, and even deaths that might have been prevented if more protected lanes were built over the last few years.

"Here's the bottom line," Klein told me. "Because the governor's office was blocking the bike lanes, citizens got caught in the crossfire, almost literally."  v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.


Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

 

Add a comment