Dude, share my car? A look at peer-to-peer car sharing

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[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

Last year Zipcar, the world’s largest car-sharing company, really got my goat with its “Sometimes you just need a car” ad campaign, featuring images of people looking miserable while pedaling to a meeting or riding the bus to a music gig. Fact is, my friends and I do these things all the time, and cyclists and transit users make up a big chunk of the company’s customer base. Why insult your clientele?

But Zipcar did have a point. Even sustainable-transportation blackbelts can use an automobile now and then for road trips, hauling cargo or giving rides to friends and family. Zipcar and I-GO, operated by the local nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology, provide a great service to car-free Chicagoans by allowing us to include driving in our toolbox of travel options.

The new breed of peer-to-peer car-sharing companies takes a different approach by helping individuals rent directly from private car owners. This model may actually be a bit more eco-friendly, since it eliminates the need for the company to purchase a fleet of new vehicles and lease off-street parking spaces for them.

The peer-to-peer service Relay Rides, founded by Northwestern University grad Shelby Clark and based in San Francisco, opened in Chicago earlier this year and now operates in nineteen U.S. cities. Its competitor Getaround, also headquartered in San Francisco, launched here in September and currently serves Austin, San Diego and Portland, Oregon, as well. I recently called cofounder Jessica Scorpio to learn how the wheels of fortune spin.

Continue reading Dude, share my car? A look at peer-to-peer car sharing

Beers Across Wisconsin: Drinking and Biking from the Mississippi to Lake Michigan

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Potosi Brewing Company. All photos by Dave Schlabowske.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

The Badger State is where I go when I want to get away from my daily grind in Chicago and leave my troubles behind. So when my old friend Dave Schlabowske recently invited me to join him on a trans-Wisconsin bike trek, I jumped at the chance.

Dave, a Milwaukeean whose brother Dean plays guitar in Chicago’s Waco Brothers, works as the director of communications for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin. He wanted to scout out the Badger Brewing Trail, a bike route from the Mississippi River to the Lake Michigan linking several rails-to-trails bike paths and a number of breweries, part of a network of intrastate paths the bike federation hopes to implement by 2020. I’ve posted the route here.

In October, Dave rode Amtrak to Chicago to photograph our new protected bike lanes in hopes of importing the concept to Wisconsin. Early the next morning we catch a Trailways bus from the CTA Blue Line’s Cumberland stop with our boxed touring bikes to Dubuque, Iowa. After stopping at a greasy spoon to scarf down pork tenderloin sandwiches, the indigenous cuisine, we mount our steeds, cross the Mississippi back into Illinois and pedal north along the river into Wisconsin.

Continue reading Beers Across Wisconsin: Drinking and Biking from the Mississippi to Lake Michigan

Green parking or greenwashing: can a downtown garage be eco-friendly?

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[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

Every time I pedal downtown via the Kinzie Street protected bike lane I’m confronted by an oxymoron. At 60 West Kinzie stands an attractive, boxy structure covered with loosely arrayed rectangles of greenish glass, glittering in the sun. Piet Mondrian-inspired yellow panels accent the roofline and southwest corner, where they form a backdrop for twelve white corkscrew wind turbines arrayed in two columns. It’s the Greenway Self-Park, billed as “Chicago’s first earth friendly parking garage.” Its logo features a VW Bug with leaves blowing out of the tailpipes rather than noxious fumes.

Everyone agrees there are too many cars in downtown Chicago, so what could have possibly been sustainable about building this eleven-story garage, which accommodates 715 more of them? It opened in 2010, occupying valuable River North real estate, only a stone’s throw from several transit stations. There’s certainly nothing green about making it easy for, say, a guy from Naperville to drive solo to work every day in his Lexus, instead of taking Metra commuter rail.

Trying to keep an open mind, I check out the list of sustainable practices on the website, greenwayselfpark.com. It says the garage was constructed from “local and sustainable” building materials. The turbines were intended to generate enough electricity to light the building’s exterior. The building’s open-air layout eliminates the need for a ventilation system, which saves energy. A “daylighting” system causes the garage’s indoor lights to dim when there’s sufficient sunlight. Zipcar and I-GO car-sharing services rent spaces in the building, and there are six charging stations for electric cars, plus another six reserved spaces for hybrid vehicles. And, the website says, the garage has a green roof with rainwater cisterns for irrigation.

