Talking transportation with 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis

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This is the second of a series of interviews I hope to conduct with all fifty Chicago aldermen about walking, biking and transit issues in their ward. Earlier this year I talked to 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett. Last month I spoke with 25th Ward Alderman Daniel “Danny” Solis, whose district includes such diverse neighborhoods as Pilsen, Chinatown, University Village and Little Italy. The different ethnicities of his ward are reflected by the artwork in his City Hall office, including works by Mexican, Italian, African-American and Chinese artists, including a life-size replica of a terra cotta soldier from the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

We discussed Solis’ efforts to improve pedestrian safety in his ward after a hit-and-run pedestrian fatality at 18th and Halsted, the upcoming protected bike lane on 18th between Canal and Clark and the pros and cons of the Pink Line conversion. We also talked about his dream of a bike/ped path along 16th, the new sustainable streetscape in his ward, and his upcoming trip to Amsterdam to study bike infrastructure.

One project I know you’ve been involved with is improving conditions for pedestrians at 18th and Halsted [two T-shaped intersections where a hit-and-run driver killed Martha Gonzalez, a 38-year-old wife and mother, in 2008].

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Memorial to Martha Gonzalez in front of Kristoffer’s Café. Photo by Steven Vance.

That’s a tough intersection because of the ninety-degree turns. In the long term I’d like to straighten it out, or at least smooth it out. It’s going to take some money and I might need to take some property but I think it’s possible. I have a similar situation over at Cermak and Wentworth in Chinatown, only there’s much more traffic there.

Engineers from the city are looking at both intersections. They’re both difficult because it would entail taking private property to straighten them out. In the mean time we’ve done some things to ameliorate the dangers there, like [pedestrian countdown signals, walk signals that display the number of seconds left to cross the street] and [zebra-striped crosswalk] markings on the street. But the ideal situation would be to smooth those intersections out.

I read an article in Newcity that said you after Martha Gonzalez was killed you requested eleven improvements to the intersection. You only got two of them?

The reason we didn’t get more is because they couldn’t be done there, not the way I wanted. They did put in some guardrails to protect pedestrians. And they did change the signal timing for turning vehicles [giving pedestrians a three-second lead to cross before cars can turn left.] It has helped but I don’t think it’s enough.

What else would you like to see done there?

Mostly smoothing out the intersection. We’ve had some of the property owners there come up with renditions of what it could look like and we brought that to the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and they’re looking at it. They’re trying to figure out if it’s feasible and what the cost would be. I expect to hear from them this year but the big issue is how we will pay for it and how much property would have to be taken by eminent domain.

It was just announced that they’re going to be putting in a protected bike lane on 18th Street between…

Canal and Clark.

So you support that?

Very much so. It’s a very strategic street. It connects Pilsen on the west and Chinatown on the east and goes beyond almost to the edges of the South Loop. Ultimately it connects these neighborhoods to Grant Park and the lake. It’s going to promote more bike riding in these neighborhoods.

Do you think there is enough car traffic there that a protected bike lane is necessary?

It is. There are four lanes, and from the study CDOT showed me I don’t think there’s enough car traffic that it merits four lanes. But because it’s such a minimally used street, sometimes drivers race down that street. So we’re going to have protected bike lanes and then two lanes [one in each direction] for automobile and truck traffic. This will slow the traffic down and make it safer.

Do you ever ride a bike in the city?

Absolutely. I just did it with my son this weekend. We did something this Sunday that I’ve never done before. We rode down Roosevelt to the lake, south to 31st Street then back north to Navy Pier. Then at Navy Pier we headed west to Michigan and Wacker and we took the water taxi with our bikes back to Chinatown. I was really surprised you can put your bike on a water taxi – that’s a really good idea. It’s only $2, less than the el.

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Chicago Water Taxi, operated by Wendella Boats.

Do you lead a ward bike ride?

Yes, we have one coming up September 25th, “Bike the 25th on the 25th.” Last year [Illinois’ Fourth District] Congressman Luis Gutierrez participated. People from all the different neighborhoods I represent rode with us, and the really enjoyed getting to know other neighborhoods. This year we’re giving out 30 free bike helmets to children. [Read Jennifer’s account of the ride.]

So what do you feel you get out of this ride as an alderman?

You get to meet your constituents, because most of the people who do this are from the neighborhood, and you get a visual tour of the neighborhood. And a lot of the people who live in the neighborhood but don’t ride get to see you. I’m also trying to promote bike riding as a form of exercise to kids.

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Bike the 25th Ward ride on 18th Street. Photo courtesy of the ward.

I really want to do a lot of initiative in my ward to promote healthy, green living. Bike riding is a great thing you can do to reduce pollution. I’m very proud to have the city’s first green streetscape in my ward [the Cermak / Blue Island Sustainable Streetscape, which includes strategies for managing storm water and mitigating the “heat island” effect of pavement.] It’s on Blue Island from Western to Ashland and then Cermak from Ashland to Halsted.

What’s the status of that project?

70 percent of it will be completed this fall. The Cermak portion will done this fall. Blue Island between Ashland and Walcott will be done. And Wolcott to Western Avenue will be partially done but it probably won’t be completed until the fall of next year.

