Alderman Burnett with John
[This piece also runs on the website Gapers Block.]
This is the first of a series of interviews I hope to conduct with all fifty Chicago aldermen about walking, biking and transit issues in their wards. As “mini mayors,” these City Council representatives have a huge influence on the kinds of projects that are built in their districts.
For example, a handful of aldermen have opted to use menu money discretionary funds to stripe additional bicycle lanes in their wards or to bankroll innovative transportation projects, like the Albany Home Zone traffic-calmed block in Logan Square. On the other hand, they can stand in the way of progress, like when former 50th Ward Alderman Berny Stone vetoed a bike bridge on the North Shore Channel Trail in West Rogers Park.
As gas prices rise and addressing the problems of climate change, pollution and traffic jams becomes increasingly important in Chicago, it’s important to know where our elected officials stand on sustainable transportation. As one of the city’s most bike-friendly alderman and a former board member with the Active Transportation Alliance, 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. seemed like an ideal candidate for my first interview.
The ward covers an incredibly diverse area, including parts of Humboldt Park, East Garfield Park, the West Loop, River West, Cabrini Green and Old Town. Last week I caught up with Burnett, who has been in power since 1995, in his City Hall office. He updated me on new walking, biking and transit projects in the ward, discussed how better transportation options can help low-income people access education and jobs, and gave me a few local restaurant tips.
The northwest corner of the 27th Ward: Alfred Nobel Public School at Hirsch and Karlov in the Hermosa neighborhood
Tell me a little about your experience working with the Active Transportation Alliance.
The thing about Active Trans is they’re always looking at “best practices” nationally and internationally and thinking about how to use those ideas to make biking better in Chicago. I went with them to Quito, Ecuador, [in 2008, along with 35th Ward Alderman Rey Colon and other city officials] for a conference on ciclovias [events that close down a network of streets for car-free recreation]. Every Sunday in Quito they bike around the city, and there’s so many kids and parents involved it’s a beautiful sight.
At the conference I got to meet people from all over the world who are coming up ways to increase biking in their cities. Because, as you know, riding is good for people’s health and it helps with street congestion. So Active Trans really does good things.
Do you ever ride a bike for transportation in Chicago?
I’m not that fast of a bicycle rider but occasionally I ride downtown or to my ward service office [1463 W. Chicago]. We have a bike room in the basement of City Hall. And I ride in the evenings. Me and my kid, we ride a lot together.
Do you use public transit?
Occasionally but not too often. I prefer to ride a bike. Last time I was on the train was maybe a month ago.
Several aldermen lead annual bike tours of their wards. Do you do a ward bike ride?
Not yet. I’ve been thinking about it but right now I want to wait until the ward remap happens later this year. After that I’d like to do a ward bike to introduce people to the new map, and show them the different neighborhoods in the ward.
The southeast corner of the ward: Halsted and Van Buren in Greektown.
Your ward is ethnically and economically diverse. Do you believe that making it easier to walk, bike and use transit in the city will help your low-income constituents by giving them more transportation choices?
Definitely. It will help them with their health but it’s also less expensive – it’ll help them save some money. I used to live at LaSalle and Elm in the 1980s and I used to walk back and forth to work every day.
Giving poor people more transportation options can open up more employment opportunities and make it easier for them to get to schools. There are gaps in the transit system, like around public housing areas, which have hindered people from getting to jobs. For example, they put a Brown Line stop on Chicago Avenue and one near North Avenue but they didn’t put one on Division Street to serve Cabrini Green. And over by the Henry Horner Homes [near Damen and Lake] there’s a Green Line stop on Ashland and the next one’s not ’til California. There’s no stop at Damen. So in the low-income communities it almost seems like it’s by design that people don’t have adequate transportation options.
The southwest corner of the ward: the Bethel Employment Center at Pulaski and Lake, near the Pulaski Green Line stop in in East Garfield Park.
So you think the CTA didn’t put a Brown Line stop on Division Street because it was close to Cabrini Green?
I think so. It just seems that way.
Yeah, it always did seem weird to me that there’s that big gap [1.5 miles] between the Ashland stop and California on the Green Line. Are there any walking projects coming up in your ward that you’re excited about?
Just that we’re getting more pedestrian countdown signals [walk signals that display the number of seconds left to cross the street]. Some folks are critical of those and think they’re an unnecessary expense but I like them because they give you an idea of how quick you need to move to get across the street.
How about bicycle projects?
How do you feel about protected lanes?
I think the jury’s still out. They seem like a good thing but we’ll have to see how they affect everyone. But I think it’s a good start. The new CDOT commissioner [Gabe Klein] is very open-minded in terms of bikes. I was excited to speak with him. He seems very interested in promoting more bike riding, and the mayor does too.
Are any transit improvements going on in your ward?
We’re getting a new Green Line stop on Morgan. That’s about it. We’re just trying hold onto what we have in this budget crisis.
I heard you were thinking about getting rid of the planter box medians on Madison between Halsted and Ashland. What would be the advantage of doing that?
Planter medians on Madison east of Ashland
I wrote a letter to the commissioner about this. There would be a couple of advantages. It would open up room for bike lanes. As it is it’s hard just to ride down Madison on a bike because it’s such a tight layout. When a bus pulls over to pick up passengers it ends up blocking all the traffic behind it. And the sight lines would be better without the planters. They’ve had to cut back the plantings several times because there have been a lot of car accidents since the plants make it hard to see turning cars.
You’re on the committee that oversees the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. DCASE handles downtown festivals. Has there been any talk about offering more attended bike parking corrals, where you’ve got someone watching your bike while you attend the fest?
No, but that’s something we should talk about. At Pitchfork, which happens in my ward, the Chicago Reader sets up a big bike parking area, which is a good thing.
Yeah, that parking corral held about a thousand bikes and it still wasn’t enough. This year the church and the social service agencies and the other building across the street from the park put up signs on their fences warning people not to lock to their fences.
They do that because sometimes when people lock their bikes to the fences it scratches the paint and then they’ve got to scrape it and paint it again.
Anything else you’d like to tell me about walking, biking and transit issues in your ward?
I think we need to put more emphasis on walking. I always say, a walker is a potential bike rider because if they get in shape walking sooner or later they may start riding their bike.
This is a question I’m asking all fifty alderman. If I ride my bike to your ward, what’s a good, locally-owned restaurant where I can refuel?
The northeast corner of the ward: North and Wells in Old Town.
There’s so many. My ward includes Wells Street in Old Town with O’Briens [steakhouse, 1528 N. Wells] and Topo Gigio [Italian, 1516 N. Wells]. On Grand Avenue there’s Butterfly [sushi and Thai, 1156 W. Grand] and La Scarola [Italian, 721 W. Grand]. And there’s a lot of nice places near Milwaukee and Ogden as well, like the Matchbox and the Silver Palm [bar and railroad-themed restaurant, 768-770 N. Milwaukee] with a train sticking out. So we have a lot of great places to eat, and there’s nothing like riding your bike to build up an appetite.
Map of the 27th Ward.