An Open Letter to the Chicago Maroon Editorial Board

To whom it may concern:

As Americans head to the polls today to vote in the midterm elections, many University of Chicago students have either voted absentee in their home states or are not voting at all. And it’s hard to blame them: Illinois politicians (with one notable exception) are much better known for landing in prison than for inspirational leadership. But on February 24, many members of the University of Chicago community will have a rare opportunity to effect real, positive change on their community by voting for Anne Marie Miles for 5th Ward Alderman.

Hyde Park has seen a lot of positive development in the last few years: new restaurants such as the 24-hour Clarke’s Diner, Harper Theater and the new Harper Court, the upcoming City Hyde Park (with Whole Foods), and more. Students who have only been in the neighborhood for one or two years might not appreciate just how much things have improved, but they might have picked up on a funny coincidence: all of this new development has happened on or north of 53rd Street, a good distance from the heart of the University (which itself has been slowly creeping southward). The blame for the lack of any meaningful off-campus development closer to the University can be placed largely on the shoulders of one person: Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward Alderman since 1999.

Chicago wards are their own tiny fiefdoms. A Chicago Alderman has an enormous amount of control over what does or doesn’t get built or opened in his or her ward. Former 4th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (now Cook County Commissioner) and her hand-picked successor, Will Burns, have been judicious in their exercise of this power over their ward, which contains the north half of Hyde Park. But in Alderman Hairston’s 5th Ward, which encompasses the south half of our neighborhood, the game has been played a bit differently. When not actively wielding her powers to stifle development, such as when she spot-zoned the (still-abandoned) Vivekananada Vedanta Society temple to prevent the cash-strapped Yogis from selling to a developer, she stands idly by as self-proclaimed community leaders torpedo any possible positive changes to the neighborhood.

Perhaps the most salient example of the latter occurred in 2008, when in the middle of the global financial meltdown, the University, against all odds, managed to procure a developer to build two Marriott hotels at the site of the abandoned Doctors Hospital at 58th and Stony Island. Before last year’s opening of the Park Hyatt in Harper Court, the closest option for parents, conference-goers, and other visitors to the University was the seedy Ramada Inn on 49th Street by the lake. The new hotels, which would have provided 650 rooms mere blocks from campus, would have been an enormous game-changer for the entire Hyde Park community. In the absence of strong leadership from Alderman Hairston, the activists stepped in. On Election Day, 2008, while the rest of the nation was voting for Hope and Change, a few hundred residents of the 5th Ward’s tiny 39th Precinct, most of whom lived in the mid-rise apartment building adjacent to the Doctors Hospital site, narrowly voted the precinct dry, thus preventing the development from going forward. This caricature of democracy, which Alderman Hairston permitted to occur under her nose, robbed the University community and broader Hyde Park community of a desperately needed resource. We’ve only just now received our smaller, more distant consolation prize.

I could go on, but the now-defunct blog Hyde Park Progress has already done a marvelous job documenting Alderman Hairston’s many disturbing actions and inactions. What’s important is that this February, we have a great opportunity to make a change. In 2012, Chicago approved its decennial redistricting, which takes effect next year. Since Wards are apportioned based on population, the Aldermen of failing wards that are losing population, like our own 5th Ward, are ironically given a larger area over which to rule. The 5th Ward, which, west of the Metra tracks, mostly extended only to 55th Street, will now stretch all the way to 53rd. Allowing Alderman Hairston control of yet more Hyde Park development would be a disaster. On the other hand, the new ward boundaries give more Hyde Parkers the opportunity to vote for positive change in their community. Anne Marie Miles, who also ran against Alderman Hairston in 2011, stands for progress and against the corruption and incompetence of the Hairston regime.

It’s difficult to get college students to take an interest in the long-term health of their neighborhood. They expect to be gone in a few years (although I know from experience that they’re often wrong about that!), so local politics doesn’t seem terribly relevant to them. But as an institution, the Chicago Maroon has a responsibility to past, present, and future University students, and I believe it should strive to engender involvement in local affairs among the student body. While I would be thrilled if the Editorial Board were to give their endorsement to Ms. Miles, what is much more crucial is for you to encourage students to register to vote at their school addresses for February’s election and to feature coverage of the election prominently. Educate students on the history and present state of neighborhood development, and make sure they know what ward they will be voting in (which might be different from the ward they are currently living in!). Interview the candidates so that they can speak directly to the concerns of the student body. The University community can only thrive if students are willing to take an active role, and they can only do that on a meaningful scale if they are kept informed.

Evan Jenkins, SB/AB 2006, SM 2009, PhD 2013

Posted in Hyde Park, University of Chicago | Leave a comment

Affluenza or Autoimmune Disease?