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Cross section of the sustainable streetscape. Image courtesy of CDOT.

The streetscape includes permeable streets that will be able to recycle water, new lighting that uses green technology and solar-powered kiosks that will have information about the green street in both English and Spanish. One of the best things about it is the portion of the street next to Benito Juarez High School will be like a laboratory that the school can use to teach students about the environment.

Obviously the streetscape is going to be very friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists, especially the south side of Cermak between Ashland and Halsted, because that stretch borders an industrial area. It won’t have a typical sidewalk – there will be more greenery [“bioswale” landscaping in the parkway which filters contaminants from the roadway run-off], like a small park area.

I heard the project includes “smog-eating” bike lanes that are supposed to absorb pollution.

Right. The streetscape is being studied now by other elected officials and people that are running for office. I know one of the candidates running for commissioner of the water reclamation district, [49th Ward Alderman] Joe Moore’s sister Barbara Moore, she is going to use it as part of her platform, that we should be building these kind of streets all across the city.

Ever use public transportation?

Yes I do. A couple weekends ago my son and I went out bike riding and we used the bike racks on a bus to go through the more dangerous parts of town. He’s only ten years old and I’m a little afraid of riding in traffic with him. So we took the bus to get to the lake. And every once in a while I like to use the Pink Line at 18th and Paulina to get downtown.

I was going to ask you: the Pink Line conversion happened a few years ago. Do you ever hear people say in its favor that it shortened the commute, say, from Pilsen to downtown or, negatively, do people complain that it makes it harder to get to O’Hare?

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18th street Pink Line station. Photo by Eric Rogers.

It seems to me like it’s been six of one, half dozen of the other – no big difference. What’s good about it cancels out the negatives. What I have heard, is that we still don’t have enough buses on 18th and on Cermak.

Any other walking, biking or transit projects coming up in your ward that you’re excited about?

Yes, I’ve given [CDOT Commissioner] Gabe Klein three other sites that I’d like them to look at for protected bike lanes. One is Blue Island between 18th and Roosevelt – that’s not within the current streetscape but they’re looking at it right now. It connects Pilsen, University Village, Little Italy and the University of Illinois. And Roosevelt is an east-west bike lane.

Another bike route that would be a dream come true for me, but would cost a lot, is 16th Street. It’s almost the same width as 18th Street [one of Pilsen’s main business streets] but with much less traffic. There are residences on the south side of the street and railroad tracks on the north side. It’s got a nice wall along the tracks we could fix up and put murals on. I’d like to see a bike and pedestrian path on the north side of 16th. It could go as far east as Canal Street [connecting via Canal to the protected lane on 18th, see map below] and as far west as Paulina, to connect with the Pink Line station.

I’m going to be going to the Netherlands the first week in October and maybe I’ll get some ideas that will solidify the concept I have for 16th Street. Seville, Spain, Copenhagen and Amsterdam have some of the best bike strategies in the world, with a lot of protected bike lanes. I believe Working Bikes Cooperative [located in the 25th Ward] recommended me to go to Seville in March [for the Velo-City conference, which Northwest Side aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno, Rey Colon and Ariel Reboyras did attend] but I was getting ready for a run-off election.

But I got invited to go to Amsterdam in October with other elected officials from different U.S. cities to study their bike system. [Bikes Belong, a national advocacy group supported by the bicycle industry is paying for the trip.] Alderman [Margaret] Laurino was going to go but she canceled at the last minute. Alderman [Robert] Fioretti was going to go in her place but he’s been having health problems. But there are going to be people from CDOT and the Active Transportation Alliance going. Hopefully we’ll learn about some ideas that can be implemented here.

View Alderman Solis’s protected bike lane ideas in a larger map

A map of the 25th Ward, covering Pilsen, Chinatown, UIC, University Village, and Little Italy. Read how easily you can create a map like this.

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs,
from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation’s
bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes
regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines
and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

8 thoughts on “Talking transportation with 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis”

  1. We can’t wait to hear what Alderman Solis learns from this trip to Amsterdam He spoke on his ward ride about how excited he was to go and what an opportunity it was to be going. 
    Alderman Solis has  really responded to the cycling community this winter and the 25th ward attitude towards bikes has grown by leaps and bounds in the year since his last ward ride.
    Hopefully this coming year will be full of great surprises as well.

    1. I’m also looking forward to what he and the other travelers have discovered. At least one CDOT Bike Program staffer went. 

      I hope there are NO surprises. I like public planning processes and when people reveal upfront what they want and what they’re planning. 

      1. I’m optimistic that some good stuff will come out of Solis’ trip to Amsterdam. Moreno, Colon and Reyboras’ trip to Seville has definitely galvanized their support for protected bike lanes and bike sharing. Not long after he came back Moreno was talking about putting in an on-street bike rack in Wicker Park (done) and a protected lane on Milwaukee (very likely).

  2. Thanks for writing this piece. Not sure Solis paid for the water taxi. I’ve taken it recently and it is definitely $4 one way to/from Chinatown or $6 for a day pass. That said, it’s a great, relaxing ride if the weather/schedule permits. Of course the warped 18th street bus route doesn’t connect with the 18th street water taxi. What gives planners?

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