Chicago, Illinois: Making mobility smarter, safer, and more equitable

In June 2021, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) adopted a new strategic plan designed to revamp the city’s streetscape to address longstanding issues of equity. It offers an example of a future-ready approach to infrastructure and mobility—one that is smart, safe, and inclusive.

The opportunity to reimagine the CDOT’s strategy arose from the pandemic, economic, and racial justice crises of 2020, which increased receptivity to social change. According to CDOT Commissioner Gia Biagi, the new plan, developed in consultation with a coalition of community and activist groups, helps to move the city forward in tackling fundamental problems of generational poverty and structural inequity.

“In a city like Chicago, where past practices that negatively affected racial minorities are stitched into the landscape of streets and infrastructure, we need to begin unwinding this so we can become a more prosperous, equitable, and inclusive city going forward,” says Biagi. “Communities of color in Chicago often have the fewest transportation choices, the longest commutes, the highest concentration of industrial centers and truck traffic in their neighborhoods, and the worst pollution from cars and trucks.”

CDOT will look to make improvements in all the areas it oversees, which include Chicago’s roadways and bridges, sidewalks, bike lanes, traffic signals and signage, streetlights, the citywide bike share system, and policies focused on complete streets.

Much of the funding for the plan will come from a bond-supported  plan for infrastructure investment over five years, passed by the City Council in 2020. Some will come from a $188 million bond issue earmarked for environmental justice and climate investments.

Micro-mobility in focus

Micro-mobility as a key component CDOT’s future vision. Many of its  current initiatives center on bikes and bikeways. Since the pandemic began, it has built an extra 125 miles of bike lanes, many protected with concrete barriers. It also has expanded its bike share program, Divvy, to underprivileged neighborhoods, offering significantly discounted memberships to low-income residents. Divvy is one of the largest bike-share programs in the country, and now includes both electric bikes and scooters. Divvy is also the first US bikeshare system to incorporate ebike charging stations, according to Biagi.

The environmental bond issue also has enabled the city to give away 5,000 free bikes to qualified low-income recipients. “We have seen a huge response to the program,” says Mary Nicol, director of policy at CDOT. “We set a goal of distributing 5,000 bikes over four years, but we received over 19,000 applications in year one. We are looking to partner with bike brands and other companies to figure out how we can reach even more residents and provide them with a low-carbon way to get around the city, access jobs, and meet their basic needs.”

Biagi says that 60% of those who applied for a free bike are from areas that experience mobility hardship because of less access to public transportation. A bike may provide the last-mile mobility they need to easily travel to a job. “With partners at a nonprofit think tank, we created an index correlating mobility and economic hardship, and that has become a quantitative criterion for where to invest,” she says. “This has become a lens on everything, from which bridge project we’re going to do and where we will do additional work on repairs, to making sure our scooter program has an equity component that rebalances the system—every neighborhood in the city is getting scooters, not just downtown.”

New tech supports future vision

CDOT’s long-term plans include improving safety for all road users and rebuilding streets, sidewalks, and bus stops to create more walkable, livable neighborhoods. The department is exploring a variety of new technologies. For example, through the Chicago Smart Lighting Program, CDOT has replaced more than 270,000 outdated light fixtures with new energy-efficient LED lights that improve the quality of nighttime visibility throughout the city.

The agency also is piloting smart connected traffic signals that indicate to buses and other vehicles when a pedestrian is in a crosswalk and can control green lights and redirect traffic lanes when needed.

Another major sustainability initiative is expansion of the electric vehicle charging network, particularly in low-income areas. Biagi and Nicol point out that while, currently, most policymakers think of EVs as a technology chiefly within reach of higher-income people, this is changing. “Right now, EVs have been targeted to wealthier people, and the charging stations follow the cars,” says Biagi. “We are looking to ensure that we deliver those same opportunities to marginalized parts of our city.”

Nicol explains that in some neighborhoods that historically have not had reliable public transit, having a car to get around can be a necessity. “For those trips, we want to incentivize people to transition to electric vehicles where possible.”  Recent state funding for beneficial electrification, as well as tax incentives, will help.

As part of its EV framework, CDOT is reaching out to stakeholders in these communities to educate people about electric vehicles. It is also piloting curbside charging stations in some areas, working with community groups and the electric utility to find locations and setups most helpful for those living in multi-family dwellings.

CDOT’s vision for the future is one with no “red zones” of mobility hardship, and a wide range of sustainable transportation available to all, says Biagi. But an overarching goal is to make traveling along Chicago’s streets and public ways a pleasant experience.

“The question in making these investments is about the tolerance people have for a journey that might be a little slower, but is also safer,” Biagi says. “It’s all about their conception of time—if you feel like your journey is a positive one, and your destination as a positive place, that changes your perception, and you are willing to tolerate a longer time on that journey.”