The lack of justice in cases of automobile violence has long gone unnoticed, but a recent case has finally provoked widespread outrage. 16-year-old Ethan Couch got loaded, got into a car, killed four people, and got off with a slap on the wrist. This injustice is infuriating but far from surprising to those of us in the transpo-blogging community. This sort of story occurs on an all-too-regular basis throughout the United States.

Unfortunately, the Internet has latched on not to the broad theme of automobile violence flying under the radar of our justice system, but to a single word spoken by a psychologist testifying for the defense: affluenza. The story, as told by outraged commentators such as my tweep John Aziz for The Week, is that Couch got off easy because he was rich. While I don’t doubt that the scales of justice can be tipped by money, that’s not the story that fits both the facts of this case and the broader societal context. Sure, a rich white kid got a slap on the wrist for killing with a car, but that also happens to non-rich black kids! In an article for Streetsblog Chicago earlier this year, John Greenfield tells the story of another 16-year-old boy who killed with his car while under the influence and got off easy. Deandre Wolfe, however, was not a rich white kid, but a middle-class black kid. Greenfield contrasts Wolfe’s case with that of Prince Watson, a 17-year-old who was sentenced to 32 years for killing a woman by pushing her down the stairs at a CTA stop. The pattern that reveals itself is not one of rich privilege or white privilege, but of car privilege.

The story of affluenza does not even make sense on the face of it: a jury, even one selected from a relatively affluent community, is not going to identify with an irresponsible, spoiled brat. Even those who have contracted affluenza do not tend to think of themselves in those terms. Just about everybody in this country, however, is a driver, and hardly anybody is ashamed of it. A jury composed of drivers is more than capable of empathizing with somebody who, while driving, happened to hit a few of those pesky pedestrians. The fact that Couch was drunk is almost incidental. Indeed, drivers who aren’t drunk and stay at the scene are rarely even accused of wrongdoing; many are allowed to drive away scot-free in the very weapon they killed with.

Ethan Couch did not go free because he had affluenza. He went free because of a more insidious societal illness: autoimmune disease.

Posted in Automobiles | Leave a comment

The Golden Compromise

Let’s face it: compromise is rarely good. Whether it’s Congresspersons trying to agree on a “grand bargain” to restart the government, or an incompatible couple trying so hard to make things work between them, compromising tends to end up as the worst of both worlds. Compromise is the rule when trying to shape a complex urban environment where millions have a stake in the outcome and everyone clamors to have their say. The results, unsurprisingly, are skewed towards the mediocre: unwalkable, unbikeable wastelands where commuters idle in gridlock for hours every day. The changes that must happen to make our cities work are not ones that can be attained by compromise.

Why, then, hasn’t compromise been bred out of the human psyche by natural selection? Because on rare occasions, a compromise can prove to be more than the sum of its parts, and it can prove not just enlightening but transformative to those on both sides of an issue. Such a compromise is being reached right now in Chicago, and it has a goofy-sounding Dutch name: the woonerf.

A woonerf is a street on which all are welcome, but pedestrians and cyclists have priority. It’s the kind of street you might expect to find in the bustling center of an old European city: built for people, but the occasional car can get through if necessary pick up or drop off goods and passengers. But woonerfs are not just for city centers; today, you can find them all over the Netherlands.

Chicago’s first woonerf will be the result of a compromise. DePaul University wanted to pedestrianize a block of North Kenmore Avenue that runs through their campus. With the popularity of the automobile on the decline among young people, urban universities (including the U of C and Loyola) are responding by making their campuses more people-friendly. But predictably, DePaul encountered opposition from the surrounding community, who did not want to lose a north-south thoroughfare. The woonerf was thus proposed as a compromise.

As with all compromises, particularly ones that remove parking spaces, not everybody will be happy. But the woonerf, unlike the original pedestrianization plan, is going to have a huge impact for drivers and non-drivers alike. What drivers lose in speed, they will make up for in humanity. They will be put face-to-face with a living city, rather than stuck in a dead expanse of asphalt and bumpers. Pedestrians will learn that they deserve, and can achieve, freedom of movement without fear of being murdered by indifferent machines. A pedestrian-only block is nice, but it will be ignored by drivers and reproduced only in niche areas of the city. A woonerf can change the way we perceive our urban landscape.

Compromise is rarely good. But compromises like the woonerf are what give me hope for the future of the city.