Continue reading Green parking or greenwashing: can a downtown garage be eco-friendly?

Pavement to the people: an update on CDOT’s new public space initiatives

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The People Spot at Little Black Pearl art center in Bronzeville. Photo courtesy of CDOT.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

Local pundits like ex-Sun-Times columnist Mark Konkol and the Tribune’s John McCarron and John Kass have trashed the city’s new protected bike lanes as a waste of space on the streets. But Chicagoans tend to overlook the massive amount of room on the public way given over to moving and parking private automobiles.

A new Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) initiative called Make Way for People is dreaming up more imaginative uses of the city’s asphalt and concrete, creating new public spaces that are energizing business strips. In partnership with local community leaders, the program is taking parking spots, roadways, alleys and under-used plazas and transforming them into People Spots, People Streets, People Alleys and People Plazas, respectively, lively neighborhood hangouts.

“It’s not a top-down program where we come in and say, ‘We think you need a People Spot or a People Street,’” says Janet Attarian, head of the department’s Streetscape and Sustainable Design section. “Instead we say, ‘We want to help you build community and culture and place and, look, we just created a whole set of tools that wasn’t available before.’”

Continue reading Pavement to the people: an update on CDOT’s new public space initiatives

New cargo bike business wants to protect your windows

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Scott Baermann cleans windows at Ipsento on a sunny September afternoon. 

Scott Baermann has been in the window cleaning business for 10 years, mostly in northern Indiana. He operated that business from afar when he moved to Chicago in 2006. Earlier this year he took on his friend Ryan Hoban as a partner. But the future didn’t lie in northern Indiana, it was here in Chicago.

I interviewed the Urban Street Window Works guys in August at their “office” in Ipsento Coffee House in Bucktown. This was the same office at which Scott and Ryan decided to try storefronts as a way to break into business in the city, an industry they said was dominated by “one bucket wonders”.

Most people already have a guy, and they don’t know who it is. He just comes around a few times and you pay him $7, $8 bucks. We want to develop a relationship, in how we want to separate ourselves. We want them to know our names.

Our first storefront was Ipsento, I know Tim, I asked, “Who does your windows?” Shoot me a quote and we’ll talk. Tim bought the equipment himself, “but as you can see I don’t do a good job”.

Ipsento became their first customer. A walk around the neighborhood netted them a few more customers. The pair got bikes on their radar after the threat of parking tickets raised its ugly head (fortunately they didn’t get one on an early work call). They looked at trailers on Craigslist and bought a single wheel trailer in Evanston. Ryan mentioned the benefits of using a bike for work, saying, “We can be a lot more efficient. I love riding my bikes. So this is like a dream come true, riding my bike every day.” Continue reading New cargo bike business wants to protect your windows

Can Indy rock? Exploring Indianapolis, the Midwest’s next bike mecca

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Eric McAfee and Kevin Kastner on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

If I had to sum up Indianapolis in one word, it would be “Underrated.” With a population of 829,718, the Hoosier State capital is the second-largest Midwest city (although it’s only the ninth largest metro area in the region.) Despite its size it’s known as “Naptown” and “India-No-Place” due to its reputation as a bland, suburban-style metropolis with few attractions besides the Colts, the Pacers and the Indy 500. I’m told that in the 1980s you couldn’t even buy a sandwich downtown after 6pm and the massive streets, lined with dozens of garages and oceans of parking lots, were so deserted you could safely walk down the middle of them.

But two weekends ago when I took Megbus there to meet up with my buddy Jake, in town for a conference, I discovered a surprisingly hip city with some fascinating architectural features and plenty of fun stuff to do. And while there’s little public transportation to speak of, and the city’s dominant image is a racecar, I was shocked to find a level of bike-friendliness that gives Chicago a run for its money.

Continue reading Can Indy rock? Exploring Indianapolis, the Midwest’s next bike mecca