What will the future of transportation look like in Chicago? How has the COVID-19 pandemic shifted transportation priorities? These are just a few questions the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) has been grappling with the past few months.
by Ian Spula
The Department is under new leadership while adjusting to rapidly changing transportation needs as a result of the pandemic. In December 2019, urban planner and designer Gia Biagi was appointed Commissioner at CDOT.
In this role, Biagi oversees the city’s roadways and bridges, sidewalks and bike lanes, traffic signals and signage, the citywide bike share system and policies focused on complete streets, climate adaptation and new mobility.
Previously, Biagi was a Principal at CAC Industry Council member Studio Gang, where she specialized in urban design, planning and strategy. She also spent more than a decade working as a planner for the City of Chicago.
We spoke with Biagi recently to learn more about her department’s priorities.
What key metrics are being monitored by the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) this summer?
We are following a range of indicators that tell us about activity in the public way—from traffic volume and vehicle speeds to construction activity and usage of our bike share program, Divvy. We are also keeping an eye on movement of goods and services relative to supply chains and deliveries.
What is CDOT most focused on to ensure Chicagoans can continue to move around the city safely and equitably during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Mass transit across the city and region is critical to the prosperity of a city like ours. Our transit agencies have continued to serve the public and essential workers during this crisis and are working hard every day to make the system as safe, clean and accessible as possible for everyone. We’re working closely with partners like the CTA to make sure public transit is a viable and desirable option for people now and into the future.
We also continue to promote active transportation like biking. For several months, we set up free rides for healthcare workers and, for low income residents who qualify, we made it possible to sign up online for the Divvy for Everyone program, which charges only $5 for an annual membership. For more information about the other Divvy discounts visit www.divvybikes.com.
How does CDOT connect with and support public health?
Factors such as street design, walkability, availability of active transportation routes and the presence of open spaces and sidewalks for recreation contribute to opportunities for health and well-being. At CDOT, we’re consciously integrating these values into our work.
However, now, it's really important that if you need to go outside, please remember that we all depend on each other to make social distancing work and keep one another safe. If you’re heading out for a walk, run or bike ride, plan your route. Avoid busy streets. Wear a mask. Be careful, polite and look out for each other. If you’re driving, slow down! It’s easy to speed without realizing it when we have half as many cars on the road.
We’re starting to see “shared streets” around town to encourage socially distanced biking and walking. How widespread and lasting do you expect these changes to be?
The shared streets element of the Our Streets program takes a collaborative approach that invites individuals, community-based organizations, local officials and others to share their experiences and ideas with us. The goal is to identify challenges and needs in different communities and to bring resources to bear in a way that promotes safety and health during COVID-19.
Since it is a pilot, there is no pre-determined duration. We’ll be continuously assessing need and impact. Success will be judged based on the feedback we receive through surveys we will be conducting—the first of these surveys asks the public to highlight the transportation issues they are facing in their neighborhoods.
It’s important that any shared streets projects be feasible based on traffic implications, cost and benefit; that they contribute to community health and well-being; and that they create physical linkages to improve our overall transportation network and key frameworks like INVEST South/West. We are always looking to connect our investments in the public realm with moving the needle on our city’s biggest challenges.
Biagi encourages readers to email their thoughts and ideas regarding ways to improve transportation and mobility in their neighborhoods via firstname.lastname@example.org.