Posted in Automobiles, Small Streets | 3 Comments

A People-Oriented Plan for the Near South Loop

The Near South Loop Master Plan, looking north from Roosevelt Road

Looks like I have some competition. I recently stumbled across the Near South Loop Master Plan, a design for a mixed-use, people-oriented development by MGLM Architects. While they’ve somewhat ironically nestled their construction around the conspicuously people-hostile Roosevelt Collection, on the conspicuously people-hostile Roosevelt Road, their plan would fill an important gap in the urban landscape in a terrifically forward-thinking way.

It’s not quite as radical as a true small streets layout, but it features the right general principles: moderate-height buildings with inviting facades, with little wasted space between buildings. Of course, it’s unclear whether this development will ever come to pass. Arguably, their vision is as “unrealistic” as mine (the plan involves some pretty serious new transit construction), though being a professional architectural firm, they at least have prettier pictures. Still, I have some hope that this sort of development will be taken seriously by the city. The Emanuel administration, led by the efforts of CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein, has implemented a surprisingly progressive transportation agenda (something I will eventually get around to blogging about). Promoting people-oriented development would be a natural complement, though I’ve yet to hear of any planned development along such lines.

Since I’ve mentioned pretty pictures, I should add that I do plan to eventually put up some more detailed pictures of (a redesign of) Phase I of the Midway Village. I’ve been playing around with Google Sketchup, which seems to be a great tool for experimenting with urban space. While I don’t think I’ll be able to produce anything nearly as nice as MGLM’s sketches, I hope to at least progress beyond the existed jaggedy squiggles.

Posted in Midway Village, Small Streets | Leave a comment

The Big Transportation Disaster You’re Not Hearing About’s front page is abuzz with the latest gruesome details and tearful stories of the “death train” and the “haunting” plane crash. But the biggest transportation disaster story is the one they’re not telling.

The Fourth of July is the deadliest holiday of the year when it comes to motor vehicle deaths. How deadly? I couldn’t find anybody with a nationwide count, but a quick Google search brought up stories from Iowa and Georgia, which announce death tolls of 6 and 11, respectively. Iowa has slightly less than 1% of the total US population, so their death count extrapolates to over 600 nationwide. Georgia is about 1.3%, so their 11 becomes over 800 nationwide.

But how many of these deaths are attributable to the holiday, rather than our ordinary socially accepted mortality rate? Motor vehicle deaths total about 33,000 annually, so if we divide by 365, multiply by 4, and round up a bit (since Thursday–Sunday typically contains a disproportionately large number of fatalities), we arrive at a figure of about 400 deaths on an average 4-day weekend. So by our Iowa and Georgia numbers, the Fourth of July holiday added an additional 200–400 deaths on the roads nationwide.

Of course, these numbers have a pretty big margin of error, and selection bias may be in play as well (articles from Iowa and Georgia may have been easy to find because they had an unusually large number of deaths). But these back-of-the-envelope calculations show that it’s very reasonable to believe that the nationwide automobile disaster that happened this weekend was an order of magnitude more deadly than the “death train,” and two orders of magnitude more deadly than the 777 crash. Sadly, it is explosions, not statistics, that sell, so it’s unlikely that CNN is going to be reporting any of this. But think about this statistic next time you get into a car: You’re more likely to die driving a half mile down the road than you are flying across the ocean in a Boeing 777. We must not let sensational media dictate how we choose to live. It has led us, and will continue to lead us, down the wrong path.

Posted in Automobiles | 1 Comment

Will Wilkinson on Climate Change

The Economist’s Will Wilkinson has written what is sure to be a controversial blog post on climate change. He argues for taking a wait-and-see approach, citing both a great deal of uncertainty in the actual economic costs of climate change and the often-ignored economic costs of restricting carbon emissions:

Dramatic warming may exact a terrible price in terms of human welfare, especially in poorer countries. But cutting emissions enough to put a real dent in warming may also put a real dent in economic growth. This could also exact a terrible humanitarian price, especially in poorer countries. Given the so-far unfathomed complexity of global climate and the tenuousness of our grasp on the full set of relevant physical mechanisms, I have favoured waiting a decade or two in order to test and improve the empirical reliability of our climate models, while also allowing the economies of the less-developed parts of the world to grow unhindered, improving their position to adapt to whatever heavy weather may come their way.

The article focuses primarily on the uncertainty in climate models while taking as given the enormous economic costs of reducing carbon emissions. I think this is a huge omission.

When we look at the developed world, which has had many decades to develop with access to cheap and bountiful fossil fuels, it is easy to conflate our prosperity with our ravenous energy consumption. Wouldn’t it be wrong, then, to deny developing countries the same opportunities? This sort of post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking is something I normally don’t associate with Wilkinson, who is one of my favorite economics bloggers. Much of our current prosperity is not at all tied to burning fossil fuels: advances in agriculture, sanitation, medicine, information technology, and social and political institutions explain an enormous part of our present-day comfort here in the developed world. The trends that are tied to energy consumption—exurban sprawl, gigantic houses, mindless consumerism—are immiserating, not liberating.

