Ortiz: A transportation future for Evanston

Sterling Kossuth Ortiz, Columnist

Through my previous articles for The Daily Northwestern, I’ve articulated my desire for a greater Evanston. I write about urban topics because, from my heart, I love my fellow Northwestern students, and I love the people who make up the city I call home most of the year. 

However, I know that Evanston can and should do better in many aspects of urban planning, especially regarding how people move around. Most importantly, Evanston should do better adapting to this fundamental fact of climate change. Our world, and the world of our descendants, will have to grapple with transformational climate change devastating the planet and displacing all of Earth’s species. 

My friends at NU would respond to the above claim by saying “100 companies emit 71 percent of global carbon emissions.” My friends would follow up by claiming that solely taxing, regulating, and/or nationalizing those companies would solve universal climate change. I agree, though nearly all of the 100 companies handle fossil fuels. Those companies are vital to maintaining car-centric lifestyles. If Evanston wants to transition away from fossil fuels, the city needs to design walking transportation, biking transportation and public transportation.

Because the University is the top employer in Evanston — by a significant margin — making car-free, fast access to NU would make the most significant difference among Evanston residents. This would give those without cars, particularly young people, increased access to both NU and downtown Evanston. To make a livable city, I believe the core transportation proposal should be the following: transforming Chicago Avenue and Sheridan Road from Central Street to Howard Street by replacing the car lanes with larger sidewalks, bus lanes, protected bike lanes and installing a trolleybus.  

To use a term popularized by Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, Evanston should be a “15-minute city” around NU. That means every resident should have access to NU within 15 minutes by any clean energy method. Expanding sidewalks would increase foot traffic, and protected bike lanes would make biking a more attractive option, making both commutes more viable. Dedicated bus lanes would increase the quality of bus commutes by allowing more frequent and faster buses to travel along the Avenue. The trolleybus would connect greater NU with south Evanston with ease.

While sidewalks and bike lanes already exist in Evanston, bus lanes and a trolleybus do not, so I feel compelled to defend their introduction. The two rapid transit options in Evanston are the Chicago Transit Authority Purple Line and the various CTA and Pace buses, including the #201 Central/Ridge and #250 Dempster Street buses. The Purple Line is entrenched at its current location, a half-mile from campus and crossing downtown Evanston. The buses, however, cross many important streets, stemming from or going through the Davis Street CTA station.

Making bus lanes along Evanston streets would facilitate faster travel for multiple bus routes as a result of existing bus patterns. For my example, a bus lane on the intersection of Sheridan Road and Chicago Avenue would speed up the #201 and #213 Green Bay Road bus routes. 

However, looking at those two routes reveals a fundamental truth: there is no one-seat bus route from Central Street to Howard Street. Currently, commuting with the Purple Line from the stops near NU’s campus is often hard because it takes between five and 15 minutes to walk from the Davis, Foster and Noyes Street CTA stations to campus and other jobs. This existing divide cuts Evanston between NU students and staff and residents in southern Evanston. To bridge this divide, I propose a trolleybus route along the three miles from Central Street to Howard Street. 

Trolleybuses are far from a new invention. They’ve been around since 1882 and have been perfected by cities from San Francisco to Shanghai. Establishing this type of route is the best option, especially with bus lanes. A trolleybus is carbon-neutral because it runs on electricity, requiring little built infrastructure to support it. 

To support this trolleybus by public policy, I recommend two parts: dedicated bus lanes and frequent headways (the average interval of time between bus arrivals). I covered bus lanes above. Frequent headways are the other facet because routine bus services garner faith in the system from riders. Ideally, the trolleybus should arrive every five to 10 minutes every day with the Purple Line’s opening and closing. During rush hour, the trolleybus should arrive at most every four minutes to accommodate the Evanston residents coming to and from work. While this frequency might seem outstanding considering the #201 comes every half hour six days a week, adapting to a clean energy standard for Evanston requires exceptional actions.

Beyond the trolleybus, there are many other benefits towards pedestrianizing the Chicago Avenue and Sheridan Road corridor. Biking south of Davis is unfun and unsafe, especially south of South Boulevard, which protected bike lanes would fix. Adding more sidewalks and green space between the Arch and Central Street would improve the student and residential experience. 

Better transportation planning would achieve three excellent outcomes — first, people cutting down car usage or selling the car entirely. Second, an increase in people walking and biking more, which is known to cause greener environmental effects. Third, more of a connection between students of all ages and the Evanston community.

None of these improvements I listed are novel, and all of these proposals have been perfected around the world. For walkers and cyclists, Amsterdam decided a century ago to prioritize public transportation over installing highways for cars. The result is that Amsterdam is safe, healthy, vibrant and the cycling capital of the world. 

In Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, there is a monument to clean living. Specifically, the Eje Ambiental de la Avenida Jiménez stands as a shining beacon of street design. This portion of Avenida Jiménez is closed off to cars. It is designed with the sidewalk level to the bus rapid transit lanes.

As a top 25 university globally, with an engineering school par excellence, NU should promote the best transportation planning practices worldwide and put this incredible knowledge to use in Evanston. We deserve nothing less.

Sterling Ortiz is a SESP junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.