Motor vehicle crashes kill 1.2 million people annually, many of them in the developing world. How much will this number rise when India, China, and the rest of the developing world continue to mimic the West in structuring their society around the automobile?

As I see it, the developing world has a tremendous opportunity: the opportunity to avoid making the enormous mistakes we have over the past century in developing our country for vehicles instead of people. Even if you believe that the costs of global warming are not as great as some make them out to be, you must also consider that the costs of reducing carbon emissions might not be as great as they seem. To conflate automobile ownership with progress is a vision straight out of 1950s America. That’s not the rubric against which we should measure our economic policies today.

Posted in Automobiles | Leave a comment

An Open Letter to Senator Durbin

The United States Senate will soon hold a vote to confirm Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as Secretary of Transportation. As with past transportation secretaries, his nomination is not a controversial one. Since I have huge moral qualms with our government’s stance towards transportation, I decided to send a letter, reproduced below, to my Senator, Dick Durbin, urging him to (symbolically) vote no on what would otherwise be a unanimous confirmation. I encourage those of you who share my distaste for our government’s automobile-centric mindset to contact your Senators as well, and soon. And also, if you haven’t yet, please consider signing my petition.

Dear Senator Durbin,

I am writing to implore you to vote no on the imminent confirmation of Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as transportation secretary. I do not have any qualms with Mr. Foxx, but I believe that our nation’s casual approach to transportation policy is immoral and absolutely unacceptable, and a dissenting vote from you could begin a long-overdue conversation about the role of the automobile in this country. I hope that you will think seriously about my arguments, and if you find some truth to them, that you will take whatever action you feel appropriate.

It has been longstanding government policy to support the automobile, from President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System to President Obama’s bailout of the Detroit automobile industry. The nomination of a new Secretary of Transportation is, I imagine, a joyous occasion in the Senate, because there is so little disagreement about the primacy of the automobile in our society. But this complacency has been disastrous to our country in terms of public health, our economy, and our environment.

You have been a longtime opponent of the tobacco industry, and you have stood behind a lot of important anti-tobacco legislation. You have argued that tobacco companies should not be allowed to misleadingly advertise their products as “light” or “mild,” because the only real way to be safe from the dangers of smoking is to quit smoking. Yet when I look at the Surgeon General’s recommendations for transportation safety, I see old chestnuts of common wisdom, like advice to wear a seatbelt. Certainly, motor vehicle deaths have decreased over the past several decades as new safety features have been implemented, but this is not enough. Motor vehicle crashes still kill more than 30,000 Americans every year, and they are the single leading cause of death among children ages 1–14, children who did not choose to ride in a car or play near a dangerous roadway, but who are victims of our collective societal choice to spread automobiles everywhere. Just as you would not advise cigarette smokers to switch to a “low-tar” brand for their health, we should not just be telling people to buckle up. We should tell them to drive less, or not at all.

The fault, however, does not lie with individual drivers. Many people do not have a choice about owning a car, because most places in this country require it. I am fortunate to live in Chicago, a city with a wonderful public transportation system and plenty of bicycle lanes. Yet even in a big city like Chicago, we are faced with automobile-related tragedies, such as the recent death of cyclist Bobby Cann at the hands of a drunk driver. Tragedies like Bobby’s are one reason why many people, even if they could in principle make use of other forms of transportation, choose to drive. For decades traffic engineers have been designing our built environment with the single-minded goal of making automobile traffic flow more smoothly. It is no surprise, then, that even most Chicagoans choose to hop in a car.

But cars are not cheap. And it is not for lack of trying: the government, at many different levels, heavily subsidizes their use. From federal and state funding of automobile infrastructure, to local zoning codes requiring excessive amounts of parking, to the free pass drivers get for their pollution because we do not yet have carbon pricing. Yet despite all of these subsidies, plenty of people go into debt for their cars! And with the financial crisis, which left many struggling to keep their homes (homes that would be significantly less expensive with denser, less automobile-friendly development), the extra burden of paying for a car, insurance, gasoline, and maintenance is just too much.

The buck needs to stop with the federal government. We simply cannot afford to put another dime towards deadly, expensive, ecologically disastrous automobile infrastructure, and if you would not vote yes to confirm a Surgeon General who would push to remove cigarette taxes and warning labels, then you should absolutely not vote yes on a transportation secretary who is not committed to reversing the spread of the automobile.

I would like to thank you for your time, and thank you for your continued service on the behalf of the State of Illinois.

Evan Jenkins

Posted in Automobiles | 1 Comment